When Troy Tyler and Lisa Brodar left the bright lights of the big city for the scenic vistas of Portland, Maine seven years ago, many might have guessed they were hanging up their branding hats for good. It turns out the former startup and marketing veterans had a more ambitious plan in mind. Beginning with a small line of lip balms and soaps sold on Etsy, they founded Portland General Store, a premium, all-natural skin care brand made with zero synthetics and locally sourced ingredients. Amid its highly coveted assortment today are deep cleansing soaps, beard oils, smelling salts and even an old-fashioned shave puck. But perhaps most alluring are its fragrances—unabashedly masculine and old world, with names such as Whiskey, Tobacco and Bootlegger, hand-blended exclusively from essential oils in an organic base of cane sugar alcohol. In many ways, much of the luster surrounding men’s grooming today owes itself to this one brand, yet Portland General Store’s deepest concern isn’t just its next shaving cream but rather bringing sufficient awareness to the planet’s already fragile ecosystem. Here, our conversation with Troy on Portland General Store’s start to how it disrupted big industry and continues to chart its own success story with originality and good old grit.
What was the impetus behind the brand launch?
I was living in New York City and Lisa was too. She was working as sort of a producer at a magazine and in advertising. She also worked in circulation. She was good in that sort of marketing work. I had done a few dot-com companies in the New York start-up area. We were both living downtown. And we both became interested in sustainability and slow food and the whole farm-to-table movement. I had done a lot of reading by these writers called new urbanists and they talked about how it would be really great to live in towns that are walkable and where you don’t have to take car. So we went to visit a bunch of cities. We went to Corvallis, Oregon; we went to Eugene, Oregon. We looked at a lot of these cities before we “fled” New York City. And we chose Portland—right on the ocean, phenomenal farm-to-table movement. They have an incredible fishery there. It’s a walkable, scaled city. So we started Portland General Store in 2007 trying to connect with that movement and doing small-batch soap by hand and putting it on Etsy. What we found was the things that we did for men took off really well on Etsy. People wanted gifts for men and the buyers really resonated. Then 2-3 years ago, a big breakthrough for us was the aftershave appeared in the Real Simple holiday gift guide. So here we were in the kitchen and we got 1,000 orders for this, something crazy like that. So what we’ve done since is always try to launch new and innovative products and scale the company. We’re now at the point where we’re sold in a number of countries around the world in specialty boutiques. We’re sold in a lot of places that would sell nice jeans to men and those kinds of clothes, and of course we sell the whole line online.
So the farm-to-table movement was already happening when you got there?
Nascent. Now it’s just incredible. The other thing that’s interesting is if you look left field you’re probably aware that this whole maker movement is really popular, even in tech with 3D printing. To me I see a parallel. Portland General Store is serving the interests people have about what goes on their skin. I would say part of the interest and success of Portland General Store is people are interested that we are human beings, it’s a family-owned business and we really make stuff. To me there’s this relationship within the maker space movement. If you think of 3D printing and the whole maker movement and people looking at American heritage or legacy brands, made in the USA—to me all these things are part of a whole ecosystem of ideas where people want to make stuff.
How difficult was it to start the line and what would you advise people who want to get into the business?
I think the really challenging thing about Portland General Store was that Lisa, who’s an artisan and craftsperson, had in me a veteran business school-educated, multiple start-up partner. So what happens with Portland General Store is Lisa works with her nose in her lab and makes interesting things, and then it becomes my problem to scale. It’s always that. You grow and hit limitations and resources. There’s constantly this need to evolve the company and scale it. The challenge with every start-up, whether it’s Facebook or Portland General Store, is all about scaling the leadership of the company. That’s really the challenge. Can those people scale what they’re doing?
Indeed you’ve previously talked about the challenges in scaling it when everything is harvested by hand.
Whenever we can we use locally source ingredients from Maine. Lisa herself is a beekeeper, so of course we can use her beeswax. But can Lisa produce enough beeswax for us to use? No, so we purchase it from someone else locally. I think what you’ve hit on is an interesting question about personal care. If we had a list of all the essential oils Lisa uses to make things, probably only 20 of them could be sourced in North America. So when you think about history, the Silk Road, the spice trade, these things that are inputs into personal care come from all over the world. They were even used as a currency, right? Somebody reminded me the other day of the Christian story. What did the three kings bring the baby? Gold, frankincense and myrrh. The point is essential oils have always been so essential and so valuable because they’re often distillations of tons of material to get some small elemental thing. People in the industry are also concerned about that. There are questions out there whether the growth of naturals can be curtailed by the natural stocks of those essentials. Personally I think naturals have a lot of room to growth. Maybe what we have to do is be more innovative. Maybe we’ll find some wild flowers in Maine that no one’s ever used and then make that an input.
