This Air Mask Company Struggled to Take Off. Then Came Coronavirus.
His idea was ahead of its time, but this entrepreneur was certain demand would arise. In the meantime, he prepared.
This is a story about a friend of mine, Bruce Lorange. We have no business relationship, but out of our participation in a Salt Lake City networking group, we've become friends.
When I met Lorange, in 2017, he was in the early stages of a startup with his air pollution mask company, called O2TODAY, a vision of ensuring the air we breathe is healthy and free of air pollution, allergens and pathogens.
"From our research, we can see that healthy food is a trillion-dollar-plus market," he told me. "And filtered or treated water is a half a trillion-dollar industry. But what about our air? We breathe in and out 23,000 times per day, yet we seldom think about the health of the air we are breathing."
So Lorange started O2TODAY in 2016 with a $2 million seed round of funding. He partnered with world-renowned designer Marcel Wanders (also a co-founder) to make the face masks aesthetically beautiful. And the company launched three products over a four-year period with a focus on making the filters, the seal and the technology "just right," while also being comfortable and interesting to look at. "The other companies that existed were building commodity and OEM products based on traditional materials and designs," he said.
His idea was good, but he soon ran into a giant problem: He was three to five years ahead of the curve. Due to lack of demand, raising additional funds became incredibly difficult, and his desire to stockpile inventory for the demand he was certain was coming was met with skepticism. "We got scrappy, ran an IndieGogo campaign and became very resourceful to protect our cash reserves so we could keep iterating and improving our products without running out of cash," Lorange says.
After their launch and the influx of IndieGogo funding, Lorange took some steps to keep the company "idling" until takeoff. If you're in a similar boat, and think your business idea might be ahead of its time, here are some takeaways from Lorange's experience.
"Slow the clock"
The term "slow the clock" is a sports analogy for times you need to play out the clock until the moment is right to make your play, Lorange explains. He realized he needed to make a living while continuing to run the company, so he got an executive job and kept the motor idling. "Being transparent with my employer allowed me to stay fluid enough to move again when the timing was right without breaking commitments," he says.
Use your "idling" time wisely
With the exception of world event-based spikes due to urban pollution bouts or wildfires, it was evident there wasn't enough demand for the pollution masks to reach large scale adoption in O2TODAY's earlier years. "So we used the time to line up key distribution channels for when the demand would come," Lorange says. The key channels included airport and travel retail, where the products were first to market. Lorange established relationships that would allow him to speed things up when demand would rise in the areas of the supply chain, manufacturing and marketing. The team invested in R&D based on early customer feedback.
When the trickle of demand becomes a tsunami
After operating on idle for a year, when COVID-19 emerged, Lorange says the company's entire inventory was consumed in a matter of weeks. Because he'd worked out a relationship with an airport retail distribution group in advance, he was first in line to receive the flood of orders. "We procured LOIs from distributors that had watched us for years, knew we were ahead of the curve and truly cared about the integrity of our products," Lorange said. "We weren't just opportunity-seeking and profiteering like so many other companies suddenly jumping into the space. And we attracted talent to our team by showing we were leading the charge in education and product development for the emerging category of healthy breathing. We had proven consumers were ready to adopt effective face masks as a health-lifestyle accessory in the same way they've previously adopted reusable water bottles and sunglasses."
While it's been difficult to meet demand in the short term (at the time of writing, the product is out of stock), the company has secured materials and purchase orders that will allow it to be a key player in a future beyond the sudden demand that's arisen due to COVID-19.
How do you scale to prepare for sudden, massive demand?
In the case of consumer or hard goods, this can be difficult, Lorange says, but do your best to secure your supply chain by not being dependent on a single manufacturer. Spreading out your materials sourcing is a bit more costly but allows teams to stay nimble and not fully dependent on any single part of your supply chain.
How do you protect your brand and IP or copyright when a frenzy of interest begins?
"In my opinion, this is all about channel preparation," Lorange says. "In a foot race with new entrants to the market, what matters most is where are you available, so the maximum number of customers have exposure to your brand. You can generate revenue and protect your IP by telling consumers where your products are available vs. the competition. If you are positioned in reputable channels, you will get a halo effect along with other known and trusted brands to win market share. Additionally, while Direct to Consumer is an important way to build your community and retain higher margins, developing an Omnichannel that includes trusted retailers is also key for your speed to market. There is also foresight in IP – for example, our products are trademarked in the countries most affected by the coronavirus."
It is important to acknowledge that not all experts advise the use of face masks in the wake of COVID-19. The U.S. Surgeon General, Jerome Adams, has urged the public to stop panic buying masks and other goods such as water and dry goods out of fear. He notes that many masks are ill-fitting and may cause the wearer to touch their faces and noses more often, which will only serve to expose them further to existing bacteria.
In a tweet, Adams noted that panic buying by the general public depletes the limited supplies of masks available for healthcare providers, and for sick individuals to use in preventing the spread of their virus and bacteria to others. The best protection against infection, the CDC advises, is to wash your hands thoroughly and often, wear protective latex gloves or use elbows or sanitary wipes when handling door handles, toilet handles and public grocery carts. The public should seek medical care at the first signs of illness and while ill, avoid public transit and reduce the spread of illness by working from home.
For entrepreneurs, the key will be to observe the sea change occurring with care while developing strategies to meet the evolving needs and interests of your customers in insightful and sustainable ways.
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