Matt Mullenax founded Huron because he saw a void in the men’s grooming industry and tested this hypothesis by launching a dummy brand before pouring all of his capital into developing real inventory. He and Jason run through how this testing worked, and dive into the topic of capital efficiency - a solid business concept in the age of rampant branding.
n this episode of Ecommerce Building Blocks, Jason invites Matt Mullenax to outline his business mindset in a variety of ways: what it means to truly be a leader and to grow a team, how Matt detected and leveraged a disconnect between high-end and chain store skin care products for the male population, and why carefully watching the two metrics of gross margin and profitability will outlast any waves of hyper growth, virality, and branding trends. Jason shares stories from his own business and breaks down how Matt’s theories can be applied to time usage and social media marketing.
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Matt started Huron under the premise that the world didn’t need another $40 body wash, and guys everywhere need access to great products at an approachable price. A native Ohioan, Matt hopes to fill an audience void: the fact that consumers in non-coastal markets aren’t often shown the same variety of high-quality products as their coastal peers.
There's a misnomer often times where it's a lot of your team is working for you. When I actually view it to be the opposite when you're a co-founder or founder or CEO of whomever, your job is really two things. One is to not run out of money and two is to grow the best team humanly possible. I think kind of the, the concept of efficiency isn't just applicable to capital it's time, right?
Like where is my time best spent? Time, energy focus, capital. We're kind of capped at there's 24 hours in a day, right? So you have to be really strategic around how you're spending that time.
Alrighty. Welcome back to another episode of the Building Blocks podcast. Today I'm joined by Matt Mullenax, the founder and CEO of Huron. Welcome to the show.
Thanks much for having me Jason.
Where are you calling in from?
Uh, we are in New York, so we have offices in Flatiron. Uh, so I'm tucked away in one of our, one of our small, uh, phone booths.
But, uh, but yeah, we're, we're in Flatiron team of five is.
There's so much good food around there. I was just in New York. So I'm jealous of where you place your office. I'm sure there's a strategic reason for that too,
Yeah. Yeah, exactly. We're maybe too close to good restaurants. Uh, which makes things a little bit dangerous, but yeah,
it's a great area.
Oh, good. And next question is one to 10. How happy are you right now?
Uh, probably seven or eight. Um, okay. Today's launch day for us. We have a new product coming out, so, um oh, good. That, that, that's always a fun day, so good. Uh, positive energy around the, around the office. So yeah.
Seven and eight. Really good for a founder, seven and eight, you know, we go, we go between like the two and seven.
Yeah, exactly. I mean, I feel like the land of nine and ten is just like unattainable. So, yeah.
Yeah. It's not gonna happen until you
Seven, seven or eight is basically like a 12 or a 14 of a 10. Um,
so yeah, no,
We'll take it, we'll take it. We'll take it. Um, I wanna ask you with Huron, you've been building this for the past few years.
What is that recent accomplishment that you're very proud of?
I don't know if there's, uh, one particular accomplishment that really jumps off the page to me, I think one of the things that we've done quite well since launch is actually remained really, really nimble. So, I mean, we're a team of five. Um, so a lot of our team has been asked to wear many different hats.
And I think whether it's, you know, Annie on the social side, who, you know, this is her first job, post college to, to the guy who runs our retention, John, he's had a, a number of different jobs, but, um, you know, asking them to cut apart the website or write copy, or send out influencer boxes or go pack up. Uh, or go pick up rather, uh, products from one of our manufacturing sites, you know, so, I mean, this is truly kind of an all hands on deck effort at all times.
So I think the ability to kind of grow and scale while we're remaining lean is probably something I'm most
Oh, absolutely. It's good to be the founder and look back at, this is a team I built and they're killing it without me having to step in.
Yeah, exactly. Right. And I think, you know, there's, um, there's a misnomer often times where it's you know, a lot of your team is working for you. When I actually view it to be the opposite, which is, you know, when you're, when you're a co-founder or founder or CEO, whomever, um, your job is really two things. One is to not run out of money. Uh, and two is to grow the best team humanly possible. And to build that team.
