March 6th 2020
Heela Yang: how a Korean New Yorker made Brazilian beauty go boom
July 13th 2017 / 0 comment
Moving to Brazil sparked a business idea that became Sephora’s biggest ever seller in bodycare. Here’s how a certain bum cream went big…
Brazil: land of supermodels, samba and, of course, teeny tiny bikinis. Add in trendy açaí, a few coconuts and some Amazonian plant butters and you have yourself a recipe for a luscious beauty product line that doesn’t take itself too seriously. This was the Brazilian inspired blueprint for former Clinique Lab director Heela Yang when co-founding bodycare brand Sol de Janeiro. The initial spark of genius was the conception of a very specific bum moisturiser. Said lotion has sold by the bucketload globally (it’s like no body unction you’ve ever tried, in the best possible way). Here’s how she fused Korean skincare know-how with Brazilian skincare ingredients and sass to create a standout brand that’s a breath of fresh air in beauty land...
What inspired you to create Sol de Janeiro?
“I fell in love, got married and moved to Brazil from NY. There I couldn’t help but notice differences in Brazilian beauty routines, and that sparked the idea. I met another ex-New Yorker, Marc Capra (he moved to Brazil after becoming enamoured after a visit), who shared my fascination with the culture. There is really something different about women and beauty in Brazil. It is all about attitude and confidence. It’s always about head-to-toe beauty, rather than a sole focus on the face like Koreans (I am a Korean!)”
Could you summarise the brand in three words?
“Playful. Sensual. Confident.”
What's your background?
“I am not one of those entrepreneurs who always knew that they wanted to start a business. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life when I was younger. I only knew that whatever I did, I wanted to be the best at it. So I ended up with various experiences from academia to finance, with the latest being cosmetics marketing prior to experimenting with the idea that I wanted to start something in the beauty industry.”
“I fell in love with the beauty industry because it’s dynamic, competitive, and it combines both left and right brains. I also found it to be super interesting because it involves sociological and psychological aspects of women. It took me a while and there was a lot of trying different things, succeeding at some and failing at others, but eventually that led me to Sol de Janeiro and I couldn’t be happier.”
You're Korean-American and have lived in Brazil- what's your approach to beauty?
“I am lucky to have the best of both worlds. Koreans are experts in facial skincare and Brazilians are experts in bodycare! For example, I am obsessed with multi-step facial cleansing, as all Koreans are, and that’s how I grew up, learning from my mother. It wasn’t until I moved to Brazil that I began taking care of my body, and now I feel blessed to know the secrets of head-to-toe beauty.”
Your first sellout product is the now the infamous Bum Bum Cream- what was your motivation for developing it? And how did you decide on the name?!
“My founding team – there were three of us- spent a lot of time asking ourselves questions. “Why are we doing this?”, “What is it that we are attracted to about Brazilian beauty?” and vitally, “why does the world need another skincare brand?”. Marc, my co-founding partner, spent ten years in Brazil, and Camila, a founding member, is a Brazilian from Rio living in NY. This first soul-searching phase in defining the ‘whys’ and what the brand stood for truly helped us to define what Sol de Janeiro stood for, and that was being a definitive authority in ‘Brazilian sexy’, and that we should be focused on bodycare. This first phase took months.”
“When it came to identifying products, we then asked ourselves what part of the body it seemed that Brazilians were preoccupied with. That didn’t take long. The answer was unanimous- the bum bum (pronounced ‘boom boom’ for all you Brits). There is even a Ms. Bum Bum contest in Brazil…”
“So the idea of creating a body cream inspired by the Brazilians’ favourite body part came about. We spent a lot of time on the name, and again, it became obvious when we wrote the name Brazilian Bum Bum Cream on a piece of paper that that was so fitting. We did get some cynical feedback from friends who advised against having Bum Bum in the product name, but we listened to our own voice and trusted our gut. People also advised us against making the brand yellow and against putting the product name on the cap, not on the jar. We have a super talented designer in Brazil who we worked with closely and everything just fell into place. I guess we are breaking all sorts of rules!”
“We spent months perfecting the cream in every way. From using the most effective ingredients to creating a fast absorbing texture and a lush,buttery viscosity, it was quite the endeavour. The fragrance was a separate (intense) project where Camila in the midst of which missed a flight for her vacation because she was making a last minute tweak.”
What was the most exciting aspect of starting the business?
“I absolutely love breaking all sorts of rules and establishing new standards. As a small start-up, this is very possible and much easier to do than when working within large, established companies. I also love building my team and creating our own culture that reflects that of the brand."
“We are now 13 people, up from three only a year ago. My team members bring me joy, and it gives me a deep sense of happiness to see them grow and participate in this unique journey.”
Talk me through a day in the office at Sol de Janeiro- do you have any office traditions, perks or habits?
“We have so many! We just moved out of my home last September to a shared office space. Now that we’re in a proper office space, we’ve decorated it to reflect our brand. I painted the walls with our ‘Sol’ yellow color one Saturday with a team member.”
“We also have an office puppy named Sete (this means seven in Portuguese) whom Ingrid, our marketing associate from Brazil, brought to NY. We rotate watching Sete when Ingrid has to travel for work. We have a ‘dream board’ where we pin aspirations, and they usually come true. I make everyone do maths in their head before using a calculator. We have a gallon jug of apple cider vinegar we drink to detox. We also have a truly flexible vacation policy, weekly team lunches (we all love to eat!). Actually our little traditions are growing by the day. It really feels like a family.”
What were the biggest challenges of starting the business?
“For me it was believing in myself. There were a lot of distractions and naysayers. The noise can really get to your confidence. I had to stay very focused and trust my instincts and inner voice. It’s not easy to work on something for over two years with almost no income and at home. My founding team (Marc and Camila) was my rock."
What's the best piece of career advice you've ever received, and from whom?
“Do not try to expand the product line. Focus on expanding the customer base with few products.” This advice was given to me by a good friend’s father, Guy Peyrelongue, who is ex-CEO of L’Oreal USA. This is why I only launched three products in the beginning.”
Finish this sentence: Money is…
“The byproduct of success that comes with doing what you love and working really hard.”
What's your secret to staying sane when business is booming? How do you wind down after work?
“I am a strong believer in maintaining the mind-body connection. Playing with my eight year old son clears my mind and helps me to stay focused on keeping my life simple and pure. I work out and do yoga on a daily basis. I also love skiing and being in the mountains, so I am religious about setting aside time. I do work around the clock, but it doesn’t feel like it because I love what I do. My team members remind me when I should leave work early and take some time to relax.”
What's next in the pipeline for Sol de Janeiro?
“There’s so much to do. Product ideas are limitless, but also, engaging more deeply with our growing global consumers and fans is my number one priority in the next one to two years. We have grown so quickly because of our fans across the world who understood the brand and loved the products from the beginning. I have a lot of ideas that I haven’t had the time to execute, but hope to do that in the near future with my growing team.”
Where do you think that the beauty industry is currently headed?
“It’s a really exciting time for beauty driven by smaller, nimble and niche brand builders that are socially and digitally progressive. In the past it was dominated by the big giants, but now knowing that niche players can make a meaningful difference gives me hope and motivation.”
Read a review of Sol de Janeiro Brazilian Bum Bum cream