The founder of Mountaineer Brand offers tips for a well-groomed start-up.
The idea for Mountaineer Brand grew right out of founder Eric Young’s face. “Ever since I’ve been old enough to grow a beard, I always grew a beard in the fall and let it go to early spring,” he says. He usually kept his beard neatly trimmed, but two years ago Young decided to let it go au naturel and see what happened.
But soon, his facial hair was getting kind of dry and Young turned to the Internet for help. Amazon was well-stocked with conditioning oil that would bring some life back to his whiskers, but he stopped short when he noticed the price—a one-ounce bottle of the stuff cost $20. “There’s no reason for anybody to sell it for that kind of money,” Young says. “I thought, ‘I’ll just do this for myself.’”
He spent about $50 for bottles and ingredients. He spent hours researching formulas on the Internet, then spent more hours over his kitchen stove tweaking his recipe. Pleased with the results, Young gave away some two-ounce bottles as Christmas gifts. He also listed some bottles of his beard oil, by now carrying a homemade label bearing the name “Mountaineer Brand,” on eBay and Amazon.
Young has always had an entrepreneurial mind: He started his first business when he was just eight years old, growing pumpkins and gourds and selling them door-to-door in his neighborhood. When he got older, Young started building houses but was forced out of the business in late 2006 as the housing market went bust. He started looking for another business to buy, and in April 2007 bought out a local auto fiberglass shop. But the Great Recession eventually touched this business, too. He sold out in May 2010 and spent the next few years scrounging up contracting work. “Just whatever I could find. It didn’t matter. Digging ditches, whatever—and that’s what most of it was,” he says.
After finally landing a job as a maintenance worker at the National Guard armory in Martinsburg in October 2012, Young gave up any ambitions of being a businessman. “I thought all that was over,” he says. “I thought I’d work here for the National Guard for the rest of my life.” He needed to find a way to make a little extra income, however. Since his wife Christina died of breast cancer in May 2009, their three children had been receiving survivor benefits from the government. But Young knew the checks would eventually stop coming and he would have to find a way to replace that money. He hoped selling beard products might do that.
Within just four months of his first sale, Young’s profits far exceeded those survivor benefits. “They just kept growing and growing and growing.” By July 2015, he was able to quit his job at the armory. “I probably should have done it a long time before I did. I got to where I sucked at both jobs and I decided one had to go,” he says.
When the operation outgrew his kitchen, Young wasted no time expanding his business’s capacity. He built a 1,600-square-foot shop on his property, only to add a 600-square-foot extension four months later as demand continued to increase. Mountaineer Brand products are now available at Tamarack, The Greenbrier, and Stonewall Resort, as well as Whole Foods and MOM’s Organic Market grocery stores in northern Virginia.
Young also signed an agreement with a company in Sweden to distribute Mountaineer Brand products in Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Finland. The distributor’s initial order was 6,300 items, packed in 500 boxes on three pallets. It took Young and his crew of eight part-time employees three weeks to fill the order. He has since made similar deals with distributors in Canada and Russia.
It turns out business sense, like a good beard, sometimes takes a while to fill out. Although Mountaineer Brand is his most successful venture, Young says his earlier, less lucrative businesses taught him some valuable lessons he probably wouldn’t have learned otherwise. Here are some things entrepreneurial upstarts can learn from Young’s success:
Don’t Be Afraid To Change
After launching his original beard oil scent, “Timber,” Young introduced two other varieties: “Coal,” and the unscented “Barefoot.” He also rolled out additional products: a mustache wax and then a heavy-duty beard balm to control unruly hairs, moisturize skin, and repaired damaged whiskers.
The product line has continued to grow. Mountaineer Brand now sells pre-shave oils and post-shave balms. There are beard washes in both bar and liquid form, three varieties of lip balm, and a line of Granny Vicars’ hand salve and healing salve, named for Young’s great-grandmother.
Mountaineer Brand’s formulas aren’t set in stone. Young has made changes to his products according to customer feedback. He even changed the formula to his company’s best-selling product—the original “Timber” beard oil—after customers complained it smelled too “piney.” He added more cedar and a little eucalyptus to the mix, and the complaints stopped. When customers complained the beard balm “needed a little something more,” Young added some citrus scent with pink grapefruit.
…But Remain Uniform
Whether you’re offering a product or a service, customers must know what to expect when they give you money. “It’s like making a McDonald’s double cheeseburger. It doesn’t matter if you get it here or in California. It’s the same,” Young says. So even though Young has a worker manufacturing Mountaineer Brand products at his home in Moorefield, customers can’t tell the difference. The formulas and process remain the same.
The company’s commitment to uniformity also extends to branding. The entire Mountaineer Brand product line is branded with logos designed by Josh Triggs, a local photographer and one of his daughter’s high school friends. They look like something you would find in a 1920s apothecary shop, with old-timey lettering and a line drawing of a bearded man. Young changed things up a little when Mountaineer Brand launched its line of Granny Vicars’ products, but not too much. Those items feature a line drawing of a Victorian woman on the label.
Undercommit And Overachieve
As demand grows, Young is working hard to ensure his company delivers on its promises. This is a lesson he learned the hard way in his early days as a business owner. Customers at the fiberglass shop would often push him for completion dates, and he would set them—but they were usually much too tight. Sure enough, he’d blow his self-imposed deadlines and upset his customers. “That was a major mistake. I did it time after time after time,” he says.
The man who sold Young the fiberglass business offered him some sage advice—“Undercommit and overachieve, don’t overcommit and underachieve”—but it took some time for the lesson to take hold. When he started Mountaineer Brand, he resolved to do better. “I just got tired of hearing people yell at me. I decided I wasn’t going to do that this time around,” he says. “I make sure I set realistic goals. If I know I can get something out that day but if I’m not sure about it, I say ‘Give me a couple days.’” When Young beats the deadline, his customer is doubly pleased.
Written by Zack Harold
Photographed by Nikki Bowman