Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Doug Geiger, founder of Can You Handlebar, a men’s grooming product company. We’re one of those low-key-high-quality brands.
We are best known for beard oils and balms, moustache wax and inventing the first application brush for beard products, the Can You Handlebar Beard Oil Brush®. We are carefully and consistently extending our product line and distribution.
In our first three years our production grew from a kitchen countertop with a crockpot I stole from my wife to “making a million bucks” and a 10,000 square foot building with a whole fleet of crockpots. Meanwhile, our retail presence — which began on the counter of a gracious proprietor of the corner gas station — has grown to our own network of barbers and salons across the US, international distribution and most visibly, the shelves of every Art of Shaving.
What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Back in the halcyon days of 2010, on a whim, I decided to grow a handlebar moustache. It is hard to imagine now, but there once was a time where there were not too many people selling moustache wax or beard products.
There were no products available locally and most of those available online weren’t transparent about ingredients and felt kind of “homemade” (and not in the good way). My hunch was that well made and well-packaged beard products could do really well as a business. I sat on the idea for at least a year because I was tied up with my day job and a newborn in the home.
I’d had ideas for businesses for a very long time and had never followed through. I was afraid I would fail. Somewhere in there, I was probably afraid I might succeed. Either way I had by this point established a habit of daydreams without action that I needed to break.
In 2011, I turned in my fancy plastic lanyard and left the high rise for the last time. I joined Saddleback Leather and this proved to be the perfect incubator for a fledgling moustache wax startup. First, it provided a consistent paycheck while I ironed out my recipes and business plan. Second, my time at Saddleback provided me with good reflexes when it comes to quality and customer service. Most importantly though, I had the encouragement and mentorship of the owner, Dave Munson and the help of my Saddleback coworkers.
Even though my time had freed up a little working from home, I was still quite broke. My wife and I were married (and each managed to stay sorta employed) during the Great Recession. But even as of 2012, when we launched the website we were still paying off our wedding debt from years prior. Nevertheless, I had a hunch and at this point in my life, frankly I was tired of ignoring all of my hunches.
So, I loaded up a credit card with $400 in supplies and stole my wife’s crockpot. The day before launch, we took our toddler trick or treating, then made our way to the kitchen. I followed the handwritten recipe from my fourteenth experiment and the yield was a couple dozen cans of wax and half that again in spillage. The next morning I logged in and set the site to “public.”
Here’s a shot of our first large order going out in our first “commercial” space.
And here’s a shot of me at The Art of Shaving. The first time I was able to walk into a mall and see my products on the shelf in a retail capacity. It felt really good.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Our first product was a moustache wax. My research amounted to buying just about every competitor product I could get my hands on to get an idea of what was possible, doing lots of research and tinkering with all manner of ingredients.
The research process involves a lot of research online on the properties of each ingredient and to determine if there are known allergies we can avoid. We also have discussions with our chemist if we are having a hard time achieving some property we want as well as to look over the final formula.
After we believe we have a winner, we have a lot of people try it and give their feedback. Meanwhile, we are working on labels and UPC barcodes and product photography. It gets easier over time to lainch a product but it never gets easy.
After several versions, we landed on a really simple recipe that, with just a couple tweaks, is now sold all over the world.
The first batch was made in a crock pot and was ladled by hand into metal tins with a one ounce scoop I purchased for the occasion. It was a real mess. Learning how to make a can of really good moustache wax takes one sort of research and development. Learning how to make ten thousand of these at a time, takes another sort. One thing we got right was putting as much R&D into our processes as we put into developing new products.
I don’t have any photos of the crockpots in action, but here are our first two beard oil prototypes. We ended up going with the name “Initiative” since the word “Industry” isn’t used to mean “hard work” much these days.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We’d had some success in smaller circles with direct sales and were building a reputation based on the quality of our moustache wax among the beard and moustache community. Setting up a webstore seemed like the next logical step, along with getting our product on Amazon.
Use your pride against your fear to get out of first gear.
Credit cards were our friends at first and this was definitely more of a “side gig” for the first year or so. Then we found that our Amazon sales picked up, often on the strength of our reviews and finding an aficionado niche with our moustache wax formula. We brought on our Director of Sales Brian Furby and he developed a plan that allowed us to reach out to barbershops and salons to offer wholesale pricing, creating a global network of retail partners. These things became the underpinnings of our success.
