Surround yourself with the best people — especially people who are smarter than you are. There’s no ego in running a small business and you should always be on the lookout for the best and the brightest. You should also ensure that everyone on your team is encouraged to contribute, communicate and speak up!
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Cafarelli, the Founder of Ernest Supplies. Growing up in New York as the son of a builder, John learned at an early age the value of a guy having the right tools in his toolbox to be successful. He designed Ernest Supplies based on a similar premise of giving a guy the tools he needs to feel confident and look his best. After an unsuccessful search for skincare products that fit into his lifestyle of staying active, working hard and living well, he began developing his own products and engineered them to be simple and easy to use, highly efficacious and masculine. Soon, his friends caught on and the products became sought after — and Ernest Supplies was born. John’s interest in healthy living was a major motivator in formulating all of the products with nature inspired ingredients and to fit seamlessly into the lifestyle of active and healthy guys. His goal in building Ernest Supplies was to create a company that doesn’t look and feel like a traditional skincare company but more of a men’s specialty brand. John’s prior experience and understanding of the fashion industry helped to guide him as it relates to branding, packaging, design and distribution. Prior to that, John helped to grow well-known brands as their financial advisor, including Intermix, Skullcandy, All Saints, Morgenthal Frederics and others. When he’s not busy running Ernest Supplies, John is the National Chairman of amfAR Generation Cure, which helps raise money to support cure focused HIV research. He is also an Advisor to Paper Magazine and has been part of the team that has transitioned Paper’s business model from that of a traditional magazine to a dynamic content creation platform (while, along the way, “Breaking The Internet!”).
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I’m originally from New York — raised in a town that straddles the Queens border called Floral Park. I feel like I was a little bit of a strange kid. Even from an early age, I was always fascinated by owning my own business. I remember my parents bought me things like baseball cards and my interest in them was entirely around trading, buying and selling them to other kids in the neighborhood. I was also obsessed with the environment — this was in the 80s, well before environmentalism was a thing. I remember I had this idea for baby diapers that were made from this biodegradable burlap material my dad used in his construction business. Given that I was probably 10 years old at the time and that burlap and babies don’t often mix, the idea wasn’t very popular but I was convinced it was a huge idea. It’s funny how, in the context of how my life has unfolded thus far, seemingly insignificant details about my childhood kind of make sense.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah-ha” moment with us?
For me, there wasn’t really an “ah-ha” moment — it was more just me going with the flow. To be honest, if you had told me 20 years ago that in 2019 I’d be running my own skincare brand I would have told you that you were crazy. I never had an out sized interest in skincare or cosmetics but I did have huge interest in wellness and healthy living. Ernest Supplies came about because I had been working with a small manufacturer to make face moisturizer for me — mainly because, at the time, it was nearly impossible to find “cleaner” / “better for you” alternatives to what was available in the department stores and I had become very focused on avoiding certain ingredients. I worked with a really talented, young formulator who I met at a trade show to make what has become our award-winning Protective Matte Moisturizer. I used it myself but I also used to give it out to friends and family and, randomly, someone told me I should start selling it; that was the beginning of Ernest Supplies.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
I think the most important thing in getting any business off the ground is to just get started. This was a huge learning experience for me because, at first, I was so focused on getting my products perfect. The truth is, perfection is a mirage and the best businesses evolve over time based on learnings from actually being in business. So I always encourage people to just get started and be willing to learn and adapt.