So it's oftentimes, you know, what can you do to help your team members and what support and resources do they need to really excel at their jobs? So that's something we kind of practice here. Um, you know, so we're, we're, we're always in collaborative mode. Um, and you know, benefits of a, of a small growing team.
It's an interesting dynamic that I don't feel like we were taught in school. Um, I'm not sure if you went to business school, I didn't go to college. Um, but it like no one ever teaches you that this is how it's supposed to be. When you're the boss, you're not owning your employees, you're working with your employees and sometimes serving the employees to make sure that they have the best resources and the money to keep going.
No one ever taught us that.
Yeah, exactly. And, and I feel like, you know, I, I, I did go to business school and spent way too much money on that. Um, only to realize that I knew nothing when I graduated. Uh, but you get this on the job training and there really isn't a playbook or a case study or something you can read for a lot of the things you just have to experience.
And when you go through those experiences, like that's the biggest lesson you can learn, right? So you can read as many books as humanly possible. As many Twitter threads and whatnot, but until you actually are in the weeds, trying to figure out some of these things, um, you're not gonna really have the, the greatest foundation to stand on.
So it just kind of throwing yourself and immersing yourself in the situation, but kind of doubling back to the point you made. Uh, I mean, we do weekly one on ones with everyone on the team. And the first question I ask is, you know, what can I do to help you. And I think that really kind of level sets folks.
So, you know, you know, we're a flat team, but obviously there's a little bit of structure and hierarchical structure there. But even as a team of five, like we have to be all hands on in understanding that we are really here to help one another grow both personally and professionally. Um, so maybe this even doubles back to your earlier questions, like one of our, you know, what's one of the things I'm most proud of is just actually seeing the personal and professional growth of our team.
I think that's really, really exciting for me. And knowing that like, Not everyone's gonna be here at Huron for 30 years to build like a career. Right. So it's, you know, what, what can we do to prepare you for the next stage of your professional journey so that you can go crush that? That really excites me.
I love that. You founded Huron in 2019 to fill a void in the men's grooming market. Tell me a little bit more about what that void was and how's Huron solving that.
Yeah. Um, I was the void , uh, you know, I was a kid that grew up with bad skin. I struggled with acne for probably 15 or 20 years, quite frankly.
Um, walked more aisles of CVS and Walgreens than I cared to admit, uh, all the way to kind of like sitting in terrible dermatologist offices, you know, ripping through prescription drugs and topicals. It just didn't really work for me quite frankly. So, um, it was a pretty rough journey for me to kind of finally figure out a routine and a regimen and products that worked.
Um, but I wanted to make that more accessible to, to many more consumers. And when you have that intimate connection with the end consumer, um, I was him, uh, it just makes it a lot easier to come from a place where relatability, authenticity, whatever you wanna call it, uh, to really tell a first person narrative and a story that resonates.
So when we thought about kind of launching this brand, it was leveraging yes, amazing quality products and using the best, the best contract manufacturers, but it was really about addressing this consumer in a different way. You know, historically the options were something that existed at Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom's or something that existed at Walgreens and CVS, and there really wasn't middle ground.
Um, and that wasn't right. So for us, it's, you know, how do we take kind of the efficacy, the technology of the former, um, and deliver it to guys who were just kind of figuring out this very awkward category, which is the bathroom.
That relatability is really something that kind of drove us early on and continues to do so.
I love that. It's the same philosophy I had when I built my brand. Um, I wasn't the main user. I built it for my girlfriend at the time, but like seeing the same thing, you either go for like the $90 lash extension, or you get the $3 one from CVS that falls apart after one wear. Oh wow. There was really no middle ground.
