There are few things without limits. A woman’s beauty, and the lengths she will go to augment and preserve it, for instance, seem to know no limits. If her beauty has a male equivalent, perhaps it’s his confidence. Confidence has no limit nor will men stop at anything to gain more of it. Like feminine beauty, confidence is a powerful stimulant and an equally powerful attractant. Show me a successful business that serves men and I will show you a brand that, be it in machines, gear, clothing, fitness, or employment, builds his confidence.
Confidence is the word that sprang to mind on recalling my meeting with Michael James, the founder and CEO of Frederick Benjamin. We spoke over the telephone for a few minutes in the weeks prior to sitting down, and he invited me to his offices in Harlem, where we had a proper discussion about grooming, his aspirations therein, and the nature of things. Handsome, assured, articulate, open-minded, kind, well turned out, softly spoken, spare in his commentary, subtle in his facial expressions, unfailingly polite, a gentleman. In all these respects, he seemed to me a man from another time. Certainly, he stood in stark contrast to his peer group in the beauty industry, today operating at the intersection of breathless excitement, untold levels of bullshit, and unsustainable rates of growth. In short, an industry fully in its own thrall. James was different. He spoke more like a doctor or an engineer, wary of speculation, bringing things back to their fundament, back to decisions, choices, action. Low key. Decisive.
I asked questions, and James did his best to give answers.
So where did this all come from?
I worked in consumer products for some time at Revlon, as a brand manager. I liked working on products, working with chemists, making things. I moved to L’Oréal, and it turned me on to hair. There, I worked on a professional line they had acquired, Mizani. Again as a brand manager, leading it all. The process of product innovation and development, along with running the P&L— that’s what I recall best of all. To take something from notion stage to commercial reality. That’s what I did there and it’s the core of what I do here at Frederick Benjamin. But I’m coming at this as a man who wants better grooming products for men like me.
What is Frederick Benjamin?
Grooming for men of color. Historically, grooming products marketed toward men of color either didn’t work well or had a bad touch-feel: greasy, chemical laden, over-scented, terrible for your hair and skin. I grew up in the Carolinas, so on a hot day, traditional pomades would melt, like wax on your scalp and drip down your forehead.
That’s not cool.
Yeah. That is not cool. That’s the antithesis of cool, because you would take great pains to dress and look a certain way—the shoes, the jacket, whatever—and by the afternoon your hair would start to fail you, eroding your sense of confidence, your cool. Textured hair is different and historically the products have been lacking. We aim to correct that and other failings.
Is this brand for black guys, men of color, men with textured hair, all men, or what?
[Laughs] All of the above. Right now we are making the strongest appeal to men of color, guys like me. I don’t know that race exactly comes into it. I do know that textured hair and darker skin is different and calls for different products and grooming regimens. The name?
It’s my grandfather’s name. Before I got to his name for the brand, I came up with all kinds of ideas, like Groom Supply etc. The designer I was working with at the time said, this thing needs a name. I wrote down my grandfather’s name, among a few others options, and it just stuck. I was always in awe of him and his ability to build a business in 1939 in the Deep South. I remember him shaving the old-fashioned way with the brush, the straight razor, the foam. I remembered going to the lumberyard and watching him do his thing. He represented leadership, entrepreneurship, community. He employed a lot of men. I knew I wanted to be like that, follow in his footsteps. It was a perfect fit.
Whom does it serve?
I like to think that we serve a lifestyle, an urban gentleman who wants to take their appearance to the next level. They’re deeply into clothing, into looking their best. They are more about style than about labels. They are into quality. And we are making natural, affordable, and accessible products that are easy to use. Affordable is our price point, accessible to where he shops and where he roams.
And where does he roam?
All over. He’s an early adopter and a trendsetter, so he knows no bounds.
What are you solving for him?
We’re solving a couple of things. Itch-free scalp and soft, hydrated hair, to begin with, and as well a clean, smooth shave that’s bump free. Razor bumps are an extremely common issue for men with textured hair. If you have straight hair it grows out straight after you shave. Textured hair has the tendency to curl back in, causing a razor bump or an ingrown hair. Addressing the issue starts with teaching men how to shave and the importance of prepping the skin. Finding and following the right process makes all the difference.
Care to elaborate?
Sure. The best time to shave is right after a shower when the hair is softened, the pores are open. We recommend a three-step process.
After our pre-shave oil, that promotes razor glide, we make a great clear shaving gel! Why clear? Because, if you already have a challenge shaving, due to existing bumps, the last thing you want to do is shave over it and reopen the sore. You need to see what you’re shaving. That’s step two—a clean, smooth, well-lubricated shave with an unfussy product that doesn’t leave a mess.
The third step is the aftershave, and we know a lot of guys skip it. Bad idea. Our aftershave is alcohol-free and it’s a lotion. Most people think aftershave is a scent. Its purpose is to calm down the skin. There’s a lot of irritation after the shave, so the idea is to go over the shaven area with a splash of cold water to calm the skin, then use a proper aftershave lotion to put the moisture back and fight the irritation.
Our Bump Clear is patented with a pharma-grade anti-inflammatory .
We ran it through a clinical trial hoping for a 4-week benefit claim, instead we got a 2-week claim. Sixty people in the clinical with a mix of razor bumps, ingrown, and razor burn.
What’s your process for all of this invention?
At the beginning, it was personal need-based approach. I’ve always worked in offices where appearance was everything. I found myself searching for the right products and concocting them myself to get it right. I was trying to eliminate the flare-up for myself. I’ve lived with the issues we’re solving for. Over time and having access to some of the best formulations, studying the category from a business standpoint and presenting it to the C-suite, I began to see the white space in the market for people like myself. I always wanted to be an entrepreneur and it just clicked. Nothing on the shelf spoke to me; this was my opportunity to take a stab at building a business.
From whom did you take inspiration and energy?
I liked the hair category and the people I was working with at L’Oréal. I spent a lot of time with stylists and in salons, so the haircare business was a big draw and energizing to me. Spending time with stylists was enjoyable, their passion was palpable, and I like working with people who truly enjoy what they do.
Is that where Frederick Benjamin lives, with stylist and barbers?
It was where we started, selling products out of the trunk of my car and hitting up the hair shows and barber battles.
Biggest challenges right now?
Awareness and getting more people into our funnel. Once people are exposed, they like the story and the products and they keep coming back. So getting people to understand that we exist and we exist for a reason is the challenge.
At its core, what’s this brand’s soul?
We have a “for us by us” type of soul. Our advantage is that we are the consumer, you don’t have to explain the pain points to us, we live them daily. We value premium products at a fair price that’s accessible.
Where to, next?
We continue our mission to provide today’s modern man with premium, problem-solution regimens that address their daily grooming concerns and build out from there.
We want to be close to our customers and available where they shop daily.
Where does he shop?
Online and in-stores, drugstores, and other mass volume outlets.
What’s on the fundraising horizon?
We are in the process to fund brand awareness and to build a great team to drive growth.
I’m sure they’ll present themselves. Final say?
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