The company that won last week’s Pressure Chamber pitching competition at the Overture Center didn’t necessarily fit the traditional Madison startup profile. American Provenance isn’t a software developer or a biotech firm, but a cosmetics manufacturer best known for its deodorant.
“There’s a focus on health care, technology, and software (among Wisconsin startups),” said Kyle LaFond, the founder of American Provenance. “It’s been really nice to remind folks that manufacturing has always been important to the state.”
The cosmetics brand headquartered in Mount Horeb, started by LaFond in Blue Mounds in 2015, boasts a lineup of “all-natural” and cruelty-free products, from its flagship deodorant to beard oils, pomades and lip balms. The company has a team of 15 that works out of a facility adjacent to the general contracting firm Premier Building Solutions, where they cook down shea butter, coconut oil, and beeswax into a base that they mix with fragrant oils and scents into tubes and sticks.
The company’s brand is distinctly rustic Americana. Its lineup includes Firepits & Flannels (with scents of wintergreen, fir and cedar), and Shotguns & Shenanigans (featuring peppermint, cyprus and eucalyptus). Its minimalist labels, designed by Middleton's Six Roses Tattoo parlor, feature naturalistic sketches of flora and fauna, often of ingredients like patchouli and lavender.
The company is no stranger to pitching investors: It already closed a seed round of $500,000 in equity financing last year. LaFond said he made the decision early on to pursue equity investment, thanks to cutthroat competition in the e-commerce market, and to the 30- to 60-day payment contracts with retailers that left the company operating from check-to-check.
The company has been successful at landing financing, said LaFond, in part because it's well past the concept phase. The brand has been routinely making six-figure revenue each year, split between e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retail sales. Madisonians can find the products on shelves in places like Metcalfe's and Hy-Vee.
LaFond also noted that the cosmetics industry is hot right now, particularly as consumer grow increasingly conscious of health and wellness. Some companies, like the skincare brand Glossier, have become “unicorns” with billion-dollar valuations.
Another ingredient to American Provenance's success at wooing investors may be LaFond's style. Unlike other presenters wearing formal wear or business casual outfits for their pitch at Tuesday's Pressure Chamber — the annual Forward Festival competition hosted by the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce — LaFond stuck to khaki shorts and a chambray shirt that showed off his tattoos.
“I am who I am. I’m not trying to be anyone else. Take it or leave it, this is what you’re going to get,” he said. “I’m not out here to impress folks.”
The company’s story — that of a middle school science teacher who decided to start a manufacturing firm at his family farm — is also a compelling one.
“I almost made a career now out of the fact that middle school boys stink,” he said.
As an educator, LaFond said he routinely found himself getting headaches. Eventually he found the reason: the “chemical fogs” he would walk through in the hallway, created from the canisters of body spray that students would liberally apply at their lockers.
LaFond, dismayed at the long lists of esoteric and artificial ingredients in the products, decided to begin a new class project: He would work with students on making their own deodorant. The experiment proved to be a hit, and turned into an annual fixture of his classes. Before long, LaFond felt an itch to turn the experiment into a commercial venture, one not just for children.
“After doing the research, I had a real personal interest in products I could use myself,” he said. “I struggled to find personal care and wellness products that would satisfy me.”
Five years later, the company has moved out of his grandfather's old machine shed. Although it was necessary, the move was “heartbreaking,” said LaFond, who claims to take profound inspiration from his family's dairy farming history. Still, the company retains strong ties to its past in other ways — a handful of his employees are former students, said LaFond.
Today, LaFond said that the goal is to make American Provenance a household name.
“If you have at least one armpit, I’ve got a product for you,” said LaFond.
Winning Pressure Chamber could help with that goal: LaFond will join a delegation of Madison representatives with the Chamber this fall on a trip to Silicon Valley, where he’ll be able to pitch American Provenance to investors on the coast.