And I felt like there was a void and then you make the void, uh, you make the solutions to fill the void. So I love seeing that from here. Um, you had a interesting launch strategy where you launched a fake brand before you launched a real one. Tell me a little bit more about
Yeah. Um, and, and even kind of the backstory, but behind the reason to do that was, is kind of entertaining.
So I had just finished, um, grad school in 2017 and I was kind of tinkering around that, with this idea that I've had for a number of years, And I was grabbing some beers with my roommates at the time, they were like, well, they're both engineers by trade. They're like, well, why don't you just build a website, like a fake website?
I'm like, I can barely like log onto my email. Like, I don't know how to do that. They're like, no, no, no. Like you, you get us a few more beers and like, we'll just sit in the apartment and do it tonight. So we literally just Google imaged, a bunch of different product photos, superimposed them onto like these like blank white bottles, um, created like a branded website and then ran Facebook campaigns to a bunch of different, uh, geographic cities that I viewed as kind of being underserved or under targeted.
Um, and we sat back for two or three weeks and just watched what happened and the results were actually pretty incredible. So for me, that was, that was really telling that this hunch that I had, there was actually an opportunity, um, out of it, you know, I think one, again, a misnomer of, kind of the entrepreneurial journey is that founders are very risk seeking.
And I actually think it's quite the opposite. You're constantly looking for ways to kind of de-risk certain decisions, whether it's hiring someone, whether it's making an agency decision, whether it's firing someone or firing it. I mean, there's so many different decisions along the way where you're constantly speaking to folks, digging into data to figure out like, how can I mitigate the actual risk of this decision?
Um, and that was a perfect exercise to say like, Hey, I have this, have this idea. Yes, I was the consumer, but like, will anyone actually buy into this brand or buy into the products? And we quickly learned that the answer was. So from that point, like that was super exciting and motivating to me to actually follow this kind of dream I had to say, you know, let's spring at this thing and just see what happens.
I love that you did like a test and I love that you touch on the risk part because you know, there, there is this misconception that entrepreneurs just take risk for the sake of taking risk. But no, like we take calculated risk.
And every single thing that we do it's how do we minimize the risk exposure? When we do make that decision.
So, no, actually we're quite risk averse, cuz there's so much money on the line.
And, and look, I mean our days are stacked upon a series of decisions. Right. And any one of those decisions can derail a lot of progress.
So it's constantly, and now you can't like go super in the weeds with every single decision.
There is a push pull between speed and intentionality. But understanding, like, what's the downside case, like what could actually go wrong? What could also go, right. And then kind of making, uh, analytical call from there.
Um, but yeah, I mean, it's, you know, you have to go through these exercises.
So let's break down the, the fake test real quickly from my understanding, you had this idea, you know, the value props, you put up a website, I imagine some products, some pictures of product.
You made ads for it. Um, you ran ads with the value props as if it's a brand new.
An actual product. You got people to go on your store. I'm not sure if it's purchasable or not, but you're able to collect the data
On how many people came, how many people add to cart, how many people actually bought. And then you're like, okay, if I were to actually put a lot more money into this, this is what I might imagine my results to be.
Does that sound right?
Yeah, that's exactly right. And to be honest, like I wish I were more analytical, uh, maybe in the exercise than I probably was. Look, I mean, we, we had so many people visiting the site, attempting checkouts. We weren't collecting credit card information obviously, cause we didn't have anything to sell.
Um, but the number of attempted checkouts was really encouraging. And then, uh, you know, kind of an interesting way to, to kind of talk about this, but like the number of hateful emails that I got being like, oh, your site sucks. It's broken. I can't even check out. Like I'm never shopping here. I'm like, Ugh.
Like I feel really bad, but this is also like very validating at the same time. Um, so yeah, look, I mean, there's a bunch of different ways to kind of like stress test whether or not this idea, you know, had legs. And I think this was. A very kind of short feedback loop to say, there's actually a lot of people who are clicking through these ads, which were terrible.
