Elliot Isaacs, the founder of premium skincare brand Medik8, believes in the power of role models. Growing up in the 1980s in Hertfordshire he was surrounded by family members who ran their own small businesses.
His father owned a pharmacy in Barnet and inspired his son with his work ethic and dedication to the local community. “He’s a Rotarian who did loads of charity stuff, and was just a real old-school professional community pharmacist who knew everybody in the ‘village’,” said Isaacs. His entrepreneurial son quickly outgrew the village. Last year Pangaea, Medik8’s parent company, had sales of £19 million and nearly tripled pre-tax profits to £7 million. In March it sold a majority stake to Inflexion, a private equity firm, which valued the business above £150 million.
Such success was not preordained. Isaacs, 49, was not enthused by school but described himself as having a “curious mind”, always interested in how things worked. His mother told him that he used to sit on a step and watch, fascinated, as ants marched across carrying leaves and food.
Despite performing below expectations in his A levels he secured a place at Leeds University to study physiology. “I like science because it’s logical and it works. You break everything down into smaller parts until you find the answer,” he said. After completing his degree, Isaacs embarked on a series of money-making ventures with his brother Simon, 53.
The first, when Isaacs was 22, involved chartering Airbus A320s to take families on pre-Christmas trips to Lapland. “We sold out two planes [through] mail order.”
The ventures went well, with the brothers pocketing £20,000 between them, and when he was 23 Isaacs bought a one-way ticket to India with three friends. Returning to the UK in 1998 with £200 in his bank account he asked an uncle, who had helped him and his brother with the mail order business, for career advice. “He told me to head to Borders bookshop on Oxford Street and look through the newspapers and magazines that came in from the USA on Saturdays. Forget the news, just look at the adverts. Go for a month and when you get the same advert appearing every single week that is a product with proven existing demand.”
He found a recurring advert for a skin moisturiser made from natural ingredients. “This was a new trend,” said Isaacs. He contacted the manufacturer in the United States and asked if he could be the UK distributor, then spent his final £200 on an advert in OK! magazine. “I sold out”, he said. Very quickly he was selling “hundreds of thousands of pounds’’ worth of the creams and realised the potential of the market. “Having been thrust into this world of skincare I realised I quite liked it. Behind the glossy packaging it’s very technical. The enormous market size for anti-ageing products amazed me,” said Isaacs. In 2002 he started work on creating his own line of skincare products. Isaacs swapped “weekends at Borders for weekends at the British Library, reading through reams of peer-reviewed dermatology papers”. One of the biggest challenges was balancing the science — what worked — with what smelt pleasant and felt good on the skin. “In the beginning it was all about this absolute focus on just optimising the efficacy of the formula to get the results, we didn’t really give any attention to other attributes like texture and fragrance and packaging,” he said.
A big break came when a rival, Skinceuticals, was acquired by L’Oréal in 2005. “We decided to contact all the distributors of Skinceuticals because [they] would have realised they’re going to lose their brand.” Medik8 was picked up by several Skinceuticals distributors.
The business grew steadily thanks to distributors which sold Medik8 through an international network of skin clinics. But by 2016 Isaacs wanted to sell directly to consumers. This led to the company spending £500,000 to revamp its website and digital channels. With the Covid-19 pandemic lurking around the corner, this move might have been the company’s saving grace, said Isaacs. “Covid could have wiped us out. Every single clinic [was closed].” The professional network still accounts for 60 per cent of sales, and a further 10 per cent is direct to consumers via the brand’s website.
The company plans to move from its factory in Radlett, Hertfordshire, to a larger facility next year. The investment required was one of the reasons for selling a majority stake to Inflexion. Isaacs retains 16 per cent.
With his share of the sale money he said that he had helped “family and a couple of friends with some small things” and will “think of some tasteful ways to enjoy the proceeds”. This could include buying a boat to sail around the world with his partner, Camilla, and daughter, Harper, three.
“Ask your customers what they want,” Isaacs said. “They know better than you.”