Out of all the trends in the e-cigarette world, the most pressing reason for supporting the vaping industry isn’t the blistering technological advancements driven by a constant commitment to creating a better product, nor is it the exceptional community that has come to life thanks to the tireless dedication and involvement of vapers from every walk of life. The most impressive aspect, I find, is the inspiring entrepreneurial spirit permeating throughout the community and driving successes in every category of the vaping industry.
The loudest voices in media would have you believe that e-cigarettes are an invention created solely by Big Tobacco with the aim to complement their existing tobacco products, but they couldn’t be any further from the truth. I won’t point to Hon Lik, or Mr. Gilbert, or any other 20 th century inventors who approached Big Tobacco with similar devices in hand but were immediately laughed away; instead, I’ll point to entrepreneurs that began their journey as an average consumer who, after seeing an empty niche in the marketplace and foreseeing the ideal way to fill it, took the initiative many of us are simply too afraid to risk. By running hard and fast with that dream without ever looking back, only slowing down when they just can’t run anymore, more often than not, they find they’ve already shot past the greatness they were aiming for.
There’s no better living embodiment of this sheer ambition than the artistic prodigy known as Tyra from Saigon: her infectious bootstrapping mindset and refusal to simply accept good as good enough are the primary driving forces behind her wild successes in both the vaping world and elsewhere. If anything, such an enterprising and self-starting track record should be applauded and respected by vapers and non-vapers alike for propelling Tyra towards her epitome of the American Dream (accomplished by a Canadian-native, no less!).
As a vaper, she inspires me: Tyra has been a founding member for no fewer than three separate e-liquid lines
– Smax, KOMB, and Routine – and has had a helping hand in shaping the brand
identity of countless others. Each line of flavors, each with their own
signature twist, possesses the instantly recognizable premium quality that Tyra
demands from every bottle, and each sedulously formulated recipe wears hours
upon hours of R&R spent perfecting every drop as a badge of honor.
It’s no wonder that these brands so easily separate themselves from the rest of
the crowd flooding the market and assert themselves (to anyone who had the good
sense fortune to try them) as a line
designed to provide vapers with a choice that’s as good from the first drop as
it is to the last.
But it’s not just the impeccable flavors that make these e-liquid lines some of the best-selling juices on the globe: from the promotional advertising to the distinctly unique brand profiles to the very packaging and presentation of each product, every single piece of marketing material effortlessly exudes the absolutely pristine designs that Tyra leaves as her signature touch, piquing the interest of even the most casual of passersby. Even the white plastic pump bottles, now phased out of circulation for FDA compliance, are to this day instantly recognized by vapers all over the globe as “those cool Smax bottles”, only serving as further proof of Tyra’s keen sense for excellent marketing.
However, as everything else I assign my personal identity to (EDM producer, chef, artist, percussionist, writer, notebooker, traveler, free spirit, and fan of all things super dope), Tyra endlessly infuriates me: her Instagram is filled to the brim with pictures of carefully captured gourmet entrées and desserts; tempting audio battle stations sporting DAWs, drumpads, and dual turntables; bird’s eye views from plane windows as the planet spins freely underneath; Moleskines guarding meticulously delineated love notes crafted with perfectly placed pen strokes; iconic and eye-catching urban fashion even this couture-illiterate writer can appreciate; and of course, e-juice as far as the eye can see.
Ok, ok, OK, it’s true, I’ll admit it: I’m full-on jelly of Tyra’s life and there’s just no consoling me. There's only one other time when I get this salty-yet-motivated vibe: I'll have finally finished a track, and it's got me proud and bumping along to the final product. Then, just when I've got my production skills self-estimated at unrealistic levels, I turn on one of my idol’s tracks.
I immediately start debating the merits of throwing all of my keyboards to the very back of my closet and never listening to music again. It's demeaning, but in the best, most motivating way.
And there’s not a single thing about it I can find fault with – if anything, the total opposite is true – because just as the producers I admire have spent the better part of their lives honing their craft to perfection, the life Tyra’s forcefully carved out for herself isn’t one she was simply handed, but one she spent years fighting hard to shape and preserve. Such a strong-willed drive and steady gaze on the desired result, day in and day out, is an extremely admirable and even enviable trait to possess, especially at such an age when one’s prime is still yet to arrive. But just as even the hardest working ant needs to know how to work efficiently, Tyra’s wise eye for detail and excellent taste in stylistic design is just as responsible for her outstanding success as her immutable work ethic – even at a young age, it was clear that Tyra possessed an extraordinary talent for creativity and self-discipline that are easily identified as major contributors to her self-initiated and self-motivated success.
