Chris Birchby


I was living in Venice beach and wanted an organic sunscreen for the surfing market, but the organic formulas that I had created were so costly that I priced myself out of the surf market.
I was living in Venice beach and wanted an organic sunscreen for the surfing market, but the organic formulas that I had created priced myself out of the surf market.

Founder and CEO, COOLA Suncare

Most of us have had a second career on the side. Chris Birchby, Founder and CEO at COOLA Suncare, is no different, but his second career was one that probably makes him unique in the spa world: professional poker player. What made his second career unusual – even by the standards of professional poker players – is that he started while working as an artist.

Chris began playing poker for money while a student at the prestigious Art Center of Design in Pasadena, California. “Being an artist means spending a lot of time waiting for paint to dry, so while I was doing that I’d play poker for money. And if anyone knows any artists, they will understand that poker is a far faster way to make money than by selling paintings!”

Chris subsequently moved into the pro circuit, and has made the final table in several World Series of Poker and the World Poker Tour events, and still tries to play in the World Series every year. But how did he get to COOLA Sunscreen from poker?

As it turns out, like in so many cases, Chris ended up in sunscreen and in spa through a personal challenge. His parents were both diagnosed with skin cancer in quick succession of each other, and although thankfully they both recovered Chris was shocked at the poor quality of sunscreens available and the lack of organic options in the market. So he set about making his own.

His next adventure came with many hurdles. COOLA almost didn’t make it to the market at all, never mind the spa market.

Firstly, bad luck comes in threes: in testing his early product, Chris came across some unscrupulous testing laboratories – and three times his entire stock was lost. The last time, the warehouse burned to the ground with all of his stock inside. Most people would give up, and be forgiven for doing so.

But not Chris: “I knew I had a great formula and by then I had a great passion and motivation for it, so I didn’t quit. I was also fortunate to have had a pretty good income from playing poker. For lots of people it would not be sustainable, coping with that kind of misfortune.”

Chris’s experience with unscrupulous laboratories also made him give back once COOLA became an established brand. He joined the board of the Independent Cosmetic Manufacturers and Distributors (www.icmad.org) in order to help entrepreneurs avoid the pitfalls that nearly ruined COOLA.

Secondly, Chris was initially aiming for the surfing market, not the spa market. “I was living in Venice beach and wanted an organic sunscreen for the surfing market, but the organic formulas that I had created were so costly that I priced myself out of the surf market. So a consultant I was working with suggested spas and resorts, and it turned out to be one the best pieces of advice I’ve ever had.”

Like so many other great products, COOLA’s success has been far from overnight. It’s thanks to the spa industry – “the best product testing group there is” – that COOLA now employs almost 70 full time productions, sales, and teaching professionals.

As Chris says, one of the most remarkable things about the spa industry is the sheer volume of small businesses that are making a difference – and a profit. There’s no corporate giant taking up most of the market, no 800 pound gorilla forcing everyone else to feed off scraps. It’s yet another thing that makes this industry so special.

Being an entrepreneur doesn’t mean you have to be a gambler in the same way that a professional poker player is a gambler. But a little risk in spa can go a long way.


I was living in Venice beach and wanted an organic sunscreen for the surfing market, but the organic formulas that I had created were so costly that I priced myself out of the surf market.