He Built, Then Nearly Broke, a Successful Beauty Start-Up. Can It Go on Without Him?
Nicola Kilner, the chief executive of the skin-care company Deciem, has a joke about last year. If you didn’t get fired in 2018, she says, “then you didn’t really live 2018 at Deciem.”
Ms. Kilner was fired twice, by Brandon Truaxe, the company’s founder and one of her closest friends. Last year, even as Deciem grew, Mr. Truaxe plunged the company into chaos. He was committed to hospitals four times in three countries. He died in January of this year, after a fall from a Toronto condominium.
His death left Ms. Kilner at the top of a company that is projected to sell $300 million worth of products this year. She is working to stay faithful to Mr. Truaxe’s vision. She considers him a genius, but she also wants to integrate new values into the company’s culture, like kindness.
Because 2018, she said, “wasn’t a very kind year.”
Ms. Kilner and Mr. Truaxe met in 2011, when she was working as a buyer at Boots, the British pharmacy chain. She was inspired by his energy and constant stream of ideas, and when he founded Deciem, in 2013, she was excited to be hired as the company’s brand director. They spent every working hour together.
Mr. Truaxe was passionate and funny, but also quick to anger. Ms. Kilner, who is preternaturally calm, would help soothe tensions in the aftermath of any given blowup. He recognized his own volatility, though, and the two grew to trust each other. She soon became Mr. Truaxe’s co-chief executive.
Deciem was conceived as a skin-care product incubator, a company that would house 10 different brands with different missions. Mr. Truaxe’s background was in computer science, and he approached moisturizers and toners as engineering problems.
Shamin Mohamed Jr., Deciem’s director of operations under Mr. Truaxe and his good friend, said that beauty was supposed to be just the beginning; Mr. Truaxe had intended to disrupt other sectors, including apparel, nutrition and technology.
“He’s more Silicon Valley than beauty,” said Nils Johnson, whose company Beautylish was one of the first retailers to stock Deciem products in the U.S. “He was kind of in a position where he didn’t care about status quo and he didn’t have respect for status quo.”
Mr. Truaxe grew frustrated in an industry in which brand names determine prices and packaging is crowded with marketing gobbledygook. So he created The Ordinary, a line of a la carte ingredients that are usually prettied up or disguised and sold at a premium by other brands. Much of Deciem’s value derives from The Ordinary, which has become its most popular offering, leaping over brands like NIOD, Loopha and Ab Crew.
The Ordinary was released as a product line in September 2016, just a few months after the company started opening retail locations. It was Deciem’s 11th brand. None of its products cost more than $15. Between August 2016 and August 2017, the company more than doubled its wholesale revenue, causing a stir in the industry and attracting the Estée Lauder Companies as a minority investor — even as Mr. Truaxe’s behavior shifted from passionate to disturbing.
What Does a Visionary Look Like?
Mr. Truaxe’s behavior began to change in the early days of 2018, after he said he had spent the end-of-year holidays in Mongolia. (Ms. Kilner came to believe that he was not in Mongolia but in Venice and Amsterdam; Mr. Mohamed said that Mr. Truaxe had never planned to go to Mongolia.) In January, he announced on the company’s Instagram that he would be taking on all marketing — that there would be no more barrier between himself and Deciem’s followers. “From now on I am going to communicate personally with you,” he said.
It was difficult for his co-workers, including Ms. Kilner, to make judgments about his behavior. When the founder announced that he would no longer be using his cellphone or email, they weren’t sure whether he was being unreasonable or a genius.
“Brandon was so infectious in whoever he spoke to,” Ms. Kilner said. “You were just in his magic charm. I remember having conversations with my husband around things he was saying. You challenge yourself thinking, ‘Am I the one not getting this?’”
Mr. Mohamed thought that Mr. Truaxe’s behavior was less a sudden break than a continuation of familiar behavior. “Brandon didn’t magically become crazy in eight months,” he said. “He’s always been like this. He’s always been this manic guy who ran this company.”
Ms. Kilner felt compelled to say something in February when, on Deciem’s Instagram account, Mr. Truaxe abruptly ended the company’s relationship with the cosmetic doctor Tijion Esho. Dr. Esho was caught off-guard and upset, a preview of what the rest of the year would look like for those in the founder’s orbit.
“I started to ask him, ‘Are you O.K.? Are things O.K.?’” Ms. Kilner said. “The next day I was terminated.”
Mr. Truaxe delegated the firing to the company’s human resources director, Neha Gupta. Ms. Kilner’s husband, Sean Reddington, booked the couple on a flight to Barbados. The two had been married for several years but had put off having children. They decided that, free from an all-consuming workplace, it was time. In March, she became pregnant.
Progress within the company almost ground to a halt. In March, Mr. Truaxe fired Deciem’s U.S. team. In early April, after he published an Instagram post insulting Ms. Kilner, Mr. Reddington emailed him, disclosing that his wife was pregnant and that the stress was unwelcome. Mr. Truaxe responded warmly, congratulating the couple. He knew that Ms. Kilner had always wanted a baby and had told her he worried that Deciem would keep her from starting a family. Then he posted the news on the company’s Instagram account. Ms. Kilner was only about four weeks pregnant and had told very few people.
Ms. Kilner said that such behavior marked a definitive break. “Before 2018, Brandon was the most respectful person in the world,” she said.