Born in Saigon and raised in the outskirts of Toronto, Canada, Tyra Pham was immersed head-first in music from the very start. Both of Tyra's parents possess musical backgrounds—both play several instruments, her mother in particular a very respected professional teacher of music—and both encouraged Tyra to develop her own musical talents. She began learning piano at just four years old and supported her early musical journey by enrolling in the Ontario Conservatory four years later. Despite what her superb exam scores at the Conservatory would have you believe, however, piano didn't possess the “wow” factor we all look for when learning our first instrument—the overwhelmingly classical training quickly bored Tyra to death until she replaced it by pursuing a mastery of guitar at the age of 14. Supported by a fellow guitarist as well as impressive dexterity honed by a nasty Street Fighter habit, Tyra quickly progressed in skill and became quite adept by the age of 19, at which point she had begun meeting and befriending many of the DJs she had met in the various clubs in Toronto.
By that time, her interest in the continuous mixes arranged by DJs, frustration with the stagnation her guitar skills were experiencing, and a “scratch” turntablist documentary shown to her by another prominent Toronto DJ inspired Tyra to use the money she had saved from her current part-time job to buy a used mixer and pair of turntables from eBay. Although the mixer wasn’t capable of doing the scratching she desired, Tyra began to familiarize herself with DJing techniques by putting together nightlife-friendly House mixes as she continued to flip the DJ equipment she purchased in California before reselling it back home in Canada—thankfully, it wasn’t before long that she got her hands on equipment worth keeping for herself. Receiving an extra dose of inspiration through a routine created by DJ Killa Jewel, a fellow female Canadian-native turntablist, on a mistakenly acquired scratching tutorial DVD, Tyra quit her full-time job, went back home to Toronto, and locked herself up in her room for the next two years as she meticulously practiced scratching.
Only a year into this journey, after feeling the need for a solid group of mentors as well as way to return some of the inspiration she was blessed with back to the community, Tyra founded Females Wit Funk, an organization that began as an online showcase but quickly transformed into a global network that connects female turntablists all over the planet. Tyra continued to progress well into the next year, advancing at a breakneck speed until finally cr owned in late 2006 as the top female turntablist in the world , an astounding achievement for someone who had picked up her first tables barely two years previous. She even came full circle that year as she performed alongside the very same turntablist that inspired her years ago, DJ Killa Jewel.
In the years that followed, Tyra would only continue to grow as an artist: she’s since produced music for Puma’s 2007 women’s ad campaign, appeared on a DJ-scratching DVD produced by the creators of the same tutorial DVDs that jump-started Tyra on her journey, and has performed at international shows that had her flying to destinations and venues all over the globe. Tyra has also been extremely busy with school, dedicated to earning straight A’s and garnering several degrees in the arts and design field from schools all across California. Of course, Tyra never neglected her undeniable artistic spirit, as she's constantly been composing and producing her own original songs and mixes. Since 2010, she’s released no fewer than three albums— Isolated, Anxiety, and Everything & Nothing—all self-produced and released on her independent label, along with several remixes of songs from huge artists such as Drake and Nicki Minaj. It was upon exiting this stage in her life that she began the latest evolution of her journey to greatness, for which she's most known in the vaping world.
- 1. What’s the name of your company?
Smax E-Liquid, formerly known as Smax Juice was the first e-liquid company I started. I changed the name in 2016 because it just sounded more suitable and less appealing to children. Later in 2016, my partner Priscilla J. and I created Routine E-Liquid Co. and in between, during summer of 2015, KOMB E-Liquid was born with an old time friend who entered the vape industry a little earlier than I did.
- 2. Your company was founded...
- a. By who?
- b. When?
- c. Where?
- d. Why?
Smax was founded by myself (Tyra From Saigon) back in early 2014 in San Jose, California. I did not expect to be a part of this industry but somehow it lured me in. I just came home from my summer trip visiting home (Toronto, Ontario) and my friend introduced these E-Shisha sticks to me before I left. I managed to get a couple of packs to gift my local friends when I came back. I thought they were the coolest things ever and would make videos and post them on social media. I was never a smoker, but was fascinated by the flavored vapors that the cig-a-like sticks produced and I gained the attention of some people I knew from MYSPACE (yep, people I’ve never met in my life) who had started their own little vaping businesses in Southern California. A few of them began shipping me products they made or sold either from their shop or warehouses (maybe bath tubs, who knows), mostly e-liquids and beginners e-cig kits.
I truly hated the entire experience. Every flavor I received was awful and I was traumatized by inhaling any more of the gag-worthy flavors they sent me. I was still taking a couple of classes at San Jose State University and was enrolled in a product photography class during one of my last semesters, which led me to break out the vaping kit to use as smoke effects in some of my food photos! I just remember being very miserable and having to put down my vape pen because it got me so sick.
