Sisters in skincare: Running a beauty business
By Lisa Twang, Oct 24, 2019
Launching a beauty company may be a dream many women have, but sisters Nadia and Sophia Chan made it a reality. They’re the two-woman team behind Maiko, the Singapore distributor for Australian organic beauty brand CANVAS. And they do it while holding day jobs — Nadia runs a PR firm as its general manager, while Sophia is an occupational therapist.
We spoke to Nadia and Sophia about what it’s like to work with each other as sisters: and how they find their balance while working full-time and running a side business.
Hi, I’m Nadia Chan — I’m a public relations manager, co-founder of Maiko, wife and mother to my five-year-old boy, Callum.
I was born in Hong Kong, along with my older sister Sophia. When I was eighteen months old, we moved to Singapore with Mum and Dad. They set up their own public relations firm, PR Communications, which I work for today.
Sophia and I were always close, as there are only two years between us. As the younger sister, I had many hand-me-downs from Sophia, from clothes to books to uniforms. She was
always the good girl, and I was always the more adventurous one – or the ‘naughty’ one, some might say. Like all siblings, we would have our disagreements but would always end up being okay. I think that hasn’t changed.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always dreamed of starting a business. Since my parents are entrepreneurs themselves, they inspired and encouraged me while growing up, to push my limits and go beyond my comfort zone.
As kids, Sophia and I would role-play and pretend to work together as doctor and nurse, or chef and waitress, which was really fun. But we never thought we would be business partners when we grew up.
The opportunity to distribute CANVAS, an Australian organic skincare brand, came right to our doorstep.
Sophia has always been prone to hormonal acne, and tried CANVAS for the first time when her friend, the Taiwanese distributor for the brand, passed her some products before her wedding. Sophia is very keen on health and wellness, and pays close attention to the ingredients she put on her skin, so when she raved about CANVAS, I had to try it, too. I started to see the benefits of using CANVAS’s skincare, which uses 90 per cent natural and certified organic ingredients and aromatherapy oils. Aromatherapy oils are not only nourishing for the skin, but also uplifting for the mind, body and soul.
Sophia’s friend suggested we become Singapore distributors for CANVAS, since we liked the products. Naturally, we were concerned that neither Sophia nor I had experience running a beauty business. But when we consulted our dad, he said: "Don't worry about failures! Explore what you set out to do, and learn how to move forward without being afraid of the unknown. Success is not just about greatness; it happens through learning."
We asked ourselves, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Even if the business didn’t succeed, we’d still have our day jobs.
I think if you’re prepared for the worst-case scenario, you won’t be afraid. And that’s how we ended up being the Singapore distributor for CANVAS under our new company, which we named Maiko.
Sophia and I came up with the name for Maiko after our trip to Kyoto. We learnt about the profound heritage of maiko and geishas, and we thought their graceful movements, beauty, youth and purity really resonated with CANVAS products. We believe CANVAS enhances our beauty, and restores our skin’s youthful complexion with natural and organic ingredients in the purest and truest form.
Maiko has always been a two-woman show. I handle the marketing and PR, because of my work experience, and Sophia runs operations, answering website enquiries and handling orders. I believe our personal touch is what sets us apart from other brands; all orders are packed by us personally, and customers can also pick them up at my PR office. I take it as an opportunity to meet customers and talk to them about their skin concerns. We used to run all our social media on our own too, but now our team at PR Communications helps us to take the photos while we design our campaigns.
I think Sophia and I have very different personalities, that surprisingly complement each other.
Sophia has great attention to detail, and enjoys learning the science behind everything, like skincare ingredients. She’s the more conservative one – good with numbers and organised. And I like the creative elements of our business, and I am fussy about how we portray our brand.
As sisters, we’ve gone through our business challenges together. When we first started distributing CANVAS, it took at least three or four months before we made our first sale. We’d done our marketing and PR, but hadn’t had any orders yet on our online store. It was a nerve-racking time, and when Sophia texted me to say we got our first order, I was skeptical and said, “Are you sure?”
Now, after two years, we’ve become profitable and have learned a lot about business, from creating a website from scratch to designing social media campaigns. I think we did quite a lot in two years, and I’m quite proud of ourselves. We can’t compare ourselves to bigger, more international brands, but for a small company like Maiko, run by a two-lady show (especially since we have day jobs), I think we’ve done pretty well.
Working with family is always harder; we need to make sure we maintain a clear line between work and family time. The good news is as a family, we can be 100 per cent upfront with each other and there is no holding back.
Sophia and I are not afraid to challenge each other when we work together. Sometimes we overstep each other’s boundaries, but it’s all for the good of the business. For example, Sophia might say, “Let’s do things differently, and do different bundles”, even though marketing is supposed to be my thing. Because she researches how other brands do their marketing, I’m also open to her ideas and am willing to try them. We may have different views, but often get past that to do better.
Working with Sophia is also an opportunity to spend more time together, since we’re both married and have our own families. In our first year, to get the CANVAS brand out there, we’d do pop-up stores on the weekends (something we still do now). Most people wouldn’t spend their Sundays that way, but running the pop-ups didn’t really seem like work, because I got to be with my sister and catch up while working together.
Sophia and I are happy to keep running Maiko as an online business; we think having a retail store is too expensive. We’ll manage Maiko on our own for as long as we can, until the day comes for us to expand - but it will always be the two of us spearheading the business in Singapore.
Running our business, in addition to our day jobs, is something very real we have to make time for.
People always think that running a business is easy and you have tons of free time. Instead, it is the direct opposite: you start earlier than most people, and you end later than them.
My son is my top priority, so pursuing a full-time PR career and running Maiko usually has to work around the time when he is in school or in bed. My day starts at 7am: after breakfast, I drop Callum off in school, and manage both agency work and CANVAS’s social media strategies. I’ll pick Callum up from school at 3pm, have a quick lunch at home and go back to work. At 7pm, I head home for dinner, put Callum to bed, and often continue working into the night.
Being a full-time working mum who also runs a business is not easy, but it all comes down to good planning, and having great family support. I have a wonderful helper who has been with us since Callum was four months old, and she is like family. My parents also live in the same block, which makes it convenient for them to help whenever necessary.
I get Callum involved in my work, teaching him to count as we do stock-taking. He loves to mess around with bottles, and reposition stuff. I joke that he’s our unofficial spokesperson, as I’ll often take photos and videos of him playing with our products, and post them on my personal Instagram account.
I also make sure I have two evenings a week to do what I want, whether it is meeting my friends, heading to the gym or going for a relaxing massage. This ‘me-time’ allows me to unwind and rejuvenate my mind, while I reflect on my life and be grateful for it.
I believe all of us can achieve a healthy work-life balance: The key is to be organised, practice proper planning and strive for excellence instead of perfection.
To find beauty and balance in life, do what makes you happy. Make the effort to learn more about who you really are, and spend time giving yourself the extra attention you deserve. When this happens, your skin, your hair and your smile will glow.
We also spoke with Sophia Chan on what it means to run Maiko with her sister Nadia, and how she finds her personal balance while working two jobs.
I’m Sophia, and I’m an occupational therapist at St Luke’s Hospital, and co-founder of Maiko.
Nadia is more extroverted as she is in PR, whereas I am an introvert and work in healthcare. In our business, I do the stock-taking and make sure we are making enough money (and not losing it!). We are quite different in our strengths and weaknesses; for example, when it comes to doing interviews and stories like this, she’s the one who is more fluent.
My passion for skincare began when I was battling acne. I’ve had hormonal acne since my teens, and even now in my 30s, I’m prone to flare-ups, especially on my chin. It has always been a part of my life, like a pain that never goes away.
Having acne naturally made me very self-conscious about my skin. I started paying attention to the ingredients that skincare products contained, to see what would work for me. The skincare landscape is ever changing, and new and fancy ingredients are always being introduced. But I personally believe in simplicity – I like products with a natural base that are simple to use, which is why CANVAS really appealed to me.
When Nadia and I first started Maiko, I had just moved to Japan as my husband was posted there for work. Back then, we struggled the most because we really had no idea what to do and started from scratch. Since we couldn’t meet face-to-face, Nadia and I also had to work remotely through texts, emails and calls.
Now that I’ve moved back to Singapore, things are a lot easier. There’s a room in Nadia’s apartment dedicated to storing products, and when packing orders, Nadia and I usually take turns. My sister is the organiser; she’ll say, “There’s an order, send it out.” She knows I’m prone to forgetting orders, so the next day she’ll text me another reminder, “Send it out.” Our system has worked pretty well so far!
The best part of working with Nadia is being able to learn from her and celebrate every milestone with each other. The toughest part of working with her is knowing you can’t be the ‘slacker’!
Though we have very different personalities, I think we’ve worked well together so far. We are aware of our individual strengths and weaknesses, and if anything, we are tougher on each other with the aim of achieving greater results.
It’s not all sunshine, and there will always be times when both of us would fight, just like in any relationship. I don't think we have ever had a huge argument over business; we prefer to agree and move on. We do have our little debates, but that’s merely for the good of the business.
As sisters who grew up together, Nadia and I understand each other well, and will continue to respect each others' opinions. We are like the best friends we can never get rid of.
Growing up, it has brought so much joy to be the older sister and watch Nadia reach milestones and achieve her goals. I also feel responsible to take care of her, and be the role model in her life. I may be the older sister, but I see our business partnership as an equal one, because we each have different strengths we bring to the table.
Nadia is quite the opposite of me; she has a free-spirited attitude, and is always resilient and pushing herself out of her comfort zone. Through her, I’ve learned to be more patient, be thankful for everything in life, and embrace every moment.
At the end of the day, we will always be sisters and the conversations about CANVAS, or anything business-related, will not change that.
Because I have to balance two jobs, I don’t like to waste time; I’m always doing something.
It takes an hour and a half to get to my clinic by public transport, so I spend that time on CANVAS, doing inventory on my phone, see what other lifestyle brands are doing and try to get marketing ideas from there. If Nadia and I are in a cab going to church, I might say, “I thought about this, can we try this idea?” If there’s any opportunity that I can steal to have a conversation with her, I will.
Even though running around in the day can get tiring at times, I place a lot of importance on
my self-care ritual. Whether it is pampering myself with a mask or baking at home, doing what I love allows me to de-stress and rejuvenate. I try my best to fit in some exercise after work, often a 30-minute walk, and end my day unwinding for a good night’s sleep with my essential oil diffuser. I also make it a point to spend time with my family and husband on weekends, and see my friends on weekdays.
The one piece of advice I have for aspiring women entrepreneurs with day jobs is: ‘Believe’.
Believe you can achieve great things, and really believe in what you are selling – whether it's a product or a service. Once you are on the right path, surround yourself with people who believe in you too, and they will inspire you to move forward, even when the going gets tough.
CANVAS retails online at www.canvasbeauty.com.sg
Pictures provided by Sophia and Nadia Chan, and the @canvasbeautysg Instagram page.
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