My Story: Building A Soap Business To Earn Six Figures In 3 Years


As promised, here's a little bit about the business we've created from the ground up.

When I started  Cobble Hill Farm Apothecary in 2013, it was meant to be a "someday" retirement business.  With all of the other soap & skincare companies out there, we honestly had no idea that it would even be a possibility of doing as well as it did so soon.  But it has, and for that we are incredibly grateful. (I purposely start with "I" and change to "we" because it truly did start as my project but very quickly became a team effort)


**Just a "heads up" - I am VERY wordy so this is a lengthy post.**

In The Beginning
In 2013 I made a difficult decision to leave a career that I truly did enjoy.  I left because although I enjoyed the career, I was no longer enjoying the company I worked for.  Without going into detail, the company and I had drastically different ethical viewpoints which, by Spring of 2013, were becoming glaringly obvious.  Because of the position I held in the company, not only was I aware of things I didn't agree with, but I could be held personally and/or professionally responsible for them as well.  So, J and I made the decision that I should leave.

I had nothing lined up, so yes, it was definitely scary.  I'm not entirely sure why I decided to start a business, but one day, just a few weeks into searching for a new job, I announced that was my intention.  J's hours were not consistent - he was a contractor employed by a small local company.  Sometimes they worked full-time, and sometimes part-time. We had not planned on me leaving my career and, therefore, had not properly financially prepared.  The good thing was our current debt situation: we had purchased a home below what we were approved for, we had no car payments, and we had no credit card debt. Because we hadn't properly prepared, it probably wasn't the best time to start a business, but, there's really never a perfect time for anything, is there?   Despite all of this, J was VERY supportive and so the journey began.

We knew from the get-go that we did not want to incur any debt.  So everything was purchased with cash.  I had some recipes I had formulated for products we were already using, but I knew I needed to formulate a few more items to start with.  While I worked on product development, I also started seeking out craft shows.  If you've participated in any, you know that they typically book out 6-12 months in advance.  So, we didn't have a lot of choice, but we did get into a few.

I also wanted to get some honest feedback from people who weren't in my circle of close friends or relatives.  I asked a few fellow bloggers as well as blog followers if they would mind receiving free products and providing honest feedback.  And they all agreed (thank you ladies - you helped immensely!!!).

We both still remember our very first craft show (which we still participate in), the first weekend of November.  We had two tables with 2 small soap boxes, a few herbal salves, a few bottles of lotion, and a selection of gift sets.  I had no idea what to expect.  There were 3 other handcrafted soap and skincare vendors and 2 vendors who were selling brand name soap & skincare.  All had many more products than we had and much larger displays.  At the end of the day, with the small amount of products that we brought, we did pretty good!  We even picked up our first wholesale account.

I was also selling our products in an Etsy store, which actually did very well.  Keeping with the no-debt thought process, as we sold products I used the proceeds to purchase more ingredients, packaging, etc.  We paid the show fees (and all related expenses - gas, food, etc.) from our personal account.  Finances were tight, but we were committed to making it work.

And this is how we slowly built our business from nothing.  As products sold we reinvested, over and over.

Our First Farmer's Market
I went back to work outside of the home once the business was almost a year old.  The reasons were: 1. because we needed a second income and 2. because we were determined to be without any debt with the business.  Everything was (and is still) cash.  Times continued to be tight because we were using our personal account to fund much of the business as we remained in the red for the first 1 1/2 years.

We participated in our first farmer's market that summer.  I'll use one word to describe it...... "depressing".  We are so grateful for the fact that we participated though, and that alone made me remember the potential of every single experience.

It was depressing because it was an incredibly slow market.  There were days we made $30.00 (although after deducting gas and coffee it was a wash), and days we made just over $100.00.  We did not have many larger days than that.  We are grateful, however, first for the very loyal customer base we were able to build there.  Although it was small, it was absolutely worthwhile.  Second, we were grateful that a farmer's market manager from a much larger market (which we had been turned down by that summer) stopped by one day and suggested I apply to his market.  When I told him I had but had been turned down he said "try again" and smiled.  I did, and we were accepted.

That was the first really big break that helped turn our little struggling business around.

