How I Started a Natural
Soaps and Skincare Business
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! I’m Sophie and I founded The Dartmoor Soap Company in 2013 after the birth of my little boy, Sebastian. Like many little ones he struggled with sensitive skin and eczema and unhappy about smothering him in steroids I decided to try an all-natural, gentle soap with no added nasties. The results were fantastic.
Keen to stay at home with my little one for as long as possible I decided to give the business a go, seeking inspiration and ingredients from my surroundings on Dartmoor in Devon.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
I’m actually a qualified Occupational Therapist and during my training I tried my hand at many different hobbies in therapeutic settings working with clients with varying disabilities. Soap making was one of these and I found it particularly fun.
here is something very exciting about sourcing and harvesting natural ingredients, and using them to create a nourishing treat for your skin. The actual process is very long winded (roughly 5-8 weeks) and hence somehow makes you slow down and concentrate on the now rather than getting caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
I was very keen to spend as much time as possible at home with Sebastian and I think that fueled my pre existing hard-work ethic, alongside sleepless nights and other obstacles that little ones throw at you!
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
The main challenge in the beginning was the sheer volume of assessments and paperwork you have to obtain in order to sell a skincare product, and quite rightly too. This was a complicated and scary process but one which had to be done correctly from the beginning. The last thing you want is for one of your natural products to hurt someone!
The second challenge for me was the actual creative process. I’m my own worst enemy really in that I put a lot of pressure on myself for my products to be perfect in every way. They have work well as a product, appeal to a wide audience and look fantastic too. For me, that takes a long time and makes the actual product making process seem very short in comparison! I have often missed my (own!) delivery deadlines for new product launches because of this and perhaps missed many sales because of it.
The third challenge I would say in the beginning was loneliness. When you are working from home, particularly on your own with a small child, days often pass without you having had any ‘adult’ conversation! When you are in an office surrounded by colleagues you can bounce ideas off each other or ask for help but alone in the kitchen this is not so easy, despite the wonders of modern technology!
A particularly low point for me personally was 4 years ago. My parents relocated from the South East to be closer to us and my mum became the first proper in-house team member, with Dad taking on the role of delivery boy! Sadly she passed away very suddenly, overnight, and I found it almost impossible to continue working from home. Very soon after this, I found the beautiful Kigbeare Studios and we have operated from there ever since. I can say ‘we’ now as I am no longer alone and we have a lovely stream of staff and helpers coming and going all year round!
Who is your target market?
Initially, my largest customer base was retail outlets, mostly across the South West with a few loyal online customers. In 2016 I was featured on Countryfile and after that everything changed. The website really took off and people were really interested in the story behind The Dartmoor Soap Company. They were looking for a natural soap to help soothe sensitive skins and the CF clip focused heavily on Sebastian’s eczema. Since then I would say that most of our customers online are grandparents looking for a way to help their family members who are going through the same problems.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
We have always found that Social Media platforms have served us much better than good old fashioned, paid marketing campaigns.
Countryfile was obviously fantastic and every now and then they re-air the episode which sends the website into a spin but clearly it is not every day that such an opportunity comes knocking!
We haven’t attended any trade fairs yet simply because we have always been acting at full capacity and my fear is that we wouldn’t be able to fulfil commitments made at such events. Whilst Sebastian is still young I’m happy with the size we are. We are a small, happy and successful team who lead rounded lives and are free to enjoy our beautiful surroundings on Dartmoor on a daily basis. Whilst I love my job it is just that, a job. My family life always has and always will come first.
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
We do try and respond to each enquiry personally, even during our busiest periods. In this way we have developed close relationships with loyal customers. We also provide a bespoke gift service which has proved popular with customers.
I have always believed in honesty and clear communication. I know that I personally would much rather know if my orders were going to be delayed – for whatever reason, big or small – than find out on the due date and have to apologise to my best friend. Things do go wrong, it’s inevitable, but if you keep people informed they are much more likely to respect you and even recommend you to their friends.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
We are a very small, close-knit team. On a day to day basis in quieter periods, there are only 2 of us physically in the studio. This varies at different times of the year and there are other things going on behind the scenes on the website, social media etc but it is important that we respect and enjoy each other’s company!
At the end of the day as long as the jobs are done I am not too strict on start and end times. Life happens and sometimes we all need some time off for various reasons. We are only a small business and can’t afford high-flying wages but I do believe that everyone should feel valued and that every job should have its perks – free soap is definitely one of ours!
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
This is definitely not one of my fortes I’m afraid. As we develop our website is getting more and more complex and beyond my capabilities but we have a wonderful website developer, Simon at Moorsites (thanks Simon!) who takes care of this and is on hand regularly.
All our printing and graphic design is outsourced to a fantastic local company – I have no idea what software they use – and a very knowledgeable accountant who helps with the most important side of the business. In the beginning, I really did try to do everything, you have to, and to some extent, I still do a little of all aspects but as soon as I started outsourcing to these wonderful individuals my stress levels changed dramatically!
I think finding a support network you can trust and who understands your business is possibly the most important step in growing your business.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
This is an interesting question. I don’t really believe in dwelling on mistakes. It sounds a bit cliche but if you can learn from your mistakes and improve going forward then you can’t really call them mistakes, more, opportunities. I can’t stress enough how important I feel it is to be total, 100% honest at every step of the supply chain. Lying just gets you into trouble and can have lasting consequences.
You also really need to believe in your product. There is no point making something just because everyone else is. A recent example would be COVID -19. There were several ‘recipes’ gracing the internet for anti-bacterial hand sanitisers and I was asked SO many times if we would be making one. It didn’t seem right then and it doesn’t now. I am not a bacterial specialist and just would not feel comfortable making and selling something which would be purchased (over and over I am guessing) by people desperate to find a genuine preventive gel to protect them against a truly deadly virus.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
The flexibility it offers. My ultimate goal when starting this journey was always to earn an income whilst always being there for my son. I wanted to attend every nativity, concert, match, parents’ evening… you get the picture! If he was poorly I wanted to be able to drop everything and collect him and during the school holidays, I didn’t want to always have to arrange childcare.
I always said I would give it my best shot and if it didn’t work no one could blame me for trying during his younger years. The fact that this is still relevant makes me very happy. I may not be financially rich but I have been lucky enough to spend as much time as I want with him, time which no amount of money can buy.
I also love being able to see the business grow organically. It is a great feeling seeing people buy into something you have created and even better when they feedback to you that your products have enhanced their lives in some way. That really is special!
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Everything is kind of on your shoulders, especially when you start employing people. It is also incredibly difficult not to think about your business when away from it. Going on holiday can be very difficult and possibly annoying for other family members too as I personally find it hard to relax and not check emails. My argument is that it’s so much easier to spend 15 mins every morning answering urgent messages and filing others than it is to return home to 1000s of them.
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
- Screw It, Just Do It – Richard Branson
- Awaken the Giant Within
- 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
- Miracle Morning
- Make Your Bed
- NOTHS books
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
2020 has been a very strange year for everyone. Our existing business plan just doesn’t seem relevant now so I can’t really answer this. I love the business and can’t see myself selling or leaving it in that timeframe but I would like to perhaps see the website develop even more and perhaps be able to offer more workshops at our studio when circumstances allow.