#102. Oars + Alps is a natural men’s skincare brand founded by women. We talk with co-founder Mia Duchnowski about launching a multi-channel brand from the ground up with a fresh perspective. The Loose Threads Podcast features in-depth discussions with leaders across the rapidly changing consumer economy.

Check out the full transcript below.

Mia: [00:00:01] The fact that two females are running a men’s skincare company, we saw the problem from a distance, and we’re fixing it by actually being in the weeds with these guys, understanding what they want and how they interact with the products.

Richie: [00:00:15] That’s Mia Duchnowski, co-founder of Oars + Alps, a natural men’s skincare brand that she started with Laura Cox in 2015. Mia and Laura teamed up after they recognized that as women—and therefore, outsiders to the men’s skincare industry—they could provide a fresh perspective. While their respective backgrounds at Bloomberg Television and Facebook gave them insight into the consumer space, there was still a learning curve to build a brand from the ground up.

Richie: [00:00:36] I’m Richie Siegel, founder of Loose Threads, which analyzes and advises next-generation consumer companies, and FaceLift by Loose Threads, which provides retail strategy and infrastructure for leading brands and retailers. For our latest analysis and insights, check out our free weekly newsletter at LooseThreads.com.

Richie: [00:00:53] I started the Loose Threads podcast to spark engaging discussions with leaders across the consumer economy. That’s why I was excited to talk with Mia about the brand’s quick evolution from online-only distribution into a multi-channel sales strategy, spurred by its move into Amazon and Target. Here’s how it all began.

Mia: [00:01:12] So, in a previous life, I used to be a TV anchor. Most recently, I was a reporter at Bloomberg TV. And in that capacity, I had access to some amazing skincare products. My husband, who’s very much your guy’s guy—so, not a metrosexual, and not your average Joe, somewhere in the swath in the middle—was always “borrowing” my products. And that proved problematic for several reasons. The first is, I had to replenish my products even faster, and women’s products can be up to eight to ten times as expensive.

Mia: [00:01:44] The second is, I have a science and engineering background, and the scientist in me knew that his skin actually wasn’t improving. And a lot of that was driven by the fact that men and women have very different types of skin. But when I dug a little deeper, I realized that my husband’s interest in skincare was not actually through vanity, or because of vanity. It was because of health reasons.

Mia: [00:02:04] So you see, his grandfather had skin cancer and died. His father currently has it. And my husband was at a risk. And he didn’t know where to start, so he looked to my side of the bathroom vanity. And he saw my SPF moisturizers and my products, and started using those products. And this was when I realized that I was very influential in introducing these products to him. I was buying most of the stuff that was in our bathroom, everything from our toilet paper to our shower gel.

Mia: [00:02:34] My cofounder—her husband has eczema. And she was always appalled at the ingredients that he would slather all over his body. And she was horrified at what was in these products, and so she quit her job at Facebook. I quit my job at Bloomberg TV. And we got together to launch Oars + Alps.

Richie: [00:02:53] What gave you, I guess, the confidence to leave the jobs before any of this? Because it didn’t exist. You left and then built it, right?

Mia: [00:03:00] That’s right. Yeah. I don’t think you can ever do anything in a side hustle. I think when you do a side hustle, it will always be a side hustle. And at some point, you have to, like, turn it into a reality, which means you need to dedicate 100% of your time—or at least, your work hours—towards creating and building and iterating, on creating something that’s really magical and bigger than yourself. And so we worked on getting our beta together. And there were a couple of things that we wanted to test.

Mia: [00:03:25] So, we wanted to understand what products guys wanted and how they use these products. We also wanted to understand what the willingness to pay would be for a product. So we got 500 people. We put up Facebook ads. We made sure that most of the people in our beta weren’t necessarily just our friends, because we wanted to really get authentic feedback from this entire study.

Mia: [00:03:46] The other thing we did is, we wanted to test two different price points. So, we had some people getting one price point available, and the other one getting another price point. We also tested natural versus organic ingredients. We quickly found out that men actually don’t know the difference between natural and organic. Nine times out of ten, if you ask somebody, they don’t know. And so as such, there was no willingness to pay for organic products.

Mia: [00:04:07] And therefore, our products are actually [not] made with natural ingredients, and not necessarily made with organic ingredients, although we do have some products that have organic ingredients. The goal of this was to really understand the mindset of the consumer, to understand what they were willing to pay for these products, and specifically to understand the DTC model as it pertained to skincare, because no one was really doing that when it came to premium skincare products.

Mia: [00:04:29] The other thing that we felt very strongly about is, we wanted to make sure that we had a solid brand. So, coming up with the name Oars + Alps was very exciting. And then it was all about, how do we make this come to life? And we were very scrappy from the very beginning, ’cause we put $50,000 in initially—25 between the two of us. And we used Laura’s childhood best friend that she’s known since she was two years old—Laura, of course, is my cofounder—and we relied on her to come up with the initial concept. We knew that brand was going to be the moat for this overall category, and it was really important for us to invest dollars in that up front, and to really make sure that what we were putting into the market was something that men felt was premium, but without that premium price tag.

Mia: [00:05:14] And so that was pretty much what we did for most of 2015, is, suss out those details, suss out the price point, get our website going. And then, 2016 is when we won the regional Harvard Business School New Venture Challenge. That gave us some money in our pockets. And we were able, as result of that, to raise a friends and family round. And that initial check that came in—wow. That changed a lot for us, because we were able to find someone who could do a lot more for us, and really take us to the next level.

