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'You just gotta take a chance:' Bytown Beard Co. on jumping into craft business

Two years ago, James Phillips created his first beard oil in his kitchen. Now, he's got a full-fledged craft business.
James Phillips holds two bottles of his handmade beard oil. Kieran Delamont/

It started, as new businesses often do, with a gentle spousal nudge.

“My wife wanted me to get a beard oil,” explains James Phillips, creator of Bytown Beard Co. “I was like, ‘let me look into it.’ So I looked into it and I realized that there’s some base components, and the rest is pretty much up for grabs.”

Pretty soon, Phillips learned how to make beard oil. He took to it quickly, it turned out — a cook by trade, he already had most of the basic skills required. 

“I tried some more, and those turned out too,” he says. “And I just started putting stuff together.”

Soon he was making oils, plural, and dipping his toes into the wild world of balms and waxes, and then a whole little operation began, like many hobbies, to look more and more like a viable side gig to him. 

“Then I said, ‘I’ll just make some, and we’ll go to fairs and the Westboro markets,'” he says. “And that’s where everything got a little more difficult.” 

That was two years ago, and now, a pandemic and an economic rupture later, Bytown Beard Co. is still kicking.

If you wanted to be technical about it, you would call it a 'side hustle;' Phillips still works as a cook, and builds the business in his off hours. He’s still figuring some of it out, but that part can be exciting. There’s no past to dwell on; talking to him, the focus seems to be where it could all go, not where it’s all been. That feeling of potential and momentum, the way a side business can become a vessel for your ambitions, is the fuel that keeps the small business economy running. 

Cooking, Phillips says, “has been a career for 16 years, and I think that’s how a lot of people get stuck. You get stuck in this mentality that you’re never going to be able to leave, or you need your pay check to pay the bills. And you know, a side hustle or a side job or a side business is a great opportunity to start a way out.”

In a way, that gets reflected in the actual product, too. Early on, Phillips stayed on familiar turf with his first balms and oils. 

“I started being a chef, and an ex-smoker, and a coffee lover, and all that stuff is in the first balm I ever made — a tobacco and coffee aroma,” Phillips says. “I called it ‘Chef,’ and that’s the scent.”

Phillips finds himself in a growing industry of men’s personal care products. It wasn’t that long ago that products like beard oils and skin products were hard to find for men — or even mocked — and even harder to sell to them. That, Phillips says, is rapidly changing. 

“I think what they call that ‘hipster movement,’ that brought back a lot of it,” he says. “It brought back beards and stuff for one, and it brought back a lot of small businesses and their idea of bringing things back down to base roots, and old-school thought. … I think that men realize that too. We can smell good, and we can take care of ourselves on a little bit of a different level.” 

inline-portrait“I started being a chef, and an ex-smoker, and a coffee lover, and all that stuff is in the first balm I ever made — a tobacco and coffee aroma,” Phillips says. “I called it ‘Chef,’ and that’s the scent.” Kieran Delamont/

And now, our ever-shifting place in the pandemic aside, Phillips finds himself in that enviable position of wanting — and being able — to forge ahead with something: He’s making more products, still handcrafted in his home; he is starting to get Bytown Beard Co.’s website up and running for sales; he’s filled a few wholesale orders, with plans for more in the future. 

“You know, you just gotta take a chance at some point,” he says. “The industry I’m in now is only going to be around for so long as you get older. It’s tough to run a restaurant. So you’ve got to look for other opportunities.”

While he still works his day job, Phillips finds himself where a lot of small businesses find themselves, with one foot in his old career and the other in whatever comes next.

“It’s so scary to think about quitting,” he says. “It’s almost as scary as launching a small business to begin with. I’m going to put this out there, I’m going to invest this money. And hopefully it takes off.” 

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