This Retired Army Vet Built a Beard Oil Business in Alaska — It’s Growing
Having served in the Army for 22 years, Nick Adkins has a lot of experiences under his belt.
He worked as an aircraft mechanic for 11 years. Then he decided it was high time to fly aircraft instead of fix them and spent the remainder of his service as a Chinook helicopter pilot.
The Army took him all over, from Kansas to South Dakota to Colorado — even overseas to Belgium, Austria and Poland, just to name a few.
But despite all that, there’s one thing that Adkins wasn’t allowed to do: grow a beard.
So understandably, once he retired from service and settled down with his family in Fairbanks, Alaska, he decided that shaving would no longer be on the to-do list. But all facial hair, even a “freedom beard” — the whiskers veterans sport after completing service — requires a little TLC.
“I have to look presentable every once in a while, so I didn’t want my beard to look, you know, like I just didn’t feel like shaving,” says Adkins. “I wanted it to be an intentional choice.”
His wife, Courtney, bought him a few different beard care products, but he didn’t like any of them. They were heavy and greasy, and they made his facial hair look too shiny. That’s when Courtney suggested they make their own.
Neither of them knew that their decision to whip up some homemade beard oil would lead to a full-blown business, Permafrost Beards.
From DIY Project to a Beard Business
In January of 2017, the couple ordered about $200 worth of all-natural ingredients and got to experimenting.
After a lot of trial and error, they came up with about five different recipes that yielded the desired results: oils and balms that gave just the right amount of hold, were good for your skin and didn’t leave the tell-tale oily sheen.
The couple didn’t have any intention of selling their homemade concoctions, but that all changed after Adkins offered some to a fellow bearded friend.
“He tried it and the very next day, he came over and said, ‘How much do you want for this?’” says Adkins. “So I said, ‘Why not?’”
Starting a New Business
Once the Adkins decided to make a business out of it, the first step was handing out more samples to find out what the consumer liked and didn’t like about the products. Four months of experimenting later, they settled on the final formulas and scent options for their beard oil and balm.
And while perfecting the beard care products was a major step, the Adkins also had to learn the ins and outs of running their own business.
After settling on the name Permafrost Beards — an homage to the permanently frozen ground found in Interior Alaska — and creating a logo, they formed an LLC and obtained a business license.
As a small, bootstrapped company, they turned to free resources for guidance, including YouTube instructional videos and state websites.
They obtained the proper paperwork and moved forward by setting up the company website, applying for the “Made in Alaska” certification and creating a slogan, “Keep Your Facejacket On.”
Adkins shares that one of the most difficult parts of starting this business was learning the ropes of what has become a necessity for businesses today: social media.
“I didn’t even have a smartphone in the army at the end,” he says. “So I had to learn how to do Instagram and Facebook and all of the social media… that is actually way more important than I ever would’ve thought.”
Living in Alaska has presented its own unique obstacles for Permafrost Beards, as well. Shipping costs can creep up pretty high, so the Adkins have to work extra hard to keep costs down, both for themselves and their customers.
“We have to do our best to find vendors that are going to ship to us for a reasonable price,” Adkins says. “We have a lot of folks that won’t even ship things up here.”
Aside from being thorough when it comes to finding the best prices, the couple also take advantage of traveling friends who will bring them ingredients from the Lower 48.
Up and Ready to Grow
On May 22, 2017, five months after that inaugural batch of beard oil, Permafrost Beards officially opened for business.
The company sold $600 worth of product in the first week alone. The Adkins actually had to wait for more ingredients to arrive just to fulfill the influx of orders.
They thought the initial success was mainly due to friends, family and veteran support. But the orders kept coming.
“We started getting orders from folks we didn’t know. That was really exciting,” says Adkins. “You know, it isn’t just my uncle buying stuff.”
The majority of Permafrost Beard’s sales come from Alaska, but they’ve had customers from all over the Lower 48 — and even as far as Australia and Canada.
