[8 MINUTE READ]
Happy Friday all and welcome to this week’s Friday Founder interview. With anxiety levels at an all-time high this week, amidst the US Election and a second lockdown starting here in the UK, you might be needing a little escapism. If that's the case, we’ve got you covered.
In this week’s interview, we chat to Maree Kinder, the CEO and founder of Beauty & Seoul, the UK’s leading K-skincare curator that aims to bring Korean Skincare into the mainstream here in the UK.
To find out how Maree started the brand, the values of Beauty & Seoul and why she thinks Korean skincare is so awesome, just grab a cup of something delicious and keep on reading...
Morning Maree! Welcome to the site! Could you start by telling me a bit about your childhood and how you feel it has influenced you today?
Thank you for having me! My childhood began in South Korea where I was born. I was placed in an orphanage in Seoul and was adopted at six months old by my parents; my mum is English and my dad is Dutch. I am very close to my family and they always encouraged me to get to know my Korean heritage, however, growing up it wasn’t something I really wanted to do. I hated that I looked different to my blonde, blue-eyed mother, and I hated when someone asked ‘yeah but where are you REALLY from?’ South Korea was something that I suppressed deep within me. It wasn’t until the age of 29 when I flew back to Seoul to start searching for my birth parents that everything turned around. I had time to think about what I really wanted and in those months my life took a very different turn.
Wow, what a turnaround. So how did you get started in the beauty industry?
I always say I accidentally fell into it! I had always been into skincare and read blogs and books about it, but it wasn’t until I went to Seoul and discovered Korean skincare for the first time in 2014 that the passion really started. The ‘skincare first’ ethos in South Korea resonated with me and whilst I was living there, I learnt so much about how to take care of my skin. My husband and I spoke about starting a business that curated these fantastic products, but we didn’t really pursue it at that time. It became a pipe dream or the answer to ‘what would your dream job be?’ It wasn’t until I quit my job in 2016 and flew to Seoul to embark on a search for my birth parents that I began writing a business plan and reaching out to brands to curate these products for the UK market.
"All of our packaging is recyclable and we are also fortunate to partner with some truly innovative brands coming out of South Korea, including Sioris, who came out with the first biodegradable sheet mask housed in a paper pouch."
That’s such an interesting trajectory! So what do you think made you decide to start up Beauty & Seoul then? Was the timing important?
The timing was very important. As a result of my journey, I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and that sometimes, good things can come from the tough times in your life. A month or so into my trip to Seoul in 2016, I found out that my birth mother did not want to meet me. I threw myself into blogging and writing a business plan for Beauty & Seoul as a distraction from that sense of rejection. I began reaching out to brands and then, in April of 2017, when we returned to London, I set up Beauty & Seoul. Our main mission was to make Korean skincare more accessible here in the UK and we started our business at just the right time. K-Beauty was growing in the US and the likes of BB creams and sheet masks were becoming increasingly popular here in the UK. We were very fortunate to be one of the first UK businesses to move into this space and this really helped us to become the number one destination for Korean skincare in the UK.
It sounds like the timing couldn’t have been better! Right, we are really interested in hearing about how brands are factoring sustainability into their business. Is the issue of sustainability important to Beauty & Seoul?
Absolutely! All of our packaging is recyclable and we are also fortunate to partner with some truly innovative brands coming out of South Korea, including Sioris, who came out with the first biodegradable sheet mask housed in a paper pouch. Toun28 is another fantastic brand we stock and its packaging is all fully recyclable. The Vegan Glow also uses recyclable plastic with soy ink printing and have recently come out with a line of shampoo and conditioner bars. We are constantly seeking out amazing brands in South Korea who are paving the way for the beauty industry globally with their sustainable inventions.
That’s brilliant! It sounds like you are very careful about the brands you partner with. Do you think people are more conscious of the ingredients in their beauty and skincare products nowadays? If so, why?
Definitely, and it’s a really great thing to see! I think more people are coveting skincare over makeup now in the UK as well. Customers are now learning more about ingredients, what works for their skin and what doesn’t and that is really beneficial. I am always telling people that what works for them won’t necessarily work for someone else. It is up to each individual to learn about their skin; figure out their skin type and what works best for it. We are always here to help point our customers in the right direction of products that will help them achieve those goals.
I love that! It’s great that you offer a helping hand to your customers because skincare can be overwhelming at times. Your blog is fantastic for that! What do you consider were your biggest challenges in starting up Beauty & Seoul?