For your company, are there certain months of the year that are more critical to production?
The personal care market is very cyclical. Part of that is the weather. When people are out in the summer and they’re doing more things, sales of personal care go down, except perhaps for something like sunscreen. People are less attuned to grooming. Then you take urbanites like New York City people, who are in more closed quarters in the fall and winter. There’s also that back-to-school, back-to-grooming ritual so men become much more interested in grooming then. So I believe anecdotally 40% of our sales occurs in the last quarter. Generally the winter is slow and it picks up in the spring. Then the summer is slow. That’s actually the opposite of the harvest cycle. The peak of a harvest would be summer, which is slow for us, and then winter would be not an agricultural time—even for bees. Bees work really hard for six months so they can live off stores for the other time.
Well, how concerned about the honeybee crisis?
What I know is people are understanding a little better about what causes Colony Collapse Disorder. Bees are only one of a number of pollinators that everyone tries to kill. I’ll give you a good example—wasps and hornets. People think kill them all. But they’re pollinators. There are butterflies and all these insects that don’t get the attention that bees get that are really critical in food production. Speaking of that, I like to remind people that without these pollinators, not only do you not have food. Not only are these pollinators making your food, they’re making the inputs to personal care. So that’s the big tie between natural organic skin care and food. They’re both really living off the fruits of the labor, if you will, of these pollinators. So that’s why Portland General Store, just like people in natural organic food, are extremely concerned with the health of the ecosystem. Which actually makes for a good segway. If you asked me the question why do you do this and what are you most proud of, I am most proud of Face Bomb. Face Bomb is a facial scrub. I read an article in Slate magazine 5-6 years ago. It was one of those things you read that change your life. At that time I had Anthony’s For Men and a Neutrogena face wash in my shower. So Slate magazine says ‘hey, that facial scrub you have, the abrasive in those scrubs is ground up plastic.’ It’s actually industrial-grade ground up plastic. The Slate article went on say that when you take a shower those pellets continue to grind against each other, so you have these chemicals that are derivatives of plastic production and petroleum that are being broken down to their chemical forms and are getting in the waterways. It’s so bad that scientists, the same people who studied that huge mass of plastic floating around the Pacific Ocean, will tell you it’s fundamentally changing the ecosystem. I read an article recently that said there are male frogs being born that have eggs in their testes. Amphibians are very sensitive. It’s sad that you’re having these chemicals impacting amphibians and marine life in that way. So every time I sell a Face Bomb, it’s a little victory. If I can get someone to not use the plastic face scrubs and use that as a way of educating them about that product, then for me it’s a win.
Another thing we like to say as a phrase is bathe less and bathe better. It’s a corporate value of ours. If someone is washing their hair 2-3 times a day because they’re going to the gym, I’ll encourage them to buy Portland General Shampoo which is a better quality shampoo, sulphate- and paraben-free, which is good for the environment and you. So maybe next time you go the gym, rinse your hair. Don’t use a detergent. Let your body get back in its own groove. Scientists say we basically waged an experimental war for 100 years trying to kill all our bacteria in our environments. The leading edge of science says there’s a lot of bacteria in our body that’s beneficial for you, not only in your stomach but also on your skin. So what I tell people is get your own harmony. Whenever you can, use warm water and a cloth. I know that doesn’t help me sell product, but that’s just the truth. For us, I want people to bathe less, bathe better. I want to tell them the truth about grooming, I want to tell them the truth about their decision on the environment. I’m reliant on the environment to produce those inputs for me, so I want that system to be harmonious. Another thing I’ll add: Face Bomb comes in a plastic jar. However, what we do is we maximize the quality and quantity of the active ingredient in the jar. It’s chock full of the natural abrasive which is ground walnut shells. My little 4 oz jar is maybe 3.6 oz of walnut shells, so it’s not filler in there. That’s another good environmental value: reducing the amount of filler products such that if you are putting a package in a landfill, you may have prevented four other ones from going to the landfill. That’s why I do this. I’m giving people beautiful things that work, giving them good value, and supporting nature and the food production system.
How do you think your mission will evolve then?
