Fired Deciem Co-CEO Nicola Kilner Tells Her Side of the Story


T

he Lone Star Hotel in Barbados is an ideal place to escape during a personal crisis. Quiet and breezy, with a giant veranda accented with plush couches, it’s a haven where no need goes unmet and no moment of serenity is interrupted. Most crucially, no one here is aware of the tale of Deciem, the beauty company with a peculiar story that’s unfolding in spectacular and public fashion at the hands of its mercurial founder, Brandon Truaxe.

No one, that is, except for Nicola Kilner, the company’s newly ousted co-CEO. Kilner is in Barbados after being abruptly terminated by Truaxe, her boss and best friend of five years. Her firing was the culmination of six weeks of baffling behavior from Truaxe, who had been using Deciem’s Instagram account to post profoundly bizarre content—closeup videos of him talking disjointedly about the popular skin-care line’s vision, a river flowing around a mass of garbage, and a photo of a dead sheep, captioned with a promise to never test products on animals.

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Deciem had skyrocketed to popularity by virtue of its low prices and no-bullshit, hyper-science-focused branding, which didn’t exactly square with the messiness of Truaxe’s posts. Confused fans turned to Kilner’s personal account: “For the love of all things good, please take the Deciem IG account away from Brandon,” pleaded one follower. “It’s a hot mess over at @deciem. Please, take control,” requested another. Many commenters questioned his mental stability. But it was Kilner who was suddenly out of a job. Stunned and heartbroken, she fled to the beach.

I find Kilner mourning this transition like the death of a loved one, or a divorce. “It was such an intense relationship. We were inseparable,” she says. The first few days, she was in shock (“I still don’t fully understand what happened”); then came tears and grief (“I’m obviously hurting and I know he’s hurting, because he does have a kind heart”); now, some perspective: “It’s his choice. His decision. I don’t think you get fired from a job when you’re doing a good job. But with Brandon, it was never [just about] business. It was much more personal.”

Nicola Kilner at the Lone Star Hotel in Barbados

Warren Linton

Kilner, 29, contemplated doing this trip without her phone, but decided against it. She’s still fielding frantic and emotional messages from her ex-colleagues at Deciem, many of whom she recruited, trained, managed, and offered daily guidance. Even thousands of miles from the commotion, she is struggling to pull herself away from Truaxe’s confounding behavior and the media blizzard surrounding it. When she’s not on the sand with her husband, Sean Reddington, she’s checking Instagram and Twitter constantly. But she has difficulty writing Truaxe off as the headstrong and temperamental leader he is made out to be in news reports. Throughout our time together, she maintains that he is a genius—one whose madness was directly responsible for the monumental success of the business. (Deciem as a company has even embraced the kooky public image of its founder; the website proudly broadcasts, “The founder is screwed up!”) Maybe it’s Kilner’s investments talking—she owns shares in the company, and her mom even works part-time at one of Deciem’s factories—but she also seems unshakably loyal to Truaxe. And most importantly, she is fiercely protective of the brand and the team she worked night and day to build. To dismiss them would be self-sabotage, a repudiation of years of work.

“She missed countless birthdays and weddings and, strapped for time, even barely focused on the planning of her own wedding—which Truaxe did not attend, saying it would be too emotional for him.”

This is Kilner’s first real vacation in a while. “We didn’t really have time for a honeymoon,” she says in a cheerful British accent, glancing over at her husband with a mixture of faint regret and gratitude. The young former CEO is relentlessly upbeat—a product of her upbringing in the unpretentious north of England. Technically, Kilner now lives in Nottingham, but she says her real home base has been on an airplane. Growing Deciem from a tiny start-up into a reported $150 million-a-year business required a tireless devotion to Truaxe and years of self-sacrifice. She missed countless birthdays and weddings and, strapped for time, even barely focused on the planning of her own wedding—which Truaxe did not attend, saying it would be too emotional for him. “For our five-year anniversary, we’re going to do it again and put all the time and energy I wanted into it,” Kilner says.

But the success was worth the life-consuming hours. Deciem’s story was an unprecedented fairy tale and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a small-town girl with an entrepreneurial spirit. Kilner worked herself to the bone overseeing retail operations and partnerships, opening new offices around the world, coordinating orders, even packaging products for shipments. “When you’re in a start-up mentality, the number one thing is to survive. But I went to work with a smile and left with an even bigger smile every day.”

