There are inauspicious times to launch a business and then there are disastrous ones. Alexia Inge chose the latter. It was 2008 and the global financial crisis was in full swing. In February, Northern Rock was nationalized. In September, Lehman Brothers collapsed. And in June, Inge and her business partner, Jessica DeLuca, launched Cult Beauty, a Web site selling beauty products that nobody had ever heard of, to a world that had better things to think about and customers who had no money to spend. It should have sunk without trace, and it very nearly did. They recently sold it for $378 million. It all began with a chance encounter and a long lunch.
It was just before Christmas in 2006. Inge was 29 and working in PR. Tasked with drumming up publicity for a private members’ club in Covent Garden, she invited a journalist to lunch. The contact bailed, but sent along someone else, a young woman who was sharing her office. It was DeLuca. The pair bonded over their shared obsession with beauty products: the brands, the packaging, the serums, masks, oils and potions that filled their bathrooms. DeLuca was a management consultant and former investment bank analyst, who was fed up with being sold expensive products that didn’t work. Inge was fed up with the myths, misinformation and overselling in the beauty industry, which she’d seen from the inside. She’d been a successful model in her early twenties and watched makeup artists working their magic on her. She pored over their kits, asking them what they really used and rated, as opposed to what they said they used, which was often very different and intended to please the big, influential beauty brands.
“They weren’t so much using the stuff you read about,” she says, now aged 44, sitting in her vast kitchen/dining/living space at home in London, where she lives with her husband, the architect Pravin Muthiah, and their two-year-old daughter, Uma. “They were using these exciting underground products and stuff from Japan whose labels you couldn’t read. I’d ask about something and they’d say, ‘Oh, it’s Lucas’ Papaw Ointment, but you can only get it in Australia.’”
At the time, e-commerce was in its infancy. Beauty Web sites, she says, mainly sold off old stock at knockdown prices and the beauty industry was built around bricks and mortar. Space NK first opened its doors in Covent Garden in 1993, selling emerging brands, but most women still got their products from department stores and the big brands that filled them. That worked well for the shops and brands, Inge and DeLuca thought, but not so much for the customer. Over another lunch, DeLuca fleshed out her idea for a filtered e-commerce site that sold only the good stuff. No pushy sales assistants with targets to meet, lots of information about the product if you wanted it, written by beauty obsessives who’d actually tried it. Did Inge want to join her? Broadly speaking, DeLuca started off dealing with the tech and Inge’s role was brand strategy and media relations.
“I wanted to disrupt the industry,” says Inge. “I wanted to change the experience into something that was less transactional and more like a sweet shop.”
Some people find real joy in beauty products, but there are plenty who think it’s snake oil and packaging and that, Inge says, is why trust in a site like hers is key.
“There’s a lot of snake oil and packaging. I have to admit I’m quite swayed by beautiful design, but the product has to work.” She reckons that only about 10 percent of the products they trial make it onto the site. The other 90 percent might be perfectly OK, “but where’s the special bit? What’s the thing that makes it cult?”
Brought up in Somerset with her sister, Olivia, she went to Wells Cathedral School and studied fashion design at City of Westminster College in London. Her parents were journalists, who later set up a PR and advertising business from home. She was 22 and working as a model when she was involved in a road accident in Somerset, a passenger in a car that was hit head-on by a speeding vehicle on a blind bend. She fractured her sternum and back and spent four months in a cast, living at home with her parents. It took her a year to recover fully and it was the end of her modeling career.
“I wanted to change the experience into something that was less transactional and more like a sweet shop.”
“Not just because of the cast,” she says wryly, “but because of the home-cooked food. The cast got tighter and tighter and by the end I could barely take a full breath.”
The insurance company paid out $62,000 compensation and it was this that formed her share of the $96,000 initial investment.
“Maybe if I hadn’t had a near-death experience I would have looked at things differently. I think it makes you a bit more up for grabbing opportunities. And I was utterly convinced that this was going to work.”
They set up an office in DeLuca’s spare room. Inge got together a panel of experts, including cosmetic scientists, dermatologists, the makeup artist Mary Greenwell and hairdresser Charles Worthington, and asked them what products they rated. They liked the idea of disrupting the industry, she says, and they were flattered to be asked because, at the time, no one was asking beauty experts what they used; they were asking celebrities. Some even helped to persuade brands to work with this new Web site no one had heard of.
