How Susie Ma used her appearance on The Apprentice as a catalyst to become one of the UK’s most successful young female entrepreneurs
But things nearly turned out so very differently. Despite being a naturally gifted entrepreneur, Susie turned her back on her business in 2011 to pursue her ‘dream job’. An opportunity to work in banking had sucked her in, but didn’t live up to her expectations. If it hadn’t been for a life-changing split-second decision to skip work to attend a second interview for ‘The Apprentice’, she’d probably still be a banker to this day – and a miserable one at that.
Speaking of life-changing decisions… Susie’s mother chose to leave Australia and move to London with her then 13-year-old daughter in 2004. A change in family circumstances was the cause, and life rapidly became tough. “I quickly realised that mum and I were struggling for cash,” says Susie. “Mum worked at Greenwich Market selling toys, but it wasn’t enough.”
While Susie watched her mum grafting, she absorbed the captivating atmosphere of Greenwich Market. It planted a fertile seed. “I saw the stall holders and realised that you didn’t need tons of cash or experience to make a go of it. You just needed grit and the right mind set. That made me think that I might be able to help mum by bringing in some extra cash.”
Back in Cairns, Susie had made body scrub to a family recipe. She decided to replicate it and sell it on the East London market. “It was a simple recipe,” says Susie – “sea salts with natural Aussie oils like macadamia, jojoba, eucalyptus and lemon myrtle.”
Aged 15, she borrowed £200 from her mum, bought 50 jam jars and sought out her ingredients. Next, she visited her local GP to cadge a box of tongue depressors, which she planned to use to apply her tester jar to the hands of any interested customers. She grabbed paper towels from school, found some water bottles and bought a large bucket for the wastewater. She designed a Tropic logo on a PC, printed the labels on the school printer and stuck them onto her jars with Pritt Stick. Then, one weekend in the summer holidays, she took her 50 jars to Greenwich Market and tried to sell them for £20 a pop. “I thought, go big or go home! My sales pitch was ‘would you like a free hand treatment with some homemade body scrub?’” she says.
Incredibly, she sold out, earning £980 in a weekend – £1,000 minus her tester jar. “I felt amazing,” she recalls. “My pockets were bulging with cash and we could pay all our bills and rent for a month.” Susie had uncovered a natural talent for selling; not to mention a great product, aged just 15.
Susie’s and her mum’s lives changed from that moment. Every weekend – more often during the holidays – she took her body scrub to market. “I was averaging £500-£700 of sales a day on summer weekends,” she says. “Every evening I did my homework and then we made the products; I employed my friends and sometimes their mums too to help me as I expanded to sell at Spitalfields and Camden markets.”
Extraordinarily, the money she earned between the ages of 15 and 21 was enough to buy her mum a house, purchase her first London investment property and fund her way through university. “It goes to show anything can happen,” she says. “But don’t imagine it was easy! Working on a market stall is tough; especially in winter.”
Despite Susie’s amazing entrepreneurial success, it had been drilled into her that a traditional career was the best path to take, and her school advised her to target a job in the financial sector. “My career teacher told me: ‘Get good grades, good A-levels, go to a good university, study economics and apply for an internship at top bank.’ So that’s what I did.”
So it was then that a 21-year-old Susie found herself working as an intern at an investment bank, having closed Tropic Skincare a few months earlier to focus on her final year of university. Trouble was, she was miserable. “I hated that internship,” she says. “Each Tuesday, the interns would have to get the sandwiches in for the office, and I had to collate a table of everyone’s order. I remember thinking ‘what am I doing?’ I’d followed a career for the money and I realised that’s absolutely the worst reason to go into any job.”
In passing, a friend suggested that she should apply for The Apprentice to try to win £250,000 to restart her business. Susie filled in the online form. She swiftly received a phone call and was invited in for a first interview. Then she was then called back for a second. “It was crunch time,” she says. “I got to my desk one morning and thought: I’ve got my second Apprentice interview at noon today, but I’ve also got important deadlines to meet. If I go for the interview, I risk not getting a job at end of this internship.” At the last minute, a friend convinced her to go for it. And despite being 30 minutes late for her second interview, she was selected.
In retrospect, her decision to actually attend the interview was the most crucial thing here. By making that decision, she prioritised her entrepreneurial career ahead of her banking career. And doing that has been the making of her. “I was devastated when I was fired in The Apprentice final,” says Susie. “But during the process I found out a lot about myself. I realised how passionate I was about business.”
So, she stopped pursuing a career in finance and restarted Tropic Skincare in 2011 with renewed vigour. During the eight-month lag between the filming and airing of The Apprentice, Susie invested the money she’d earned during her City internship into re-energising her business. By the time the show aired, she was entirely focused on Tropic.
Lord Sugar wandered up to Susie after her appearance on Apprentice spin-off programme, You’re Hired. She recalls: “He said: ‘Susan, come to my office, bring your products and pitch your business to me, tell me what you’ve got.’” She did, and Lord Sugar ended up taking a 50% stake in Tropic Skincare for £200k. “I should have asked for more, but I was young and I undersold my business, probably because I’d finished runner-up and not winner. Lord Sugar got a great deal!”
He did indeed. And from that moment on – it was December 2011 – Susie, supported by her loyal team and by Lord Sugar himself, has turned Tropic Skincare into one of Britain’s fastest-growing companies. Five years ago, it employed five people, including the founder. This year, Tropic Skincare employs 160 people and is on track for a turnover of £35m (up from £22m in 2017).
Susie now has a factory instead of mixing bowls and jam jars, and 10,000 ambassadors selling Tropic products instead of a market stall in Greenwich. What remains the same, however, is her extraordinary drive, positivity and determination. Those assets allowed a 15-year-old girl to transform her and her mother’s lives. And, today they are bringing success to everyone associated with Tropic Skincare. Little wonder then that Susie Ma is becoming one of Britain’s most inspirational entrepreneurial role models.