Like many retired professional athletes, former pro lacrosse player Drew Westervelt wanted to remain involved in sports. But rather than seeking a television career like a Michael Strahan or a developing gear like Michael Phelps, Westervelt hoped to tackle a particular problem in the athletic world: smelly workout clothes.
It’s no longer just Lululemon that sells premium yoga pants; designer activewear and athleisure lines are soaring to popularity and have made their way into our everyday wardrobe. In fact, 60 percent of our laundry is now made of synthetic fabrics. But it’s these materials that Westervelt found created a lingering stink.
So, he decided to develop his formula and take on the 5 billion dollar U.S. laundry detergent industry that’s dominated by traditional detergents. HEX Performance launched in spring 2016 and claims to be the “biggest breakthrough in laundry cleaning in decades.” Westervelt was so sure of his product; he bet on it with one of his first major retail partners.
After meeting with the executive, he urged him to take the skin-friendly, biodegradable product home and test it out himself. The executive agreed that if HEX got the stink out of his sweaty, stinky clothes and athletic gear like Drew said it would; then the retailer would carry it in their stores.
The new detergent has since launched in more than 3,500 retail locations nationwide and is on track to quadruple its retail presence to over 4,000 by the end of 2017.
I got a chance to sit chat with the 32-year-old founder and COO about his remarkable success in a dirty business.
Q: First, tell me about your sports career and how it’s helped you become an entrepreneur.
A: Growing up, I always excelled at sports. But, conversely, school was a major challenge as I’m dyslexic. Sports became a platform to grow and gain confidence and lacrosse personally became a passion. After college, I had the opportunity to continue playing professionally. I played nine seasons in the MLL, NLL and with Team USA. That meant traveling every weekend for 10 months a year to play games in cities across the U.S. and Canada. Many of the lessons learned from my professional athletic career have transitioned well to the challenges associated with starting a company. Many of the same peaks and valleys exist. It’s all about staying humble, celebrating the wins and growing from the losses. In the end, you will be amazed at all you accomplished.
Q: A lot of former pro athletes go into business, but will do energy drinks or sporting gear. Why detergent?
A: Energy drinks and sports gear sound like much cooler businesses than detergent! I was never on a mission to create or sell laundry detergent. Like many entrepreneurs, I’ve pivoted from my original idea. The original concept behind HEX was to develop a long lasting solution to clean and protect athletic facilities (turf, locker rooms, training and weight rooms, etc.) from odor, MRSA, and Staph issues. When a bacterial problem like MRSA is discovered it’s challenging to determine where it originated. It threatens athletes’ careers and health, but there isn’t an easy way to prevent it.
So, the course of action is to disinfect every single surface possible and hope that you got it. I thought very differently about how this strategy should go. Why not couple the cleaning technology with the ability to inhibit this issue from returning rather than continually being reactionary? Let’s think proactively. The research put forth in the commercial cleaning space triggered a lightbulb that surfaces like turf are no different than performance fabric and I could create a unique solution in the laundry category.
Q: What inspired you?
A: It was a need. In pro sports, travel takes on a new meaning. Every single weekend, I’d return home on Monday with a bag of sweaty, disgusting clothes and gear. In my own experience, I was desperate to find something that would clean my athletic gear and apparel. Because the only other option was to deal with the stink– or to throw it in the trash.
I bet you’ve never thrown out a cotton tee because you couldn’t clean it. That’s because traditional detergents were built for cotton. Today we go to spin class, and that new synthetic outfit barely makes it through two classes with our perma-stink. Why is that? As apparel has changed from cotton to synthetics, detergents haven’t changed at all. These brands are relying on old formulas and lingering fragrances to mask odors. They’ve dropped the ball on innovation. And that’s where HEX came in.
Q: What’s been the biggest struggle?
A: The biggest challenge has been breaking through skepticism to gain trial. Just because you know your consumers have a problem, doesn’t mean they’re aware. When they realize there’s a problem, they may blame it on some other factors. And that’s when your job is to educate consumers.
We’ve combatted this skepticism through guerrilla marketing. Instead of solely relying on ads or packaging to jump out at people, we partner with local gyms, fitness studios, and school sports teams. Our field team hands out samples and coupons to attendees, engaging with them on a personal level about their clothing, their sweaty lifestyle, and our solution.
Q: How is this formula different than other detergents?
A: The formula is different in every way. First, it started with chemistry. We took all the learnings from the research to clean hard and soft surfaces in athletic facilities. All detergents use surfactants. They clean things. Now, just about every detergent on the shelf uses a negative or neutral charged surfactant blend. HEX uses the opposite: positively charged surfactants.
Q: Why use the opposite of what cleaning brands have been using for decades?
A: That’s exactly the point. New, synthetic fabrics are essentially plastic. Traditional surfactants don’t penetrate as well on synthetics. That’s what makes synthetics so hard to clean. Not only do we use different surfactants, but we’ve also added technologies to remove and prevent stink and stains – rather than relying on heavy fragrances that trick your nose until the next sweat session.
Also, any new brands entering this space must take environmental responsibility very seriously. All of our detergents are readily biodegradable, dermatologist tested, and safe for all machines.