Once-homeless man cleans up with soap business

November 11, 2011: 6:05 PM ET
Dennis Anderson was once unemployed and homeless; then he started Anderson Soap company, which creates a range of bath treats, including the whipped watermelon soap above.

Dennis Anderson was once unemployed and homeless; then he started Anderson Soap company, which creates a range of bath treats, including the whipped watermelon soap above.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Dennis Anderson never thought that he would be unemployed and then homeless after college. But that's exactly what happened to him after he graduated in 2005 from Massasoit Community College in Massachusetts.

The only jobs he could find were meager-paying retail ones. And it didn't look like his employment options were going to get any better. So on a whim, he took his last savings, packed up his car and drove cross country to the West Coast.

When he arrived, he had no job, home, family or friends. He did have ambition, which helped him launch and build Oregon-based Anderson Soap Company, which manufactures whipped soaps, and lip balms and other cosmetics.

He now has a home, a family, and dreams for an even better future. Anderson recently spoke about his change of fortune -- including how Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and different kinds of foods figure into his success -- with Steven Greenberg, CBS radio expert for jobs and host of the nationally syndicated radio program, "Your Next Job."

Just a few years ago, you hit bottom -- you had no job, and you were homeless. How did you turn things around?

I was completely tapped out just five years ago. I didn't have a place to live or a job, so I filled up my car with my few belongings, emptied my bank account of the $300 I had to my name and used that for gas to drive across country to California. Things were very tough, but I tried to view my situation as an opportunity to do something new, not as a dead end.

Did you think you would remain homeless for long?

By the time I reached California, I had about $40 left. That was all I had. My car was an old, beat-up Dodge Neon, and being forced to sleep in that car was a great motivator.

I had no luck finding full-time work, but a temp agency placed me in a tool-and-die manufacturing shop. The pay was minimal, but at least that got me out of my car and into a small rented room.

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I would work for about 8 hours a day, come home and eat, then get on the Internet and send out my resume for hundreds of jobs. Needless to say, the interviews did not roll in. I started to think that this could take a really long time.

What sustained you during that time?

I just refused to give up. I had to find a way out. I knew it wasn't going to happen overnight, but you just get tired of your life not being what you imagined, and then a determination to change that settles in. I had to believe that good things could happen to me.

What was the turning point in your life?

The first step to my new life was when I met a terrific woman a few weeks after I arrived in California. I literally walked into her in a restaurant. She's now my fiancée. She was just starting her own business, selling jewelry online, on Etsy.com.

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I starting helping her, and I noticed that handmade soap was also sold on the website. That was the "Aha" moment for me. Years before in college, I learned how to make soap in a chemistry class, and I occasionally would make some just for fun. I never thought of it as a potential business before I saw others selling it online.

Had you ever started any business of your own before?

No, this was my first business. I took my last remaining $20 and bought a few supplies to make a few soap bars, and I used my cheap camera to take bad photos of them. Amazingly, I sold the soaps right away, it was very exciting. Over the next few months all the money I made went back into the business.

The key was when I was able to invest in a much better camera. Quality photos led to a huge jump in sales. I couldn't believe it. I was suddenly staying up to 1 a.m., filling orders. I quit my temp job to keep up.

People love my soaps because they are handmade and are completely vegan. I never use animal fat, and our customers love that. And since they are all handmade, we can do some fun and different things.

One of our most popular is a soap made with Pabst beer. It started with a request from a customer. He didn't just want to drink it, he wanted to bathe with it too.

Believe it or not, it's a big seller now. We have many unusual soaps -- egg nog soap for the holidays, which is also very popular. Chocolate cheesecake lip balm is a unique item too.

Steven Greenberg is the CBS radio news host of 'Your Next Job' and founder of Jobs4.0 (www.jobs4point0.com), which helps jobseekers over 40 find jobs at U.S. companies. To top of page

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