There have been many challenges, including working with partners in Korea and learning how to do business with a different culture. However, I would say the biggest challenge was just getting started. In the time that followed the disappointing news of my birth family search, I was in a really dark place mentally. If you were to ask me what I am most proud of, it is definitely having the courage to pull myself out of that hole and find a way to heal. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, but it has also been the most rewarding. In tough times, we truly become stronger people. Beauty & Seoul has given me a connection to my motherland which is something I had been yearning for. It helped fill that void.
That is really inspiring! Thank you for sharing that story. It’s important for people to hear things like that so they know that we are capable of overcoming even the most painful of moments; it is possible. What strategies do you think have been key to the success of Beauty & Seoul?
I think that one of our greatest strengths was that each one of our three Co-founders had complementary skills. We started as a family business where my husband helped with the website set up and analysis, and my father helped with all the financials and legal paperwork. My background is in Marketing so, between the three of us, we had a good foundation from the beginning. We kept this lean team of three for the first two years which obviously helped. Due to the blog and Instagram account that we had started while still in Korea, by the time we launched Beauty & Seoul, we already had an eagerly awaiting group of customers. We created a buzz and a countdown so that come launch day, we weren’t sitting there waiting for an order to come in. On our first day of opening, we had over 100 orders and never looked back.
Wow, it sounds like you planned everything to perfection. What is your favourite thing about your job?
By far, the best thing about my job has been connecting with customers and followers. I have met so many wonderful people since starting this business including fellow Korean adoptees which has been so healing for me. When someone messages me to say that the products have helped them, I’m the happiest person in the world!
I can imagine! So what do you think makes Beauty & Seoul stand out?
I believe the authenticity of Beauty & Seoul as a brand and our story are what make us unique. Our customers know exactly how and why our business got started and how much the business means to me. I believe our customers feel our personal touch through the website, curations and all the content we produce. They trust us with our curations because I personally scope out and test each product before launching.
"As our business continues to evolve, we want to focus on curating more innovative brands, particularly vegan formulations and sustainable skincare."
I can see why they trust you because a personal touch really changes your investment levels and loyalty to a brand. Right, could you describe your biggest “pinch-me” moment since starting Beauty & Seoul?
I think for me, it was being listed as a finalist for the British Asian Women of Achievement Award for Entrepreneurship. I was so proud that I cried! I think for someone who has spent so much of their life renouncing their Korean heritage, I was suddenly incredibly proud to be Korean British and to be recognised.
That’s wonderful. Massive congratulations! What inspires you?
I get most of my inspiration through talks with those nearest and dearest to me. I am very lucky to have a really close-knit tribe of talented friends around me. Although we all have different jobs, my group of girlfriends have all gone on to do incredible things and inspire me in various ways; not just through the work they do, but in the way they live their lives as well. “If you look at the people in your circle and you don’t get inspired, then you don’t have a circle, you have a cage.” This quote rings so true to me!
I’ve never heard that one before. I love it! Going onto the day-to-day of Beauty & Seoul, could you describe what an average day looks like for you?
My alarm usually goes off at around 7 am. I try to workout in the morning, shower, let the dog out, take my time getting ready and then be sat at my desk by 8:30 am. At the moment, it’s not very exciting as I’m still working from home. My day usually consists of emails (ugh!), marketing planning, and liaising with our warehouse and partners in Korea. I’ll walk the dog after lunch to get some fresh air and usually shut my laptop for the day at around 6 pm. I try to be in bed for 11 pm and always listen to meditation before bed.
That sounds pretty balanced to me but would you say you have a work/life balance?
I am reading a really interesting book at the moment called ‘One Thing’ where it talks about the “myth of a work-life balance” and that it's actually at the extremes where the magic happens, as opposed to in the middle. The author argues that we need to get better at counterbalancing – letting the right things take precedence when they should, and get to the rest when you can. It really resonated with me. When I was working full time and Beauty & Seoul was just a side hustle, I did not have what you would call ‘balance’. But looking back, it was necessary to grow the business. These days, I’m good at this ‘counterbalancing act’. If I need to work an 18 hour day I will. Likewise, if I have worked every weekend the last month, then I will give myself a break. We can’t be afraid of the extremes and there are times as a business-owner where we need to put the work first. I am fortunate that my husband, who also runs his own business with a friend, understands this. We just need to learn to be aware and not let things get out of control.
That’s a really interesting take and there’s a lot of value in that way of thinking. What words do you live by?
‘Be the girl who decided to go for it.’
I think you are that girl! What’s next for Beauty & Seoul?
Over the past few months, we have steadily grown our team and introduced more exciting brands and products. As our business continues to evolve, we want to focus on curating more innovative brands, particularly vegan formulations and sustainable skincare. We want to do even more collaborations with charities on issues close to our hearts as well. It is important to me to build a business that has purpose and meaning, not just for myself, but for others too.