Richie: [00:05:46] So, what did you learn in the pricing experiments? Were there hypotheses you had that were disproven by this beta period that were surprising, or maybe obvious, or both?

Mia: [00:05:56] Yeah. So, in our initial pricing, we had each product sell for $12, and then we had a higher price point, which was $15. And it seemed from—just basing off of our results—that men were willing to pay more, at $15. And what we quickly realized is, when we looked at the landscape, our number one competitor was really Kiehl’s. If you walk into Kiehl’s and you want to buy a moisturizer, for example, it could be $54, just for one product. And we were selling at 30-50% cheaper. And so, guys felt like they were not being taken out for a ride. And they appreciated that.

Mia: [00:06:33] The other thing that was pretty interesting is, you know, we had a normal face wash that was in a pump, and people quickly told us that it was spilling in their gym bag. It was not easy to travel with. And we realized, “Oh wow, this guy, he is on the move, he needs products that will go with him.” And we were actually the first men’s [creaming] brand to launch a solid face wash. And that was because of this beta. So a solid face wash, it’s TSA friendly, you can throw it in your gym bag, your carry on, you will never have to worry about it spilling. You just wet your face, put the stick on, wash it off. It was an insight that we wouldn’t have known to take to our chemist or our manufacturer if we didn’t have that pain point discovered through the beta process. So I always encourage brands—like, take the time to actually understand what your customer’s pain points are. I would never have guessed that that’s what the pain point was. It wasn’t obvious to me just by looking at my husband.

Richie: [00:07:27] So, I mean, I think you hear a lot of founders creating things to solve their own problems. That was not the case here, because you were not the customer. Was that actually easier for you to deal with? Was it more challenging? I mean, obviously it was people very close to you, [whom] you were building for, but still, when it isn’t you, it’s still a little different, it would seem.

Mia: [00:07:46] Right. The best thing I have going for me is that I’m not a dude. And I say that because that means I don’t have these rose-tinted glasses. I’m not making assumptions based off of my own behavior or my own patterns. I am 100% reliant on my focus groups, and we are very, very focused on making sure that this is not Laura and I in a white castle, building top-down. This is for the people, by the people. And we heavily rely on customers’ feedback.

Mia: [00:08:15] I know your skin is oilier and thicker and coarser, but what does that actually mean? Does that actually mean that you want something that’s a little bit more stronger, or more abrasive, or can penetrate your outer layer? I don’t know, but I will only know once I actually get inside your bathroom, or watch you wash your face, for me to actually understand that. And so, the fact that I’m not a guy has been an asset, and the fact that two females are running a men’s skincare company is to say that we saw the problem from a distance, and we’re fixing it by actually being in the weeds with these guys, understanding what they want and how they interact with the products, and how they interact with the formulations, how they interact with the scents.

Richie: [00:08:54] It seems like it’s almost freeing, in a sense, versus being an individual with a problem that you assume everyone else has, but don’t actually. You don’t have that to rely on, in a good way.

Mia: [00:09:04] Yeah. I mean, the only time I’m able to relate with people when it comes to, I guess, men’s skincare is, you know, I’ll go to a party or a wedding, and I’ll tell somebody what I’m doing now with my life. And they’ll say things like, “Oh yeah, I buy all my husband’s products.” Or, “Yep, I got him hooked on this brand back in the day.” Or, “Yep, I got my son this product a long time ago.” And you realize that women are so critical to this overall equation, and they are in two ways. Number one, they either influence behavior, and number two, they introduce it. So influencing behavior is, “Oh, honey, go check out Oars + Alps.” And then the guy will actually go and find the brand, and do his own discovery, and put in his own credit card. Or number two, they’ll introduce it, and they literally will go buy the product and put it in front of him, and the guy will just use it. And that is just the status of what’s going to happen.

Richie: [00:09:47] So given that, who did you think the buyer would be for your product, as you were developing it? Would it be the guy, or would it be other people in his life?

Mia: [00:09:55] That’s a great question. Our hypothesis is that 99%, it’s going to be the women. And a lot of that was driven by the fact that, as we were talking earlier, I’m a female, and I’m buying that, and you know, my cofounder is doing the same thing. And all the friends we’re talking to that are girls are doing the same thing. Turns out, more men are buying our products than women. In fact, 70% of our customers are men. Now, 20% are women who are actually buying the products for themselves. And then 10% are actually buying it as gifts. So a small percentage are actually doing the introducing behavior, which is just phenomenal. And you do think, when we talk to these people, that a lot of it is the guys buying it because they’re being influenced to purchase. But it is fascinating to see how our hypothesis was totally flipped around.

Richie: [00:10:39] Why do you think that is?

Mia: [00:10:41] I think it’s a couple of things. I think men are empowered to feel good, and they want to look as good as they feel. And there’s no longer a stigma associated with taking care of your face or grooming, so to speak. I think men have been given the green light that it is okay to do that. And I think that’s a huge part of all of this.

Richie: [00:11:00] I guess, working up to the launch at the end of 2016, was the date self-imposed, saying, we need to get this out by this time? And I guess, what was, kind of, the crunch working up to that, and the few major points of focus or contention that needed to happen before you got to that place where you could say, okay, this is ready, you know, to go out into the wild?

