Startup Stories

“It’s still a bit chaotic, but that’s exciting” – CurrentBody prioritising preserving their startup culture

Northern Tech 100, Ecommerce & Marketplace

Jennifer O'BrienJennifer O'Brien, June 7, 2018

We sat down with Laurence Newman, Co-Founder of CurrentBody, a Northern Tech 100 2018 company, to talk about the foundations of the company and maintaining startup culture alongside international expansion.

According to Laurence Newman, one in five people would recognise the home-use beauty device that has broken records by selling 15 million units worldwide.

That device is the Clarisonic cleansing face brush, Manchester entrepreneur Laurence first encountered, more than 10 years ago when he was the marketing director for a chain of clinics and salons.

The product’s popularity was yet to take off outside of professional settings but, recognising the potential for the Clarisonic to lead a new market of home-use products, Laurence contacted its distributor with an idea.

“My idea was a website as a pure play in home-use beauty devices, which is all very well if you’ve got lots of products to sell but we didn’t really have much to sell at the time,” Laurence explains.

It was then that he met Andrew Showman, who had a track record of success in e-commerce for digital cameras.

Laurence describes their conversation at that time, saying: “Digital cameras were wavering a little due to the influx of camera-phones, so it was quite a good time for him and I to meet.

“I said: ‘Look, my e-commerce experience is very limited. I’ve been told that this is something you’re very proficient in. I’ve got a very good background in professional beauty products. This is my idea.’”

The pair launched CurrentBody.com, which has since emerged as a leading online retail destination for a beauty devices market estimated to be worth $94.4bn by 2023.

The company’s rapid success led to a £5m investment of growth capital from NVM Private Equity earlier this year, but Laurence has not forgotten the hurdles he and Andrew had to overcome to arrive at this point.

Back in 2009, he had to convince the beauty industry that e-commerce really was the way forward.

“Most beauty companies and manufacturers at the time wanted to see their products in Harrods, Selfridges, Space NK and the like,” says Laurence, sitting in the mezzanine meeting room that overlooks CurrentBody’s open-plan offices in Cheadle, Greater Manchester.

“Doing it through bricks and mortar is very difficult. You need someone on a stand who knows enough about these products and there’s a big turnover of staff in stores.

“I was out there saying look, you need to be on our website. This is the future of it, this is where you need to showcase your product. It might be that we’re not selling thousands of them but we’ll give you content, videos, experienced customer service, and we can do surveys with our customers.

“All the things that they weren’t able to focus on, we could do.”

Laurence’s confidence in his idea was well placed: online now represents 51 per cent of all sales of beauty devices and his firm has grown from a staff of two in a small office outside Wilmslow to a dynamic team of 30 experienced marketers and product specialists.

That growth was fuelled by a combination of intelligent business strategy and, Laurence admits, the odd stroke of good fortune.

“The first product that we were fortunate enough to start selling was Clarisonic,” he says. “You have the odd break and that was our break. Clarisonic was acquired by L’Oreal, and L’Oreal becoming a key partner was a major success for us as a very small business.

“We’ve now gone from a point where we would buy and sell these products, to full marketing plans with 12-month or 18-month pipelines of new products and touchpoints throughout the year for discounting, product launches, exclusive content and so on.

“The most important thing we did in this business was put in a board and a chairman to help put a specific plan together. You might think to yourself that in a small business you don’t need board meetings, you don’t need strategy, you don’t need to revisit the strategy and the budget, but actually the more you stick to those disciplines the more you have a chance of success.”

As sales of beauty devices continue to dwindle in stores and grow rapidly online, the prospects for CurrentBody are of international growth and a global reach.

That will likely mean expansion for Laurence’s team, but he is keen to retain the small business mentality that has helped him forge a strong bond with his staff.

“I’ve been very transparent with the team all the way through,” he says. “I believe it’s the right way to be. I owe a lot to this team for getting us to this point.

“There were times when we’d be short-staffed in the warehouse and people from my marketing team would go and help. That’s how it should be. I’m trying to keep a startup feel to the business because, even though we’re bigger than a startup, in some respects we’re still in ‘startup mode’. I think that’s an important part of the culture.

“It’s still a bit chaotic and a little bit all-hands-to-the-pump, but that’s exciting.”