I have a singular mission which is I want to be the absolute best, all-natural full line grooming company in the world. It’s a three-legged stool—I want to equal or exceed the performance of the best synthetic petroleum derived brands. That’s a very difficult thing to do because petroleum is used in so many ways to create different detergents and chemicals and all these things that have performance properties. Number two is do it with the highest-quality natural ingredients and no synthetics. And number three, which is an important thing for Portland General Store and you see it radiated in everything, is the design of the packaging. I believe that natural should not be the ugly stepchild to synthetic brands. If you think about what Tesla is trying to do, Tesla is not trying to create a Prius. The Prius is there, the Prius works. I’ve driven one. They’re not very sexy. What Tesla is trying to say is you can do something green and it can be fast, sexy and beautiful. We believe naturals, much like nature, should and can be beautiful and people should be proud of and admire the aesthetics of their natural products. So whenever I can, I use metal, glass and paper—they’re extremely recyclable and long-lived. Our package design is heavily inspired by spirits packaging by early 20th-century machine design. My inspiration for our interlaced type was one of the most famous American identities—the rollmark of Smith & Wesson firearms. If you think about it, it’s very important and very manly. Going back hundreds if not thousands of years, the makers of things that were for men, whether it was swords or firearms or mechanical parts in engines and even hand-forged axes, stamped their mark on it. Typically that was what they called a rollmark. So this PGS interlaced type is essentially a rollmark, which is saying the maker of this cared a lot to craft by hand and of the highest quality.
Do you see Portland General Store expanding into other lifestyle categories?
Yes, though, I first want to kill it in men’s personal care. We’re definitely on that trajectory. I just want to be locked in as that super premium men’s brand that is accessible and owns the pole position in that. We recently launched five women’s products. The challenge for me was to have something feminine but sit on the same shelf as the men’s product. Could I see us doing other home goods? Yes. We are still, though, so busy locking in men. I have a grand plan for the men’s full line and out of that I’m still missing a dozen products. Women are so much better served that we don’t believe we want to be full-line women. We just want to have 5-10 super high-quality concept products. For women we’re doing a candle, a cologne, a body oil for moisturizing, a 3-in-1 bar soap that’s a shampoo, face bar and body bar. The male analog to that is “Hunting Camp” which has pumice in it. Soaps of that quality lather so exceptionally. We also do a men’s candle and a women’s candle. Ours are 100% beeswax which are hard to scent. Soy is almost as good as beeswax, but the real evil out there is paraffin wax candles. Paraffin itself is what’s left at the bottom of the barrel of oil, so when you burn a paraffin candle in your house, you’re actually burning a petroleum compound. The science is still unspecified, but it’s very possible that’s a lung cancer contributor. It’s a carcinogen—burnt petroleum. So that’s why for our candles we take the natural and ethical high ground and they’re 100% beeswax.
What are some of the new products that are going to be launched next year?
We have a wonderful shave cream called Racer and it now comes in a tub like a jar. Just to make it so spectacular, we’re re-launching it soon in a metal tube, so the packaging is just going to be even more exceptional and beautiful which I think is befitting the brand. For men, forthcoming, we have a pomade. We already have the formula and we’re working on the packaging. It’s going to be beautiful. We have beard oils in the market, the packaging of which is going to be improved. We also have a number of totally brand new products—we’ll probably release one a quarter—other formulations of beard oil and the pomade. We’re also going to do a different type of shampoo.
How long does it take to make these? I know products in the segment take time—months, even years.
We have competitors that come from personal care companies. They have very traditional industry backgrounds, so they come up with an idea for a product and very carefully launch the product and the product is as perfect as they can make it. We at Portland General Store are totally different. We believe in rapid prototyping. It comes from Etsy. On Etsy we often would have 15-20 products on there. Often the labels are printed on our laser printer at home. So by doing that rapid development you can quickly put things in the market, see what people like and don’t like. And that’s why I mentioned to you I’m making more beautiful packaging for the three beard oils in the market—and people love them. They have laser printed labels on them right now—whiskey, tobacco and ginger, all made by hand by Lisa. So finally those have become stable enough in our stable of products that I’m going to invest the money to do beautiful die-cut labels like this. I would say we product innovate at four times the rate of our competitors. Most of those companies might launch a product a year; we can do four a year, one a quarter. And if things don’t work out, we pull it. Just like any good gardener. If something’s not growing well, if the formulation isn’t working, we’ll pull it out of the garden and plant something else. I think that goes back to my being a veteran person. I was involved with a couple of dot-coms that were very successful here in New York. I did a third dot-com myself in 2003. I had a partner. He and I each put a lot of money in to it and we actually killed the company ourselves. I think good entrepreneurs can start companies, great entrepreneurs can kill companies. How many years do you need to figure out that something’s not working, right? That’s a sign of being a good business or good entrepreneur—it’s whether you can recognize an idea, a product or an execution or a company is not working well. So one of the things I’m most proud of is having the discipline to support the things that are working and not support the things that aren’t.