The Interview: indu Co-founder Aaron Chatterley on his innovative skincare and make-up brand for teens
Aaron Chatterley is back with a new venture, indu, an innovative skincare and make-up brand designed for, and by, teens. Chatterley is one of beauty's best known entrepreneurs, having blazed a trail in online beauty retail with Feelunique, which was sold to Sephora in 2021 and used as the LVMH-owned brand's relaunch pad for the UK market.
Having pulled of a dream deal, Chatterley intended to take some time out to surf and plot his next move, however following a conversation with his teenage daughters about which beauty brands they favoured (there were none), he tapped his vast industry network and began working on his new project. He persuaded his Feelunique co-founder Richard Schiessl to join him, along with leading beauty executive Reena Hammer.
A raft of contacts, experts and advisers were called on to help develop the brand, along with (crucially) a panel of teens, and Indu was unveiled in September, with the colour cosmetics officially launched at a London pop-up two weeks ago.
Indu is specifically formulated for teen skin and teen lifestyles with a tight edit of skincare, colourless cosmetics (such as the hit One and Only pH Glow Oil for skin and lips) and colour cosmetics. Skincare is packaged in brightly coloured refillable vessels while colour and colourless cosmetics can be housed in an innovative buildable palette system to enable teens to create a personalised regime. Lip oils, a face blurrer and a brow gel can be hung from the palette like charms while pods of tints, bronzers and eyeshadows can he housed inside. Prices range from £4 for a mirror pod to £20 for a refillable moisturiser (refills are £12).
Chatterley talks us through the inspiration and team behind the brand, how it was developed, the reception it's received so far and what it's like being back in start-up mode.
First of all, belated congratulations on selling Feelunique to Sephora, how did you feel after pulling off that deal and did you start plotting your next move straight away?
Thank you - well, first of all after 17 years it was a great relief! We had been through a few processes along the way. Firstly when we sold half of the company to private equity in December 2012 and again in 2018 when we had a failed sales process, so to finally exit to the dream buyer in LVMH/Sephora in 2021 was incredible and also the perfect home for the company. I didn’t start plotting a next move at all to be honest as I stayed on with Sephora for a year, then my initial plan was to take some time out and go surfing! But then this idea came along...
What sparked the idea for Indu? It does seem like there was a glaring gap and no one else thought to fill it!
As tempting as it is to claim all the credit, the reality is that the idea really came from my teen daughters, Frankie and India. In mid 2021, when we knew the Sephora acquisition was agreed, but not yet completed I was having a conversation with them about how the Fashion industry does such a great job at building brands that are very teen-centric. Brands like Subdued, Brandy Melville etc that hit the mark dead-centre in creating products that appeal to teens but are also acceptable to parents – not an easy challenge. And as a retailer ourselves recruiting teens was always high on the agenda. Unexpectedly it's all about community and speaking to them in the channels they play in, Tiktok Snapchat etc.
I asked them then what teen beauty brands they would draw a comparison to and the answer was that there weren’t really that had that same cool caché as the fashion brands and none that covered the full spectrum of skincare and makeup. When we then dug into what they were buying instead the reality hit home that they are having to buy brands aimed at a much more mature audience, both in terms of the formulations, i.e. not designed specifically for teen skin and often marketed in a way that is often overly sexualised. The idea then evolved that we should create a dedicated brand to cater directly to this audience, but to create it with teens at the core of everything we do.
It’s a team effort, isn’t it? Can you please tell us about the team behind it?
Yes, it really is! Later that day after that first conversation with my daughters and the belief in the idea started to take hold, I reached out to about 20 or so experienced and well-respected people I knew in the beauty industry across brands, retail, marketing and media and solicited their view on the basic idea. Nobody thought I was crazy and several said if we did it they’d be interested in getting involved in some capacity either as investors or advisors. I then reached out to my long-term business partner and co-founder in Feelunique, Richard Schiessl and told him I had (another) mad idea and would he like to get involved, luckily he loved it too.
The first thing we then did was to recruit an advisory board so targeted experts in make-up, skincare, brand, media, community, sampling, retail and e-commerce and managed to persuade an A-list of advisors to join us including Chris Good (Estee Lauder), Nick Beighton (ex-ASOS CEO, now Matches CEO), Sarah Miles (ex-GM Sephora UK), Ian Marshall and Gail Bojarski (Benefit), Noella Gabriel (Elemis) and others. Concurrently, we had a list of four candidates we felt would be the right fit for the CEO role and fortunately our number one choice, Reena Hammer, joined us early on as the third co-founder. Once we’d raised the funding and got things moving we then recruited a fantastic team including Heads of Community, Product Development and Marketing and a Chief of Staff.
You also canvassed the opinions of many of your target audience, what were they main messages they gave you?
We were very lucky in the early days in that I was still employed by Sephora who were kind enough to both sign off my non-compete but also gave us access to their team in San Francisco for advice and input. In my very first meeting with [Sephora Global Chief Merchandising Officer] Artemis Patrick when I pitched the idea she gave me one piece of advice that really hit home and ultimately became the cornerstone of the business. She said the idea was great and having fantastic product needs to be a given, but critically if it is not authentic it will go nowhere as teens will smell it a mile away.
