Om Vapors' Story
The year was 2014 and buying e-liquid was a nightmare. Online stores would pop up and offer ejuice at a great price only to disappear, never being seen again - sometimes, taking other people’s money with them! Even after finding a legitimate bargain, you’d never knew if your vape juice was mixed in a clean environment or someone’s bathroom, basement, or kitchen. The media-scare about people vaping anti-freeze had roots in reality as some manufacturers were being caught using cheap substitute ingredients like ethylene glycol. To top it all off: proper ingredients like vegetable glycerin, artificial flavorings, propylene glycol, and nicotine have never been expensive, yet somehow, when combined together they became worth 20-50x more in the eyes of greedy opportunists heading the industry. All of this for a class of products that the Royal College of Physicians described as “unlikely to exceed 5% of the harm from smoking tobacco” - verifiably the largest contributor to premature death in most countries around the world. It was appalling.
Here’s where the story gets interesting - it turns out, to two people who were paying attention to all of this, it struck a nerve. Two recently-graduated friends from the University of Kentucky, Ben and Les, shared a vision that would forever change the landscape of the vapor industry. They imagined a business capable of manufacturing every type of eliquid imaginable from scratch attached to an e-commerce fulfillment center that would work directly with shops and customers in order to give them the best prices possible. Instead of letting that dream turn into a single forgotten conversation, it became a call to action.
Looking around themselves, they saw that Lexington, KY was the ideal place to start a business like this due to its central location and low costs. They also wanted to stay local to create jobs for their home community in a burgeoning science/technology industry. Beyond that, picking which direction to go first was the hardest part. With more than enough objectives to work on, they decided the most important aspects to tackle first were the products and the processes.
After a while, finding ways to bring together everything needed to make the highest quality products truly accessible to the everyday consumer grew into an obsession. Focusing on efficient manufacturing, innovative products, reliable quality control, tailored branding, and creating the best-tasting recipes made from flavorings chosen with strict safety criteria; the dream became lucid. Om Vapors was born.
That’s not to say it was easy; the only resources at their disposal were a little bit of savings and their time. The funds stretched into a few months rent on a small industrial unit, materials to make a batch of about a thousand bottles, a cleanroom the size of a closet, some (mostly used) lab equipment, and a wholly-grassroots marketing campaign. Needless to say, food became an afterthought and sleep a luxury. They had to convince themselves they weren’t crazy for doing this on a semi-regular basis - no easy task under the circumstances.
Throughout 2014 Om was a 1 - 2 man crew as Les transitioned from his previous job. They began purchasing samples from all the major flavor houses and quickly came up with hundreds of recipes, experimenting with ingredients ratios endlessly. In the end, they came up with an initial line-up of 10 flavors for the Om brand that then underwent a 25 person double-blind taste-testing study which included other brands in unmarked bottles. Some of the untested recipes from these initial mixing sessions turned into white-label products for other brands while some were slated for release at a later date or for further tweaking. Most eventually landed in the “Express” line released in 2016.
With Ben’s background in chemistry and addiction research, they began experimenting with WTA extracts in place of nicotine. These have anecdotally been shown useful to smokers switching to vapor products by providing a sensation more similar to smoking natural tobacco. We’ve had countless customers credit these as the missing ingredient in their vaping transition. Om was also one of the first companies to offer pH balancing with a flavor-neutral food grade acid blend as a custom option on their eliquid, which was notably useful for products containing higher concentrations of nicotine as a way to increase shelf-life tenfold. Since then, this has become popularized by companies like JUUL as “nic salt” e-liquid, which despite its popularity now with pod systems, wasn’t really a thing when they did it in 2015.
Experiments were numerous and didn’t all end well - a fun highlight would be a chamber lined with ultrasonic emitters for speed-steeping; while it worked (eventually), it soon got phased out by better things like extended mix times. Lessons were learned - i.e. even though you can’t hear ultrasonic emitters they will still give you a headache if you leave them running. QC checks were developed around this time using spectroscopy, density, and refractive index; we also worked off of the cGMPs set forth in 21 CFR 110 and modified it to match the risks involved in vapor product manufacture.
A continuing saga in Om’s journey has been deciding on the branding. Initially, it started with all 10 labels being based on the same design. The labels remained this way throughout 2014 and 2015 - but as soon as sales started taking off and the team realized they were ill-equipped to handle keeping 10 flavors in stock perpetually online, it was cut down to 5 which underwent rebranding. They commissioned Black Ink Art for this project who more than exceeded their expectations providing a very brand-specific, modern look which launched in 2015. These were the basis for the current labels on Om ORIGINS and Reincarnation bottles which had to be re-designed for compliance recently to conform to newer 2018 labeling regulations.
When considering all the custom product options initially offered, the huge catalog of possible combinations became difficult to keep up with and space was becoming tight. To the disappointment of the oldest customers, picking what was most popular and processing it in batches became necessary because it kept prices low and orders moving out the door in a timely manner without adding a lot of manpower. Wholesale orders started to pick up requiring new policies like minimum order quantities on products not stocked on the website; they stopped promoting wholesale to focus on individual customers through the internet and still, new requests began piling up.
Going into 2015 the team increased in size and sales started to jump. Using word-of-mouth, social media, and grassroots marketing techniques; eventually, an order or two popped up and it all snowballed from there. Making sure customers were happy became the highest priority; a trend that continues today. They thought, there’s no point in gaining new customers if their experience ends in disappointment, and so Om Vapors has always tried to keep current customers happy instead of finding new ones. They continued tweaking their recipes and releasing new flavors amassing a large catalog of branded wholesale and white-label products. They tried their best to offer the most diverse range of innovative products they could manage to make in-house by going beyond just having the best flavoring, but also the best service, options, and delivery speeds.
