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Interview: Suds Up with Anne-Marie Faiola of Bramble Berry, Soap Queen, and More!

soapmaker success stories starting a soap business
pouring lye into oils

I absolutely love doing the interview series here on Modern Soapmaking, but today is the day for one of my favorites of all time!

This fab soaper has been an inspiration and mentor to me over the years. She owns and operates one of the first soapmaking suppliers I bought from ten years ago. Can you guess who it is?

She is notorious for being a part of the community, and not just a supplier on the sidelines. She shares her creations and tutorials through multiple online channels, and is always sharing not just her soapy escapades, but her non-profit work and glimpses into her personal life.

So, let's get down to business and chat with Anne-Marie Faiola of Bramble Berry, Soap Queen, Teach Soap, and Otion (and other stuff I'm probably forgetting!) Talk about a soapy empire!

Talking Shop with Anne Marie Faiola:

Anne-Marie Faiola of Bramble Berry & Soap Queen

MS: Every Soap Queen fan knows that you founded Bramble Berry at the age of 20 and have been making soap since the age of 16 (goodness golly, woman!), but I've been dying to know: how were you introduced to handcrafted soapmaking?

Can you tell us about your first batch of cold process soap?

I was always a crafty girl, turning my Mom’s kitchen into a crafter's dream (or nightmare if you were the one cleaning). When I purchased around $45 of Primal Elements melt and pour soap at the age of 16, I got it home and became intensely curious as to how it was made. I tracked down a melt and pour vendor, made an order and started melt and pour soapmaking very quickly.

I tackled cold process soap for the first time when I was 17. I went around my rural community and got fat to render so I could make my own tallow. My first five batches failed because I had no idea what trace was and there wasn't a wide understanding at the time that stick blenders were essential to the process.

My first batch of CP soap was from the book, Soap: Making It, Enjoying It by Ann Bramson.

MS: Bramble Berry's 15th Anniversary was last December (congrats!), which means you are coming up on twenty years of soapmaking, right?!

Can you make an educated guess on how many pounds of soap you've made in your life?

Oh dear, I average 15-20 pounds a week personally right now – and that doesn't count any testing or any other batches made by anyone in the company which used to all be done by me so an educated guess is 15,600 to 20,800 pounds since I started soaping. That’s a pretty conservative estimate.

MS: Having the world of soapmaking at your fingertips through the wide variety of supplies Bramble Berry sells, I'm jumping on a hard question: what are your top five favorite ingredients in soap?

Oh boy, this is a hard question.

I always go to the holy trinity of oils: coconut, palm and olive (though I often sub canola for a more neutral color palette) when I’m formulating for most batches. My other two favorite ingredients are sodium lactate (essential for releasing soap early from molds) and goat milk. Though I don’t soap a lot of milk recipes for Soap Queen because they tend to have more variables (and thus less chances for a successful batch), I love making milk soap for myself, my friends, and family.

MS: You have been so awesome at staying on top of trends and new design techniques!

Is there anything that became popular that you just don’t get? Or that you struggle with or couldn't get a hang of?

Oh, that’s kind of you to say. I love to try all kinds of new stuff. I’m not great at the Peacock Swirl, even with the handy tools I created (which really came about because I wasn't great at the Peacock Swirl!). I also need a lot more practice at feathering if my soap is ever going to look as good as some of the YouTube videos out there.

MS: If you had to pick one design technique as your go-to, what would it be? Do you prefer loaves or slabs?

Ack! This is like picking a favorite child. I would have to grudgingly say loaves because I like the bar shape when they’re done and I feel like there are a few more ‘wow!’ techniques you can try with loaves that don’t really look awesome in a slab (e.g., a hanger swirl).

MS: Do you ever make soap for the heck of it?

If you do, are you a methodical soaper who lays out the plan before mixing it up or a spontaneous soaper who flies by the seat of her pants?

Oh, all the time. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll see a new batch of soap almost every day, at least 50% (or more) of which never even make it to the tutorial phase for Soap Queen or Soap Queen TV. I make soap because I love it and because like anything, it’s a skill that you can sharpen by practice. I’m always trying new products that Bramble Berry brings in to see how I can best use them, how I can best instruct others on how to use them and generally just reveling in the joy that soapmaking provides.

I’m a super planned soaper. I have my colors designed ahead of time, my fragrance or essential oil blend planned and the general design theme planned before I start. It’s boring but proper planning means a lot less failed batches.

MS: You have been a source of inspiration and light for many soapers, and far more than just a supplier. You've always given me great advice, so I want to share the love with Modern Soapmaking readers.

If you could offer one piece of advice to a soapmaker struggling with their business, what would it be?

Persistence is everything. It doesn't matter if you only achieved the tiniest thing in the world today. If you moved forward, it was a success. That’s why having goals written out is so important; they help you keep your ‘true north’ so you know when you’re moving in the right direction. Tiny, baby steps really add up to amazing results if you give it enough time. Having stick-to-itiveness is one of the most important qualities any entrepreneur can have.

MS: Last year, you gave me not one but a handful of stellar book recommendations, can you share a few of your favorite biz books with Modern Soapmaking readers?

I have three that have led me and guided me for the last 15 years and they are stellar.

  • 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey is all about figuring out what your values are, and working towards those values every day. The points he makes in the book are essential not only for business but for living a great life. I have done this book alone or with a group probably 6 times over the last 15 years and every single time, I find value.
  • The Success Principles by Jack Canfield has an amazing set of exercises throughout the entire book that help drive home many of the principles that Covey outlines in his book in new and different ways. Like 7 Habits, I’ve done this book many times over the years and find it intensely inspirational.
  • Mastering the Rockefeller Habits by Verne Harnish is all about how to figure out your values as a company and how to put them into practice. He has a new book coming out that looks equally helpful.

This set is new but it’s been so great that I can’t help but recommend it:

  • The Firestarter Sessions and The Desire Map by Danielle LaPorte gets more into the spirituality side of business and social support you need to succeed in any area of your life. The exercises are introspective and interesting. Read these books with a group; you won’t be sorry.

MS: Between Bramble Berry, Soap Queen, and Teach Soap, plus all the fab things you do outside of your work, like raising two darling cuties, one has got to ask: how do you do it!?

Can you give us a brief run down on what a typical day in the life of A-M is like?

Ha! I can! Because, I track it obsessively, down to the minute, using a time tracker (I use Eternity on the iPhone).

The kids get up around 6 every morning and my husband and I tag team getting breakfast for them, breakfast for ourselves, and getting ourselves ready for work. My husband is also an entrepreneur with a global engineering firm so he knows the ups and downs of business; I feel fortunate to be married to someone that “gets” me and my work schedule so well. The kids are off to school or with a trusted friend by 8:15 a.m. and then my work day starts.

I try to spend my day at work on people and projects – things that I can’t get done in the evenings at home – so I work on new products, new projects and human resources for a fair amount of my day. This means that I smell new fragrances or essential oils daily, look at colorant swatches, talk to the team that’s testing new products and generally drive all the sourcing. Big projects, like our website redesign or our new subscription box program, Handmade Beauty Box, I spearhead so I spend a lot of time on new projects like that to get them off the ground.

Human resources is really about management by walking around; talking to people, asking them how I can help them and trying to get a sense for where people are struggling and if there’s a way I can solve their issues. I also hire or sit in on interviews and this process can take a lot of time depending on the season.

The rest of the day is spent on marketing, advocacy, non-profit work, social media and email. Almost a full 25% of my work hours are spent answering email. It’s a lot of time! I do all the tweets which means a lot of reading. It’s fun to style Instagram photos and I love interacting with customers on Facebook. I spend a lot of time dreaming up marketing promotions and working closely with our team on newsletters, promotions and of course, blog posts. I also spend a lot of time on FDA advocacy issues talking about small business with stakeholders.

I fit in a workout daily whether that's at the gym, on the trails or on the treadmill desk. I often do walking and talking meetings during the day to keep my body moving and active.

I’m home every night by 5:15 and we do a family dinner. From then, it’s absolute chaos until 8 p.m. when the kids are down to sleep. Then the laptop flips open and I work on emails for another few hours before reading a business or book club book before bed. I usually fall asleep with the e-book on my lap. And then the next morning starts the whole cycle again.

MS: I know you are a Stephen Covey fan, too, and I totally try to live by the 90/10 principle.

Are there any guiding mantras you live by that you'd like to share?

  • How you do anything is how you do everything.
  • It is neither good nor bad; it simply is.

MS: When you hired your first employee through a temp agency, it was a disaster and you had to learn how to be the boss you wanted to be as Brambleberry grew.

Do you have any advice for soapmakers who are looking to hire help or outsource an aspect of their biz?

Being a boss means you aren't liked all the time. And, that’s okay. You aren't there to be the best friend for every employee. They are not your paid friends. You need them to do a job and you need them to be accountable. It’s extremely hard to make good boundaries between you and team members but if you ever want a life, you have to.

MS: When you opened Otion in 2004, you found yourself in over your head. I think that's something that every entrepreneur can identify with. Hiring a biz coach and reaching out to mentors was a turning point in your story.

I conducted a recent survey of hundreds of soapmakers, and found that only 14% budget for education, training, and coaching. Does that surprise you as much as it surprised me?! How important do you think those factors are to your business?

They are everything for us; absolutely everything. If I didn't have the ‘leaders are readers philosophy’, Bramble Berry would never be where it is today. I take advantage of paid coaching and have for years. It keeps me accountable to myself and to my team and gives my business a monthly rhythm and shape.

I reached out to a couple lucky readers of Modern Soapmaking, and asked them what they would ask you if they could. Here's what they want to know!

Entrepreneurship is tough, and sometimes, biz gets to be too much. What do you do when you personally feel overwhelmed or stuck in a rut?

I go hiking or sweat it out. I really like to get into nature and when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I grab a girlfriend and go hike for five or six miles. After a few hours in nature and laughing with a friend, everything seems more manageable.

What do you feel was/is the most important factor in successfully achieving your business goals? Was/is it a person in your life? A lesson learned? A mentality/mind-set? A habit?

I've already mentioned how I believe persistence is everything for an entrepreneur. Being unfailingly relentlessly disciplined in pursuit of your goals is key to being an entrepreneur. It’s about accountability; did you do what you said you were going to do, when you said you were going to do it. And it’s not just accountability for other people, it’s accountability for yourself too!

Super huge thanks to Anne-Marie for taking time out of her busy schedule to chat with us, I can't thank her enough for everything she does for me, the soapmaking community at large, and for those around her!

Visit Anne-Marie around the web: Bramble Berry • Soap Queen • Teach Soap • Otion

Follow Anne-Marie on social media: Facebook • Twitter • Instagram • Pinterest • YouTube

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