How the heck did you get into the Soap Business?

In 1984 I was washing windows as a way to earn some money while going to college. I was a biology/chemistry major with a knack for business. The window cleaning business exploded, just as I learned that without 3 semesters of A’s in calculus (my nemesis subject), there would be no hope of taking the MCAT exams (medical school admissions).

My first consumer product was window cleaning spray, sold to some of the condo housekeepers. My second was a rope protector for rappelling off roofs and cleaning windows (we actually sold a dozen or so). The third was a total body powder/antiperspirant (corn starch, baking soda, aluminum chlorhydrate, fragrance). This was designed when Jimbo and I were trapped in Boston’s Logan Airport for about 8 hours. I used a cornstarch/baking soda mixture in my shoes and jockey shorts to reduce chafing and irritation, and the stuff worked great. To kill time we designed a national marketing campaign for it. We decided to call it “No Sw..t!”. We designed the bottle, graphics – the whole nine yards. Then my buddy says “Don’t turn around, but there is some junior loan officer looking guy writing down everything you are saying”. I get up slow, then move fast towards him. The guy grabs his briefcase and runs away at top speed. Boy was I surprised when a commercial for No Sw..t came on while channel surfing in a hotel one night.

The Murphy’s Story: This really happened. I’m washing the window at Murphy’s Bar and Grill on Center Street in Rutland, Vermont and this guy comes out. 5’6″, short, sandy blond hair, jacket off, tie askew. I figured he had a few and was feeling chatty. He watches me and says: “Great Job! $20 an hour 50% profit.” “Hey! I don’t get out of bed for less than $25 an hour”, I reply. He eyes me warily, than says, ” I like you kid, I’m gonna give you 2 minutes of my time”. “Do you mind if I make a dollar first?” He shrugs his shoulders, “Clocks ticking”. And looks at his watch. I jump up and do this speed window cleaning move on one of the two big plate glass pieces. “Not bad, 14 seconds” he murmurs. I know he was impressed because in the end he gave me over 5 minutes of his time.

“OK,” he says. “You can make a living working with your hands to produce your money. But you can only do so much during the maybe 30 top productive years of your life. You can keep doing what you are doing, buy a home, raise a family, mortgage the sh..t out of your life and put your kid through college. But in the end you will be all worn out (I was already dealing with repetitive motion issues), with only a modest retirement to look forward to. To make ends meet you will be washing windows till the day you die. They will probably bury you with that squeegee in your hand.”

I smile and nod. He was right of course. ” Well, what do you recommend?” He had my complete attention.

“At minimum. You need a product and a service.”

I nodded in agreement. ” I’m with you. I had recently got a franchise for a type of film that could be installed onto plate glass windows.

I can tell he likes this, but is not overly impressed.

“Better”. He looks me straight in the eye. “Look kid, you need a product, a commodity. You use it, use it up, and buy another one. The silent salesman. It sits on a shelf and makes you money. You like it, so you tell your friends. Maybe you like it so much you give it as a gift.” He is humming now. “You sell in multiple markets. If say, Department Stores get into trouble… “(He pauses and I wonder if he knows something), “Anyway, you want multiple niches – and multiple time zones. You want to be in at least 18 of the 24″.

He starts to drift here. “That is, unless you are REALLY long term thinking. 40 years out for some areas of Mongolia for example”. His eyes are wide and dark with vision.

He composes himself and clears his throat. “Look, there are 2 kinds of commodities: Big expensive things you buy occasionally – like a house. Smaller expensive things you buy every 3-5 years – like a car. And day to day commodities. Something under $5 is best. Under $3 would be terrific! It has to have a proprietary aspect, or they will knock you off, have have it produced overseas. Then they will come back and slit your throat!”

We are rocking slightly together. In harmony. Two entrepreneurs. I look at him directly.

“And” I declare. “It must be completely natural, and fit the Vermont image and way of life”.

“Boy!”. He shakes his head. “You’re tough!”

I jump up, and grab his shoulders. “What is it! What is it!”

He shrugs his shoulders and grins. “I don’t know kid. It’s YOUR job to find out.

“Will I ever see you again? Are you coming back?”

He looks casual, jacket slung over his back. “Node. Probably never be back this way. I’m off to the airport now. Good Luck kid.”

He flashes a quick grin, checks his watch and hurries down the street. Then he stops and turns around. “Good Luck!” He waves and disappears.

So for the next 5 years I’m washing windows, and thinking, “Under $5, you use it up and buy another one”. Stuff is occurring to me, but nothing fits just right. Now, while all this is going on, I got this skin problem thing happening. My forearms are always rashy and itchy. I have a dandruff like flaking scalp condition. Sometimes my face would get rashy if I slept on a particular side too long.

I was experimenting with a bar soap that a friend had recommended. She had eczema and swore by the stuff. I started rubbing it in my arms. “Yow”! They turned red immediately. I threw the bar out of the shower and against the waste basket.

