As a child, I always thought I wanted to be in the FBI (that is, after I got over my desire to be the next Britney Spears or Madonna). Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be a business owner. Several things should have given me an inkling that business and me would be a good fit: I love numbers, genuinely enjoy hard work and multi-tasking, don’t mind long hours and lots of learning, and my brain is painfully analytic at times.
In high school, I ran a small business breeding angry Russian Dwarf Hamsters. My Dad, a doctor, helped me out by devising a birth control method for my hamsters so we could control their breeding (aka ‘sales’) cycles. During this interesting experiment, I ran ads in the local newspaper classifieds (no, Craiglist was not around yet) and drove my small little furious balls of fluff around to houses wanting to have an exotic pet. I learned a few things about business during this time period: 1. I liked retail sales 2. I liked interacting with people. 3. I liked making money in my sleep. The hamster business soon went by the wayside after I had to get my own apartment and realized I didn’t like my apartment smelling like hamsters. It was fine when it was in my parents’ house but once it was my own small, airless space, the hamsters had to go.
My Dad also helped me out with another valuable lesson: financial literacy. When my brother and I were 10 and 13, he got us small investment accounts and then sat us down every month to explain what a profit and loss statement was, what EBIDTA was and how a balance sheet related to a profit and loss statement. Contrary to what you would think, my brother and I ate this information up. We loved the idea of passive money making and both he and I have enjoyed a good grasp of budgeting ever since. This would later prove valuable when I founded my first ‘real’ business.
When I graduated with my 4 year degree in psychology (emphasis in criminal justice) at the ripe old age of 20 years old, I was ill-prepared for my chosen profession: law enforcement. Though I had interned with a police department and a medium security prison, actually working in a prison setting day in and day out was a poor fit for me. I was young, trusting, naïve and very blonde. Within a week of starting to work at the prison, I chopped my hair off to a crew cut and dyed it completely white blond. It wasn’t a good look. That should have been a clue that I was not cut out for corrections. Instead, I persevered for about nine months before I finally quit my job in a fit of misery, despair and just-barely-older-than-a-teenager-angst.
I had been making soap since I was 16 and selling it as a part time hobby since I was 18. My first wholesale account was a hardware store (the now defunct Traver’s Electric in Chehalis, WA) followed soon thereafter by a gym (Thorbeks in Centralia, WA). And, of course all of my Mom’s friends. My Mom has always been my biggest cheerleader, buying anything and everything I ever made. So, when I quit my job at the age of 20 years old with a vague plan to sell soap until I found another job in corrections, I had a bit of business experience with the hamsters and small soap business. But more importantly, I had the assurance that I’d at least sell a couple hundred dollars worth of soap to my Mom.
Within the first few weeks of quitting my job, with no one to support me and my then-student husband, I realized I needed to get serious so I rented my first ‘warehouse.’ Ah, who was I kidding? It was a glorified closet downstairs in a big cavernous old building. It was maybe 400 feet. But the second I moved into this closet and outside of my home, the entire enterprise was ‘real’. My parents quaked in fear at the idea of me quitting my job and throwing away my college education to sell soap but all I wanted to do was to be happy and love my job. So, I got to work, designing measurable tasks and doing an on-the-back-of-a-napkin business plan. It’s a good thing it was a napkin because things started happening quickly. As I sold soap at craft shows, I also recognized the amazing opportunity that I had been given and wanted to share that opportunity with others. It was incredible how much soap I could sell in one weekend and I knew if I had that sort of success, other women could and would as well.
So, I put $15,000 on a credit card, bought a pallet of soap, five fragrances and a handful of molds and started Brambeberry.com From the start, I knew that I loved working with women entrepreneurs and I also knew that there was something in my core that loved having complete control of my destiny. I had always been a very willful child, asked to leave a variety of scholastic institutions (despite getting straight A’s all the time) because of my headstrong nature. Being self-employed and calling all the shots suited me.
