We are first cousins (Brandon Karam and Jess Karam Oley) from San Antonio, Texas, and we are the founders and owners of Pristine Cleansing Sprays.
Pristine started in 2014 with a strange and novel idea that toilet paper spray could replace the use of pesky, environmentally harmful wet wipes. We began with several different scents for our toilet paper spray, and after almost two years in R&D, market testing, and research, we launched our flagship product, Pristine Moisturizing Toilet Paper Spray (now called Pristine “Original”). Pristine is an eco-friendly and more natural alternative to wet wipes. A few sprays of Pristine onto regular toilet paper creates a truly flushable wet wipe. Early adopters of Pristine were people like us who had experienced major problems with wet wipes, namely clogged pipes and/or skin irritation caused by the chemicals in wet wipes and the chemical processing of the non-woven fabric. But, we knew the benefits and uses of Pristine extend to the general bottom wiping public (excuse the crudeness).
Pristine initially gained traction on Amazon and was further validated by our appearance on ABC’s Shark Tank. Since then Pristine toilet paper spray has gained momentum. While we are still in a growth phase and constantly expanding our reach, we are doing approximately $164K/month in revenue, and still going!
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
We are both former lawyers. Brandon was a patent and trademark attorney. Jess worked in corporate structure, real estate, contracts, and some litigation. We joke that the legal profession was so bad that being in the potty business is a step up in professional status.
Expect to sweat, suffer, and starve (both literally and figuratively). Starting a business is not glamorous. It is expensive, time-consuming, humbling, tiring, messy, and defeating at times.
Throughout his career as an attorney, Brandon helped many businesses, individuals, and entrepreneurs to protect their ideas and inventions and build profitable businesses from their inventions. It was incredible to witness the process from the invention, testing, and proving up, to filing and receiving intellectual property for other people’s innovative ideas. There are so many people with inventive ideas for things that do not exist yet, and innovative ideas on how to improve current products and procedures. Of the clients Brandon worked with, each took that big next step from idea to action. That resonated with Brandon.
Jess began her legal career in 2003 doing transactional work in corporate structure and contracts and spent time in the courtroom litigating a wide variety of legal issues. Jess enjoyed every aspect of being an attorney, but after having kids she mellowed and appreciated the aspects of the law that served as infrastructure to help people and businesses build and grow. Jess was a mom to her 4-year-old son and a 6-month-old daughter, both of who unknowingly contributed to the invention and development of Pristine’s toilet paper sprays.
“We realized that there was not a mainstream an alternative to wet wipes. So, we decided to create one.
In 2013, Brandon had just moved to Dallas, Texas (to work with a law firm), where Jess was living at the time. Over a casual dinner, we got on the topic of wet wipes. Jess’s daughter, who was only 6 months old at the time, was experiencing severe skin irritations caused by the harsh chemicals in wet wipes. Brandon had experienced similar issues with wet wipes, and he was aware of how wet wipes, even the “flushable” kind, will clog plumbing. We hopped on Google to look for a solution to our common problem. Instead of finding an easy solution, we found many other people and organizations complaining about the same problems with wet wipes. We realized that there was not a mainstream alternative to wet wipes. So, we decided to create one.
Right then and there, literally still at the dinner table, we started writing out ideas and a plan on how to create the prototypes. Many innovative ideas can live and die in those days after the “light bulb” moment; some ideas never leave the figurative “table”. But, we took the next step to create a rudimentary prototype without much concern or consideration of the long and arduous road that would lay before us if our idea came to fruition.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?
The very night we came up with the idea during dinner, we began making a list of potential ingredients. From the outset, we knew that Pristine would be a liquid, water-based spray. Natural, clean, and safe ingredients were of paramount priority for us. We were creating the product, not only because we saw a void in the marketplace, but also because we each had a personal need for it. We decided that we would not create or sell products that we would not feel comfortable using ourselves.
We hand-crafted about 500 bottles of our prototype formula for testing and a small market study with family and friends (our brave test subjects). It took about 1 ½ years to develop the final formula and to finalize the labeling, branding, and packaging. Had we not been occupied with our fulltime jobs as attorneys, and/or if we had significant financial backing, we may have gotten from “idea” to “final prototype” much faster. But, we kept our day jobs and we took no outside funding, investments, or debt.
When we first launched our website, we anticipated that we would immediately be flooded with traffic. It was so anticlimactic when months passed before we got our first sale. We both remember the first sale well. We actually called each other with accolades.
Early on, we were not particularly focused on being a strong eCommerce brand. We were working partially on E-commerce, but more on in-store retail. We worked with sales reps and attended trade shows and markets to promote Pristine. This was a misstep for us early on. In-store retail was not as successful as we needed it to be. Toilet paper spray was a new product in a new product category. Most people did not know what it was, so it didn’t sell off the shelves immediately. The product itself required some education and explanation that a simple POP (point of purchase) display or promotional material could not accomplish at a first glance by shoppers. We learned that the journey to Pristine was more of an educational experience that can be accomplished best online as we were gaining recognition of the concept and our brand. We were able to readjust our targets and sales goals to focus online.
During the first few years, we continued to keep our costs to a minimum. If we could learn a task and do it ourselves, we would. We would spend money when it was absolutely necessary. This strategy was a double-edged sword. On one side, we learned every facet of our business intimately, and later we were able to hire or contract out for those services having more knowledge than many entrepreneurs who are able to hire out from the outset. On the other side, this probably delayed our progress. A task that took us weeks could have taken a professional or expert half the time.
Another limiting factor was that for the first few years, we were both still working full time in our legal professions with Pristine as our side-hustle. Honestly, we were both contents with our legal careers and we could have continued on that path and been successful attorneys. But, our full-time careers were beginning to impede the growth of our company. We didn’t have the money to hire help or to pay ourselves salaries. But, if Pristine was going to become a legitimate business and the leader in the “toilet paper spray” space that we were pioneering, we would need to take the risk and quit our day jobs.
