I always have baby wipes with me, ”said Florent Groberg, a retired US Army captain who received the Medal of Honor for his efforts to thwart a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. “When I went hiking, I lived in Afghanistan with baby wipes. It’s not like taking a shower every day. “
They were a little angry every day – cold and wet and rough on the skin. So, as a startup that tested its products on active service members and veterans named Bravo Sierra (which means Bullshit in military jargon), came with a version that he says was smooth on the skin and smelled good, he became so intrigued that he became a military advisor to the company. “It’s crazy because I never thought I would talk about towels. Ever. In my life,” says Groberg, 37.
There has been no shortage of new startups for consumer goods in recent years. But many of them have targeted the same well-heeled millennials on the coast. Founded by consumer goods entrepreneurs Justin Guilbert and Benjamin Bernet, Bravo Sierra took a different approach to military when founding the company in 2018, selling to active duty and veterans. The items are all inexpensive, yet free from unhealthy ingredients, made in America, and function under extreme conditions.
With the help of Charles Kim, a former Army Ranger who became the third co-founder, the brand launched eight products in August 2019. Despite Covid-19, the startup is expected to generate sales of around $ 6 million in 2020, the first full year, with the Bravo Sierra brand set to be launched at Target in 2021. That accomplishment helped the company land on Forbes’ Survivors and Thrivers list of 25 outstanding small businesses that outperformed during the pandemic.
“I tend to be overconfident about my abilities, which has allowed me to go whistling in the wind.”
What is more interesting, however, is what has happened since the launch. The founders found that the same proprietary software and community testing called Battalion that they used to design the products for Bravo Sierra could also help the government and other companies conduct their own research and development with less risk. Through their recently established parent company, Rhizome in New York City, they are starting to partner with the Department of Defense and consumer goods companies to create their own brands, including a new nutritional brand called Echelon. “We are essentially trying to rethink community-based collaborative manufacturing,” says Guilbert, “and not just the pie-in-the-sky community.”
Rhizome’s corporate structure, which includes Bravo Sierra, Echelon, and Battalion, is a bit unwieldy for an early-stage startup. But it is also a sign of the founders’ far-reaching ambitions. The company has $ 20 million in investment funding and has supporters of venture companies Canaan and Mousse Partners, the investment firm of the Wertheimer billionaire family of Chanel. Guilbert, the previously co-founder of the fast-growing coconut water company Harmless Harvest, expects next year to be the rhizome breakout year, with the annual sales rate rising from $ 10 million today to $ 50 million.
“Justin is a maverick. He’s got a lot of enthusiasm and lots of high octane ideas, ”says Byron Ling of Canaan. “Software has always been the bedrock of business, and there is just a great opportunity for it. Why does it take two years for P&G or L’Oreal to launch a new product? Bravo Sierra brings the end users into this process. “
According to Guilbert, the company has signed agreements with large consumer goods companies that he does not want to name to develop new products with Battalion. Wound care and Covid-19 safety and hygiene products are also being developed in collaboration with researchers from NYU Langone Health. These products are expected to hit the market next spring. In addition, there is a Research and Development Collaboration Agreement (Crada) with the US Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Center that examines how to collect user feedback on Battalion to create a synthetic training environment.
“There’s a lot of interest in doing things like that before Army Futures Command,” said Christopher McGroarty, chief engineer for advanced simulation with the US Army Combat Capabilities Development Command. “The more we can find ways to work with tech entrepreneurs, the more we want to do that.”
Guilbert, 43, grew up in Paris – his mother is American, his father is French – an expat overseas. His grandfather, John Becker, was a Second World War Navy lieutenant who founded Eurpac Service to sell brands to the military and was chairman of the USO. “For me he was as close as possible to a social entrepreneur. He always had these very interesting mantras that I learned from as a kid, “Getting rich is great, but once you’re there there’s nothing interesting. That’s why you do it and how do you do it?” He says.
He began his career as an analyst at Goldman Sachs in New York and hated it so much that he quit within months. After an early failed startup, he worked for L’Oreal and ran marketing campaigns for Maybelline and Garnier. “The reality I saw was that R&D in manufacturing was for marketing,” he says. “We created these narratives that we would monetize with products.”
“The whole design of the battalion is to create a community where people forget they are testers.”
He left the company in 2008 and started the coconut water company Harmless Harvest with a friend two years later. Harmless, which was both organic and naturally pink due to its minimal processing, was soon introduced to Whole Foods. Consumers grabbed it. “We built our factory in the middle of farmland in Thailand to create health programs for social well-being,” he says. “It kicked the ass and a lot of people noticed.” By 2016, the company had sales of over $ 100 million. “I tend to be overconfident about my abilities, which has allowed me to go whistling in the wind,” he says.
Today, Harmless Danones Venture Arm is a major funder and is one of the leading coconut water brands in the country, sold in around 70,000 stores. While Guilbert stepped down from operations in 2016, he remains co-chair of the board of directors and holds a stake in the business, which he describes as “non-symbolic”. Success made him itch to do something else. “I thought this was my proof of concept,” he says. “How do I take it to the next level to really affect manufacturing?”
