From the April 1996 issue of Startups



More than 3,750 new cases of melanoma skin cancer will be diagnosed nationwide this year, say reports put out by the American Cancer Society. The figure has climbed at a constant rate for the last twenty years, but entrepreneur David Erickson is trying to do something about it.

In 1989, Erickson founded Denver-based Rocky Mountain Skiing Co., which makes a high-altitude sunscreen that protects the skin from 94 to 96 percent of the sun's harmful rays at high elevations. Unlike some of its competitors, Rocky Mountain is not concerned with dark legs and bronzed torsos; one of the company's credos is: "Sun protection is what we are into, not tanning."

"Education is our marketing approach," says Erickson, 45. "Not many people know that the sun's ultra-violet (UV) rays are four percent stronger every thousand feet above sea level. I want people to know that you don't have to burn your face off when you ski at 10,000 feet."

Because of the premium placed on getting customers to use sunscreen whenever they are outdoors, Erickson needed to devise a way to make it as easy as possible for customers to carry it with them. The result was an easy-to-grip, flat, refillable two ounce bottle that conveniently fits in pockets, purses or fanny packs. "The sunscreen will be available to you wherever you go. We've designed our product for the outdoors, for the sportsman," says Erickson. "Our system is designed to go with you."

Customers can purchase eight ounce or one-gallon refills so they can replenish the supply in their two ounce plastic bottles. If the consumer chooses not to refill the small bottle, it can be recycled to reduce waste.

In order to provide maximum sun protection and minimal inconvenience to its costumers, Rocky Mountain created a sunscreen that increases resistance to the sun while using as few chemicals as possible. The aloe-based formula also moisturizes the skin and is waterproof and fragrance free.

Ironically, Erickson's background prepared him more for educating people than for making sunscreen. He graduated from Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado, with a degree in music education, and spent two years as a choir teacher in a junior high school before going to work in promotions for a professional hockey team, the Colorado Rockies. When the Rockies moved to New Jersey in 1980, Erickson used his savings to open his own business, Erickson Marketing, distributing souveneirs to gift shops and kiosks at resorts and national parks in the Rocky Mountain region.

He was peddling his wares to a shop owner in Keystone, Colorado, when the idea for Rocky Mountain Sunscreen struck him. "There was a large sunscreen display, but people kept coming up to the counter and asking questions," relates Erickson. "All this sunscreen was available, and no one knew what to buy."

It occurred to Erickson that his position as a supplier provided him with a distinct advantage in marketing his own products, because he already had established contacts with the operators whom he wanted to retail his sunscreen.

"Erickson Marketing supplies merchandise. We've got a natural 'pipeline' to the national parks," comments Erickson. "As long as we were already marketing other people's products, we figured, why not market our own?"

Using roughly $70,000 in profits from his marketing company, Erickson set about building his sunscreen business. His first decision was to hire Meaghan Walsh, whom he had met while she was working for the Denver Chamber of Commerce, to handle public relations. The two sat down and came up with a ten-year marketing strategy for the company, which they put into effect in 1991, the year the sunscreen actually hit the market.

One major problem was that Erickson did not know anything about making sunscreen. He set out to find someone who did. "I just started asking questions," says Erickson. "You have to go to the sources. The library is a big resource, and I used it, but mostly, I just talked to people."

Erickson's networking efforts led him to Florida, where he met two chemists who agreed to develop the product for him. Each new concoction was tested on friends and family, and two years of experimentation resulted in the formula that became Rocky Mountain Sunscreen. The chemists Erickson hired took care of getting the formula approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Even as the formula was being perfected in Florida, Erickson began putting together the other components of his operation. He needed to find bottle manufacturers, cap manufacturers, label designers and makers, as well as personnel to help him market and publicize Rocky Mountain. Asked how he found companies and people to help him meet his needs, Erickson responds, "I just kept networking and networking. You meet one person, and they know someone who can help you with another need. Everything has come together when I needed it. I'm not smart enough to do this all myself."

