I had the pleasure of interviewing Erin and Leif Frey, the founders of FREY clothing care line.
Jean: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory” of how you became a founder?
Leif: Thank you so much for letting us be a part of this. We like to think our backstory is pretty fun (either that or super long and tedious, depends on how you look at it).
Believe it or not (and we say that in a joking manner), creating laundry products tailored towards men wasn’t part of some grandiose idea nor as part of a plan to be our future career. The concept was just something we wanted and had a little bit of data showing that others were interested in, as well.
We started out in the most rudimentary of ways in college after graduating from the county’s smallest public high school in farm country (Leif went to Georgetown and Erin went to Dartmouth), mixing unscented detergent and fragrance in a giant kitchen bowl, gluing bottles on labels and capping them, all with my friends having a beer and watching a movie around me. The result was pretty terrible, but we stuck with it.
After college in Washington DC, we moved our operations to a basement in Harwood, MD, mixing fragrance in what looked like a home-made meth-lab, and filling bottles out of a 5 gallon water jug (big upgrade). I was working as an independent ecommerce consultant at this point, and Erin was still in school, so we weren’t full-time by any means. This is where we launched a tiny Kickstarter (no ad spend or money to put behind it), but the project went through, and we continued to make bottles by hand. Our first batch from China (picked up from the airport in a U-Haul, surrounded by 18-wheelers) actually had tiny holes in all of them, so we had to hand glue every single one and test it before shipping it out. We would turn them upside down on a ping-pong table and leave them overnight to see if they leaked (the ping pong table wascompletely ruined). We once had a very small sample order for 5000 2oz bottles, so we had a number of friends come over for the weekend. We gave them food and drink and we just filled and labeled tiny bottles the entire weekend (we couldn’t find anyone to fulfill a sample order that small for a reasonable price).
If it’s not abundantly clear, at this point there still wasn’t much of a plan, or an anticipation that this would go anywhere. It was a fun little side-grind.
But, the end result of the Kickstarter was that our story/brand was picked up by Good Morning America (we reached out to hundreds of publications hoping for press, since we couldn’t afford marketing). Sales definitely spiked, and that’s when we took a time out and realized we might be onto something. The fact that a lot of total strangers were buying what was truthfully a pretty poorly-executed initial product launch, demonstrated a really solid interest in the idea.
So, we reset, and began in zealous diligence. We built out the product in earnest, improved upon the brand, and moved to a warehouse in Baltimore, now pumping (by hand) out of 55-gallon drums of detergent.
Sales continued to grow and finally we outgrew that warehouse and moved to an actual production facility in Delaware. Still though, we were bootstrapped, and there were definitely weeks where we couldn’t afford the cost to have them fill the bottles, so we would drive two hours there, fill them, and drive two hours back multiple days in a row.
We’ve long since moved past that (thankfully), have raised capital, and could not be more excited about what we’re doing, or what’s to come. But coming from those small beginnings makes it even more fun when we look around at what we’re doing.
Jean: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Erin: It’s amazing that a lot of brands now incorporate some form of social responsibility, but I think it’s less common in start-ups (in large part because of time and financial restrictions). And it’s something that we’ve built into our foundation as a brand.
We were fortunate enough to volunteer abroad a number of times growing up, working in health clinics with our father in Haiti and Bolivia, Leif spent a summer in a Ugandan refugee camp during college. We always said these trips did way more good for us than we did for those we were visiting- it really, really drove home just how much we had to be grateful for. And you obviously don’t have to step outside the country to see that, either.
So, we were always set on trying to make a positive impact and give back. We really wanted to implement a “one for one” charity program similar to the Toms model and at the time, we didn’t know of any in the laundry industry. We created our Wash for Wash program where we’ve partnered with non-profit partners from DC to San Francisco to wash the clothes of those in need, from the homeless to low-income families. We’re still building out the “one for one” aspect of that, but in the meantime, we’ve recently partnered with One Tree Planted where every order helps plant a tree. We’re super excited to build this out even more as we grow.
We’ve also focused on our products being safer for the environment, incorporating natural and more readily biodegradable ingredients, concentrating formulas to eliminate space and excess water usage, and other processes to help the environment.
We’re very proud to have all of this backed by being a certified B Corporation, and we were recognized by B Lab as a 2018 Best for the World Honoree.
Jean: Are you working on any exciting projects now?
Absolutely! We just recently raised capital, so we finally have some money to start building out the brand and user experience the way we truly envision it. Laundry is one of the most personal aspects of our lives. Everything we wear, everything we sleep in, anything we dry off with after we bathe, our sheets, all of it goes through the wash. Yet the industry is extremely generic, and products are generally filled with chemicals we don’t know the effects of, various dyes, and run-of-the-mill fragrances. We want to completely change how customers perceive clothing care to make it personal, healthier, and just better. So we’re completely revamping the user experience, working on building out a “walk-through” that completely customizes our offering to the user. The end objective is to make completely personalized plans and products tailored to each individual’s needs. We’re also working on our second and third fragrances, which we’re beyond excited about.
Jean: Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
Erin: This is a super tough question, and we truthfully couldn’t come up with a super impactful book. We love reading, we’ve been bookworms all our lives, but a single book having that profound an impact is rare.
The biggest impact on our lives is each other. We’re extraordinarily close, have been through a lot together, and helped shape each other into who we are today. I think far and away that’s the number one impact in our lives.
Jean: What are your “5 Lessons I Learned as a Twentysomething Founder” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
Leif: The value of being bootstrapped.