Its co-founder and co-CEO Bernet, 44, is a native of Paris who also spent years at L’Oreal. Growing up in Paris, he had longed to move to New York since seeing Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing”. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal, he worked briefly in the city and then returned to Europe for an MBA at Insead. At L’Oreal he worked on caring for men. “I launched the first men’s grooming brand for L’Oreal Paris and after a few years I started asking them to bring me back to the US,” he says. Back in New York, he worked with L’Oreal on marketing for Kiehls, which the French beauty giant expanded from a popular New York pharmacy to a billion dollar brand, and for fragrances such as Giorgio Armani and Viktor & Rolf.
After leaving the corporate world in 2013, Bernet co-founded a beauty brand for women in color called Doobop (acquired by Sundial Brands for an undisclosed sum three years later) and then started a direct-to-consumer brand called Say Hello to Sexy Legs . that made heel lifts for women’s shoes on a lark. The company started on a budget of just under $ 10,000 and had revenues of $ 1 million in the first 12 months. “It was a game for him to have a way to understand how this new system worked,” says Guilbert.
By 2017, Guilbert and Bernet were both back in New York and debating what to do next. “We had both turned 40 and asked,” What would you like to do in the next 15 years? “I thought,” I want to do something that affects me. “And Justin was in the same mood,” recalls Bernet, who also became Glossier’s advisor. He had a simple idea to create a new men’s grooming and personal care brand that was free from unhealthy ingredients and made as sustainably as possible. Guilbert added the military twist.
“When you call Bravo Sierra on something you call bullshit, ”says Guilbert. “We say your bullshit story doesn’t matter. What matters is how it’s done and why it’s done.”
Guilbert approached his uncle, who is now in charge of Eurpac, and asked him for advice on bringing products to the military exchanges. What if they designed products with the military and made them in America? “Active duty members have pretty strict affordability and portability requirements,” he says. “We said, ‘We’re going to embed ourselves in active service members and make products that are better, and then we’re going to sell the products back to them on the military channel. “
They raised $ 1 million to fund friends and family and started with shaving cream, a simple product that has changed little since Barbasol was invented a century ago. Guilbert wanted to make an aerosol spray free of VOCs and their effects on global warming. He looked in other industries for technologies that could be adapted and found a refrigerant gas in the automotive industry that would act as a propellant. “When the army saw this, they said,” What more can you do? “Says Guilbert.
Bravo Sierra started with eight products in summer 2019. The range includes deodorant ($ 9.50), sunscreen ($ 13.50), and facial moisturizer ($ 11.50), all of which come in plain white, black, and gray containers. The antibacterial wipes, which are alcohol-free and have a woody scent of white vetiver and cedarwood, were particularly popular during the pandemic. The company returns 5% of all sales to the military programs to help ensure the welfare of service members, veterans, and their families.
T.They could have just focused on the Bravo Sierra brand, but things got really interesting when they realized what Battalion could do. The community currently has approximately 2,000 veterans and active service members. Kim, 34, who had previously worked at Palantir, took over the battalion software. During a demonstration over Zoom, Kim and the company’s chief technology officer, Brian Hamilton, also ex-Palantir, showed the battalion. It looks more like a game than a focus group. Badges and medals are displayed on each person’s home page. A user who wants to sign up for a campaign – Bravo Sierra wants 30 testers – simply clicks through and confirms their delivery address to receive the product.
Once it arrives, the user can take photos of it or add video, audio or text. For example, in an uploaded video, a tester with long hair and a large tattoo on his shoulders sprays his hair with dry shampoo in front of a body of water. By processing natural language, all feedback is converted into usable information. With the feedback, the company believes it can reduce its risk to market by knowing what works – and what doesn’t – before spending a fortune on advertising.
With Battalion, the team began developing a second brand, an energy drink called Echelon, less than a year after launching Bravo Sierra. The concept of creating a clean alternative to existing mainstays like Red Bull and Gatorade stems from Harmless Harvest and the idea of a more natural coconut water. The first version they tested last summer had the smell and taste of eucalyptus – an attempt to capture the spa experience in an energy drink. The battalion’s test users hated it.
So the company returned to the drawing board for a new flavor that it retested on Battalion. At the beginning of December, the new version was presented in a test run with 500 units, which combines flavors of yuzu and lime. “For the angry (lovable) mob, you know who you are … the drop sells out in three hours!”, Guilbert emailed his contacts. He anticipates they will do a second batch in January and then revise the formulation again before rolling it out further in summer 2021.
“It’s crazy because I never thought I’d talk about scarves. Ever. In my life.”
All consumer goods are doing R&D before launch, but Kim says what blew her away with Battalion was the engagement numbers. “Six hours after we said we had a new prototype in mind, 76% of the population would respond. Not only were they excited about building something new, but after we launched the product, we were able to make over 90% of the purchases within 24 hours, ”he says. “I think the powerful thing is that people want to be part of the building of the things they are going to buy. I saw that as bigger than Bravo Sierra. It has drawn me back into the Palantir world time and time again. “
Bravo Sierra signed retired Marine Corps Major General Joaquin Malavet as an advisor. And its founders are now thinking big – how their little startup and its software and growing community could transform the way the military designs helmets, boots, or maybe one day bigger purchases.
“The whole design of the battalion is to create a community where people forget they are testers,” says Guilbert. “The bottom line is that you are a creator-consumer. There should be no difference between the manufacturing world and consumer work. These people, powered by machine learning and gamification, essentially become the makers of the products they consume. It comes from you for you. “