Entrepreneur / December 2015

Born in the USA

Although France and the US continue to head the trends in the beauty industry, the market is opening up for more niche prestige beauty brands from both local and international players, reports Titania Veda

Entrepreneur Metta Murdaya aims to be a winner. That, at least, is the brand name of her beauty products, which the Indonesian-born, US-based entrepreneur wants to make a market favorite in Indonesia.

Juara Beauty, the skincare line that took America by storm, is coveted by celebrities such as Brooke Shields, Keri Russell and Ashley Greene and since 2013 it has been making inroads in the Indonesian market.

“Indonesia is uncharted territory for niche prestige brands. People will buy based on brand names so the niche market for prestige brands that are indie and more unique are not fully developed here. I saw that as an opportunity and a challenge,” said Metta. “In the US, the market looks at the prestige niche section to see what are the latest trends.

So I think it is a good time for Indonesians to start learning about what else might be out there and the options available other than traditional, well-known brands.”

Inspired by the concept of jamu, a herbal medicine system used in Indonesia for centuries, Juara means “champion” or “winner” in Bahasa Indonesia. This is the underlying message of a brand which purports to carry 100% vegetarian, paraben-free and cruelty-free ingredients. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, parabens are health-threatening agents used to prevent the growth of microbes in cosmetics products that can be absorbed into the body.

“Juara is also a mental value system and empowerment. So it about developing skills and abilities in your own life, to be a ‘juara’ in your own life starting by making smart decisions for your own skin,” said Metta.

Metta’s co-founders – Yoshiko Roth, Jill Sung and Tami Chuang – were friends from her youth. Yoshiko, 40, was at NYU Stern Business School with her and worked for a cosmetics skin care company before she was roped into the enterprise.

Jill, 38, an endodontist, is a friend Metta met in China during a Chinese language program in Beijing. Tami, 38, who has since moved to London, was a friend during Metta’s days in the UC Berkeley jazz choir. “We all had complementary skill sets and share similar values,” said Metta.

In 2006, the women combined their Asian heritage with their western upbringing to create Juara’s skincare range that fused eastern traditions with western science. Though often assumed to be an Indonesian brand, Juara is in fact an American company that markets to global consumers.

Based in New York as the brand’s president, finance and creative director, Metta took on the Indonesian sales and marketing roles when Juara entered Indonesia in 2013. Now she travels between the two cities to focus on growing distribution in Indonesia and developing a strong presence in the local skincare market.

Varied experiences

Metta, 40, did not set out to become an entrepreneur despite being born into an entrepreneurial family. During her time at Stern, she worked as a consultant for the Urban Business Assistance Corporation (UBAC), a non-profit affiliated with NYU to advance women and minority-owned businesses. She followed with stints at Deloitte Consulting and Home Depot before starting Juara.

“Starting a business was the next step. If you come from parents who own their own business, the risk of starting your own business doesn’t faze you. But I see no glory in owning. It’s not just running a business but how you run that business that impresses me,” said Metta.

Loisada Labs LLC Juara Skincare was established in New York with $60,000 in capital raised between the partners, who are also the company shareholders, and a $100,000 bank loan. “This really was a grassroots operation of four girls pursuing a dream. This limitation, although difficult, helped develop our culture of being tight-knit,” said Metta.

Though the business grew organically it had its share of growing pains. Metta used to go from store to store with samples, cold-calling potential accounts and chasing UPS trucks down because the company was too small to have regular pickups. “There was one time I had to sneak into our warehouse at midnight to use the electricity to power a label machine so we could label our own jars,” said Metta.

The partners shared the hardship. “I will always remember walking in a snow storm to my first retailer meeting after the cosmetics purchasing manager had told me she was not interested but I insisted she at least take a look,” said Yoshiko, who is in charge of distribution, marketing and PR strategy for the US market. “She placed a pre-order the same day.”  That account was an exclusive old-school NYC pharmacy called Apthorp. Juara’s products are currently sold in the US, Canada, South America and Indonesia.

