Nicholas Karnaze, former U.S. Marine Raider and combat veteran turned entrepreneur, shares his journey starting stubble + 'stache.
I stood in my kitchen watching AMC's Breaking Bad. Walt was making meth, and I was making beard lotion.
Originally, it was just for me. I was growing my beard out in tribute for a bearded friend and fellow Marine Raider who was killed in combat. However, while doing so, I struggled with the itch and irritation that comes with growing facial hair. Unable to find any products that worked, I decided to make my own.
A few of my Navy SEAL buddies heard about what I was doing and wanted to try the product. That's when I realized this could be a proper, socially minded business. So, in the fall of 2012, I got to work.
I knew if I wanted to sell publicly, I'd have to partner with a manufacturer that could safely and effectively produce our products. One year later, I had found a trusted manufacturer, and together we perfected the formula for a two-in-one facial moisturizer and beard conditioner – a daily facial moisturizer that nourishes the beard and skin without clogging pores or leaving a greasy residue.
When I started my business, stubble + 'stache, entrepreneurship didn't have the allure it does today. Back then, being an entrepreneur was synonymous with being unemployed. We are all passionate about what we are doing, but few of us can pay the bills. At the end of the day, time – and timing – are essential components of startup success. Here's how my journey went, and some lessons I've learned along the way.
Stubble + 'stache began as my side project while I worked my day job. In August of 2013, the president of my previous company called all senior leadership into the office for layoffs. My team of 30 was cut down to three – and I was out.
My boss had lined up another job for me if I wanted it, but I turned it down. I told them I was going to pursue stubble + 'stache full time; and they smiled and said I made the right choice.
A few days later, our moisturizer was ready for market. Believing it would be a huge success, I readied the launch email, wrote up a Facebook post and braced myself for the money that was about to come rolling in.
But that didn't happen.
Lacking income and accumulating bills, I needed to up my game. I began searching the internet for any blog, news outlet or website that might be interested in my product or story. I sent countless emails with no replies.
September came and went. We did maybe a few thousand dollars in total sales. October came and went. We did maybe $3,000 in total sales.
November hit, and suddenly, sales skyrocketed. In one day, we sold more product than we had in the entire previous month. The next day, our totals exceeded that of the previous two months combined.
All that traffic, all those sales, came from the same source: a young blogger with a loyal and active following. She included a picture of our moisturizer in her holiday gift guide, and now we were in business.
Sales continued to rise in 2014 and 2015, with more than 60 percent growth and climbing. We added a beard wash and beard balm to our line, won awards, and gained media attention. This was right around the time beards were "in." We couldn't have timed it any better.
Bumps in the road
Sales were great – so great, in fact, that we sold out of one of our products. It was a good problem to have, but I learned the hard way that people want what they can't have, and sales dropped as the months slid by.
Once we were back in stock, the sales came back, but not at the same level. Men are loyal customers once they find a brand they love. They need their products and will only go so long without. Then they move on. Some of our guys had, and I can't blame them.
Beards grew in popularity and other beard oil startups joined the party, selling cheap oils to take advantage of the demand. At this point, we decided to make an investment in our packaging to help our products stand out among the rest and showcase the quality of the ingredients inside.
At the time, our existing inventory was running low. Eager to see the brand's transformation, I decided to roll the dice and delay production until the new packaging could be used.
Our sales spiked, and there was an unforeseen setback with the packaging. We sold way more product than we anticipated. Just like that, we were sold out again. Except we weren't sold out of just one product – we were sold out of our entire line.
I've been running stubble + 'stache full time for over five years now, and I finally feel like I know what I'm doing. We've established safeguards to ensure we never run out of product (barring some massive sales rush). We've learned that digital advertising is important, but budgets don't go as far as they used to.
What does go far? Authenticity.
For years, I wanted stubble + 'stache to appear like an established brand. I thought people wouldn't want to buy from a former Special Operations Marine running a solo business. I thought we needed to appear larger and more polished than we are. I was wrong.
At this point in the game, we are fortunate enough to be able to donate a percentage of our net profits to organizations helping men and women suffering from the mental wounds of war, wounds that I have seen in many of my close friends and fellow service members.
When it comes to business, there is no perfect time. Do what you can now with what you have available. Don't let perfect become the enemy of good. Mistakes will be made, profits will be lost, processes will take longer than expected – but in time, you'll succeed.
Edited for brevity and clarity by Sammi Caramela.