Mia: [00:11:17] Yeah. So, 2016 was a very scary period, because we were still bootstrapping. We raised a small friends and family round, which was able to at least get us on the radar of one of the biggest contract manufacturers. We had some issues with our packaging. We had some issues with our formulation. And there was a huge rush to launch by the end of the year, mainly because the biggest shopping quarter, when it comes to retail, is Q4. We wanted to launch in September. Quite frankly, we weren’t able to do that. We literally launched on November 2nd of 2016, just in time for Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Richie: [00:11:53] What was stopping you from launching in September?

Mia: [00:11:55] A couple things. The first is, we decided to change our scent. And when you change a scent, you have to redo all of your formulations, specifically as it pertains to testing. We had decided to make that change in July, and when you’re looking a change in July, you don’t think it’s going to impact, you know, September. It just seems so far away—of course you’ll make September. And we didn’t, we missed it. And it was a huge blow, but we knew that we were still going to get the product out. It was about, how close can we get it out before we miss the entire shopping season, so to speak. You know, ’cause most of the shopping season is mid-November to, really, just mid-December. And so, we were very cognizant of that. We were doing everything very much under the guise of, let’s learn and iterate, let’s learn and iterate, learn, iterate. And so, it was important for us to launch, but we also knew that we were in the process of learning.

Richie: [00:12:45] What was the assortment working up to the launch, I guess, and then, given your background from the media side, how did you think about the goals of what a launch should be, whether you want it to make a very loud set of noises, you wanted it to go quietly—how do you formulate what that should be?

Mia: [00:13:01] At Oars + Alps, we’re very data-driven. Everything from our beta before we actually did our launch, to understanding what three products we were going to launch with, was very driven by quant backing. So that is to say, in our beta, we chose four products. We realized out of doing those four products that we probably should launch with three out of the gate. It made the most sense to do that.

Mia: [00:13:21] And the four things that contributed to the products we launched—which was a natural deodorant, a two-in-one face moisturizer and eye cream, and that solid face wash—were these four factors: the first is what our customers wanted. So, just listening to them, talking to them, understanding that. The second is, we hired a former chemist at Kiehl’s, and she was very influential in helping to guide that process. The third was industry reports, and getting a sense of what was moving in the market, where it was moving in the market in terms of geography, and understanding the demographics behind which products were being bought. And the last—and this is really important—is, we did Google keyword analyses: going in and understanding, what are people searching for on Google? What are people searching for on Amazon?

Mia: [00:14:01] And as a result, we felt very empowered by picking those three products, specifically. The deodorant was something that we actually didn’t have in our beta group. And the reason that we included it in our actual launch is, it became clear by talking—not to our customers, because they weren’t telling us that they wanted a natural deodorant, but by looking at what people were searching for online—that natural deodorant was actually going up. And so we knew that we had to include that one, which is interesting, because we never had anyone test it initially in that beta. So that continues to be the process for how we introduce new products to this day, is those four big factors

Richie: [00:14:44] And so, now, it’s time to, I guess, launch the company you’re in, leading up to November. How did you think about, what did you want to accomplish? Often people, they have a number in their head of like, I think we’re going to do this much in sales on that day. Just talk about that process and then, I guess, how it ended up actually going.

Mia: [00:14:57] Keep in mind, I’ve never launched anything before.

Richie: [00:15:00] But I assume you’ve been on the other side, where people have pitched you on endless amounts of things that they want you to cover. Right?

Mia: [00:15:06] Absolutely. Yeah. As a journalist, I’ve been in the opportunity of being able to see lots of startups, and I understand a lot about how they go about launching. But when it’s actually your company and you have to launch it, it’s a little schizophrenic behind the scenes. We had amassed an email list at that point, but we weren’t doing anything ridiculous. We had very little money to spend on marketing. We heavily relied on Facebook and Instagram to be part of our process. But we didn’t have a pre-made Instagram page, and we did not have great emails, so to speak.

Mia: [00:15:39] It was really like, let’s get past our core level of friends, but let’s get to their friends, and how do we get to them to buy, initially? And we did a soft launch at the end of October. We launched to the public in early November. And it was scary. I’d be lying if I said we weren’t crossing our fingers and hoping someone would come. We really felt like we launched big—I’d say, like, really, like, six months after that. And a lot of that was driven by when we actually took institutional capital.

Richie: [00:16:06] Was there a goal for that November launch, or was it just, launch?

Mia: [00:16:10] It was launch, and like, let’s not ruin people’s Christmases, which we were very close to doing. We had some issues. There was a snowstorm. Laura and I were playing elves for most of December, because our boxes weren’t getting there on time. And it ended up being the case that people who ordered these gift boxes ended up getting two, because we would send some from the office, and our warehouse was delaying them. We were doing everything we could to scramble to make it so that we could ensure that everyone had a great holiday season. We did all the picking, we did the packing, we did the taping, we did the mailing. We don’t do that now, but it was a lot of hard work initially.

Richie: [00:16:45] So, talk about the thought process around, we need to go raise more money. We want it to be institutional. And here’s what we plan to do with that money, as well.

Mia: [00:16:53] Since we launched in November 2016, until we raised capital, our goal was to really show to investors that, look, here’s a brand that understands their consumer, that has figured out product-market fit, and needs to be able to just put a little fuel to the fire. And to constantly still experiment, because we were a young company. And that’s what we accomplished in those, call it, six months or so. We were able to show that customers love our products. We were also able to show that we’re very nimble.

