Bright and sunny late-afternoon skies: these are not typical conditions for the cities of Amsterdam and Stockholm. Yet, this was the setting as I settled down behind my screen with a coffee to talk to Selah, co-founder of Ellure. Indeed, it was so sunny that she and her colleagues at the office had a barbecue in their backyard just the day before.
The Ellure Team
I immediately got an impression of life as a start-up CEO in Stockholm - as the video call connected, Selah can be seen cleaning up around the office. Just as we were settling down, she excused herself to tend to the shipment of lipstick samples for lab testing. It quickly became apparent that she has her elbows deep in every step of the process.
Like most other businesses, Ellure has had to adapt to the COVID-19 crisis. “We wanted to create hype through pop-up stores, but with the pandemic underway we had to change plans. It’s either that, or leaving the business to stagnate. The good thing is that we were born in this crisis - so hygiene is a top priority for us.”
So.. what is Ellure?
Ellure is a start-up working on mass-personalisation technology, with its first product to be launched this October: a personalised liquid lipstick.
For both Selah and Ellure, sustainability is a core part of the mission. After all, 2 million cosmetic products are sold around the world every year, and 80% of them are thrown away largely unused - the average woman buys up to 8 lipsticks a year. “I once interviewed someone who owns over 100 lipsticks!” said Selah, demonstrating the extent of the problem.
In a way, Ellure is a social experiment. Selah sees it as a powerful way of personalisation - or in her own words, a ‘cure for consumerism’ - the hypothesis being that it is possible for us as humans to cultivate responsible consumption behaviours. “A lipstick is a very symbolic item - it is a form of self-expression. But there is no soul in mass-produced lipstick. There is no you. I‘ve always wanted to change something. I’ve always wanted that. I now believe that Ellure is my way of doing this.”
What kind of life journey leads one to that belief?
Growing up in Tianjin, a major port city just outside of Beijing, Selah loved to solve jigsaw puzzles. She would sometimes spend all day on them, to her mother’s amusement. She also loved to listen to audiobooks, seeing them as a cure for daily frustrations. Perhaps this was the beginning of something that would later develop into the entrepreneurial mindset of solving challenges. After all, Selah believes in nurture over nature.
“I often hear from entrepreneurs that it’s difficult to recruit suitable people - but my talents were nurtured. Two of my current employees were models who tested our lipstick and liked the idea so much that they wanted to join our cause. These are the people we look for: those who want to fight with us for and create a future together,” explains Selah.
Selah first studied industrial design at Tongjia University in China. Though this seems a world away from her current pursuits, it is actually what led her down her current path. “Industrial design arose out of the need for mass production, and mass-produced products are built with a limited lifespan - they are destined to become waste. I didn’t like that idea, and that’s why I started thinking about creating value through digital experiences, not just material goods.”
It wasn’t until she did her exchange in Germany that Selah was faced with her first major life decision: to pursue science or art. Initially, she wanted to be a multimedia artist, creating art through robotic dancers. She visited top American universities like Harvard and MIT, but when she won an EIT scholarship, she grabbed the opportunity.
A client at an Ellure pop-up store
How did the Ellure team come together?
During her first year at the University of Twente, Selah met Marc, a young entrepreneur who had been programming apps since he was 13. Selah and Marc were classmates at the EIT Digital Master School programme Human Computer Interaction and Design - later, they became co-founders of Ellure. Jasmin, the other co-founder, met Selah through a user test which sought to measure the perceived experience of Ellure’s personalisation service. Though she arrived as a test user, she was intrigued enough to join the hobby project. When Jasmin confessed that she had had dreams about the customisable lipstick, Selah knew that she had to have her on the team.
“Jasmin is really interested in individuality - so her focus is on inclusion. Mark is our tech genius. For me, it’s all about sustainability. Together we really complement each other,” explains Selah. With support from the KTH Innovation pre-incubator programme and a lab/office space provided by Toolspace, Ellure took off in early 2020.
Marc, Selah and Jasmin
How did Ellure evolve after that?
The journey wasn’t simple. “You make baby steps, you test everything,” says Selah, when asked about the ideation process. “You even test a product you haven’t built - it’s called Wizard of Oz prototyping. The machine itself wasn’t ready but we managed to produce the lipstick manually while making it appear to test users that the whole process happens automatically - they were amazed!”
In mid-2019, after many dreams and nightmares about Ellure, Selah resolved to commit herself to the project. When all her friends left Stockholm to do their internships or write their thesis, Selah stayed, despite disliking the weather. “It’s like when you have a baby, you can’t just leave it, right?” she explains.
With no access to the university’s 3D printer during the summer, she simply Googled ‘how to find an electronics lab’, and found Toolspace, a membership-based prototyping studio that generously offered her office space for a year. “The funny coincidence is that the founders have experience in the paint industry. Paint and lipstick are surprisingly similar, so we benefited a lot from their expertise!” Ingenuity, or pure luck? “For me it’s not about solving a problem. Usually the solution already exists - you just need to find it.”
Working on Ellure's hardware prototype
What drove Selah to be an entrepreneur?
It seems like a passion to ‘change the world’ is what keeps Selah going. “I want to build my own company. I want to decide my own future,” she shares. After all, Ellure is not her first enterprise. She also runs bosonic.design, a studio that develops digital products for companies, and once ran an enterprise to test robots in virtual reality settings. “I even went to conferences and met people from NASA and MIT! They showed interest, but I decided to focus on Ellure instead.”
With all that entrepreneurship experience under her belt, what does Selah wish she had done differently? “I should have been more careful with money. I should have learnt that earlier, because it’s hard to learn it at an older age. Thankfully, Marc and Jasmin taught me about financial prudence - and resisting the temptation to cash in on easy investor money. It’s all about capital efficiency.”
“People often think we’re a cosmetics company, but we’re much more than that. We’re actually more of a tech start-up - we handle software and hardware, and cosmetics happens to be the product. Actually, lipstick is only the first step,” Selah hints slyly, as we wrap up our conversation.
Ellure is the winner of the EIT Digital Alumni Startup Contest 2020!
Ellure is looking for talent! Contact Selah at email@example.com if you share their vision of inclusive and sustainable consumption and production.
Find out more about Ellure.