How 24-year-old’s beauty startup made $5m in one year

·4-min read
Michelle Hu is the founder of successful beauty business Etoile Collective. Image: Supplied
Michelle Hu is the founder of successful beauty business Etoile Collective. Image: Supplied

There is no time in a beauty devotee’s life as horrific as the moment their makeup bag tumbles, slow-motion, off the side of the bathroom counter.

Bronzer smashed, foundation leaking, lipstick crushed. It’s a sparkly crime scene, and often a financial kick in the guts. Good quality makeup is expensive, after all.

For 24-year-old founder Michelle Hu, inconvenient and impractical makeup storage options was something that had to be fixed.

"I had compiled the biggest makeup collection and it's always a very exciting experience, purchasing products, coming home and then unboxing them, putting them into your space, but for me when I was getting ready, things were coming out from my bedroom, my bathroom and things were extremely unglamorous,” Hu told Yahoo Finance.

“The start of the beauty process is that purchasing event, and the end of that beauty process is that getting ready feeling where the conversation is about feeling good and looking good, but [I noticed that] in the middle there was this disconnect."

The idea of a business that bridged that disconnect stuck, and Hu launched Etoile Collective in October 2018, a range of beauty storage and display products that includes Hollywood style lighted-mirrors, beauty cases and acrylic organisers. And it’s taken off: in the last financial year, Etoile Collective made $5 million in sales.

The former investment banking analyst has since inked partnerships with MAC and Benefit and reached customers who range from teen girls playing with makeup to professional makeup artists.

She believes an investment in a strong social media plan helped her in the first years of the business, during which she didn’t spend any money on marketing.

“In this era where so many eComm businesses are told to switch on Facebook and Google ads, don’t underestimate the power of organic traffic,” she said.

“If you’ve got a business that can thrive on social media, definitely double-down on that because in the first two years, that’s what drove all of our growth.”

The space challenge

But one of the challenges Etoile Collective faced was about space: both their own, and their consumers’. Shoppers wanted a showroom where they could examine the Hollywood and circle mirrors to see if the products would fit in their bedrooms and bathrooms, but Etoile didn’t have one.

To overcome the purchase barrier, Hu recently introduced an augmented reality (AR) shopping experience that allows would-be buyers to scan their living space on mobile or tablet and then see how the products would fit.

“It wasn’t in our strategy to have a showroom or stockists, we wanted to keep control over how our products were shown and how our customers received them, so [we thought] what was the next best way to provide that service? That's where the whole AR piece was formed.”

Built on the Apple AR toolkit, Hu hopes it helps Australians take the leap of faith in purchasing the items.

Reflection and planning

Hu describes the years since launching as a “crazy rollercoaster”, including the recent Covid-19 months.

“We’re very fortunate because we’re a digitally born business. We were lucky in that the majority of our business operations were able to remain intact,” she said.

There were no physical stores to shut down, and with a small team of herself and one part-time employee it was reasonably easy to adapt to a work-from-home format, some early “teething issues” aside.

Hu credits her focus on not just her business but her mental health with helping her ride out the waves.

“As a sole founder, you can bury yourself in some holes if you don’t surround yourself with good people who can lift you up and keep your head above water. Sometimes I found it really challenging to not have someone to bounce ideas off… that can lead to decision fatigue, even outside of the business,” she said.

Meditation, journaling, exercising and conversations with friends and mentors help her assess how she, and the business is going.

Her advice for other entrepreneurs is simple: trust your gut and don’t overthink it.

“Don’t over-analyse; that can lead to paralysis, and that can stop you from doing something really, really awesome.”

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