I might add. Um, going to the site adding products to part and trying to check out without really knowing much about the company at all was very, very encouraging. And there is a little bit a geography play in that test. I mean, I'm from Ohio. I had spent some time in New York, um, and was living obviously in the west coast after, after grad school.
But I felt like a lot of these more Midwestern markets or some of the Southeast markets, like were pretty under targeted. Um, you know, there, there isn't a Le Labo or an Aesop in Cincinnati, Ohio where I'm from, but there's certainly plenty of guys who would like to have slightly nicer stuff or maybe are dealing with, um, some skin related issues, you know, me.
Uh, so it's like, well, how, how do those folks get access to brands they don't even know about? So the thought was, could you kinda target folks in some of these more. you know, not coastal cities and see and see what the receptivity
Yeah. And the CPMs definitely a lot lower in the non coastal cities, just for very obvious reasons.
So for anyone who's looking to start their own store, I think the playbook here is find the product that you're looking to make, get a logo and Photoshop it onto that bottle. Make some fake product pictures, just, just to test like install a heat map on your store, run, you know, 500 to a thousand dollars in Facebook ads, uh, on an ads with the value props that you feel like is truly unique to your product and see how many people go in.
How many people click, what do people look at when they're on your site? And for a thousand dollars, you're able to validate whether or not this business is worth investing another $5,000 into, rather than buying inventory that will sit there because you're not sure if it's gonna sell. I love that. I love that, you know, framework and truthfully it's, it's an affordable thing relatively compared to sinking tens of thousand dollars on inventory that no one will buy.
Or the opportunity cost of your time. Right? Like maybe you quit your job and go all in on this thing, which is again, like very, uh, very noteworthy, but like maybe there's just not really an opportunity to be had at that time in that market. And maybe you're able to stress test that again to your point.
For five hundered , a thousand bucks, um, and not have to make a brash decision. Like I'm quitting my job. I'm going all in on this. Um, it just gives you a little bit more of a litmus test to determine whether or not there's some traction to be had.
I love that. Um, one of the things that we talked about when we met is how you run Huron.
And the biggest thing that I remember was capital efficiency, which is something that I feel like not a lot of brands talk about because there was this big wave of big money coming into DTC, going into a lot of other brands in our, in our category. And they're spending that they're offering at negative EBIDA and now they're burning out.
Whereas, you know, you kind of came out perfectly fine, because you're efficient with your capital. Wanna hear your thoughts on like, what are some things that you did? Some things that other people can replicate. And if that's something that if there's like a framework to really follow and how you can create capital efficiency.
Yeah. I mean, I don't know that's necessarily if there's a framework more so than just like a mentality or a mindset, but there are definitely some things that we look at in terms of metrics where. You know, five, you know, maybe not even five, three to five years ago, many folks and brands only cared about growth rate.
Right? Well, we're growing 10 X year over year. Well, if you're spending an incremental 2 X to do that, like that doesn't work out. Um, so we're really conscious around how we think about things like gross margin or how we look at profitability. I mean, those are, those are really core metrics for us. Those metrics will stand the test of time whether Facebook is really tough or Facebook is really good. Right. Um, so when there's these exogenous market factors that may impact an acquisition or an acquisition environment, um, you know, there are certain sound business principles that again, will kind of stay steady throughout whatever market conditions are.
So for us, it's just really being thoughtful and intentional about what we're spending money on. And I think that to some extent does start at the top where. You know, from time zero, myself and Matt, my co-founder, we were like, look like we don't necessarily want to build a brand. We want to build a business.
And what's the difference is the ladder can kind of stand on its own two legs by itself. We don't need to raise a series F in order to show that this thing can work. Right. So it's what, you know, how can you take less and do more? Um, if you even choose to go the fundraising route to begin with most folks, or some folks may choose to bootstrap.
So, um, and in, and in that scenario, like, you really have to be capital efficient. Um, so, you know, again, it's just more of a mentality of saying, how can we be thoughtful about the money that we're deploying, whether it's buying Facebook ads, buying Google ads, buying inventory, buying boxes, buying stickers, what have you?
