As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Keah Kalantar.
Keah Kalantari co-founded Friction Labs in 2013 and oversees D2C online sales, finance, and operations at Friction Labs. He uses his experience in revenue generation, product development, investing, and data analytics to help Friction Labs grow profitably and operate efficiently. Outside of work, you can find Keah in the kitchen cooking Persian food with his wife or enjoying being active with sports like basketball, tennis, golf, and, of course, rock climbing.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started Friction Labs with my co-founder Kevin Brown in 2013. Kevin was one of the friends who got me into climbing after I moved to Denver, which is when I realized that the chalk we had back then didn’t work well and didn’t feel good on my skin. Before Friction Labs, I was a private equity investor in Philadelphia and then worked on corporate strategy and special projects at a few different Colorado tech businesses doing e-learning and financial services. I grew up outside Rochester, New York in a small suburb called Pittsford, where we were fortunate enough to have a robust economy built on iconic homegrown companies like Wegmans and Kodak (which was the first word I could spell). Watching those two businesses over the years was an amazing lesson in business. Kodak was a technological innovator that was often too far ahead of the curve in product development — they invented digital photography and then watched it drive them bankrupt. Wegmans has thoughtfully built their business on a foundation of taking exceptional care of employees, customers, and the community while delivering a fantastic, 11-star grocery shopping experience. It’s so impressive to watch them grow from a small local grocery to an iconic brand thanks to great company culture and improving every part of their business little by little.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I remember 2 funny mistakes early on that taught me a lot. The first was making our products only available by signing up for a subscription on our website. We knew we would always make it right for our customers if they weren’t satisfied, so we thought that asking for a subscription wasn’t a big deal. It turned out that a lot of people weren’t willing to sign up for a subscription even if they had total flexibility to cancel, skip months, and get a refund. Our ethos of always going above and beyond to make sure our customers are happy is still strong, but now we offer many ways to purchase online, including regular purchases on our website and on Amazon. Which reminds me of our 2nd mistake, which was to only offer our products directly to our athletes online. We realized pretty quickly that a consumable product like chalk is most often purchased at the gym or a gear shop, not online. Today we have a healthy balance of wholesale and e-commerce sales in our business, with most of our sales coming through our retail partners including the biggest and best climbing gyms in the USA and around the world. This has been a critical piece of building a steady, diversified base for our business to grow as we build our team.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve been fortunate enough to benefit from the guidance and generosity of more than a few incredible friends and mentors over the years. I owe a lot to my former managers, friends who helped us financially or organizationally in the early years, our earliest employees, entrepreneurs who had been through it before, and of course my business partner, Kevin Brown, who I learn a lot from every day. My biggest support though comes from my wife, Sarah, and my family. I was the first person in my family born in the USA and I’m so grateful for what my family went through to give me this opportunity.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
At the very beginning, we were just selfishly trying to make a better chalk product for ourselves. I’m a bit of a skin health nut and the available options weren’t cutting it, so I had to find better chalk if I was going to keep climbing. Over time, we realized that many athletes — both in climbing and beyond — could perform better with confident grip. Today, our vision and purpose is to improve the way that athletes think about, use, and care for their hands with products as ambitious as they are. We want to help athletes perform better, have fun while we work, and give back to worthy causes along the way.
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
As a company that sells primarily to gyms, 2020 could’ve easily been a killer for us. Almost overnight we went from the best growth in the history of the business to not even being able to get our best customers on the phone. It was a nervous time for our team and for Kevin and me as employers and business owners. We’ve always been transparent about business performance with our team, and that didn’t change when things got tough. We asked our gym customers how we could help, and they told us that hygiene was the biggest thing they were focused on to keep members active. We came up with the idea of combining chalk with hand sanitizer to help keep hands and surfaces clean in the gym while still providing a great grip. That idea led to the fastest product development and most successful launch we’ve ever had with Secret Stuff® Hygienic, all within a few months of the pandemic starting. Our team came out of this experience with a new level of confidence in what we can achieve together.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
The most important thing for me to push through challenges is finding the right balance and alignment between the long-term health of the business and making progress on the little things that come up day to day. We envision a world where athletes care about their hands more than most of us do today, and we believe that the way to get there is to improve our team, our products, our service, and our business a little bit more every day. When things get tough and everything feels urgent, it’s easy to forget about the long-term vision. As long as our team can find that balance, we’re good.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The best leaders are the ones who succeed at building momentum over the long term. For a small business, momentum is everything. Projects take longer than you expect. Unexpected challenges arise almost every day. Customers, vendors, and partners come and go despite your best efforts. Any one of these things can derail momentum and throw the team into a funk quickly. Knowing how to turn challenges into opportunities, not only for yourself but also for your team, is what distinguishes the best leaders.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Good leadership starts with acknowledging to your team that the future is always uncertain, even when things are going well. We try to keep the focus on executing the controllable actions that we can take, not the outcomes that can be outside of our control. This has helped us create a supportive, improvement-oriented culture that is engaging, productive, and maybe most importantly, fun.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Honesty. Don’t sugarcoat. Don’t overpromise. Don’t pretend there’s a light at the end of the tunnel if it isn’t there. Face the facts, acknowledge the emotional difficulty of the change, and then focus on creating a plan to deal with it.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I was lucky early on in my career to work at Susquehanna International Group (SIG), a global financial firm founded on trying to perfect the art and science of making decisions in situations of uncertainty. I learned a lot about how to make plans for an uncertain future. The biggest lesson was focusing on how to make the best moves with the available information — thinking carefully about possible scenarios, their likelihoods, and the upside/downside of each. It starts with accepting that outcomes are often outside of your control. When you do that, you realize that your responsibility is to make the best plan with what you know at the time and then keep listening for new information that might change your plans later. The leadership team at SIG had an incredible habit of focusing on how the team made decisions, even if the outcome was terrible. I remember many conversations where an investment turned out to lose millions of dollars, but leadership supported the team because they had made the right decision based on the information they had at the time.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I find that turbulence causes the most headaches for a team when it’s treated like an inconvenience instead of a normal part of the journey. Challenges and unexpected circumstances don’t stop, and setting the expectation with your team that they should or will is misleading at best. No doubt turbulence can be scary, and sometimes that’s what we have to go through to keep moving and innovating in ways that no one else does.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
One of the biggest mistakes I see is when businesses hold onto old ideas that prevent finding solutions to new challenges. A common example is something I see all the time in e-commerce businesses struggling to generate sales. For various reasons, the leadership is often fixated on e-commerce as the only sales channel, even going so far as to reject, for example, a small mom and pop shop that reached out and wants to carry their product. It’s difficult to watch these businesses pass up low-cost, usually profitable opportunities to get their products out there, all because of some idea that they think is written in stone. Work with the boutique, give yourself the opportunity to learn something about your potential market, and know that you can change your decision later if you realize it’s not helping your business.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
So much of our traction and growth comes from our team. We hire our team carefully because we know what a big impact they have on the business. And we constantly solicit feedback to make sure that we are putting them in a position to succeed and feel fulfilled in their work. Keeping the right people doing the right things at the right time is how a business succeeds in any environment.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? (Please share a story or an example for each.)
1. Hire well. Early on, we were guilty of hiring too many people too quickly without a clear plan. You don’t have to go through that twice to realize how painful and costly it can be, especially when business gets more difficult. Far better to hire slowly and carefully to avoid costly turnover.
2. Keep it light. When things are stressful, it helps to remind our team that we do all of this to help athletes perform better and have more fun. If the process isn’t fun, what’s the point? Plus, how serious can things really get when you’re having a meeting about a product called Unicorn Dust?
3. Focus on momentum. I used to think that we should set big goals to challenge ourselves as a team. For example, sales reps should strive to make 100 phone calls per day, I thought. Even if they couldn’t do 100, setting a big goal would maximize what they did, and I was happy with that result. Eventually, I realized that the sales team saw things differently. To them, missing a goal every day felt like a failure, and keeping the same goal made it feel like every day in the future would be a failure, which is probably the biggest momentum-killer there is. I realized I had to adapt my leadership style, which meant setting achievable goals with an eye on building momentum over the long haul.
4. Be honest, even when it’s not fun. In many ways, a team knows the on-the-ground, in-the-moment reality of a business better than the leaders. For example, our sales team was the first to realize that gyms were closing when the pandemic was starting. We could’ve easily dismissed it and insisted on them continuing to try to hit the call number goals even if it wasn’t paying off, and that would’ve been a huge mistake. Instead, we listened and came up with a new plan that gave the team confidence on what we needed to work on to make it to the other side.
5. Build for the long-term. Kevin and I try to run our business so that it will be here in 100+ years. That starts with being financially conservative so we have the opportunity to ride the big waves when they come and know that we’ll be ok if we crash. If we can do all of the above while managing the financial side of the business effectively, we put ourselves in a position to build and keep a great team and a great business for years to come. The long time horizon helps us keep our focus on the pursuit of perpetual improvement. As long as we keep making 1% improvements in everything we do, we’ll achieve great results over time.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Worry pretends to be necessary but serves no useful purpose.” — Eckhart Tolle. This might be the biggest lesson I’ve learned while building Friction Labs and striving to manage our team better. For a small business to succeed, having a great team is necessary. Working hard is necessary. Thinking carefully is necessary. Having a plan is necessary. Being nimble and adaptive is necessary. Listening to the people who matter is necessary. Luck is necessary. Worrying about any of it, though, isn’t necessary. That’s a choice.
How can our readers further follow your work?
The best way to follow Friction Labs is through our Instagram @frictionlabs, where we post incredible feats from some of the best athletes in the world, and by signing up for our email list on frictionlabs.com to stay up to date with our latest innovations in athletic grip.