Nick Karnaze: “Life’s a Team Sport”

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Nick Karnaze: “Life’s a Team Sport”

How the death of fellow Marine inspired a veteran to start his own business.
Nick Karnaze, founder of stubble and ’stache | Courtesy

Soon after Nick Karnaze returned from service in Afghanistan, the U.S. Marine Corps Special Operations combat veteran learned that one of his close friends had been killed in Afghanistan. Karnaze grew out his beard for the funeral. His search for solutions to the itching of the new growth inspired him to start stubble & ‘stache, a company that makes beard care and skincare products for men.

Based in Arlington, Virginia, the company sells a wash and moisturizer for face and beard, as well as a styling beard balm. The CEO, who attended the Stanford Ignite program at Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2015, is also committed to donating a portion of his company’s profits to benefit wounded veterans.

In 10 words or fewer, what is the big idea behind your business?

Men want to look and feel good about themselves.

Why now?

Men have always cared about the way they look, whether they admit it or not. It used to be considered not manly to pay attention to your appearance, but that is changing. Not long ago you had to get your hair or skin products from your girlfriend or wife. Now men are being presented with options. In 2014 the men’s toiletry market surpassed the men’s shaving market for the first time. It could be that more men are growing facial hair. Maybe they lost jobs in the recession and didn’t need to shave every day, or they work at a startup where the culture is more relaxed and it’s more acceptable to have a beard.

How do you describe your primary target audience?

Our primary target audience is men, 25 to 40 years old, who have facial hair and care about their appearance and personal health. Half of our buyers are women who are getting products for their husbands. We have a lot of traction in the military and veteran community. Except for those in deployed in places like Afghanistan where you are culturally more respected if you have facial hair, most male members of the military have a close haircut and a clean shave. After they leave the service a lot of men who shaved every single day will grow out their beards because they can.

Hipsters are another market for us. Having a beard has become a sort of refined masculinity. We are aiming for James Bond meets The Most Interesting Man in the World.

What are your biggest challenges right now in building your business?

Brand awareness. Also, I did not appreciate the time it takes on the creative side for good product design.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

One of the first things they teach you in the Marine Corps is: No plan survives first contact with the enemy. You need to put together a good plan and understand what you are doing. But once the first shot is fired, your plan goes out the window. You do what you have to do in order to keep pursuing the mission. You have to keep thinking, “How can we move forward? How can we adjust?”

What was the most difficult lesson you have learned on the job?

I didn’t appreciate how lonely it would be to have a single-founder startup. It’s like solitary confinement. It is very important to have a network of people you can reach out to who understand what you’re going through. We started selling product in September 2013. I thought we were going to gain a lot of traction with digital marketing. That didn’t happen. The first two months went by and sales were so bad it began to look like the business was not sustainable. I needed help to get traction. My aunt used to work in PR and gave me a list of writers and bloggers to call. In November that year one of those bloggers included us in a holiday gift guide. In one day we did more sales than the first two months combined.

What advice would you give other entrepreneurs?

Life’s a team sport. You can’t do anything of value entirely on your own. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Every entrepreneur I have met who is good at what they do wants to help others succeed. It is not a zero-sum game.

What inspires you?

I used to be shy. Now I just walk up to people with beards and talk to them. Men with beards respect one another. People give me a “What’s up?” nod all the time. I’ll see a guy with a beard and ask about his grooming routine. I also ask his partner: What do you think about his beard? I look for points of friction.

I didn’t appreciate how lonely it would be to have a single-founder startup.
Nick Karnaze

Our beard balm came from those conversations. I met a guy at a bar in Washington, D.C., and started talking to him about his beard. He said he got a lot of flyaways and that in humid weather the hair poufs out. Another guy told me he didn’t like that most of the beard grooming products in stores are stiff and you need to warm them in your hands, which get sticky. We wanted to make something lightweight to keep your beard manageable that doesn’t feel like plaster on your face.

What is your greatest achievement?

On my last deployment to Afghanistan, we were doing a lot of traditional special operations: kinetic operations, or kill/capture missions. It wasn’t achieving the desired effect. My boss told me to do what I needed to do to make things better. Instead of focusing on the enemy, we decided to focus our attention on the people in the community. I visited with the village elders and learned about an important road. It used to connect two villages and served as a trading hub before it became a violent area that people were unable to cross. Crops were dying and tourists stopped coming. I proposed a project to connect the two villages and provide micro-grants to local businessmen as a way to regenerate the local economy. We received $1 million in funding and negotiated with a local Afghan construction company to build the road. I had no previous experience in road construction or negotiating feuding tribes.

What do you consider your biggest failure?

I left the Marine Corps to start a company to handle international stabilization operations. Certain parts of the world are trending toward instability, which proposes a direct threat toward U.S. national security. I was doing a startup thing with an out-of-state business partner. Our relationship began to sour and I walked away from the company. I lost a really good friend.

What values are important to you in business?

Integrity and loyalty. We need to be loyal to our customers and always do what is best for them. If we earn their trust, they will keep coming back. The same is true for employees. In a startup you have to be able to trust the people you work with to do the right things or own up to it and correct as soon as possible. The levels of integrity and loyalty are intense in the military.

What impact would you like to have on the world?

I want people to know they are not alone. I testified before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs in an effort to improve veterans’ access to mental health care through the VA. It is easy as a veteran to feel you are alone. Civilians don’t always “get” you. We will all have dark days. I want to do things that bring people together.

What was your first paying job?

When I was 6 we lived on a golf course. We used to get a lot of stray balls in our yard. I sold them back to the players. When I was in high school I was a waiter at a retirement community. It was humbling and inspiring. They love to talk to young people. I remember one couple I met there. After we talked a bit they rolled up their sleeves and showed me their tattoos from Auschwitz where they met. They told me their story and then said, “Nothing is impossible.”

What is the best business book you have read?

Good to Great by Jim Collins.

What businessperson do you most admire?

My mother. She raised two kids, worked full time, and pursued her master’s degree. She became an executive with a network of hospitals. She maintained a balance of looking out for her family while also commanding respect from the people who worked for her. She defined for me the image of what I thought a strong business person would look like.

What do you think is the greatest innovation in the past decade?

The rise of social media. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram that allow small businesses like mine to compete with billion-dollar companies and achieve market share. Those same platforms can be used to start movements and overthrow governments.

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