Starting A $90K/Month Respirator Mask Business

Published: February 6th, 2019
Michael Vahey
Founder, Breathe Healthy
Breathe Healthy
from Virginia, USA
started September 2009
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

My name is Michael, and I’m the owner of Breathe Healthy.

As a kid, I ran a lawn and field mowing business. Unfortunately, I also had allergies. There were times when I would be in the fields all day, but then had to come home with my eyes swelled shut because of my allergies. I tried masks, but they were uncomfortable, and not very easy for a kid to keep on his face.

A more urban lifestyle and career kept me away from the worst of my allergies until I entered the military. Once again, time “out in the field” brought back my allergies with a vengeance. While serving in a desert environment, we often had to operate in sandstorms and high dust and dirt environments. Often, a shirt or rag wrapped around the face was what we used to protect ourselves.

Breathe Healthy is the name of the company that I started. We produce comfortable, wearable respiratory protection that also looks good. We have been in business since 2009, and our sales surpassed 1 million in 2017. We continue to grow and disrupt the “traditional” paper/disposable mask market.


What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

After leaving the military, I met someone who had developed a mask that was comfortable, re-usable, and worked very well for allergies and other general purpose uses.

The masks had gained a small following among some cancer warriors and people with COPD. COPD is a disease that causes difficulty in breathing and can be helped by the appropriate mask that allows room for oxygen tubes.

Don’t let the naysayers bother you: they are probably just jealous anyway.

Chemotherapy weakens the immune system, and sometimes requires masks to be worn for long periods. I decided that this mask was a product that could also really help allergy sufferers as well, and had a great future in the direct to consumer market for all sorts of uses around the home (mold, pet allergies, flu protection, etc.).

Research had told me that the global market for mask use was a very large market. Every hardware store and pharmacy in the US sell some sort of breathing mask.. However, none of them had the unique properties of the Breathe Healthy mask. This mask filled a niche between cheap paper masks, and expensive heavy duty respirators.

The developer of the mask was in retirement and did not have the desire to bring the product to market. So, in 2009, I purchased it from him for about the cost of a new car. About half of the cost was for inventory. The remainder, or “goodwill”, was for the trademark, the associated trade secrets of the mask material, and the rudimentary website.

Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.

While the basic elements of the mask had been established, there was a lot of improvement needed in the style, fit, and packaging. There were also manufacturing efficiencies to be gained.

Adding more variety

First, I decided that the mask needed a greater variety of styles that would appeal to a broader array of customer types. We had more custom color fabric created and found a company that could produce a wide array of fabric patterns.

For instance, we added camo for hunters, and paw print patterns for animal lovers. Next, we adjusted the size of the masks for kids and adults, using customer feedback. We also added a mask for contractors, which fits more snug and secure.


We then began to work on the packaging. Although most of our product is sold online as direct to consumer, the packaging is still the “first impression” that the customer has when receiving the product.

We found a packaging company that could produce a custom sized, custom graphic, sealed (and resealable) package. Prior to this, the masks were all in sealable clear bags, with a printed card inserted in the bag that had product information on it. Not only did the new product bags look better, but they were also more functional.

They had safety seals and a clear panel which allowed you to see the product color/style. All this, and we reduce them from two parts to one, all while keeping costs about the same.

Manufacturing efficiencies

The last major improvement was with our contract manufacturer. The masks were originally made in small batches, partly in a contract shop, and in part at home.

Looking to the future, I wanted to have all the assembly process in one place, and this place had to have room to grow with us. For simplicity and cost reduction, I did not want to have any assembly responsibilities at our location.

We tried several contract cut/sew manufacturers. Our main requirements were that it be made in the USA, and with high quality. Believe it or not, one of the manufacturers that we tried actually allowed smoking in their building.

We were receiving masks that smelled like smoke! Many of our customers use our masks to AVOID second-hand smoke. Another manufacturer we tried also made dancewear for kids. We would sometimes receive masks that had sequins and glimmer inside the packaging!

We finally found the perfect partner, and haven’t looked back. They also provide jobs for adults with disabilities, so it’s a win/win.

Describe the process of launching the online store/business.

There was an original website already developed, but it was very rudimentary. It didn’t even have a built-in credit card processor. The customer would enter their shipping information and their credit card information on an online form. Then, once received by me, the credit card information would have to be copied, and manually entered into a point of purchase store terminal. For every order!

Do you want your business to succeed, or are you only interested in being the boss? If it is the latter, please rethink your motivation for what you are doing. Success is a team effort.

The shipping information then had to be manually printed out on to piece of paper, then taped to the package. The packages were run down to the post office every day. I think every order took about 15 minutes to fulfilled. We experimented with a few processors and shopping carts and eventually settled on WooCommerce and PayPal.

The original website also needed improvement with product photos. Mannequin heads were used to display each product style, and the photos looked like they were taken in a garage (they were!). They were bald and creepy!


Over time, we became much better at displaying the product. Masks, like clothing, don’t show well on a flat surface. They need to be worn in order to give a visual of what they really look like. We still hang them on a model, but we photoshop out the faces so that the focus is on the masks

The website began to pick up more and more sales organically. Costs were relatively low. We did spend on Google AdWords as well as a consultant that modified the website for optimal SEO. We tried various print ads, but none of them came even close to breakeven.


Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Initially, I was lost. I knew that there was a huge demand globally for masks, but I really didn’t know where to start. There are many different types of respiratory protection, and many different applications and environments. I needed to find the markets that were most appropriate for our product.

At first, almost all our sales were through our website. We tried all the SEO tricks back then, and they would work but we were constantly chasing the algorithm. Eventually, it became apparent that just building a quality relevant website would produce the best rankings.

Don’t try to create a market. It’s almost impossible for a startup to do.

This was a good thing, because it filtered out all the scammers and rewarded the most relevant search results. We also used Google AdWords, but have since stopped because that platform is not as cost effective anymore. It is more suited to the aggregators, as I call them – large online stores.

One of the more valuable endeavors that I took on was to join a local business incubator. It was there that I learned about market focus and targeting. The most important lesson learned was to choose a small market to start out with. Especially as a small, new business – you can’t be everything to everyone. You don’t have the resources to be in multiple markets at once.

You must choose a smaller market and focus on penetrating it. For me, it was pet groomers. We saw through our online orders that there was a demand there. I started going to trade shows and began to onboard distributors for pet grooming suppliers. We were actually chosen as the industry’s New Product of the Year in 2011. In 2012, we received the Virginia Business Incubation Association Award, for top incubator client in Virginia.

Incubator Client of the Year Award

We began to see interest from other resellers such as catalogs and distributors. Our business soon became about 50/50 between our website and our resellers.

Then, Amazon came along and changed everything. We currently do about 70% of our business with Amazon.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

We have been increasing our sales on a yearly basis for almost 10 years now. We surpassed 1 million in sales 2 years ago. It takes daily vigilance to monitor online marketplaces for price erosion. However, with a unique, trademarked product, you dont fall into the “commodity” category, and you can hold your ground. Even with rising costs, we have been able to raise our prices and still be able to keep an 80% gross margin ratio.

Our website, which was initially our main sales channel, is now only about 10% of our total business. It continues to give up ground to our other online retail partners, such as,, and Over the past few years, the search engines’ algorithms have definitely given favor to the larger retailers. Rather than fighting it, we have just decided to onboard with all of them. Amazon continues to dominate, and we have just onboarded with their Europe division. Our success has been discovered on Amazon in the US, so many cheap copycats have cropped up and have cause our total sales there to level off. Amazon Europe, however, looks like it is presenting us with a whole new opportunity.

About 20% of our business continues to be distributors, catalogs, and other resellers. This part of the business has remained steady, and we continue to search for partners. We have had some success with global partners (Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Korea), but it remains difficult due to the abundance of cheap competition from China.


Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Choose employees that are smarter than you are.

I once read the quote “surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are”, and I never forgot it. It is important to keep your ego in check.

Do you want your business to succeed, or are you only interested in being the boss? If it is the latter, please rethink your motivation for what you are doing. Success is a team effort.

You may be a good idea person, or a good motivator, but you can’t be the best at everything. You need support from all sorts of specialty groups that you can trust and rely upon.

Your employees truly are your greatest asset.

Never be too confident that you don’t seek out help

Again, I have to bring up our local business incubator. Nowadays, these are present in almost every mid to large city.

Many are associated with a local college or university. They offer low cost, real-world help, usually with volunteers that have lots of experience to share.

Additionally, they can offer a space to start up your business or to hold a meeting or collaborate with other aspiring entrepreneurs.

Don’t try to create a market. It’s almost impossible for a startup to do.

Instead, find out what is working for a similar product. When it comes to masks, we aren’t going to convince anyone to wear one.

But we can look at environments where people are already wearing them, and offer a better one.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

QuickBooks helps us track all customer accounts, billing, and company performance. (You should still have a good local CPA or bookkeeper).

WooCommerce as a shopping cart is great because it is very capable and customizable. Not the best for beginners though.

We use The Webmaster Company as technical support that is capable and responsive.

For shipping, we like the ease and simplicity of Generally, USPS for small stuff, UPS for the bigger stuff.

Our merchant services provider is PayPal.

We use Google G Suite for all things email.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

  • Wishes Fulfilled - Dr Wayne Dwyer’s books are excellent. Your thoughts can determine and fulfill your goals. The power of intention is wonderful and real.
  • Who Moved my Cheese – Change is fearsome but good. Learn to use it to your advantage. Great for motivation to start something new.
  • Rich Dad Poor Dad – This book moves you out of the 9-5 mindset and roadmaps a method to produce long term wealth
  • Emotional Intelligence – encouraging for those who may not do well in school or on tests. Your schooling does not determine your potential.
  • The Magic of Thinking Big – old book, but it is timeless and will never become irrelevant. I re-read this every few years.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Save up some money first and don’t quit your current job until your new venture can

sustain you. Watch your cash flow like a hawk.

In the beginning, you will have to do many things on your own in order to save money.

Don’t let the naysayers bother you: they are probably just jealous anyway.

Where can we go to learn more?

Also feel free to drop a comment below! I’ll be sure to answer.