Tell us about your family (partner, children, ages, where you live etc: whatever you feel happy sharing)
Sedbergh Soap Co. is a family business. It is also a farm diversification and part of our 350 acres sheep (approx. 700) and cattle (approx. 120) farm at the foot of the magnificent Howgill Fells in Sedbergh in Cumbria. Our family consists of my husband, Andrew (38), me (39) our daughter Ella (3 in December) and in February we are expecting baby no. 2.
Although Sedbergh Soap Co. is my brainchild it is very much a family affair. While I am the driving force Andrew is very involved in both production and sales. Ella is very keen to help as well and can often be seen at the kitchen table, ‘stripping’ mint leaves of their stalks before we dry them over the Aga, or sniffing lavender.
I often describe our ‘partnership’ as Andrew being the Farmer and I’m the Diversifier. When I think back to when we first met at a friend’s wedding in 2003 and got married the following summer, I never saw myself as a ‘farmer’s wife’. I loved my new life in the countryside, which was a far cry from my life 300 miles away with a hectic job as the typical ‘high-flying business woman’ based in London. At the time I was often kidding to Andrew that “I don’t do smelly jobs”…so it is rather ironic that I then went on to set up a soap company!
When did you launch?
Our first day of public selling was 13 June 2007. It was not so much a conscious launch of a business, more like a business launching itself around me. I didn’t set out with a grand plan to set up a business. I was simply fed up not being able to find nice and feminine products which I could use despite my severe eczema since birth. So I started experimenting for myself, and not driven by anything other than the desire to create beautiful products for my own use. Soon friends and family asked if I would make some for them, which lead to more requests. Then Andrew suggested that I booked a stall at our local Producers’ Market. On this first day of selling I had small selection of five types of soap bars, on a small table and no marketing material or signs; just me. However I sold out and I had two shops asking independently of each other if I ‘did wholesale’. As a saleswoman at heart I thought to myself ‘we do now’! and said yes and shook hands!. That was the beginning of Sedbergh Soap Co.
How did you go about getting started?
We were, in a word, skint because of the new outbreak of Foot and Mouth, which put severe limitations on animal movement, which in turn resulted in significant loss of income. The drive to get an actual business up and running came out of the sheer need to find more income. So it was with a modest £40 in startup capital and a list of ingredients to buy, I got started.
My early experiments had thrown up some disastrous results but trial and error and late night research slowly turned out some rather lovely high quality soap.
My first experiments and small scale production took place in our kitchen and pantry. A few old pots and pans and a second hand microwave oven came to good use. An electric mini mixer was sacrificed to serve as herb and nettle chopper.
Without any marketing budget I had to rely on what packaging I could design and produce myself. The first soap wrappers were printed on our home computer and meticulously guillotined out by my mother-in-law ready for our first wholesale orders.
Soon it became evident that the kitchen was not a suitable venue for soap production and I asked Andrew if I could have some space in the shippon (barn). He reluctantly moved some of his farm machinery out of the way and agreed to let me have some space for a workshop. It still makes me laugh when I think back to last winter and how I had to walk through a barn full of sheep and new born lambs to get to my little workshop. I wore 3 jumpers, 2 pairs of socks and a padded boiler suit to keep warm.
Thinking our local Producers’ Market was a success I contacted the organisers of the best local and well-known Farmers’ Market in Orton in the hope they might put me on a waiting list for a stall. But as luck would have it they liked the concept and the fact that they were made just a few miles away so I was offered a stall from the very next market…..just 2 weeks away on the 2nd Saturday in July.
Another successful day, more shops enquiring and our very first agreement to supply the first 5-star B&B, called Coldbeck House, in Ravenstonedale.
What has worked well about your business?
Maximising on local support. We have been very successful in growing by word-of-mouth recommendations. It is a slower way of growing but very sustainable and at virtually no actual cost. I have managed to create very close partnerships with both shops and hotels, which have spun off new sales channels.
Our single most effective sales tool is undoubtedly my skin. The fact that with Sedbergh Soap ‘for sensitive skin’ is not a marketing fad or a catchy one-liner seen on so many mainstream products full of harmful chemicals and irritants; it is what I live with every single day. And that is what our customers trust.
I started Sedbergh Soap Co. because I had spent £1,000’s on trying all sorts over the years with no real success. Anything from highly advertised expensive products to other organic and handmade soap, only to find that they made my eczema worse.