Mia: [00:17:26] We had an issue with one of our deodorant components. Some of the deodorant was actually leaking if it was in a very humid or hot environment. And we wanted to make sure that we fixed it. And we did. We were able to quickly find a better component, better manufacturer, packaging supplier, to help do that. And by showing, I think, institutional investors that—they saw that number one, we understand our customers, and we know how to take a problem and turn it into the right solution pretty quickly.

Richie: [00:17:56] What was that process like? I assume the first time you’d raised institutional money?

Mia: [00:18:01] Raising capital is—

Richie: [00:18:05] The best.

Mia: [00:18:05] Raising capital is a beast, to say the least. I think some people really enjoy it, and some people really hate it. I’d say for us, it was always an opportunity to share the story. You know, some people are like, wow, two females in a room with men. And at the end of the day, we’re pitching them on men’s skincare. You know, I’m not pitching them on feminine care or anything else. It’s like, oh yeah, my wife buys my products too, or, oh, my mom got me my first box of skincare products. So, it was actually a very fun conversation.

Mia: [00:18:3] We did get asked several times, with all that being said, why two women were leading a men’s skincare company. And at first we were super defensive about it. You know, we would say, “Well, who buys your skin care?’ And then it would come out. And then we just started joking about it. We’d say, like, “Who do you think started Victoria’s Secret? It wasn’t Victoria.”

Richie: [00:18:52] So, okay, the money’s in the bank, then. How do you start to go spend it?

Mia: [00:18:56] Well, we had done no marketing, so we decided that we were going to start doing different marketing tests. And that was one of the big first things we did. We also knew that we had to not only redesign our website, but also to optimize our website. We had a very healthy conversion rate already, but there was a lot more we could do on these product display pages, as well as on the mobile experience. And so we knew that that was really important to us. I’ve had a customer say that he bought our products while he was on a ski lift, you know? Like, so, it had to be very easy—one click, go straight to your cart.

Mia: [00:19:27] We also spent some time doing consumer journeys. So it was important to us that we understood—and to talk to our customers on a quarterly basis. What do you like? What do you don’t like? What are you thinking? Just very casual conversations. And we still do those conversations to this day. Laura and I are both very involved in that. We also built out our team. Admittedly, I think we were a little slow to hire. You know, when you’re a small team, it’s all about trust. And I’ve always said, you either get a sense of whether or not it’s going to work out or not really, really quickly. We got that sense later on, as the company matured, and we were able to find some great people to work for us. But it’s very scary to bring on people. Because if you don’t bring on people fast enough, you’re stuck doing all the work yourself, which is what was happening.

Mia: [00:20:08] And we also recognized that, you know, at some point you have to bring people who are just execution-focused, because that’s where we were at that stage. We didn’t need experts, I just needed people who could get the job done. And I’m happy to train them, if that’s what I think that they can actually pull off.

Richie: [00:20:24] So for Laura, who’s someone used to working with or alongside massive marketing budgets, what is it like to be on a much smaller scale with a much more limited set of things to market? Or, what was that like for you to watch?

Mia: [00:20:39] It is challenging, but I think when you’re faced with a challenge like that, where you are under-resourced and under-capitalized, your creative juices start flowing. And this is also an environment where, you know, Facebook is getting a lot more expensive. So it wasn’t as cheap as it was, call it, a decade ago.

Richie: [00:20:55] Partially thanks to her.

Mia: [00:20:56] Yeah, exactly. Yeah, because she has all these clients that were hiking up a lot of these rates. Yeah, absolutely. So, we had to get really creative. And what we learned quickly is that email was very powerful. And so one of the first hires we made was someone to help us on the creative side. Laura and I are not creatives in that sense, and we just knew how powerful that was to visually tell our story. And so we hired someone to help us photograph the content, then outfit that content in a nice email, to ultimately convey and communicate what our message was. As a result of that, to this day, email is actually our most powerful channel.

Richie: [00:21:33] So I guess, segueing into the distribution side, going back to the beginning, was it obvious to you that this would launch direct-to-consumer? Was there any other option? Did you think about wholesale in the beginning? Or, there was really one main path to get this to market?

Mia: [00:21:48] So, when Laura and I, kind of, were outlining what we thought the white space was, it was clear that there was no DTC, direct-to-consumer brand that was focused on premium-end skincare without that premium cost. The so-called, you know, let’s cut out the middleman and pass those savings onto our consumers. We took a step back and said, we are going to fill this void, so to speak. Where we are now, we have done DTC for about two years. Again, I told you, it’s so important for us to talk to our customers. It is clear that a couple things have emerged in the past, call it, year. The first is, customers, when they order a product online, they want it the next day at their house, because our great friends at Amazon have introduced the concept of two-day shipping for Prime members. And so we knew that we had to really figure out what our Amazon strategy was.

Mia: [00:22:37] It was going to be a matter of when, not if, we go on Amazon. That’s the first piece that emerged. The second is, by talking to our customers, we got the sense—and then later validated this—that our customers had very clear channel preference. Which is to say that the person who shops on individual websites, the person who likes having individual boxes come to the dorm, is a very different person than [someone who] just wants everything from Amazon. And it’s also very different person who, convenient to them, is not ordering a deodorant and waiting for the deodorant to come three to five days later. Is actually walking out his front door, going to a drug store, and buying the products. That is convenient for them. And that person was not going to do the first or the second option, and vice versa. Once this channel preference became very clear through our consumer research—

Richie: [00:23:26] When was that?