“If no one can make a G…..D bar of soap I can use I am going to have to make it myself!”

That was it. My epiphany. Under $5. Use it up and buy another. You like it so you tell your friends. Something special, and natural, and from Vermont. I was going into the soap business!

The first thing I did was to try every bar of soap I could find. I bought ten at a time. I started to read and study soap, organic chemistry, track down soap people. I became immersed in soap. If I could make a bar of soap that I could use….anyone could use it!

One day in early Autumn, I take a walk through a country craft fair in Woodstock, Vermont (looking for some fresh apple pie).

There’s this family selling goat stuff; goat cheese, goat milk – and goat milk soap. I look at it, smell it, check out the price and walk away thinking “I will NEVER try that!”

Over by this tree behind the makeshift farm stand is an old woman with white hair, all dressed in white herself, and carrying a baby all wrapped up in white blankets. “Try it!” she says.

I notice she has no discernible teeth. I give the universal scratchy forearms sign. “Sensitive skin”, I yell over to her. ” I have very sensitive skin”. Several passersby stop and look at me. I have a strong urge to walk away quickly.

“Me too – Try it!” she says again. “I even wash my hair with it – and it’s all I use on the baby.”

I walk over and look gingerly at the infant. No telltale rashy spots. And her hair looks pretty good too. With some reluctance I shell out $3 for a 2oz bar and walk on. “You’ll like it” she tells me. “You’ll come looking for us ta git more.”

Three days later the rashes on my arms, which I had endured for 8 years, went away.

I go up to my buddy Jimbo, with my sleeve rolled up and shove my forearm in his face.

“Look!” I tell him. “What do you see?”

“A forearm”

“What else?”

“A hairy forearm”

“Look”, I say in exasperation. “No rash!”

Jimbo looks at my arm closely. “Oh yeah, you’re always scratching and bitching about your arms.” “I don’t pay any attention”. “Well that’s good” he says, “Problem solved”.

“Well, there’s just one drawback”.

“What’s that?”

“Smell it.”

“Do I have to?”

“Smell it!”

Very cautiously he sniffs my arm.

“It smells like… like….”

“Old goat?”

“Yeah! Like old goat”.

We are both silent for a moment contemplating the implications. Would I have to marry a goat maiden? Become a hermit? Live with rashy skin?

“Wait”! I exclaim. “The soap, it’s different. They called it Farm Soap. Maybe it’s not the goat milk. Maybe the secret is in the farm soap itself”.

Now that I knew what I was looking for, it took a couple of weeks to find some Handmade Soap, as my Farm Soap was more commonly called (this was before the Internet). And that was when I had my second soap epiphany.

See, I had learned a thing or two washing windows for 7 years. I worked for the Ma and Pa Bakery, and had billion dollar multinationals on my client list. I saw everything; from the roof to the basement. And learned not to talk about it.

And I had learned a thing or two about consumer products.

When I was a teenager, growing up in Vermont, there were a handful of companies that were practicing a different breed of capitalism – capitalism with a conscience, you might call it. I watched Ben and Jerry’s grow from working out of an old gas station to a $168 million a year company. Earth’s Best Baby Food, Seventh Generation, Gardener’s Supply, Stoneybrook Farms. All these served as role models for my own aspirations.

I had watched the growth of Health Food Stores, from the first struggling co-ops to publicly traded chains.

Products move on a path from uniqueness to ubiquity.

At first it is hard to find, later it is everywhere.

I imagined myself as the person to bring handmade soap to the world. From the craft fairs to the supermarkets. To make so much soap that the price would fall, and everyone would be able to afford it. Silly me. At least 12,000 other people also heard the call.

A few years later I was stuck in some cheap hotel for a trade show, and I refused to use the shampoo product left at the sink. Impetuously, I grabbed a bar of VERMONT SOAP, and washed my hair with it. Three weeks later that flaking scalp condition I mentioned went away. I decided to shave with natural soap, and experienced a dramatic reduction in shaving rash.

I thought I was on top of the world. One bar of soap and good bye dermatologist. Then I got this all over body rash.

It was Summer, and I was staying in another hotel, at another trade show. There was no question that the whatever the towels and sheets were washed in was driving my sensitive skin bananas. So I went into the castile soap business.

Castile soap is a natural detergent substitute. By now I had come to realize that I am detergent-sensitive. To my knowledge no study has ever been done to determine what percentage of the population is also detergent-sensitive. To shorten the learning curve I bought a small environmental products company that also manufactured small amounts of liquid castile soap. The formula and a filler machine was most of what we bought, but the price was right, and we have never looked back.

And those rashy problems? I am happy to report that I am now 8 years (2004) symptom free. No dry skin, no rashes or breakouts. I also take omega fatty acids, and recommend that everyone do so as well (unless you eat ground flax seed daily or live on a salmon run).

And Vermont Soap? Well, we are holding our own and growing all the time. As it should be.

Best!

Soapman