Looking for MP’s interview with Friction Labs’ co-founders? View it here.
For pro rock climbers and casual boulderers alike, the quality of athletic chalk is not something to overlook. With magnesium carbonate acting as the key ingredient, athletic chalk is designed to help secure a proper grip by soaking up the moisture on your palms and fingers. As climbers reach altitudes up to hundreds or even thousands of feet, the stakes are high. Athletic chalk is the one layer between them and the rock, helping them hold onto a surface that is often too small or slippery to grip. Regardless of one’s skill level or the amount of strength training they’ve had, if the points of contact with the rock surface lack the necessary amount of friction, a fall becomes increasingly likely. For many, this makes athletic chalk a piece of gear that is completely integral to the rock climbing experience, something as essential as the climbing ropes themselves.
Friction Labs is a company on the frontier of designing and developing athletic chalk that meets the high standards of pro athletes worldwide. Featured in articles published in the Wall Street Journal, Men’s Journal, and fitness and outdoors publications such as Outside, the company has garnered attention for its revolutionary line of high-performance athletic chalk.
Founded in 2013, Friction Labs was born out of frustration with the lack of quality athletic chalk options on the market. Company co-founders Kevin Brown and Keah Kalantari first noticed the gap in their personal lives. In an interview with Modern Professional, Brown commented, “At the very beginning, we were just selfishly trying to make a better chalk product for ourselves. Keah’s a bit of a skin health nut, and the available options weren’t cutting it, so we had to find better chalk if he was going to keep climbing.” On top of that, Brown himself had a negative experience with a bad batch of generic chalk that made him question the science behind the athletic chalk, as well as the production process itself.
As a self-described “science geek,” Brown decided to further research into the ingredients and manufacturing processes. It was soon discovered that although various climbing companies publicly branded each of their athletic chalks differently, in terms of ingredients and production, almost all of the chalk was identical, often even created at the same factory and simply placed in different packaging. Furthermore, while countless climbing companies have dedicated themselves to providing various types of climbing gear ranging from ropes, shoes, and even chalk pads, none had yet done this for athletic chalk, so climbers didn’t even have a choice in which kind to use.
The co-founders were shocked at how overlooked this was, given the fact that, unlike many other climbing improvements that require a lot of money, time, or both, they could easily manufacture high-quality chalk at an affordable price. From there, the goal was simple: change the formula and maximize the number of friction climbers need to conquer any climbing challenge. A more confident grip would ultimately help athletes perform better, which became the vision that Brown and Kalantari held onto throughout product development.
At the beginning of the company’s growth, Brown stated his biggest fear was being too limited in the scope of which athletes they could help. “From the start, we’ve focused on climbers, and what we’ve learned is there are so many other athletes who can benefit from our product, but we haven’t been able to reach them yet.”
That quickly changed. Now, Friction Labs creates products that are used by countless Olympic-level climbing athletes across the world, as well as members of the NFL and MLB, pro tennis players, and of course, thousands of gyms and fitness centers in the US and abroad. In addition, in any sport that generally requires long-lasting grips, such as weightlifting or gymnastics, you can find athletes who rely on Friction Labs athletic chalk.
The question of why Friction Labs over any other athletic chalk brand boils down to what its co-founders have dubbed “PPT,” which stands for purity, particle size, and texture. Generally, athletic chalk is mined as dolomite and consists of magnesium carbonate, calcium carbonate, and several other compounds. Magnesium carbonate is the key component, as its molecular structure pulls moisture away from the hand and traps it inside its crystalline structure. Meanwhile, calcium carbonate attracts water outside of its crystalline structure, which maintains a more slippery, slimy feel on the outer part of the skin. By using a higher concentration of magnesium carbonate and further reducing the amount of calcium carbonate, Friction Labs successfully created a formula for a more effective, long-lasting chalk.
