SINGAPORE — When she first started making her own natural skincare products at home as a teenager, Lynsey Lim had no idea that someday she would be selling them all over the world. What started out as homemade skincare meant for personal use has now blossomed into a hot-selling brand on Amazon that has even been endorsed by Lily Collins of Emily In Paris fame.
Lim credits her upbringing, along with the budget constraints of a teenager and frustration at the lack of suitable products in the market, as her reasons for experimenting when she was younger.
"My mum is quite into a natural route. She's very 'simple' in the product that she uses, so that's what got me into using natural skincare. Back then, natural skincare on the market was so expensive that it didn't fit into a teenager's budget," she explained.
Taking the plunge
The idea of selling her homemade products didn't occur to Lim until she was in her 20s when a special family occasion sparked her confidence. Her sister was getting married, and she was asked to make gifts for the bride and her bridesmaids as a wedding favour.
"It actually spread from word of mouth. Her bridesmaids started buying from me, and then it just snowballed from there," said Lim.
The sales in those early days were a "happy by-product" of sharing her creations with others. As the positive feedback and demand for her homemade products grew, Lim soon realised that she had the potential to turn her passion into a thriving business.
"After my sister's wedding, I knew there was interest in the products. So I was thinking to myself, 'why not give it a shot?' I was young and thought 'now is the time to try'. Back then, I didn't have a child yet, so if there was any time, it would have been then. I gave myself one year.
"From there, I dedicated myself to refining my formulas, scaling up production, and building a brand that could reach a wider audience," said Lim.
At the time, Lim worked full-time in a bank's treasury department dealing with foreign exchange — her first job right after graduating from university. She left the stable job in 2014 to start Handmade Heroes with her then-boyfriend and now-husband, Adi Ong.
Without as much disposable income as before, Lim – who declined to share her bank salary — said that she had to make some lifestyle sacrifices. "I had to be more careful with my spending. Another sacrifice was time because I would work long hours and often had no time for socialising with my family and friends," she recalled.
From the start, the couple were a two-person team selling their products at pop-up markets around Singapore. Lim would make all the products by hand while Ong was in charge of operations. She would spend Mondays to Thursdays making the products from a rented space that could barely fit two people, selling them at pop-up stalls from Fridays to Sundays, and then going back at night to make more products.
"It was very labour intensive but at the same time, very fun as well," she said with a smile.
After about eight months of doing this grinding routine, another vendor at the market told the couple about the e-commerce platform Amazon. It was information that was to take their business to the next level.
"She was telling us about how great it was that you could have access to the whole global market and the US market especially, and how she was just sending her products there. I thought 'why not do that' because that would save me so much time and the cost wasn't much at all.
"So I listed on Amazon and that took a load off my shoulders in terms of the selling. I didn't have to be physically there, especially because it was only just my husband and me, and we didn't hire any help," said Lim.
The cost of having your business sell on Amazon depends on the selected selling plan, product category, fulfilment strategy, and other variables. Amazon charges a fee for each unit sold under an individual subscription plan, while its professional subscription plan charges a monthly flat fee of US$39.99, regardless of the number of units sold.
Sellers would also need to consider paying referral fees as well as shipping and logistics costs if they are selling internationally.
"One of Amazon's strengths is that it's really easy to get into and to list in another market — from the US to Europe, or even Australia or Canada," said Lim. "They have services to help you with taxes and compliance. It made it a very natural path to go into," said Lim.
Taking the top spot
It wasn't long before Handmade Heroes began to grow rapidly with sales rolling in from Asia to America. Their Ultra Sexy Scrub has been the number one best-selling lip scrub on Amazon for several years now. When asked how the business is doing, Lim said that it is "going very well" and that they are "on track to double sales" this year.
Another one of their products, the Drop Dead Gorgeous Dry Shampoo, recently reached number two (in its category) on Amazon.
Getting the lip scrub to number one on Amazon wasn't just by chance and involved several strategies. Lim attributed the success of the Ultra Sexy Scrub to a "customer-centric approach in our marketing strategy" and an upward trend towards vegan, cruelty-free and sustainable products. Additionally, Lim says that she paid a lot of attention to customer feedback and suggestions that were coming in.
"We reformulated the lip scrub to make it more suitable for colder climates and adjusted the exfoliation factor to meet our customers' preferences," said Lim, referring to how she first discovered that the lip scrub tends to solidify when temperatures are low in places like the US.
Since becoming the #1 best-selling lip scrub on Amazon, sales of the Ultra Sexy Scrub have increased fivefold. There are over 18,000 reviews of the product on Amazon, with an average rating of 4.4 out of five stars.
"Having our lip scrub and the dry shampoo as the number one and two on Amazon really means a big deal to us, because it shows that we can compete with the big brands out there. It puts us on the same playing field, and coming in as number one reaffirms that what we are doing is right," said Lim.
Keeping up with demand
Like many startups, Handmade Heroes faced the tough challenge of scaling up operations. By 2017, business was going so well that they couldn't keep up with the online demand. The couple then made the decision to reinvest their profits at that point into setting up a new factory in Malaysia. This required meticulous planning and coordination as they went from a two-person team to a full-fledged factory in a short span of time.
"In addition to the daily challenges of running a business, such as managing inventory and production timelines, we were committed to upholding the highest quality and ethical standards for our products," said Lim, who noted that all of Handmade Heroes' products are Halal-certified, GMP-approved, dermatologically-tested, and "strives to be carbon neutral".
"One way we tackled these challenges was by using Fulfilment by Amazon (FBA) to reduce our manpower hours by up to 120 hours a week. This freed up time, so we could focus on perfecting our production processes," said Lim. The company let the service pick, pack, and ship our products, and take care of customer service and returns.
The investment into scaling up paid off when they passed another milestone in 2020: the company hit seven-figure in sales in 2020.
Currently, the company is in the midst of building its second factory in Malaysia and has set its sights on international expansion into markets such as the EU, UK, Canada and the UAE.
Mixing family and business
Eight years since Lim and Ong started the business, Handmade Heroes now consists of a team of 20 people, along with several part-timers and freelancers. Aside from sharing responsibilities running the business, they also share parenting duties. For this couple, the lines between work and family tend to be blurred.
"I think we are just quite used to it," said Lim on being asked about running a business with her spouse. "I would say it's not easy, and it's probably not for everyone. But if you can make it work and if the dynamic of your relationship is suited then why not?
On giving back to the community, Lim says that she does this by returning to her alma mater to speak and share her experiences with young women, and "give them a glimpse of what it's like to start a business".
"If you have an idea or if you have always wanted to be an entrepreneur or start a business, go for it, because you don't know what you are capable of until you actually do it and give it a shot," said Lim. "Especially in this day and age where it's so easy to start a business online, and there are so many services that help and make things easier."