How the team behind the world’s largest fans created the most awarded hand sanitizing fixture
Jon Olsen | Vaask Founder
Every year, American entrepreneurs start more than half a million companies. Only 200 of them will ever reach $100 million in revenue. Carey Smith knows what it takes, having founded and led fan and light maker Big Ass Fans® to $300 million in annual revenue and more than a thousand employees. Under Carey’s guidance, Big Ass Fans grew an average of 40% a year and earned spots on the prestigious Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing private companies for 11 consecutive years — a feat achieved by only 34 others at the time. What’s even more unusual is that he did it without accepting any outside investment, as his many suitors over the years offered only money and not the expertise and growth he sought.
The company’s large-diameter ceiling fans became commonplace in factories, airports and commercial spaces, where organizations relied on them to keep people comfortable. By 2017, Carey had grown Big Ass Fans to a pivotal point. The company had grown so large that he could no longer have the personal interaction he craved with his employees. Looking to recreate the smaller atmosphere he valued so much when growing the company, he sold Big Ass Fans for $500 million with employees sharing more than $50 million of the sales price through a stock appreciation rights program that instantly minted 15 millionaires.
Joined by myself and several longtime research-and-development employees, Carey moved to Austin and started Unorthodox Ventures, an investment firm that offers everything investors lacked when they approached him near daily at Big Ass Fans.
Seeking small companies with big potential
Unorthodox Ventures has rapidly scaled since its founding, investing nearly $50 million with companies demonstrating real disruption and discipline and even growing one — Vaask® — from within. During the early days of the pandemic, I recognized the design failure of the hand sanitizer experience. While more crucial than ever before, dispensers pumped too much or too little, created messes or invariably were left empty.
My fellow principals and I at Unorthodox Ventures had grown accustomed to listening to founders pitch their ideas to Carey with the goal of receiving the hands-on support that comes with all funding — a novel approach recognized by Fast Company as part of its 2021 World Changing Ideas contest. Now it was my turn to pitch, as I asked Carey if he and our colleagues would help me develop a touchless hand sanitizing fixture. Carey knew the idea for Vaask solved a real problem, so he gave me seed money to develop a design for commercial use and set about having the full Unorthodox Ventures team offer their support.
Clean by design
Just as our colleagues had done at Big Ass Fans with innovations like the Haiku® residential ceiling fan that has won more than 75 awards, Unorthodox Ventures’ entire staff banded around the effort to develop and launch Vaask. The engineering team iterated prototypes and developed a local and regional supply chain. The head of R&D examined existing hand sanitizer gels to develop a superior hydrating formulation. The head of analytics drafted a marketing analytics plan. And Carey hired a full sales and marketing team to support the product launch. In short, he put all of the company’s collective support behind our innovation.
The result has been a rapidly growing hand hygiene company that has already been recognized with more than 65 awards in just over a year since our fixture’s introduction. Just as every Big Ass Fan did, Vaask solves a series of problems common with traditional hand sanitizing dispensers.
- No batteries to change: Vaask runs on AC power or Power over Ethernet (PoE).
- No replacement needed: Backed by a 5-year warranty, Vaask is made of cast aluminum and steel and built to last.
- No more making the rounds: An accompanying online dashboard and app alert staff when it’s time to refill, eliminating the time-consuming chore of checking individual dispensers and also ensuring dispensers always stay filled.
- No waste: Vaask’s high-capacity sanitizer tank can be easily refilled with any gel sanitizer, reducing costs for customers and cutting down on plastic waste.
- No drips, no mess: A PalmPilot® laser sensor precisely detects hands with the dispenser instantly reversing flow if a person pulls their hand away. No more messy misfires causing damage to floors or creating slip-and-fall risks.
At Vaask, we’ve rapidly scaled to meet your interest, and in the past year, we’ve nearly doubled our number of employees to around 30. Just like at Big Ass Fans, we sell directly to you, and we manufacture each Vaask unit ourselves here in Austin. It’s more than a sense of local pride. It’s the only way to ensure every product meets our quality standards.
From engineering and design to manufacturing and silver-platter customer service, Vaask offers both a touchless hand sanitizing fixture and purchase experience unrivaled by traditional hand sanitizer companies.
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