When the Covid pandemic hit in 2020, much of the world shut down and more turned to online shopping.
But Chrisanti Indiana did the unexpected: he expanded his e-commerce business – offline.
His beauty and personal care e-commerce startup, Sociolla, had just two brick-and-mortar stores in Indonesia in 2019. By the end of 2021, this number has grown “10 times” more, he said.
“A lot of people actually told us that it’s a very bold move to actually open an offline presence, while everyone else was closing their offline stores. [during the pandemic]” he added.
But it was a “well calculated” move for Social Bella, which operates Sociolla.
“We know that this is the time to actually prepare … to make sure that after the pandemic, we can serve more and more consumers,” he added.
Looking far ahead turned out to be the right move for the 31-year-old. Her online and offline approach transformed her e-commerce startup into a multi-million dollar beauty conglomerate.
As of 2018, it has raised around $225 million, and has drawn an impressive list of investors including East Ventures, Jungle Ventures, Temasek and Pavilion Capital.
Indiana, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Social Bella, tells CNBC Make It how she took her Jakarta-based startup to the next level.
Dealing with fake accounts
The idea for Sociolla came in 2015, when Indiana returned home to Jakarta, after studying in Australia.
The makeup artist realized that in Australia, he had easy access to a wide range of beauty products from international brands. That was a stark contrast to Indonesia.
“There were many options for me, but then I came back with basically none,” said Indiana.
“There wasn’t a platform that had everything – I had to find specific sellers on social media, ask friends who can help buy the product for you. [when they are] overseas.”
What made it worse was the online proliferation of fake makeup products that were sometimes sold at “a fraction” of the original price.
“I still remember clearly in my mind that there are a lot of sellers like online, especially on social media, who claim their products are 99% authentic. What does that mean, 99% authentic?”
Indeed, locally made counterfeits in Indonesia are many, thanks to cheap labor costs and materials. According to a local report, Indonesian authorities seized illegal cosmetics worth 9 million dollars in 2018 – twice the amount of the previous year.
Seeing friends buying these products leaves Indiana scared.
“It’s skin care, it’s makeup. It’s something that you put on your skin. It’s just rare for me,” he said.
Determined to build a space where consumers can find safe and authentic products, Indiana teamed up with his brother and friend to launch Social Bella, with a starting capital of $13,000.
“Since we started, we have made sure that we only work with authorized distributors or brand owners,” Indiana said.
Build an ‘ecosystem’
Sociolla may have started as an e-commerce platform, but the trio had bigger dreams.
Social Bella has gone beyond offline shops – it’s also a distributor for beauty and personal care manufacturers worldwide.
“We become an associate partner for a lot of global brands in Indonesia. We help them not only to distribute their products in Indonesia, but we also help them understand the market,” said Indiana.
In addition, the business also operates Soco, which Social Bella says is Indonesia’s largest online review service for beauty products. Soco has collected more than 2.5 million reviews for about 36,000 products, the company added.
“Beauty journey” for customers goes beyond putting something in their cart and checking out, said Indiana.
“We realize that there are a lot of touch points that are really important … finding the right products for yourself is not just about going to the store and picking it up. You will be sure to read the reviews, talk to your friends, or Google first,” he added.
“Soco ensures that they can access tons of product reviews before they buy products.”
In addition, Social Bella also runs Beauty Journal – a lifestyle website, and Lilla, the online retailer for moms and babies.
This is all part of building the business “ecosystem”, as Indiana calls it.
“We want to … serve more and more women, not only in beauty and personal care, but also in other industries.”
The startup appears to be on the right track – it now has more than 30 million users across all its business units, said Social Bella, which sold an inventory of 12,000 products from 400 brands worldwide.
Indonesia’s next unicorn?
Over the past two years, Social Bella has expanded aggressively, growing from just three Sociolla stores in Indonesia in 2020, to 47 stores there and 16 stores in Vietnam today.
While much of the expansion took place during the pandemic, Indiana said that was always part of the plan for the e-commerce platform, shuttered or not.
“It’s actually creating a seamless omnichannel experience … because we believe that we are serving the customer even if he buys offline or online,” Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Asia honoree said.
“They can choose to do click-and-collect or … he can also have the purchases delivered to his home. It ensures that he can shop the way he likes.”