Given that challenge the only way we could see to be truly authentic was to actually design the whole thing from the ground up with teens for teens. So to that end the first thing we did was work with a specialist teen research agency called Kids Know Best and commissioned an intense three months deep-dive with 2,000 teens across the USA and UK to really understand what they wanted. From that cohort we created the indu committee which is now 220 strong and this team has been involved in literally every relevant decision we have made since as a brand – everything from branding, positioning, packaging, smells, textures, coverage, tone of voice, language and beyond. I think the main message we have learned is that thank god we went down this route as so often in the process we adults as so called industry experts would have made many more mistakes as there were many times where we thought we knew the answer that would come back only to find out the committee thought otherwise!
I don’t know how you’ve done but the skincare formulations seem so appealing (my daughter looks forward to using it!), what makes them so suited to teen skin?
Firstly they were formulated specifically for teens, Gaia our head of Product Development has a fantastic background in contract manufacturing and for indu worked closely with the legendary Jan Kusmirek who formulated many of Elemis’ hero products and between them they created a range designed specifically for teen skin and addresses the environmental and hormonal challenges they face. Secondly but as importantly, our teen committe were involved in the whole process and were part of the testing process for every iteration of all the products as they were developed.
How did you land on the core products for launch?
Again, we ran this from two perspectives. Firstly, what we as industry experts and professionals thought the essentials should be that would give the most benefit to a teen, but again in collaboration with the committee we asked them; what did they use, what did they think was missing on the market, what were their must haves etc? We knew we couldn’t make every product from day one so we prioritised based on this info.
What about the colour products, how did you decide on which products to develop there?
Very much teen-first. We spent a lot of time on ideation with Ruby Hammer, one of our advisors and then worked that through with the committee, but not just from the angle of colours, textures, coverage etc that were what teens wanted but also taking into account their lifestyle needs which led to the development of the connectible system for products and the completely customisable and transportable palette.
I love the palette system with the products that act like charms you can hang off it. What was the idea behind that? It’s very clever and appealing.
This was very much driven by the teens themselves in the product development process. Beyond the expected product development basics like coverage, efficacy, colours, textures, smells etc we spoke to them in depth about packaging and what they felt was missing from current offerings and how we could address that but also think about their own specific lifestyle needs and sense of fun. That was really the catalyst of how the palette system and interconnected products created.
The packaging all round is very clever and refillable, tell us why that was important.
Again, our audience has a very strong focus on sustainability and reduction of waste hence the need to have products that are recycled, recyclable or refillable. The design of the packaging and products was led by the core brief of being appealing to teens, but also screen friendly and store friendly at the same time.
You launched in September and recently held a pop-up experience to celebrate, what feedback have you had from customers so far?
It is very early days, but so far I am very relieved by the feedback we’ve had. While we’ve had two years of development and a high degree of enthusiasm from our own team, advisors, retailers and our committee, the pop-up was the first time the paying public had a chance to see and play with the products and experience the brand first-hand. The biggest tick for me though is that we soft-launched skincare in mid-September and we are now starting to see repeat purchases and people buying the refills which is the most important validation of the products.
Which products seem to have captured the imagination of your customers the most so far?
It’s really too early to say as we only launched skincare six weeks ago and makeup 2 weeks ago. Having said that right now our One & Only pH Glow Oil from our Colourless Collection is currently showing signs of potential hero status and selling really well. It's multi-purpose, fun and easy to use and can be worn at school.
As well as the pop-up, how else have you been spreading the word about the brand?
We’ve had to be really creative about building awareness, partly because we are a start-up with a limited budget but primarily because our main audience, i.e. teens themselves, don’t tend to play in the same spaces we as Feelunique would have traditionally used to reach our audience. To that end our focus is much more around supporting and building the indu community through places like TikTok as well as more creative guerrilla and in-person activations. So far this is working really well, we launched officially two weeks ago at the pop-up and already have seen our TikTok following grow from under 1,000 to almost 10,000 now. Alongside that we do also have a more traditional digital-first outreach programme using a mix of influencers, paid search
It’s obviously a younger market than you had with Feelunique, what are the different things you have to bear in mind when marketing to such young consumers?
I think the key difference as I talked about earlier is that we can’t reach those teen consumers in the traditional places that the older generations play in that worked well for Feelunique, like TV, Facebook, PR, paid search etc. Alongside that we are very conscious of providing a cool, but ‘safe’ entry to beauty and as such our creative features ‘real’ teens from our committee, no re-touched imagery. As a parent of teens myself I’ve long been concerned by the fact that teens are bombarded by the existing brands that are aimed at a much older audience and project an unattainable idea of what beauty is and I think often creates a negative impact on their self-esteem.
For you, what’s it been like building a business for the second time? Were there lessons you were able to take from Feelunique or has it been completely different?
Indu is actually my third business; prior to feelunique I had a web development company that I sold in 2000. I think though the fundamentals of running a successful company stand the tests of time, one thing that has really changed has been the funding eco-system that has grown up in the last 15 years or so. When we started feelunique we were self-funded with the very clear and important objective of reaching profitability before our cash ran out, as access to capital was much more underground and frankly not even on our radar. Had it been on our radar I don’t know in hindsight whether it would have been more of a hindrance than a blessing; we may have grown more quickly but perhaps less efficiently, who knows?!
Indu can be shopped at indu.me.