The first thing you notice about Nicholas Karnaze is his glorious beard. Of course, that’s what you’d expect, given that he’s the founder of Stubble and ‘Stache, a company that makes all-natural products for beards and the skin that lies beneath them. Stubble and ‘Stache was founded in honor of Justin Hansen, Nicholas’s friend and fellow special operations Marine, and it donates a portion of its profits to charities supporting veterans and their families. When Justin was killed in Afghanistan in 2012, Nicholas grew a beard in his memory, and learned the hard way just how difficult beard maintenance can be. And so Stubble and ‘Stache was born. When asked about what it’s like to be an entrepreneur, Nicholas says, “I don’t think about myself one way or another. Things happen, and you adjust to it.” For more about adjusting gracefully to life’s twists and turns, read on!
What would you call yourself – how would you describe what you do?
I don’t know what I would call myself. I’m just working on my company. It’s my second one. My first one failed miserably, but it was a great learning experience.
What was the first one?
It was inspired by my time in the Marine Corps. I did special operations work. We were deployed to Afghanistan, and we were doing typical special operations stuff – kill/capture missions. They weren’t working. My boss asked me to figure out what to do to make things better. I started meeting with a lot of locals, employed an analytic method to understand what was driving the insurgency, and came to find out that the two villages that were problematic used to be connected by a big road that had become impassable. The villages had been two major trading hubs. We ended up doing a million dollar road project supported by two micro-grant initiatives on either side. It got to the point where Secretary of State Clinton was briefed on the project, which was awesome. After that experience, I realized hey, could be a viable method when addressing instability.
How did that turn into a company?
I had done that project with a USAID development officer. He left USAID and I left the Marine Corps, and the company we started used methods we’d used in Afghanistan: We’d identify areas in the emerging world that were unstable and potentially posing a threat to US national security, and we’d find ways to solve the problem before sending ground troops in. As it turned out, the government isn’t really receptive to projects that are about potential. They’d much rather see a problem that’s there now and invest in it, rather than investing in preventative measures. The idea was warmly welcomed in a variety of areas, but if you have a business that’s not making money, it’s just a hobby. I walked away from it and took a day job at a friend’s company. Then a buddy of mine was killed in Afghanistan. He had a big beard, and I decided to grow my beard out for his funeral. I told people it was a coping mechanism. That’s when my skin started getting itchy and irritated. I wanted a product I could use on my beard and use on my face. I couldn’t find it, and since I’m a nerd, I decided to make it. I was in my kitchen watching Breaking Bad, and while they were making meth, I was making lotion. Originally it was just for me, and then some of my Navy SEAL buddies were like, “Bro, I want that,” and I realized it could be a viable business.
So, in starting a company like Stubble and Stache, does that mean you have to have a beard for life? What if you get sick of it? What if you decide you don’t want to rock that style anymore?
Would you ever get sick of having hair and shave your head? I look like I’m 19 when I’m clean-shaven. You can’t buy beard products from a person who can’t maintain a good beard.
How did you develop your formulas?
I did a lot of online research. Believe it or not, there is a lot of underground do-it-at-home cosmetic type stuff. All you really need is a thermometer, a stove, some glass beakers and the appropriate ingredients. After I came up with the original formula and got the prototype out, I realized that I wanted to go commercial with it. That’s when I reached out to a professional lab. I’m all about handmade stuff, but if I’m putting a product on my face, I don’t want something that’s made by hand in someone’s kitchen. There’s the possibility of cross-contamination, bacteria, and unsafe manufacturing processes. I want something that I’m going to use to be produced in a scientific, controlled, FDA-approved manufacturing facility. That’s why I ended up partnering with a lab to produce our products in a very sterile and sanitary manner. We’re still taking the same handmade approach, it’s just done on a larger scale, and it is subject to a very stringent set of standards and guidelines that are FDA compliant.
What were the first ingredients that you used?
Aloe. This compound called BTMS-50, which is actually a very gentle conditioner that Johnson & Johnson uses in their baby conditioner. I also used grapeseed oil, avocado oil, jojoba oil and argon oil.
How did you get the idea for your first mix? How did you even know to get those ingredients? Were you looking at the backs of other products that you liked?
I did do that. I would also highlight which problem I wanted to solve, and then identify the most effective ingredients to do that. And then I would ask: Do these work together? Are they safe? Is there any bad press about any of these things? It took us about eight months to get the final formula right.
How did it feel when you got it right? Were you like, “Eureka, it’s made!”
I was. And then I realized that I needed to figure out how to sell it. Everyone thinks they’re going to start a company, and it’s going to be amazing. Then you realize nope, nothing comes easy that’s worth it. You have to identify the value proposition. It’s about telling the story and conveying the benefit and differentiating yourself from other things on the market.
Why should I buy anything you’re selling?
Because it’s amazing. All of our products are dual purpose. A lot of products focus on one aspect of growing a beard. Ours focus on keeping the beard healthy and reducing the itch. We have anti-aging elements as well. And there’s the philanthropic component, where we donate a percentage of our proceeds to men and women who suffer from mental wounds from combat: post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury and depression.
What about women?
Every girl I’ve dated since starting the company uses the moisturizer. The mark-up in women’s cosmetics is insane. The same ingredients that we use – this is primarily on the anti-aging side – would be three times as much if we were selling directly to women. Women read labels. Guys don’t. Half my customers are women who buy for their husbands, boyfriends, cousins, fathers. I’ve received emails from women saying, “Hey, I love your stuff, I’m ordering more for my husband, because I read the label and now I use it.”
What are three ways in which being in the military uniquely prepared you for owning a business and why?
- When you’re in a war zone, and you’re being shot at, that’s a real situation. Appreciating what’s really important and what’s not is key. When things are going badly, it’s like, okay, is it really that bad? Maybe you should just suck it up a little bit. That’s very important, especially when you’re starting out, and things aren’t going the way you want them to.
- In the military, we have a saying: No plans survive first contact with the enemy. Instead of freaking out when things don’t go as planned, you can say, okay, let’s adjust things. And in order to be able to confidently adjust your plans, you have to know what you’re doing.
- In the special operations community, your life is dependent on someone else, and their life is dependent on you. Just being able to accept help and gracefully accept constructive criticism is really helpful. You need to be able to appreciate the ideas and value the ideas of other people. You have to realize that as awesome as you think you are, you might not be that awesome. And that’s okay.