My good friend and partner with Lovin’ Soap Project, Benjamin Aaron, has written a new E-book! I wanted to share a bit more about Benjamin as you’ll be seeing more of him on my blog and in Austin where he’ll be teaching business classes! Benjamin is owner of Prairie Soap Company in Lee’s Summit, MO where he runs (with Mama Sheila) an adorable retail soap shop which offers soap, body care products and other artisan goods from local artists. Benjamin teaches and oversees an array of soap and body care classes and workshops. He started Prairie Soap Company’s rise by selling wholesale, which he continually does, having branched out into large retail health food markets such as Whole Foods Market, Lucky’s, The Fresh Market, Sprouts and Natural Grocers Vitamin Cottage among others.
Amanda: How long have you been making soap?
Benjamin: I have been making soap for about 8 years now. I started my business in August of 2009.
A: How did you get your start?
B: Actually, my Mother Sheila, who is my business partner, has been making soap for many years. We took her favorite recipes, fine-tuned them a bit, and then started wholesaling to smaller health food stores and the occasional grocery market. We grew slow and steady for the first 3 years.
A: Tell us about the kind of soap that you make?
B: I am a commodity-driven soapmaker. I do not dabble too much in different swirling techniques or layering, etc. We do provide a very nourishing bar and it is very long-lasting, which is what our company is known for as it pertains to our bars. We use only natural colorants and pure essential plant oils as our additives, so that we can hit our target demographics more easily, and keep in line with our values and mission as a business.
A: Favorite soapmaking ingredient?
B: A tie between Ylang Ylang & Black Spruce Essential Oils
A: Favorite soapmaking oil?
B: Castor, duh.
A: Where do you look for inspiration in coming up with new products and designs?
B: My inspiration comes from many places, but mainly nature. I am an avid backpacker when the time permits. The last time I went to Colorado, I climbed San Luis Peak in the south-central region of the state. The spruce, pine, fir and hemlock were abundant and smelled so good that it was almost intoxicating to me. I knew in that moment that I will always have a soap on my store shelves that has at least a few of these essential oils in them. I grew up on a large farm in western Arkansas and my best friend in the world was an old horse named Cochise – so of course I have a soap in my store named after him. Food is also another great inspiration in our shop. Anyone who knows me knows that I love to eat – and the smells that carry all that foodie goodness can most certainly be applied to some creative lathers.
Getting down to business.
A: You’ve recently gotten your products into Wholefoods. What has surprised you the most about that process? What have you learned from that process?
B: What surprised me most about the process was the length it took from the first initial sales contact to product on the shelf. We contacted them in late January with a proposal and samples, and we just got on their shelves on May 9th. There was a seemingly endless amount of paperwork, insurance, coverages, contracts, etc. But all in all, everyone was incredibly helpful and very supportive through the process. And that is just it in a nutshell – it wasn’t necessarily a sales transaction at all – it was a relationship-building process that had to develop over time.
A: As a small business owner, how do you handle the day to day operations of your business? (all the stuff besides soapmaking)
B: One cup of coffee at a time. Stuff definitely adds up. We run a storefront that is open every day of the week. We wholesale nationwide to big chain retailers. We offer classes several times a month. And I also am the proud co-director of the Lovin Soap Project which also requires time and energies. My least favorite, yet most rewarding work is the bookkeeping. When all caught up and present with payables, receivables and inventory, it is wonderful to look at the business and how it is doing from a birds’ eye. This is how you make healthy and realistic revenue goals moving forward. But it is a lot of work.
A: As a small business owner, you certainly wear many hats. Which do you wear best?
B: Definitely just talking and developing relationships with our customers or potential customers. I enjoy building relationships, and I make it a point to not do a lot of selling – rather just be a sound board for people. Whatever and wherever folks are doing with their lives, they want to be listened to. When I call a wholesale customer, I make it a point to not talk business until the conversation just organically goes there. I want to be as personable and helpful as possible. Whether a for-profit, bottom-line business or a non-profit organization, I believe that if you own a business, your main job is to be of service to others.
A: What advice do you have for hobby soapmakers who want to turn their soapmaking into a business?
B: Have clearly defined, well-phrased goals that inspire you and do not create anxiety. Look at these goals every day. Wear them like a badge of honor. The overwhelming majority of working adults in the United States do not have goals. Also, know that it is a lot of work – more work than people will ever know. The average time spent in front of a television for Americans is now 4.5 hours per day. That is almost 10 weeks out of the year. You cannot be a successful business and take 10 weeks out of your life every year to do something that has no return on investment. You have to work harder than other people. Finally, to not give up. If you want to start and run a business where you sell what you create with your hands, develop a healthy sense of time perspective. This will give you a self-built support structure when you are feeling low, stressed and down about your business (which is normal). Believe in yourself and count your blessings every day and you will not fail.
You can find Benjamin’s new eBook, Determined to Trace: The Practical, Common Sense Approach to Success in the Soap & Body Care Industry + Workbook HERE!
Happy Soaping! -Amanda
Very interesting article. I made soap for family and friends for a few years and just this May started selling my soaps at 2 local famer’s markets. The hardest thing for me is presentation (labels, display, packaging or not packaging ) and staying consistent. I always want to try new recipes but if people like a soap, they don’t want too many changes.
The markets I am at are small but I am getting repeat customers and good feedback on my soaps!
This was a great article and alot of great advice given.
Great interview. Love hearing the stories of how someone got their start into making soap. Hats off to the Lovin Soap Project. What an amazing and rewarding experience helping out those in need. Taking not only the time to teach and educate each one but to also get to know them on a personal level and build lifelong friendships.
Thank you for your expertise in the field for those of us who aspire to have a successful business someday in the Wonderful World of Soap Making.