Last summer Stephen Magnusen and Franz Zwergel celebrated the launch of their new product, Uberlube, by drinking a toast . . . of lube. They filled shot glasses with the stuff, a cocktail of high-grade silicones and vitamin E, and downed it. Gross, yes, but it was also something of a testament to their deeply felt conviction about the product: that it's not just for sex. "I mean, the name is lube, but we actually didn't design it to be just lube," Magnusen explains. It's a massage oil, a moisturizer, a hair gel, a makeup primer, even a lock grease and a shoe polish, he says. Since going on the market the product has found its way into sex-toy stores, but it's also sold at Art + Science hair salons in Chicago and Evanston and at trendy clothing boutiques like Fred Segal in Los Angeles. "It's got all these alter egos," Magnusen says. "I've heard of guys shining up their luggage with Uberlube."
Magnusen and Zwergel, both 29, were best friends at Evanston Township High School. They had a lot in common: both were the well-off sons of well-known achievers (Magnusen's mom is real estate bigwig Deborah Magnusen and Zwergel's dad is German chemist and Northwestern professor Eberhard Zwergel), and both got their kicks from mischievous science projects like making fireworks out of household supplies. "Stephen and I, in our hooliganism, became pretty good friends," says Zwergel. "People used to think we were brothers all the time. They still do."
After college--a year together at Southern Illinois before they transferred to DePaul and Columbia College separately--the pair moved into a Rogers Park apartment. Magnusen was selling security products for a Finnish high-tech company, making enough money to take a break from working in 2001. Zwergel modeled for Art + Science in Evanston and did casting and production work for the salon's runway hair shows. He also freelanced for the hair-product lines MOP and American Crew (which were developed by the owners of Art + Science and are now distributed by Revlon), producing runway shows and print ads. All the while the two were trying to think of a way to go into business for themselves. "We had a bunch of different ideas," says Magnusen, "but I don't even remember what they were now. Nothing seemed right until we thought of Uberlube."
Inspiration struck on a night out in fall 2002. "We were having burgers and beers with some old friends and we were talking about different products out there and a friend of ours mentions the word uberlube," Zwergel says.
"She used the word uber as an adjective--she said, 'It was the uber-lube,'" Magnusen says. "And Franz and I were both like, 'Is that a real product?' I didn't even know what uber meant. I just liked the name. Franz and I decided that a couple days later, yeah, we should make it. We both decided to give it our all--no idea what it was. I found out what uber meant--super or above or beyond--so basically really, really good lube."
Zwergel contacted his chemist father for advice on necessary books and equipment and his friends at Art + Science for advice on developing a new product. "Immediately we realized that it was a good idea, because we're at this nucleus of people who are good at a lot of things," Magnusen says. "Most of our research came from books. One of our first big expenses was Harry's Cosmeticology, which I think was around three or four hundred dollars."
Neither Magnusen nor Zwergel had even a modest background in chemistry, nor any experience with personal lubricant. "We'd never even used it before," says Magnusen. "We were starting from ground zero. We just knew that we wanted to make something that was the best."
They also knew that to make something you need a lab. They set up shop in the basement of Magnusen's parents' summer home near Twin Lakes, Wisconsin. "We built an entire laboratory from the ground up," says Magnusen. "I mean a serious lab with all kinds of beakers and burettes. Normally when you want to market a product you go to a chemist--because they know chemistry, it just makes sense--but we didn't want to do that. We had chosen to do everything the extreme, hard, cheap way on a shoestring budget."
When Magnusen talks about Uberlube's lab days, it's with the overripe nostalgia of adults recalling boarding-school torture. "It wasn't glamorous, but it was clean and spacious, and we could blast music when we needed and shoot targets with Franz's BB gun when we needed to blow off steam," he says. "We had total cabin fever. We were in a sunless room for weeks, day in, day out, all night, making lube with no idea. . . . The whole first week we were like, 'We haven't even made anything.' What we did was we called up every company who made any kind of ingredient in the world: 'Who makes stuff? Let's call everybody and have everybody send us samples!' We now know everybody in the world who makes pump tops, who makes droppers, who makes silicone oils, anything that has to do with cosmetics."
After almost three solid weeks of 12-hour days, their experiments grew increasingly obsessive-compulsive. Zwergel remembers them like this: "'OK, now stick your arms out; I'm going to pour A on your left and B on your right.' And then we'd test each other and put the same product on both arms. That's when we knew we were getting burned out--when we started calling out differences between the same product." One of Magnusen's fonder recollections is of an experiment wherein he attempted to set Zwergel on fire to test the product's flammability: "Some of our ingredients said that they were scorchable," he says. "So we had Franz in the kitchen covered in Uberlube and I had my creme brulee torch and I went to town on him. And I was unable to light him on fire."
