From Lagom #2

Uniting the Modern Beardsmen

With the popularity of beards reaching new heights (and lengths) in the world of style and fashion, we quizzed Eric Bandholz — founder of beard grooming company Beardbrand and online magazine / community Urban Beardsman—about the culture of beard-wearing.

Words Elliot Jay Stocks

Photographs Todd White

Although those sporting beards were once seen as unkempt hippies or men who didn’t take time or effort over their appearance, times are changing and many are now embracing the beard. No longer viewed as scraggly messes, beards are now being seen as a sign of style and sophistication, with more men proudly growing out their facial hair with the help of beard-grooming products.

Eric Bandholz is one such man, and has dedicated himself to nurturing the newly emerging community of the modern beardsman, while breaking into a new and growing market offering beard oil and other products from Beardbrand.

I sat down with him to discuss changing attitudes to beards, uniting a community, and launching a new business. Much beard-stroking ensued. 

Eric, I read on your website that you fell in love with the ‘beard lifestyle’ at the 2012 West Coast Beard & Mustache Championships?

Yeah, right on, in Portland, Oregon.

You had an eight-month beard at that point?

Yes, at that time, which was January of 2012. I’d started growing my beard in May of 2011.

Was the competition your inspiration for growing a beard in the first place?

No, the story goes back a bit further than that. I worked in sales for a printing company, but during the downturn in the market, in late 2008, I was laid off. In that time I grew out my first beard around that December and grew it for about two or three months. I thought it was huge! That was the longest beard I’d ever grown.

Opportunity came for my wife to take a job in Spokane, so we moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Spokane, Washington. During this move, I was growing my beard out and thinking how huge and big it was, and how I was going to fit into the Northwest. I got there and found that no-one had a beard in Spokane.

I looked for work in the area and ended up taking a job at Merrill Lynch, a big bank. During the whole process I was living a lie, as I had shaved off my beard. I worked there for about a year and a half, and I absolutely hated it, so I quit. After that I decided I wanted to grow the beard back out again, and not trim it until I felt like trimming it.

I went through the six-month period, the eight-month period, and then the twelve-month period! All these periods have varying stages of difficulty that you don’t realise until you grow your beard out for the first time. I shared my experiences with the world online, and shared my thought process on being a businessman. At that time there weren’t a lot of business guys who were sporting a beard, and I think a lot of people really connected with that.

Talking about the beard competition, I’d seen Whisker Wars on TV and it seemed like a lot of fun, and I dug the culture, so I went along with a couple of our friends from Spokane. It was the first time I’d visited Portland, and I had a great time there. I noticed there were other people like me there who were graphic designers, or who worked in an office all day, and had beards! That’s when I realised I wasn’t going to wait for anyone else to unite this community: I was going to do it. 

I saw a before-and-after photo of you with and without the beard, and you talked about how dramatically it can change a man’s look. Did the idea come from that first beard you grew and having to shave it off again? Or was it after the Portland event? 

I’ve always considered myself a ‘beardsman’, even going back to high school and college. I would grow what I could, but I didn’t have the best genetics for growing a beard. I’d have a little chin beard or sideburns or whatever it was, but I always had a little bit of facial hair.

I think we’ve all been there!

I had this habit of growing my beard for two or three weeks, and then shaving it off, growing it for another two or three weeks, and shaving it off again. I’d go through the cycle where I’d always have some kind of facial hair, but it was usually the stubble or short look. It was that trip to Portland, where I grew it out for three months, when I started growing it longer.

When did this happen in relation to you setting up the online store?

I’m an entrepreneur at heart, and I’ve worked hard to start a business. During the times when I wasn’t working for ‘the man’, I’ve tried to start up businesses by myself. A lot of these businesses have been unsuccessful; ‘learning lessons’ as we like to call them. What I’ve personally learned is that I hit these down spots emotionally when building a business, and I can’t get out of them without the help of someone else. I realised that I can’t start a business without having business partners. I started going to Startup Weekend events, which are weekend-long events where you do a crash course on building a business. I worked there with my current co-founders and really enjoyed it. That’s where we realised we worked well together.

