What This Cult Beauty Insider Has Learned From 10 Years At The Top

Alexia Inge has seen the beauty industry change wildly in the 10 years since she cofounded Cult Beauty. Now, it's hard to imagine that a decade ago brands were sceptical about stocking with online retailers, or that consumers only bought products their mothers had been using for years. Nearly every element of the way we discover, research, buy and experiment with beauty has changed.
Cult Beauty was born out of the frustration of being sold overpriced and underperforming products. Alexia and her business partner Jess DeLuca decided to change all that – and put beauty fanatics front and centre – by building a site that not only selected the best brands and products out there, but created a buzz around emerging brands from around the world. If there's a serum, eyeshadow palette, or cleanser you're dying to get your hands on, we'll bet Cult Beauty is the first to stock it.
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With easy-to-navigate features, like the 'Top 10' of everything from foundation to vegan products, and a 'Trends' section which allows you to explore the latest beauty movements – think cannabis and farm-to-face products – the site has become an indispensable mecca for beauty novices and junkies alike.
Last year it ranked number seven in Fast Track 100's fastest-growing businesses, and this year it celebrates its 10th birthday. To celebrate, we chatted all things beauty with Alexia, from why the internet has allowed women to take the lead in startup brands, to the last five products she used up.
Tell me how Cult Beauty first came about...
I was working in PR, formerly a journalist, and I met Jess DeLuca quite randomly at a lunch. We got on really well; no one else would have been able to get a word in. It was just ideas, things that annoyed us, websites we'd been interested in. Jess was working as a management consultant, putting together databases for investment banks. She was a beauty obsessive and had a very decent amount of disposable income to spend on products. She would go into stores and say, "I don't care how much it costs, I just really want it to work." She found that she was being constantly oversold on products that had average delivery.
We agreed at that lunch to go home and tot up all of the beauty products that we hadn't used in the last three months, that were sitting gathering dust in our bathrooms. It came to about £900 worth of stuff; Jess's was worse. It was such a huge waste, and sure, we're probably a little more obsessive than your average woman, but there must be people that have more – I tell people now to do the same thing, to count it all up. If you haven’t touched it in three months, it shouldn’t be part of your beauty wardrobe.
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I'd also been working on advertising shoots and saw a real disconnect between what the consumer was told was being used to create these looks, and what was actually being used – it felt so disingenuous but it was so accepted in the industry. This hope-in-a-jar, really old school, slightly patronising way of talking to women that had become the norm really made me bristle.
Jess contacted me about a month later, saying she had a basic idea. She told me about the concept of an expert-filtered site. I loved it. I wasn't massively happy at my job and jumped into unemployment in January 2008 and then we launched the site in June 2008. Jess knew databases and a level of tech understanding to be able to project manage building the website from scratch, and because I was previously a journalist, I wrote all the copy. Then she took on the finance side, and I took the customer service.
What were the very first brands you had on site?
Alpha-H, Beauty Blender, Omorovicza. We were very skincare-focused; the makeup came in more and more over time – now it's leapfrogged over skincare. Molecule 01 was the first brand we bought. We were working in a basement flat, and there was an awesome couple living above it. One of them was the manager of a store on Conduit Street. Around 6.30 one evening we heard a huge bang on the door. He rushes in saying, "I've got this amazing product – you have to have it." He said that Naomi Campbell had come into the store smelling amazing. He asked her what she was wearing, and she said very coolly: "I don't know. Somebody gave it to me, I think it's called Molecule 01." We looked it up but couldn't find it anywhere. We found a number, called it and got Jeff, the founder. We said, "Can we buy this product from you?" He just paused and was like, "How the fuck do you know about us?"
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That is amazing...
It was our top seller for ages, and that was before all of the restrictions on shipping, so we shipped it all over the world. It was our bread and butter while we built the brand.
What was the reaction from people like in the very beginning?
At the time, different bits of press brought in a completely new customer, and we were still at the stage where every order came through as an email into our main inbox. It was so exciting. What was fascinating was seeing the consumer habits. When we were in The Daily Mail we found that people only bought the thing they saw featured in the paper. When we were in The Times, they would really shop around. People were much more cautious about spending their money online back then, particularly on beauty. None of the department stores had a transactional site so we were really the first to do it.
One of the things that Jess said when we were pulling together the designs was, "I want the design of the site to be something that if you were working in a bank and your boss walked behind you, it doesn't flag that you aren’t working." It’s so funny, we had a few fights with the designers right at the beginning. The men we were working with came back with these grotesque ideas of what the site should look like – bubblegum pink and bubble writing – and in the end we just fired them all and designed our own. I think a huge learning in the first two years was having the courage with your intuition when everyone around you is saying no.
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How did the expert filter work on the site?
