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MP recently sat down with Kevin Brown and Keah Kalantari, co-founders at Friction Labs. Friction Labs is an athletic chalk company with chalk products that will be used by most Olympic climbing athletes from every country at the upcoming games in Tokyo. Its chalks are also used by athletes in the NFL and MLB, on the pro tennis tour, and at thousands of gyms and fitness centers in the US and worldwide.
MP: What is Friction Labs, when was it founded, and how has it grown over the years?
FL: We started Friction Labs in 2013 to make clean, long-lasting chalk for athletes who want to perform better. We originally developed our products to meet the demands of rock climbers. Today, top athletes use our chalk in all sports that require dependable, long-lasting grips like in weightlifting, gymnastics, tennis, and pickleball.
MP: What makes Friction Labs’ athletic chalk unique?
FL: It comes down to PPT: purity, particle size, and texture. Other chalk brands use the same generic chalk from China that many athletes are used to. We responsibly refine our chalk in Denver, Colorado, to eliminate all the unnecessary fillers and artificial drying agents that can wreck your skin. This results in the highest purity magnesium carbonate with ideal particle size for adhering to your hands. Then, no matter what your preferred texture is, we’ve got it: Unicorn Dust is primarily a fine powder with small chunks; Gorilla Grip is chunky with some powder; Bam Bam is super chunky with some powder. Our Secret Stuff family of liquid chalk products is available in Original, Alcohol-Free, and Hygienic blends, each suited to different athletes’ needs while minimizing chalk dust. And our Magic Chalk Sphere delivers our chalk through a permeable, refillable cotton fabric that dispenses slowly over time when applied to hands or equipment.
MP: Why did you initially start Friction Labs, and how has the company evolved over the years?
FL: 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. Kevin had a terrible experience with a bad batch of generic chalk that made him curious about the science behind the athletic grip. Over time, we realized that many athletes – both in climbing and beyond – could perform better with a confident grip. Today, our vision and purpose are to improve how athletes think about, use, and care for their hands with products as ambitious as they are. We want to help athletes perform better, have fun while we work, and give back to worthy causes along the way.
MP: What led to and inspired the name Friction Labs?
FL: Friction Labs is rooted in our dream to help bring quality friction to every athlete’s grip. If you have the right friction, you have an excellent grip, and that gives an athlete the confidence to perform at their best.
MP: What is your greatest fear as an entrepreneur, and how do you manage that fear?
Keah: My biggest fear is that we become complacent with what we have and fail to see what’s coming. 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.
Kevin: My biggest fear is being too limited in the scope of what athletes we can 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.
MP: What are three pieces of advice you can share with people looking to become influential leaders in their businesses and why?
Kevin: Practice as you play. Athletes who practice hard perform well. They’ve put in the hard work, and they know how to perform even when they are tired or the conditions aren’t excellent. The same is true in business. When a new person joins our team, we role play with them and make it harder than most of their customer interactions, so when they do work with our customers, it feels easy, and they deliver a fantastic experience.
Get better every day. We have a culture that believes we’re in pursuit of perpetual improvement. 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.
Play to your strengths, improve your weaknesses. We lead with what we are good at and rely on those abilities to grow the company. However, we also look for what do we suck at. Improvement in our weaknesses is the most significant opportunity for long-term improvement.
Communication is the foundation of a successful team. Every week we meet to talk through how each area of our business is performing and share all the financials, even how much money is in the bank. Every person on our team needs to know and understand how their contribution plays out in the company’s success. This keeps us aligned and working together towards a common goal. It’s easy to get in a silo and think about just your job. When everyone is challenged to think about how their work impacts and compliments the rest of the team’s work, everyone raises their game.
Set high goals and celebrate! We set quarterly goals for our company, which are not easy to attain. Everyone has to play their part for it to come together, and when it does, we go out and have a good time. Work hard play hard may sound cliche, but the cadence of work, accomplishment, and celebration remind everyone why we work so hard.
Keah: Keep it light. When things are stressful, it helps to remind our team that we do all of this to help athletes perform better and have more fun. If the process isn’t fun, what’s the point? Plus, how serious can things really get when you’re having a meeting about a product called Unicorn Dust?
Focus on momentum. I used to think that we should set big goals to challenge ourselves as a team. For example, I thought sales reps should strive to make 100 phone calls per day. Even if they couldn’t do 100, setting a big goal would maximize what they did, and I was happy with that result. Eventually, I realized that the sales team saw things differently. To them, missing a goal every day felt like a failure, and keeping the same goal made it feel like every day in the future would be a failure, which is probably the biggest momentum-killer there is. So, I realized I had to adapt my leadership style, which meant setting achievable goals with an eye on building momentum over the long haul.
Build for the long-term. Kevin and I try to run our business so that it will be here in 100+ years. 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. The long-time horizon helps us keep our focus on the pursuit of perpetual improvement. If we keep making 1% improvements in everything we do, we’ll achieve great results over time.
MP: What are three obstacles you’ve faced growing Friction Labs over the years, and how have you overcome them?
Kevin: Bootstrapping. From the start, we put our own money in to get things going. Along the way, cash flow challenges and being a new company meant we had to make sure we had a quick return on investments and operating lean. This showed up as we ‘automagic’ our way to connect systems and make things work.