Mia: [00:23:27] So, now we’re in 2018. So this was May of 2018. We started understanding this type of behavior. And we realized that, look, we probably got to find somebody to go in—like a big-box retailer—and we probably have to go on Amazon. Coincidentally, around this time, Amazon Luxury Beauty, which is a part of Amazon—it means highly editorialized pages, it means price control, it means no other vendor can sell your product, it’s a heightened experience—invited us to join. And we said yes, because coincidentally, also at this time we got accepted into the Target Accelerator Program. And there was no guarantee we were going to be in Target. But we started thinking, if our goal was to get in Target—because Target is really reimagining their stores—that we probably will get our products hawked all over the web, and we should control that price, not someone else. And so we decided to accept Amazon Luxury Beauty in July of 2018, and in February of 2019, we are now in 258 Targets nationally.

Richie: [00:24:37] So, to talk about Amazon first—you said it was a question of when, not if. That is not an opinion shared by most other brands in the space. It is changing slowly, potentially, but for a number of reasons—I think some are valid, some are, you know, existing biases—many companies would be like, never in hell are we going to go do that. What led you to have more of a open-minded approach on that, given there is ample risk and there are questions and so forth around that piece?

Mia: [00:25:10] I would say since we launched the brand in 2016, Amazon has always been dangling in the back of our minds. And we put it off for pretty much a year and a half, until it became clear that we were going to embrace an omnichannel strategy. We made sure that we had all of our ducks in a row leading up to that. And so much of getting your products out into the market in a way where anybody can buy your products, as many as they want, is that your product is going to start appearing in places that you don’t want it to appear in. And Amazon has really revolutionized the way that people are buying, and especially the way that people are receiving, their products—on the flip end of things. And so we knew going on Amazon was the right decision for us. We also knew that guys preferred shopping on Amazon, but that is to say that it was not mutually exclusive.

Mia: [00:25:58] There was channel preference, and a guy who wanted to shop on Amazon was just going to shop on Amazon. If your product was not on Amazon, he was not going to find your product. And so Amazon has been a key player for us, as we grow Oars + Alps. I recognize that some of the problems with Amazon is that, many could argue, you could be losing your brand identity. We avoided that because we’re on Amazon Luxury Beauty, so we create the content. We have more of an editorialized experience. The second—and I think this is probably the most compelling reason—is the lack of data. We are a very data-driven company, and you just don’t get a lot of data on who this customer is, shopping on Amazon. You don’t get a lot of information on what this person does, how much this person makes, what zip code.

Mia: [00:26:39] That said, it has been still a privilege be on the Amazon site. We don’t have all of our products there. We’ve been very mindful of which products we’re going to put there. Again, we look at what people are searching for on Amazon, and we put those products on Amazon. So you won’t find everything. One great example is, the top distribution channel for our beard oils is actually Amazon. We sell way more beard oils, by almost a factor of 10, on Amazon—

Richie: [00:27:06] It’s hard to find good beard oil on Amazon.

Mia: [00:27:09]—than we do on our own website. And I think a lot of that is because if you have a pain point—you have a dry, itchy, scratchy beard—you may put it in Google or you may put it in Amazon, and Amazon’s going to give you the top beard oils. And you’re not going to go to Oars + Alps to do that.

Richie: [00:27:24] Unless you know about it.

Mia: [00:27:26] Unless you know. And so, that proved very powerful for us.

Richie: [00:27:30] So, when you launched that in summer 2018, did it have any effect on your own ecomm?

Mia: [00:27:37] No. And that really convinced us that men have channel preference. None.

Richie: [00:27:41] Interesting. Did you see people would say, “Oh, we’re gonna go buy on Amazon first,” and then they would start replenishing to you? Or they would just continue going through Amazon, and that was okay?

Mia: [00:27:51] So, we decided that it was okay if somebody wanted to use Amazon as their main point to receive Oars + Alps. That looking to convert that person to our website was not going to be a fruitful task. That’s probably what is happening, I’d say, to the best of our knowledge. The people that we end up talking to, they’ll tell us things like, “Yep, bought your deodorant on Amazon.”

Mia: [00:28:12] And I think the dirty secret in direct-to-consumer businesses now is the second half of the entire customer experience that most customers don’t see until the box gets through the door, which is that shipping, is a lot more expensive. Pick-and-pack fees have increased. And the entire process of getting a product from the warehouse to the customer—even though there has been a lot more efficiencies, it is still a very cumbersome process. And, you know, our margins, actually—for single-item products—are actually better on Amazon. So, I actually want you—if you’re going to buy one product, you’re gonna buy our deodorant—I actually want you to buy it on Amazon. The first is you buying it on our website.

Richie: [00:28:49] So I guess, moving over to Target, talk a bit about, I guess, what the Accelerator Program is, and why it was interesting for you all to, I assume, apply to be a part of it, and kind of how that went. And then we can talk about the larger rollout.

Mia: [00:29:02] Yeah. I remember I applied really on a whim, just thinking, this is kind of cool, like, I’ll learn a lot about retail. If you recall, I said that we are going to embrace omnichannel, so I thought, I’m going to get a retail MBA. I don’t know anything about retail. Let’s learn everything I can. We were accepted. I believe over 250 brands applied. Ten were accepted to go up to HQ, which is in Minneapolis, and meet with senior leadership, meet with the buyers, really understand everything from how they think about churn, how they think about—what kind of velocity they’re looking to hit, how they think about brand on shelf.

