A skin care company’s social media posts are not typically enough to send the internet into a tizzy. But that's exactly what happened this week after a series of inscrutable Instagram posts by the founder of the Canadian company Deciem, which proudly called itself "the Abnormal Beauty Company" and owns the super-trendy beauty line the Ordinary — known for selling high-quality serums, moisturizers, and makeup at rock-bottom prices that are often out of stock — as well as several other lines of beauty, skin care, and hair care at various prices.
The Skincare Addiction subreddit (which has over 450,000 subscribers) has been heatedly discussing the company's drama for the last week, including scrutinizing the company's Glassdoor reviews and creating memes. The Cut declared, "The internet wants to talk about Brandon." And Racked went so far as to call what's going on at the company a "crisis."
The Ordinary, which launched in August 2016, has achieved a kind of cult status over the last year or so, when beauty bloggers, influencers, and others started raving about their products. At the center of it all is founder and co-CEO Brandon Truaxe, a 39-year-old who started Deciem five years ago in Toronto. Truaxe is obsessed with "transparency" and personally writes epically long posts on the company's Instagram about, for example, why he fired the company’s advertising team or why he relinquished his CEO title in favor of "worker." In another recent Instagram post, he wrote, "I will talk to you beautiful people on our social channels from now on. I'll maintain an email subscription list and you can subscribe to it by simply sending an empty email to firstname.lastname@example.org. ... Our social team won't respond to any comments on this post because I will respond to all of them personally." In the video accompanying that post, he said that he would be ending the company's marketing efforts because marketing was a tool to convince people to buy things they didn't need.
Not exactly the typical behavior of a cosmetics company founder and CEO. The industry is still relatively conservative and buttoned-up, and it’s largely run by two major conglomerates: Estée Lauder (which has a minority stake in Deciem and owns brands including Clinique, Bobbi Brown, MAC, Smashbox, and Becca Cosmetics) and L'Oréal (parent company of Lancôme, Maybelline, Kiehl's, and the beauty divisions of Giorgio Armani and Yves Saint Laurent, among others).
But Truaxe's behavior — as well as the adoration that the Deciem employees I spoke to have for him — is reminiscent of the way that many startups, particularly in tech, have a cult of personality around a founder. It’s a familiar trope in Silicon Valley: the visionary, larger-than-life founder who has a brilliant idea and is great at launching a company, but once the company grows past a certain point, finds that he or she is not so equipped to actually run it. Travis Kalanick's forced exit from Uber comes to mind, as does Miki Agrawal's very public flameout at period underwear company Thinx, and Parker Conrad's forced exit from Zenefits.
"We're a startup that has grown too big and never lost that startup vibe," Deciem Director of Operations Shamin Mohamed told BuzzFeed News. "I can admit to you — yes, our management has been crappy at times. Every two months at Deciem is a year at another company. So the managers... Some can keep up with the growth. Some of them don't."
Like many troubled startup CEOs before him, Truaxe didn't have extensive management experience before launching Deciem; he worked as a computer programmer. Several current Deciem employees I spoke with, all of whom were in their twenties, praised aspects of the company that workplace experts say are signs of poor management.
Learning Manager Justin Pope, who is 28 and started at Deciem in January, described the interview process: "The first interview was with a director who's no longer here, and the second interview was with Brandon. It was the most amazing interview I've ever had. I've never had to sit down with a CEO for one of my interviews, ever — it's so amazing of who he is as a person to meet every single person who wants to work at this company." In the Huffington Post, HR expert Liz Ryan cautioned a startup CEO against interviewing all job candidates: "If the CEO still needs to vet every candidate when you’re up to 60 employees, then something is broken. Your managers should be capable of doing that (and you should be delighted to let them) by then." Another HR expert told me that a CEO shouldn't be interviewing people beyond his or her direct reports' direct reports.
Director of Consumer Engagement Mira Singh has been at the company for three and a half years — "a long time in Deciem standards," said Singh, who is 29. She said the company has "such a family-oriented environment," but she didn't mean that it was an environment for people with families — she meant that the company itself felt like a family. "Every day is like we're hanging out with our friends — we're laughing, we're hanging out, it's like an extension of our life. It's really chill. It's really relaxed." Management gurus and experienced CEOs like LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman have cautioned against describing companies as a family — "Using the term family makes it easy for misunderstandings to arise," Hoffman wrote in the Harvard Business Review. And Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has famously described Netflix as "a team, not a family."
Like many startups, Deciem has grown incredibly fast, from six employees four years ago to nearly 500 today, and employees admit that the company can have a sink-or-swim mentality. "If you're the right person for Deciem, we empower you to be your own boss and be your own decisions," co-CEO Nicola Kilner told me. She said she loves working for Truaxe. "He's a genius," she said, who has "taken the time to understand finance, design, law, and chemistry, and the reason he's done that is to help his team. He can help with development, be that person, be that soundboard, talk about those areas."
I wondered to Kilner whether that made Truaxe a micromanager. "I wouldn't say so — everyone is empowered to be in their area. He's there for guidance," she said.
But guidance isn't always available when your CEO's social media behavior is unpredictable. Employees told me that they don't know when or what Truaxe will post on Instagram, but they have to deal with the fallout. Singh pointed to a now-deleted post that Truaxe had put up on the Deciem account explaining his fallout with his partner in the Esho lip care line as one that was especially rough. "Of course it was a little disheartening," Singh said. "Especially because we're all millennials and haven't gone through social media in a negative way — I think a lot of us weren't used to it. It hurt a lot of people who work here and have such positive thoughts — they're definitely not used to it." Still, she said, "I know he meant well. It was a lot to have that one day of real negativity, but I hope it's over."
Truaxe was traveling in East Africa when the most recent dust-up occurred, and was unavailable for interviews. Through Deciem communications and PR manager Dakota Kate Isaacs, he released a statement: "I'm in a happy place and am ignoring anyone who's unhappy about it. Loving people will see me and Deciem for who we are. Unhappy ones will eventually rely on logic to make purchasing decisions regardless of their irrational criticisms. And logic is on our side because we make good products that are affordable."
On Wednesday, a few minutes after I got off the phone with Mohamed, my phone rang; it was Isaacs. "I wanted to call you because Shamin just told me you had a story going up at 8 p.m., and the headline was, 'Deciem is Sexist and Racist,'" she said.
I burst out laughing; I had told Mohamed no such thing, and tried to reassure Isaacs that not only had I not said that to Mohamed, but that I was neither publishing something that evening nor was that going to be my headline.
"Shamin probably just told me that as a joke," she said. "Everyone at Deciem thinks this whole thing is hilarious. You can't understand my life right now. People think that this is such a joke."