Sometimes frustration rather than necessity is the mother of invention.
Todd Greene started losing his hair in his late 20s. He didn't want to wear a toupee or get a hair transplant, which he said gives people "peach fuzz head."
So Greene started shaving his head. The process took him about 20 minutes and became a ritual he performed every night to save time in the morning. But there was a problem.
"At night was when it looked the best, but the next day I'd get this 5 o'clock shadow," he said. "If you have light skin and dark hair, it shows up, and it shows where you don't have hair. You get ring-around-the-head."
Greene didn't consider himself an inventor at the time. He was an artist who had done some fundraising for a couple of East Coast liberal arts colleges, Bowdoin and Swarthmore. And he had picked up and moved to Seattle, and landed a job with Starwave. The company produced ESPN's Web site and Greene was put in charge of the fantasy games.
One day, when he was deep in thought and rubbing his hand over his head, the idea came to him.
"If I could do it like that, I wouldn't have to use a mirror," Greene thought to himself about how he could shave in the morning on the fly.
"To shave without a mirror, it's important to be able to feel where you're shaving," he said. "If you can feel the blade underneath your fingers as you shave, you could just move the blade over your head."
And that's where he got the idea of a blade that could be dragged like a finger comb. And the idea led to his company, HeadBlade Inc.
Greene started the Culver City company in 2000 with $150,000. He received some help from his father and a few friends, but most of it was his. Today he owns 91 percent of the company.
Greene created prototypes and applied for patents. He wrote Gillette and Schick about his idea. The form rejection came speedily from Schick. The one from Gillette wasn't far behind.
"All right, they just don't understand the demographic," he told himself. "They're big companies back East, conservatives. Their idea is to sell as much as they can to as many people as they can. The shaved head is probably 1 percent of their business."
Nonetheless, he didn't want to see the idea on the shelves one day and have to say, "I thought of that five years ago!" So he went for it.
At first, Greene just wanted to prove the market existed. His first foray was Venice Beach. He and friends boxed 500 blades for sale and hit the boardwalk.
"I totally burned my head and everybody said, 'If it's so great why isn't it on TV or a magazine?' " Greene sold an underwhelming eight HeadBlades that day, but the effort wasn't all for naught.
Three years later, Greene asked a head-shaven bald man sitting next to him on an airline flight from Chicago how he did it.
"HeadBlade," the man said. When Greene told him that he invented it, the man started laughing and told him that "I bought one out of your backpack on the Third Street Promenade."
The business really kicked in when he started selling HeadBlades on a Web site. Write-ups in Time, Maxim and Wired magazines jump-started his sales. Sept. 11, 2001, put a crimp in his sales figures, as it did with most small businesses. Things rebounded in 2002, though, and profits have doubled every year since 2003.
Today the product is sold in 12,000 stores, including Wal-Mart, Walgreens, Rite Aid, and Sav-on. The original HeadBlade costs $12.99 in stores and $15 on his site.
He's also starting to diversify his product line in an effort to corner the head-shaving market and keep up with fashion.
HeadBlade now offers shaving cream and moisturizers with finishes that are shiny or dull, to suit the customer's taste. He also sells $95 clippers that allow men to cut their hair extremely closely without taking it all off a hot style these days. Then there's the limited edition silver HeadBlade that is designed to look like a car, complete with wheels.
There's no guarantee the bald boom will continue, Greene knows. A breakthrough in hair restoration could put a hit on his business, and fashion is by nature transitory.
But Danny Moumdjian, who owns Lab Salon in Beverly Hills, was adamant that the head-shaving market is here to stay.
"Men are going to be doing it forever," Moumdjian said. "And there are more of them every five years. People from about 20 to 25 are starting to lose their hair. And they're going to start shaving their heads."
One word of caution, however: Moumdjian said everyday head-shavers must watch out for ingrown hairs.
Maximizing pate potential
Greene said the head-shaving market is bigger than most would imagine.
Some of his best customers, for example, are soldiers and airmen, for whom bald is not only beautiful, but a natural for the military-mandated neat-head look.
The Army and Air Force Exchange Service picked up the product on a limited basis in 2004 and have recently added them to the regular stock at their 160 main stores.
Judd Anstey, media branch manager at the Exchange Service, is prohibited from endorsing specific products, but he does say that every stock item is carefully chosen.
"It's important to remember that we have a dual mission: quality products at competitive prices and to return dividends back to shareholders. Our customers are our stockholders. It's important to us to demonstrate a return on the investment the troops are making in us."
HeadBlade's most popular locations are Ft. Hood in Texas; Camp Foster in Okinawa; Ft. Lewis in Washington; and Wuerzberg, Germany.
Not every marketing effort is driven by revenue goals. Greene has started reaching out to cancer patients who are losing their hair as a result of treatment. The company has received e-mails from friends and family of cancer patients looking for HeadBlade hats and T-shirts that they can wear to show support. Greene has spoken at a number of cancer fundraisers.
"So many people who've been diagnosed with cancer and have to go through chemotherapy say, 'I'm going to lose my hair,' " he said. "In light of what's going on, that's what they should worry about the least."
Greene remains confident in his product line's versatility. "We're every demographic. We've taken a niche and become the brand. We're black, white Hispanic, gay, Harley Davidson, firefighters, monks and athletes."
And he insists that head shaving is a lifestyle choice.
"Everybody does it for a reason. We don't care what that reason is. We know that as an individual, you're doing it for a reason and you're very proud of that."
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