20 Questions

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20 Questions

20 Questions for Guy Sako

CEO, Defense Soap

Originally published
Originally published: 5/1/2024

Editor Tom Perić sat down with Guy Sako, the founder and CEO of Vermilion, OH-based Defense Soap. Sako is a classic entrepreneur who had a simple idea about soap for combat sports, like wrestling, jiu-jitsu and judo and protecting participants from infections.  The demand exploded into a business. Guy talks about entrepreneurship, when an idea turns into a business and how to succeed in a niche market. 

1. What are three things you have to do every day?

Every morning, I make sure that everything is in line at Defense Soap, then with my wrestling club, and then with my home.  I start each day making sure any concerns with these three buckets are addressed.

2. What’s your favorite snack?

  Snyders of Hanover hard sourdough pretzels.

3. What’s the best advice your father gave you?

  My father always told me to live within my means.  A good tip that I still practice today.

4. Do you have a secret ambition? 

 My secret ambition is to be a good person and to make a truly positive impact on every person I encounter.

5. What's your background?

 I’m a former policeman and wrestling coach who started a niche soap company.

6. What business principles guide you in running the company?  

I believe in treating people the way I expect to be treated.  I believe in only providing the absolute best product I can regardless of the price.  And, I only work with high integrity and like- minded people.

7. You didn’t have a business background so what made you think you could succeed in this endeavor?

 I never intended to start a business.  I was a wrestling coach with a need that was not being fulfilled.  I tried to figure out the chemistry that could prevent ringworm and I partnered with someone to help me make it.  I was giving the soap away to my team, and when I could no longer give it away on a policeman's salary, I began selling it at cost.  The demand was so high, it didn't take me long to realize I could start a business.

8. What happened when you realized this idea might work? 

When I reduced the infection rate of my team by more than 95% and when the wrestling world was beating a path down to my door looking for my soap, I realized I was sitting on something pretty special.

9. I am a customer, and so are my Jiu-Jitsu training partners. Do you see expanding beyond the combat sports community? HVAC techs get their hands dirty often. Could they use your soap?  

We actually have grown way outside of the combat sports community.  The majority of our business now comes through Amazon.  After reading the reviews, we quickly learned that people of all ages and walks of life suffer skin infections.  HVAC techs work with sharp metals and if they are looking for a high-quality natural soap with the added benefit of fighting infection, then we are for them as well.

10. Give us a sense of scale. Was your first order a single bar of soap, and how much more have you cranked up production? 

 My first order was for 30 bars.  I now produce 100,000 bars in a batch ... about 10 batches a year..

11. What was your most important or “lucky” break that moved you past competitors making soap at home?

  I was simply first to market and refused to be outworked.

12. What aspect of the business do you enjoy the most?  

I truly enjoy receiving letters from customers on how our soap has changed their life for the better.  We get them often, but they never get old.  It gives me a sense of purpose.

13. Is your family involved in the business, and if so, how?  

My wife runs our office, and my oldest son is the warehouse and logistics manager.  We are very much a family business and hope to always be.

14. How did you become the official soap of several online combat sports services? 

We are a niche market.  You know how tight this group is.  We leverage our relationships; we stick to our mission of preventing skin infections for combat athletes, and we won't be outworked.  

15. What has been your most successful marketing platform? 

 We have great success with Track and Flo wrestling.  The Big 10 Network is huge, but we are also on the ground at tournaments and trade shows meeting customers.

16. What has been your least successful marketing effort?  

Working with marketing companies that tell you they can blow up your business but know absolutely nothing about combat sports.  Those of us in our niche speak a different language than the rest of the world.  Coming from Jiu-Jitsu, I am certain you know what I mean.  Outsiders just can't relate and marketing efforts from those on the outside never do well.

17. Do you have a mentor who helped you along the way?

  I have several successful friends that I have relied upon over the years, and I appreciate all the advice they shared with me, but in the end, it comes down to if you are willing to do the work.

18.What’s your pricing strategy?   

I grew up very middle class.  Way back in the mid-70s, $6 meant a lot to my family.  My father let me join my local pee-wee wrestling program, which cost $6 for the season.  If it cost much more than that, my family probably would not have been able to afford it.  Now I sell a bar of soap for $6 to the wrestling community, a community that has given me everything that I have.  My promise to them is that I will never sell that original bar for more than $6.

19. When people ask you, “Why do you do this,” what do you say? 

 We haven’t reached our goal to eliminate skin infections in combat sports.  As long as there is a kid sitting on the sidelines, we are going to be committed to this fight.  Combat sports develop kids in so many ways that our society needs.  We need to keep kids competing and training for our own sake.

20. Given the huge leap you took in starting this business, what advice do you have for our readers? 

 Behind every million-dollar idea is a million dollars of work.  Be prepared to be on the hook 24/7 for your business.  Make sure you have a passion for what you are doing because there will be countless times when passion is the only thing fueling the tank.  With passion, you will find ways to pay your employees when there is no money in the account.  Passion will get you out of bed when you need to develop a new product or chase down new leads.  Passion gets you through a 17-hour day when your friends are asking you to join them for a night out …..  I always tell my senior executives,  "If you don't enjoy the journey ... don't take the trip."

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