As a teenager in Malaysia, Charmaine Chow helped her mom run a formative side hustle. Charmaine’s mom would pick her up at school and head to wholesale markets. There the two hunted and haggled for garments they could flip, to bank a few extra ringgits for the household.

The premise seemed simple enough — buy low, sell high, keep the lights on. But what struck Charmaine, as she watched her mom do the selling, was what these outfits meant to the customers.

Together they visited her aunt’s office, where her aunt rounded up secretaries and receptionists to sneak a break in the ladies’ room. Inside the grimy bathroom, Charmaine watched her mother cull through clothes until she found each woman a perfect fit. The women ducked into stalls to change while, all around, their friends held their breath.

Fashion shows don’t come more humble than those held on office bathroom tile. Yet when the women emerged in their brand-new looks, Charmaine saw how fresh they felt, how excited.

The memory has stuck with her, and fuels her work as the founder and CEO of the UK-based skin care company GetHarley, where she offers thousands of customers a bespoke treatment regime with pharma-grade products — all in service of discovering that same joy, of a personal metamorphosis.

“I want people to unbox and try these products and feel transformed and transported,” she says. “How you look goes beyond the superficial. It really impacts the way you feel and how you take on the world.”

Relentlessly refining a premise

Charmaine’s mom urged her to transform, as well. You can accomplish anything, she said, if you work hard. If you push yourself, you’ll get results you never thought possible.

Charmaine listened. She enrolled at the London School of Economics. Soon she was in finance, focusing on health care and consumer businesses. She worked her way up at Morgan Stanley, at KKR, and finally at Goldman Sachs, where she rose to the executive director level.

The life of an entrepreneur called to her. Once again, she applied herself. Stanford and Harvard, America’s glamor schools, opened their doors. Charmaine’s path appeared smooth and well-lit.

Yet, a year later, she was still in London. Her flat was a maze of large, brown boxes and of very small, multi-colored packages. Customers traipsed into her home to get recommendations on the creams, sunscreens, foundations, and moisturizers she had on offer. This was her next step, it turned out, rather than pursuing a gold-plated MBA. With the money she’d set aside for tuition, she instead launched and bootstrapped GetHarley out of her home, to refine her precise market fit before approaching investors.

“I didn’t want to work on an idea that wouldn’t go anywhere,” she says. “So what that meant was, I was a one-man band.” She wireframed the site; she designed the packaging; she messaged customers; she signed up doctors; she couriered deliveries. She bought low and sold high.

She was, in a sense, her own ideal customer. Everyone has a thing about themselves they’d like to change; for Charmaine, it was her acne. She knew what it felt like to want clearer skin. But she also knew that she had more to learn about her clientele. So she put herself in places where she could observe the interplay of patients and clinicians. She’d drop in on dermatology clinics and simply sit in the reception, watching and listening, so calmly that she came to resemble furniture.

Patiently, persistently, she sharpened her ideas. The business grew, and she soon discovered there was such a thing as too close to her customers. As more and more products rolled into her apartment building, thieves came steal unattended deliveries. She retaliated by posting a sign, a warning that the building was under closed-circuit camera surveillance. The thefts stopped.

Charmaine laughs about it now: It was all a bluff. And while she and GetHarley long ago outgrew that flat, the sign remains. 

Grit, determination, and laser-sharp focus are words that perfectly describe Charmaine – we are proud to be a close partner since leading GetHarley’s Seed round in 2020.

Ignore the hype — even your own

In the summer of 2023, GetHarley secured a Series B round that brought the total investment in the company to ~$70M, with more than 100,000 active customers on GetHarley’s digital platform, guided by a thousand doctors. If you have spots on your hands, or wrinkles around the corners of your eyes, or red blooms on your cheeks, you visit with the expert and get a treatment recommendation based on your age, your skin tones, your health history. In a field besieged by products and claims, she has built a space where people find what they need with uncommon ease.

Charmaine’s advice to customers mirrors her advice to other founders, and to herself: Don’t get distracted by hype, and test before your commit. But if you’re launching your own business, she tells people, choose a venture that you simply cannot shake off. Founding a company is one area in which you have to be extraordinarily comfortable with who you are. “The desire to invest in my own skin,” she says, “probably comes from this deeper desire to constantly improve.”

If there’s one way to future-proof yourself for the decades ahead, an obsession with improvement may be the greatest hack. That, yes, and a dab of SPF 30 sunscreen on your face each morning. You’re bound to catch some rays when you’re out there, taking on the world.