They called it Cult Beauty, because they thought it encapsulated the secret hero products they wanted to sell. Alas, all their emails went straight to junk, defeated at first by Gmail filters and Google firewalls because of the word “cult”. Received wisdom was that brands wouldn’t work with them, because they wouldn’t like the payment system or the cherry-picking, and indeed they didn’t. Customers didn’t want indie brands, they were told, and wouldn’t read more than 100 words of copy. And even if it all went right, they’d never be able to scale it up. “You’ll always be this little indie outlet,” they were told. “Cute, but we don’t want to invest.”
So they scraped together investments from friends and family. At one point, in 2010, they had two weeks’ money left. They were saved by a chance encounter at a lunch, which led to meeting a City trader in a pub with money to invest. For two years they spent all day and much of the night, seven days a week, trying to make it work. They’d get a handful of lipsticks from a brand on a sale or return basis and take only a small commission to prove the concept could work. The makers of one of their earliest brands, Lucas’ Papaw Ointment, refused to sell internationally, so they bought retail stock from an Australian chemist and made a profit from the exchange rate. As a way to run a business it was, she says, “very, very scrappy. It took two years for us to be able to pay ourselves and we were so close, on so many occasions, to going under. When we first paid ourselves £500 [$670] a month, it felt like the best £500 I have ever earned.”
She hounded beauty journalists until they agreed to give her the tiny amount of space on the page reserved for independent brands and embraced the bloggers who were emerging on social media, at a time when everyone else looked down on them. “I’d send them samples and say, ‘Can you send it back, because I’ve only got one. And don’t use it all up because I need to send it to someone else.’ ”
It was an inspired move, as their followers became early Cult customers. Ultimately, Inge thinks that a haphazard approach based on passion is precisely why they succeeded. “It’s important for ecommerce not to be 100 percent data-led, because then you’re like everyone else, following the data. Sometimes you need to do something that’s a bit off-key.”
The pandemic has “lent rocket fuel” to the business. Sales of bath products went up by 527 percent, and hair masks and dye boomed. Swathes of women in their sixties and seventies became new customers, along with those in their late teens and early twenties, for whom shopping in malls with their mates was no longer an option. People aged 25 to 35 are Cult Beauty’s biggest traffic, she says, but it’s the 35 to 45-year-olds who spend the money.
DeLuca became a non-executive director and moved to America in 2014. Inge is still involved day to day and will carry on going into the office four days a week, although her role is still being worked out. So why the sale? Partly it’s timing, partly it’s because the right suitor came along, but partly it was money.
“Our shareholders were a bit, like, ‘We never really expected it to be this good, but actually we could really do with a return.’ Including my parents.”
The deal has netted her 13 percent of Cult Beauty’s $378 million price: almost $50 million. She takes wry satisfaction from the (male) financier who messed them around in 2010 and eventually said he’d invest, but he wanted 45 percent of the company. “I said no, quite rudely, and put the phone down. Now, I’d really like to say that Pretty Woman thing to him. ‘Big mistake. HUGE.’ ”
The sale created 24 new millionaires, 17 of whom are Cult Beauty employees. Four people who invested $8,200 each right at the very beginning have just banked $1.3 million. Inge’s share has recently cleared into her account, which was a learning curve in itself.
“You have to get a different bank account. Your normal First Direct, NatWest account can’t do it. You have to find a special bank.”
Some kind of special bank for oligarchs?
“Yeah! Otherwise it’s not insured. Normal bank accounts are only insured up to $110,000. If something went wrong, that would be a little bit depressing.”
The family house is in an affluent but unshowy area of southwest London. They’ve talked about buying somewhere in France, but she doesn’t want to do anything rash or start flashing the cash. “I still can’t quite get my head round it, because it’s such an alien concept. We’ve built something completely from scratch, which has sold for an amount of money that I can’t even conceive. I mean, what does that look like in a room, in tenners?”
What really makes her eyes light up, though, isn’t talking about money, but products. She’s trialing a new brand.
“It’s called Saint Jane and they do this vitamin C serum and the face oil is amazing. And do you know Therapie’s Cherish body serum? No? It’s an oil you can use for pretty much everything, and it has the most heavenly smell, sandalwood, rose, geranium. And Virtue! They do a conditioner that changed my hair…”
Hilary Rose is a longtime columnist for The Times of London, and the author of the weekly column How to Get Dressed