Juara has had to change business model several times since the partners faced the 2009 financial crisis and its aftermath. They began with a brick-and-mortar model, switched to an online one when their accounts were halved during the recession and finally rebuilt their distribution channels with an online-offline strategy to survive the more competitive, post-recession market conditions.

Through it all, Metta and her partners remain focused on the brand message.  “A lot of businesses disappeared, but our brand name was bigger than before the recession because we maintained our core-value proposition,” she said. Since then, Metta and her partners have made Juara a global beauty brand with an expected $2 million in annual revenues in 2015. “In general, you have to clear at least a million in revenue to support our kind of distribution of prestigious and demanding accounts. The important thing is the channels we support require a certain amount of capital and business demand generation,” said Metta. Partnering with others is a vital aspect of Juara’s continued growth. It keeps overheads low by remaining streamlined with a staff of 10 and outsourcing work. Expansion in the US is focused on growing through third-party retailers, online, offline and on TV. According to Metta, this is very capital-intensive with little margin for error as the market is incredibly competitive.

But Juara’s creative director knows to keep her pulse on the market and goes through phases where she uses a competitor’s products to keep up with trends and new technical ingredients. Since Juara’s target market is women aged 25-50 who prefer a more natural way to care for their skin, competition comes in the form of other prestigious skincare lines which use natural ingredients such as Kiehls or Laneige.

“The fact that we started in the US, a highly competitive cosmetic market, we knew that we had to stay selective in our distribution and focus on creating a few ‘hero’ products to earn the trust of retailers and consumers,” said Yoshiko.

According to NY-based brand strategist and marketing consultant Nadia Yousif, the brand has more than a unique story. “The women behind the brand understand what it takes to build a brand and have been very careful and tactical in the decisions they have made thus far in the growth and expansion of the brand into the market such as being selective in who they choose to partner with and which products to launch.”

In Indonesia, Juara discerningly selected partners such as select Sogo outlets, Glow boutique and Tugu luxury hotels. “We decided to collaborate with Metta as we shared the same mission of proudly introducing ancient Indonesian cultures that are almost forgotten and packaging it to luxury products,” said Annette Anhar, director of Tugu Group. “We think that the unique combination between east and west is a unique selling point that is not often carried out by other competitors or other beauty products.”

Juara has also worked with like-minded individuals whose products share the dual culture of Indonesia and America, such as designers Ardistia Dwiasri and Auguste Soesastro. “It is about putting Indonesia on the map. There is no reason why it can’t be a recognized nation with its own merit and expertise in a particular area and segment that people don’t necessarily know about,” said Metta.

The hard work paid off as the beauty brand steadily gained recognition worldwide, as is now featured in magazines such as Allure, Marie Claire and Harper’s Bazaar and has garnered a celebrity fan base.

Juara also partners with Delta Airlines, supplying amenities for their first-class lounges. Locally, the products are in high-end cosmetic boutiques and luxury hotels and on their website. Currently, the brand carries around 25 unique, core products, not including travel sizes, special holiday or seasonal products and limited edition sets. They focus on launching three to five new core products per year.

The Turmeric Anti-Aging Serum and Turmeric Antioxidant Radiance Mask are quickly becoming customer favourites. Arini Subianto, mother of two and owner of Aksara bookstore and the newly opened Art&Science store is a fan of the mask which she finds calms down her skin.

“What I like about Juara is that it uses the traditional “jamu-like” blend that I’ve been familiar with since I was small. I’ve used traditional tumeric scrub growing up, so I was excited to see the tumeric base mask in a tube!” said Arini.

With the brand’s presence in Indonesia, Juara aims to accelerate the expansion and increase of brand awareness through engaged market connectivity in a way that is appealing to both Indonesians and westerners.

“Indonesia is much more popular with the west, so we will continue to expand, educating the west about Indonesia as the gateway to promoting Juara,” said Metta. “Our goal is to put Indonesia on the international map of beauty brands.”