A Nose for Business
WHEN MAX WISEBERG makes a delivery at Waitrose, his little green Austin A30 — made, as it happens, in the year that I was born — looks pretty vulnerable beside the big supermarket lorries. The elephants of the car park could so easily trample this plucky mouse. Out Max springs, a gap-toothed smile on his face, aware that his choice of vehicle provides the perfect metaphor for the HayMax ointment with which he is supplying the store.
It isn’t just that HayMax, which blocks the pollen that causes hayfever, comes in diminutive pots. The product, whose life began nine years ago when he and his wife cooked the first batch on their kitchen stove, exemplifies everything that’s Beautiful about Small.
It ought to be taken as a case study in business school. Not because Max has, as yet, conquered the global marketplace — although he’s doing quite well in Boots. But because it’s the answer to life, or at least the problem of how to build a career which means something to you.
I came across HayMax soon after its launch. My oldest son, then eight, got hayfever quite badly. The condition wasn’t so dreadful that it couldn’t be controlled by medicine — only he would forget to take the medicine, and besides, it didn’t seem so good to cram an eight-year-old with prescription drugs, particularly ones that were apt to make him drowsy. (He was sleepy enough in some lessons already.)
HayMax isn’t a medicine. You rub it around the base of your nose and a proportion of pollens and other allergens stick to it. It’s where their journey ends. For you, Tommy, the war is over. They don’t make it to the higher nasal cavities, where they would do mischief.
Now, I hear the objection. A smear of unguent may catch any pollen on the ring road, attempting to take what might be described as the orbital route into your schnozzle. That still leaves a fat, black, nostril-sized hole in the middle.
True. But even hayfever sufferers can tolerate a certain amount of pollen; it’s when the pollen levels tip over a certain point that the symptoms erupt. So by trapping some pollen, sneezing and streaming eyes may be kept at bay.
It may not be enough for every day of the summer. Occasionally the Big Bertha of the nasal spray may need to be deployed. But for most of the time, we found it was fine.
Max is himself a hayfever sufferer: ‘I was the kind of child who went into exams carrying two toilet rolls because one toilet roll wasn’t enough to get me through the three hours.’
Having been made redundant from a job selling telephone language services and — having just bought a house with a big mortgage — he decided against doing the sensible thing, which would have been to get another salaried position quick.
Instead he began looking for ways to make a sticky balm in a saucepan. He found one. The concoction smelt awful. The solution was to mask the offensive odour with fragrant oils.
He and his wife Chris then made the wise decision to go organic. Not only did the product now radiate purity and well-being, the smell also went away. By then, though, they’d found that applying a thin layer of lavender or aloe vera-scented substance to the bottom of your nostrils was quite pleasant, whether or not you have hayfever, so they kept the oils in.
Quite soon, Superdrug had placed an order for 26,000 pots, which meant that it had to be manufactured in rather larger batches than those being made after the children had gone to bed. They’ve now made over a million pots, with exports to Bulgaria, the USA, Sweden and other countries, including Iceland (not generally known for its heady summers).
Perhaps many businesses start this way, but I couldn’t help feeling, when I went to find Max in his Bedfordshire garden, that there is something particularly sunny about this one. The office is in a garden shed. It looks out on to unbroken fields. Hens scratch, a cockerel crows. There’s a duck house. (Having difficulty in making the ducks occupy it, Max took the natural step of phoning Sir Peter Viggers, the MP famous for his duck house, for advice. Alas, Sir Peter wasn’t in.)
Bright colours are everywhere. Chris makes sculptures from driftwood and other objets trouvés. Two adorable and talented children walk down through the woods to the local school.
HayMax may turn Max into a billionaire — or not. I don’t think he could be happier than he is.