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Small Business
Getting started: Soap sells
March 12, 2001: 6:22 a.m. ET

Demand for handmade soap has hobbyists turning into business owners
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Making soap, the real old-fashioned kind from natural oils and scented with flowers and herbs from the garden, was considered a hobby or a part-time vocation not too long ago. More and more, however, these one-time hobbyists are turning their craft into full-time money-making enterprises as demand for natural body care products has soared in recent years.

Catherine Failor started out as many soap makers did. She learned the craft in the late 1980s because she wanted to give bars of homemade soap to friends as presents. Before long, she was experimenting with colors and scents and patterns and was selling her soap, under the name Copra Soap, to gift shops and health food stores across the country.

Within just a few years, Failor was mixing her oils in 55-gallon drums, employed a staff of five, and was pulling in about $250,000.

Demand growing for the real stuff

The growth in the industry can be attributed to two factors, said Failor, who lives in Portland, Ore. First, the raw materials for making soap have become readily available in large quantities in the last two decades. Second, there is a growing awareness on the part of consumers what passes for soap on the shelves of drug stores and supermarkets is not actually soap, but detergent that irritates and/or dries out the skin of some users.

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Making soap is in many ways like being a chef. There is a basic recipe for creating the bars, but most soap entrepreneurs tinker with it to create their own unique mixture of palm and coconut oil. Maybe they throw in a little olive or safflower oil. From there, the soap makers really get to let their imaginations run wild.

Some mold them into pretty shapes infuse them with bold mixes of fragrant essential oils. Some throw bits of nuts and seeds into their bars to exfoliate the skin, while others aim to delight the eye by making colorful patterns with natural pigments in the bars.

Soap making is, in other words, a business that appeals to creative types. And success requires, at least in part, that you be able to make enticing products that stand out from the rest.

"There is an infinite number of things you can do," said Failor. "I think the creative thing is something that appeals to a lot of people."

Helps to have some business sense

Most soap makers start out, as Failor did, in their kitchens or garages. The majority of them sell their products at craft fairs, in gift shops and at local health food stores. A few, like Barbara Bobo, who founded Woodspirits in 1989, have managed to get their soaps into some of the national health food chains, like Whole Foods and Wild Oats.

Managing growth is one of the hardest things many soap makers face, said Donna Maria Coles Johnson, who heads the Handmade Toiletries Network. Coles Johnson, who formerly owned a Tacoma Park, Md., soap-making business, suggests all soap makers should get serious about creating a business plan.

"You have to decide whether you want to have a website to sell soap that is nicely done and whether you are going to market and advertise," said Coles Johnson.

Bobo, after 12 years in the business, is considered something of a veteran and one of the soap-makers who has a national presence. Bobo said she grew her business out of necessity. "I needed to make more money. I had four children to send to college," she said.

The health food stores have been a great boost to her business, but Bobo said she relies on the small independent retailers as well to move her soap. She also tried to sell her products, with a lot of success, to less traditional outlets such as salons, spas, hotels, and gift basket companies to help the bottom line.

Today, St. Paris, Ohio-based Woodspirits' sales are about $500,000 down from their 1995 peak of $839,000 a year.

Bobo believes her business has taken a small hit because of increased competition in the industry.

"There are a lot more people out there, but I think the industry is still growing," she said. "I think there is plenty of room for everybody." graphic





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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.