He found a lucrative market for Permafrost products at gun shows, where he can sell upwards of $1,000 worth of goods over two days. They also branched out from strictly e-commerce to wholesale locations. Their products are in seven stores in Alaska, one in New York and one way down in Alabama.
“It’s About Family”
Since day one, Permafrost Beards has been a family business, and the Adkins wouldn’t have it any other way.
As it’s still a very young company, they consider this to be a part-time job.
During the day, Adkins puts his Army experience to work as the director of operations for the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. His wife homeschools their two children, Ian and Finley, and manages their rental cabins.
But early mornings, evenings and even some weekends belong to Permafrost. In order to get all of the work done around their full schedule, everyone pitches in — and that means the kids, too.
After a family dinner, they begin making products and assembling orders, with the work spreading from the kitchen to the dinner table.
Adkins will typically be in the kitchen, making a batch or two of beard oil, balm or mustache wax, depending on the demand. A normal night will yield about 40 to 60 tins of balm, 20 bottles of oil and 10 tins of wax.
Large wholesale orders or gun shows will up the amount some nights. The family can churn out upwards of 100 tins of balm in just an hour and a half, with multiple stove burners going.
The kids like to help anywhere they can, like attaching the logo stickers to bottles and tins. Adkins says they’re pretty straight — most of the time.
Adkins credits his wife for most of the work, and he stresses how lucky a man he is.
“She drew the logo, she does the major bookkeeping, she does everything behind the scenes that you could ask anyone to do and more,” says Adkins.
The couple love that Permafrost Beards is a family affair. It’s not just daily work for them; it’s a family bonding experience. Ian, 12, is even starting to learn how to make some of the products.
“They’re learning that we just started something, and we’re making a company that may grow huge for all we know,” Adkins says.
Self-Sustaining and Looking Ahead
The company’s first anniversary has come and gone and has hit a point of self-sustainment.
Adkins estimates that he and his wife invested between $8,000 and $12,000 since the company’s inception, and everything they’ve made has gone right back into it.
Now, Permafrost brings in enough that they no longer need to supplement it with their personal money. But they haven’t quite hit the point of profit, either.
The numbers tell a promising story, though.
“The numbers for last year are $17K in gross sales and 540 orders,” says Adkins. “This year to date, we are at $30K in gross sales and 500 orders.”
Their year-to-date analytics reflect an order increase of 746% and a total sales increase of 1,550%.
As for growth plans, the Adkins are playing it by ear and think the next year will be very telling of the future of Permafrost Beards. They hope that more customer knowledge will reveal repeat customers and what’s working.
“We want to keep it a cash-only business,” says Adkins. “If we do that… the worst case that happens is, you know, we just have to stop.”
One thing’s for sure, the Adkins want to use Permafrost as a way to give back to the community and eventually hope to hire other veterans.
They previously raised over $4,000 via a charity calendar, full of bearded fellows showing off their “facejackets.” And at the end of August, they will be hosting the first official Mr. Facejacket Beard Competition with registration fees going to the Fairbanks Community Food Bank.
Valuing the Respect of a Failure
Despite the uncertainty of the future, Adkins isn’t particularly worried. He credits his decades in the Army for some of that confidence.
“When I was teaching students how to fly Chinooks, they would get very nervous, talking on the radio… they would say things like ‘But what if I screw up?’,” he says. “I would tell them, ‘Now, you’re asking for the respect of a failure and you haven’t even tried.’”
Adkins feels that when it comes to starting your own business, especially with your own cash, you need to have the heart to keep it going. And if you don’t, you won’t find out until you give it a shot, right?
And if Permafrost Beards does meet its grisly end, he says they’ll be better off for it than if they’d never tried.
“We’ve learned so much, we gave some money to charity, we met some amazing people, we got to do crazy interviews,” he says. “I mean, go do it. You gotta’ just go.”
Kaitlyn Blount is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.