In-depth: Aaron Chatterley, Co-Founder and Deputy Chairman at Feelunique

by Jessica Ramesh

Aaron Chatterley is Co-Founder and Deputy Chairman at feelunique.com, Europe’s largest online beauty retailer. An internet entrepreneur since the 1990s, he’s also been a SKY TV commentator on ecommerce and was voted one of the 50 most powerful people in online retail for 2014 by Retail Week. He looks back at feelunique.com’s first 10 years and says businesses across the board still need a deeper understanding of digital marketing.

What does your role as Co-Founder and Deputy Chairman at feelunique.com involve on a daily or weekly basis?

Having been CEO since we started feelunique in 2005, I recently stepped down from the management team; it was time to bring in some new blood as the company gears up for the next 10 years. My involvement now is primarily a board one, which means I am still very close to the company and able to use my experience and relationships to support the new management team.

As a retailer, feelunique is very much a relationship business and having spent the last 10 years building these across the digital and beauty industries I am still fairly active for the company in maintaining them. As well as a certain amount of media work, I still do five or six speaking engagements a year. In addition to my work with feelunique I am also an investor and NED in a few other ecommerce businesses.

What qualities – personal, professional, technical or creative – does a role like this require?

I think of myself as primarily a digital entrepreneur and to that end I don’t think there’s a specific blueprint. In my case I think it’s been tenacity and self-belief that have played a big part in getting feelunique to where it is today, and the ability to surround yourself with the right people that bridge your own skills gap; both, in terms of feelunique’s co-founder Richard Schiessl – who tempered my unending enthusiasm with a much needed dose of analysis and financial acumen – and the management team we built up.

What’s likely to be the most significant challenge facing the brand over the next 12 months?

Feelunique has always been a very dynamic business and we have been able to move very quickly when we’ve needed to, be it a strategic shift or implementation of change. The company now employs well over 200 people and is growing fast. As with any business it is a big challenge to maintain the best of a start-up while implementing the tools and processes needed to take it from a £50m company to a £500m one. Additionally, as with any retail business in the twenty-first century, maintaining best-in-class service in everything we do is now the minimum expected of us by our customers. With the meteoric evolution of technology, doing this in a sensible way is a tricky balance of not jumping in too early to all the latest tech/logistical/service fads, and not missing out by being too slow.

Who or what are some of your favourite sources of insight or inspiration in the field of digital media/marketing? Are there any writers, speakers or thinkers you particularly admire?

The people I admire the most are the doers and they are really the only ones I will spend my valuable time listening to. Controversially perhaps, I think [Amazon Founder, CEO and Chairman] Jeff Bezos is an inspiration. What Amazon has achieved in the last 20 years is unprecedented in the world of retail. His single-minded focus to create ‘The everything Store’ is paying off and I think every single retailer out there (including us) should be very worried.

Whether you believe the PR or not, I do believe Mark Zuckerberg genuinely does have a desire to connect the world for the right reasons. And finally, I think people like Nick Robertson (ASOS), Natalie Massanet (Net-a-Porter) and Chrissie Rucker (The White Company) deserve a special mention as founders that have created household brand names in the space.

What was your first job in the marketing industry and how have things changed since then?

My first real marketing job was with Cable & Wireless where I was seconded for a year to the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean in 1995. Much of my job was in setting up Caribsurf, a very early ISP out there. It was my first real exposure to the potential of the internet. I guess the biggest change that springs to mind is how far the technology has come since then. With an average dial-up speed of around 19.2k over your home phoneline, we spent an enormous amount of time waiting!

Is there any advice you wish you’d had (or heeded) at the start of your career?

Honestly, no. I’ve had a lot of advice over the years, some good, some not so good, but I always listened to it regardless. The only thing that really made a difference was when I was about to turn down the job in the Caribbean. My 90-year-old grandmother told me that the only things she regretted in her life were the things she didn’t do. It’s a cliché, but it rang home at the time (and still does now). If I hadn’t taken that job I would never have gotten early exposure to the web and I would probably have continued with a corporate career. It was an inflection moment in my life.

Looking back over your career, is there any one project or campaign that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m very proud of everything the team at feelunique have achieved over the last 10 years; probably first and foremost is how we have been able to attract the brands we have to the site. When we launched, all the luxury brands said no, and everyone said we were crazy and would never get them. Today we list more than 500 brands including Dior, Clinique, Lancome, Yves Saint Laurent, Benefit, Givenchy and Estee Lauder. None of the other online beauty retailers have all these brands.

Which other brands’ marketing strategies do you admire and why?

I think [cosmetics retailer] Benefit do an amazing job on a fairly conservative budget. They’ve managed to create and maintain a very cool, fun and engaging brand without compromising the integrity and image of what are genuinely world-class products. Even as a guy I love receiving their communiqués.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about the current state of digital marketing?

I think business in general needs to gain a deeper understanding of digital marketing. With such rapidly evolving technology, and given its increasing importance in reaching consumers, there’s a real danger that companies get panicked into making quick and desperate decisions to jump onto the bandwagon and end up overspending on poorly conceived campaigns and technologies sold to them by so-called experts and cowboy agencies – which are out there in abundance. A better level of in-house expertise would provide that first level of filtering and sense-checking before committing funds.

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