At some point the guys realized they needed a machine to test the product's lubricity. Rather than search for such a device, the DIY-minded Magnusen decided to invent it. "I knew what I needed to do," he says, "and I just built a mechanical device to do it. It took me a couple days to put it together. I've always had like a mechanical whatever--I'm a handy guy." He doesn't like describing the machine, whose technology he doesn't want to share with other lube companies, but when pressed he says, "It's a big boring testing machine that relentlessly moves a grid of surfaces against each other." The surfaces are plates that are smeared with different lube formulations. "The grid is mounted to an oscillating cam, a rotating off-center wheel," he continues. "It's got the motion of a locomotive arm. It moves the plates back and forth in the grid. By measuring the movement we can get an idea of the friction and the initial force of friction needed to move the plates. Why are you so interested in this?"
Zwergel was amazed at the speed at which they were becoming legit. "Suddenly we could tell fractions of percent differences in formulas just by rubbing drops on our wrists," he says. "We could distinguish the slightest of changes and knew what we liked. We had become lube boys."
After three months they had what they thought was the perfect formula; they'd end up making a few versions of it, with slight variations, before settling on one. "I remember trying a new composition and calling Franz to tell him I think we have it," says Magnusen. "It had all the fine qualities we were looking for, and I knew it the second I dabbed it on my wrist. Unperceivable tack. Zero foaming. Highly lubricious. Acceptable combination of sensation versus slip. And it had the one thing we really wanted to get right but didn't know if it was possible: it lasted while I was using it and dissipated when I was done. I was totally psyched."
Field testing--mainly among a network of 100-some friends and friends of friends--came next. "We didn't tell people to do anything specific with it," Zwergel says. "There were packets with three vials of various formulations, along with a survey designed to qualify and quantify use and experience on each. We distributed these to singles and couples, both gay and straight. It was a lot to ask of people, because it took at least three days to complete and had over 14 pages of questions. But the current formula is the one that 90 percent of people liked the best."
They're not secretive about the ingredients in Uberlube--there are only four and they're written on the bottle: dimethicone, dimethiconol, cyclomethicone, and tocopheryl acetate. "We use really expensive ingredients," says Magnusen. "There's cheaper variations. The type of stuff we use is like five bucks a pound." What they won't give away is the proportions.
Cheryl Sloane, who co-owns the Bucktown lingerie and erotica store G Boutique, was one of the product's early converts. "Because it's silicone-based, it actually uses less ingredients," she says. "A little bit goes a long way. And it's not sticky at all." That's because there's no glycerin in it. "Glycerin is probably the second or third ingredient in most water-based lubes," says Sloane.
At first the guys insisted on distributing all of their product themselves, lest it fall into skeezier hands. "We don't want to have just anybody carrying Uberlube," says Zwergel. "We basically want boutiques to sell it. Only higher-end stores." But lately sales have picked up, according to Zwergel--they've sold "tens of thousands" of bottles so far, he says, though they've yet to make a profit--and they're talking to a few potential distributors. "We want to be able to sell more and more product," says Magnusen. "It got to the point where two guys couldn't handle all the sales that needed to be handled." Adds Zwergel, "We're trying to find distributors who share the same care and concern with all of their high-end products as we do--not someone who is distributing like cheesy pencils and pens and stuff."
They're just as particular about packaging. Uberlube's clear, sleek bottles say the name of the product, list the ingredients, and offer this advice: "Latex compatible. Enjoy every day. For topical cosmetic use only."
"You look at our bottle and you can't even read the name from ten feet away," says Magnusen. "Clear doesn't stand out, and it's got a thin white label on a clear glass bottle. But we wanted the product to be like good service at any restaurant. The best service is when you don't even know the service is going on--your glass of water is always filled, but you don't know when the guy is coming around to fill it up."
Not calling Uberlube a "personal lubricant" is also important to their strategy. When the guys are asked to describe the product, they call it a "sensual body solution." "Uberlube is a really fine moisturizer used on the body," Magnusen says. "You can use it for massage if you want." Adds Zwergel, "We also knew that in the home--in the bedroom--people giving each other massages was a sensual thing that often leads to other things."
Not everyone has been sold on that slippery definition. Sarah Blessing, who co-owns the men's clothing-and-skin care boutique Apartment Number 9 in Bucktown, opted not to carry Uberlube. "When they explained it to me on the phone, all they said was it was a moisturization product," she says. "They didn't mention the name of the product. When they were in here, I saw the name and said, 'Hey, you guys, this is obviously also just a lube, don't tell me it's not!' And they were like, 'Yes, OK, it could be used intimately too.'"
Last November Zwergel moved to California to become Uberlube's LA bureau and be closer to "a large amount of people from the personal care and cosmetics industry." He's also getting the word out about Uberlube, targeting parties populated with the young and the famous. "I recently found myself at a GQ party at the Chateau Marmont, and I brought some product with me," he says. "I always have samples with me. Some people I knew there knew Kirsten Dunst, who was there, and they were like, 'You gotta give her some product.' So I had another cocktail and I was like, 'Kirsten, uh, good to see you, I brought this and I'd like to give you one.' And she looked at it and was like, 'Cool!' And then she looked at the label and looked at me again--you know, the look you give someone who's given you a bottle with the word lube on it."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis.