How to Build Your Own Makeup Brand on Instagram, According to Beauty Influencer Sahur Saleim
What does it take to chase your dreams? For many, it requires an extensive amount of effort and time in order to see the results that you want. In the age of social media, only the savviest players will emerge the most successful in terms of keeping the audience engaged especially as users’ attention span becomes increasingly low.
The online beauty community, specifically Instagram and Youtube, isn’t exactly the easiest to break into for social media influencers and makeup gurus trying to make a name for themselves. It takes years of creating the right kind of content for viewers and finding out what people enjoy watching. Makeup tutorials alone won’t cut it anymore. You need to know all about the beauty industry’s constantly evolving trends, get brands to notice you, earn collaborations and more.
So it is indeed a real feat for Sahur Saleim to launch her own makeup brand in February 2021, starting with a range of liquid lipsticks—just by using her platform on Instagram. And she’s only 23 years old.
The former accounting student, who has a keen passion for the arts, started her Instagram page in 2013 and slowly gained traction and more followers over the next few years—including popular cosmetics company Anastasia Beverly Hills.
But she, of course, didn’t achieve this without her fair share of challenges and pitfalls. For International Women’s Day 2021, Tatler Singapore shines the spotlight on this mega social media star who counts over 300,000 followers on Instagram.
We find out her inspirations, how she made it this far and what were the challenges she overcame.
How did you get your start on Instagram?
Sahur Saleim (SS) I started posting makeup-related Instagram content in 2015 and have made hundreds and thousands of videos since then so I’ve quite a passion for makeup. But my page actually started much before this, I started my page in 2013. The reason its called @sahursart is because I was posting my drawings and paintings first since I was in school back then; I really enjoyed fine arts. But when I went to university, I posted more makeup content and noticed it was doing quite well.
Have you always been interested in beauty?
SS My roots were in art and I love makeup and felt there was a bit of a disconnect between the two. I didn’t really have time to do both. Most people didn’t even know how @sahursart started! I went to Chatsworth International School and later studied accounting at university. I always thought I’d work first and save for five to 10 years and save as much as I can and then have my own makeup salon. After the salon, the plan was to launch my own makeup brand. Obviously, this was the dream before social media. Luckily, people seemed to really like my content so I got to skip a couple of steps! And I'm very grateful for that.
(Related: How a Rare Brain Tumour Inspired Indie Lee to Start Her Eponymous Skincare Line)
You have such a huge following on Instagram and are among the most followed in Singapore, how did that happen?
SS To be honest, it's just that I've been doing this for so long. I’ve been on Instagram even before I knew it’d be such a big deal. Now everything is on Instagram. All the big brands are using Instagram as part of their main advertising. Back then, people were unsure; they understood Youtube could be a powerful tool but not so much Instagram. But I didn’t mind. There were many years where I was creating content but didn’t make money off of it because I was doing it for fun while studying.
And then suddenly people started [noticing me] and I started going to more events in Singapore. I got to know more people in the [beauty] industry. It was nice. Because I always felt a bit isolated. I didn’t know anyone and didn’t know if there were people who enjoyed makeup as I do. So I started meeting them in late 2016 and early 2017 and that [was the beginning] of how I started my own brand.
(Related: Meet Yoyo Cao, the Social Media Superstar in Singapore)
When do you think was your big break on Instagram and how did you grow a presence or your own brand identity?
SS I think it happened in different ways at different points. In August 2015, I posted a video called the 'Henna Contour' and that one went quite viral on Instagram at the time. That was the time when crazy contouring videos were super in. And I also have a key interest in henna so I just used concealer to draw henna patterns on my face.
There were articles about me everywhere from Marie Claire to Buzzfeed. And I figured 'Oh, maybe this could be something!'. So then my dad took me out and bought me a really nice camera for me to film my content with for years to come. But things don’t happen overnight. I spent the next year and a half consistently uploading videos and then they started going a bit viral and then towards the end of 2016 or early 2017, I had a lot of videos with millions of views so that’s when my page grew a lot and since then it's just been growing slowly.
How did you adapt to the changes in social media and what your audience wanted?
SS It's about consistently posting different videos in different styles in different ways Instagram wants. Previously, it was 15 secs, and there were 1 min long vids and then IGTV came along. It's about having an eye for what people want to see and how I can adapt that in my work.
How did you feel when big brands started following you?
SS It was really good and I was really young so it felt surreal. It still took a long period of time for me to know the brands that I do now. My second break came in 2018 and that was when I found more work as an influencer instead of just having an audience I already had.
Tell us more about the process during the earlier days of establishing your first products?
SS I sampled different labs from all over the world. During the process, I learned that Italian and French manufactured products are the crème de la crème of beauty products. They really are top tier but I was quite young and it was super expensive. The manufacturer in China [that I knew of] was also a well-known lab and a lot of their clients are stocked in Sephora. I settled on the Chinese manufacturer not because the product cost was different [from Italy's manufacturer] but because I could have a smaller minimum order quantity.
