|The Brave Soldier product line|
NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
How does one go from writing screenplays and producing TV shows to hawking a cure for "road rash?" The connection, for Jeffrey Neal, was mountain biking.
It was the mid-1990s. Neal had recently turned 40 years old, and gone through a professional crisis. So he left Los Angeles for six months of bicycling in Europe.
Refreshed, he headed back to LA for another shot at show biz.
"I was writing a new screenplay and I needed a job," remembers Neal. "So I started working at one of the premium bike stores in California – I.Martin Imports."
Neal met cyclists who had suffered bad injuries: "road rash" scrapes from high speed tumbles. They are ugly, painful, and dangerously prone to infection.
Neal himself suffered a severe case from a 45-mph crash. He had abrasions on his legs and upper torso. After none of the usual nostrums worked, he consulted dermatologist Ezra Kest. The doctor suggested an ointment he had formulated for laser surgery treatments.
Made with tea tree oil, jojoba oil, and vitamins, keeps wounds moist, provides an antibiotic, and pain relief, the ointment worked like a charm. Neal and Kest decided to make it available to the legions of other weekend cycling warriors.
They started small, taking some space above the bike store. Neal packed the balm in jars with handmade labels. When a cyclist came in with a scrape, Neal would suggest he try the healing ointment.
"Then, people started using it for a lot of different things," says Neal, "C-section scars, insect bites," but the main use remained biking injuries. "There was nothing on the market like it."
Neal promoted the product at biking events. At places like the Hyundai Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, attended by some 50,000 biking enthusiasts, he would set up a tent to provide samples.
Neal gently uged injured bikers to act like "brave soldiers" as he applied the treatment. "People started calling us the Brave Soldier tent," he says. The name stuck.
But this low-key marketing was no formula for overnight success. To grow faster would take an infusion of cash.
"We had no trouble financing early on because we took it very slowly,' says Neal. But they realized "to blow it up (and introduce more products), they would have to bring in some marketing people."
In 2001, Neal met with an investment banker who introduced him to a team of marketing and advertising guys – Dan Ginsberg and Leonard Pearlstein – who were starting their own agency. At the time, Brave Soldier had only three products.
Then when Neal was working out trademark issues, his attorney suggested he meet Robin Coe-Hutchings, who owns Fred Segal's Essentials, a leading cosmetics and skin-care store.
"We specialized in sports products," says Neal. "She brought us into the high-end skin-care business."
Brave Soldier added a skin treatment line and three or four shave products and started selling in big name stores such as Barneys, Nordstrom, and Sephora.
The company remained tiny and short of cash. "We were still financing it out of pocket," says Neal, and marketing through big stores proved frustrating. "We would fly to New York and train 15 salespeople. We'd come back a couple of months later and all 15 salespeople would be gone. We couldn't afford that."
Even today, the company has not cracked the million-dollar-revenue mark. In 2004, it sold about $500,000 in product. Still, that represents a doubling of sales each of the last five years, according to Neal.
"Our word of mouth is very good," Neal says. "We have a dedicated following." The trick is to find a way to expand beyond that group. The company does some advertising, but can't afford much. So Brave Soldier has to find a cost-effective way to get beyond its regular customers.
Neal wants to remember the company's core competency. Somehow, its reputation morphed a bit, from a sports product maker to a men's care product; he wants the emphasis back on sports. He figures a reputation as a men's care company can eliminate half the potential customer base.
The challenge is to make the products appealing to both the road racer who spends his discretionary income on chain grease and derailleurs as well as the Beverly Hills tennis dilettante looking for the best sun block.
These groups are not necessarily mutually exclusive. As Neal says, "These active men and women do shop at Barneys and Sephora because, like all of their gear purchases, they require the best and they will pay top dollar."
For now, Neal is beating the drums for Brave Soldier all around the country and looking for new financing. Meanwhile, a consultant was brought on to guide the company through a package redesign.
Overall, the brave folks at Brave Soldier have made progress. Neal expects to gross nearly $900,000 in 2005. That should feel kind of soothing.
Click here for a story about building up sweat equity in a sweat clean-up business.
Click here for a story about ecolodge entrepreneurs.