Helijia (hereon “Beaver”) is a Beijing-based startup that provides on-demand in-home beauty services to Chinese consumers. The Beaver mobile app connects individual consumers with tens of thousands of service providers, enabling the end-to-end process of service exploration, booking, communication, payment, and feedback. The name “Helijia” in Chinese resembles “a good price,” while its literal translation “beaver’s home” hints at the startup’s mission to provide great services by hand, the same way beavers construct their homes.
Beaver started out as a platform for in-home manicure services. The scope over time has expanded to include in-home pedicures, eyelash extensions, facials, massages, haircuts, and more. The business signs up individual service providers directly, such that they – oftentimes women in their 20s and 30s without higher education – can circumvent having to work at a brick-and-mortar location, on a rigid schedule. Instead, these women can work as many or as few hours as they want, and tailor their schedules to fit personal and family needs.
Beaver charges its service providers an approximately 20% (varies by service category) commission from services booked on its platform, and provides them with regular training, certifications, and wholesale access to branded products. The other main revenue stream for Beaver is product sales – nail polish, tools, skincare, and aromatherapy oil – to service providers and end consumers.
Rather than traditional gig workers, service providers on Beaver are – in a way – entrepreneurs with flexible work schedules. They can build and manage their own individual online stores, accumulate detailed customer reviews, and grow from 1-star to 5-star certifications through completing more jobs and training while maintaining high ratings. A higher level certification not only prioritizes the service provider in search results, but also allows her to charge for her services at higher rates. The success of each individual business also relies on the provider’s ability to develop long term client relationships – customers sometimes prepay for future services with the same provider in amounts ranging in US$1,000 – $10,000, in exchange for committed discounts of up to 50%.
Both the customers and service providers seem to acknowledge and appreciate the value of Beaver. When I lived in China between 2016 and 2018, I really enjoyed the convenience and luxury of having nail or spa services at my home or hotel rooms, at a time that worked for me. I also got to know many of my service providers. Most of them seemed happy with the platform, particularly the flexibility it afforded them, and the removal of the profiteering physical store owners from the picture. Being an entrepreneur, however, is not all fun and glory. Many of these service providers have to carry heavy equipment around the city, and spend up to two hours commuting from one customer to the next. And thanks to my work schedule, many of my providers would start the service at 9pm and sometimes finish up past midnight. It was humbling, heartening, and inspiring for me to get to know some providers, in their early 20s with no college degree, making nearly the same amount of money as I did, purely with their hard work and expertise.
It may then come as a mild surprise, that Beaver has been running into many challenges in the last few years. Beaver differentiates from other offline-to-offline platforms (such as Uber) in an important way: the nature of the services provided is highly non-standard, personal, and subjective. This makes the platform both valuable to consumers (I miss it particularly when I’m back in the US, where an equivalent cannot be found), and vulnerable to a host of problems beyond the ones shared by most platforms, such as disintermediation and customer/provider safety.
For example, while customers like myself enjoy exploring different services on the platform, occasionally the service provider surprises us in bad ways. A botched manicure, a disastrous haircut, or a scar on the face from bad facial techniques… These are events that could drive customers away for good.
On the other hand, the services are labor intensive, challenging the platform to efficiently scale up its supply. Beaver’s management has commented that managing a large network of service providers around the country is extremely complex. Despite many measures designed to standardize and improve quality of service, Beaver inevitably has to take some responsibility – financial, reputational, and even legal – for the poor performances or unfortunate accidents on behalf of some providers.
As much as I appreciate the unique value provided by Beaver, it is not going to continue growing at a venture business pace purely off of urban professionals like me, who work long hours and have a special distaste for commuting. Some customers may have time and prefer to not pay a premium for the in-home convenience. Some may prefer the in-store experience, especially on the higher end of the service spectrum. The urban sanctuary vibe at premium spas is not easily recreated at home with a suitcase-ful of products and tools.
Indeed, Beaver has been focusing heavily on the higher ticket size services, as this makes the most economic sense for service providers (remember they often have to block off 2 hours for transportation between jobs), and thus the platform itself. This strategy increasingly drives Beaver into an awkward corner. The battle in the high end space is intense, with both formidable premium physical competitors and extremely picky customers.
As a consumer, I hope Beaver, along with its tens of thousands of young women entrepreneurs, will continue to survive and thrive. But as a heartless VC investor, I would probably say: No, thank you. But call me again when you make manicure robots.