Additionally, magnesium carbonate comes in a more pure form. While other chalk brands are still using the more generic form of chalk that originates from factories in China with poorer quality control, Friction Labs chalk is refined domestically in Denver, Colorado. It lacks many fillers and artificial drying agents that can often cause damage to one’s skin. By doing so, Friction Labs produced a more pure form of magnesium carbonate that consisted of ideal particle size and consequently increased adherence to climbers’ hands.
In terms of texture, Friction Labs leaves that choice up to the athlete. Generally, chalk can come in several forms, including liquid chalk, powder chalk, and solid blocks of chalk, with the powdered form is the most common type. Friction Labs offers three major powdered chalk formulas, also referred to as the “Friction Labs Animal Series.” Each of these chalks shares the same molecular base but differs with regard to consistency. One of the most popular powdered chalks sold is Unicorn Dust, which has a much more fine consistency that is light and comfortable on the skin. Gorilla Grip is another favorite option that has a moderate amount of chunky powder, while Bam Bam has the most chunky consistency and is, therefore, closest to the feeling one gets from solid blocks of athletic chalk. Which type of chalk is used is strictly determined by the personal preferences of the climber.
It’s one thing to hear a company promote its products, but how do Friction Labs products compare to other similar products on the market? The answer can be found in countless testimonials online, where climbers-turned-bloggers have conducted their blind tests. In one example, a climber recruited a panel of several amateur athletes to conduct a blind test comparing the Friction Labs Unicorn Dust blend against six other top loose chalk products and run multiple trials across all kinds of terrain. Each of the testers picked Friction Labs as their favorite chalk due to a combination of easy-to-apply even coating, the feeling of increased security while gripping the wall, and the fact that it didn’t dry out their hands which enabled a much longer, more enjoyable climb.
Often this is a fine line; chalks need to overcome grip problems created by sweat, rain, and humidity and minimize as much moisture as possible without drying out or further damaging the skin. Having healthy “climbing skin” has been compared to NASCAR drivers having good tires. In other words, it’s essential for high performance. Yet, an ongoing battle is striking a balance between removing excess moisture without causing damaged, cracked skin that will easily tear. To make matters more difficult, everyone has different skin compositions and baseline moisture levels on their hands. As such, formulating chalk that equally creates better performance for all athletes can be a tricky endeavor.
Yet, Friction Labs has proven they can successfully navigate that line. Indeed, climbers have reported experimenting with other unique ways to increase skin performance, ranging from something as simple as making house rules to avoid doing the dishes the morning before a climbing day to something as extreme as using strong skin-drying agents, such as antihydral, several times per year. Yet, athletic chalk remains one of the most practical, safe, and effective ways to achieve and maintain healthy climbing skin.
Overall, as Kalantari put it, the main objective of Friction Labs is to “improve how athletes think about, use, and care for their hands with products as ambitious as they are.” And countless ambitious athletes have stood behind the company’s mission. Climbing pros such as Arnaud Petit, Karoline Sinnhuber, and Alex Johnson, among many others, are found on Friction Lab’s website, echoing positive sentiments of its athletic chalk.
Professional athletes such as Alex Johnson can often serve as the litmus test for other amateur climbers in terms of determining which chalk brand to rely on. Johnson grew up deeply entrenched in the rock-climbing competition scene. Her first win was at the young age of 12 at the Youth National Championship. She has climbed with the US team for 16 years and made history in 2008 by becoming the first American to win a Bouldering World Cup on US soil. Two years later, she repeated history by winning gold in Switzerland, making her the first and only American to win a Bouldering World Cup gold medal overseas. For her, Friction Labs is “inarguably the best chalk in existence,” with Gorilla Grip and Unicorn Dust being amongst her favorites.
Alex Megos is another example of a high-caliber athlete who became swayed by Friction Labs chalk’s quality. Originally from Germany, Megos is the third person in history to have climbed a confirmed 5.15c/9b+. As such, he is one of the most influential and accomplished rock climbers of his generation. He stated, “I’m very pragmatic, I do things just if they make sense to me. I was skeptical when people told me that Friction Labs chalk is better. I doubt everything first before the difference is proven. So I did a test on the same boulders, the same day with different types of chalk. I got convinced. Friction Labs chalk really does make a difference.”
