For many entrepreneurs, mustering the courage to commit is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome — in the beginning. Of course, once you take the leap, it quickly becomes obvious that it was the right choice and that the real hurdles are yet to come.
Running a business is not easy, nor is it always glamorous, but for Calvin Quallis, there was simply no other option. Inspired by his own needs, he launched (while also working a full-time job) to bring relief and help to anyone with facial hair through a line of products — from beard oils to balms, serums and combs. Today, Calvin is joining us to impart some serious business wisdom and insight, applicable to those just starting out or veterans in their field.
Portrait photograph by Tamara Fleming
Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?
Actually, I worked for myself as well as someone else for almost two years. It was exhausting, but allowed me to fund the business in its initial stage without accruing debt or giving up equity. This past year, I left a cushy desk job to devote my time and attention to seeing Scotch Porter really take off.
I’ve known, for a very long time, that I wasn’t quite cut out to be a 9-5er. The thought of spending the rest of my working life in an office space-type work environment and confined to a cubicle seemed like a death sentence. My brain and spirit dwindled a bit each day. But while sitting at my desk one afternoon this past June, I literally said aloud to myself, “Dude, this can’t be it. Life doesn’t go on forever, and you don’t get a second chance at this.” I understood that there were great financial risks if I quit my job and the business failed. However, what I feared the most [was] taking too little risk and settling for comfortable and ordinary, and all the regrets that come with it. Also, if I didn’t walk, it meant that I would be undervaluing myself and that instead of being great, I would have become okay with just being good. I couldn’t live with that decision, so the very next day, I sat down with my boss and discussed my plan to resign. The greatest coincidence of all time was that she had something to discuss with me also: she, too, had resigned.
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was, and how did you know it was what you wanted to do?
By nature, I’ve always been drawn to solving problems, so I spotted a problem that I — and many men — face when trying to grow or maintain facial hair.
A lot of men, like myself, have dry, coarse, curly or frizzy beards. Although the hair produces enough oil, if the hair is very wavy or tightly curled, the oils have a very hard time spreading out along the hair shaft. Without enough lubrication, the hair tends to become very dry, brittle and frizzy. Dry and brittle strands cause the hair to scale and roughen, which leaves the hair [feeling] coarse and dull-looking. The hair becomes frail and feeble, leading to breakage and excessive shedding.
Armed with this information, I set out to create a product that would solve these problems for the most stubborn hair on men, which happens to be facial hair. With no formal background in chemistry, just tons of trial and error, I formulated a beard product that helped to effectively seal in moisture, instantly soften and add shine to the beard, all while preventing excessive shedding and eliminating breakage.
With all the wonderful feedback we’ve received for our beard products, I knew I was onto something, and that I would have lots of fun flexing my “problem-solving muscles.”
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
The best business advice I received when starting out came from a very good friend and personal advisor. His advice was that “no one man is an army and that the surest way to create a successful business is to build a talented, passionate team who understands the big-picture vision set out for the company and are ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work.”
Without that piece of advice, there’s no way that the business would have accomplished so much, in such a short time frame.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
The most difficult part of starting a business is maneuvering and avoiding the many pitfalls that can leave a business flat-lined. From proper management of your financial books, to building a great team, to addressing operational inefficiencies, to developing effective marketing and sales plans, it can feel very overwhelming at times.
I find simple breathing exercises, getting physical exercise and reminding myself each and every day of all the things that I have to be grateful for, helps tremendously. At times, when I’m being pulled in a million different directions and beginning to feel overwhelmed, I get up from my desk and begin taking deep breaths, breathing in through my mouth and exhaling through my nose. I spend a couple of minutes doing this. This has always been a great help. I also find being physically active helps with mental clarity and focus. Five mornings out of the week, I jog two miles. I’m left feeling alert and sharp all day long.
Though, the one thing that has gotten me through the toughest days has been my daily ritual of reminding myself of all the things that I have to be grateful for. Every morning that I wake, before thinking of all the things that I have to do for the day, I think of all the things that I’m grateful for. It always begins with me being grateful for waking up to a new day, followed by whatever else I’m grateful for, like being able to pick up the phone and call my mom, or something very simple, like enjoying a cup of coffee. It forces me to focus less on what I don’t have and find happiness in the simple things that I do have. I read something that Oprah Winfrey said a while ago that has stuck with me. She said, “I got so focused on the difficulty of the climb that I lost sight of being grateful for simply having a mountain to climb.” Perspective is everything.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
The biggest lesson that I’ve learned in business is that indecisiveness can lead to missed opportunities and expensive delays. Sure, I’ve made a few bad business decisions that have left me with a mess that had to be cleaned up, but constant indecisiveness would have hampered potential growth.