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Kilner started young in the beauty industry: At age 18, while a business-management student at Nottingham Trent University, she was sponsored in a work program by the major UK pharmacy chain Boots, where she became one of the company’s youngest buyers. Six years ago, she met Truaxe, who was working for Indeed Labs at the time; Kilner was his point person for the launch of their products on Boots’ shelves. She loved his enthusiasm and ideas. The two clicked instantly. When Truaxe launched Deciem in 2013, he quickly recruited the 24-year-old to be his brand director. Deciem, derived from the Latin word for 10, would be a parent company to a diverse array of smaller beauty brands, many specializing in facial serums. Truaxe, a former computer scientist, developed a simple premise: He would take a highly analytical approach to skin care and sell time-tested ingredients at hugely reduced margins. No longer would a customer pay $80 for a generic ingredient (retinol, for example) that cost a couple of dollars to produce. Everything would be made in-house. A bit presciently, Truaxe gave Deciem the tagline “The Abnormal Beauty Company.”

Kilner bought into his vision entirely: “My mum was like, ‘Why are you leaving a steady job at a good retailer?’ But sometimes you have to follow your heart. Even with everything that’s happened, it’s still the best decision of my life.” As brand director, she spent three weeks of every month at Deciem’s Toronto headquarters working on every aspect of the business. And within six months, Truaxe named her co-CEO.

An Instagram featuring The Ordinary’s Mandelic Acid.

Instagram

After a couple of years, the pair developed The Ordinary, a line of extremely effective products in sleek packaging that played to consumers’ desire to feel like masters of their own personalized, well-informed skincare routines. Sold at rock-bottom prices but still with an air of luxury, The Ordinary elevated Deciem to household-name status for savvy millennials everywhere. It rapidly grew to make up a reported 70 percent of Deciem’s total revenue and inspired a rash of fan communities online. When the company launched a new foundation last year, it quickly racked up a 25,000-person waiting list; the Deciem website crashed. Meanwhile, Deciem’s staff ballooned to more than 450, according to Kilner, almost all of whom were under 35 and recruited more for their passion than for their experience.

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At just 28, Kilner held enormous responsibility. But if Truaxe was the idea driver and the public face of the company, Kilner was content to toil patiently and deferentially in the background. The thrill of building something that felt so groundbreaking was worth it. “Brandon and I would be in the factory all night because we’d get a purchase order, and you can’t afford to sit on stock,” Kilner remembers. “Those were the best days.”

Truaxe, Kilner allows, had his obvious quirks. “I think he’s always been crazy,” she says. “But in good ways. People don’t build that size of a company [without being a little crazy].” The 39-year-old Toronto native had a penchant for yelling, both in times of anger and in great excitement. He also had a habit of terminating employees on a moment’s notice. But Kilner was unfazed. “You meet a lot of people in the beauty industry who are flamboyant, but there’s no depth behind it,” she says. Truaxe was different. She could handle his moods. “I’m quite adaptable,” she says. “A lot of people who work closely with founders are the most patient people in the world, because founders are often eccentric characters. It takes a certain skill set to work with them.” Her behind-the-scenes role suited her personality. “I’m calm, easygoing. If someone doesn’t like my idea, I’m not precious,” Kilner says. “Five years is a long time to be by Brandon’s side. And I think that’s because I don’t have an ego.”

“A lot of people working with founders are the most patient people in the world, because founders are often eccentric.”

The staff adored her. “She’s a very good leader. She didn’t get angry or tell you off,” says a current Deciem employee, who asked to remain anonymous. “When she came in, people had more oomph about them. They were more energetic and motivated to work because she was so passionate about the company.” Plus, she was a good communicator and “glued to her phone. No matter where she was in the world, you knew you’d always get a response.”

Kilner’s work did not go unnoticed: In November, she received an Achiever Award from the industry group Cosmetic Executive Women. For the event’s program, Truaxe penned a gushing testament to Kilner’s work ethic. Kilner also participated in industry panels like the Women’s Wear Daily Digital Beauty Forum. And she developed a fan base for her regular appearances on QVC. “She was very good at public speaking,” says the current Deciem employee. “I always thought she could sell Deciem better than anyone.” I ask Kilner if she thinks her expanding reach as the female face of the brand contributed to her dismissal. “That’s probably something I don’t want to comment on,” she says. “I don’t know if that was an element or not [in my firing]. But I don’t have this thing of needing to be the face [of anything].” She emphasizes that all of Deciem’s products are, for the most part, unisex, and that men, including her husband, love them.