In the six months leading up to launching Cult Beauty we built the panel by emailing 30 industry experts saying, "Recommend your top 10 products of all time, and you're not allowed to recommend anything you're financially tied to." We produced a list of around 200 products and started approaching the brands – rather naively! French brands have always been the most resistant to Cult Beauty because the non-bricks-and-mortar model is a struggle for them. We started getting the brands on site, and that’s where it all began!
How has Cult Beauty changed in the 10 years since you first started?
I think we turned over about £72,000 in the first year. In 2015 there was one day around Christmas where we did that in a day – it felt like such a milestone. No change in ethos at all – over my dead body. I think that's actually been our strength, because it's been really tempting to bring on brands that we know would be a quick fix in terms of revenue. We've spent 10 years building up our customers' trust and it takes a second for that trust to be broken – a wrong word, a bad social post... From the beginning we always said we wanted to be the most trusted beauty website in the world, and the rest has followed.
Back in the day, women bought only what their mum bought, and used one brand for life. Do you think we’ve completely left that behind?
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I think that people find core products and use them for 10 years before needing a switch-up, particularly for skincare. Makeup is much more like sweets at the till. I think once people find their coverage, they stick to it. They might dial it up or down with things like highlighters and concealers, but they stay loyal to their foundation. It’s much easier to describe and sell hair products online. Complexion is much harder to promote, but the re-buy is huge. I would say that is probably one of the original ways of buying things. People really like moisturisers and cleansers and serums go through phases of being popular. The thing that has changed the most is people’s education – the rise of the 'skintellectual'.
How do you think the industry has changed most significantly in the past decade?
Well, the way we consume brands and content has changed. Look at the rise of the independents; there used to be a trust in a big brand, but there have been too many corporate fuckups so millennials and Gen Z-ers won’t blindly trust, they now do a huge amount of research. We feel a little dehumanised as consumers, so there’s something about independent brands, with a real founder that you can see and feel, who is standing up and taking responsibility for a company. If you got a bad reaction you know you could ultimately get a hold of them if you tried hard enough and say, "You little fucker, you made my skin melt off!" The internet is like a village. If Bob the butcher sells somebody a bit of rotten meat, that gets around really quickly and Bob the butcher soon goes out of business. The internet is doing the exact same thing – we crave that community.
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Also, the barrier to entry is much lower now than it used to be, previously you had to have a lot of money to start something up, and it stopped women from getting into beauty as brand founders. As one of two women who started a digital business, if it wasn't for the internet I don't think we would have had the courage to do this. If we'd had to raise the funds to rent a shop unit, it would be a totally different story.
Talking of bricks-and-mortar stores, is that on the horizon for Cult Beauty?
No... I have some ideas for a different kind of physical presence, which could be quite fun, but we've got customers all over the country and all over the world – 50% of our sales come from abroad.
Which brands have you found yourself restocking on the site time and time again?
Huda Beauty, Charlotte Tilbury, Becca... Alpha-H has been a killer from the beginning, and we were the first to sell Tata Harper. We had Anastasia Beverly Hills for about six months before brows became big, but that's one of the things we do best: brand incubation.
You also bought into the natural beauty movement before most, too...
It’s the same with K-beauty. We’ve bought products over from different continents, too, and they’ve sold out immediately.
Waitlists add to the exclusivity of a product, but with Cult Beauty there really feels like a democracy at play, like beauty is for everyone.
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For sure – it’s about information, not access. The waitlist function on the site is there because we wanted products to feel like a Hermès bag. It was the Birkin that inspired us. You can feel like you're part of the cult, you're part of the club, you're getting that kind of insider information. Some of the brand founders have a lab in their back and they are literally making it, piece by piece. So when want for it goes wild, we're not trying to manipulate the market, it’s that the founder literally can't stir fast enough.
So what happens if you really believe in a brand or product but the reviews on site are overwhelmingly negative?
If we see that a product is getting a range of bad reviews, we actually will do a retest of it and double check that we haven't fucked up. Every now and then I get Cult Beauty staff to review on site [these reviews are marked as CB Staff]. We get things like, "We don't really like this mascara," so we’ll reassess and remove it if we agree it’s not actually very good.
And finally, what are the last five products you finished that we should be using?
Benefit BadGal Bang Mascara. I was never much of a fan of the original BadGal –I know, blasphemy! This mascara, however, does to one’s lashes what doughnuts do to one’s butt, and it’s about as budge-proof too. Summer Fridays' Jet Lag Mask works instantly after the first use to plump and moisturise my really dry skin. I always make sure I have a back-up of Allies of Skin Saviour Mist as I credit this probiotic/colloidal silver mist with ensuring my skin stays clear through the stormy hormone moments of the month. I’ve eked every last drop of Tata Harper Illuminating Eye Crème, which is rare for me, but this one works like a Klingon cloaking device for dark circles and bags. I’m not sure what it is about eye creams, but I’ve never been hugely faithful to them before. Finally, Ouai Wave Spray. When I had my hair cut into a bob I was shocked at how much more work it is to make it look good in the mornings. This brings out my inner Blondie in a few minutes.
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