We wanted to build a business together, and we tried another business that didn’t really launch. During this time I’d been blogging about Beardbrand with no monetisation — simply building the community. I told them I had a reporter contact me from the New York Times and that they’d be running an article on it in a few weeks. We decided to put a store up to see what happened and try to build off it. I sold them some equity and the rest is history, as they say.

At that point it was just the blog, so you hadn’t actually created any products. Was this the thing that made you decide to go out and make your own products?

We had a blog, a YouTube channel, and a Tumblr page. We didn’t have our own products, so we contacted another guy who already had some beard oils and was willing to wholesale it to us so we could get the store established.

How did you go about transitioning from that to making your own products? How did you start sourcing the oils?

We identified that there was a risk with our current supplier, who was a one-man operation. He served us very well and had a great product, but our whole business was dependent on his product, and when we looked at the reality of the situation, we realised that we couldn’t rely solely on his business.

I wanted this business to be a means for me to support my family, so we decided it was imperative for us to develop our own product. We started researching and formulating on our own, and developing products in-house. We try not to concern ourselves with the competition, but just focus on what we like and what we think is the optimal product.

We developed beard oil to be really lightweight. You almost don’t feel it, but it still softens up your beard. We sold both our own products and our supplier’s side-by-side until our old vendor decided he no longer wanted to sell to us. We then focused on our own line and kept growing. 

So you went from the oils to the moustache wax, and on to the other grooming accessories?

Yeah, and we noticed when we started bringing in our new items, not only did our average ticket price go up, but our conversion rates went up as well. I think people viewed us as being more legit, as we had a larger product inventory. One thing that really helped us out with our Beardsman

Kits were all the very high-end shaving kits containing beautiful razors, badger hair brushes, and bowls. There’s all this for shaving, but there’s nothing like that on the market for beards. We wanted to have the ultimate beardsman kit where there’s no shaving involved at all. It’s all about beard-grooming. We were really surprised by the amount of demand for that kit, but at the same time it doesn’t surprise me, because there’s nothing else out there. To this day, I still don’t think there’s anything as nice as that kit for beard-grooming.

I think inherently a lot of beardsmen are independent people. They have their own vision and their own drive. I think it’s a community of independent people.

There’s a lot of talk recently about beards being so trendy that they’ve shaved (pun intended!) millions off the razor industry. However, I’m sure a lot of value has been added to the grooming industry thanks to companies like yourselves. Do you think that kind of levels things out?

It’s funny; every time I talk about the business to someone who doesn’t have a beard, they either think it’s a niche market, or a fad that’s going to end. We’ve created a new category for a product that hasn’t existed before, which really enhances the experience of people with facial hair to the point where the product sells itself. It’s a phenomenal product.

I don’t imagine the market is ever going to get so small that it can’t support the type of business we’re doing today. Even if this was a total fad and the ‘trendy’ beard-wearers shaved off their beards tomorrow, there’s still going to be hundreds of thousands of guys with beards who would love to use a product like this.

Exactly, and you do a great job of nurturing this community of fellow beardsmen. Do you think there’s a natural tendency for bearded men to band together? Is that any different from those just doing it because it’s trendy? Is there a challenge to establish ‘authenticity’, for want of a better word?

I think inherently a lot of beardsmen are independent people, so they’re doing their own thing. They have their own vision and their own drive. I think it’s a community of independent people. They can all identify and relate to each other, but they don’t necessarily always bend together. They do it in their own way.

You always have respect for another guy with a beard. You give him the ‘beard nod’; it’s a little bit like a sort of brotherhood, but it’s always done independently. Everyone is growing their beard for their own reasons. There are some people who do it for the style aspect, but I would think the majority of men who are growing their facial hair out have always wanted to have a beard. They just didn’t have the confidence to grow it in the workplace, or with their spouse or partner.

Beardbrand gives them the support they need to feel confident growing their beard, helping them to handle the tricky situations when someone asks you to shave or comments negatively as you grow it out. That kind of support didn’t exist ten years ago.

I’ve had a beard for years, but it’s not really until reading what you’ve written about the inspiring side of having a beard, and having those products available, that it feels that you can wear beards a bit longer. It gives you the confidence of knowing that it’s not going to become a gigantic, scraggly mess.