With 2016 on the horizon, newly redesigned labels in-hand, and a new website; the company grew even more and started becoming a major presence in the online vape scene. This meant they needed to grow the company family, as well. Mid-year, the business moved to a 4,000 sq. ft. facility in neighboring Nicholasville, KY gaining some much-needed room to move around while also gaining a few new faces to fill some of the empty space. Against their better judgment, they decided to liquidate some inventory in an attempt to make the move easier and this turned into the largest wave of sales they’d ever seen. The first time they looked at a stack of 200 invoices and realized each one was a real person that they’d made a commitment to; it was a little overwhelming. Having a good organizational system helped tremendously, but, sometimes the team just stuck their nose to the grindstone and persevered.
Around this time, Om also started attending trade shows with their first-ever being VaporSlam in Charlottesville, NC. They didn’t have a lot of resources like some of the other booths - no fancy metal trusses or giant banners to draw attention. But, what they did have was a whole lot of ejuice and the time to make a ton of 10 mL bottles. They made as many as they could, actually staying up until 2 AM in Kentucky the night before a trade show that was 2 states away. The drive that followed was just a bit scary. Not that it wouldn’t be scary enough with both drivers running wildly low on sleep; unluckily, the only car available that would fit everything for the trade show developed a bad wheel bearing at the start of the trip. It didn’t matter - they’d gone too far and calling it quits wasn’t really an option. Driving a lolloping SUV down the highway in shifts - fighting to stay awake, they managed to make it in one piece without an appreciable number of close-calls.
At the trade show, the price was set to $1 per 10 mL bottle. The plan? Only try to make back enough to cover travel costs, while hopefully gaining a bunch of new long-term customers in the process. Well... it worked - almost too well, in fact. The other vendors didn’t like this pricing strategy all that much and quite a few made it a point to stop by just to voice their disgust that, in so many words, no one was buying their 120 mL bottles for $50 because of the Om Vapors booth. They threw some other words in there about “ruining” the industry, however, their complaints fell on deaf ears. The Om booth was one of the most active at the convention; customers were appreciative of a good deal and had overwhelmingly good things to say about all the products. After noticing a modest uptick in new customers in the weeks following, both owners decided there really wasn’t a reason to worry about “ruining” things for the competition.
The middle of 2016 encompassed the bulk of experimentation with flavorings - we’re not talking about a little bit of tinkering around here, either. With the FDA’s August 2016 deadline for new products fast approaching: this was a balls-to-the-wall, hundreds of recipes, thousands of variations, on-a-deadline madness session. In the months preceding the deadline, every product Om ever intended on selling had to be finalized and released in order to stay on the market. Not only was the deadline an issue, here; these had to be amazing e-liquid recipes and they only had one shot to get them right.
This meant everyone at the office vaped a lot of juice. Like… a lot, a lot. Anyone who’s been with the company from the beginning has had the chance to vape almost every flavoring and combination of flavorings, sweetener substitutes, PG, and VG conceivable - as long as you aren’t counting 30%+ flavoring mixes or anything ridiculous like that. We had to pay attention to the most minute details in every sample; checking for scent accuracy while in the bottle; flavor during the exhale and on the inhale; quantifying “full-ness” or “mouth-feel” and fitting it to the flavor profile; observing steeping effects; determining shelf-life with varying nicotine levels… lots of details to take notes on. Some say combining flavors is an art form, but this is only partly true. Ignoring the cliche, science played a bigger role as it gave a statistical methodology to weeding out the universally-enjoyable recipes that ended up in the current line, from the less-enjoyable recipes with similar ingredients that just didn’t have that “magic.” Being artists got them up to the door, but only scientists were allowed inside.
With a fresh new range of flavors, Om Vapors had the ammunition they needed to take on the competition. An ever-growing customer base requiring more and more products made the 4,000 sq. ft. building that felt like a vast cave months ago start to feel cramped. Shelves of orders being picked and packaged began overlapping and the number of employees bustling around meant traffic collisions were starting to happen - they needed more space. By a stroke of luck, the next-door neighbors were the friendly folks at pizzaovens.com and they just so happened to have an extra 2-story 4,000 sq. ft. space that came with some free (and thus far, very useful) restaurant equipment and all the hook-ups for any type of food/pharmaceutical processing equipment we’d need to grow over the next few years. Right. Next. Door. They signed the lease right away.
There were already doorways connecting the two units that had been drywalled over, so making the facility a complete unit again only took a little bit of demolition work and some elbow grease. The cleanroom and all the production equipment was moved to the new facility, turning the old manufacturing area into extra storage and shipping space. They designed an entirely new, streamlined production layout and implemented it in phases. Since they always fixed their mistakes, they added more QC check-measures down the manufacturing chain to ensure they wouldn’t need to replace any inventory with costly package re-ships and found ways to process batches with greater speed and accuracy along the way.
It’s been a long journey and it hasn’t been an easy one, but then, no one told them it would be. In fact at the start of it all, by most expectations, the Om Vapors duo would be homeless in a matter of months - “no college kids are going to be able to start a business like that,” they said. Well... 5 years later here they are with their full-service online fulfillment center, manufacturing facility, factory retail outlet, analytical set-up, and a crew of relentlessly helpful team members. Maybe others lack the ability to believe in themselves - or maybe the team just didn’t know what they were getting into and didn’t foresee the sleepless nights or grueling workload. It doesn’t matter, though. They did it, and not just for themselves but their customers - all in the hopes that one day they would let the vaping world know it could “Breathe Easy.”