A Look Back, Before We Look Ahead
It’s the classic story, really. Daughter has sensitive skin. Mom scours internet, only to find herself hip-high in “clinical strength”, “skin safe”, “all-naturalish” and “over-the-counter” products from this side of the Atlantic (more likely the other side, actually).
That was me. And, boy do I have the receipts to prove it. It was just exhausting. Years of a persistent quest to find just one simple bar of soap that would not cause my then 6 y.o. daughter to break out in hives. So, I guess out of pure frustration, I thought “if I can’t find it (or afford to find it), I’ll make it".
I had been a teacher, by this point, for going on 12 years. I was busy. Students, grad classes, kids, a husband, pets…life. I’d spend many nights sifting through every book, or online journal I could get my hands on. Searching for natural ingredients that had been tested or proven as effective for those with severely sensitive skin. (P.S. if you want a good night sleep, try a casual stroll through the US National Library of Medicine database at midnight after a long day of end-of-the-schoolyear “hopped up” 3rd graders.) I read about FDA guidelines on product labels. And how a product can be labeled as “NATURAL” without even a single ingredient from nature. I found out that only natural clays should be used for their benefits, so sadly my bar would not necessarily be as colorful as some of those that I had bought in the past. I learned about luxury oils and butters, and how essential oils can be used in place of fragrance (the pretty typical culprit for adverse side affects) for specific benefits (…which gut-punched me straight the hell into another rabbit hole, btw.) I made a list of the best, and often times most expensive, ingredients I could discover. Unknowingly, in roughly 3 months, I had a fairly strong foundation for formulating a variety of natural skincare products (on paper, anyway) and yet I was 0% closer to learning how to make a single bar of soap.
Understanding the process by which to make soap did not fall short of both confusing and challenging. And I’ll save most of those details for another time. Again, I returned to my preferred way of learning…reading soap-making books, watching videos, and taking notes. I learned about the equipment I would need to buy (or make), and the safety precautions I would need to take. I knew (thank you chemistry class) that handling sodium hydroxide was both sketchy and unavoidable. After all, there’s no such thing as “soap” without it. It’s why all those grocery store bars are called “beauty bars” or other terms of the likewise.
I collected many ingredients and equipment over the next few weeks and finally marked my calendar for September 20th as “Soap Day!” Now, generally speaking, it went pretty well. After a few hours of measuring, melting, and mixing AND 24 hours of “setting up”, I had 7 luscious bars of Lavender Soap. And then I waited. 6 weeks to cure, actually. Crap, that’s a long time to wait for something so small. Again I marked my calendar.
My daughters were both so excited to try the first bar. My husband and I had ours too. They were amazing! And I was shocked, actually. I cut out moisturizers completely. Not only did that purely + naturally magical bar of all things heavenly work perfectly for my daughter’s skin sensitivities, but we soon realized that we were ALL putting up with a lot of bullshit from our current skincare product (which, in most cases was the bar of DOVE, a bottle of body wash, or at best, a bar of handmade "natural-ish" soap from a local downtown soap store.) Flaky, dry, itchy skin in the Winter. Oily skin in the Summer. And all things in between.
I kept most of the Lavender Soaps. And gave 2 or 3 away as gifts. I made another small batch in October. This one, Peppermint + Rosemary. I found myself planning “Make Days” over most weekends that followed. Geranium Soap, as a request. Tea Tree Soap to help with Athlete’s Foot. Chocolate Soaps. Unscented bars. Orange. Patchouli. Honey Oat.
By December 2014, I had made the long-debated and difficult decision to leave my position as an educator, for a completely unrelated reason. However, it freed up some time for more soap-making. I was just a bit over-stocked (150 bars by this point), so I took to Facebook and gave some away. Not all of them, of course. Our household was in love with them and using about a bar per month. I gave a few away as gifts (a basket of them to my MIL for her birthday in January.) To my surprise, I had a list of willing takers. I went on, a few days later, to remove the post from Facebook. My bountiful stock was reduced to a more manageable quantity. I went back to making batches, 7 at a time, working on improving my skill.
A few weeks after removing my Facebook post, I was working on housework and my dance moves one Saturday (I know you dance and clean. Don’t say you don’t) when I received a text from a friend of mine. “CALL ME!” So I called. “I’m outside your house.” (I became instantly aware of the fact that I danced my way into a shimmery sweat, still in my jammies, in yesterday’s make-up. No bra.) She continued, “Can I come in? I need more of that soap. My skin has never felt this good. I’ll pay for it. Whatever you want for it. I have a little left of the first one. But I can’t run out. Don’t make me go back to that shit I used before.” My first sale. $4 each for 3 more bars. ($0.36 less than what it cost me to make it…not kidding.)
In the coming weeks, albeit by message, in person, or through Facebook, my soap receivers came back for more. I realized my youngest daughter’s skin sensitivities. My oldest daughter’s sunburned shoulders. My husband’s dry feet. Countless other skin issues. These are not isolated problems. At one point or another, we all put up with skin concerns that we don’t need to put up with. Little by little, with each returning “customer”, I knew what my future would hold. The “birth of a business” moment, more like a series of moments over the course of a few months.
A lot has changed since the start-up of Monocacy Soap Co.- named after a local pathway of a Native American tribe from the early 1600s. A tribute to a time when commodities such as soaps were made the old-fashioned way. Naturally. I no longer make batches 7 bars at a time. Although still small batched, it is closer to 50. I outgrew my kitchen. My husband and I built a shop for making our products where we can follow manufacturing guidelines. I have enlisted seasonal help and wholesaled to nearly a dozen retail stores. We have successfully managed an online store, attended countless events + festivals. While building great relationships with some of the best locals that our great town has to offer. We’ve had doors open. And doors close. In 2016, I passed my exams and became an “Advanced Certified Soapmaker”. I started working towards my Aromatherapist certification in 2017. We were also chosen from over 2,000 other small businesses to wholesale to a locally-operated, Bon-Ton Department Stores. Which, furthermore, filed for bankruptcy the following year…door CLOSED. Literally.
Some things remain the same. We have the BEST suppliers on the planet. And all from this great nation. We set the bar pretty high. Certificates of authenticity. Certified PURE Essential Oils. We make other skincare products now too. All all-natural. Like, truly. Grown, harvested, and from the Earth. No exceptions. Our packaging is eco-friendly. Recyclable. We are blessed with wonderful customers. Like me, they are often drawn to our products out of frustration. They humble me. Challenge me. And inspire me. The late research nights have not decreased any. I may or may not be writing this in my bed, with a dog’s head on my lap, with “My Cousin Vinny” on the tv, on a Thursday Night at 12:03 AM… ok, Friday morning.
Taking risks is par for the course. Feeling uncomfortable is becoming comfortable. I take fewer things personally. I no longer break out in hives at the thought of negotiation. I’ve learned to know what I don’t know. And to hire professionals when they do it better. I listen more than I speak. In the same breath, I've learned that as a small business owner, no one knows more about nor cares deeper for your business than you.
For the past 18 months, we have been working along with a team of consultants, designers, suppliers and one pretty talented IP attorney on some scary-amazing changes for our company. Something I feel that my entire life has prepared me for. The upcoming weeks will provide insight on this transition. A REBRANDING. We will always remain true to our NATURAL vision. Handmade. Made from the best, supplied by the best. It is an honor to have this as “our story”. I am so proud to tell it. So as I have my eyes laser-focused on what is ahead, I will never lose sight of what appears in the rearview mirror.