An age-old problem for consumers and the beauty industry is the lack of products being created that match the variety and depth of skin tones and complexions that exist.
In 2012, after years of research and testing Asmau Ahmed, a trained-engineer launched Plum Perfect, a mobile and web-based application that operates as the ultimate personal shopper; picking out beauty products that are a perfect match for you every single time.
Ahmed wasn’t the only one that noticed this void. A few months after she launched Plum Perfect, Pantone launched their 110-shade SkinTone guide and partnered with Sephora on a foundation matching system, further underscoring the need for this type of technology on the market.
I recently caught up with Ahmed to get the inside scoop on Plum Perfect and to learn more about the company’s expansion beyond beauty products into the fashion and home categories.
Hashtags + Stilettos: How would you describe Plum Perfect to someone who has never heard of it before?
Asmau Ahmed: Ultimately, Plum Perfect is designed to increase the excitement and customization of [shopping for beauty products]. We personalize the shopping experience online and in-store, by guaranteeing the right color match for every unique woman. Our application allows for any user to customize her matched colors by price, product type, color, brand or look (ie. natural, glam, wear to work).
You can take a photo of your face and Plum Perfect will instantly determine your unique color signature and search across products and retailers to present you with the perfect makeup finds.
[We will also] launch our fashion application that will use the same technology to read the color of a dress and recommend the perfect purse to accessorize. The launch of fashion will be essential to both men and women – no more guessing which tie will work with that shirt!
H+S: When did you launch Plum Perfect?
AA: May 2012. But, I’ve spent many years building the technology, filing patents etc. Since our launch, we’ve experienced 350 percent growth in new users and 150 percent growth in returning visitors.
H+S: How many employees do you have?
AA: Plum Perfect employs a small team of experts including product, mobile, engineering, and marketing.
H+S: How many retailers/brands have signed up for this platform?
AA: Over 20 top brands and retailers are part of the Plum Perfect network. We expect this technology to be an online game changer for our preferred retail partners, with reach into beauty, fashion, and home décor.
H+S: How long did it take you to convince your first retail/brand partner to sign up? Was it an easy or hard sell?
AA: Once I figured out the key was to show a demo of what we’ve built and its capabilities – it was an easy sell. We have a number of different ways that we can partner with brands and retailers. One exciting new initiative is Beauty Sampling 2.0. where we use technology and each person’s unique color signature to recommend colors and products that she will love AND use. [Hashtags + Stilettos readers] can register at PlumPerfect.com to be notified when this program goes live!
H+S: What was the inspiration behind the app?
AA: Before Plum Perfect, shopping online had its limitations, [but we’ve] completely taken the guesswork out; giving women the peace of mind that the color they choose will work perfectly with their hair, eyes, and skin.
H+S: You have a chemical engineering background. Can you talk a little bit about this and how it has helped you in your current role at Plum Perfect?
AA: My engineering background was instrumental to Plum Perfect. I saw a gap in the market and knew it was addressable with technology. I begin utilizing my background and expertise to build and test, and the rest is history.
H+S: You’ve also worked in consulting and did a brief stint in finance. What lessons did you learn in those roles that you can apply to the work you’re doing now?
AA: As a founder of a start-up, I had to be everything from HR, CEO, Engineer, Recruiter, Sales, Marketing, Finance, Fundraiser. A consulting and finance career was a great platform to get my feet wet. I worked with clients in various industries and developed strategy and implementation plans to solve a wide range of issues, some of which I am using to run my company.
H+S: Before launching Plum Perfect, did you have any technology or beauty industry experience? If yes, to what extent?
AA: Technology – yes, as an engineer for many years. Beauty, yes – as an avid beauty and fashion enthusiast, but I was not an industry insider. That makes it all the more exciting.
H+S: What was the biggest obstacle you faced when it came to launching Plum Perfect?
AA: It changes with time. First, it was the technology, then the patents, then the fundraising, then building a team, then customer acquisition.
H+S: Speaking of fundraising. Did you raise money to launch Plum Perfect?
AA: Yes, Friends and Family, and then venture capital.
H+S: What advice would you give someone who was interested in following in your footsteps?
AA: Make up your mind you are going to do it and then develop a plan. Do not do it in a silo, build a community of supporters, and mentors. And don’t be afraid to take chances – fail fast and succeed faster.
H+S: Do you have any mentors? If so, what impact have they had on your career?
AA: I have mentors and advocates. They tell me the real deal – the good, bad, and ugly. They open doors and provide opportunities, and I keep our relationship strong by delivering on those opportunities.
H+S: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
AA: This is a tough one! I will say it’s letting my accomplishments precede me. This cuts down on the selling process and motivates me to continue accomplishing.
H+S: You received your MBA from Columbia Business School. What impact has the degree had on your career? Would you advise other women to pursue an MBA degree?
AA: I was an Engineer – thought, walked, and spoke as an engr. My MBA, Columbia Business School and New York City all expanded my engineering vision to a real world application with possibilities.
I think the decision to pursue an MBA is a personal one. I think the best value is the network that you build. It’s certainly served me very well.
H+S: Who/what inspires you?
AA: My parents. My dad was an engineer and entrepreneur and has been my role model for a long time.
H+S: I read somewhere that you eventually want to expand Plum Perfect to include fashion and home décor. Have you gotten that far yet? Why are these verticals next on your list?
AA: We are very close. For me, and thousands of men and women out there, the fashion app will be a great relief to have. I’ve actually been using it for a while now and cannot wait to share it.
Imagine walking down 5th avenue, falling in love with a top, purchasing it – getting home and finding nothing to wear with it? With our app, you can take a photo and instantly locate and purchase a match online. It’ll be that simple.
H+S: Earlier this year, Pantone released a comprehensive skin tone guide. Do you think this further validates the market need for a company like Plum Perfect?
AA: Absolutely. The problem we are solving is an old one and recent technology has enabled a solution. Our communities are also becoming more diverse. The beauty industry is forced to expand its selection in order to cater to the changing demographics. It’s also impossible for any brand to cater to everyone. That’s where we come in. We advocate for the shopper and find her the products and brands that work for her.
H+S: What need(s) do you see Plum Perfect fulfilling five years from now?
AA: We are in both growth and expansion mode – we’ll be looking to have long-term and evolving partnerships and will continue to develop our service to surprise and delight our users.
A version of this interview originally appeared on MadameNoire.com.