Entrepreneurship

Friction Labs: The New Standard in Athletic Chalk

Friction Labs: The New Standard in Athletic Chalk

For pro rock climbers and casual boulderers alike, the quality of athletic chalk is not something to overlook. With magnesium carbonate as the key ingredient, athletic chalk is designed to help secure a proper grip by soaking up the moisture on your palms and fingers. The stakes are high as climbers reach altitudes up to hundreds or even thousands of feet. Athletic chalk is the one layer between them and the rock, helping them hold onto a surface that is often too small or slippery to grip. Regardless of one’s skill level or the amount of strength training, if the points of contact with the rock surface lack the necessary amount of friction, a fall becomes increasingly likely. For many, this makes athletic chalk a piece of gear that is completely integral to the rock climbing experience, something as essential as the climbing ropes. 

Friction Labs is a company on the frontier of designing and developing athletic chalk that meets the high standards of pro athletes worldwide. Featured in articles published in the Wall Street Journal, Men’s Journal, and fitness and outdoors publications such as Outside, the company has garnered attention for its revolutionary line of high-performance athletic chalk. 

What is Friction Labs?

Founded in 2013, Friction Labs was born out of frustration with the market's lack of quality athletic chalk options. Company co-founders Kevin Brown and Keah Kalantari first noticed the gap in their personal lives. In an interview with Modern Professional, Brown commented, “At the beginning, we were selfishly trying to make a better chalk product for ourselves. Keah’s a bit of a skin health nut, and the available options weren’t cutting it, so we had to find better chalk if he was going to keep climbing.” On top of that, Brown himself had a negative experience with a bad batch of generic chalk that made him question the science behind the athletic chalk and the production process itself. 

As a self-described “science geek,” Brown decided to further research into the ingredients and manufacturing processes. It was soon discovered that although various climbing companies publicly branded each of their athletic chalks differently, in terms of ingredients and production, almost all of the chalk was identical, often even created at the same factory and simply placed in different packaging. Furthermore, while countless climbing companies have dedicated themselves to providing various types of climbing gear ranging from ropes, shoes, and even chalk pads, none had yet done this for athletic chalk, so climbers didn’t even have a choice in which kind to use. 

Secret Stuff on hands
Photo courtesy of Friction Labs

The co-founders were shocked at how overlooked this was, given that, unlike many other climbing improvements that require a lot of money, time, or both, they could easily manufacture high-quality chalk at an affordable price. From there, the goal was simple: change the formula and maximize the number of friction climbers need to conquer any climbing challenge. A more confident grip would ultimately help athletes perform better, becoming the vision Brown and Kalantari held onto throughout product development. 

Who does Frictions Labs serve?

At the beginning of the company’s growth, Brown stated his biggest fear was being too limited in the scope of which athletes they could help. “From the start, we’ve focused on climbers, and we’ve learned there are so many other athletes who can benefit from our product, but we haven’t been able to reach them yet.” 

That quickly changed. Now, Friction Labs creates products that are used by countless Olympic-level climbing athletes worldwide, as well as members of the NFL and MLB, pro tennis players, and of course, thousands of gyms and fitness centers in the US abroad. In addition, in any sport that generally requires long-lasting grips, such as weightlifting or gymnastics, you can find athletes who rely on Friction Labs' athletic chalk.

What is purity, particle size, and texture, and why does it matter?

The question of why Friction Labs over any other athletic chalk brand boils down to what its co-founders have dubbed “PPT,” which stands for purity, particle size, and texture. Generally, athletic chalk is mined as dolomite and consists of magnesium carbonate, calcium carbonate, and several other compounds. Magnesium carbonate is the key component, as its molecular structure pulls moisture away from the hand and traps it inside its crystalline structure. Meanwhile, calcium carbonate attracts water outside of its crystalline structure, which maintains a more slippery, slimy feel on the outer part of the skin. By using a higher concentration of magnesium carbonate and further reducing the amount of calcium carbonate.   