This has happened a few times for us - we felt like we were wasting our times with trying new shows that weren't working out financially, and instead of finding sales, we made invaluable connections.  I try to always remain open to what the Universe is offering.

We both distinctly remember the first few markets at this new (to us) farmer's market.  We made almost $300.00 per day and we were ecstatic!!  And little did we know then that would be the smallest amount we would ever make at a show or market going forward.

We had also applied to many fall and winter craft shows that we were accepted to going into year #2.  We received amazing feedback from customers and our sales were doubling and tripling over the year prior.  We started an online store and ended up discontinuing Etsy.  It became difficult to keep up with the inventory between the shows, market, Etsy, and online store.  I streamlined it to just our online store for internet sales.


Growing The Business
Within a year of me returning to work the business had EXPLODED and we had a decision to make.  Stop the business or one of us quit our job to run it.  My husband raised his hand.  It made sense.  My hours, although long, were consistent and his were not.  So J retired from his second career (first was 20 years in the Coast Guard) to start his third career of manufacturing all of our products and managing the farm and the day-to-day.  This was a big step for him.  Up until now he helped (tremendously) with packaging and selling but had little to nothing to do with online sales, customer questions or manufacturing products.

Isn't that how life works?  While we were at one irregular income, our focus was constantly on how to get the business making money in order to stand on it's own.  We were worried that it would take years.  Once we stopped worrying and started actually enjoying the business, it all came together.

Here's the perfect opportunity to put into perspective the (many) hours required for making and selling handcrafted products.  While I was starting the business, I had ample time to formulate, create, package, and sell products.  I always tried to have everything completed by the time J was home from work, or at least the formulating and/or manufacturing portion.  I also devoted time to the blog (which many customers came from) as well as our Etsy and then online store.  Most weekends were devoted to being at craft shows and/or farmer's markets.

Once I returned to work outside of our business, I would formulate and manufacture in the evenings.  I work outside of the home from 6:30a to 5p., five days a week.  When I would get home I would make dinner, do dishes, and take care of the animals.  Then it was time to make/package products, return emails, update the online store, package products for shipping, etc.  Go to sleep, then do it all over again the next day. Weekends were again either selling at craft shows and/or farmer's markets or manufacturing, packaging, etc.  Year-round.  Now, with J doing almost all of the manufacturing of products, it has helped tremendously.  But we still both work 7 days a week.  Year-round.

Trying to grow a business quickly in which you make AND sell the products takes a lot of hard work.  You have to prepare yourself for it.

Me working for someone else has allowed us the opportunity to continue to pour all profit back in.  We've never taken any money from the business. If we had, it could still be successful, it would just take longer to get to where we're at.  Same goes for hiring help or outsourcing some of the process.  There's a cost associated with all of that.  I'm not saying it's wrong to do, it's just not for us.  Additionally, we would have to revisit some of our pricing.  Overhead such as rent, employees, etc. has to be figured into your margin and it currently is not. Last year we hit six figures.  SIX FIGURES!!!!  Crazy, right?  We spent 1 1/2 years in the red.  Year 2 we were in the upper 5 figures and then we hit 6.  This year, even though we've scaled back slightly, we have hit our mark again.

Today
So now we are again at a point of having a handful of more decisions to make.  One of them was to build a new manufacturing space on our property and, as I discussed in a previous post, we have decided to move ahead with that.  We are SUPER excited.  The electricity, plumbing and septic was run last week.  Hooray!!! In the spring the existing building will be gutted and rebuilt.  This brings up the question as to why it wasn't moved out of our home sooner.  The answer is one word......

Overhead.

We are purposely trying to keep our overhead as low as possible.  Would we love to manufacture out of another space?  Yup.  Could we afford to rent a space?  Yup.  But it would be overhead.  Money that has to be made and paid every single month.  We are lucky that we have the space on our property to convert.  We waited until it made financial sense to do it and that time has come.  We will not have any monthly payments associated with it which is a relief for us.

I have only ever advertised our business on a couple of other blogs in addition to our blog.  Our sales outlets continue to be our online store, local craft shows, and farmer's markets.  Although we do have a handful of wholesale accounts, we have purposely not ventured into this arena as of yet.  For really one main reason:  No time to keep up.  Remember, wholesale doesn't have the same margin as retail since you're selling your products for half price.

