About four years ago, Ross Christopher Donaldson, his wife, Kate, and their two daughters spent a perfect spring day walking around Forest Park in St. Louis.
It was great, he said — until they got home and realized they all had sunburns.
Kate, who works in public health, asked Donaldson the sort of question that often sparks an idea for a new product: Hand sanitizer dispensers are all over the place, so why aren’t there also dispensers with sunscreen?
That question led to Sunstation USA, a startup based in St. Louis that has since sold thousands of touch-free sunscreen dispensers in all 50 states, as well as Canada and Mexico. The company also sells SPF 30 broad-spectrum, eco-friendly sunscreen for use in the dispensers.
Donaldson hopes to soon make sunscreen dispensers as ubiquitous as the kind filled with Purell.
“You will find these at parks and playgrounds, schools, pools, beaches, ski resorts, golf courses — we like to say, ‘Everywhere under the sun,’ ” said Donaldson, who also runs a creative consulting firm and is a professional musician who has released 13 albums under the name Ross Christopher.
While he previously had consulted with other startup founders on their storytelling, marketing, branding and web design, he was now the one with the product.
While Donaldson’s business grew 416 percent between 2017 and 2018, it also has faced challenges — even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and its calamitous impact on so many startups and small businesses.
After developing a prototype in 2016, Donaldson reached out to Blackout Melanoma, a nonprofit organization that aims to eliminate skin cancer. The group invited him to set up the dispenser at a 5K race in St. Louis.
Hundreds of people used it, and many of them asked why the Sunstations weren’t everywhere.
“That was really the confirmation that I was looking for to take it to the next level,” he said.
Donaldson developed a business plan and applied to participate in Capital Innovators, an accelerator program based in St. Louis.
Capital Innovators invested $50,000 — as well as an additional $50,000 in services, including office space at T-REX, a nonprofit incubator in downtown St. Louis — plus “all of the networking and the on-the-ground business opportunities to really launch a company successfully,” said Donaldson.
In 2017, he also received $50,000 from Arch Grants, which awards equity-free cash grants and support services to startups located in St. Louis for at least one year. The funding from those programs meant Donaldson did not have to take out loans to launch the company.
“I think Ross is very humble and receptive to feedback, and that’s something that I look for in founders,” said Brian Dixon, chief operating officer of Capital Innovators. Other founders “can have big egos or be abrasive or not very receptive to feedback, and when you are building an early stage company, you have to take feedback [with] every single thing you do, from product development to sales.”
A Sunstation dispenser costs $75, and a pouch of sunscreen for 2,000 applications costs $50.
“If you were purchasing that [amount of] sunscreen over the counter, it would cost you about $100 [to] $125 on average,” Donaldson said.
But for businesses and institutions that aren’t otherwise providing free sunscreen for individuals, what’s the incentive to carry his product?
Donaldson said the largest segment of his business has come from public health officials and directors of parks and recreation departments and aquatic centers.
They are interested in bringing “sun safety and sun safety awareness into their communities by providing them safe and easy access to sunscreen,” he said.
Donaldson also has connected with advertising and marketing firms that represent such clients as the St. Louis Dermatology Center or golf courses and are interested in new ways to market their businesses. Those firms can purchase Sunstation dispensers marked with their branding and install them in locations around the community.
“The product kind of markets itself in a very viral way,” Donaldson said. “Somebody from a community goes and visits the next-door aquatic center, and they see sunscreen dispensers, and then they go back home and say, ‘Hey, we’re taxpayers too. We would love to have dispensers at our aquatics center.’”
Sunstation customer Melissa Swank learned about the company and its products through Kate Donaldson. Swank was leading a community health initiative at the Magic House, a children’s museum in the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood, which in recent years has added more outdoor activities including a sandcastle beach and a garden classroom on the roof deck. Swank helped to disseminate information about the importance of physical activity, reducing screen time and spending time outside.
But with the outdoors comes, of course, the sun.