I think what works to our advantage, compared to what works to the shaving companies’ disadvantage, is that growing facial hair is in our DNA. It’s in our nature to grow beards. The natural state for most men is to grow facial hair. What Gillette is saying is, “hey you’ve got to be someone else. You can’t be yourself. You have to shave your face to fit in with society.”

What we’re preaching is, “hey, you can be yourself. A beard is ingrained in your DNA and if you want to grow, then grow. We’re helping you embrace who you are as an individual.”

That’s what we encourage a lot with our stuff; if you’re going grey, or your beard is not the quality of a bearded model’s beard, then that’s okay. Embrace who you are as an individual and be confident in yourself. I think people identify with that.

That’s a really positive message. In terms of coming to Europe, did you face different challenges bringing the word of the beard here? And is it different from a business perspective, such as different buying habits?

I think from a business perspective it’s been a very challenging process for us. I still don’t know if I fully comprehend it. I know how things are done here in the States and what we can provide with reasonable expectations, but I don’t know how these same things are handled in Europe. It’s been a bit of a learning lesson, like including VAT in the prices. I think one of the hurdles we’ve had is having two stores: one US and one UK.

We don’t include taxes on our prices in the States, so then people will come in and see the prices are higher in the UK store and get upset. But they don’t see the VAT included, and don’t see the customs we pay for it, import duties, and all that goes into the business. It’s been a harder challenge with that, but hopefully we can really build the European market and the UK store to stand on its own, and it will have its own clout to start driving things forward.

I think what works to our advantage, compared to what works to the shaving companies’ disadvantage, is that growing facial hair is in our DNA.

Have you noticed any kind of cultural difference, or a sense of people being prepared to talk about beards as much in Europe?

We’ve done trade shows in Berlin and Paris, and from visiting, I think that our mission is right in line in Europe. We’re about being stylish and fashionable and caring about your image. The beard is also part of that. Whereas in America, I think a lot of Americans — especially in the bearded world — are about being a real man, and growing a beard represents that for them. For us, however, it’s more style-driven; more about being well kept and professional.

Eventually removing the stigma of, “if you’re going for a ‘professional’ job then you have to shave your beard off.” 

Right. I don’t think you’re any more a man if you shave, or if you choose to have a beard. There’s nothing wrong with choosing to have a beardless or shaven face. We don’t want to pressure you into growing a beard for the sake of growing a beard. We want you to embrace who you are, and if you’re a person who likes to have a shaved face, then do it. That’s cool. No sweat off my back.

I heard you appeared on Shark Tank. What happened with that?

We appeared on Shark Tank, which is like Dragons’ Den in the UK. It was a great opportunity for us to get in front of the nation, tell our story, and show what we’re about. We didn’t get a deal with any of the sharks, though — not even an offer. We continue building independently, without any outside investment. This shows me there’s still a lot of opportunity for growth and affecting mainstream individuals.

So it was not necessarily a bad outcome.

No. For us it was ultimately a win-win situation. The only negative outcome that could have come from being on Shark Tank is if they portrayed me to be a wacky, goofy, circus-like type of business. But I didn’t have concerns about that because our numbers were so good, and because we’ve connected very well with our community.

So, what’s next for Beardbrand?

We’re planning on coming out with a subscription-based service, but it’s probably just going to be available in the States. We’ll also continue to release new products, including a beard wash and beard softener very soon.

The subscription service sounds interesting. Is that because you’re finding a lot of people are returning customers? Or is it so you can keep selling to people and offering them a cheaper price per unit?

I think it’s both of those. It’s an easier experience for consumers when they don’t have to remember to get their beard oil when it’s running low. We haven’t launched it yet, but the thought process is that people who are part of the club will get free shipping, so it will ultimately save them a sixth of the price.

We do have big plans to really focus a lot of attention on our European market, so we’re hoping to develop a communication platform that’s different to the US site, where we have European-based products focusing on the local market. Hopefully there will be a more tailored approach to each store so they are able to function independently.

That sounds like a great idea. Beard on! 

Lagom #2 cover

You can find this interview in print in our second issue, and much more. Please consider purchasing an issue via our online shop. 

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