Knook #30: Triumph & Disaster
Men’s skincare and grooming has undergone a renaissance in the last decade. The industry has exploded as fellas have rediscovered routine and process and the value of products, inspired more by their grandfathers than their fathers.
Triumph & Disaster is a men’s natural skincare and grooming company who were at the cutting edge of that renaissance. Led by CEO and founder Dion Nash, they’re now in their tenth year as one of New Zealand’s leading men’s brands and attracting global recognition.
I asked Dion how Triumph & Disaster got started and what triggered his insight that men’s skincare was a niche worth pursuing.
“I was working for a corporate but I was struggling to feel like I was moving the dial. I had this desire to prove to myself that I could start a business and do it well. I had previously been at 42 Below and seen that work really well, and the thing that was holding me back was that I was scared to take the training wheels off.” says Dion.
“I was in the process of leaving the corporate - this was in 2009 - but I didn’t really have an idea of what I was going to do next. One of my last trips with that company took me to New York to meet with a marketing agency. I was in this meeting with a guy who worked for the agency. He was wearing a waistcoat, had a full sleeve of tattoos, etc - all in the pre-hipster era. He was the coolest dressed in the room, and during the meeting I saw him pull out a lip balm and a hand moisturiser, both products from what was traditionally seen as a woman’s brand.
“I got on the flight back to New Zealand and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I thought ‘there’s some legs to this idea - I think guys would be really into this’.
“I had first discovered moisturiser while playing cricket. When you’re playing cricket, you’re out in the sun, heat, and dust - it’s really harsh on your skin. I first thought about using it when I read an article asking Rod Stewart about his youthful looks - he attributed it to moisturiser so I dug through the home cabinet and dug out some to use.
“I was a closet user. I remember playing down in Otago, towards the end of the day and one of our coaches - I always thought of him as a grumpy old man but thinking back he was probably only in his 30s - busted me in the middle of applying some moisturiser and he gave me this strange look and asked why I was putting more sunscreen on. I just bluffed and said ‘you can never be too careful’”, Dion laughs.
“In those days, at the start of my career, no one was using moisturiser - it was so far out of people’s frame of reference, and I had this real fear of being ridiculed. By the end of my career though, most guys were using some form of skincare. I mean most were using what were seen as women’s brands. Using all this knowledge and experience, I thought there was a real opportunity for something that was made for men.
“I also knew that there was this missing generation of men who didn’t use lots of products. Our grandads had pottles and creams and tins of Rawleigh's and various things, but our dads didn’t. I wanted to create something that felt like handed-down advice.
“I was tossing this all up and thinking about what to call the project. I had a framed copy of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’ on the wall that my dad had given me. There’s a line in there with the phrase ‘triumph and disaster’ and it was an ‘aha’ moment for me - here was some literal handed-down advice from my dad and all the pieces fell into place.
“I sketched out a business plan, asking things like where can I sell it? Where can I reach guys like me using traditionally women's products? New Zealand provenance is strong - how do we use that? It was the early days of the natural movement - how do we use natural products? Guys are loyal to brands, how could I build our product into a lifestyle?
“I then pulled together a bit of a team and worked with some great partners who had experience in this sort of thing. We got to the heart of things and sharpened the plan. From a branding perspective, I’m big on borrowing from other sectors. If you look in the bathroom cabinet for inspiration, you just end up with something that looks like something from a bathroom cabinet.
“We then had to find a manufacturer who would make our formulas. Manufacturers here wanted to make what they were already making and sprinkle some magic on it to make a new product. We had to go to Australia initially, to actually make our formulas. After about 18 months or so we found a great manufacturer here who would make our formulas.
“Distribution-wise, I asked Karen Walker if I could come and visit with some trial samples before we were ready for sale. Her initial reaction was ‘wow, these are amazing, I’d use these!’ She brought her husband in to take a look too - the first 5 minutes of our meeting was them raving about the product and the rest of our time was a brainstorm session on what I needed to do next. She agreed to carry our product in her stores, and her support was a huge endorsement that enabled further sales.
