Skin essentials - Goals, obstacles, and successes: the path to entrepreneurship is paved with work and surprises

The three start-up founders Carina Höltge, Maximilian Noah and Linda Suhm. | Photo: Tobias Hopfgarten.
Source: Tobias Hopfgarten
The three start-up founders Carina Höltge, Maximilian Noah and Linda Suhm.

Two economists and a communication designer teamed up to start a business. The three see their professional future in the cosmetics industry. The young entrepreneurs want to launch a new skin care concept.

Linda Suhm, Carina Höltge, and Maximilian Noah are very busy at the moment, but they have gotten used to it over the past year. When you found your own company, there are a thousand tasks to complete - and you don’t count working hours. A typical working day? “Doesn’t exist,” they say with a laugh. Every day is different and brings new challenges.

“QATAI” is the working title of their project for which they acquired an EXIST start-up grant of €135,000 last autumn. It’s about “individualized skin care products,” the entrepreneurs reveal. Especially in this sector, there is a huge market gap. The usual products are standardized and quite uniform, tailored to the largest possible number of potential customers. Individual needs are usually not met. If you want more from a cosmetic product, you have to go to a dermatologist or beautician and get extensive skin testing done. “For most people, this is too time-consuming,” says Linda Suhm

Skin care by questionnaire

The three entrepreneurs, who are not yet 30, want to close the market gap - because skin doesn’t equal skin. “The skin’s condition is influenced by many factors: nutrition, exercise, alcohol consumption, but also weather, humidity, and sunlight,” Suhm explains. “Many customers don’t know anything about their skin condition and are a bit overwhelmed.” They don’t know how best to care for their skin. The three therefore seek direct contact to their customers – so as to be able to inform and advise them and deliver skin care that is perfectly tailored to the customer’s needs. For this purpose, they are developing an online questionnaire to analyze which lotion will optimally care for the skin of each customer. At the same time, the data will be compared to the environment in which the customer is living. Their skin care products are not only tailored to individual skin conditions but also to the weather and season. In the future, customers will be able to fill out the questionnaire on the company's website, where they can also find general information about skin and skin care. An algorithm then determines the appropriate day care, which will be available online.

So far so good. One question, however, is inescapable. What do economics and communication design have to do with skin care? “I never had anything to do with this before,” Noah says. But that actually turned out to be an advantage. After all, he looks at the business field from a completely different perspective. The main business activity of the company is selling cosmetic products. The three obtain the necessary expertise for the quality of their products from outside: dermatologists and pharmacists advise them on the ingredients of the lotions and the best formulation. It should be as simple as possible, consist of only a few ingredients, and work without preservatives. The team also seeks support from inside the industry. Suitable formulations have to be developed for the production of the lotions, and the production itself should be climate-neutral.

Maximilian Noah had the business idea for individualized skin care three years ago during a marketing competition of a large cosmetics company. At that time, he realized that many companies in this industry had a problem: their structures were primarily designed for retail sales and were hardly suitable for direct customer business. To be able to offer individualized products, however, you must collect data and evaluate them correctly. This only works through direct customer contact. Noah saw the potential for a new approach in the cosmetics industry.

He quickly found a business partner in his flat mate Linda Suhm, who is also an economist and supported his project. Later, they also brought Carina Höltge on board, who as a communication designer is responsible for the online presence of the cosmetics start-up and for the design of the product packaging - from color to font. “Since I am involved in everything right from the beginning, it is a very exciting project with a lot of creative leeway,” she says.

Market research on the street and at trade fairs

In the beginning, the entrepreneurs had to find out whether the customers were even willing to provide extensive information about their lifestyle or the condition of their skin in an online questionnaire. After all, the business model depends on it. A test website and a targeted social media survey quickly showed that a large number of users responded to the concept and answered questions in detail. The founders apparently bet on the right horse. “That reassured us,” Noah says.

From then on it was full speed ahead. With a first prototype of the website, communication designer Carina Höltge tested which colors and design elements were well received. “One of the versions made many people think of toothpaste. That wasn't what we intended, of course,” she recalls. Noah asked people in front of drug stores what they thought about the product idea. The team even went to trade fairs to look for suitable packaging and dispensers for their products. “Should they be made of glass or plastic? Where does the material come from? What is the most environmentally friendly? Which shape do we want? What is recyclable? What are the minimum purchase quantities? How long does production take? - There are a hundred questions on this topic alone that we have to answer,” Noah describes the challenge.

Potsdam - an ideal location

 “There are lots of issues that need to be thought through just as intensively,” Suhm explains. The founders work on them either at a café, at their apartment, or in the office provided by the University of Potsdam. Here, they also get support from the Potsdam Transfer network, which knows what young founders need. Professor Katharina Hölzle is also there to advise them. In fact, the three young entrepreneurs specifically came to Potsdam last year to start their own company. “The university is one of the best start-up universities in Germany,” emphasizes Noah.

Suhm, Höltge, and Noah have already mastered many milestones on their way. Nevertheless, it will be months before the first lotion will leave their online shop. It will be at least another six months from the prototype to the finished product. During this time, they have to apply for patents, register brands, establish sales channels, and secure domain addresses. They still have to resolve many legal issues and finish the business plan.

The days of the founders are busy and feel too short. “There are no routines yet, and sometimes there is one challenge after the other,” Noah says. The requested web domain for the website is no longer available or the production of the dispenser takes much longer than planned. Sometimes, patience and stamina are severely strained. Nevertheless, all three are mostly satisfied at the end of the day. “Sometimes it feels like a rat race, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like work at all.”

The Project

“QATAI” is a start-up project that has been funded with an EXIST grant at the University of Potsdam since November 2018. The founders want to develop individualized skin care products digitally tailored to users’ needs.

The Founders

Linda Suhm and Maximilian Noah studied economics at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen. They are primarily in charge of cooperation, product development and marketing as well as the technical implementation. Carina Höltge studied communication design at Mainz University of Applied Sciences. She takes care of the corporate design, website, and all design issues.

 

This text was published in the university magazine Portal Wissen - Two 2019 „Data“.