TropicSport's Tony Palmer on leaving corporate life for entrepreneurship
Tony Palmer spent decades marketing major consumer packaged-goods brands such as Minute Maid, Coca-Cola, Kleenex and Huggies. Now, he enjoys spending some time surfing — for work. The 59-year-old surfs during business trips for TropicSport, a sunscreen and skin-care line that he and his wife Lisa officially launched in 2018.
The idea for the sunscreen was sparked a decade ago during a visit to his native Australia with the couple's young twins, who are now teenagers. “The reef that I grew up surfing on was largely destroyed and I was pretty mortified by that,” Palmer says on the latest episode of Ad Age’s Marketer’s Brief podcast.
Palmer, who was chief marketing officer at Kimberly-Clark and later its president of global brands and innovation, also worked at other major consumer products companies including Kellogg in the U.K.; Coca-Cola’s Minute Maid brand in the U.S.; and Mars in his native Australia. He saw an opportunity for a sunscreen that was not chemically treated.
Then, a few years later he was diagnosed with lymphoma, which led to more thinking about the impact of ingredients in sunscreen.
“It became sort of a passion project to develop a sunscreen that would protect my family and my friends,” says Palmer, who left Kimberly-Clark in April to work on TropicSport full time. The brand was launched after years of research that included working with surfers on development.
Palmer says others thinking about leaving a corporate role for a startup need to find something they feel strongly about. “It doesn’t feel like work, it feels like fun,” says Palmer. Still, even if it's a passion project, don't expect much downtime. “It’s not a full-time job, it’s a life,” he says. “You’ve got to be prepared for that change.”
He also advises people who are thinking about taking a similar path to his own to choose a project with tailwinds that can help propel it forward. In the case of TropicSport, for example, there are pending regulations in different U.S. cities and states to call out certain chemicals in other sunscreens.
Hawaii and Key West, Florida, are set to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are said to harm coral reefs, starting in 2021. Some places outside the U.S. have already done so. As Palmer began looking into the issue, he says he heard that strong enough concentrations of oxybenzone can kill coral and can even change the gender of a young fish. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has asked sunscreen makers and others for data about certain ingredients to evaluate whether they are safe and effective.
For budding entrepreneurs, Palmer suggests finding “a real consumer problem that you're going to solve, and solve it with a clearly superior product.”
Most of his sales are direct-to-consumer, which is a different model than the one Palmer is used to from his days selling candy, soft drinks, juice and household products such as tissues and diapers.
TropicSport sunscreens are also sold at “points of education or points of use,” he says, such as surf shops and tour operators where the line might resonate, as well as at the Walgreens and Longs drugstore chains in Hawaii. Marketing for the product includes short-form video ads meant to shock people and lead them to the brand’s website, which includes a blog with more information. Later, retargeted ads and offers continue to lead potential customers down the funnel to purchase.
Palmer is also friendly with some pro surfers, who are among those who endorse the line. When a customer reached out because he wanted to buy products for a surf trip but realized he couldn’t get them in time, Palmer reached out to pro surfer Cheyne Magnusson, who lived near the customer, to deliver some of the sunscreen he had at home.
Partnerships include serving as the official sunscreen of organizations such as USA Water Polo, U.S. Masters Swimming and the World Surf League. And TropicSport, which meets the Australian 240-minute water resistance standard, is also training lifeguards about sun safety with the John Wayne Cancer Foundation.
Palmer's wife leads customer response, and the co-founders respond directly to any customer complaints.
“Without a doubt, the best possible return on investment is loving those customers that have already bought you,” he says, noting that the costs to acquire new customers can be high. “You can’t love those customers enough.”
For now, Palmer has no plans to sell the investor-backed brand. “I’ll do this long enough to make sure that my baby becomes a functioning and contributing adult,” he says. “We have the luxury because of our experience and our network to say we’re going to keep our options open.”