Every dollar out has to be carefully scrutinized to say, what is my potential return coming back ? And I think just kind of the, the environment to spend, to spend where, you know, everyone's playing ping pong at noon. Like I think those days are kind of over and I think people are much more focused on how do we make the dollars work stronger and for longer versus, you know, how do we just like show extreme growth in a really short time window only hoping to go back into the fundraising market six to 12 months later.
you guys bootstrapped?
We are not. We've been fortunate to raise money from a group of folks, uh, family offices, some small venture funds, but the majority of our cap table is kind of like, uh, friends and folks who have, um, built consumer businesses previously, which for me is really, really exciting because I can really tap into the mindset of someone who's exited a business before.
Right. Be like, Hey, how do you, how do you think about hiring a VP of marketing ? Or how would you, you look at fulfillment centers, you're getting very tactical feedback and information. Um, maybe versus someone who's just reading a daily newsletter in order to do that. Right? So it's, it's a, it's thinking about who can really add value, um, into the organization, not only through their capital, which obviously we're extremely grateful for, but also their mind.
Um, you know, who, who is the smart kind of capital, uh, that can come on board, um, and join the team.
And I think
like the way that you raise your capital made you a lot more careful of how you deploy it, which is the whole capital efficiency thing, because these are people that, you know, people that you truly like have close relationships with.
You wanna make sure that you're protecting their capital at all costs and...
...you're demonstrating that
. um, I think capital efficiency is an interesting topic because it's like you said, it's, it's a mindset. Um, but oftentimes people don't really think through that every opportunity that you take has different growth potentials.
Yeah. So like spending an hour, I'll give you like a very simple example for the audience. Like spending an hour, trying to grow on Instagram is not the same as what you get spending an hour growing on TikTok simply because the algorithm on TikTok has a lot less limits compared to Instagram. Kind of factor in by how many followers you have, and maybe that'll change down the line.
But for the most part, back in the day, if you had five followers, you might only show that content to five people. Whereas on TikTok, if you make a piece of content, it'll get shown to hundreds of people. And so same concept thinking through what you do. Like do you go into your retail? Do you do, uh, online wholesale?
Do you do DTC each of those for every dollar you put in every hour you put in has different potential output. And so the ceiling is different and that's how you kind of create efficiency. Am I, am I kind of on the right track there?
No, I think you're spot on. I think you're spot on. Yeah. I think, I think kind of the, the concept of efficiency, isn't just applicable to capital it's to your point it's time, right?
Like where is my time best spent? Time, energy focus, capital. I mean, we're kind of capped if there's 24 hours in a day, right? So you have to be really strategic around how you're spending that time. And to your point, you can drum up the best in feed post ever seen, but if TikTok struggling or if, uh, Instagram's struggling with, um, in feed post right now, but on TikTok, if you can put together a piece of content and one of 10 pieces of content go viral, like that's an insane return.
Like that's a really efficient use of. So it's just, it's constantly measuring these things to understand again, what is the best use of time, money, energy, focus?
One practice that we've been doing is at the end of the week, we look back at the things that we did and we start trying to break down where we're wasting a lot of time on, is it training someone on something that could have been documented and doesn't have to be trained again, if that's the case, then that tells us we need to go back and document it, build SOP so that next time when same thing happens, we are not wasting time again. So. Capital efficiency. Time is money. Money. Money is obviously very valuable. Um, looking at ways to automate our business. Are we doing a lot of PR orders for influencers? Can we build a automation process to automate that? Um, are we pulling reports, spending hours on it?
Can we automate that process? So, you know, just ask your like yourself, if I do this one thing, can I squeeze more out of it? If I, you know, if I spent $300 on a piece of UGC, can I cut that up into five different pieces of. You know, just constantly asking yourself, can I squeeze more out of it? And I think that's what you guys do well, I, I mean, I use your product. I, you know, shower with your shampoo and conditioner. So I'm a testament. I'm your customer. I see what you do and love what you've been able to put out. Um, on the last point, I wanna get you to do a hot take in the next 60 seconds. Anything, any topic? What's your hot take?