“At the time, we really had no way for people to protect themselves from harmful sun rays — a little bit is good, a lot is not good — and it was really important to me to help promote the idea of being mindful and aware of skin safety,” said Swank, who bought three Sunstations for the museum.
Swank was concerned about harmful sun rays because skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 20 Americans die from melanoma each day, the American Academy of Dermatology Association reports.
That organization gave Sunstation a $30,000 grant to provide free dispensers.
“Increasing the public’s access to sunscreen in community parks and pools increases their ability to protect themselves and reduce their risk of skin cancer while on the go,” the association said in an emailed statement.
Even though Donaldson was already a small business owner, he said he encountered a learning curve with Sunstation. He did not have experience with managing a warehouse, shipping or a manufacturing schedule. He contracted with a St. Louis company, Simon Enterprises, for warehousing, logistics and fulfilment.
As Donaldson focused on increasing his business, he ran into a couple of unexpected obstacles. In December 2018, the federal government shut down for a month due to a budget impasse regarding funding for President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Sunscreen requires U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, but Donaldson wasn’t able to get the substance tested. His company typically ships out the product the same day it’s ordered, but instead, customers had to wait two weeks.
“We really take pride in the fact that we can fulfill orders the day they are made and get product [to people] really quickly, and so we just had to keep track of things and make adjustments, and as soon as the [FDA] was back up and running, we were back to shipping things the same day,” he said.
In July 2018, Trump moved to address what he described as China’s unfair trade practices by placing tariffs on goods imported from China. For Donaldson, that meant a 40 to 50 percent increase in customs fees for the cost of portable stands imported from China.
Donaldson did not want to pass those increased costs on to local municipalities interested in purchasing his product, “so we ended up feeling the burden of those increases,” he said.
Although the U.S. and China reached a “phase one” trade agreement in January, Donaldson said in a February interview that he was unsure whether the fees would decrease.
Still, at that time, Donaldson said he was far ahead in sales compared with 2019 and that he expected to experience 300 to 400 percent growth in 2020. He predicted that would be due in part to sun safety awareness education. A 2017 study from the American Academy of Dermatology found that only about 2,000 of the 1.7 million people at an outdoor event in Minnesota with complimentary sunscreen actually used the substance — and only 33 percent of those users applied it to all sun-exposed parts of their body.
“A decade ago, no one knew what a hand sanitizer dispenser was, and now they are everywhere — oftentimes right next to soap and water. And I think sunscreen dispensers can be the same thing. When we go outside to a park, a swimming pool or a golf course, we can in the future hopefully expect for there to be sunscreen available to all of us,” Donaldson said in February.
But then the coronavirus pandemic erupted, followed by weeks of economic downturn.
Donaldson responded by selling his dispensers for use with hand sanitizer gel, as the market faced a higher-than-usual demand for them. He said the fact that the gel works with his dispensers provided a stopgap for his company at a time when many of his other contracts were put on hold.
“I felt like we had a response to something that is real across the company,” he said. “Because of the dramatic influx of COVID-19 and what it did to the global supply chain, we were able to fill that void and still are able to fill that void, but I would anticipate over the coming months, things will somewhat normalize.”
And despite COVID-19’s disruptive effects on many businesses, the pandemic has made preventive health measures front-of-mind for many people, Donaldson said.
“I really think, moving forward, we are going to see . . . a much more proactive approach rather than a reactive approach that I think a lot of governments have had in the past,” he said. “We are seeing the important of preventative measures across the board now. That’s really going to benefit Sunstation.”
Donaldson said he does intend to focus exclusively on sunscreen again, particularly as people spend more time outside due to social distancing orders and advisories.
“I expect smooth sailing,” he said. “We’re in a great spot in inventory and personnel-wise. We just anticipate more and more people being more proactive when it comes to public health.”
Looking ahead, Donaldson said he and his company plan to remain in St. Louis, noting that he’s not alone in that intention.
“[Other entrepreneurs] are staying here because the startup culture is so strong, and they just love the community, the people, the food scene, the sports,” he said. “Everything the city has to offer just makes St. Louis a great place to launch a startup.”
Dana Rieck contributed to this story.