In 2018, we took the plunge and we both began working fulltime on Pristine with a clear path to growing Pristine as an eCommerce company. In 2018, Pristine also caught the attention of ABC’s Shark Tank. With an appearance on Shark Tank on the horizon, it made unemployment more palatable.
“Brandon even joked on-air that we knew we would be the “butt” of some jokes when we revealed our sales. He was right.
We presumed that a potty product that helped the environment would be received well in the “Tank”, but you just never know. Many people think that Shark Tank companies have automatic success after the show. That isn’t always the case, regardless of whether the company got an investor. Deals fall through.
Companies don’t have the resources or knowledge to absorb the “Shark Tank effect”. There could be no customer demand for the product. When we walked on stage, Pristine had just over $11,000 in annual sales. You read that right, we didn’t leave out any zeros. The Sharks were underwhelmed, and they let us know it. Brandon even joked on air that we knew we would be the “butt” of some jokes when we revealed our sales. He was right…and funny at the same time. Pristine’s Shark Tank episode aired on January 13, 2019. Sales skyrocketed for the days and weeks following, then steadied. But the trajectory of the company was altered in a great way.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, we are still working hard to grow the company. 2019 and the first part of 2020 were big growth years for Pristine, not just in sales, but the infrastructure of the company needed to catch up to support sales and demand.
COVID 19 threw us an unexpected curveball. The toilet paper shortages sent the American public scrambling for toilet paper, wet wipes, paper towels, and anything else that could potentially clean the backside. Pristine actually helps to ration and conserve toilet paper because Pristine helps regular toilet paper to be more efficient in its job, therefore, less toilet paper is used per bathroom visit. Sales of Pristine spiked both on Amazon and our website. Unfortunately, many people also flocked to wet wipes, and they were flushing the wet wipes. Around the globe, sewer systems were clogged and damaged by the tons of wet wipes being flushed. We joined in the efforts to provide education on why wet wipes should never be flushed, and how COVID 19 and toilet paper shortages are leading to major problems for the city infrastructure.
Along with toilet paper, hand sanitizer was in short supply as a result of COVID 19. We were able to pivot our manufacturing operations to begin manufacturing hand sanitizer as well. We will be officially launching our Cooling Peppermint Hand Sanitizer Spray that is proudly made with all the quality and care as our toilet paper sprays – using only safe, clean, and time-tested ingredients, with a natural essential oil scent.
We also will be launching two new naturally scented toilet paper sprays by December 2020! For 2021 and beyond, we plan to continue growing Pristine and expanding our product line. Launching our very first health and hygiene cosmetic product was challenging to say the least. But, now we have an appetite for it, and we are committed to creating and offering products that help us all be a little kinder to the earth and our bodies.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
In the life of an entrepreneur, you will constantly and simultaneously be a student and a teacher. If you haven’t learned how to do a task yourself, or have at least researched how it’s done and how to do it efficiently, it will be very difficult to instruct another person on how to best help your business. Moreover, if you are outsourcing a big task, like marketing, you can easily get taken for a ride by companies who promise the moon and throw fancy words at you. We learned to do almost everything ourselves, and we found relatively inexpensive resources available to launch an eCommerce store.
It took us a while to get comfortable with asking others for help or input. Early on, we kept our ideas and product very secretive. We were concerned that someone would take our idea and beat us to the market. Asking around for input, references, referrals, recommendations, etc. could have helped expedite some of the tasks and processes we struggled with early on.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Shopify has been a fabulous platform for Pristine; it is user-friendly and offers articles and tools to support start-up businesses. Shopify shipping and ShippingEasy for shipping are helpful and inexpensive.
We love Klaviyo to keep in contact with our customers and mailing list. We use several Google plug-ins for task lists and project management. Sometimes the simplest programs are the best resources.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
We both enjoy, How I Built This, by Guy Raz. It is an incredible PodCast that talks about the journeys of many successful entrepreneurs. The biggest takeaway for us was that nearly every entrepreneur will have missteps, mistakes, and problems.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
A minimum, make a loose business plan. Since we were not looking for funding or investors when we launched Pristine, we did not develop a written, organized business plan. We didn’t think we needed one until that time when we would entertain investors. In hindsight, we think that a loose business plan that set sales metrics and goals would have been helpful to keep us on track in the early stages when we weren’t sure what was going to stick and work best.
This will sound so basic, but take the next step (whatever it may be) and don’t give up. That is a big lesson. A large percentage of businesses fail early on because challenges mount and hurdles seem too big to get over. We had many setbacks and missteps before things really started moving for Pristine. Sometimes it felt as though we were stagnating and floundering around without a particular goal in sight. It is these times when it would be helpful to have a loose business plan, timelines/deadlines, and set goals to keep you moving forward.
Expect to sweat, suffer, and starve (both literally and figuratively). Starting a business is not glamorous. It is expensive, time-consuming, humbling, tiring, messy, and defeating at times. Don’t expect or strive for an office with windows, SWAG, and a large employee base at the outset. Leased office space is typically unnecessary, expensive, and a drain of the company expenses. You don’t need a coffee cup with your logo on it. You don’t need mousepads with your brand. Stay away.
Where can we go to learn more?
You can get more info about Pristine, our mission, and our products on our website. Join the Movement by joining our newsletter for some fabulous and unique content, and deals. Check out Facebook and Instagram (give us a Like or Follow). We take a light and humorous approach to discussing bathroom hygiene. I guess we are still kids at heart who still find potty jokes to be funny. Of course, Pristine is on Amazon (Check out our reviews. Leave us a review or comment. We’d love to hear from you!)
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