Aaron Chatterley, founder and CEO of feelunique.com, can thank the demon drink for his hugely successful online cosmetics business, which made £1m profit on £17m turnover in 2011. The Jersey-born entrepreneur has big plans, as Mark Williams finds out
The key to success in business is hard work and knowing what your customers really want. So says Aaron Chatterley, founder and chief executive of feelunique.com. He should know. In just six years, turned a hangover-fuelled idea into one of Europe’s fastest-growing online beauty retailers.
Aaron was born in Jersey in 1966, but grew up in Sydney. “I lived by a beach so had a sporty outdoors lifestyle — lots of cricket, rugby and surfing. I love being by the sea, which is perhaps why I’ve ended up back in Jersey.
“Academically, I did OK, but never tried hard. I was always waiting for break time so I could play cricket.” Aaron went to nine schools throughout his childhood. “Moving around so much was tough, but I became good at forming relationships quickly and I make new friends easily — a useful skill in business.”
After six months of A-Levels, Aaron had had enough. “My form teacher diplomatically suggested it might be better to look for a job. I found one as a trainee computer programmer and left school. I did that job for a few years, but always knew it wasn’t for the long term.”
He was also a drummer with ambitions of finding fame and fortune, so Aaron moved to London. “After four years of trying to make it, I needed to refocus. I knew enough out-of-work musicians in their thirties and forties to know I didn’t want to end up the same way.”
Aaron got a job selling phone systems, which led to a marketing job at Mercury. “I got into data marketing and was seconded to Cable & Wireless (now owned by Vodaphone) in the West Indies for a year in 1995 to set up an internet service provider.”
Returning to the UK, he set up a web development company in Oxfordshire. “I sold that business in 2000, moved back to Jersey and began looking at opportunities with a friend and business associate, Richard Schiessl.”
Feelunique.com sells more than 15,000 products across hundreds of well-known brands. “I came up with the idea when I was in Dublin Airport feeling extremely hungover ― I’d been there on business,” Aaron recounts. “In the airport shop, a Clarins saleswoman sold me some moisturiser ― I must have needed it,” he laughs. “I wasn’t the type of guy who bought moisturiser, but it felt soothing. Soon after, I wanted to buy more, but was put off by the thought of having to go to into a department store to do so. Then I came up with the idea of selling big brand cosmetics online.
“Richard and I spent four months researching the online cosmetics market, and recognised a big gap. We set up Island Cosmetics in August 2005 — which soon became feelunique.com, of which Richard is MD. Richard and I used our own money to launch Island ― about £40K each ― and we didn’t take a salary for two years.”
“The key to coming up with a good business idea is to spot an opportunity to do something better or differently. It also takes hard work to make sure your research, costs, projections, etc, are spot on.
“The biggest challenge we faced was getting the brands on board and securing the products. For example, it took us more than four years to persuade Clarins to let us sell their products. As with any business, hiring and retaining good staff is an issue. Thankfully, we have an amazing team but in the beginning when we did everything ourselves. It was hard to find people whom we trusted so we could relinquish control.”
Aaron’s best decision, he says, was to “be open-minded enough to let go of equity in return for expertise and resources we wouldn’t have otherwise had”. To the detriment of the business, he adds, sometimes people can be too focused on retaining 100% ownership. “It’s better to own 50% of something substantial, rather than all of a less valuable venture.”
Aaron is married to Georgina and has twin daughters, India and Frankie. “I’m happiest when I’m at home with my family. I also like to cycle and surf and generally try to get outside as much as possible. Even a walk on the beach can really reduce stress.”
Without any hesitation, Aaron says his dad is his hero. “He brought me up on his own since I was seven and he was 25. When I was 25, I could never have handled that responsibility and done such a good job.” What about business heroes? “I was once fortunate enough to meet Richard Branson and he gave me one piece of advice — employ nice people. I thought that was brilliant. Generally, I admire anybody who has started with nothing and built a successful enterprise. Whether it’s a £100m software company or a corner shop, building any sustainable business is an amazing thing.”
Aaron doesn’t want to start a new business. Rather, he plans to keep developing feelunique.com. “The first two years of starting and developing a business are unbelievably hard, so I’m not eager to go through that again. My plans for feelunique.com are to keep improving what we offer. We have a lot to do before we own the space. There are no plans to sell the business — only to achieve more.”
This case study was first published in April 2011. feelunique.com continues to expand its range with over 18,000 products from 500 brands. It was also voted one of the top ten online shops by Which? and featured in the Sunday Times Top 100 Fastest Growing Companies in 2011 and 2012.