Lauren Lee is the founder and CEO of STYLE STORY, Australia’s largest online Korean Beauty store, stocking the hottest and most innovative products from beauty-obsessed South Korea.
Korean beauty products (or “K-Beauty” products as they’re affectionately known) are world famous for their advanced formulations, high quality, use of natural ingredients, innovation, design, and best of all, affordability.
STYLE STORY is an online platform where beauty lovers can explore and shop the best and most innovative Korean beauty products right here in Australia.
We curate the best of K-Beauty with Australian skin concerns and weather in mind.
Our platform provides information, reviews, ingredient analyses and an e-commerce platform combining all the hottest Korean brands.
STYLE STORY partners with the best names in Korean beauty, including Mizon, Skin79, Benton, Elizavecca, Missha, April Skin, Lindsay and Tosowoong and acts as an incubator for new brands like Beauty of Joseon, d’Alba Piedmont, PACKage, Soroci, iUNIK, Polatam and many more.
We chatted to Lauren about how she came to start STYLE STORY.
Lauren says, “I founded STYLE STORY in 2014 when Korean beauty products weren’t widely known about or available in Australia. I first discovered Korean beauty products while studying on exchange at university in South Korea in 2011.
Drawn in by the innovative packaging, I was surprised how different Korean beauty products were to anything I’d tried before. Not only were the ingredients and formulas unique, the quality was comparable to products five times as expensive back home.
I started bringing Korean skincare and makeup back to Australia for friends and family as gifts, but before I knew it I was filling “orders” for people who had fallen in love with them and wanted more!
Initially, I founded my business as a hobby. After graduating from Uni, I started working as a corporate lawyer at a top tier Australian law firm. Several years later, with the products basically selling themselves, I set up STYLE STORY as a side-hustle. “
Initially, what difficulties did you face starting your business?
It wasn’t easy to juggle full time work with running my business as a hobby. In the beginning I was a jack of all trades (and master of none!) – I ran the website, social media channels, sent out orders and even did the books myself! I was so slow at the accounting it used to take me all weekend to do it.
I continued to work my day job and would fill orders and do promotional stuff for the business early in the morning, late at night and then on weekends.
The other big obstacle I faced was the language barrier – it was really difficult to research the products I wanted, correspond with the manufacturers and get all the information I needed to legally import the products to Australia without Korean language skills.
What was integral to you overcoming these hurdles?
I consulted widely in the beginning to try and gain an understanding of the skills I needed to run the business but didn’t already have – I spoke to friends in marketing, retail, accounting and other industries to try and piece together the various things I’d need to do.
As the business grew, I used the money I earned from my day job (plus our revenue) to grow STYLE STORY and help employ staff to work on the business while I was at work at the law firm!
In my spare time, I took the time, effort and energy to learn the Korean language, with the goal of ultimately being able to communicate with our suppliers in Korea.
What was your initial marketing strategy, and how has it changed?
The initial marketing strategy was really just a “try everything” approach. I didn’t have any real marketing experience but I knew we needed to get our products into as many hands as possible and start generating some reviews, so I would contact bloggers and ask them if they’d like to test and review our products.
Over the years, we’ve tried lots of different things, from blogger and influencer collaborations to popup stores, meetups, sampling, show bags and just about everything in between.
Our strategy has become a lot more targeted over the last 18 months. We have a schedule of regular content across our social media platforms and blog as well as press releases, social media competitions, offline events and product sampling through various channels.
We have also become a lot more rigorous with our SEO marketing, particularly in tracking it through to work out what’s working, what isn’t and really drilling down into the details to get the most sales out of our spend.
What do you believe was the best decision you made in business?
I think the best decision I made was keeping my corporate job until I worked out whether the business was viable.
A lot of people dream about quitting their day job and riding off into the sunset but I don’t think is always a viable option or even the best one.
Keeping your main gig gives you the money to invest in building your business while also paying your bills. It also helps you to scale much quicker and take on additional staff, many of whom will have the kind of skills you need to grow your business but don’t have yourself.