During Christmas break in 2013/2014, a DJ friend of mine from San Diego who goes by the name DJ K-Swift came up to visit me and was vaping with a mechanical tube mod and he had some pretty awesome flavors with him. I asked him what the heck that amazing smell was at the Pho restaurant we were eating at, and it was this Hi Chew flavor he was dripping on made by his friend who was blending house e-liquids. He hooked me up with a mod to upgrade my Ego Pen and the e-liquid chef sent me some samples; in return, I got a bunch of my friends to buy her e-liquids and I began putting together beginners kits of clones I would purchase off of Fast Tech and sell it to them.
For my project, “Smack” was the original name I came up with. It derived from my #sogooditsmacks hashtags I’d use every time I posted pictures of food. It was quickly changed to Smax because of the association it immediately gave me to heroin. At that time, I was vaping much more, but with no nicotine. I was writing my last album with Priscilla J. “Everything & Nothing”, and vaping just intensified the sensations of the sounds during the hours at night that I’d lock myself up in my room writing melodies. I would also vape and drive and absolutely dreaded dripping e-liquid onto my wicks because I didn’t want to potentially spill it. This is when I asked myself, "Why were e-liquids dispensed by these boring looking droppers in Boston round bottles that was used for every supplement you could find at a Whole Foods health and beauty aisle?" Like, why would anyone want to confuse something delicious they inhaled with wart remover medication? That was literally my inspiration for SMAX, the first e-liquid that you could pump. I was so relentlessly adamant about releasing the first pumps on the market while people told me it wouldn’t work. I ordered samples of different models of airless pump bottles and made videos of myself testing out the pump action as it would perfectly squirt the right amount of e-liquids onto my wicks.
Around the same time, I was about to move back to Canada after spending 9 years away from my family in San Jose, California being a full-time student. I was also offered to be Pharrell’s tour DJ right before I committed to the e-liquid pump idea but I declined it to pursue Smax. I didn’t know anything about vaping but that it helped people quit smoking and my dad started smoking after my parents divorced so that was enough motivation for me to go all in.
I have a friend who I met around that time who also was trying to start a line of his own. He asked me to brand it so I did. It was called Stryker Premium Juices. We had no sales people and no distributors in the U.S. at the time—it was just myself in charge of all sales, creating marketing assets, branding/art direction, customer experience, and we hired 15 awesome full-timers to help us with the manufacturing and shipping. I basically took what I learned from my previous businesses and applied them exactly to our e-liquid businesses.
A year and a half later, I reunited with a Myspace friend that sent me her e-liquids (The Vaping Rabbit/Milkman) and we collaborated on a project called KOMB E-Liquid together.
As a way to thank my partner Priscilla J. (also known as PJ, The Mafia Princess, the muse behind Smax White, inspiration behind all of Smax Blax’s new flavor names), we created and founded Routine E-Liquid Co. together in early of 2016. We both wake up the same way and an obsessive relationship with coffee and pastries so we wanted to actually translate our morning delights into a breakfast line, which is exactly what it became. After being in this industry for almost 3 years, I’ve formed some special relationships with the rare and few influential artists that I met through vaping. We made a special video campaign featuring all of these hand-picked artists’ routines for this brand so that people can see all of the talent and dedication behind the faces of these recognized vapers. We have featured routines of vapers who work as professional photographers, surfers/surfboard makers, turntablist DJ’s, tattoo artists and more. We did everything ourselves in this project and it was our last labor of love to be made in the vape market, forever.
- 3. What is the primary goal of your company?
My goal with anything I create is the same no matter what product I put out and that is to deliver an exceptional experience different than what’s already available. In the end, I'm happy to build lifelong relationships with people and let them know that I really care about the time they’ve given me above all. Nothing created in this world could survive without its supporters and people who gave their ideas/products a chance. I love to make people happy and have them feel super valued. It can be costly in business but the personal reward is better than any dollar amount.
Initially with Smax, I was motivated by the airless pump. I wanted to deliver e-liquids in a more hygienic, convenient and stylish way – the white cylindrical [Ed.: and very tubular!] Smax bottles fulfilled that purpose. We had to discontinue the airless pump bottles due to its closure not being child-proof and eventually switched back to those boring looking bottles. I strive to deliver unforgettable experiences with my customers directly by going above and beyond with our customer service. I manage all of our social media accounts as well as all customer service and I make sure everyone is fulfilled. If they’re not, I’ll fix it no matter the cost. I used to ask people who bought our products if they liked the pump or not, and if they didn’t, I would send them a couple of 30mLs in the bottle of their choice. I don’t like to advertise this stuff because we have had many try to take advantage of us, but if someone spends their hard earned money on your stuff, the least you can do is take care of them, even if it costs you a lot sometimes.
I don’t treat these businesses as money makers to me, if they make me money then that’s a bonus but I came into the industry as an artist not knowing anything about the vape industry and how potentially profitable it can be (or not these days). I’m a creator, I’ve made lots of things in the past, sold lots of things I’ve made, donated to lots of charities with my products’ profits, somehow wound up selling e-liquids in a market I never even knew existed. I’d say my company’s goals are fulfilled as long as people walk away satisfied with whatever it is that we produce and can trust us to take care of them, and return for ANYTHING (even non-business related). It’s stressful at times, I overextend myself but the goal is to build valuable relationships and produce things for people to enjoy. The only thing people remember are the way you make them feel. You can apply that to anything you do: as long as you take care of your people, the universe will take care of you.
- 4. What types of products do you design/manufacture? Has there been any evolution in your product line, and if so, what prompted it?
Up to date, I have written copy and designed everything for Smax and KOMB—and with the help of Priscilla J. we designed everything for Routine together. This includes apparel, accessories, packaging, and all marketing materials. In 2016, Priscilla J. stepped in and gave me an extra hand so that I could focus on other things like building stronger relationships with our supporters and customers.
We had a bottle evolution for Smax which can be found HERE.
- 5. What kind of involvement does your company take in the vaping community outside of manufacturing/sales (e.g. advocating, vape meets, etc.)?
We just try to educate everyone on a personal level. I spend the majority of my days just talking to people and a lot of them are vapers who do not know about the recent regulations. I try to inform them with that as well as whatever it is that they need to know about these products to the best of my ability. I think spreading knowledge and being up to date is important and something we need to do more of, there’s so much misinformation going around and it’s very overwhelming right now.
We have also donated to a lot of different causes in the past. One of my recent partners of Smax, Ivan Lee, has served in the Marines, so whenever we get the opportunity to help, we will.
- 6. Before joining your company, what kind of background does your staff have? Mostly e-cigarette related, or primarily people who just believe in vaping?
I’d say 95% of our staff were ex-smokers and mostly just huge vapers that have migrated to the new pod vapes, ha. Priscilla J. and I are the only ones that never smoked.
- 7. What have been your biggest challenges so far? Do you foresee any becoming a problem in the future?
The problem we’re facing right now are the price wars. The market has been way too over-saturated this year that everyone wants their e-liquids at a cost that we would not make sense for us. We don’t use generic bottles and labels like everyone else and we’ve always taken a hit on our packaging because it was essential for me to deliver beautiful custom bottles with more expensive methods of printing/packaging. As a designer, I have a deep appreciation for aesthetics and presentation, it ensures me that when I’m not present to deliver the product to the customer, that I’m honoring the customer. When you are not able to have someone physically deliver the product to you, all you have is the product itself. It should speak for itself and make you feel GREAT inside. So yeah, if these vendors keep selling their liquids at a cost that puts us in the hole and other distributors/wholesalers are demanding the same prices, there will be some re-assessing to do.
- 8. What have been your biggest accomplishments? Any new or future releases/designs that you’re particularly excited about?
My biggest accomplishment is the relationships and friendships that I build, (business or not) that has came out of these brands. We do have two new flavors scheduled-to-be released for Smax but that’s about it in the vape world with us since the market froze.
- 9. As a company, what is your opinion of the present/incoming regulations (FDA/national/state)? How will they affect future business? Would you design them differently, and if so, how?
I believe regulations are necessary in any industry, but it’s clear that the government wants vaping products out. They need their money from big tobacco and it’s unfortunate that by 2018, many of these businesses in our industry will be gone out of uncertainties for survival and outrageous PMTA application fees required by the FDA. All new products go through this stage at some point in order to stay on the market, but I think they’re being a little too unrealistic with expectations because they know it’ll drive us away. It’s all very corrupt like the pharmaceutical industry and tons of other lucrative industries in this world. There is probably a cure for cancer but it’ll never be available because there’s money to be made off of people suffering from diseases and cigarette smokers dying from tobacco. I don’t know how President Trump will affect these incoming relations on a national level, honestly as ignorant as it sounds, I’m a Canadian-citizen, I’m not even eligible to vote here and I have no words on what just happened on 11/9.
- 10. Where do you see your company in two years? In five? In twenty?
I’m not sure what the future holds for our vaping businesses. We’re trying our best to hang in there and help people every day but there’s only so much we can do with the government against us. Only time will tell!
- “Always make shit you love, they’re the only things you leave behind after you die. Art is forever.”
- "The best things to us come from the least promising situations.”
- “Persistency will get you what you want, consistency will make sure you keep it.”