Vineeta Singh, CEO of Sugar Cosmetics, had checked all the right boxes, as it were, by the age of 23. She was an IIT-trained engineer, an IIM MBA and had a very lucrative investment banking offer out of business school. Yet, she walked away from the safe option to start up on her own. Today, she is the CEO of one of India’s fastest growing beauty brands with a multimillion dollar profitable business.
She also developed a passion for running while in business school, and has challenged her limits in some of the biggest and toughest marathons and running challenges in the world.
I had an incredibly engaging discussion with her and learnt about:
How she overcame her fears and turned them into wins
Why a sometimes unconventional approach has helped her company scale faster than several legacy brands have, and
What her hobbies outside of work, and being a mom, have taught her about building resilience and being a better entrepreneur
What gives Vineeta Singh her “hustle fuel”?
Highlights from the conversation
Take the plunge early. Fail fast, learn from your mistakes, and pivot
“At 23, just because I excelled in school, I thought I was invincible. The best way to learn about entrepreneurship is by being one.”
Vineeta candidly confessed to having started her entrepreneurial journey at the age of 23 with supreme self confidence (from having excelled academically), but did so for all the wrong reasons and with incorrect assumptions.
Multiple rejections and a lack of scalability for her first foray as an entrepreneur—a digital-first lingerie brand—taught her several things that her stellar academic journey did not. Such as selling, out-of-the-box thinking, recruiting and building a team and then keeping them motivated.
Armed with these learnings and the insight that younger women with higher disposable incomes than ever before were spending a lot more on beauty and fashion, she started FabBag, a monthly beauty and makeup subscription platform, in 2012. While this company met with more success (Vineeta managed to build a base of 16,000 monthly paying subscribers and a community of 2 lakh women), it was still hard to scale as a profitable business due to the inherent challenges with a subscription-based business in India, and she reached a point where they were down to their last few lakhs.
However, FabBag left Vineeta with a set of incredibly powerful and unique insights about her target customer—that women would relate to beauty products endorsed by other real women (as opposed to a flawless looking celebrity), there was a dire need (hitherto ignored by legacy and international beauty brands) to create more long-lasting products suited to commuting on public transport on India’s polluted roads, and that women craved shades of makeup suited to the warmest and deepest skin tones. In 2015, Vineeta pivoted from FabBag to set up Sugar, a cosmetics brand catering to Indian women. And the rest is history.
Be customer-obsessed. They drive a company’s success way beyond just the bottomline
“Legacy brands thought that the product is a commodity and the Rs 100 crore they spend on marketing is their moat. We turned that around on its head—if you have a hero product, social media and e-commerce will ensure that it gets discovered and reaches millions of consumers without spending on marketing”
Vineeta credits a lot of Sugar’s success to their “product obsession” and evolving their products alongside the customers who use them so that they are in line with global trends but suit the Indian aesthetic.
She also believes that “bringing the education that happens in the store online” has helped Sugar scale through earned and owned media, instead of paid media (which legacy brands typically deploy). The 400 million-plus views on their content every month from their community on YouTube, Instagram and their own app ensure that customers learn from other customers how best to use Sugar products.
Her two golden rules: Never give up and pace yourself for the long haul
“Unlike a lot of investors and entrepreneurs, we are very clear that we are playing a very long game. Our dream is to list the company and run it for the next 20-30 years.”
Vineeta dreads the DNF (Did Not Finish) tag—both in ultra-races and marathons, and in running Sugar. One lesson that she carries over from her passion for running to work is that despite the long hard days, she and the team at Sugar persist and do not give up.
The other transferable lesson is that Vineeta has learnt to pace herself to ensure she is in it for the long haul. She unapologetically balances her work with her family life. In fact, she was pregnant with her first child when she pivoted from Fab Bag to Sugar.
(Hustle Fuel represents my own personal views. I am speaking for myself and not on behalf of my employer, Microsoft Corporation.)
About the Hustle Fuel series: Hustle Fuel, a Founding Fuel series, looks at the world of work and entrepreneurship from a woman’s lens. Building a company or a meaningful career is brutal, and role models for a path less trodden are always invaluable. The Hustle Fuel series is relevant especially for women—but not just for women.
Thriving in the evolving workforce demands ‘hustle fuel’. It demands having to punch above one’s weight to earn a seat at the table—not because you are a woman but because you are the right person for the job. Interestingly, it just so happens that this hustle fuel is precisely the attitude any entrepreneur needs to survive. Whether a man, woman, or from an ethnic minority community.