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Business runs skin deep

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Skincare maven Samea Maakrun was nicknamed ‘Sass’ by her family for her unique brand of wit and charm. She had a fair amount of ‘savvyness’ too, putting her background in business and accounting to work mentoring women in business. "Back then, there were so many females complaining about their lives. They had so many issues and so many problems," she says. "That’s when I decided to set up my own lifestyle and wellbeing company [Sasy n Savy]. I wanted to develop a product or service to help women, but not necessarily to cost them a fortune." After a few months of research, it became clear that there wasn’t a one-stop-shop type brand in Australia that sold affordable products which would make a difference in women’s lives. "There were expensive brands out of Europe for skincare and cosmetics, and there were cheap brands out of Asia." Maakrun launched Sasy n Savy as a skincare and aromatherapy company pitched somewhere in between. The name combines two aspects of her personality. "Women are sassy and they’re also savvy. They’re beautiful, they’ve got flair, they’ve got passion. They get what they want, they know what they want and they go out and get it." Which is exactly what Maakrun herself has done. The Asian opportunity Starting with just her own savings and a small loan from her mother and sister, Maakrun began developing essential oils and aromatherapy from native Australian plants, launching the brand at the Mind, Body, Spirit expo in 2004. A week later, the brand was on shelves in Hong Kong. "We picked up a Hong Kong distributor and started developing the Asian market. We spent a couple of years just travelling around the Asian market, knocking on clients’ doors, presenting what we had." Over the years, Sasy n Savy has developed a range of skincare products to complement the aromatherapy range, and Maakrun expects that will continue to grow. The brand now sells in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan, but Maakrun says Sasy n Savy’s Asian success didn’t happen overnight. "We’re constantly visiting, doing expos, seeing visitors and seeing what their demands are." Sasy n Savy now has a Hong Kong office. "Because if you’re not there, a competitor will come along. There’s no brand loyalty because retailers want high profit margins and high turnover. You need to have an actual physical presence in the market for the longevity of the brand." Australian products are popular in Asia because they are perceived to be clean and green, Maakrun says. Realising Australia has strict research and development procedures and high quality ingredients, some Asian brands actually get Australian companies to manufacture for them, under their brand. "Big brands have been using our ingredients for a very long time. We import the end products back in and pay 20 times the price," she adds. The Australian edge The ‘Australianness’ of the brand is its unique selling point, Maakrun explains. "We use Kakadu Plum, which is the world’s most vitamin C rich fruit. It stimulates skin cells and collagen. We use wild rosella and grass lily. Those ingredients will create the vitamins, antioxidants and nutrients for your skin’s daily intake." While the ingredients may be unfamiliar to an international audience, customers understand the value of Australian natives. The brand has been using the ‘Australian Made’ logo from the beginning, and Maakrun wants to do more to capitalise on the popularity of Australian products. "We’re changing our packaging to slap ‘Made in Australia’ right across everything." Following its success in Asia, Sasy n Savy looked for a distributor in the Middle East ("it took three goes to get the right person") and now sells throughout Europe. "Overseas, you’re competing against the top notch European brands that sit beside us on the shelf at Harrods. But people travel. The UK market is full of Asian and Arabic buyers, and it helps that we have a presence in Asia and the Middle East. People know the brand, that it’s from Australia and all that." Maakrun is determined to keep Sasy n Savy’s manufacturing in Australia. "There’s not many of us left. My aim is to still say Australian made, Australian owned." But disappointingly, selling in Australia has been a difficult path. Many Australian retailers don’t have any confidence in Australian brands, Maakrun says. "A lot of retailers will only take on the big brands with the big marketing dollar. They want products to hit the shelf and walk back out again." It’s starting to change, but many companies find it more profitable to invest in developing sales outside the Australian market. "We were doing expos, we were advertising in magazines, we had the website presence, we were doing seminars, newsletters, fax outs, everything; but at the end of the day the investment compared to the return wasn’t to be seen compared to the international market." Finding a way to finance Australian product development has been key to the brand’s success on a business level. This came in the form of private label manufacturing. After seeing Sasy n Savy products in a luxury hotel in Hong Kong, the Marriott hotel in Sydney approached Maakrun and suggested private label. One deal begets another, and now Sasy n Savy does private label manufacturing for a number of 5-star hotels in Australia and internationally. "The R&D for product development is extremely expensive, trying to get products right, testing back and forth," Maakrun explains. "I’m not an expert so we have to consult that part out of our business." Despite never advertising private label manufacturing, the profits now pay for product development. Highs and lows Manufacturing is a consistent challenge, Maakrun says. ""Every day is a different day. It’s non-stop, go-go. Nothing stays the same: regulations are changing, laws are changing, aromas are changing. Different countries like different aromas and different colours." Finding and maintaining relationships with distributors can be extremely difficult, Maakrun warns. "You don’t always know who to trust and who’s ethical and professional and who’s not." Distributors come and go, so you need to have a firm market presence in the country that isn’t reliant on that contract. "Then you’ve got a firmer hold on the country and more activity in the market." After nearly a decade of export triumphs and the odd mistake, the 37-year-old entrepreneur has learned it is vital to do your research and understand your market if you plan to trade internationally. "Understand your customers and your competitors, and make sure there’s a good profit margin in it. Be passionate and just go for it." Immensely proud of the work the brand has achieved to date, Maakrun says customer feedback remains her guide for measuring success. "People start to say my skin’s feeling firmer, tighter, nourished. You get a lot of good feedback from our products."  Most importantly, the Sasy n Savy team of 12 have travelled the world and had fun growing the brand. "We’ve enjoyed our life. Which is one of our trademarks: Live, Inspire, Feel Good and Empower. We’ve managed to do that by developing these products for our lifestyle."

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