Nick Karnaze can say confidently that he never entertained the idea of pioneering his own men’s grooming company. Ten years ago, the idea of creating and selling products to help tame beards or invigorate skin was the furthest thing from his mind. In 2007, Karnaze joined the Marine Forces Special Operation Command, a unit he stayed with for four years. In the special operations community, members would grow out their beards from the time of deployment until mission completion. It was a symbol of camaraderie amongst members – a show of unity.
In 2012 – a year after he left the Marines – Karnaze learned that his close friend Justin Hansen had been killed during combat operations in Afghanistan. As a way of honouring his fallen friend and as a means of coping, Karnaze once again grew out his beard. This was the start of Stubble & ‘Stache, an award-winning skincare line that is now a major success story.
We sat down with the well-coifed entrepreneur (getting his hair cut at Barber of Hell’s Bottom) to talk about the importance of good grooming, discovering a sense of personal style after a life in the military and whether a clean shave is in his future (spoiler alert: the answer is no).
Kit and Ace: How did Stubble & ‘Stache come to be?
Nick Karnaze: I was in the US Marine Corps for about eight years. In 2007, I joined the Marine Forces Special Operation Command, which is the Marine Corps' component to the US Special Operation – essentially special operations. In the special operations community, we grow our beards out when we're deployed, depending on the mission. In Afghanistan, a lot of us would grow our beards out. I left the Marine Corps in late 2011. In July of 2012, my good friend Justin Hanson was killed in Northwest Afghanistan.
When he was shot he had a pretty big beard. When I learned of the news, for whatever reason – I tell most people it was a coping mechanism – I decided to grow my beard out for his funeral, in his honour. In doing so, I realized the need for a specific type of grooming product to help with my beard, to help keep my beard healthy, to help reduce beard itch. I also wanted a product that I could use on the rest of my face as a daily moisturizer. I looked for it. I couldn't find it, and I decided to make it.
And it grew from there.
NK: Originally, it was just for me, but then some of my Navy SEAL buddies were like, "Hey, bro. I want that." That's when I realized it could be a viable business. I actually partnered with a cosmetic laboratory and worked with them for about eight months, going back and forth to refine the formula. We launched the first product in August of 2013. Now we have three in total, and we're about to launch two more.
So you won’t be shaving your beard any time soon?
NK: Not for the foreseeable future [laughs]. Plus, I find people respect me more with the beard. I have a baby face. I'm 34, but when I shave, I look like I'm 19.
After life as a Marine, is your current schedule as regimented?
NK: Every day is a bit different, except for my set routine. Each morning, I'll wake up and just throw on my gym clothes, brush my teeth, and then I'll normally hit the gym for about an hour and a half. I'll come back, shower, and then whatever pressing issues I have for that day, I'll knock out in the morning. I'll go through my email, and take care of whatever needs to be done there. In the afternoons, I'll normally work, or focus on content creation and development for the brand.
I always meditate in the afternoon. If I'm feeling particularly stressed, I'll go for a run before I settle down for the evening. At night, I might go out to either a dinner party, meet up with some friends, or go catch a show – something a little social, since I do work from my home office. That can be a bit confining. Then come home, do a little reading, and go to sleep, wake up, and repeat.
How does your background as a Marine influence the way you get things done today?
NK: Going back to the military days, you're always working towards something greater than yourself. Whether it was with the Marines that you're working with, or if it's the defense of the nation, there's always something greater than yourself that motivated you. When I left the military, I lost that sense of purpose. A big lesson I learned was to regain that sense of a higher calling. For me, when I'm having a tough day getting going, I think about Justin, my buddy who inspired the business, and honouring his name.
In the Marine Corps, as an officer, we'd always say that officers lead by example. I need to do what I want my Marines to do. I can't ask them to do something I'm not willing to do myself. A big motivator for me is to continue to grow my business, and to show veterans that yes, you can leave the military and you can lead a successful life in the civilian sector.
Tell us about your personal style? We imagine that in the military, style is the last thing on your mind.
NK: In the military, you really don't have many outlets for self‑expression. Developing my sense of style was an interesting road. I always had a fascination for suits, but also, I spent the majority of my time in gym clothes when I wasn't in uniform.
After spending eight years in the military – where suffering and minimalism were a part of life – it's nice to put on clothing that makes you feel good, but also maintains that functionality.
It looks good, it feels good, but it's not poor‑fitting, like a lot of the uniform items that we had in the military. My personal style is constantly evolving.
With your background, is fitness still a big part of your life?
NK: When I was in the special operations community, some days, I'd spend four hours a day working out. That's where I really learned the benefit of functional fitness, and adding some resistance training to my standard cardio routine. It's definitely been a big part of my life. There's a running joke that we've all heard about the freshman 15. A freshman in college gains 15 pounds. A friend of mine who's another entrepreneur, he coined the term the start-up 20.
When you start your company, you're eating poorly. You're always behind the computer or behind a desk trying to make this thing work. You gain a lot of weight. I'm no exception. That's just because it's so easy to get sucked into it, and not hit the gym, or be like, "Oh, I'll do it later." It's like I've rediscovered my passion for fitness recently, both out of necessity and also just to make me feel better.
So, if you had to give up exercise or your beard for three months, which one would you pick?
NK: Beard [laughs].