Working part-time is another great option, if your current job allows it.
What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur?
I think you need a combination of grit and a strong belief in what you’re doing. One of the biggest misconceptions about founding a startup is that you’re suddenly going to have heaps of free time or be sipping margaritas on the beach with your laptop in hand. That’s just not the case.
If you’re doing it right, you’ll be working harder and probably longer hours than you ever have. But it’s a completely different feeling from working for someone else. The desire to see your dream become a reality is a better motivation than coffee (and I loooove my coffee!!)
If you have the passion, really believe in what you’re doing and can infuse that with your own unique creativity that’s where the magic happens.
How do you manage two teams when one is in a different country?
It’s not easy but in my experience, it can be done!
Some of the techniques we use to overcome the physical distance and keep a close bond within our team include bridging the time zones, utlitising technology, maintaining face-time and including both teams in the other country’s operations, where possible.
Throughout the working day, we use computer and phone technologies to keep everyone in the loop and communicate with each other.
Physical face-time is also important, so I make sure I fly back to Brisbane every three-four months. Our team also regularly joins me in Seoul so they have the chance to attend trade shows, see the latest beauty and makeup trends on the streets and meet with our suppliers face to face.
How do you make the most of your day?
Luckily, Seoul is only one hour behind Brisbane, so I make sure to keep the same work hours as our Australian team.
I usually get up around 6am and am at my desk by 7am, getting stuck into emails and touching base with our Brisbane team to see what everyone else is up to for the day.
I get in as much work as I can on the Australian side before our Seoul team comes online, usually around 10am. Then I deal with the Korean side and any tasks that need handling by our team here.
Starting out early gives me a real head start on the day, and I feel like I’ve achieved a lot even by lunch time. It also means I don’t need to scramble if we have meetings and other events later in the day.
Perhaps as a hangover from my days of working two jobs as once, I find I do some of my best work at night, so I try to make the most of the hours between 7pm and 9pm, before I wind down for the day.
Outsource the skill or learn the skill?
It depends on what the skill is, whether it complements what you’re naturally good at and whether outsourcing it will mean a loss of control over the way you run your business.
In my case, I took the time to learn Korean because I realised that handing that side of the business over to someone who could already speak Korean would render me incapable of managing my own business or else I’d be completely reliant on them. I’d also have no way of checking what they were doing! I wasn’t keen on that, so I learned Korean myself. I speak several languages, so I knew that learning another language wasn’t beyond my ability.
However, when it came to the books, I realised really quickly that not only was it completely out of my comfort zone, I was asking for more trouble than it was worth trying to do it all myself. I ended up handing the job over to a very trustworthy book-keeper (who is also a family member!) and we outsource the accounting to a CA.
Excluding yours, what company or business do you admire the most?
I think Jane Lu at Showpo has done an amazing job of digital marketing and of standing out in a really crowded industry. I love that she does things in her own style.
Where you see yourself and your business in 10 years?
In 10 years I hope to be a really well-rounded businesswoman who understands as many facets of the business as I can.
I hope I can say that I’ve succeeded at being a good manager. Over the years, I’ve worked with people who were brilliant at their jobs but had absolutely no business managing other people – they just didn’t get it. It made me realise the critical importance of having good management skills. Managers make or break teams and in the end, the success of the business. A good manager is someone who can get the best out of everyone on the team and leaves no one behind.
Best lessons you’ve learnt?
No job or person is beneath you – the second you make the mistake of thinking that, it’s all over.
You need to be able to get your hands dirty in everything and learn as much as you can about the job someone else is doing so you can learn how best to support them. That’s the way people, teams and businesses grow.
What are your growth areas for 2019?
We have plenty of new brand releases planned for 2019, several large-scale offline events and a collaboration with a newly-launched global Korean beauty review platform.
We’re also moving offline for the first time in Australia, with a cruelty-free skincare offering in Brisbane.
We’ve finally got enough team members in Seoul that the co-working space we have been using is not big enough for us. We’re moving into our own office space in February!
Lauren’s Instagram: @lauren_stylestory