For the Italian manufacturer, [I was required to order] quite a large quantity and so that was scary for me. I went back and forth with myself and I knew in my heart I wanted to produce in Italy but I wasn’t sure if I could [succeed]. But I decided: you know what, progress, not perfection, right? So I can get started here [in China] and if it goes well, we’ll produce there [in Italy]. We completed the design process and then Covid-19 hit and it was just like an indefinite pause and at that point in February last year, everywhere else in the world was fine except China. So then I thought: This must be a sign! I tried to ignore what I really wanted to do and it did not work out. So I settled on the Italian manufacturer in the end.
(Related: The Rising Beauty Startups To Watch In Asia)
Now that you’ve finally launched your liquid lipsticks and makeup brand, tell us about the experience and challenges you faced?
SS There were a lot of ups and downs. Finding a manufacturer took forever. A lot of them were reluctant to take on a new brand and I was disheartened, especially because I was still really young, like 20 or 21 then.
But the truth Is a lot of the really good manufacturers, their minimum order quantity per shade is at least 100, 000 pieces which obviously as an independent brand is not feasible. It took a really long time to finalise [a manufacturer] that I could be happy with. Now that I’ve got it under my belt, it's going to be a little easier for future collections.
Did you fund the entire makeup launch all on your own?
SS Yes, the entire brand is self-funded, with no money from parents, no bank loans and no investors. Basically, everything I earned since I started earning I’ve been putting into this; it's what I’ve been passionate about. To manufacture in Europe is very expensive especially because they’re so far away, so shipping options are expensive. I’m fortunate that I can fund it myself and see it through. The support from customers has also really helped.
You said the design process for the lipstick collection was restarted due to Covid-19? What was that like?
SS It was quite bad. Due to Covid, Italy shut down pretty early. And little things that should take a week or two ended up taking months to complete. There was a lot of back and forth [for design issues] and [it became] super demoralising [in the end].
For the lipstick collection, all the shade names are inspired by the life and works of the [Austrian symbolist] artist Gustav Klimt. One of the shades is called 1908, which is the year the painting The Kiss, was completed. One of our colours is also called Belvedere, which is the building that has a museum that houses the painting. And it’s our most popular matte shades!
(Related: Zoom Meeting Make-Up Looks: Try These Quick Beauty Tutorials on Youtube)
What did you learn from this new experience?
SS I felt a little silly. I wish I listened to my intuition from the start but like I said, seeing how well things are so far, I'm a bit more optimistic now.
What was the scariest moment for you?
SS I didn’t know if people would like it as much as I did. Obviously, I love [the products] and I spent [a long time] perfecting it and trying to making the formula as clean as possible. For example, making it vegan, cruelty-free and more without compromising on performance. I guess there was still just a little doubt in me.
How have sales been?
SS Pretty good, especially when we launched! Right now only our customers in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia are receiving their orders. We already have re-orders. I’m really excited to hear what our international customers will think once they get their orders. So far the reviews from everyone have been quite good. They’re really happy with the formula. We have not had any negative feedback!
(Related: How Female Entrepreneurs in Singapore Adapted Their Businesses Throughout the Covid-19 Pandemic)
What have you learnt from the whole experience?
SS Patience is the most important. And if you are not okay with things going wrong, being decisive, thinking on your feet, then you are really going regret it. I also think it's really important to follow your guts.
I think it was also super helpful that this was something I was so passionate about. Because if I wasn’t as passionate about it as I am, and I have been since I was young, I would have given up because it got so tough at certain points.
What would you say to anyone thinking of starting her own business in Singapore?
SS I think it is accepting that you are going to have do a lot [of work]. It's not enough to conceptualise. You’re going to have to step in there and do a whole variety of things like marketing and shoot content using your product. If you’re going to start a business, you must be prepared to wear a lot of different hats. And you also need it to be something you really believe in because if you don’t believe in it—other people can tell.
Looking back, would you have done anything differently?
SS I wish I had followed my gut from the start. Especially when I was choosing between my manufacturers in China and Italy. But it's ok because it worked out in the end.
This year’s International women’s day theme is #ChoosetoChallenge—tell me how this resonates with you as a female business owner and young entrepreneur?
SS I choose to challenge the notion that being a female entrepreneur means you “don’t have time for your family”, which is not true at all. It’s possible for women to be focused and driven in their careers, while still being close and involved with their families. Men have been doing it forever, so why is it so different when women do?
People are often surprised when they see how close I am with my parents or brother and that I’m engaged—and I think that has to do with an old-fashioned approach to how women can either be successful in their careers or take care of their families when in reality, both are possible and they go hand in hand. The support of my loved ones makes my every achievement possible and I always go out of my way to be present for them too, whether it’s helping my brother with his Math homework or being at doctors' appointments or remembering to buy groceries on my way back home after a long day.
(Related: International Women's Day 2021: 10 Women Who Are Shaping Singapore)