So you ask, why haven't you left your job to work at your business?  It's a fair question.  We are both very conservative people and we wanted to make sure the money we were making wasn't a fluke.  I am back to working back in human resources and am really enjoying it, which certainly makes it much easier to hold off.  We also really wanted to continue to grow the business which we could only do as quickly by putting money back in.  And, of course, we want to remain debt-free.  I know the hours we currently work are not sustainable, but the new manufacturing space (with all new, much larger, equipment) will help out tremendously.

Tomorrow
We certainly have dreams of where we hope this adventure will lead us.  We dream of a much larger farm on a property that will enable us to have a home at one end, and a manufacturing/retail space at the other.  We'd like to have goats, sheep, chickens, and a few rescue farm animals.  Allowing customers on the property to see the animals, watch the manufacturing of products, and shop at our very own store is exactly what we wish for.

I have a ton of ideas on a to-do wishlist including a few products to develop, as well as ebooks or courses on starting a home-based business, selling at craft fairs and farmer's markets, and possibly, a soap & skincare business course.  I also would like to refine a few things within our current product packaging.

Someday.......

One thing is for sure.  Without the amazing support of my husband (financially, emotionally, as well as his willingness to help with everything within the business) it would have been incredibly hard.  I'm sure one person can do this on their own, but I can't imagine growing the business the way we have with just one of us.  Certainly having a single income, that's not related to the start-up business, is the easiest way to get off on the right foot.  Having a limited amount of debt when you do reduce to one income is a huge benefit as well.

If you can do it, despite the very long nights and very few days off, starting your own business really is worth it.



My next post will be a few of the lessons learned and things to consider really for any business primarily selling at craft shows and/or farmer's markets, not just soap & skincare companies.


7 comments:

daisy gurl said...

It is so wonderful to hear your story. What a thrill it is for me to say "I knew you when"! I sometimes get discouraged with my daisy tote sales as well. Reading this today helped me realize that I need to stay with what feels right, and I feel very comfortable at the market selling something I believe in. So, thank you for that.

So happy for you and J. I know y'all work hard at what you do and it's fantastic to know that it's paying off in so many ways. Continued blessings...

Jessica White said...

I remember finding your blog YEARS ago, I believe it was just before you started the soap or just after. It's been fascinating and so enjoyable following your journey. I KNOW just how hard it is to start your own business, pouring everything into, and trying to find the right connections and markets.

My husband and I own a farm distillery in the Catskills and it has been so very slow going. We're determined to not sink ourselves into debt (he still works full time) or spread ourselves too thin (I'm home raising our 5 kids).

We live about 2 hours south of Albany, but I love seeing the different markets that you sell at!

Congratulations to you both for your success and all of your hard work!

Blahsay said...

Very inspiring. And I certainly would have thought the market on those items was flooded and probably have been too put off by that thought myself to have proceeded. Great!

Linda said...

At my very first craft show, I made $600 in one day. I started selling at 8am and did not look up, go to bathroom, eat or even have a drink of water until 2 pm. I did look up to greet and sell to customers. But, I was not aware of anything else in the place I had a booth. Later, I was told my customers caused a bottleneck. It was a whirlwind experience!

A very unsupportive SO said he did not think I would make over $100 in two days. He did not believe in me. You are lucky to have someone supportive. My SO thwarted everything I did.

Staci at Life At Cobble Hill Farm said...

Thank you so much!! Daisy, your totes are so adorable. I'm happy to hear you're enjoying selling them. Jessica - CONGRATULATIONS to the two of you!! That's fantastic!! Blahsay - me too!!

Linda - what an amazing day it sounded like you had!! I'm so sorry to read that the support you should have had just wasn't there. Yes, I feel incredibly lucky that J has adopted my dream as his own. :)

Sweet Love and Ginger said...

I love this! I just discovered you this year and am so incredibly jealous! I have very similar dreams, but I haven't found my path yet. It looks like you have and are rocking it! Congrats!

Staci at Life At Cobble Hill Farm said...

Thanks so much Jessica! It's amazing how your path shows up when you stop stressing about finding it. :)