The Ordinary’s broad appeal is part of what made it such an explosive success, but as the company grew, waves of panic washed over the expanding staff. “The chaos went to a new level,” Kilner says. “We were struggling to keep up.” At the end of 2017, Truaxe took a vacation and returned with a new outlook: He wanted to make Deciem “more peaceful,” he told Kilner. And yet what followed was the exact opposite: Truaxe stripped himself and Kilner of their titles, changing them to “worker” and “coworker,” respectively. Then came the Instagram onslaught. Beyond the posts on Deciem’s account, Truaxe began wading into comments to spar publicly with any Deciem detractors, an alarming move for the CEO of a company projected to earn a reported $300 million in sales in 2018.

Kilner with former co-CEO and Deciem founder Brandon Truaxe at the Cosmetic Executive Women Achiever Awards in 2017.

Courtesy of Nicola Kilner/Instagram

Kilner was put in the extraordinarily uncomfortable position of having to navigate the space between the entire world and Truaxe, her boss and the person who’d given her a dream career. “I truly believe Brandon has good reasons for everything he does,” she says. “But then the downside is that sometimes decisions happen that don’t seem to make sense.” Still, Kilner kept forging ahead. She lived by the motto “Honey will attract more bees than vinegar,” something she’d picked up from Truaxe. And besides, the company was healthier than ever: Kilner remembers that on one of the most turbulent days of Instagram chaos, Deciem’s sales were the second-highest since Black Friday.

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Talking to Kilner is a bit like talking to someone rescued from a cult against her will.

For five years, Kilner had always deferred to Truaxe—until she didn’t. In early February, Truaxe posted on Instagram alerting followers that he would be severing Deciem’s partnership with Tijion Esho, MD, a well-regarded dermatologist with whom they’d manufactured a line of lip products. He had not notified Esho beforehand. For Kilner, this was simply too much. “It was probably our first disagreement,” Kilner says. Days later, Kilner was called into human resources and informed she was no longer part of Deciem. No paperwork, no explanations, and no word from Truaxe. “I’m not upset that Brandon didn’t do it personally,” she says. “We’re both very emotional. It would have been too hard. He is a founder; founders are allowed to change their teams. But I didn’t see this ending,” she says. (Truaxe declined to comment for this story via a Deciem spokeswoman, whom Kilner had hired.) Everyone was shell-shocked. “Nicola was the one really doing the negotiations and giving us timelines,” Esho says. “With her gone, there aren’t many answers.”

Talking to Kilner is a bit like talking to someone rescued from a cult against her will. She is unflagging about the quality of Deciem’s products, recommending various items to me. Her husband tells me that he uses the products religiously, and he follows along with a 33,000-member Facebook group tracking the company’s every move. “I’m obsessed,” he confesses at the bar at Lone Star. Occasionally, during our conversation, Kilner will refer to Reddington as her husband, before clarifying that he’s her “real” husband, in contrast to the marriage-like closeness she held with Truaxe. Eerily, Truaxe and Reddington share the same birthday.

At press time, Kilner has had no more than a brief email exchange with Truaxe. She says that he has been financially generous throughout her career, and she awaits the day that he approaches her for closure. “My door’s open, so whenever his door is open, I’m ready to talk to him—whether it’s weeks, months, years.” She insists that she would return to Deciem in a heartbeat, “no qualms,” if they asked. But, she adds, “This is a reality check. I put my life and soul into [Deciem]. I’m proud that I was involved in creating something amazing. The ending is a bit shit, but it’s not the end. It’s another chapter.”

Since arriving in Barbados, Kilner has received upwards of two dozen job offers in the industry. She’s booked a few meetings but is hesitant to jump right back in the mix—partly because nothing compares to the excitement she still feels for Deciem, and partly because she’s exhausted. Worn down from the work itself, but also presumably from the experience of managing and protecting an unpredictable and strong-willed man for years. She may have been Truaxe’s co-CEO, but she had also become his expert caretaker.

Kilner has visions of a company of her own, something she’s dreamed of since she was a child. “When I was leaving Boots, I actually went to Brandon with an idea—a TripAdvisor for beauty—but then Deciem took over, and it just slipped away.” Now is as good a time as any to revisit this entrepreneurial itch. But a company of Kilner’s founding will look a lot different. “I think about the culture I want to build, the team, how we’d treat people,” she says. “Someone once said: It’s nice to be powerful, but it’s powerful to be nice.” Truaxe recently posted a photo from a new Deciem store location, the walls plastered with a similar motto. Kilner, now poised for her next venture, carries Truaxe’s all-encompassing positivity mandate in a more polished, gracious way than perhaps her former boss ever could.

After our time together, she follows up on email, with a simple request for the piece. “If possible, I would love to use the images where I am smiling,” she writes. “Given that I did just get publicly fired, I want women (and men) to know that actually you can make it into the best thing that happens to you.”

This article originally appears in the May 2018 issue of ELLE.

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