“Looking back now, I didn’t really undertake any market validation. I was taking a punt based on gut instinct. I knew people who were using moisturisers etc and would be passionate about the brand if we won them over. The timing was around the ‘urban lumberjack apocalypse’ and so we nailed the timing in terms of a barber shop boom and a renaissance of men's grooming.
“I don’t think you can start a business without being ballsy - there’s no such thing as 100% validation. You can definitely narrow your odds - it’s really hard to change people’s behaviour, so we opted to tap into existing behaviour.
“But at the end of the day the time comes where you just need to put all your chips in. I remember spending $50k on plastic bottles for our packaging. I was walking around the streets of Auckland just sick to my stomach that I’d made that call. But you just have to get over it and crack on.”
I asked Dion what challenges he’s faced in his business journey.
Says Dion, “For me, I’ve found staff a bit of a challenge, just as I’ve learned to grow as a manager. When we first started, we had a number of staff who were great from day one and naturally invested in what we were doing. After running for about five years, we hit our first lot of churn, and I took it personally. It took me some time to realise everyone is on their own journey, and I’ve had to grow and evolve as a manager.
“Another big thing has been that no one tells you the realities of managing cash. You only sell on consignment or 90 day terms once. SMEs have a hard time walking away because you want that big order, so people still do it. I’ve done it - but when you realise how long 90 days is, you don’t want to sign those terms - for us that can be 3 batches of product made and shipped before we’ve been paid for the first lot. It’s crazy - it puts so much pressure on time and resources in the business.
“In terms of COVID, it’s obviously been unexpected and I wouldn’t have wanted to tackle the issues it’s thrown up if the company was four years younger. Now I’m more battle-hardened and know what needs to be done to get through.
“Business is about solving business problems - you have to take steps forward and that brings problems into focus and makes them 3D at which point you can find a way around them. I hate the word ‘pivot’ - it portrays a sense of naivete in business but in reality, all businesses have ever done is pivot and make adjustments to keep growing.”
Innovation has played a key role in the way Triumph & Disaster launched and has subsequently developed. I asked Dion how they’ve kept that innovative spirit central to their approach as a company.
“I think we’ve never accepted being ‘just another’ or ‘a version of’”, says Dion.
“We’ve been very intentional about avoiding that. Otherwise what’s the point? And that ethos flows through the company from a cultural perspective. We want people to push the boat out and try new things.
“It definitely gets harder to do when you’re medium-sized. We found that when trying to find manufacturers as we started out. They were keen on ‘what’s easy’ and didn’t want to challenge the status quo - they just wanted to sprinkle magic on the product they already made. But for us we want to fight the status quo and challenge the norm.”
I asked Dion what advice he’d give to someone starting out in their business journey.
“There’s no other thing to do but start. But I firmly believe you need to feel compelled to do it - don’t jump in because you think it might be a good idea but because you absolutely need to be the person to build this product or service or whatever. Getting in a big hole is easy, getting out is not - so make sure it’s worth it.
“This football player Aeneas Williams was being inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. His key point in his acceptance speech was that he began his career with the end in mind. He knew he wanted to be in the Hall of Fame - and he played with that goal in mind.
“I wish someone had told me that. So as you’re starting out, begin with an end goal in mind, whether that’s launching on NZX, making however much, building to sell the business.”
I asked Dion what’s next for Triumph & Disaster.
“We’re wanting to tackle the Chinese market - that requires more capability and Mandarin speaking talent within the business. We’re big on offering to each market what needs to be a bespoke offering.
“Our online store is booming - we want to keep getting better at that side of things especially as it’s hard to spend time in market and develop new channels.
“But mostly we want to do everything we’re already doing but better and more fine-tuned.”
To shop, find out more, or discover Disaster Radio, visit: https://www.triumphanddisaster.co.nz/