Dubai: In order to start her own organic makeup line, Singaporean expat Nerissa Low had to quit when at the top of her field, a career in finance which began with the expat earning Dh500,000 in the first year. Here’s what drove her to make a career-changing move during her 17-year corporate stint.
“I remember battling adult acne when I first entered the workforce and I was on daily oral medication and monthly steroid injections directly into my pimples. This went on for a few years before I gave up on the treatments,” said Low.
“I then decided to do a deep dive research for myself, and what I found instead, were the causes. Turns out I was allergic to a lot of chemicals in our daily care products, so I detoxed my skincare routine and used only organic products, and my skin cleared up in three months!”
Low went on to describe how during that time, while she could easily find organic skincare, she couldn’t find organic makeup that had the effect she was looking for on her skin. “This was when I decided to create my own line, because essentially, I had to use it myself and I figured that if I had this problem, there are probably other women out there who might need this solution too.”
I remember battling adult acne when I first entered the workforce and I was on daily oral medication and monthly steroid injections directly into my pimples
Growing up frugal drives Low to earn more
Growing up in Singapore, Low was brought up to be frugal and not waste money, and watching her parents toil for the family made her determined never to be in the same situation herself. “I remember telling myself when I was 12 years old that when I grow up, I will never want myself or my family to worry about money ever again.”
Low said she was given minimal pocket money when she was in school and took on part-time jobs during the school holidays to have extra to pay for her expenses. This included waitressing to working at a cinema during her school days, while getting paid $4-$6 (Dh15-Dh22) an hour, and also taking on secretarial and telemarketing jobs during her university days, earning about $6 an hour.
“We have been brought up to be financially responsible and independent, so I took loans for my university fees and had to pay them off when I graduated. Because I earned more than the average for someone my age and paid off my loan within a year,” she added.
Working a higher-risk commission-based job
“This drive was also why I chose a higher-risk commission-based job where I could be remunerated for how hard I worked without a ceiling on my salary. I started to enjoy a job in that I had control over how much I earned and how many hours I wanted to spend on it. I am quite the workaholic and my discipline is what I attribute to my success in my career to.”
Low felt the financial background she had in her career was a big factor that helped her make better financial decisions in the business and be able to convey that to her investors as well. “I’ve never had a regular job with fixed working hours, so I guess it honed my entrepreneurial mind-set,” she added.
“However, my career in finance was primarily a sales position, and starting a business from scratch was a whole new steep learning curve. I now had to do everything on top of sales – from product development, operation, basic accounting, corporate structuring, business development, team and partnership management, and fundraising.”
I chose a higher-risk commission-based job where I could be remunerated for how hard I worked without a ceiling on my salary
Expenses for a make-up business?
When Low started her business in 2017 at age 36, she revealed that the initial focus was on research and development, as well as creating sample products, while adding that it took about a year to perfect the formulation, and another year to develop the right packaging for the products.
“In order to prevent counterfeits in the future, it was important for us to own the tooling for our packaging, which was a significant investment of around $300,000 (Dh1.1 million),” she revealed, while noting that she invested a total of Dh4 million of her own money into the business initially.
“To manage the costs of packaging, we narrowed it down to two different variants. Initially, I self-funded the company for a few years until we were confident that the business was ready to take off,” Low explained. “We then launched our first formal fundraiser to enter the Middle Eastern market, which incurred costs of around $2 million (Dh7.4 million).
“This amount included various expenses such as building a team, setting up warehouses, stock production, marketing, and gondola build-ups for stores. Despite the high market entry costs, we believed that it was necessary to invest in these areas to successfully launch our product and establish a foothold in the market.”
Challenges faced, lessons learnt?
When it came to launching her business in the UAE and other Middle East markets by the end of 2019, like most entrepreneurs, Low felt she learnt the most when the health crisis hit.
“Covid-19 has definitely compressed 10 years of business experience into 2.5 years for me. While it has obviously been a terrible time for everyone, myself included, in some ways, I am grateful for it for the lessons it taught me,” she said. “We had a very rapid and strong start for a start-up, but the pandemic literally put a halt on everything, for lack of a better word – overnight.
“I learnt to not take anything for granted, and that even when things are going seemingly well, we need to be prepared for the worst, especially financially. The crisis also taught me that there can be no limit to how bad things can go when it decides to take a turn, and there is no timeline as to when it will end. This is the new precautionary mind-set I now have when I make my business decisions.”
As a business owner, Low also learnt to make hard decisions that she wouldn’t otherwise have had to make when things are running smooth, particularly when it comes to cutting costs and adequately allocating resources and funds. “Today I spend only what I feel is of absolute value, and I have no qualms about cutting any costs immediately if it doesn’t serve a quantifiable, functional purpose.”
Today I spend only what I feel is of absolute value, and I have no qualms about cutting any costs immediately if it doesn’t serve a quantifiable, functional purpose
Saving plans or strategies you’ve used?
Low actually started building her investment portfolio when she was only 22 years old, and as she was already placed in the finance industry, she had access to investment products that she could start building for retirement.
In her case, these investment products included blue-chip stocks, which she invested in to grow her portfolio, while adding other investment-linked products for the purpose of diversification, and also retirement annuities that will give her a monthly pay-out during retirement.
Portfolio diversification is the practice of spreading your investments around so that your exposure to any one type of asset is limited. This practice is designed to help reduce the volatility of your portfolio over time.
Annuities are investments issued by insurance companies that can be used to help build a guaranteed income stream or a retirement nest egg. It's like being able to create your own pension fund. Annuities come in many varieties, helping investors reach diverse retirement goals.
“I also invested in properties in Singapore and in Australia for rental income and capital growth. By the time I was 28, I already had investment plans in place for pay-outs for my future kids’ education, and progressive annuity pay-outs in preparation for early retirement in case I choose or had to because of unforeseen circumstances,” Low added.
Reviewing investments once every year
“I review my portfolio every year to ensure that all my plans are still relevant and to refine them where needed. I am quite a risk taker, so I have about 70 per cent in growth stocks, property and business investments and 30 per cent in cash and safer, diversified portfolios.”
Although Low already has investment plans set aside to fund her kids’ future education, she said that she will ensure that she puts them through the same financial training that her parents did for her.
“I think it is important to let them experience earning their own money from a young age and knowing what it is like to work for it. I think it is important that they understand the value of the money from a young age and learn not to take anything for granted. While I can give them a head start, I will still want them to earn this privilege and know that nothing is a given.”
“I believe money flows from those who do not manage it to those who do. I have made some bad investments in my life and have lost money because I was too inexperienced to demand for proper contracts to be in place or to do full due diligence,” she added.
“But I guess these are life lessons not just for me to make better investment decisions, but to also prepare myself to have everything in place and know what is actually needed for the time I bring investors into the company to ensure that they are protected in their journey with us.”