Leif and Erin Frey, founders of FREY, discuss how their company has grown in the past two years. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)
Erin and Leif Frey's quick trajectory to entrepreneurial success started in high school in a fairly unglamorous place — the laundry room.
The two were competitive soccer players at Southern High School in their hometown of Harwood in Anne Arundel County. Also playing on a club team meant two practices a day for the pair. The rigors of those double practices and the piling up of soiled practice gear resulted in a sweaty, pungent heap.
"Our mother got tired of washing our smelly sports clothes," Leif, 25, said with a laugh.
"It was borderline of a cesspool," Erin, 24, added.
It was there that the two got the idea of starting their line of Frey clothing care products, such as laundry detergents, for men. They experimented with different formulas and scents — they grew from mixing concoctions in their parents' basement to a third-floor shared space in a Baltimore warehouse to working with chemists and manufacturers across the country — to create laundry products that don't have the traditional "feminine scents" of lavender or other flowery notes.
The company has experienced initial success through subscription-based services such as SprezzaBox and Gentleman's Box. Frey has sold more than 40,000 products, which can also be found in men's boutiques, since its launch two years ago.
Fast forward to a month ago, and the brothers won their appearance on Funderdome, the Steve Harvey-hosted reality show on ABC where entrepreneurs pitch their products or ideas to win funding.
"It was quite an adrenaline rush, pitching in front of a live audience with the knowledge that it would potentially be aired on national television," Erin said. "Honestly, the entire time we were on stage seemed to pass by in an exciting blur. It was a great feeling to know that we would have an additional $20,000 in our pocket which we could use to grow, since we have seen very good returns on our investment. Of course, it was great to meet Steve Harvey in person as well."
The brothers have also appeared on "Good Morning America," and in a slew of publications such as GQ, the Wall Street Journal, the London Times and BBC News. Their products also appeared on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." And they just inked a deal with Saks Fifth Avenue in which their products will be sold through the luxury department store's online site. Their products, which also include a wrinkle release potion, lint brush, lint comb, dryer sheets, a stain remover, fabric freshener and assorted stain removers, range from $8 to $50.
The brothers — Erin graduated from Dartmouth with a degree in neuroscience; Leif graduated from Georgetown with a degree in economics — are positioning themselves to be the next big thing in the men's fashion and grooming industry. And they're doing it with a millennial approach.
It starts with bucking the traditional way that established laundry companies have approached customers.
"The one or two giants in the laundry industry are doing things the same way. Their scent, their bottle design — it's all outdated," Erin said.
Instead, the brothers think that gearing their products toward men instead of women not only addresses an untapped market, it also works as a form of gender equality.
"More often than not the laundry industry tailors its products to women, from their scents to their advertisements," Erin explained. "Women still do more laundry than men, and so the big laundry companies continue to tailor their products to them, but this perpetuates the cycle."
Leif added: "We hope to help break down outdated stereotypes about gender roles in the household, encouraging men to participate in this chore in a way a gender-neutral brand could not. By creating a brand tailored to men, we are encouraging them to increase their role in performing household chores in a way that a gender-neutral brand could not, while giving people products they love."
The Frey products are sold at Baltimore boutique Gian Marco Menswear, as well as Mr. Scherfel, an Annapolis-based menswear boutique.
"It's definitely well-received," said Mr. Scherfel's owner, John Scherfel, who also uses the products when he does laundry. "One of the biggest draws is the scent. It's much more of a masculine scent. It's not overpowering and perfumey. It's lighter in fragrance. But the fragrance there is much more appealing to a man than the lavender and other ones that are mass-produced. I've had women say that they like to use it for their bedding."
Their products are made using natural and renewable surfactants, which the brothers say are safer for the environment. They also say that their products are designed to be better for garments and lengthen their lifespan.
The Freys' company also has a philanthropic component. Ten percent of all profits go to charity. And for every bottle sold, the company washes the clothing of someone in need through their "Wash for Wash" program.
They employ Aidan Porter, their chief technology officer, and work with subcontractors to make their products, but they essentially handle every aspect of the business.
The brothers first exhibited their entrepreneurial spirit as young children when they would pretend to operate a restaurant from a play set, according to their mother, Freda Christie-Frey.
She watched as that producing and selling spirit blossomed into different ventures. There were the hemp bracelets the two sold after learning how to braid during a service trip to Haiti. There was also the time they tried to open a paintball course in the backyard of a friend's house (their parents quickly dashed those dreams). Six years ago, the two even attempted to dabble in government contracting, but that did not progress. The entire time, the two continued to travel and volunteer helping others in need.
"I honestly do not think of this as a business but a work of art bringing together all their different aspects of their personalities: science, art, people skills, amazing sense of humor in both albeit different styles," Christie-Frey wrote in a text from Monterrey, Mexico, where she teaches. Their father, Robert Frey, is a doctor who spent decades traveling the world providing volunteer medical services in developing countries. "They show that you can combine a keen sense of compassion and humanity in that they want to use any big financial success to inhabit the terrain of entrepreneurship and shaping a kinder, fairer world."
"We literally just started experimenting with different mixtures and shoving them under our friends' noses," Leif said with a laugh.
They also worked with Bell Flavors & Fragrances, a fragrance house based in Chicago, to refine the scent.
The Frey scent is a mix of oak moss, cedarwood and amber "to give it a more natural feel," according to Leif. The scent is finished with soft leather, and hints of citrusy bergamot, a touch of geranium, and fresh eucalyptus.
"It was definitely a step up from us buying essential oils and mixing it with chemistry sets," Leif added. "Now the fragrance house does basically the same thing we did, but they are clearly experts doing it — walking us through a much more scientific process using top trending fragrances and the data they already have on customers."
Ryan Sullivan, a 25-year-old chemical engineer who lives in Washington, has been using Frey products for close to two years.
"I think what really sets Frey apart from other companies is their ability to fill a niche that I didn't know I needed filled," Sullivan said. "I certainly never had an issue with doing laundry. It's a chore but you have to do it. However, using the Frey clothing products I have found myself actually pulling my clothes out and doing that classic deep inhale of freshly cleaned clothes much more often than I have using other companies' products."
The brothers, who are in the process of developing a signature cologne with their fragrance house, hope that more customers will buy into the concept of their niche product — especially with their new eCommerce deal with Saks Fifth Avenue.
"We hope to leverage their name into other partnerships and to a brick-and-mortar role," Erin said. "Most stores like this aren't selling laundry detergent in their brick-and-mortar stores."
Erin said the brothers think shoppers in higher-end menswear stores are the perfect customers for their products because they care about their clothes.
"If they are buying $1,000 worth of clothing, then a clothing care kit sounds like a good idea," he said. "People who purchase an expensive pair of shoes will invest in shoe care products. We are bringing that mentality to clothing care."