For the past eight years, I have worn a totally boring beard–an uninspiring band of quarter-inch-long salt-and-pepper fuzz.
Eric Bandholz, the founder of a men’s-grooming company called Beardbrand, is way too nice to ever say so, but I know the truth: It’s a dad beard. Bandholz prefers the polite term “corporate beard” (which for some reason immediately makes me think of Chuck Norris–not a good look, no matter how much I might occasionally enjoy watching Lone Wolf McQuade). But however you want to describe it, my facial hair could use some help. Not once has anybody ever looked at my face and said, “Hey, cool beard!”
That’s why I called Bandholz. Not only does he sport a truly world-class set of whiskers, he also runs a fast-growing business that sells beard oil and high-end starter kits to what he describes as “urban beardsman.” What is an urban beardsman? Not just a guy with a beard in a city, it turns out. “Traditionally when you think of a beardsman you think of, like, a biker or an outdoorsman or a lumberjack,” says the Austin-based Bandholz. “But I noticed men who had beards but were also concerned with style and careers and independence.” In other words: hipsters. “I personally don’t mind being called a hipster,” Bandholz says. “I think I’m the only person in America who can self-define themselves as a hipster.” Personally, I’m not sure I’m urban-beardsman material; I live in the New Jersey suburbs, drive a decade-old Honda, and have no idea how to jar my own artisanal pickles.
But I’m willing to give the cool-guy beard a shot, especially given how supportive and excited Bandholz turns out to be. This guy loves facial hair. With his expert help, maybe I can be an urban beardsman too.
Bandholz’s company is tapping into a growth market. Beards have made a big comeback over the past few years, and lots of new beardsmen are eager for products to help tend the bush. Between 2009 and 2013, the number of men with face fuzz increased 21%, and men’s grooming products in general are booming: Research firm Mintel has estimated the category could hit $3.2 billion in sales by 2016, as compared to $2.2 billion in 2006.
Bandholz is looking to capitalize on the beard boom both by offering upscale grooming products and by generally championing hipster-hair culture, which he does via his website, Tumblr, and YouTube channel. He is himself a relatively recent convert to the mega-beard lifestyle. He started growing out his corporate beard after leaving a job at Merrill Lynch in 2011 and he launched Beardbrand after a revelatory 2012 trip to a beard competition in Portland, Oregon. “We’re a totally bootstrap company,” says Bandholz, who runs the start-up with two partners, Lindsey Reinders and Jeremy McGee. “We started with zero dollars. Between the three of us we only put $8,000 into the business.” Bandholz says the business is on track to pull in about $1.5 million in revenues this year—a figure likely helped by his recent appearance on hit ABC entrepreneur show Shark Tank (even though none of the sharks bit on his business).
Bandholz is eager to help any aspiring urban beardsman, so to start off with, I send him some photos of my lackluster scruff. He begins by complimenting my current beard situation, which he insists—not especially convincingly—is “totally rad.” Then he offers a few practical grooming tips, suggesting I try some of his company’s beard oils. I’m a bit skeptical. I’ve managed eight bearded years without ever once rubbing oil all over my face, so do I really need this stuff? “You don’t need beard oil,” Bandholz acknowledges. “It’s a luxury. But it’s a luxury that’s awesome. It’s like, do you need beer? No, you don’t need beer. But when you drink it, it makes you a happier person.” He’s right: Beer does make me a happier person. Okay, I’m willing to get oily. “Beard oil is going to soften up your beard,” he promises. “It’s going to give it a nice shine, moisturize your skin, smell delightful, and give you energy and confidence.” Who wouldn’t want to smell delightful?
But I’m looking for more than a softer beard and a sparklier personality, I tell him. I want the full-on beardo experience. “If you want to go the alternative route,” he says, “I’d suggest what in the world of bearding is called the yeard: a year of growth. You’ve got incredible genetics to grow an epic beard. Throw away your razors and your scissors and go full-on beardsman.”
A full year? Yikes. That seems rather too much: too bushy, too attention-grabbing, too Rutherford B. Hayes. I spend much of my life roaming around Target with an elementary-schooler. I don’t want to scare the neighbors. But I decide to stop trimming for at least a couple of months, just to see how it goes. But if I do stick with it, I ask Bandholz, what will my reaction be if we have another chat in a year? “You’re going to be like, ‘Dude, thank you so much. This was the best decision of my life.’”
A week into my growth period, I try Bandholz’s beard oils for the first time. There are four scents to pick from: Four Vices, Tea Tree, Spiced Citrus, and Tree Ranger. I opt for the Tea Tree, more or less at random. The instructions suggest testing a small bit first for possible allergies, but—and maybe this is my new manly shag talking—I decide to just risk it. The fluid that oozes out of the small bottle proves to be surprisingly un-oily, and a minty odor fills my nostrils. I apply the recommended “dime-size” pool of product. Surprisingly, I do suddenly feel alert and refreshed. It’s a pleasant jolt of chin-delivered aromatherapy. Does hit have any effect on my beard? I can’t really tell. But my nose likes it.
