The question people ask me most often is, “How did you start a chalk company?” As we are the only chalk company that makes our products in the USA, it’s quite an interesting story as to how I started Spider Chalk.
No One Thinks about Chalk Until It’s Gone
Being the owner of CrossFit Addiction, I was responsible to buy chalk for our members. Each week, I would vacuum the floors and find the vacuum cleaner filter was full of chalk, even though we held all our chalk in buckets. How did this chalk end up on the floor, the walls, the equipment, the office and even the bathroom? And better yet, why did a “block” of chalk turn to powder in a few days?
After dealing with crumbly, brittle, messy chalk blocks, I quickly banned powder and block chalk from our gym and instead started mandating our members use liquid chalk. Liquid chalk is powder chalk suspended in a liquid formula. Once you rub it on your hands, it dries into a thin veneer of powder chalk. Liquid chalk is less expensive, sanitary and most importantly, much less messy.
Our members loved liquid chalk even though it takes 20 seconds to dry and you can’t re-apply during a CrossFit workout without sacrificing precious seconds. But overall the pros heavily outweighed the cons. As our gym grew and we added members, we began to use larger amounts of liquid chalk and it was a challenge to buy enough chalk to supply our gym. We would order five large bottles off a website, then receive an email saying our order would arrive in 4-6 weeks as the liquid chalk was being imported from overseas. In 2015, I made an order for 10 bottles of liquid chalk and it took 6 weeks for that chalk to arrive. I was so angry that no one in the USA made good liquid chalk that I immediately started researching how to make my own.
First Test Batch
For my first test batch of liquid chalk, I mixed a block of chalk with alcohol because I’d seen a video on YouTube encouraging athletes to create their own liquid chalk with this simple recipe. That afternoon, I brought in my first test batch and proudly told my afternoon CrossFit class to try my homemade liquid chalk. They used it and offered feedback such as, “Why does it feel like sand?” and “What is that terrible smell?” The second and third test batches didn’t go much better. I then realized that the companies that make liquid chalk use more than just chalk and alcohol in their formulas. And making your own bad liquid chalk is not really worth saving a few bucks.
Making Great Liquid Chalk
Making liquid chalk is similar to baking. All cupcakes have eggs, flour and sugar, but the really good ones have a few secret ingredients that make all the difference. I needed to find those little extras to turn bad liquid chalk into great liquid chalk.
Since there was no reason to re-invent the wheel, I called several large cosmetic companies and asked to speak to the chemists who formulate their products. Almost every cosmetic and chemical company has a chemist on staff to work with vendors to design new products or improve current products. I told the chemists that I wanted to make liquid chalk and how it would be used and they were very excited to help me.
All the ingredients they recommended we use in our formula were sent free of charge in sample sizes so we could mix up test batches. After running test batches, we followed up on the phone to try to make improvements for the next test run. After running around 60 test batches, we found a good combination of ingredients. We now had a solid formula that worked!
The Spider Chalk Name
Once I had a solid formula, my afternoon CrossFit class tested it again and gave it great reviews, so I asked my gym members what we should call it. Some of the ideas were Gorilla Grip, Gecko Grip, Gym Goo, Spider Grip and Bar Paste. I went home and typed in the domain names to see what was available and sure enough all were taken. On a whim, I typed in SpiderChalk.com and it was available. We now had a name for our chalk!
I received a phone call one evening from a retailer looking to sell protein supplements to our gym and I asked the sales person if they sold any chalk products. The sales guy said no but their purchasing manager is always looking for new products to carry. I told the sales guy I make liquid chalk and they should stock it and sure enough the purchasing manager emailed me asking for pricing. I quickly ran home to design labels, order bottles and took some pictures with my phone to put on the website. All of this happened within a 2 days period! We sent over pricing a few days later and the retailer made a nice wholesale order. We now had a small business selling liquid chalk.
Growing Another Startup
I’ve been fortunate to have been mentored by some great business men. With a voracious appetite for books, over the last 25 years of my life I’ve read countless business books focusing on sales, marketing and finance. I knew that in order to grow a business you have to hustle. You also need a unique product, an interesting angle, a great marketing pitch and the product must be priced correctly for the market. And most importantly, you need to have cashflow. A business must make more money than it spends in order to sustain itself long-term.
My previous jobs have all included a sales aspect, so I am extremely comfortable doing direct sales via email, phone call or in person. I can pitch any product confidently after years and years of practice and that skill paid huge dividends during the first 12 months of Spider Chalk. I reached out to hundreds of retailers to pitch our products and converted most of them into wholesale accounts. In fact, I believe at one point my close ratio was around 80 percent, meaning I would reach out to 10 companies and eight of them would become clients.
At this point in the business, my wife Haley and I were working together to make liquid chalk and buying our ingredients in small quantities because we couldn’t afford the MOQ (Minimum Order Quantities) for bulk discounts.
How Chalk Blocks Are Made
As the revenue increased off of our liquid chalk sales, I kept running into one irrefutable truth—most of the chalk in the world is sold in block form. In fact, I would estimate that more than half of the chalk in the world is sold in block form.
Researching blocks quickly showed me there were only two countries that make all the chalk blocks in the entire world. I reached out to all the large manufacturing facilities in the USA and asked if they could make blocks of chalk for us with no success. After several months, it seemed that the only way to make blocks was to order them from the same factories as every other company. To me, that was like buying t-shirts from Walmart and then printing your logo on the front and calling your company a “lifestyle brand,” when in fact it’s just the same old shirt with a different logo.
After talking with Haley, we decided that I would invest the next year or two of my life and most of our revenue from Spider Chalk to making our own chalk blocks. I quickly discovered why no one makes chalk in the USA—because it’s extremely difficult to figure out. There was no one to call and ask advice, there was no internet how-to article and no engineer, chemist or mechanic who could help. It was just me and my brain thinking up crazy inventions that might work.
I spent all of my days obsessing about ways to turn powder chalk into blocks on a tiny budget. Once I get my mind stuck on something, there is no going back. After 18 months, multiple dead ends, heaps of frustration, about $20,000 wasted and a basement full of machines that didn’t work, we finally took a huge leap of faith and designed a custom machine from scratch that we thought might make blocks. And it worked! Haley and I working together could now make 12 blocks of chalk every hour—and they were pretty good. We’d made it! We were the very first company in the world to make chalk blocks outside of Taiwan and China.
The Hunger For Chalk
Since that day in 2016, we haven’t been able to produce chalk blocks fast enough to fulfill orders. Even though a single person can now make a few hundred blocks per day with our advanced processes, we still can’t produce blocks fast enough. Our liquid chalk is one of the best-selling on the planet and our blocks are being used in college and NFL weightrooms, along with hundreds of gyms. Our products are distributed worldwide, sold directly in eight countries, listed on every major retail website and we’re growing at a sustainable rate each month.
In 2018, we decided to turn Spider Chalk into a lifestyle business, meaning we live off the income and let our workers control most of the production to free up our time to spend with family. Spider Chalk doesn’t buy advertising or marketing, instead opting for word-of-mouth and reputation to do the selling. Now, it’s just a matter of time before Spider Chalk becomes the No. 1 selling chalk brand in the world!