How to launch a business during a crisis

Alexia Inge co-founded Cult Beauty in 2008. Today, the e-commerce website – a shop for “the world’s best beauty buys” – employs over 130 full-time staff and turns over £104m annually. During the past 12 years, Alexia has learned how to build a successful company from scratch, starting from deep within a deep global recession. With coronavirus creating huge uncertainty for everyone, we thought it was a good time to sit down with Alexia and get her key insights.

Big recession; small budget 

Launching during a crisis or recession can lead to great things – but only if you’re watchful and creative. Alexia says: “Just as we launched in June 2008, everything started to disintegrate around us. It felt like the end of the world at the time but, looking back, the financial crisis shaped core elements of the business that went on to become some of our great strengths. The turbulence, combined with the fact that we launched without funding, forced us to consider every pound we spent carefully. Our golden rule became ‘get a positive return from every investment’. We still stick to it, although the positive ROI doesn’t have to come as fast as it did back then.

“Being careful with money and looking for a positive ROI are disciplines that, for some reason, have been uncool for a long time. But now especially they are vital.” 

Get creative

Can you really build a brand from nothing without burning cash? Alexia says yes – if you bootstrap, innovate and get creative: “We built Cult Beauty without a marketing budget. We did it through storytelling on our website and via social media. We told the stories of the beauty brands we were showcasing. We shone a light on small producers – cult brands – that people hadn’t heard of and as a result elevated our brand as the place for discovering beauty products and have built a loyal following.”

Choose your mission carefully

Becoming the go-to website for discovering beauty products didn’t happen by accident or overnight. It was the result of Cult Beauty’s founding mission. Which is why Alexia argues that for start-ups especially, choosing an inspiring mission statement and sticking to it is vital. 

She says: “We set the business up to be the most-trusted beauty retailer in the world. We didn’t aim to be the biggest. Trust is the most important factor. When we launchedthere was lots of what I call ‘head pat’ marketing in beauty, which basically said: ‘Don’t worry your pretty little head about the science, just buy our… *insert product here*’. We hated that and wanted to create a business that treated women (and increasingly men) as intelligent beings, with incredibly focuseddue diligence on every product we featured.”

Making your brand magnetic

By standing apart from the crowd with a carefully curated product mix (that sometimes means turning down guaranteed money-spinners based on quality and ethos), a content-first strategy and setting itself a clear ‘trust’ mission, Cult Beauty created a compelling story to take to the market. That story set it on the right path commercially but also attracted loyalty – from both customers and staff. 

Alexia says: “If you win the trust of your customers – but also of your suppliers, brands, third parties and co-workers – you create a virtuous circle. To do that, you need a simple and pure mission message. If you have one, people are attracted to it; they’ll join forces under your banner and create a buzz.”

Attracting young talent

Cult Beauty’s co-founder believes it’s more important than ever to have an inspiring raison d’etre. Here’s why: “Having a core mission that’s easy to believe in is especially important for millennials and Generation Z. It’s a generalisation, I know, but younger employees give their all if they believe in something. The minute they don’t, they’ll leave, even if they don’t have another job to go to.”

Alexia’s best advice

To wrap up our conversation, we ask Alexia for her best piece of entrepreneurial advice. She responds: “In business, you can easily get distracted by different ideas and suggestions, which often come from people with way more experience than you. But if the advice you’re getting feels contrary to your core mission, discount it. When I see businesses going wrong, it’s because they become too fragmented and end up trying to be too many things to too many different people. You must retain your focus.”

FEBE’s final word

Alexia offers many valuable entrepreneurial insights. She proves that launching in troubled times, far from being a recipe for disaster, can be the making of a business. She gives three over-riding messages. First, seek a positive ROI from everything you do and avoid unnecessary cash burn. Second, do not rely too heavily on external funding.Thirdly, create a simple yet compelling mission for your business and stick to it. Finally, just go for it – you’ll never know unless you try!