The founders of Carpe Lotion, Kasper Kubica and David Spratte, have taken the notion of sweat equity to a whole new level.
In fact, these two college students – energetic, whip-smart rising seniors at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill, respectively – would never have conceived of their business if they hadn’t worked up a sweat.
Specifically, sweaty palms.
Driven by the urge to devise a solution for their persistently sweaty hands, and bolstered by about $100,000 in funding from Durham investment firm Bootstrap Advisors, the two students launched their first product, Carpe Antiperspirant Hand Lotion, in July 2015.
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“At the beginning, a lot of people were saying this isn’t a problem. No one is going to buy a product for sweaty hands,” said Spratte.
But Spratte, 22, and Kubica, 21 – both of whom are recipients of Robertson merit scholarships – quickly demonstrated there was a market.
In the first six months, with minimal marketing, Carpe sold about $100,000 worth of the lotion, which sells for $14.95 for a 1.35-ounce tube and was initially available only on the company’s own website and Amazon.
Consumers generally like the product. Of more than 200 customer reviews posted on Amazon, 56 percent give the hand lotion the top five-star rating and another 13 percent give it four stars.
Last month Carpe – which has just two full-time employees, the two founders – launched a companion product, Carpe Antiperspirant Foot Lotion. That move came after they heard from customers who said they were using the hand lotion on their feet as well.
“The foot lotion has been selling better than the hand lotion was early on,” Kubica said. Based on July’s performance, the company’s annual sales run rate – that is, 12 times July sales – was about $500,000.
And they’re hoping a new ad campaign will give sales another boost. Last week, they began a three-week test run of 30-second commercials, which Kubica produced, that began airing on several cable channels, including Comedy Central and MTV. The tagline: Seize the moment.
Today Carpe’s lotions also are sold in more than 100 independent pharmacies, men’s clothing stores – including Ticknors Men’s Clothier at The Streets at Southpoint mall in Durham – athletic stores and other retail outlets. And, beginning next month, tubes of both the hand and foot lotions will hit the shelves of 200 Harris Teeter supermarkets.
Landing its first deal with a major brick-and-mortar retailer is a coup for Carpe, said John Replogle, CEO of Vermont-based Seventh Generation and former CEO of Burt’s Bees.
“200 Harris Teeters is a great place to start,” said Replogle, who has no links to Carpe. “They were one of the first major groceries that we put Burt’s Bees into back in the day.”
Now comes the hard part.
“They have really done a great job of building the business to where it is today,” said Chris Ng Cashin, co-founder of Bootstrap Advisors. “Now it’s a question of, can they scale it up and get it to a reasonable size?”
Cashin and his partners invested in the business not only because it had created a “problem solution product” but because they believed in the founders despite their young age and inexperience.
“They’re young, really smart, very motivated guys,” said Cashin. “They are great to work with, very good entrepreneurs.”
Cashin is stoked about Carpe’s potential.
“If people think this isn’t a sizable market, I think they’re wrong,” he said.
The International Hyperhidrosis Society – hyperhidrosis is a medical disorder characterized by excessive sweating – estimates 3 percent of the world’s population have the condition. But Cashin and Carpe’s founders say those numbers are based on the number of people who seek help from dermatologists, and that Carpe’s market extends beyond them.
“Our intention was to create this product for all those people who get sweaty hands in social, professional and athletic situations,” Spratte said. “We call them casual sweaters.”
There are more of those than you might think, he added, because “no one talks about it. No one is going to advertise their sweaty hands and how it’s annoying, right?”
Spratte became intrigued with the notion of developing a lotion to combat sweaty palms when he was a senior at a Catholic high school in Decatur, Ga. He noticed during a Mass in the school’s stifling hot gym that he and a lot of people were wiping their palms on their clothes, or whatever else they could find, before they joined hands in prayer.
Why, he wondered, isn’t there a good solution for this problem?
After doing some research, including a survey of the scientific literature, he dabbled with concocting lotions in the kitchen.
“It was just kind of a hobby for a little bit,” he said. “I wasn’t serious about it.”
But he revived the concept after he got to know Kubica during they summer after his freshman year when they roomed together in New Orleans, where they both had internships through the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program. Spratte sensed they would be a good team. It also helped that Kubica had sweaty palms too.
To hear them tell it, Spratte is the full-speed-ahead zealot while Kubica is the skeptic who scrutinizes every detail.
“Skepticism balances zealotry, and what emerges is reality,” Kubica said.
Both of them are so committed to the business that they’re willing to cut classes when the workload demands it.
“I wouldn’t say we skip more classes than we should,” Kubica sad. “We skip exactly as many as we need.”
Spratte and Kubica knew from Spratte’s earlier research that the best active ingredient for their purposes was aluminum sesquichlorohydrate, which stops sweat at the source by plugging the sweat glands. But they didn’t have the know-how to formulate a consumer-worthy product.
So Spratte recruited the star of his chemistry class, fellow UNC student Chris Jenks.
Jenks churned out a series of prototypes that Spratte and Kubica tested along with their friends, then asked for refinements. In the end they tested 60 prototypes before they had a winner.
“The biggest thing was feel,” Kubica said. “We wanted to create something that people love using.”
The founders also turned out to be skilled at scrounging free ingredients for all those prototypes from chemical suppliers.
“It blew our minds that if we acted as if we were from a bigger company and didn’t tell them we were college students working out of a dormitory, they would send us kilograms of free samples,” Kubica said.
While Jenks tinkered with formulas, Kubica and Spratte focused on the business side of things, everything from lining up a manufacturer – they ultimately chose a company in Durham – to making sure their lotion complied with U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules for over-the-counter products.
They learned a lot by tapping into contacts suggested by Duke and UNC faculty, as well as by meeting with investors.
“There is no better way to learn what you should improve on than to hear somebody say, ‘I wouldn’t give you money right now because this is wrong and this is wrong,’ ” Kubica said.
But Spratte and Kubica say that when Bootstrap Advisors decided to invest in the business, it marked a major turning point. In addition to funding, Bootsrap provided valuable expertise – such as how to line up suppliers and manufacturers and how to sell products on Amazon. Bootstrap employees also have been providing services such as order fulfillment.
Until recently, Carpe was even based in Bootstrap’s downtown Durham offices.
“The reason Carpe is alive right now is because of Bootstrap and because we accepted that deal and started working with them,” Spratte said.
One challenge Carpe could face going forward, said Replogle of Seventh Generation, is that it would be relatively easy for a larger, more established company to introduce a rival lotion that could take over the market.
But Spratte contends the market is big enough for all. He also believes a bigger company would be more inclined to acquire Carpe than create its own product from scratch.
In other words: No sweat.