Rocky Mountain found its bottle and cap manufacturers through a Minnesota-based firm they hired to help with packaging. The label design and silk-screening is handled by two Denver companies Erickson came across in his networking efforts.

Erickson and company have devoted a great deal of energy to the packaging of the sunscreen. "Packaging is everything," explains Walsh. "That's what will grab our customers."

Stresses Erickson, "I can't be in every store where we sell our product, telling people to buy it. It has to sell itself, and I think our bottle definitely does that."

The bottle is both eye-catching and informative: The front features both the sun and the Rocky Mountains, while the back of the bottle offers instructions on how to properly apply sunscreen. "People don't understand how to apply sunscreen," notes Walsh, one of the six people who make up the Rocky Mountain staff. "Most people don't think to put sunscreen on until they've been in the sun, sweating for a while, and it's too late then. Sunscreen needs to be applied before you go in the sun, when your skin is still dry, so that it can protect you most effectively."

Walsh has the daunting task of promoting the company on a miniscule advertising budget. Rocky Mountain recently began advertising in a Denver-area ski publication, featuring her simple pitch: "Save Your Face. Wear It. Rocky Mountain Sunscreen." This is the company's first foray into print advertisement, though, and most of the promotional efforts, led by Walsh, have focused on old-fashioned free samples and education. The U.S. Post Office purchased 800 bottles of sun screen for their carriers to try, and employees in the National Park Service are among Walsh's other targets.

"People really need to put it on their skin to appreciate it," says Walsh, who often sets up tables at ski events and applies the sunscreen to potential customers.

Echoes Erickson, "If we can get the product on your skin, we feel that you'll use it."

The key to Rocky Mountain's future will likely be the success or failure of its attempt to educate consumers about the need to use sunscreen on a daily basis, especially at high altitudes. "Five years ago, people would say, 'Are you nuts?' says Walsh. "But look at the numbers." The American Cancer Society predicts that 760 Americans will die of skin cancer in 1996. Tests have shown that using sunscreen on a daily basis before the age of 18 can reduce the risk of skin cancer by up to 50 percent. "If we can help educate, we can help people keep healthy," states Erickson.

Sales suggest that consumers are coming around to Rocky Mountain's way of thinking. The company began by marketing its product only in the kiosks and shops Erickson still serves with his marketing company, but has worked tirelessly to gain access to other markets. Among the places one can find the soothing sunscreen are Denver's two major outdoor sports' facilities, Mile High Stadium and Coors Field. Home to the Denver Broncos and Colorado Rockies, respectively, both stadiums sell out routinely, exposing hundreds of thousands of fans to Rocky Mountain Sunscreen.

Without a doubt, though, the most important achievement in terms of increasing both visibility and sales was the decision of King Soopers, one of Colorado's largest supermarket chains, to carry Rocky Mountain in 1993. It took Erickson nearly a year to convince the 69-store chain to stock his item. That year, Rocky Mountain sold 20,000 bottles of sunscreen. That figure nearly doubled in 1994, to 37,000 bottles sold. Erickson's company placed behind only Coppertone and Banana Boat in sunscreen sales throughout the King Soopers chain. The company sold an estimated 70,000 bottles in 1995, and hopes to increase that number as it slowly introduces new products.

To date, Rocky Mountain boasts two different product offerings: SPF 15 and SPF 30. An SPF 45 for kids sunscreen was introduced in March 1996, and a lip balm is tentatively scheduled to join the lineup in April of 1997. In addition to new products, Rocky Mountain is considering making larger refill sizes available at retail stores.

"We're going to build this company one brick at a time," Erickson says confidently. "We're self-financed, so we have to do this slowly. We can sell out to investors, but I don't want the pressure of paying dividends when we need to reinvest that money. We make payroll and pay our bills and put the rest back in. Maybe, in five years, I can look to start taking a little out."

"I've been lucky enough to find good people, and I pay them to do what they do best," says Erickson of his success in the sunscreen. "This whole thing is a big team, one big unit pulling in the same direction. We've created a good product, and the consumers are responding to it."