“We’re known for our Stories”: How Tribe Skincare founder Kayla Houlihan created a community of devotees and a multimillion-dollar e-commerce brand

Kayla Houlihan Tribe Skincare

Tribe Skincare founder Kayla Houlihan. Source: supplied.

Tribe Skincare founder Kayla Houlihan is the creator of a multimillion-dollar brand, but she still makes a point of carving out time in her busy schedule to go live on Instagram Stories every day. 

“Brands need to be doing Stories,” she tells SmartCompany from Torquay, on Victoria’s surf coast.

“And it’s good to have a face to the brand, or someone jumping on every day … A familiar face helps build brand trust.”

It’s not only a trust-building exercise for Houlihan, who founded her skincare brand a little over two years ago. On days when she hasn’t had time to talk directly to the brand’s 57,000 Instagram followers, there is a clear effect on sales — they are much lower than on days when she does post. 

“We’re known for our Stories,” she says. 

“We have a really good following on our Stories and we post every day — a lot of behind-the-scenes, photos shoots, I’ll jump on once a day. We’re very engaged.”

The right formula

This personal touch has been a key ingredient in Tribe Skincare’s success to date. 

Since the pure-play online brand launched at the end of 2017, it has reached $2.4 million in sales for its locally made, vegan and cruelty-free products for sensitive skin, and it is scoring well above industry standards on key e-commerce metrics. 

The Tribe Skincare website boasts a conversion rate of 7%, compared to an industry standard of 3%. The Tribe Trial Kit, which allows new customers to try essential Tribe products in smaller travel sizes, has a return purchasing rate of 75%, which Houlihan says compares to an industry standard of between 20% and 25%. 

Prior to creating the Tribe brand, 29-year-old Houlihan worked as a trained beauty therapist, alongside her sister at a salon they operated for three years in nearby Geelong. 

This experience gave her insight into exactly what women are looking for when it comes to skincare, especially those who have sensitive skin. 

“We found customers were always coming in who had sensitive skin and they were wanting a solution,” she says. 

“But we couldn’t find an Australian brand to sell to our clients who were coming into the salon.”

A natural businessperson, Houlihan’s thoughts turned to how she could come up with her own answer to the problem. 

“It was a project that I had in the back of my mind and I started Googling ‘how to start a skincare brand’,” she says. 

“I had the business experience from running the salon, but I didn’t know how to make the products.”

Houlihan’s research led her to work directly with a cosmetic pharmacist to develop her first products. 

“I knew what I wanted to go into the skincare, and I had a bit of knowledge of skincare ingredients, but I’m not a cosmetic pharmacist,” she explains. 

The process involved collaborating with the pharmacist on what could go into the products and what couldn’t, before testing samples until they found the perfect formula. 

Tribe Skincare launched with four products in its range, and now has 15 full-size products available, including cleansers, exfoliants, moisturisers and serums, as well as a range of mineral makeup products and accessories.

The product development process typically takes several months, says Houlihan, with four months the fastest time-frame to turn things around. It took four months to develop the Tribe face oil, for example.

But it can also take much longer to get things just right.

“We’ve had a liquid scrub in the works for two years now and still haven’t nailed it,” she says. 

Once the Tribe products were in the market, Houlihan says “it all happened quite quickly”. So much so, she moved to focus on the brand full-time six months after launching. 

“It was going to be a side business, but it very quickly overtook [the salon business],” she says. 

It means she no longer runs the salon with her sister, but Tribe is still somewhat a family affair; while her sister is not a partner in the business, she does take care of the bookkeeping. 

Houlihan also has the help of one other staff member, and chooses to outsource other key elements of running the business, including website support, graphic design and marketing and public relations. 

Tribe Skincare products

Source: supplied.

Building the tribe

Globally, the cosmetics market is estimated to be worth approximately US$530 billion ($810 billion). Last year, the Australian industry was estimated to be worth some $4.2 billion. 

It’s a lucrative and competitive market, and Houlihan says that competition is “definitely” increasing. 

“There are a lot more small, indie brands popping up,” she says. 

Tribe is one such independent brand, but Houlihan is not deterred by the growing ranks of competitors. Rather, she sees it as an opportunity, especially for a brand like hers that has a specific focus on customers with sensitive skin. 

“Every single female in Australia uses skincare products,” she says. 

“You just need a small percentage of that and you can have a nice little business.”

And then there’s the opportunity to branch out into products that are pitched directly to male customers, which is something Houlihan is considering for the future.

Anecdotally, Houlihan knows men are using the products already — usually sharing their partners’ stash. But she recognises the current Tribe packaging likely speaks more to women, with its bright, colourful and channels a luscious, tropical vibe.

It was a conscious decision on Houlihan’s part to present a memorable, fresh look to “stand out” among other beauty brands.

“My idea behind it is you typically need to see a cosmetic brand’s packaging seven or eight times before you notice it and try it,” she says. 

“With our products, you see it two or three times but you think you’ve seen it everywhere,” she adds.

“It has definitely helped with marketing and growing the brand.

“A lot of natural brands use minimalist packaging, which is really beautiful, but it’s a bit overdone. We wanted to spice things up a bit.”

Houhlihan took this same approach to choosing the right business name too. 

“I wanted a word that was short, easy to say, and easy to remember for marketing purposes,” she says.

“We explored hundreds of different words and as soon as ‘Tribe Skincare’ came out of my mouth, I knew it was the perfect name.

“I love that the word ‘Tribe’ is an inclusive word, and the perfect way to sum up our little skincare-loving family.”

The notion of the Tribe business as a family seems fitting when considering the high rate of customers who choose to buy the full-size products after paying for and trialling the smaller versions through the Trial Kit. 

Trying before you buy is key to people parting with their money for new skincare products, says Houlihan. Offering the Trial Kit means the business can, in some way, mimic the practices Houhlian used in her salon, where clients could experience new products through a facial or take a sample home. 

The trial-size bottles are enough to see users through a four-to-six week period, which is the same length of time it takes for someone’s skin to do a full cycle, according to Houlihan, and as such, they get a good sense of whether the products are right for them. 

“Because we are a brand for sensitive skin, once they find something that works, they stick to it,” she says.

Social media has been the key way Houlihan has connected with these customers, and she says this is where the majority of Tribe’s customers have come from. The brand does little paid marketing activity, apart from influencer marketing, which involves long-term partnerships with influencers in its target markets.

The retail frontier

The next step for Tribe Skincare is to explore the world of retail, and hopefully find retail partners to stock the brand this year. 

“In the next year we really want to focus on getting into retail,” says Houlihan. 

The goal is to team up with a retail chain so that the Tribe products would then be available exclusively from one retailer and then the Tribe Skincare website, allowing customers to try the range in store if they want to. 

“We have had offers from retailers, but they haven’t been quite right,” says Houlihan, who adds she is looking to work with a business that aligns with Tribe’s values and also “offers really great service in store”. 

Quality service is a priority for the founder. She recalls some valuable business advice she was given some time ago by another business owner.

This person said there are three elements to running a business: price, service and product. But to be successful and profitable, you can only really do two well. 

“We offer great service, and a great product … but we can’t really compete on price with other brands,” she says.

“We can’t offer $6 cleansers like the supermarkets.”

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