Brian’s strategy was two-fold. He started with cold-calling and emailing owners of salons and barbershops, introducing them to our products and offering to send them a package that included full-size products for free, just so they could see the quality of the goods in person. This led to a postcard mailer program to expand our reach.
Finally, we expanded to include visits to industry trade shows, where we were able to meet and interact with retailers face-to-face. They could see the products first-hand and by simply signing up for a Retailer Sample Kit they could get started making money with Can You Handlebar right away, at no cost to them.
These programs were a success in building out our retail program of independent shops and salons. As our product line grew, we altered our offering to include more goods and special incentives (like a branded barber cape), available at a significantly reduced cost. This gives potential retailers a taste of our wholesale pricing and gives them enough product to stock their shelves with our Retailer Starter Kit, all with a very small investment on their end.
We kept an eye toward thoughtful design in our packaging and on continuing to deliver quality goods. That eventually led to our being noticed by The Art of Shaving, who have become our most significant retailer, a relationship that has brought our products into hundreds of retail locations where we continue to be a best-seller.
In terms of lessons learned, one of the things that we might have done differently and something we still struggle with is overthinking things. Aspects of that can be beneficial, and it’s certainly helped us to be careful and a bit cautious. But we have a tendency to get obsessive about the details. Sometimes we’ll talk ourselves into a corner until finally one of us will say “What the hell are we waiting for?” and we’ll get the idea moving again.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Our efforts have always been rooted in quality products and customer service, building relationships with our customers based on delivering exactly what they are looking for. It’s how we got started, and it’s where we distinguish ourselves. That can feel a bit old school, and sure, we’d love to have some viral success that explodes business exponentially, but we have been very happy with a steady and consistent build over time.
We’re just not a flashy brand. We don’t consider beards to be a trend, and we don’t approach our business as though it were. It’s resulted in a lean and focused product line and innovation driven by our core values and extensive R&D. We’re not rushing products to market for a quick buck.
This also means that when a customer has a question or a concern, they’re getting a response from an actual human being. It means a satisfaction guarantee that accounts for the customer’s actual experience with the ultimate goal of finding them a product that works for them. Our social media is organic and conversational. We share what we care about, whether fishing or baking bread, high-end knives or low-end junk food–It’s all just an extension of who we are. No cheap memes or alpha attitudes, no trash-talking competitors.
Our strategy for social media has always been rooted in genuine interaction. We feature our own content in terms of photos and writing as well as sharing photos from customers and retailers. We decided early on to avoid cheap memes and viral posts. We’d seen other brands do it, and it always felt like it played to the negative, reinforcing stereotypes about bearded guys or beard culture. It’s always been important to us that our customers choose our products because they are right for them, not because some alpha dog told them to, or because it’s the hipster thing to do.
Our earliest notable success on social media was with a program we dubbed The Big Thank You, which we ran for two consecutive years. It was a giveaway contest designed to thank our customers and followers for their interest in our product, and also a way to introduce them to several other small businesses whose work we appreciate. In turn, these small businesses helped us promote on their end, creating a nice ring of cross-promotion across social media. We accepted donations or bought outright products from our partners as part of the giveaway, and it was important to us to choose makers who we knew shared our belief in quality, and who it just made sense to brand with.
Entrants into the contest were asked to upload a picture of themselves showing off their facial hair and all of our followers were asked to vote for their favorite. Engagement was through the roof, as were click-throughs and newsletter sign-ups.
Here’s some stats on the second year:
- The contest ran for a week, from November 19th-27th
- We had 25 sponsors
- $8000 worth of prizes
- 13,525 visitors to site during contest
Social Growth/Engagement (CanYouHandlebar only; doesn’t include any data from sponsors)
- Gained 220 followers on Instagram
- Gained 62 followers/likes on Facebook
- FB reach was ~39K from contest posts
- Instagram reach: 10,776; impressions: 35K
- Twitter: ~45K impressions
Anecdotally, it was a success for our sponsor partners as well, as all reported positive growth. In most cases, all it cost them was their cost of goods and a small amount of time spent promoting on social media.