Mia: [00:29:36] And it was very, very cool to listen to them talk about what they’re doing with men’s skincare. Target is reimagining men’s skincare. We’re talking about wider aisles, circular tables, lower shelves. And so they are affectionately referring to these stores as, you know, these, like, “men 2.0” stores, that is just really exciting to be part of. When we heard what they were doing, it was so encouraging, because that is what we were trying to fill on the DTC side. And we quickly realized just how important it would be to partner with someone like a Target, and to really be part of a system that is rethinking the way that guys are thinking about skincare, specifically as it pertains to natural ingredients, and also premium without that premium price point.

Richie: [00:30:24] So was it a series of meetings? Is it an ongoing—like, what is the actual structure of the program, I guess?

Mia: [00:30:30] The accelerator was held over a few months, and you had to be in Minneapolis, and then some of the stuff you could do from your own office. It is a constant hand-hold. To this day, Target is hand-holding us, which has been a really great experience.

Richie: [00:30:44] In a good way.

Mia: [00:30:44] In a great way. Yep, yep. In a great way. It’s been a really amazing partnership, to really understand what they want, what they think would do well, understanding the price points. And for instance, when we had done our designing for our packaging, we had gone from orange and black, which was in our beta—we quickly changed that, because it came across as too athletic-looking and very similar to what else was on the shelf. We moved to shades of blue, which was actually one of the best things we did, because it was able—a lot of women like that, and again, women are very influential to this. But we had to change our packaging yet again for the third time, because we were not retail-friendly.

Mia: [00:31:23] We had blue on blue, and that wouldn’t pop. And so we had to switch to white on blue, so that it would look a little bit more distinctive when it was on the shelf. And Target was very influential in guiding us through that process. That’s the first. The second is, we introduced a line of new deodorants with new fragrances. We introduced color for the first time. They are continuing to help us. We’re actually going through another process right now where we’re redoing some of our packaging to help make our color pop even more on the shelf. And so they’ve done a lot to really guide us. And as a start-up accelerator brand, we just get access to the leadership and get access to a lot of their thinking. That, I think, is unique to people who are part of this process.

Richie: [00:32:06] What was, I guess, the expectation for you going into it? And also, I guess, what did it require on the back end, too? It sounds like a lot of inventory, and so forth.

Mia: [00:32:17] Yes. So, it’s a big deal when Target wants to buy your products, mainly because you are upping orders. And it’s also very exciting, because you’re using more of your manufacturing capabilities, and more of the capacity. And it’s exciting for all of the vendors involved to be part of something like that. You know, when they took a bet on us, they didn’t think we were going to go into Target. And so there’s a lot that has to go behind the scenes from an operational point, in terms of sourcing, inventory, getting the right mix out, making sure that we have marketing to support a lot of that. And a lot of that stuff we did in, call it, Q3 of 2018, to make sure that we were on the right path forward. I’ve talked to brands who have gone into big retailers—not Target, but just big retailers—and it’s bankrupted them.

Mia: [00:33:00] And so, again, we were lucky because so much of our strategy in 2018 was that we were going to adopt an omnichannel strategy. And so much of 2019 is, we are omnichannel-focused. We are a three-legged stool. The first leg is really focusing on our DTC. The second is Amazon. And the third is Target. And we know who we are, we know who we’re not. We’re very focused towards working towards that. And to be honest, I believe that 2020 is also going to be very much this three-legged stool, because there’s so much potential in all three of those channels. And we are just at the cusp of what we can do. We are doing very little when it comes to marketing. We haven’t raised a lot of money, and we have a very small team. And so we’re doing what we can where we are, and there’s just so much room for growth in each of those three channels.

Richie: [00:33:44] Were their concerns that that was too much too quickly? That that could be potentially crippling or problematic? You know? ’Cause like, if you talk to people who sell in Whole Foods, they do something specific and local, then they go regional, and then they go—like, there’s more of a phased rollout, so to speak.

Mia: [00:33:57] Yeah. And I think if you put 258 stores in context with the 1,800 stores that Target has now—or will have—it is actually the right phase. The stores we’re in are the right stores. These are the “men 2.0” stores that have more of a department store-like feel, more of an experiential feel. So we’re in the right stores. The goal for us is obviously to grow that and to grow with Target as they really are trying to capture this guy who feels like he’s not being served by current products that are on their shelves.

Richie: [00:34:25] Were there ever thoughts of like, this might be too much too quickly, from your own team capabilities?

Mia: [00:34:30] No, we felt really good about the 258. Those are the right stores. I think we would probably have been a little bit taken aback if they said, “We’re gonna put you in all the stores.” Because you know, our product is more than double the drugstore product. We have natural ingredients. Not every zip code wants those type of products, or lend itself to being our target consumer.

Richie: [00:34:48] So, I would say Harry’s is probably the most—I would call it—interesting, but also telling, sign of how the shift has happened. Right? They started entirely direct-to-consumer. I guess they opened up a retail store as a kind of tiny experiment. They then started going into wholesale via Target—really have, you know, I think, shifted a significant part of their business to that. And then they launched Flamingo, which is only for women. And four months later it goes into Target and into wholesale, which to me is quite a telling sign of just the state of all of this.

Richie: [00:35:12] Looking at that, does that one, I guess, seem obvious? And seeing how a lot of other places are going to go, that you all realized sooner? And then, two, again, I’m curious from conversations with Laura on her side—again, especially coming from Facebook—that has been the gasoline for so many of these brands out there—what are, I guess, her thoughts on how quickly that shift is happening, driven significantly by the declining effectiveness and cost efficiency of that channel, specifically?

