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Sunny Sales David Erickson's sunscreens have a high SPF: Success & Profit Factor.

By Keith Christiensen

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

More than 3,750 new cases of melanoma skin cancer will be diagnosednationwide this year, say reports put out by the American CancerSociety. The figure has climbed at a constant rate for the lasttwenty years, but entrepreneur David Erickson is trying to dosomething about it.

In 1989, Erickson founded Denver-based Rocky Mountain Skiing Co.,which makes a high-altitude sunscreen that protects the skin from94 to 96 percent of the sun's harmful rays at high elevations.Unlike some of its competitors, Rocky Mountain is not concernedwith dark legs and bronzed torsos; one of the company's credosis: "Sun protection is what we are into, nottanning."

"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 offwhen you ski at 10,000 feet."

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

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

In order to provide maximum sun protection and minimalinconvenience to its costumers, Rocky Mountain created a sunscreenthat increases resistance to the sun while using as few chemicalsas possible. The aloe-based formula also moisturizes the skin andis waterproof and fragrance free.

Ironically, Erickson's background prepared him more foreducating people than for making sunscreen. He graduated from AdamsState College in Alamosa, Colorado, with a degree in musiceducation, and spent two years as a choir teacher in a junior highschool before going to work in promotions for a professional hockeyteam, the Colorado Rockies. When the Rockies moved to New Jersey in1980, Erickson used his savings to open his own business, EricksonMarketing, distributing souveneirs to gift shops and kiosks atresorts 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. "Therewas a large sunscreen display, but people kept coming up to thecounter and asking questions," relates Erickson. "Allthis sunscreen was available, and no one knew what tobuy."

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

"Erickson Marketing supplies merchandise. We've got anatural 'pipeline' to the national parks," commentsErickson. "As long as we were already marketing otherpeople's products, we figured, why not market ourown?"

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

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

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

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

Rocky Mountain found its bottle and cap manufacturers through aMinnesota-based firm they hired to help with packaging. The labeldesign and silk-screening is handled by two Denver companiesErickson came across in his networking efforts.

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

Stresses Erickson, "I can't be in every store where wesell 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 featuresboth the sun and the Rocky Mountains, while the back of the bottleoffers 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 Mountainstaff. "Most people don't think to put sunscreen on untilthey've been in the sun, sweating for a while, and it's toolate then. Sunscreen needs to be applied before you go in the sun,when your skin is still dry, so that it can protect you mosteffectively."

Walsh has the daunting task of promoting the company on a minisculeadvertising budget. Rocky Mountain recently began advertising in aDenver-area ski publication, featuring her simple pitch: "SaveYour Face. Wear It. Rocky Mountain Sunscreen." This is thecompany's first foray into print advertisement, though, andmost of the promotional efforts, led by Walsh, have focused onold-fashioned free samples and education. The U.S. Post Officepurchased 800 bottles of sun screen for their carriers to try, andemployees in the National Park Service are among Walsh's othertargets.

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

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

The key to Rocky Mountain's future will likely be the successor failure of its attempt to educate consumers about the need touse 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 AmericanCancer Society predicts that 760 Americans will die of skin cancerin 1996. Tests have shown that using sunscreen on a daily basisbefore the age of 18 can reduce the risk of skin cancer by up to 50percent. "If we can help educate, we can help people keephealthy," states Erickson.

Sales suggest that consumers are coming around to RockyMountain's way of thinking. The company began by marketing itsproduct only in the kiosks and shops Erickson still serves with hismarketing company, but has worked tirelessly to gain access toother markets. Among the places one can find the soothing sunscreenare Denver's two major outdoor sports' facilities, MileHigh Stadium and Coors Field. Home to the Denver Broncos andColorado Rockies, respectively, both stadiums sell out routinely,exposing hundreds of thousands of fans to Rocky MountainSunscreen.

Without a doubt, though, the most important achievement in terms ofincreasing both visibility and sales was the decision of KingSoopers, one of Colorado's largest supermarket chains, to carryRocky Mountain in 1993. It took Erickson nearly a year to convincethe 69-store chain to stock his item. That year, Rocky Mountainsold 20,000 bottles of sunscreen. That figure nearly doubled in1994, to 37,000 bottles sold. Erickson's company placed behindonly Coppertone and Banana Boat in sunscreen sales throughout theKing Soopers chain. The company sold an estimated 70,000 bottles in1995, and hopes to increase that number as it slowly introduces newproducts.

To date, Rocky Mountain boasts two different product offerings: SPF15 and SPF 30. An SPF 45 for kids sunscreen was introduced in March1996, and a lip balm is tentatively scheduled to join the lineup inApril of 1997. In addition to new products, Rocky Mountain isconsidering making larger refill sizes available at retailstores.

"We're going to build this company one brick at atime," Erickson says confidently. "We'reself-financed, so we have to do this slowly. We can sell out toinvestors, but I don't want the pressure of paying dividendswhen we need to reinvest that money. We make payroll and pay ourbills and put the rest back in. Maybe, in five years, I can look tostart taking a little out."

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

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