We’ve utilized Facebook, Instagram, and Google ads and experimented with other forms of online advertising and we’ve found that overextending ourselves and our budget doesn’t necessarily result in higher sales.
Online advertising is a nut we still haven’t completely cracked. A lot of that feels like it’s connected to what a niche market we are, and within that niche we’ve found our greatest sales success in simply delivering the best products and packaging we can, and letting word of mouth spread.
To that end, Amazon is an important part of our success, with customer experience driving strong reviews. There is a true aficionado’s appreciation for what we do. We thrive on returning business.
Though there are a multitude of other options for our customers to consider when purchasing a beard product, we feel that the quality of our goods shines through.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We are steady and growing moderately on all fronts. We are looking to expand into other retail locations and further international distribution. We are expanding our product line as well. A recent example is the Tattoo Balm we just released. It’s our first unisex grooming product and also one of the first that isn’t directly beard or moustache-related. It’s a whole new market for us and we’re looking forward to finding some inroads there.
Our day-to-day operations have expanded dramatically from where we started. We now operate out of a 10,000 square foot warehouse in the greater Detroit area, we employ anywhere from 10-15 full and part-time positions and have scaled our production abilities up to be able to fill thousands of units a week as needed.
Our sales are currently tiered with retail partners in the lead, Amazon second and website sales third. A massive goal for us over the past few months has been to increase traffic and sales on the website. We’ve undergone a complete design facelift and have focused on targeted social media ads. It took a ton of time, money and effort whipping our site into shape. Thankfully, we are now converting well once people get to the site. We’re now working on strategies to get these initial site views and increasing conversions.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Right after I started to see some success, I hired “experts” who weren’t as serious about our success as we needed them to be. I paid one guy over $40,000 over the course of six months because he was “really connected” and could help my business take off. The only thing that really took off was him–with my money. This taught me a little thing about business and a big thing about me as a person. On the business side, I am now a lot better at defining expectations in contracts. On the personal side, I realized that I was starving to hear that I was “on the right track” and was consequently way more vulnerable to flattery than I thought.
When you’ve toiled for years on a business as random as beard oil without a ton to show for it, it feels really good to finally hear some “real business person” compliment you and tell you that you are about to hit it big, if only you had someone like them who sees the potential and can make a couple calls…I needed validation so much as any brand new entrepreneur, and I spent the cost of a brand new fully loaded family sedan to hear it. Fortunately, I was able to extricate myself having only lost money and pride. It could have been much worse.
You can’t avoid all mistakes. But you can inoculate yourself against a bunch of strains of entrepreneurship diseases by reading content like these on Starter Story and by keeping an eye out for business owners you can chat with every so often to give you this validation. You should not rely exclusively on your SO, personal friends or employees. It isn’t fair for them to be your sole support. Once you are committed to your own business, you immediately need a new category of friend: business owner peers with whom you can freely discuss financials, fears and hopes. If you provide for this support network early on, you will have picked up through conversations a resistance to some of the nonsense that’s out there without having to go through it firsthand.
I can’t go on too much longer without screaming that luck is such a huge part of our success. I was fortunate to be in the vanguard of the “beard trend” by accident and I am certain that getting into the market so early helped. Back then, we were one of only a dozen or so brands doing beard oil, beard balm and moustache wax. Now there are thousands. Had things not gone exactly right, I could very easily be one of the thousands of guys out there now whose company didn’t pan out and who only have a couple dozen bottles of beard oil and a $40 piece of bearded clipart they never got around to using to show for it.
That said, luck is never enough, not long term. You have to work really hard on a lot of chores that the customer will never see or know about. Had we not made the most of our position as one of the early leading brands, we would not be here. I think some of our best decisions over the years include focusing on a quality product in a clean professional manufacturing facility. Our manufacturing crew is presently led by my first employee Andy Pokorski, who has been with me from the crockpot to the factory. He has had a hand (and beard) in nearly everything at Can You Handlebar. Accordingly, he gets unlimited days off for fishing. Each day Andy, Annette, Dylan, Mike and a handful of regular part-time employees operate a production facility they helped build, that makes and distributes some of the best men’s care products in the world.
