Drew Westervelt | Crain's Denver

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Drew Westervelt


As a professional lacrosse player, HEX Performance founder Drew Westervelt noticed that his apparel and tech gear would still stink, even after they had been washed. That odor was the result of bacteria that wasn’t removed by traditional laundry detergents. Westervelt searched for a solution and partnered with scientists in the cleaning industry to create a new product inspired by today’s activewear industry. Baltimore-based HEX laundry detergent eliminates odors from fabrics and protects against future stink and stains. It’s currently sold in retail locations nationwide, including at Target, Wegmans and other major supermarket chains.

The Mistake:

One of the mistakes I’ve made was not being a leader. Instead of making my own decisions, I was looking at what other brands in the space were doing, and trying to mimic those tactics.

What we did originally was try to advertise on social platforms like Facebook. We’d buy a market and try to tell people, “This is HEX, go buy it.” We were relying on traditional tactics, which go by reach and frequency. The strategy is that through the frequency of my ads, I’m going to change your behavior. Thinking back on that, that’s pretty archaic.

We spent almost a year trying different platforms like Facebook, Instagram and radio. We tried different frequencies and different layers, and we thought maybe more frequency would change behavior. But we found the missing link is there’s still a lot of skepticism.

You’ve been marketed to by huge brands for years, or you use a detergent because your mom used it. If that huge brand’s product doesn’t work, customers think, “How is this startup going to be anything different?” That was a real hurdle.

I look at everything from an athlete’s perspective because that’s how I got into this space. I’m an athlete, I have a challenge: I can’t get this synthetic fabric clean, let’s go create a solution. I equate it to game film—game film doesn’t lie, it’s just sometimes really difficult to watch. Business metrics and data don’t lie either. Sometimes it’s difficult to look at, but it requires you to think differently and pivot.

Can I change your behavior through a piece of video content or a series of ads? Is that going to make you pull money out and buy that? No, it’s probably not from a reach and frequency ad; it’s probably through word of mouth, and that’s exactly what we’re doing with our field efforts. We’re basically saying, “We don’t need to advertise to you, you just need to experience this.” That’s a much better investment for us.

I look at everything from an athlete’s perspective because that’s how I got into this space.

The Lesson:

The lesson is to be a leader and not a follower. For us it’s been whatever works is what we’re going to do. It doesn’t matter what other people are doing in the space or saying we should do. All that matters for me as an entrepreneur is how do I build my brand, and how do I continue to take positive steps forward.

Today’s newer brands are all about user experience and providing a value to the customer that they can very easily see or experience. For us, it’s guerrilla marketing and being in the field, being at what we call “points of sweat.” Being at a spin class, or a barre class, or a youth soccer game, those are places where people have a huge affinity for the problem we solve.

Based on weekly sales data we could see lifts in neighboring stores from where we did sampling events. It was immediate, and much quicker and more obvious than traditional sales lifts.

Everything about our product is the direct opposite of what you’d find in a traditional bottle, and that’s by design. But going into this you’d think it was this siren on the shelf, screaming: “Hey, come look at me.” But what we’ve learned in laundry is that consumers aren’t running down the aisle looking for the new and exciting detergent, because it’s really never been there. We really had to think differently about being very authentic, and really relying on solving a problem or providing a great user experience as an opportunity to win in this space.

Drew Westervelt is on Twitter at @Dwesty1426 and HEX Performance is at @HEXPerformance.

Do you have a good story you’d like to share, or know someone we should feature? Email cberman@crain.com.

And be sure to sign up for your local newsletter from Crain's.