Mia: [00:35:39] Maybe we saw the crystal ball a little sooner, but we knew that DTC brands like us, were going to brace omnichannel, that we had to embrace omnichannel. I remember going into meetings with VCs in 2016, 2017 saying, “We’re thinking about Amazon.” And they’d say, “Nope, not interested. We don’t want anybody going near Amazon, it’s brand-dilutive to do that. You’re a DTC brand. Stick to what you know.” And we kept looking at the numbers. We’re looking at the data. Laura, working at Facebook, knows that Facebook is getting more expensive. She’s looking at her CAC, she’s constantly managing that. She’s looking at her ROAS—her return on ad spend—and again, we’re talking to our customers. And we’re talking to non-customers, too, by the way. We’re talking to not just our customers, but we’re also talking to people outside. And it is clear that channel preference is a real thing.

Mia: [00:36:26] You couple that with the fact that warehouse costs are going up, that Facebook is going up, and it was clear that we needed to embrace this. And again, we did it also in the name of an experiment. You can go off Amazon if you want to. You know, you could pull out of big-box retailers if you want to. And we did it as an experiment, but that experiment is paying off for us. Our customer is very unique, in a sense. It’s a guy. Most guys don’t want 20 boxes, branded boxes, coming to their door. You talk to females, it’s like Christmas every day when a box comes to their door. But most guys aren’t like that. And that’s fine. And you know, they’d rather have one Amazon box that has their Oars + Alps deodorant and their Oars + Alps moisturizer with, you know, their toothbrush and a book they just bought. And I don’t know, a tie.

Richie: [00:37:18] Their life.

Mia: [00:37:18] Their life. Exactly. And that’s okay. And with the explosion of DTC brands, you’re going to have some brands who decide that they want to control the entire experience, mainly because they want to make sure that from the moment they press “buy” to the moment they get the box, everything is very nicely done. If you buy a box at Oars + Alps, it’s going to be packaged nicely. You’re going to get information on what a deodorant detox is. You’re going to get collateral. You’re not going to get that experience on Amazon, and you’re definitely not gonna get that experience in a retail environment. And that’s okay, because the guy, the consumer who’s buying in those three places, they want different things.

Richie: [00:37:54] So I guess, looking into, kind of, the present, and then into the future, how are you thinking about, I guess, further product category expansion? And then as a general question, given you all bootstrap this in the beginning, given there has been institutional money coming in, how do you think about scale? Again, going back to Harry’s, raised a damn lot of money for a questionable return, and a lot of time and effort spent trying to be this massive, massive thing. Where on that spectrum of “good, profitable, long-lasting business” to “grow top line at all costs and hope someone buys it”—how are you all thinking about that, I guess, at this stage?

Mia: [00:38:29] So, I oversee all of product development at Oars + Alps. I love product development. And I think when you’re called Oars + Alps, you can get stretched in so many different directions, which is a blessing and also a curse. Because we’re so data-driven, I have a really, really fantastic sense of what my guy wants, and what my female wants to buy for my guy. I understand that really, really well. And that informs our product development pipeline.

Mia: [00:38:59] And so I know that our guy, for example, while he loves our skincare products, he doesn’t want a haircare product. He’s not going to spend a lot on a haircare product. He’d rather spend more on a moisturizer than on haircare products. We’re not going into haircare. That’s not to say we’ll never go into haircare, but I have no plans. In the next, you know—our three year roadmap, there is no haircare.

Mia: [00:39:19 ] I know what Oars + Alps is, and who it serves, and I know who it doesn’t serve at this moment. That’s really important. The interesting part of Oars + Alps is, actually, 30% of our customers are females. And you know, when you splice it, 20% are women who are actually buying it for themselves. And you talk to these women, and they’ll say things to you like, I have been using your men’s deodorant since I was on the fifth-grade basketball team. I think it works better. And with gender neutrality becoming a lot more prevalent than it was, these women are also being underserved in the market, and they want more of a less-girly option for a deodorant.

Mia: [00:39:53] And guess what? When we do our focus groups for deodorants, we don’t just do it with men, we do it with females. I think only two females would think of testing a men’s deodorant on females. And a lot of that is because women are part of this process. And a woman also has to like the way that her guy smells when she hugs him at the end of the day. That’s something that we’ve done, and we’ve implemented, because we do that naturally. So, we’re not going into females, we don’t market to females. But we have females that are our customers.

Mia: [00:40:20] Our next set of products are really focused on what our customers want. We don’t need to have that many products. We’re not going to go into everything. We’re going to go into those things that we think are solving a pain point. And of course, you know, from a margin point of view, we want to make sure that it makes sense. But that product-market fit is really important. The industry is not completely crowded yet, but as more and more entrants enter, you want to make sure you have a product that people actually love.

Mia: [00:40:46] For us, our “hero product,” so to speak, is really two-fold. It’s our natural deodorant, and we have an under-eye stick that does really well. I also think the simplicity of your [SKU] assortment is really important. I think some of these big, old, staid brands have something for everybody. And when you have something for everybody, you have nothing for everybody. And so it’s really important to stay true to simplicity: simplicity in terms of messaging, simplicity in terms of packaging, simplicity in terms of assortment, simplicity, ultimately, in terms of routine.