Additionally, magnesium carbonate comes in a more pure form. While other chalk brands still use the more generic chalk that originates from factories in China with poorer quality control, Friction Labs chalk is refined domestically in Denver, Colorado. It lacks many fillers and artificial drying agents that can often cause damage to one’s skin. By doing so, Friction Labs produced a more pure form of magnesium carbonate that consisted of ideal particle size and consequently increased adherence to climbers’ hands. 

Friction Labs leaves that choice up to the athlete in terms of texture. Generally, chalk can come in several forms, including liquid chalk, powder chalk, and solid blocks of chalk, with the powdered form is the most common type. Friction Labs offers three major powdered chalk formulas, also referred to as the “Friction Labs Animal Series.” Each of these chalks shares the same molecular base but differs in consistency. One of the most popular powdered chalks sold is Unicorn Dust, which has a much more fine consistency that is light and comfortable on the skin. Gorilla Grip is another favorite option that has a moderate amount of chunky powder. In contrast, Bam Bam has the most chunky consistency and is, therefore, closest to the feeling one gets from solid blocks of athletic chalk. Which type of chalk is used is strictly determined by the personal preferences of the climber. 

Gorilla Grip being applied outside
Photo courtesy of Friction Labs

How does Friction Labs stack up against the competition, and why?

It’s one thing to hear a company promote its products, but how do Friction Labs' products compare to similar products on the market? The answer can be found in countless testimonials online, where climbers-turned-bloggers have conducted their blind tests. In one example, a climber recruited a panel of several amateur athletes to conduct a blind test comparing the Friction Labs Unicorn Dust blend against six other top loose chalk products and run multiple trials across all kinds of terrain. Each tester picked Friction Labs as their favorite chalk due to a combination of easy-to-apply even coating, the feeling of increased security while gripping the wall, and the fact that it didn’t dry out their hands which enabled a much longer, more enjoyable climb. 

Often this is a fine line; chalks need to overcome grip problems created by sweat, rain, and humidity and minimize as much moisture as possible without drying out or further damaging the skin. Healthy “climbing skin” has been compared to NASCAR drivers' good tires. In other words, it’s essential for high performance. Yet, an ongoing battle is balancing removing excess moisture without causing damaged, cracked skin that will easily tear. To make matters more difficult, everyone has different skin compositions and baseline moisture levels on their hands. As such, formulating chalk that equally creates better performance for all athletes can be a tricky endeavor. 

Yet, Friction Labs has proven they can successfully navigate that line. Indeed, climbers have reported experimenting with other unique ways to increase skin performance, ranging from something as simple as making house rules to avoid doing the dishes the morning before a climbing day to something as extreme as using strong skin-drying agents, such as antihydral, several times per year. Yet, athletic chalk remains one of the most practical, safe, and effective ways to achieve and maintain healthy climbing skin. 

Overall, as Kalantari put it, the main objective of Friction Labs is to “improve how athletes think about, use, and care for their hands with products as ambitious as they are.” And countless ambitious athletes have stood behind the company’s mission. Climbing pros such as Arnaud Petit, Karoline Sinnhuber, and Alex Johnson, among many others, are found on Friction Lab’s website, echoing positive sentiments of its athletic chalk. 

Which professional athletes use Friction Labs' products?

Professional athletes like Alex Johnson can often serve as the litmus test for other amateur climbers in determining which chalk brand to rely on. Johnson grew up deeply entrenched in the rock-climbing competition scene. Her first win was at the young age of 12 at the Youth National Championship. She has climbed with the US team for 16 years and made history in 2008 by becoming the first American to win a Bouldering World Cup on US soil. Two years later, she repeated history by winning gold in Switzerland, making her the first and only American to win a Bouldering World Cup gold medal overseas. For her, Friction Labs is  “inarguably the best chalk in existence,” with Gorilla Grip and Unicorn Dust being amongst her favorites. 

Alex Megos is another example of a high-caliber athlete who became swayed by Friction Labs chalk's quality. Originally from Germany, Megos is the third person in history to have climbed a confirmed 5.15c/9b+. As such, he is one of his generation's most influential and accomplished rock climbers. He stated, “I’m very pragmatic. I do things just if they make sense to me. I was skeptical when people told me that Friction Labs chalk is better. I doubt everything first before the difference is proven. So I tested the same boulders on the same day with different types of chalk. I got convinced. Friction Labs chalk does make a difference.” 

The sheer number of athletes using Friction Labs products speaks to the company’s success and ingenuity that even a global pandemic couldn’t hinder, even though fitness centers and gyms made up a significant portion of their consumer base. Brown and Kalantari attributed this partially to the rapid development of a product called Secret Stuff Hygienic, the first hygienic chalk in the world. A combination of athletic chalk and hand sanitizer, Secret Stuff Hygienic helped sanitize hands and reduce the spread of germs on surfaces while still serving its original purpose of providing extra friction and grip.

Kalantari stated, “Almost overnight, we went from the best growth in the history of the business to not even being able to get our best customers on the phone. It was a nervous time for our team, Kevin, and me as employers and business owners. We asked our gym customers how we could help, and they told us that hygiene was the most significant thing they were focused on to keep members active. That...led to the fastest product development and most successful launch we’ve ever had with Secret Stuff Hygienic, all within a few months of the pandemic starting.”

Among the company’s core values is its ability to adapt to a changing market quickly. Although there is clear demand and a robust supply chain for a commoditized product such as athletic chalk, a degree of innovation is still necessary to guarantee their business can run in the long term. “For a small business, momentum is everything,” Kalantari commented. “Projects take longer than you expect. Unexpected challenges arise almost every day. Customers, vendors, and partners come and go despite your best efforts. These things can derail momentum and quickly throw the team into a funk. Knowing how to turn challenges into opportunities, not only for yourself but also for your team, distinguishes the best leaders.”

The pandemic was only one example of this. Another challenge was ensuring that the manufacturing process and the product were environmentally friendly, another company's key focus. As it stands now, Friction Labs has employed tactics such as using fully compostable packaging and producing chalk in its densest form, so they ship less air, enabling them to reduce their carbon footprint. Learning how to continually evolve the company while maintaining that eco-friendly status and low costs for its users has been. Still, it is a learning process for the entire Friction Labs team. 

Overall, the work culture at Friction Labs is deeply entrenched in this pursuit of perpetual improvement and keeping the focus on what the company will become in the long term. In the words of Brown, “If we do well, we always ask how we could have done better. If we win or lose a deal, we discuss what went well and what didn’t. We are always looking for some way to get better. A bunch of 1% improvements shows a considerable improvement over time.” 

“Kevin and I try to run our business so it will be here in 100+ years,” Kalantari added. “That starts with being financially conservative, so we can ride the big waves when they come and know that we’ll be ok if we crash. If we can do all the above while managing the financial side of the business effectively, we put ourselves in a position to build and keep a great team and an excellent business for years to come.” 

What's next for Friction Labs?

So, what’s next? Friction Labs has several new products on the horizon, and the company is actively establishing practices to help them function more eco-friendly way. While at the company’s genesis, the biggest fear was being too limited in scope. Now the fear is complacency with their major success. “My biggest fear is that we become complacent with what we have and fail to see what’s coming,” Kalantari said. “As our team leaders, Kevin and I must find the right balance between making the most of what we have while continuing to innovate. It helps me remember that we’re building something we want to last. So, if we keep making minor improvements, I can be confident that we are setting ourselves up for success.”

The commitment to improvement is apparent, as is the company’s dedication to providing the climbing community with high-quality chalk that matches their dedication to the sport they love most. Brown and Kalantari summarized this commitment in an interview with Moja Gear, stating, “You put a lot of yourself into climbing. And you get the best results when you and your gear perform as well as they can – not only to keep you safe but also to get you to the top. As climbers ourselves, that other stuff just wasn’t what we wanted between us and the hold.” This passion and respect for their users have gained the attention of pro athletes and amateurs worldwide and pushed Friction Labs to the frontier of athletic chalk.

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