We also prioritize packaging. This is critical for personal care products. They are applied after the shower or may be carried around in a pocket. A well packaged beard oil for instance, ought to have a water-proof label, ought not shatter when dropped on a tile floor and should never get your clothing oily in a suitcase. We think this way and customers seem to appreciate that. We design for actual everyday and our customers can tell.
As soon as I could afford it, I brought on Brian Griffith as a full-time graphic designer, and Adam Barraclough as our copywriter and the results are staggering. For the first time we could start with a marketing idea and have all of the talent we needed in-house to make our idea a reality. Tim Kramer, a colleague from my Saddleback days, joined us as our social media manager but his role, like everyone else’s, has expanded to include whatever needs to be done. We do most of our photography and videography in-house now. The skills needed to run a modern online business are numerous and are not easy to learn, but having control over our creative has allowed us to get the look and feel we want.
I believe it is the combination of luck, hard work and our lack of pretense that helps us stand out in a crowded field. It’s easy to play up any number of “hipster” or “alpha male” tropes, and those things are rampant in beard culture, but that just isn’t us.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Our online store is powered by Shopify, and we’ve had excellent support and consulting from Kurt Elster over at Ethercycle. We’re not web devs by nature so having a team we can reach out to for assistance with specific requests has been invaluable to us.
Shipping is through ShipStation, YotPo for reviews and WholesaleHero to integrate our retailer pricing directly into the webstore. We keep things fairly simple on this end and these apps meet our needs without overcomplicating things. We really like Klaviyo for email and use a customized template to plug in fresh copy and creative assets, which makes sending out a newsletter a snap.
We use Buffer for social scheduling and rely on Google Analytics and Shopify reporting for stats. As a team, we work remotely and utilize Google Drive and Skype daily in order to keep in touch and share information.
I wish I had a true “killer app” recommendation here, but a lot of what we do comes down to being able to rely on a few basics that can be easily trained, shared and utilized amongst our whole team.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I’m a huge fan of Kurt Elster’s The Unofficial Shopify Podcast, he often focuses on people in unique industries who are finding success and sharing some of the strategies that led them there. It’s inspiring but also unpretentious and ground-level enough to be relatable.
I loved reading Jim Koch’s Quench Your Own Thirst: Business Lessons Learned Over a Beer or Two about the rise of Boston Brewing and the Sam Adams brand. It was amazing to me how he embraced his failures as readily as his successes and was unafraid to discuss them plainly. This is one of dozens of audiobooks I have listened to on my phone with Audible. I love that site.
I try to run everything by my wife. She’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and if she doesn’t “get” something it’s usually a sure sign that I’ve missed the mark. She’s a great supporter, and that means the world to me, but she’s also not afraid to call bullshit. Having someone like that in your professional life, who’s not afraid to tell you “this sucks” or “I’m not sure this works” is invaluable.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Use your pride against your fear to get out of first gear.
If I have done one brilliant thing in the past six years it was to recognize that I was afraid and needed to kick my own ass. So, I bought a bag of lanolin I could not return with money I did not have knowing I would be mortified to have to explain to my wife why I decided to quit just after investing in a big bag of sheep’s wax.
As I mentioned earlier, I’d had ideas for businesses for a very long time and had never followed through. I was afraid I would fail. Somewhere in there, I was probably afraid I might succeed. Either way I had by this point established a habit of daydreams without action that I needed to break. I had an intuition that I needed to drop myself into a mess and fight my way out. That’s when the idea to buy obscure ingredients hit me. I placed the order and kept plugging away. When it arrived, I placed it prominently next to my computer monitor. I knew that the only way to turn that lanolin back into the money I desperately needed was to make a bunch of moustache wax and sell it. Which I did. If you use this idea, just be careful and don’t overdo it!
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re not actively hiring for any specific positions, but we love to hear from contributors and collaborators who may be interested in sharing creative content. Whether that’s photos or videos, artwork, reviews of our products or other insights, we welcome anyone who is willing to help us spread the word.
We have built a great community of contributors over the years who help us do everything from test drive new products to give us feedback on concepts for campaigns.
Where can we go to learn more?
Find us Online:
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If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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