Unfortunately, knowing that I loved being self-employed didn’t pay the bills. So I set about making small goals: I put an ad up on my wall for a program at MIT for young entrepreneurs called the “Birthing of Giants” program, I made financial goals, I figured out how many customers we had to sell supplies to in a day and I started to work on a rudimentary marketing plan – all the while, selling soap on the weekends to keep paying the bills at home. The hard work started almost instantly. I was shocked at how many hours I could put in at the office, genuinely surprised at how I was constantly exhausted and in tears any time a customer wasn’t 100% thrilled with me. I hired my first employee from a temporary staffing agency which was a disaster. In addition to not knowing how to run a business, I really didn’t know anything about working with staff. It didn’t help that she was older than me. It was during this period that I started calling my employees ‘paid friends.’ This meant that I didn’t have very good boundaries with them so when they wanted to leave early for a ‘really great date’ or come in late because they partied too late the night before, I smiled and finished the work – at the expense of my personal time (and life). During our start up phase, I had so little time that only 2 friends ever saw my house in this six year period – that’s how little I entertained because I was at work so much.
We grew into the warehouse (aka ‘closet’) next door and had 800 feet of space that first year and grossed $70,000 – none of which I took home. I thankfully had craft shows and a few wholesale outlets to keep selling finished bars of soap at. Oh, and I had my Mom. She was good for at least $100 worth of soap per month. The early years weren’t easy. I’m glossing over the fact that I didn’t eat out at a restaurant more than one time in two years – and that was to celebrate my one year anniversary! And, that we didn’t have heat in our home for three straight Christmases and for a good few months, I didn’t actually have a floor because my fixer-upper house had rot in it and a fixer-upper-house was all I could afford. All of those tough times seem but a faint memory to me now but at the time, it was hard. And still, I loved being self-employed.
About this time, I founded TeachSoap.com because I was so passionate about helping other soapers figure out the ins and outs of soap without selling to them. Me and my team continue to run TeachSoap.com and it’s vibrantly active forum, 13 years later, as a free resource for soapers everywhere to learn and grow their craft.
As we continued to grow (grossing $280,000 in our 2nd full year in business), I started to hire staff and expect them to show up to work (a foreign concept up until then). Bramble Berry’s COO, Norman, started at the end of the year as a ‘Puller/Packer/Fragrance Pourer/Everything Man’ that year and between my maniacal optimism and his knack of organization, we started to put together a real company. We continued to rapidly grow through aggressive customer acquisition strategies and the Bramble Berry warehouse moved again in 2001 with my parents, my friends and all of our staff helping to pitch in. By the time Bramble Berry grossed its first $million dollars, I was just 24 years old and any blinders I had about my own abilities had been lifted. I needed to go to school to learn how to run this company! I had employees who depended on a paycheck and many, many soapers who needed Bramble Berry to deliver on-time and on-budget to them. I enrolled in an MBA program for busy executives and augmented my online learning program with hands-on learning at MIT for three summers in a row. Though I felt as if my head was going to spin off its axis because it was going so many directions, the formal schooling gave me the tools I needed to keep Bramble Berry growing on a sustainable and stable path.
Unfortunately, the school did not temper my delusional optimism and in 2003, I started making plans for a retail store and shopping around for a new warehouse to buy. We had outgrown our space, yet again, and I started to realize that Bramble Berry was loan-worthy. I was turned down by almost every bank in our community which surprised me. We had five years of profitable growth to show and were being run in a reasonably responsible manner. But, after the dot-com crash, many banks were unwilling to loan on a purely online play and my youth and relative inexperience played against me. Finally, in early 2004, we found a banker willing to work with us and forged ahead with our warehouse purchase. We opened Otion, our retail store, in July 2004 and moved into our warehouse that same month. Between opening the retail store and buying a new warehouse, I almost bankrupted the company. We went $280,000 in debt in under one year’s time because I had underestimated the expenses it would take to retrofit our warehouse to our standards and how slowly cash would come in at the retail store. Apparently, if you open it, customers do not necessarily come. Even though I was in formal school to learn business, this period turned into the ‘School of Hard Knocks’ for cash flow, debt to income ratios and the expense of interest. Again, I was in over my head.
I turned to formal help, hiring a business coach and reaching out for mentors. And, slowly started getting the company back on track. Like turning a slow, lumbering ship around, we started to repay our debt with a vengeance. It was all I thought about – how to pay that debt. Bramble Berry, though profitable, is not a wildly profitable company. It never has been. We sell glorified commodities (example: coconut oil from us is the same as coconut oil from our esteemed competitors and we buy it on the open market along with all the other food manufacturers, cosmetic companies and bio-fuel producers in the world) and it makes the margins very low. We also compete with many smaller suppliers who do not have the same overhead we do. It took us many years to repay that debt, making trade-off after trade-off and sacrifice.