Running the brand as a bootstrapped business was long and definitely painful at times, and perhaps it would have been smarter to raise money sooner, but truthfully,I’m not sure we would have done it any differently. Running a bootstrapped business is one of the best learning experiences we could have had, especially having launched this straight out of college. We had to stretch dimes into dollars, and the grind was ridiculous, but we learned to work and value money in ways that would never have happened had we raised money from the start. We were forced to roll the tiny profit from $500/month in revenue end over end every month to stay afloat and grow. I remember debating with my brother over whether we should use a referral platform that was $70 a month. What this meant was that when we finally started bringing in real revenue, we could stretch our cash flows to an amazing extent, and we could then postpone the raise even further. A lot of brands with new founders raise money and burn through it at an incredible rate, which can work if you know exactly what you’re doing, but most of the time just results in a failed brand, and best case a lot of equity given up.The lessons we learned as a bootstrapped brand will hopefully have long-lasting positive impacts.
Erin: Put pride/ego behind you.
This is a pretty obvious and potentially cliché lesson, but it’s easy to say, difficult to do, and we tried to implement it in an extremely tangible way. The more you can ask for, and accept, serious critique both of your business as well as yourself, the more you can grow. As founders we took a “brutal honesty” approach with each other, promising we’d give each other the feedback we needed throughout the day on how we were handling phone calls, business interactions, emails, marketing campaigns, and everything in between. Even more so, we did the same with almost every new business contact. At some point in almost all new conversations we would take a pause and say something along the lines of “we ask this of all business partners, but pull no punches, we want to know exactly what you think we could be doing better or differently.” Especially with people you hire (consultants, virtual assistants, or anything else), there’s a tendency for them to sugar-coat everything and not give you the honest feedback you need. If you can break out of this, you’ll learn much more quickly. It’s also just more efficient and will get you farther.
Leif: Starting with family and friends.
There seems to be very much a piece of universal advice to “not go into business with family and friends,”butwe think deciding to go into business as brothers, and recruit close friends (but carefully) was one of the best decisions we could have made.
Obviously choosing to work with friends/family can be risky and should not be taken lightly, but with the right family member/friend it can be the most rewarding experience in the world. As brothers we have been fortunate enough to play competitive sports together, go to school together (not college), travel the world together, and more. We’ve been through thick and thin, and now we’ve had the opportunity to start a business together, be on national TV together, and bring another level of adventure to our friendship.
This is outside of more than just my brother and I though. We were just fortunate enough to bring on our CTO full-time. He’s a rockstar human being (and coder), and we’ve actually known him since we were just a few years old. Our families were very close growing up, but we hadn’t actually seen/contacted each in over a decade until when we launched FREY, he reached out (from halfway across the world, he was in the UK at the time), and started helping us.Now ,we’re full time together. But the same thing applies- one of the reason the relationships works super well is that if there is a problem, no one feels the need to internalize, everyone gets everything out efficiently, we solve the problem and move on.
One of our first partners, Patrick Keshishian, is one of our closest friends, and he still works with us. Another part-time mentor/contractor is another incredibly close friend. A number of other various contractors are some sort of close friend or relation. The dream is to surround yourself with great people. Some workers become incredibly close friends, and some incredibly close friends become business partners. But if you build a group that blurs the lines of friends, family, and business in the right way, all of a sudden work doesn’t feel as much like work but like fun, and the “fun” can be productive, as you’re randomly brainstorming over drinks. The atmosphere we’ve managed to create is honestly intoxicatingly happy. Friends, part-time workers, people running their own businesses are constantly bopping in and out of our lives, and it’s a never-ending cycle of fun, work, new ideas, and just great feelings with people we’re close to. We’ve been very fortunate in this regard, but we’ve also built this intentionally.
The selection needed in all this is to make sure the bond with the person you’re bringing on can withstand some serious tests. The benefit of doing this with my brother is that when we disagree, we can “have it out,” get everything out there, and move on. We’ve had some hilarious interactions, where we are apologizing to one another in the most heated manner. With a “normal” business partner, these interactions would probably get buried, unsaid, resentment would build, and things would fall apart.
Erin: Everything costs twice as much and takes just as long as you think it will.
One of our mentors told us one time, “Everything costs twice as much and takes twice as long as you expect.” We were skeptical at first, but it does seem that if you rely on when you think a project will be finalized, then if anything goes wrong it can throw everything off. People and companies are not perfect, no matter who they are, and a single mistake can cause there to be a logistical nightmare. Relying on a company’s starting quote is not good because they will very often tack on all sorts of charges. Following our mentor’s advice has proven extremely useful on many occasions.
Jean: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
Leif: It may be completely unrelated to our business, but I think it’d be fantastic to sit down with Emma Watson. She has made incredible strides across the world with her gender equality/feminism work, and for someone our age, has made one of the biggest impacts on worldwide culture. My brother and I absolutely consider ourselves feminists, and in creating FREY, one of our hopes is to help breakdown outdated stereotypes surrounding gender roles in the household. It would be pretty awesome to speak with her on everything she’s accomplished.
Who do I want to meet?
Aidan: I would love to meet Elon Musk. I think that he is one of the pioneers of tech and has raised the stakes for all tech companies around the globe. He is a perfect example of perseverance and dedication.
Erin: About 6 or 7 years ago, I was in downtown Annapolis, MD, and I saw something that has stuck with me ever since. There was a little old lady, most likely in her late 80’s or early 90’s, walking carefully down the street, and putting coins in people’s parking meters. It shocked me because she just looked so amazingly happy. I have always enjoyed helping people however I can, but this was a new level of someone selflessly, with no agenda to even be appreciated, doing something that had a positive impact on the world. It made me realize that the small good deeds that people do, even if no-one knows about them, have a positive impact on the world, and can in themselves be a source of happiness much greater than anything else, and make you feel like you have a purpose. If we all did things like that, the world would be an incredible place. I feel like speaking to her to learn from her and hear her life story that lead to that moment would be incredible.
— Published on July 10, 2018