In January Forbes magazine released their iconic “30 Under 30” list for 2018, which highlights the brightest entrepreneurs and leaders under 30 from around the world. And Tropic Skincare founder, Susie Ma, was one of those named in the Retail and E-commerce section.
Susie started her natural beauty business when she was just 15-years-old, as she needed to help her mum out with the household bills. And now, 14 years later, she sits at the head of a thriving cosmetics company which reached over £20 million in revenue, last year. I spoke to Susie about her whirlwind journey (which included a stint on BBC’s The Apprentice), and you’re sure to be inspired by her compelling career story…
What motivated you to launch your own cosmetics company? And how did the Tropic Skincare journey begin?
The reason for starting Tropic Skincare was very simple: I needed to make money to help my mum out. I was 15 at the time, and the money I made working over the weekends for the traders at the local market wasn’t enough to help cover the bills. So I decided to start my own business. And the only thing I knew how to make was a natural body scrub. It was a recipe that my family and I used to make when we lived in Australia.
I sold the body scrub at the market for a couple of years, and took cosmetic formulation courses in the evenings so that I could extend the product offering. It all started off very small – I made the products in my kitchen at home, and sold them on weekends at markets around London. But very quickly I started earning a lot of money from it. On my average day at the market I’d take home £600 or £700.
How did you then grow the business, considering you were a teenager at the time and still in school?
It snowballed out of control very quickly. When I first started selling the scrub at Greenwich Market demand was so high that I soon employed my friends to work at other markets across London. And I also sold the products at exhibitions, like the Ideal Home Show. But, despite the success of the products, I actually decided to stop Tropic Skincare altogether when I was in my third year of university.
I decided that I’d earned enough money from Tropic and I wanted to pursue a completely different career. By that point Tropic was turning over about £70,000 a year, so it had been more than enough to help pay the bills and put me through school. And in my final year of university I decided to focus on my studies, and my plan after graduating was to become an investment banker.
So how did you find your way back to Tropic Skincare?
I did actually go down the investment banking path, very briefly. After I graduated I did an internship at City Group for about 10 weeks, and I absolutely hated it.
I realised very quickly that investment banking wasn’t for me, and that Tropic Skincare was what I really wanted to focus on. So I started applying for different opportunities in order to get some investment and launch the business properly. One of the opportunities that I applied for was The Apprentice, on the BBC.
It was the first year that they’d changed the process on The Apprentice, so instead of winning a £100,000 job you’d get a £250,000 investment for a share of your company. And I thought, “Why not? Let’s give it a go.”
I knew that I was getting fired in the final episode of The Apprentice, because the show was recorded about seven months before it aired. So between the filming and airing of the show I re-started Tropic without Lord Sugar’s investment, and put every penny I had back into the business.
Then, when The Apprentice finally aired, Lord Sugar watched it back and decided that he did want to invest in Tropic after all. So, although I didn’t win the series, he invested £200,000 into the business to become a 50% shareholder at the end of 2011. And we officially launched Tropic Skincare as a social selling company in 2012.
What does your typical workday look like, if such a thing even exists for you?
I’m probably a bit of a workaholic. But I don’t really see it as work because I’m genuinely so passionate about what we do! I normally wake up at about 6am every morning, and the first thing I do is check my emails because I organise all of our Far East packaging orders. I always speak directly to our packaging suppliers because I’m fluent in Mandarin.
At 6am it’s 2pm their time. So I always check my emails early in the morning, because by the time we start work at 9am it’s 5pm for them. And their 9am is our 1am. We always miss each other, so I try to email during their working hours.
I email for about 45 minutes, and then I get up and have some breakfast. I usually work from my home office in the morning – I do my planning, take some calls and set-up meetings. Then I head over to the Tropic Skincare offices at 11am.
I like to spend my mornings at home so that all of my most important tasks are done by the time I reach the office. When I’m at the office I get distracted easily by questions from the rest of the team.
My afternoons usually consist of lots of meetings – I have to delegate and make sure each department knows what they’re doing. I used to stay in the office until late in the evening, but nowadays I try to leave by 6pm. And most of the time I do.
How do you like to unwind after a busy week at work?
I’ve been with my partner for 14 years – almost half of my life! And he’s really into gaming. So I actually play video games with him in the evenings. He’s quite techy, so we also have a VR set-up in our living room, which is really cool. You can do all sorts of things with virtual reality! I can put on my VR headset and be transported to another part of the world.
It’s so nice to play board games too, because it engages a different part of your brain. It completely takes you away from your day and lets you relax.
What’s the biggest challenge that you currently face in your career?
I think it has to be looking for good staff. We are always recruiting because we’re growing so fast. And it is insanely difficult to find the right people. I interview so many people who say, “I can do all of these things” and they come and work for us and they actually can’t do the things that they said they could. So it’s insanely difficult. If you find the right people you can just delegate and let them get on with it, which is fabulous.
Which other women working in the industry inspire you on a daily basis?
I am hugely inspired by Jessica Herrin, the founder of Stella & Dot. She’s unbelievably confident! We all have those moments where we doubt ourselves and Jessica Herrin, for me, is one of those women who never falters in public. She always looks so confident. She’s always eloquent and articulate. And I’m just like, “I want to be like you!”
And I actually had the privilege of meeting Sarah Blakely, the youngest self-made female billionaire, last year. She’s the founder of Spanx, and another one of my role models. Sarah is really motivational and so down-to-earth. And it just goes to show that you can be everything – you can be successful, and beautiful, and kind, and giving, and humble.
And, finally, what’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever received?
To be totally honest the only career advice I’ve ever been given was from my school. And it was the worst career advice possible! A careers adviser came to our school and assessed our verbal reasoning and problem solving and then told us what jobs we should pursue. And they advised me to become an investment banker.
They told me I was not very creative, and I would be better off working in an office job. They couldn’t have been more wrong!
If I was able to give the 15-year-old me advice, knowing what I know now I’d say, “Do what makes you happy and not what makes you money.” When I first applied for investment banking I was driven by the money. I saw the money and I knew that I could do the job because I had the relevant degree. But I wasn’t passionate about banking. I had to force myself to read the Financial Times every morning, and I hated it. I thought it was so boring.
You live one life, and you spend the majority of your life working. So make sure you enjoy what you do and you’re passionate about it – even if you’re not paid much. Because in the beginning I wasn’t paid that much with Tropic. But I did it because I really enjoyed it, and I believed in it. And when you’re passionate about something you always find ways to make it work. So if I could say anything to my 15-year-old self it would be, “Money is important. But, most importantly, make sure you’re happy.”
Catch up on the previous #my9to5 interviews here >>