Right when the end was in sight, I had a set back in my personal life when my still-student-husband (7 years later if anyone is counting) and I parted ways. I left the marriage with nothing to my name, except my small company and our warehouse. I traded my house, most of my savings and everything I owned (save three paintings and my car) for the company that I had built from scratch. And so, I started the climb back out of the debt mountain a single woman, all the while feeling the extreme support from an incredible team at Bramble Berry that still included Norman who had now worked his way up from Packer to Warehouse Manager.
During the ‘Debt Years’, Bramble Berry continued to grow and as a team, we continued to refine our brand promise: fanatical customer service, orders shipped within 24 hours and extreme technical support. I appeared on Home Shopping Network that year many times, selling Bramble Berry soapmaking kits. One of my customers on the Home Shopping Network turned out to be my future husband. He and I had gone on one blind date before I flew to HSN to do my shows and though he had no idea what to do with a soapmaking kit, he bought one and had it 2-Day-Aired to his house, thinking it would make a good 2nd date. That kit now sits at Bramble Berry, still unopened. It turns out he didn’t need a gimmick to convince me that a 2nd date and then a lifetime of dates was a good idea.
Bramble Berry purchased Labcolors around 2006 and started manufacturing an entire rainbow of colors, much to the dismay of my staff who went home many nights covered in blue dye. We also started having custom soap molds designed, adding fun molds like the Flying Pig and Hedgehog mold and we started dreaming big. In my limited spare time in the evenings, I started our blog SoapQueen.com and dove into social media concepts. Otion hadn’t quite hit its stride but we could see the genius in the concept as a franchise. Children seemed to love making soap at Otion, coming back for birthday party after birthday party. Sadly, an unscrupulous individual chose to embezzle funds from Otion around this time, taking with him all the profits for the entire year. It was a good wake up call that I needed to implement some serious controls for employees both at Otion and Bramble Berry so we started putting policies and procedures in place to ensure that it would be difficult to take advantage of us again. And, most importantly, I hired my younger brother Erik to run the retail store. He was always someone I could trust growing up and trust was more important to me than ever after the embezzlement betrayl. Now that I had a trusted team member, I knew would could finally expand the Otion store concept. I started spending a lot of time in Seattle looking for an Otion Location II.
Otion was and remains an awesome bricks’n’morter store; it’s fun, it’s profitable and it’s a wonderful creative outlet. I walked all the neighborhoods, I counted cars and traffic, I talked to shop owners, I engaged the services of a commercial broker and found the perfect location. We started lease negotiations and after two months of writing contracts back and forth, the lease fell through. I started spending more time in Seattle, finding another spot to start Otion II and I started talking to venture capitalists who thought the Otion store concept was a very nifty idea that they might want to invest in. During the middle of lease negotiations, the bottom fell out of the stock market and the entire world held its collective breath as we all watched to see what the US economy would do. In November, 2008, we put plans for an Otion Store II officially on hold and got serious about focusing on our core businesses, shrinking back a little and playing it safe. The crash brought opportunities and we engaged in many different conversations to buy many different businesses: a fiberglass parts business, a document storage business, a computer chipset maker but ultimately they all failed because no one on the management team was terribly passionate about any of the ideas. But when the opportunity to purchase Spinning Leaf’s Soap Mold Line and the domain name soapmolds.com came up, we jumped, putting some money on our credit line, buying a CNC machine and a vaccum forming machine, hiring designers and getting into the soap mold business. Soapmolds.com is our latest venture and it sells all the same molds as Bramble Berry with a wholesale twist – three of the lines are produced or controlled by us so we can wholesale them to fellow vendors across the nation. We also launched our iPhone app in mid 2009 and Android app in 2011 to help soapmakers figure out how much lye they need for their soap on the fly. SoapQueen.TV, our free YouTube channel, was launched in 2009 and has grown to encompass more than 30+ DIY Soapmaking videos, including the ever popular soap cupcake video and the starter Cold Process series.
In 2010, we realized that Bramble Berry was again outgrowing its space. Rather than buy a new warehouse, we built onto our existing warehouse (while learning more than we ever wanted to know about the permitting process, cost overruns and why a General Contractor might have been a good idea). We moved into the warehouse late in 2011 and have quickly filled that space.
Running Bramble Berry has been a unique gift with many challenges but even more opportunities and joys. Being self-employed feels like a gift in and of itself and the ability to help other women entrepreneur’s all over the world is a dream come true.