By Rhiana Chickering
“The only board meetings we like are on surfboards,” says founder Chris Birchby and his team at COOLA, an organic suncare company located in sunny Carlsbad, CA. As a smaller company with determination from every team member, the creativity and energetic ambiance of COOLA is extraordinary.
Birchby, greets me at COOLA’s headquarters with a smiling face and his exuberant pug, Woody.
He begins giving me a tour of COOLA, and as we walk through the different areas of the company, the art pieces continue. It turns out, Chris painted this art. Before committing to COOLA full-time, he was a selling artist who had art displayed in galleries.
COOLA feels more like a creative co-working studio, as teams are located in sections: the product development, finance and accounting teams downstairs, and marketing, social media, customer service teams and an office that Chris shares with COOLA president Eric McCues upstairs.
We continue to the warehouse area of the building where COOLA suncare products are packaged and shipped to consumers, in which we come across a kitchen with cold brew and sparkling watermelon water on tap from an organic beverage company. Chris’ painting of the ocean hangs above the sink. As we resume to the packaging and shipping area, surfboards are displayed in one area of the warehouse, illustrating a communal love for ocean activities and, well, the sun.
In the packaging and shipping area, large boxes of COOLA products sit on warehouse shelves, but, as Chris assures, there is enough room for growth within the warehouse as sales increase.
The most amazing aspect of COOLA is that everyone seems happy and passionate about what they do at COOLA.
So what can every entrepreneur or business leader learn from COOLA founder Chris Birchby?
Here are six key points.
- Always have an open mind.
For one year, Birchby lived in New York, working in fashion as a production assistant for Steven Meisel, one of the world’s top fashion photographers. Birchby recalls, “It was…eye opening to see art and commerce together.”
After this opportunity in New York, Birchby attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. During this time, Birchby’s parents were diagnosed with Melanoma. “[My parents fortunately caught it in enough time to have full recovery and are still healthy and happy, but it caused me to look at some of my background of suncare habits over the years,” says Birchby, “One statistic really jumped out at me is that a bad sunburn under the age of 18…can double your chances of melanoma later in life, and I used to get burned all the time.” Even though the damage had already been done, Birchby wanted to prevent further damage.
“I [discovered that there] wasn’t a great organic sunscreen out in the market, so I thought this might be a great opportunity to use what I learned working in fashion where I could kind of combine art and commerce together,” says Birchby. “That was [when] the idea for COOLA was born.”
- Know that some business’ that you work with are not always altruistic.
Birchby admits, “It very challenging to get off the ground. I was very naïve. I didn’t know anything about the [suncare] business. I didn’t know anything about business, per say.”
For starters, the laboratories Birchby first worked with took advantage of start-up companies. Birchby recalls working with the first laboratory, “I spent a bunch of money to get beautiful tubes made and [put the sunscreen] in the tubes,” says Birchby. After placing all of the sunscreen in its packaging, Birchby received the SPF results back from this FDA approved laboratory, and he realized the product did not contain any sunscreen.
Birchby set out to confront the company by contacting one of the brothers, who, according to Birchby, said, “My brother did something very unethical, and I am no longer in business with him.” Birchby continues, “[After that], I got in touch with the other brother, and he basically said, ‘Screw you. I’m leaving the country, and you aren’t getting any money back.’ And so I was out all my money from this first one.”
While working with the next laboratory, Birchby tested his product prior to placing it into the packaging, and the SPF values were proper. He also had this laboratory create the silk screen, which is the labeling on the tubes. Birchby says, “I was so excited. [But] when I went to the lab, and I…picked up the product, all the silk screen came right off the tube. [I] just rubbed it with a finger, and COOLA…everything came off on the front.” Even though the laboratory used the wrong ink for the plastic packaging, they were not going to give Birchby a refund. Birchby recalls, “I had to find a lawyer. I had to find a lawyer on Craigslist because I didn’t have any money. My lawyer, we met at a Starbucks. I saw that he took a bus to Starbucks. I don’t think he had a car or an office…But we went and we ended up getting back…30 cents on the dollar.”
When Birchby went into business with a third laboratory, he made sure that the product and packaging were made properly. The finished products were stored in a warehouse located in Los Angeles, but, unfortunately, the warehouse burned down. “There was just charcoal and little blue melted blobs, which was all of our components and packaging,” says Birchby. Even worse, the warehouse owners did not have any insurance, so Birchby set out to find another lawyer.
“At this point,” Birchby says, “I was about ready to give up, but I decided to go one more time, and fortunately, the fourth time was the charm. The silver lining is, through each one of these processes, I kept on improving the formula, the packaging and everything about the brand. So, by the time we got out there, we were in a much better position to succeed.”
- The company is only going to go as far as the founder.
In 2007, Birchby made deals with 5 star resorts and beauty stores in Los Angeles. Birchby says, “At this point, I hated talking about the brand, I hated being a brand ambassador [and] I hated getting up and talking in front of it. I just didn’t feel comfortable doing that.” However, Birchby quickly realized that no one else would be as passionate as he was about COOLA’s suncare products, and consumers care about the founder’s story and where products come from. Birchby says, “I needed to become…more serious about getting in front of the brand [and] getting more comfortable public speaking…Ten years down the road, I am getting in front of the brand, talking about it and trying to share the passion that we have as a company with other people out there.”
- Hire people who are better than you.
Birchby acknowledges, “As company founder, something that I’ve always taking great pride in is hiring people who are better than me at things I used to do [when I first started COOLA.” When Birchby hired his own marketing and social media team, he realized how much he did not know about the social media analytics and search engine optimization for the website. So, bringing in an excellent team and instilling the passion in them has been…my greatest accomplishment here,” says Birchby.
- Turn to everyone in the company and everyone you work with outside of the company for inspiration.
As a leader who strives for an innovative edge, Birchby explains, “We [look toward] many different avenues for innovation and inspiration.” From raw material material manufactures who work with plant stem cells and develop new ingredients to retailers, such as Sephora, who have data that informs COOLA what is trending and what products are missing in specific categories, COOLA is always open to not only listening to advice, but transforming the data and ideas into action.
- Align yourself with mentors who inspire you.
Mentors help people with uncertainty because they have most likely experienced similar situations before. Those with mentors will be able to make more informed decisions and make less detrimental mistakes down the road.
“I went into [business] very naïvely without knowing how much time and energy that it would take,” Birchby confesses, “You are also going to spend a lot more money than you anticipate…You need to be aware of where you are going to get those funds. That’s why I think it’s good for you to find someone to mentor you.”
Now, what would Chris Birchby do differently if he was starting all over again?
“Again, I went into it very naïvely, without knowing how much time, energy, that it would take, and you have to be dedicated and passionate,” Birchby replies. “You have to be 100% dedicated to [the business] and have it consume your life if you want it to be successful. There is so much competition out there now if you’re not working on it, you have to remind yourself that every time you’re not working on your business, someone else is working on their business, that is competing against your business.”