Facebook and Goldman alums who raised nearly $2 million for their startup say there’s a problem with the go-to advice for entrepreneurs

Oars Alps Laura Lisowski Cox Mia Saini Duchnowski
Laura Lisowski Cox, left, and Mia Saini Duchnowski, founders of Oars+Alps. Courtesy of Oars+Alps
  • Laura Lisowski Cox and Mia Saini Duchnowski are the founders of men’s skincare company Oars+Alps.
  • They say developing and marketing a tangible product takes a different approach than an online or software startup.
  • They have never regretted taking their time developing a product.

By the time they started men’s skincare company Oars+Alps, Laura Lisowski Cox and Mia Saini Duchnowski had held a range of jobs between them.

Duchnowski, who holds degrees from both MIT and Harvard Business School, began her career doing research for NASA. She then spent two years as a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs, and most recently was a TV reporter at Bloomberg. Cox, who holds a Masters in finance from Brandeis, spent three years as a client solutions manager at Facebook.

But by the fall of 2016, they’d left their high-profile jobs behind to strike out on their own as entrepreneurs.

They quickly learned that advice for entrepreneurs isn’t one-size-fits-all.

For instance, many entrepreneurs are advised to begin with a Minimum Viable Product, or MVP. The term, which denotes an early release version of your product that’s meant to be optimised in real time, as users adopt it, was created by Frank Robinson in 2001 and popularised by authors Steve Blank and Eric Ries in classic startup books including “The Lean Startup” and “The Startup Owners Manual.”

Duchnowski says that while that widespread advice might be applicable for people developing software or apps, when you have a tangible product like a bar of soap, “you need to put out a product that’s pretty damn near perfect, and you need to put that product out in the market without spending a lot of money or wasting a lot of time,” she said. “Because if you’re going to iterate, you’re going to iterate on that last 0.5%.”

The idea of the fast-moving startup is one perpetuated by big names such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, whose motto is “Move fast and break things,” and LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman, who famously said “if you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you released it too late.” He later clarified on his podcast, Masters of Scale, that “if you launch so fast that it generates lawsuits, alienates users, or burns through capital without any apparent gain, you did in fact launch too soon.”

Oars alps Laura Lisowski Cox Mia Saini Duchnowski 2
Mia Saini Duchnowski, left, and Laura Lisowski Cox, founders of Oars+Alps. Courtesy of Oars+Alps

But while Oars+Alps is a digital company, Cox pointed out, it’s constrained by the traditional and relatively slow-moving manufacturing buffer of four to eight weeks.

Bearing their need for almost-perfection in mind, the cofounders had to cover every base before it came to their initial launch to the public in October 2016. In a beta round of products, they gathered insight into how people viewed the products (turns out men didn’t distinguish between organic and all-natural), how they used the products (they wash their faces in the shower, not the bath), and how much they were willing to pay. Oars+Alps products range from a bar of soap for $US12 to a “gym bag friendly” three-piece kit for $US54.

Cox added that the company is so data-driven that they delayed its initial launch by a full three months “because the scent that we were originally going to market with was not a home run,” she said. “So we stopped everything and we reached out to multiple other providers to test new scents, and we finally found one that just won in every single focus group. We were very nervous about that delay, but that was the right call.”

Between the $US1.3 million raised from a seed round of funding in June 2017 and a friends and family round raised before launch, Oars+Alps has raised nearly $US2 million for its team of five.

“It was so scary,” said Duchnowski of their first weeks as entrepreneurs. “I firmly believe that you’re not going to work harder for anyone else but yourself. For us to take on this endeavour, it required us both to really focus. And we both have families and we both have kids. If I’m going to spend time away from my family, it has to be worthwhile — it has to be amazing.”