What has been your biggest challenge so far? How have you dealt with it?
Apart from the usual financial challenges, the biggest challenges have been for me to accept that I cannot do everything and at the same time managing the growth of the business. I’ve dealt with both by taking note of a particular look by my husband, which says “please stop now and look after yourself” and by taking on staff and delegating.
At one point I thought I had too much Christmas soap in stock and to make sure nothing would go to waste, I came up with the idea of making Christmas tree decorations our of soap. I used Ella’s little cookie cutters for mini gingerbread men and women to create the decorations. The only problem was that they too became hugely popular but were very time consuming.
We were packing soap until the small hours and really flying by the seat of our pants in the last weeks up to Christmas. It was a tough time all round as we lost my father-in-law to a 7 year battle with cancer at that time.
This year we are very well prepared; I’m just a little sad that Andrew’s dad is not here to see how we have grown the business since last December. He was very supportive in all that we did and he was also a keen hand at cutting and labelling soap. I know he would be really proud of us.
How do you fit in work with the family?
I’m not going to say I’m super-mum and that it is not a problem. It is hard at times. With a little girl of almost 3 years old around I fit in specific tasks when she is at nursery, 2 days a week. The actual soap making involves both liquid oils at very high temperature and essential oils, neither of which mixes well with small children, so this usually takes place after 8pm, when Ella is in bed.
My background is as a Business Development Manager for a number of startup companies in the IT industry, so I am naturally a very driven person. I used to think that I could live on 4 hours sleep a night. Well, not when you have a 2 year old and are 5 months pregnant you can’t! (the baby is due in Feb 09). So I have learned to pace myself and taken on more staff so I don’t end up totally exhausted.
However busy you are, if you have children, you have to make room for reading stories, drawing butterflies, tickling fights and splashing in puddles with wellies on.
What advice would you give to someone else wanting to work in this area?
Don’t expect me to give advice on how to compete with me. But I am often asked by various business groups and Head Teachers to give talks about starting in business, so I would give them the same advice as I give to the young people by quoting Thomas J. Watson (18?? – 1956), who famously said about the Formula for Success:
The other bit of advice I would give is that while ‘Dragons Den’ has its merits, it is possible to get there on your own if you have a really good or unique idea, are passionate about what you do and are willing to work harder than you have ever done before. If you want to know exactly what you earn each month, a pension scheme, guaranteed holidays, and leave work at 5pm….then don’t set up a business.
I am passionate about what I do and I am good at getting other people enthused about my ideas. And you need to be able to get other people excited about what you do if you want to succeed.
While we are very fortunate to be in a strong position of very fast growth at a time when the news is full of down-turn economy, job losses, crashing banks and credit crunch; I think it is really important to focus on the upsides for small businesses. A small business is agile and must use this to it’s full advantage by adapting to market changes much quicker than our much larger counterparts can. Think of yourself sailing a dingy – it is just you in a very responsive little boat; now think of the big companies as oil tankers…..
My next bit of advice is ‘get lots of feedback’. And not from family members or close friends as they really want you to succeed so they are more likely to tell you what you want to hear – not what you need to hear. Get proper market feedback from critical people who don’t know you at all.
And my last bit of advice is quite simply – cook good food and make lovely cakes……because you are going to need some tasty incentives for your family members and close friends when you need their help in the early days and cannot afford to pay them!
Your website link and last order date before Christmas
Our last order day before Christmas is linked to the last day of posting by Royal Mail, Friday the 19th of December. We are attending sales events right up to the 20th of December if you need last minute shopping and can turn up in person. Check our website, www.sedbergh-soap.co.uk, for events and locations
There was one thing Mr. Watson forgot to add and that is ‘try not to make too many too expensive mistakes’!.
This year our Christmas planning started in really good time. I have to honest and say that this is in sharp contrast to how it was last year. Last year was our first Christmas with Sedbergh Soap Co. and I hadn’t really given it much thought, until the shops started asking if we were going to have any special Christmas soap. Still not thinking it through I just said yes. I created two Christmas soaps ‘Cinnamon’ and ‘Orange & Clove’, both of which became far more popular than I had ever imagined.
Aside from that, there are really only three things that work – hard work, grit and determination!