Starup Mnatra: Solution to beauty shopping queries at fingertips - Hindustan Times
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Starup Mnatra: Solution to beauty shopping queries at fingertips

ByNamita Shibad
May 11, 2024 08:10 AM IST

With AI product recommender, Smudg, users can easily download the app to have their skin analysed and receive personalised product recommendations

Time was when you chose your serum or foundation on the advice of sales staff sitting at the counter of a cosmetics store. And if Jui Bhansali’s efforts work then her AI product recommender, Smudg, will empower beauty shoppers globally to eliminate guesswork and make the right product decisions accurately.

Jui Bhansali, founder of Smudg. (HT PHOTO)
Jui Bhansali, founder of Smudg. (HT PHOTO)

It’s like having a personal make-up (or skincare) expert right in your pocket, guiding you to finding the perfect matches and changing the way people shop for beauty products.

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Initial steps

So how did this come to be? Says Jui, founder of Smudg, “I was working with an AR fashion technology startup and was an avid user of makeup and beauty products. And like most beauty enthusiasts, I didn’t have a clue about choosing what worked for me. There were just too many choices, top that with misleading product information, time-consuming research, and unreliable reviews - all this left me overwhelmed and confused.”

She had a friend, Amrita Kalyanpur, at that time a senior makeup stylist at MAC cosmetics and now a celebrity makeup artist, who always offered expert advice and recommendations on what products would be best for Jui’s skin. Well, everything was hunky-dory until Jui’s requests for help became as regular as morning coffee. Finally, Amrita jokingly proposed that we might as well map out the entire MAC store’s SKUs (stock-keeping unit) while we’re at it!

“I took on this as a fun challenge. With my prior experience, I had some knowledge of building databases. With Amrita’s help, we went through each product category, looking at every product and dissecting it based on certain parameters - hade, category, efficacy, texture, price etc. By the end of this exercise, we had compiled a list of almost 100 products sold by MAC, meticulously mapped according to my specific skin tone and needs.

“Since my friends and colleagues were also beauty enthusiasts, I naturally shared this curated list with them whenever they sought advice on their purchases. Before I knew it, requests started flooding in for mappings of other brands, catering to an even broader spectrum of skin types, concerns, and a wider range of skin tones. It was like this list (and I) had inadvertently become the go-to product guru, guiding everyone through the labyrinth of makeup choices.” Jui recalls.

“The overwhelming demand made me realise that there were countless other beauty enthusiasts and shoppers like me encountering similar challenges. With the continuous launch of new brands and products, this problem was only going to escalate. Something had to be done.”

Jui approached other makeup artists, like Amrita, to collaborate on developing product-skin type mappings and recommendations for a variety of popular makeup brands. Before they knew it, they had built an initial database of over 4,000 products from 50 to 60 brands, covering everything from mass-market to luxury.

The ‘hobby’ gets serious

Around late 2019, Jui’s side project started evolving into a promising business venture. She identified a common problem in the beauty industry: consumers frequently grappled with the absence of standardised product information, unreliable reviews, and a lack of comprehensive skin knowledge. This often led to misguided product choices, risking potential harm to their skin.

Having encountered these difficulties firsthand, Jui aspired to create a solution where beauty shoppers could effortlessly obtain reliable product information and make informed decisions.

She decided to leverage the datasets she had gathered and develop AI-powered software.

Implementing AI meant utilising data from brands, users, and domain experts. However, relying on a single expert posed risks of human error and bias. To counteract this, they recruited a diverse team of experts to ensure impartiality and offer a wide range of product options from various brands.

Covid impact

During a pivotal moment, we shared our idea with Abhijeet Gupta, founder, Praxify and FoldHealth, a visionary entrepreneur, well known in the healthcare startup space - an angel investor. Becoming our first angel investor, his support helped us launch our MVP (minimum viable product) - this was a native mobile app called Smudg, launched on both the App Store and Google Play Store platforms.

As Smudg began to gain traction, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, casting a shadow of uncertainty over the world. Suddenly, with people covering their faces with masks, the relevance of makeup seemed to diminish.

However, amidst the doom and gloom, an unexpected silver lining emerged. The lockdown, coupled with social distancing measures, prompted a shift towards wellness. People began to prioritise their health and, notably, skincare. While wellness has always been a priority, Covid-19 accelerated this trend.

Remarkably, for Smudg, this period saw a resurgence of interest in makeup and skincare.

Funding woes

As if dealing with the challenges of Covid wasn’t enough, many companies found themselves facing funding shortages and declining valuations, with some even forced to close overnight. We were no exception, but luckily, we were fortunate to secure another angel investment from Mohan Rao, our mentor. This injection of capital enabled us to keep innovating, test our product in the market, and keep moving forward.

Amidst this turmoil, a significant shift occurred as people became increasingly health-conscious, leading to a heightened demand for more personalised products from brands. Shopping habits also pivoted towards online platforms, with users seeking products tailored to their specific needs.

Simultaneously, we engaged in discussions with numerous brands who were eager to find ways to offer their customers personalised advice on makeup and skincare. Jui’s mentors emphasised the importance of a B2B2C approach for Smudg’s sustainability and success. They highlighted how the beauty industry is evolving towards personalised products, with consumers no longer satisfied with off-the-shelf solutions.

Personalisation marketing has real advantages for companies: it can reduce customer acquisition costs by as much as 50 per cent, lift revenues by 5 to 15 per cent, and increase marketing ROI by 10 to 30 per cent. Personalisation has also been shown to improve performance and provide better customer outcomes.

As our journey progressed, our innovations expanded beyond just offering an app for shoppers. We pivoted towards providing a Software as a Service (SaaS) tool for beauty brands and beauty businesses.

Changes in the beauty industry

The beauty industry valued at US$30bn in India and US$600bn globally, is currently embracing hyper-personalisation, and technology lies at the heart of this trend. “This shift spells good news for companies like Smudg, as technology-driven personalization has been our vision from the start. Brands are now leveraging various tech tools such as virtual try-ons and AI personalisation to empower consumers to make informed purchasing decisions.”

In the past, influencers played a significant role in promoting products or services. However, with advancements in AI, we now have AI influencers powered by platforms like ChatGPT. These AI influencers can create digital avatars and train them to provide tailored advice. Influencers have evolved beyond simply showcasing products with a smile; they now offer genuine guidance, even advising against certain products.

Future goals

We’ve begun to see sales trickle in, and while we’re not yet in the profit zone, our outlook is incredibly optimistic as we set our sights on the global stage. Our vision extends beyond just skin and colour cosmetics; we aim to empower various sectors within the beauty industry—haircare, health and wellness, body care, and even fragrance. We are passionate about what we are building and hope to continue to innovate and revolutionize how consumers interact with beauty products across diverse categories.” And that will be another chapter in the life of Smudg.

Booming business of beauty products

Market size

US$ 30 bn in India

US$ 600 bn globally

Trends

Technology has made personalised purchases possible

Brands are now offering tech enabled personalisation as a feature

71% of beauty shoppers demand expect companies to deliver personalised interactions

74% prefer to buy from brands that give personalised suggestions

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