I guess this is, uh, more relevant, cuz I was just perusing Twitter before we got on.
Uh, but people never tell the whole story. Right. And what I mean by that is, um, there's always a new channel that people are championing, on how strong the ROAS is, or there's always a new ad structure set up. That's gonna light things on fire for Facebook. You're always hearing the good side of things.
Um, but there's this concept called, you know, the iceberg theory, which is like, you only see what's visible above the surface. And that's a very small portion of like how big the actual iceberg is. So you never see beneath the surface. And I think quite honestly, like I struggled with that in the beginnings kind of with imposter syndrome, right.
It was like, well, well, this brand's absolutely crushing it, but we can't get to this to work. Like why. I can figure it out. Why can't I figure out like, blah, blah, blah. Um, you can drive yourself crazy doing that. And you, at times you just have to compartmentalize and say, look, this is something that seems to be working for this brand.
Like good for them. That's awesome. But over time, you'll quickly learn to say. That's not for us necessarily, or that's not a core strategy of ours and you have to learn how to kind of like tighten the focus a bit because otherwise you can drive yourself absolutely mad trying to chase all these strategies that seem to be working for other folks and trying and apply them to your brand.
And especially on like, you know, in any bubbles of community, on any social media platform, you know, I think you and I are in like the DTC Twitter, and I, I, myself, I always tell people like, whatever I write is what I'm documenting for myself. It will not always work for you. Yeah. There's so many things that happen.
Like if a brand has five years of brand equity and they do something. Like a particular strategy. They just might have a lot more success if you follow than compared to if you did the exact same thing, but you just start out simply because they have five years of brand equity, but that's a context that, you know, some people just don't talk about, um, for, for whatever reasons, you know, maybe they don't want to, maybe it's not relevant, but.
You know, I, I think it's true, even for these podcasts. Like I have these conversations with you of other founders it's, what's working for us. It's not meant to be a playbook that people can just follow, but they should just write. Yeah.
Yeah. And no, very well said. And I think also another takeaway from that is like, rather than like trying to replicate a soundbite that you take away from a podcast or an email, or what have you is actually internalized, like how can that be applied to my business?
So it's not a one for one, like, okay, like seeding this influencer work for brand X, I'm gonna see the exact same influencer. Cause it should work for, for my brand. It's more of like the thoughtfulness of like, well, how did that brand benefit from giving product to that particular influencer? And what would then make sense for an influencer for our brand, right?
So it's, it's actually grabbing the concept sometimes not the actual action that I think kind of confused folks, but you have to constantly be thinking about how is this applicable to my brand at our stage, at our growth trajectory, because all of these brands are at different stages and just have different
Yeah. The way to break down on that is instead of saying, how will this work, uh, or how, like, you know, how does this work for my business? We need to understand how did it work for their business and understand principally what was it that made it successful? Was it that they had a email list of 10,000 people.
That made it just a lot easier that you don't have, right. Or maybe they just had a lot more money to spend, to collect data that you don't have, like understand why it worked and then apply that concept to your business rather than just copying the playbook. Cuz no one will have the winning formula and if they did, then clearly we're all doing something wrong.
Yeah. A hundred percent, a hundred percent.
Well, Matt, that was the last of my question. I really appreciate you coming on to the show and telling me about Huron, telling me about how you run your business. And I think that your employees will really, really love having a boss like you, just the mentality that you exhibit.
So, um, appreciate you coming on. I truly love just learning from you, watching on the sidelines using your products too. I, I can't really use my own products by the way. So I, I actually use your products a lot often their mind, um, but keep up the good work and thank you again.
Awesome. Thanks much, Jason. Appreciate it.
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