Mia: [00:41:16] Your second question is interesting. How do we think about other brands that have raised a lot more money than we have? And what scale means for us. Scale is really important. Obviously, you need money to scale. And we’ve been in a position where we’ve been able to scale based off of our small team and the little capital that we have raised. And we’re constantly thinking about what’s gonna get us to that next level, and how do we grow to that next level.

Mia: [00:41:40] And I think as a CEO and as a co-founder, you also want to be mindful of the fact that capital is actually very readily available. It’s about finding the right partners, people that are actually going to take you to that next level. Connections aren’t going to take you to that next level. Expertise won’t always take you to that next level. There’s a little bit of founder magic that’s required, and there’s a lot that you have to do with your customer base. So, some of the best investors we have are people who understand the data-driven approach we take that underlies the customer focus groups we do. So, you know, where Oars + Alps is, is like, we’re going to have to raise capital, and it’s really understanding who you are going to raise capital from.

Mia: [00:42:18] We have two goals. The first is, skin cancer among men, there’s a higher mortality rate for men than women, mainly because guys don’t put SPF moisturizer on. Oars + Alps doesn’t have an SPF product. We’ve been working on a natural product for a while. It’s very difficult, challenging and expensive.

Richie: [00:42:36] Because there’s regulatory—

Mia: [00:42:37] There’s a lot of regulatory issues. And if I can’t put it on my husband, hand over heart, I’m not gonna put it on your face. And that’s the reason we haven’t launched one. And again, that’s the reason I launched Oars + Alps, is because of the skin cancer that runs in our family. So we’re on product formulation, like, 260, that we’re still testing. And so that’s our first goal. And the second is, we want to be a household name. We want to be the go-to brand for natural men’s skincare. Skincare without the toxins and without all the bad ingredients. And to achieve those two goals, we’re going to have to raise money. And so the onus is on Laura and I to identify who are the right partners, who wants to build with us to achieve those two goals. And that is our north star. That is the guiding principles we use.

Richie: [00:43:17] What has been the cheapest and most expensive lesson you’ve learned building the company?

Mia: [00:43:22] That is a great question. Cheapest lesson I’ve ever learned is that there is nothing more important than picking up the phone and talking to a customer. Costs you nothing. You don’t even have to talk to them for more than a couple minutes. You learn so much from talking to people. I’ve learned good things, and I’ve learned bad things. And that’s been phenomenal for us. Expensive lesson is, I think the influencer space is a lot of hype. The influencer space, especially among the men’s world, is very expensive. And you don’t always see an ROI.

Richie: [00:44:02] As you look at the next, call it, one to two years, what is, I guess—I’ll call it the biggest challenge, but also something that could be turned into an opportunity—you see, the next future path of where the company goes? That is something, you know, you and Laura are constantly thinking of, trying to manage, and so forth. Like, what is on that list of things that are, kind of, top of mind, that you’re keeping in mind, that if they go a certain direction might get out of hand, but also if they can be harnessed and really focused, that they can actually be very, kind of, powerful drivers of everything to come?

Mia: [00:44:29] So, there’s a lot of noise in the marketplace, and everyone wants to give you their own opinion. And what works for one DTC brand that has hit, you know, $500 million in sales, is gonna be very different than another DTC brand.

Richie: [00:44:40] I don’t think any have, by the way.

Mia: [00:44:42] Uh, $100 million in sales—it’s going to be very different than another one. And I say that only because it’s not a cookie cutter. If it was cookie cutter, everyone would be doing this, and everyone would be saying it was easy, and all these VCs would have great exits. And no one has. And you had alluded to earlier, a competitor who may not actually ever have one, because they’ve raised or scaled too quickly. And so, again, there’s no perfect model, because people want to be different, and brands want to be different, and so they’re all creating something different. I can tell you that at Oars + Alps, we will not stop until we hit those two missions. And we haven’t hit those two missions.

Mia: [00:45:19] In fact, Richie, we’re not even close to hitting those two goals. And so, once we do, I will feel like my work here is done, and I will do everything I can to make Oars + Alps a household name until we get a great SPF product on the market, and we make a big dent in the men’s skin cancer statistic. And we will do everything possible until we get there. That is going to require a couple of things that pose challenges. The first is finding the right partners to provide capital to help us do that. That’s important. And that lends itself to the next challenge, which is finding the right people.

Mia: [00:45:53] I now am focused on finding people who have been there and done that. And I say that because expertise now is really important to me, because for Oars + Alps to grow, we need to improve a lot of our operational efficiencies, and we really need to be able to scale on our marketing. We’re doing very little on a marketing basis. And finding people who can help with those two aspects are going to be very critical at this juncture. And I think it’s important to know when to hire the right people. You don’t want to over-hire early on. You also don’t want to hire the wrong person. And that is what we’re focused on now. Again, finding the right institutional partners, and the right people to help us get to that next level, which is exciting.

Richie: [00:46:33] But also challenging.

Mia: [00:46:34] But also challenging. That’s right.

Richie: [00:46:36] Awesome. Thanks so much for talking.

Mia: [00:46:37] Thank you so much for your time.

Richie: [00:46:43] Thanks for listening to the Loose Threads podcast. You can read full transcripts of the podcast and join the newsletter at LooseThreads.com. Feel free to leave a review on iTunes, we always appreciate it. And thanks to George Drake, Jr. for editing this episode. We have a great roster of upcoming guests and we hope that you tune in next week.