The Vanishing Line Between Public and Private
Deciem’s employees embraced the common start-up practice of referring to co-workers as one’s family. Ms. Kilner, the company’s American publicist, Dakota Isaacs, and others tend to speak in superlatives about their colleagues. (And Mr. Truaxe’s longtime partner, Riyadh Swedaan, worked at the company for years.)
But Mr. Truaxe’s actions further confounded the boundaries separating the workplace and the home. His Instagram posts and conduct within Deciem suggested that he was having trouble parsing which behavior was appropriate for the public, what might belong at Deciem and what he might keep private.
Ms. Kilner did not deny a report in the Financial Post that he was ingesting psychedelic mushrooms in front of employees. She said he did not attempt to convince team members to take drugs with him. But he did recommend that they take mushrooms; he was convinced of their creative and spiritual benefits.
This behavior constituted another change. “Before 2018, he barely even drank alcohol,” Ms. Kilner said.
Mr. Mohamed said that he did not think that Mr. Truaxe had been mentally ill, but said he did think that he had been addicted to drugs: crystal meth and psilocybin.
In May, according to an interview with the Financial Post, Mr. Truaxe took crystal meth in Britain, which led to him being arrested and committed to a hospital. By June, he was calling Ms. Kilner and begging her to come back, partly, she said, because he was hoping to win back the support of Estée Lauder Companies, whom his behavior had alienated.
At first, she was not sure whether she would return. But ultimately, she decided, “This wasn’t a job. This was family. You’re there for family.”
At first, Mr. Truaxe seemed improved upon Ms. Kilner’s return. He was in the Toronto office infrequently, which helped Ms. Kilner and the rest of the team to get things done.
But it became clear that he would not return to being the person he had been. At one point, in late summer, he and Ms. Kilner spent hours together in a New York restaurant talking about new products, one of the most normal exchanges she had with him in months. She texted her husband, telling him that she wanted to cry with happiness. Ten minutes later, Mr. Truaxe got up and said he had to leave the restaurant “because people were in there watching him.”
In August, Mr. Truaxe and Ms. Kilner cut off Deciem’s relationship with Beautylish. Mr. Johnson said that in the meeting, Mr. Truaxe seemed to be “having one of his episodic experiences” and that he talked at length about subjects that were unrelated to the business. (Mr. Johnson has not forgiven Ms. Kilner. He sees her as having enabled Mr. Truaxe’s darker tendencies; it was she who sent the email terminating the relationship.)
In an email sent on Oct. 1, Mr. Truaxe addressed the distrust for him that had grown rampant at his company. He wrote, referring to himself by his own initials and in the third person, that “I recognize that many of you may have allowed doubt to cloud your judgment of B.T., despite much kindness, love, respect and generosity that our founder has shown us.”
Eight days later, he announced on Instagram that the company would stop all operations and close down its own stores, provoking pandemonium within the company and a run on its merchandise from a consumer base worried that their preferred products would soon be unavailable. Three days later, Estée Lauder Companies successfully sued to have Mr. Truaxe removed from Deciem. Ms. Kilner, then seven months pregnant, replaced him as chief executive.
“You’ve got 700 people who’ve got livelihoods, they’ve got families, they’ve got bills to pay,” she said. “So when it came up what needed to happen there was a part of me that thought ‘Maybe this is what he needs.’”
A New Deciem
Ms. Kilner believed that he would recover and return. She called him as the court case was proceeding to see if one more conversation could make a difference. But after that, she made a firm decision to focus on Deciem and on her soon-to-arrive baby.
She stopped talking to him as much. Conversations with him were trying. Mr. Truaxe seemed consumed by the idea that those around him had committed financial crimes, and had an obsessive interest in and affinity for President Trump. His anger at being removed from Deciem also made him hard to talk to.
Mr. Mohamed thinks that Mr. Truaxe may have closed the stores to cause his own ouster. He does not blame Ms. Kilner for taking over, but does think that Mr. Truaxe should have been able to remain in contact with some of his co-workers. Cutting him off from the colleagues he saw as family was cruel, Mr. Mohamed thought, and he said he believed it led to the further deterioration of Mr. Truaxe’s condition.
As she entered the final month of her pregnancy, Ms. Kilner began to envision the company’s future. Deciem this year will open a new, 17,000-square-foot facility in Toronto, the first in years that will be able to house all its employees. The facility, in the Liberty Village neighborhood (the location was chosen by Mr. Truaxe), will include an on-site laboratory, a factory and a store. They expect to introduce between 100 and 150 new products this year, and several new brands. Both Ms. Kilner and Mr. Mohamed plan to devote their organizations to furthering the study of mental health.
One of Deciem’s new brands will make skin-care products for babies, something Ms. Kilner said the company’s customers ask for all the time. She had a daughter at the end of December. She did not know the sex of the baby until the birth, but had already picked out a name for a girl, Mila, which she shared with Mr. Truaxe in July. He adored it, she said.
Ms. Kilner took no leave from work; she answered emails about Deciem from the hospital. She said she adores her job to the point that managing the company does not feel like work to her. When interviewed in early April, her infant daughter had taken more flights than she had lived weeks.
Ms. Kilner learned in January that Mr. Truaxe might be dead from reporters emailing one of Deciem’s publicists: one last awful piece of news that strangers had access to before Mr. Truaxe’s work family did.
She said she feels privileged to be able to work on building the company that he created. “The best thing that we can do to honor him is to make sure his vision lives for eternity,” Ms. Kilner said.
For general information on mental health and to locate treatment services in your area in the United States, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). In Canada, visit the website of the Canadian Mental Health Association.