Even with very limited time, and a big decision looming, I’ve done as much due diligence and rationalization as I can, and then I’d make a decision based on the information in front of me and what my gut instincts tell me.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?
Before the launch of our product business, I owned a barbershop/salon. Neither my partners, nor I, had any experience running a shop. It was such a foreign world to us, but we had a cool idea to also use the barbershop as a cultural hub/meeting place for artists and musicians. The goal was to build a profitable business around community. Although we built a name for ourselves in the community, the business just wasn’t profitable, and we ended up having to close the doors.
However, while building the business, we created a line of grooming products that were for sale in our shop, and [they] were becoming a hit with the shop’s customers. The products were gaining such popularity that people were driving in from neighboring states to buy them. The products that I’m referring to led to the inception of Scotch Porter. From this experience, I’ve learned that there is no such thing as failure. Failing is life’s way of correcting the course and placing you on the right path. Scotch Porter is a by-product of our short stint with the barbershop. Without the barbershop, there would have been little to no chance of developing a successful product line.
If you were magically given three more hours per day, what would you do with them?
If I were given three more hours per day, I’d spend them with family, going out for a drink with a good friend, or doing something that makes me very happy. Over the past year or so, I’ve come to really understand that it’s all about balance, and focusing all or too much of my time and energy in one area of my life leaves me a bit empty. I’ve recently set goals for the important things in my life: Career, Financial, Spiritual, Physical, Intellectual, Family and Social. Finding and planning time every month to work on one of my goals, in each of those buckets, makes me a much happier person.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
The biggest sacrifice that I’ve made when working on becoming successful and building a business goes back to the previous question. In the beginning, I spent two-thirds of the day devoted to building the business. I ate, slept and breathed the business. I spent little to no time with family. I stopped doing the things that I loved, like reading a good book or having a drink with friends. Many years ago, I loved to run. I didn’t think I had enough time in a day to run any longer. I gained a tremendous amount of weight that I’m still working to get rid of. Success and the business took over my life.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?
I’m most proud of working with a great group of individuals that are just as invested and committed to the business as I am.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
My favorite business books are: Purple Cow by Seth Godin; Raving Fans by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles; Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell; and Tribes by Seth Godin.
My favorite resource for advice on business is Clarity (). It’s a really wonderful service that connects entrepreneurs with experts that have successfully navigated the business battlefield. I get incredibly valuable advice and have avoided making some painfully expensive mistakes.
Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.
Yes, the most evident example for me is the story of Scotch Porter’s inception. It was born from our barbershop — a “failed” business venture. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from that experience and all those missteps and falls have made me a much better business owner and an even savvier marketer. I now understand the importance of knowing our customers and how critical it is to deliver value.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
When building a business, one should:
1. Do your research. If you are thinking of entering a market where there are no competitors, you better have a lot of money, as it will take boat-loads of it to open up a new market. Thinking that you can create a new market with very little capital and resources is an uphill battle that most new entrepreneurs will lose. Competition is a sign that you are entering a healthy market and that customers are buying your offering.
2. Identify and/or cultivate a USP (unique selling point) or niche market. Being able to clearly communicate to a customer why they should buy from you instead of the competition is the only way to survive in a marketplace where there are hundreds, sometimes tens of thousands of companies that are technically offering the same product or service. Even better is identifying a niche market. Find a market that is big enough and has enough potential customers, but is being underserved or ignored. Study that customer and identify the best ways to serve them. You can grow a very substantial business by identifying and properly serving a niche market.
3. Keep your day job. If you’re starting a business that requires capital to get going, as most businesses require, do not give up a reliable source of income until you have either validated your business idea by selling it to the marketplace and receiving really great feedback, or you have sufficient capital to build the business and enough personal savings to live off of for a year or so. Entrepreneurship comes with many unknowns. It can be very rewarding, but is inherently risky. I believe no one should operate or make decisions solely on fear, but it is much wiser to stack the deck in your favor by making informed, well-thought-out decisions.
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?
Being your own boss can be a very lonely job. Unless you have friends that are also owners of their own companies, or bosses, no one will quite understand your gripes and all the responsibilities that come with being a boss. I suggest finding or becoming a mentor. Find someone who has successfully walked in your shoes. They can be a great source of motivation, advice and guidance. Alternatively, becoming a mentor to someone less experienced can be a win-win, as it forces you to focus on the positives, and share your wisdom and experiences — and everyone knows that as you teach another, you usually learn more yourself.