A skincare solution that started 20 years ago has become a booming business for Gold Coast-based Alpha-H, lifted by a strong partnership with Sephora Australasia that has been in full swing for the past eight years.
With corrective and preventative skincare products including the best-selling Liquid Gold resurfacing treatment, the company's range is now available online and in-store in Sephora Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia, the latter including Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong.
But the group may have struck gold with its latest development - a new exclusive partnership with Sephora USA for distribution throughout one of the world's major cosmeceutical markets.
A selection of 12 core Alpha-H products are now available online at Sephora.com, with three products from the Liquid Gold collection launching into 280 doors across the USA in late March.
To boot, Alpha-H is also currently working on launching into Europe, India and Indonesia with Sephora in the second quarter of this year.
At Business News Australia, we speak with Alpha-H founder Michelle Doherty (pictured above) to find out more about the brand's origins and its potential on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
Q: Take us back to the start of your business journey. What were your own "skin struggles" and when was your lightbulb moment?
A: For me the lightbulb moment came when I was introduced to glycolic acid in the early 90s. I had spent 11 years on prescriptive drugs for my skin, but that didn't seem to be a long-term solution so much as a band aid, and then there was the side effects. I wanted something which would actually change my skin and quickly. I found that in glycolic acid.
You have to have a personal connection to something to believe in it and go out and work your arse off for it. From my personal experience I knew this ingredient was always going to be a game changer in the beauty industry.
Skins really need to be treated individually. The old three-step approach works well enough for those with good skin, but what about when you have a problem? Glycolic acid turned that all on its head.
Q: And how did that lead to the formation of the company? When exactly did it all come together?
A: In 1995 we decided that Australia would be our platform for global expansion and spreading the benefits of Alpha-H and its simplicity. In the beginning I was the sole employee. Today we have more than 60 employees at our headquarters at Helensvale on the Gold Coast alone.
Q: What were the biggest challenges you faced when starting out?
A: A big challenge we faced in the beginning was that we were competing in an overcrowded market against faceless multi-nationals who were both heavily marketed and endorsed.
Being recognised was difficult. But our difference is that our DNA is professional beauty, and that we create our cosmeceutical products specifically to meet the needs of our customers and their skin.
There's a big difference between a company which is purely based around marketing, like many of these multinationals are, and what we do. We knew we were unique in this way, and we just had to keep proving this to our customers with the results we could provide them.
The fact that we are smaller also means we are far more nimble; we can react to the needs of the industry and our customers quickly.
Another challenge for us in the early stages was that people shied away from the word acid in skincare, mostly just because they were uninformed. Interestingly, it wasn't exactly new then though; two doctors named Van Scott and Yu first discovered the efficacy of glycolic acid on the skin way back in the 1970s. Their research showed it could help to normalise skin, and that it contained anti-ageing properties. But that didn't catch on at the time, and we were ahead of the trend when we adopted it in the 90s.
Nowadays acid is commonplace in skincare, but many of them don't work with meaningful percentages which will see real change in the skin. We aren't just another company jumping on the acid trend we believed in it in the early 90s when nobody else did. It was then and will always be an absolute cornerstone of our business.
Q: To achieve that you must have needed a solid amount of R&D. How did you go about getting funding?
A: We have an amazing team which I work with very closely on our R&D and we are always looking for newness where we see potential for growth. As Alpha-H is 100 per cent owned by myself and my husband, we have been lucky enough that we have been able to fund a lot of things ourselves.
Alongside this, as one of Queensland's largest exporters, we have also been very lucky to be able to access some government grants. We work very closely with a team of external experts on how to maximise these.
However, in spite of being 100 per cent privately owned, as anyone who has worked in R&D would know, the paper chase to do this to validate your work and do anything that's a struggle.
Q: How did you choose which product lines to move into when you started expanding your range?
A: When we formulate a new product, it's not just to expand. It's to be relevant and meet a need. We listen to our professional beauty salons as to what they are seeing presenting on the skin, and we also listen to our customers. By listening we are then able to garner insights to guide our new product development and then tailor the sell to meet the market in question.
Moving forward, I truly believe that preventive skincare will continue to be a main focus for us in the future; blue light, SPF and pollution protection.
In the overcrowded market we are in, dynamic brands like ours really have to be accountable, and not just trend based. More accountable both with ingredients and percentages, as well as our actual results. There shouldn't be a compromise for cost.
We are so lucky to have our manufacturing inhouse here in Queensland as we don't have to compromise on the quality, or on the quantity of our active ingredients. We wouldn't be able to be so competitive if we were paying rent and overheads in a larger metropolis.
Q: What was your strategy for securing the right distribution channels?
A: Our partnerships are everything to us. We are very selective about who we partner with, and only choose distribution channels which we can see really understand and fit with our brand.
Over the years, we have built a strong relationship with Sephora in Australia and other markets. We worked very closely with them to come to understand their market.
Their continued support for and belief in our brand, alongside their unique open-sell environment, prestigious product range, unbiased service from experts and interactive shopping environment were some of the biggest reasons we wanted them to be our distribution channel for the US market.
Q: When did you think to yourself "this is REALLY going to work"?
A: I've always believed in this product, but when you get big accounts like Sephora, Bloomingdales, Selfridges etcetera knocking on the door, that takes your breath away a little. I'm always so proud to see our brand in these stores.
Sometimes we get so busy that it's easy to forget to look up and take it all in. We're also not very good at blowing our own trumpet, but I don't think that's a bad thing.
When it is time to reflect though, that's when we really realise and acknowledge how far the brand's come. It makes me enormously proud to think not only about the growth in the brand, but also the impact we have on the community around us.
Q: How important is the latest deal with Sephora USA?
A: This partnership with Sephora USA allows us to share Alpha-H with millions of people who are seeking the very best in beauty. It truly puts us on an unparalleled world-class stage.
We could not be prouder or more excited to be represented by Sephora in this market. It will definitely see growth for us too, as we will go into over 280 doors right across the country, alongside a strong presence on their online store.
Australian beauty is enjoying quite a surge in the skincare realm at the moment. A-Beauty, as it's being called, is being recognised as a world leader thanks to it healthy and often natural angle. I'm really proud that our brand, with its blend of science and nature, has long been right up at the forefront of this trend.
Q: Now that you've scaled up, what are the biggest challenges you face?
A: Logistics, managing our inventory and dealing with ever-fluctuating currencies and exchange rates will be some of the main challenges for us. But it will all be worth it.
Q: Finally, what is your biggest tip for success?
One thing which I like to share with people is this thought; if you don't take the risk, you will always work for someone who did.Never miss a news update, subscribe here. Follow us on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter.
Business News Australia
Get our daily business news
Sign up to our free email news updates.
Help us deliver quality journalism to you.
As a free and independent news site providing daily updates
during a period of unprecedented challenges for businesses everywhere
we call on your support