For decades now, in most corners of the corporate world, men have felt a systematic pressure to look a certain way. And that certain way has been given a name: "clean-cut." In other words, sporting anything longer than a five-o-clock shadow suggests you're less clean--you're letting your appearance go, you don't care as much, you might even work less hard than that smooth-faced coworker next to you.
Thirty-three year old Eric Bandholz, now the founder of the men's grooming products company Beardbrand, knows this feeling well.
"At work I would get mocked for having a beard," he says. "They'd ask me things like, 'forgot to shave?'"
By May 2011, Bandholz's desire to grow a beard became so strong that it helped him decide the corporate lifestyle just wasn't a good fit. So he left his job as a financial adviser at Merrill Lynch in Spokane, Washington. Instead, he began to pursue what he calls the "urban beardsman lifestyle," working his own hours as a freelance graphic designer.
It didn't occur to him that his growing beard might also be pointing him toward entrepreneurship until he attended the West Coast Beard and Mustache Championship in Portland in 2012. A hirsute take on a beauty pageant, the annual competition draws upwards of 150 participants and over 1,000 spectators. Bandholz showed up sporting a four-inch beard he spent eight months growing. Finally, he was in his element: he was surrounded by other men that had ditched the razor blade routine. When he returned to Spokane, he started blogging about grooming techniques, making videos and profiling men with winning beards.
"I wanted to show beardsmen in a positive light," he said. "They have great jobs and families and are out there raising money for charity." Bandholz was starting to build a small but loyal following. This was also when he started thinking about trying to turn those profile videos into a real show that would feature bearded men from around the world.
Later that same year, Bandholz brought this idea to a Startup Weekend, a bootcamp for launching a business idea in 54 hours. The feedback? Fun idea but not big enough to be a real business. But he joined forces with two other participants, Lindsey Reinders and Jeremy McGee, and by the end of the weekend they had realized an emerging business opportunity right in front of them: a mens grooming products company.
"There wasn't anything out there for beardsmen who wanted a high-quality, premium product," Bandholz said.
The trio named their company Beardbrand. The brand carries a range of products, including a beard oil to moisturize the skin and eliminate dandruff and a mustache wax for styling. Reinders handles the product procurement and wholesale management, McGee oversees operations and strategy, and Bandholz is in charge of marketing.
The Beardbrand team bootstrapped the initial product development, producing the products in small batches at first and devising the formulas in-house. Reinders and McGee each invested $4,000 to buy into the business, and none of them took any of the profits out of the business for the first 10 months.
Sales were somewhat slow until he was featured in The New York Times as an expert on beards coming back in style. Beardbrand capitalized on the exposure by promoting itself on YouTube, Reddit, and Tumblr and by finally launching an official online store.
"Growing very rapidly with limited funds is a big challenge," he said. "It's a fine line between running lean and risking selling out, versus building a large inventory and not having that cash work for us."
Beardbrand continues to be funded by its revenue, though Bandholz did seek investment on Shark Tank on October 31, 2014. Even though he walked out without a shark partner, he says the exposure to his brand was tremendous. Web traffic and online sales tripled after the episode aired, and more small retailers began to line up. Bandholz estimates that close to 80 percent of Beardbrand's business is direct sales from their popular website and the rest comes from selling to over 120 barbershops and boutiques all over the world, including Selfridges and 7 For All Mankind. In November 2013, Bandholz says he finally started paying himself a modest salary. This November alone, Beardbrand did $450,000 in sales.
The last few years have been welcoming to beards, which so far have outlasted other man-centric trends like trucker hats and puka shell necklaces. November has turned into a month-long men's facial hair holiday with Movember and No Shave November, two concurrent social media-driven campaigns encouraging men to grow out their facial hair to raise awareness for cancer. And beards are becoming fashionable even in corporate, clean-cut business settings, especially on the faces of young Silicon Valley executives. Look no further than Google's co-founder Sergey Brin.
Beards' popularity have also put the shaving industry through a rough patch. The Washington Post reported last month that American spending on razors fell last year for the first time since the recession, and sales are estimated to flatline.
As sales for razors and shaving cream declined, Beardbrand began receiving inquiries from retailers. "They are seeing that sales for shaving products are declining and are trying to find out where that money is going," Bandholz says
Art of Shaving, Procter and Gamble's high-end chain dedicated entirely to selling shaving and grooming products, has begun carrying products for bearded fellas, and just last month Tom Ford released a new conditioning beard oil.
As for whether or not Beardbrand might have just be benefitting from a short-term trend that will inevitably fizzle out, Bandholz is unfailingly optimistic.
"We're not at the start of a beard fad, we're at the end of the shaving fad," he says.