The next day I try the Tree Ranger oil and some mustache wax, which I rub between my fingers to “heat,” as the instructions suggest. The wax doesn’t do much, perhaps because my ’stache isn’t yet luxuriant enough to benefit from a shellacking. The oil is nice, though—a combination of eucalyptus, cedar, and other woodsy scents. I rub the side of my face up against my wife’s nose. “Mmm, piney,” she says with approval. “Do I seem more confident?” I ask. She bursts out laughing.
I continue using the oils over the next several weeks, and I come to look forward to the morning application ritual. Spiced Citrus proves to be my favorite, while Four Vices—a mix of tobacco, coffee, cannabis, and hops scents—is both the mildest and, to me, least appealing. I also dutifully use the other products included in Beardbrand’s $200 Beardsman kit, including a gently curved brush, an adorably tiny mustache comb, and fancy scissors. Meanwhile, my beard continues to sprout, eventually reaching the point where people start to notice.
This, Bandholz tells me, is an important stage. As I come to learn, not everyone appreciates the hipster Paul Bunyan look. When Bandholz was on Shark Tank, shark Lori Greiner couldn’t conceal her disgust for his flowing facial hair, and that’s not an uncommon reaction. “A lot of people have negative stereotypes of people wearing beards, because they’re tied in with criminals or however they’re portrayed in their mind,” says Bandholz. “If we can show that a lot of beardsmen are involved with the community, are donating to charity, can get jobs and are career-driven, are taking care of their family, then the perception is going to change. It’s a pretty big problem. It’s not as bad as it was probably five or 10 years ago, but I still think it’s out there.”
I get a taste of beard bias when, six weeks into my experiment, I run into a former colleague at a media event. She mentions my more-developed facial hair, and I explain that I’ve been growing it out for a story. “Oh, good,” she says. “I thought you were just one of those guys.” Oh. For the first time, I actually start thinking about digging out the trimmer and returning to corporate-beard dullsville.
And that gets at what could be a big problem for Beardbrand. Beards are hot right now, but trends come and go. What happens when today’s beardsmen grow weary of picking lunch out of their mustaches? Bandholz’s market could, theoretically, get shaved down to nothing with a few swipes of the clippers. And that might already be happening, according to scientists (yes, scientists). A study released earlier this year suggests that we may have reached what it terms “peak beard,” and the trend could already be on the way out. “Yeah, there’s always a risk to that,” Bandholz says. “But we provide a pretty broad product line and cater to a pretty big market of men.” He’s also looking to expand into countries where beards are less of a passing fashion, like India or the Middle East. They’ve already opened a fulfillment center in Belfast to serve European beardos, and if that continues to go well they’ll look for other international opportunities. They also could branch out into non-beard products if facial hair falls out of fashion.
And maybe, Bandholz says, beards aren’t as much of a fad as they seem. “We’ve been in a shaving fad for the past 100 years,” he suggests. “In 1890 in London, as many 90% of men wore some type of facial hair. Right now in America it’s about 30%. We hit peak shaving in the late ’90s, early 2000s, and we’re just reverting to the natural state of men.”
At some point, my facial hair crosses the line from slightly shaggy into weird-beard territory—the kind of look that makes people wonder, “What’s up with that guy?” It starts to make me uncomfortable, and I find myself telling strangers who mention my beard that I’m just growing it out for a project I’m working on (apparently the beard-oil confidence boost still hasn’t kicked in). Bandholz was expecting this. After almost two months, I email him an updated photo and give him a call to discuss my progress. “You’re well on your way to having an epic beard,” he says. “You’ve got killer beard genetics. Now it’s just more the psychological and societal hurdles of having facial hair.”
There’s also the matter of the mustache, which, as it has started to curl over my top lip, is driving me nuts. The wax doesn’t help—it just turns the irritating hairs that get in my mouth into waxy irritating hairs that get in my mouth. “Eating is a little more of a pain in the butt” with a beefy mustache, Bandholz acknowledges. “You’ll learn that straws are your best friend.”
Am I really willing to spend my life chewing on mouth hair for the sake of a stylish beard? I am not, I come to realize. And the truth is, however cool I might want to be, I just can’t quite pull off the hirsute hipster look. If I’m really honest with myself, I have to admit that my new beard almost certainly makes me look more like like Kenny Loggins than Aaron Kaufman. So finally, after almost two months of uninterrupted growth, I break out the clippers and attack the overgrown foliage. In a matter of mere seconds, it’s chopped down to humdrum-dom. I am once again a boring corporate guy with some neatly trimmed fur that nobody will ever notice, no matter how much Tree Ranger oil I smear around my cheeks.
And should I decide to shave the whole thing off someday—which, let’s face it, I probably will—Bandholz won’t hold it against me too much. “We’re about helping men feel confident and live the lifestyle they want to live,” he says. “If a guy chooses to be completely shaven, that’s totally cool. We’re not over here, like, ‘You’ve gotta grow a beard or you’re not a man.’ That’s not what we’re pushing.”
That is good to hear. Because even if an enormo-beard isn’t ultimately my style, I really liked being an urban beardsman for a couple of months. I don’t think I’ll ever go back. But I will keep using Beardbrand’s products, and every time I apply that Spiced Citrus, a part of me will remember what it’s like to have that cool-guy beard, to stroke my bewhiskered chin and gaze knowingly into the distance while inhaling that now-familiar combination of vanilla, cloves, and untamed manliness. It smells good.