It was on a family trip to New York City in 2016 that siblings Dahlia Nadirah Juhari and Luqman Hakim Juhari discovered affordable pharmacy cosmetics. “We went to the pharmacy almost every single day. We loved the fact that they had good-quality products, which were super-duper affordable and all locally made in the US. I kept thinking, why can’t we have something like this at home — products made in Malaysia that are affordable,” says Dahlia.
At the time, Dahlia was with RHB Bank. She had been working in financial institutions for over nine years and was ready for a change. Jumping head first into building a cosmetics business, she began with lip creams, with quality being her priority. “We took eight months for R&D because there was a specific formulation that we wanted. At the time, Kylie Jenner had launched her product but I found it super drying on my lips. I wanted to create something that was moisturising.”
Luqman was in his final year of engineering studies in university. Dahlia says, “I needed a partner. I knew that I could not do it on my own, but I needed someone who I was comfortable with, who I could talk to about anything. I’m very close to Luqman, so in July 2016, I approached him and he said, ‘Let’s do it’.” Although Luqman only intended to stay for a year to help his sister get started, he has been with the business ever since.
During the R&D phase, the siblings met with different suppliers and chemists and eventually found the right formula and method of production. In October 2016, they launched So.Lek Cosmetics — a name that is uniquely Malaysian and really represents the affection the two have for each other. “I always annoy my sister and when she gets super mad, I say to her, ‘So? Relax lah’, or ‘So? Lek lah’,” laughs Luqman.
It helped that alat solek means make-up in Malay. “I wanted it to be easy to understand and straightforward. Not something hard to pronounce,” adds Dahlia. So.Lek’s logo is inspired by a traditional bottle of celak or eyeliner that belonged to their grandmother.
Early on, one of the siblings’ main challenges was increasing So.Lek’s brand awareness, so they joined many bazaars and pop-ups. “At the bazaars, we got to meet a lot of people and we asked for their feedback,” says Luqman. While their brand is now better known, one of its current hurdles is trying to stand out among the sea of cosmetic brands that have sprouted up. “When we started, there were only about 30 local brands in Malaysia, but now there are almost 700. So, the competition is really, really stiff,” says Dahlia.
What makes So.Lek’s branding unique is its commitment to its Malaysian identity. The brand’s first series of lip creams were called Bunga Gang — which is still available today — and each of the colours are named after Malaysian flowers such as cempaka, merak and anggerik. “It was crazy because we thought these would be normal names. But when we attended bazaars, a lot of people would ask us, ‘What is cempaka?’ It was really surprising but in a good way because it was a great way to break the ice with our customers and we’d show them the flowers and explain why we picked them and all that,” says Dahlia.
Other fun collections include Tari Gang, named after the different dances in Malaysia; Muzik Gang; and Primadona Gang.
While the pair consult each other on all the major decisions, Luqman handles the operations and financial side of the business while Dahlia focuses on marketing, PR and creating products and colours. So.Lek has come a long way — from the siblings staying up until 5am to fulfil orders (when they were a two-person team) and getting orders through WhatsApp and Instagram, to now employing staff and having a website that lists their impressive range of cosmetics, from lip creams to skincare items.
So.Lek currently stocks cosmetics for lips, eyes and nails, as well as skincare products, all of which are sold by agents and stores overseas, including in Canada, London and the Middle East. They are additionally available on Shopee, Lazada, Watsons, Air Asia Beauty and Isetan.
As the siblings had expected 2020 to be a big year for sales — as did most businesses — they had ordered a large amount of stock. When the pandemic hit, they struggled to sell their products. Initially, customers were still keen on purchasing — in the interest of showing their support for local businesses — but now that people are suffering under the never-ending lockdowns, many are more cautious about their spending.
In order to push sales, the brand has had promotions, collaborations and giveaways. As the future remains uncertain, Dahlia and Luqman are working on a new strategy. Instead of replenishing old stock, they intend to create limited collections to ensure less waste and more exclusivity for their products.
The biggest challenge with cosmetics is the expiry date, so they hope to expand their business to include items such as clothing. “I think what makes us stand out is that we promote Malaysia in our own way. We promote Malaysian heritage and tradition and I would like to continue doing that, whether for a clothing line or anything else,” says Dahlia.
This article first appeared on Jul 19, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.