The sheer number of athletes using Friction Labs products speaks to the company’s success and ingenuity that even a global pandemic couldn’t hinder, despite the fact that fitness centers and gyms made up a significant portion of their consumer base. Brown and Kalantari attributed this partially to the rapid development of a product called Secret Stuff Hygienic, the first hygienic chalk in the world. A combination of athletic chalk and hand sanitizer, Secret Stuff Hygienic helped sanitize hands and reduce the spread of germs on surfaces while still serving its original purpose of providing extra friction and grip.
Kalantari stated, “Almost overnight, we went from the best growth in the history of the business to not even being able to get our best customers on the phone. It was a nervous time for our team and Kevin and me as employers and business owners. We asked our gym customers how we could help, and they told us that hygiene was the most significant thing they were focused on to keep members active. That…led to the fastest product development and most successful launch we’ve ever had with Secret Stuff Hygienic, all within a few months of the pandemic starting.”
Amongst the company’s core values is its ability to adapt to a changing market quickly. Although there is clear demand and a robust supply chain in place for a commoditized product such as athletic chalk, a degree of innovation is still necessary to guarantee their business can run in the long term. “For a small business, momentum is everything,” Kalantari commented. “Projects take longer than you expect. Unexpected challenges arise almost every day. Customers, vendors, and partners come and go despite your best efforts. Any one of these things can derail momentum and throw the team into a funk quickly. Knowing how to turn challenges into opportunities, not only for yourself but also for your team, distinguishes the best leaders.”
The pandemic was only one example of this. Another challenge was ensuring that the manufacturing process and the product itself were environmentally friendly, another key focus of the company. As it stands now, Friction Labs has employed tactics such as using fully compostable packaging and producing chalk in its densest form, so they ship less air, enabling them to reduce their carbon footprint. Learning how to continually evolve the company while maintaining that eco-friendly status as well as low costs for its users has been, and still is, a learning process for the entire Friction Labs team.
Overall, the work culture at Friction Labs is deeply entrenched in this pursuit of perpetual improvement, as well as keeping the focus on what the company will become in the long term. In the words of Brown, “If we do well, we always ask how we could have done better. If we win or lose a deal, we talk about what went well and what didn’t. We are always looking for some way to get better. A bunch of 1% improvements shows a considerable improvement over time.”
“Kevin and I try to run our business so that it will be here in 100+ years,” Kalantari added. “That starts with being financially conservative, so we can ride the big waves when they come and know that we’ll be ok if we crash. If we can do all the above while managing the financial side of the business effectively, we put ourselves in a position to build and keep a great team and an excellent business for years to come.”
So, what’s next? Friction Labs has several new products on the horizon, and the company is actively establishing practices to help them function in a more eco-friendly way. While at the company’s genesis, the biggest fear was being too limited in scope. Now the fear is complacency with their major success. “My biggest fear is that we become complacent with what we have and fail to see what’s coming,” Kalantari said. “As our team leaders, Kevin and I must find the right balance between making the most of what we have while continuing to innovate. It helps me to remember that we’re building something that we want to last. So, if we keep making minor improvements, I can be confident that we are setting ourselves up for success.”
The commitment to improvement is apparent, as is the company’s dedication to providing the climbing community with high-quality chalk that matches their own dedication to the sport they love most. Brown and Kalantari summarized this commitment in an interview with Moja Gear, stating, “You put a lot of yourself into climbing. And you get the best results when you and your gear both perform as well as they can – not only to keep you safe but also to get you to the top. As climbers ourselves, that other stuff just wasn’t what we wanted between us and the hold.” It’s this exact passion and respect for their users that have gained the attention of pro athletes and amateurs around the world and pushed Friction Labs to the frontier of athletic chalk.
Cover photo courtesy of Friction Labs.