Manufacturing. As the only US manufacturer of chalk products, there have been many humbling lessons learned. Thankfully, we have a creative and resourceful team. We’ve leveraged our collective talents to build and scale our manufacturing operation.
Environmental friendliness. A significant focus for us is how we can run our company in an eco-friendlier way. For example, we’re moving our packaging to truly compostable packaging. We’ve also figured out how to produce our chalk in a denser form, so we’re shipping less air, which will allow us to use a smaller packaging footprint as well.
We have a few new products coming out towards the end of the year as well.
Keah: The pandemic. As a company that sells primarily to gyms, 2020 could’ve easily been a killer for us. 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. We came up with the idea of combining chalk with hand sanitizer to help keep hands and surfaces clean in the gym while still providing an excellent grip. That idea 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. Our team came out of this experience with a new level of confidence in achieving together.
Hiring. Early on, we were guilty of hiring too many people too quickly without a clear plan. You don’t have to go through that twice to realize how painful and costly it can be, especially when business gets more complicated. It’s far better to hire slowly and carefully to avoid costly turnover.
Innovating a commodity. In some ways, selling a commoditized product like chalk is great for a new business – there is clear demand and a robust supply chain in place. In other ways, it can be a challenge – the market is used to thinking of a commodity in a certain way, and it can be challenging to communicate innovation and differentiation, especially if that comes at a higher cost for the user. This is an ongoing learning process for our whole team, and thankfully, as we like to say, it’s not not working.
MP: What questions should would-be entrepreneurs ask themselves before starting a new venture and why?
Kevin: Who can you learn from? Starting a business is one thing. Selling your product and service is another. Managing cash flow and a team is a totally different challenge. Finding great mentors to learn from is not easy, and it’s an essential skill if you want to find success.
Why are you doing this? It’s way easier to find a good job than start a company. If it’s just about money, you may want to focus on that and find a good job. On the other hand, starting and scaling a business is a humbling challenge. If you don’t have the right reason why you’re going on this adventure, you’ll want to bail when things get hard…and that WILL happen.
Keah: How am I wrong? Even if you have a great idea, you are wrong about a lot of the details. For example, Kevin and I knew that we could create better chalk. In the early days, though, we were focused entirely on building an e-commerce business instead of getting our chalk in gym retail shops. It wasn’t until we embraced retail partners that we started to experience significant growth. Entrepreneurs might find that they can make better progress by assuming they’re wrong and trying to figure out exactly how.
Do I need to start a business to accomplish what I want to accomplish? There are many ways to achieve any goal, and starting a business is just one of them. If your business starts to experience any success, running it will need as much, if not more, attention as the goal itself. You must be ready to take on both of those challenges if you start a new venture. If you aren’t, you would likely be better off finding a job or project that lets you make progress towards your goal without all the distractions of running a business.
What am I willing to suffer for? An entrepreneur’s job starts with seeing opportunities. I’ve found that opportunity, when pursued, can feel a lot like responsibility. As enjoyable as entrepreneurship can be, sometimes being responsible isn’t fun. I do best in that situation when I have clarity on why I’m choosing to be in it.
MP: Do you believe there is some sort of pattern or formula to becoming a successful leader?
Kevin: No, there is no perfect formula to becoming a leader. It takes the desire to be a leader, the heart of a servant to serve your team and encourage them to follow, humble transparency, and a lot of grit. The best leaders inspire their team to play above their level. You must invest in, encourage, coach, and share knowledge with your team.
Keah: The best leaders are the ones who succeed at building momentum over the long term. For a small business, momentum is everything. 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.
MP: What’s your typical day look like, and how do you manage your work-life balance?
Kevin: I start early, usually around 5 am. First, with a workout, then time with my family to get the kids off to their days, then it’s all work until time to pick up the kids. No work until the kids go to bed, then I wrap things up for the day. I take a few minutes every Friday to reflect on what went well and what can be improved, so I focus for the next week.
Keah: Over the eight years of running Friction Labs, the structure of my days has changed a lot depending on what’s going on in the business. There have been long stretches of working remotely or working in the warehouse, and I enjoy adapting to those situations as they come up. The one constant for me, though, is that I like to get up early to have some quiet time to read, exercise, meditate, and prepare for the day before things get moving. The best part of my day is usually an evening walk with my wife, Sarah.
MP: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Kevin: Seek out, find, and earn mentors. So many of the moments of success we’ve had with Friction Labs came from guidance and advice from many of the mentors I’ve sought out. Don’t ask someone to be your mentor. Earn it. Hustle to get their attention, and when you finally ask direct questions on subjects they can easily guide you on, take the advice, and turn it into action. When you’ve done what they advised, give them a brief update on your outcomes and thank them for their time. If you are thankful and take action, most people who have had success can’t help themselves but make some time for you.
Keah: “Worry pretends to be necessary but serves no useful purpose.” – Eckhart Tolle. This might be the biggest lesson I’ve learned while building Friction Labs and striving to manage our team better. For a small business to succeed, having a great team is necessary. Working hard, thinking carefully, and having a plan is required. Being agile and adaptive is essential. Listening to the people who matter is essential. Luck is necessary. Worrying about any of it, though, isn’t necessary. That’s a choice.