How to Stay Inspired & Competitive: An Interview with Charlene Simon
As an Arkansas girl myself, I've spent quite a bit of time in the city of Hot Springs, walking Bathhouse Row, popping into gift shops, and feeding ducks on Lake Hamilton. And, as a soapmaker, of course I noticed Bathhouse Soapery & Caldarium, owned by Charlene Simon, during those trips.
The sudsy darling of The Spa City has always held a bit of fascination for me. We have lots of rockstar members of the Modern Soapmaking tribe who run their own store fronts. But I don't know any who have dove into the entrepreneurial waters quite so deeply and often as Char. And not just (multiple) soap businesses!
Needless to say, I was thrilled when Charlene Simon was up for an interview with us at Modern Soapmaking. Seriously, I want to know what this woman puts in her coffee! Because, even after wrapping up a busy holiday season, she showed no signs of running on empty.
Is it a sugar high from years in the cupcake biz? Or just an intense love for all of her passions? Let's find out!
Modern Soapmaking: How long have you been making soap?
Charlene: I started making soap when I was 18, so about 18 years now. My husband was in the Navy and, while stationed in San Diego, CA, I visited a soap shop there and immediately knew I had found something that would change my life.
This was before the internet was super popular to the general public, so my resources at that time came from the library. I read EVERY book on making soap that was available and put my entire soul into creating my first batch, which was an oatmeal and mint soap.
Modern Soapmaking: What was the biggest nightmare batch you ever made?
Charlene: In September of 2013, I was building up holiday inventory and putting in ridiculously long hours. There was this one fragrance oil that I was so excited to use. Out of the bottle you'd think it was decanted directly from the fragrance oil fountains of heaven. It was glorious, distinguished, marvelous...rapturous. The entire time I was prepping my oils, I was thinking of all the riches and fame this soap was going to bring to the shop.
At this time, I was making 300 pounds of soap a day in 30 pound batches. The triple threat of my cockiness in my soapmaking skills, the anticipation of using this specific fragrance oil, and the pressure of the holiday crunch was enough to inspire me to make a full batch instead of taking time to test the fragrance in a small loaf. (Had I done my due diligence, well, I wouldn't have this story.)
Thirty pounds of pure pleasure fantasies coming right up!
I don't even think that fragrance oil touched the soap batter before that son of a batch started to seize! I truly believe that the redolence alone from the bottle made that mother sucker seize. After using both hands and a foot to pull the 24-inch stick blender shaft out of the gluey, clay-like soap, I proceeded to slam it by the fistful into the mold.
Then, I took a one gallon heavy-duty Ziploc, put it around my shoe, and stomped the soap as evenly as I could. Once it begin to gel internally, I continued using my foot to tamp it down into the mold. Nightmare on Soap Street!
Modern Soapmaking: Ekk! Did that batch end up in the bin?
Charlene: I ended up cutting it into ugly (didn't match my store, brand, whatever), rustic chunks, piled them into a beautiful glass apothecary bowl and called it South Pole Elf. We sold 72 bars in two days for top dollar. Four years later we still get customers asking about that soap. Our response? HELL to the NO.
Modern Soapmaking: Make an educated guess...how many pounds of soap have you made in your lifetime?
Charlene: A snip over 500,000 pounds. On record, I've made 493,000 pounds of soap since opening Bathhouse Soapery & Caldarium. To this day, every single pour, makes me love it even more.
Modern Soapmaking: What is your soapmaking philosophy?
Charlene: My soapmaking philosophy is to create based on the feelings of what YOU want to create. For me, I crave self-expression. My core message in life and business is spoken through my vision of beauty, elegance, allure, seduction, and pleasure. Everything I create for Bathhouse or any of my other brands, is designed around those qualities and values.
It's awesome to be inspired by what's going on in the industry, but if you want to stand out in the sea of sameness, YOU are the one that creates that distinction because you're the artist. Create from YOUR intentions and what you want to relay to the world through your soaps and cosmetics.
Modern Soapmaking: Your store windows, displays, and photos are gorgeous. What inspires you? Any tips?
Charlene: Aesthetics are very important to me because I'm a visual person. I give much attention to the visuals of the Bathhouse brand (windows, displays, and photos), because that's what connects me to a brand.
When I created Bathhouse, I created it with me as my target customer, customer avatar, or whatever you want to call your customer icon. (MS: Readers, we call them your "perfect customer", and you can learn more about yours here in Next Level.) What I wanted was to be dazzled by photography and boutique windows and displays that are over the top elegant, full, and decadent.
My advice to other brick and mortar store owners is to create a space that makes YOU happy. Allow your strengths, wants, and needs to flow through your retail space. You'll attract those that are willing to pay top dollar for your products because you are speaking their language like only you can.
Modern Soapmaking: If you could get a sneak peek behind the scenes at any major personal care products company, which would it be?
Charlene: I have two. I can't choose between them, because I want them for different reasons. One is Kat Von D Beauty. I'd want to be behind the scenes, with her specifically, in her creative process. She is someone that tells her story perfectly through her products. Take a look at her Sinner & Saint Eyeshadow Palette. I stood in Sephora cradling that baby like a fool. I think because my philosophy around soapmaking has everything to do with YOU, I'm attracted to Kat's ability to bottle herself and sell it to the beauty industry.
The other personal care company I'd love to see behind the scenes of is Creed 1760. Their story telling is ridiculously enchanting and their fragrances are the most unique of the unique. Their creations were initially concocted for royalty, and today you can purchase them for yourself. I think the kind of exclusiveness they've been able to market, along with a product that is above and beyond distinguished in a highly-populated market, is magnetic.
Modern Soapmaking: What are your favorite molds?
Charlene: I have the Soap Equipment Air Soap Cutter Pro Molds because of the quantity of soap we make now but my personal favorites are any open-top, wooden molds that allow me to texture and whip the soap into peaks. It's just my personal favorite thing to do in the soapmaking process, and if I could make high yielding batches with that set up, I sure as heck would.
Modern Soapmaking: Are you a member of a trade organization and would you recommend it to others?
Charlene: As the president of The Handcrafted Soap & Cosmetic Guild (HSCG), which is the handcrafted soap and cosmetic industry's largest not-for-profit trade association, I highly recommend trade associations. Trade associations allow you to tap into knowledge that is proven and technology that is cutting edge. They're also a reputation enhancer.
In addition, there is something to be said about the connections and camaraderie that an association presents. When you all belong to the same "club", it's natural to want to help your brothers and sisters. Conversely, it feels better to ask for help when you know you're among the people that will build you up.
Modern Soapmaking: Tell us about your role as HSCG president and what we can expect with you at the helm.
Charlene: Becoming the President of the HSCG is truly a satisfying role that allows me to give back and help others. Being a role model and voice for our industry has truly been a gift. It allows me to assist others who are currently where I've already been. It also puts me in flow with my peers that have goals to go where I'm headed.
What you can expect to see from the organization, with me as President, is a solid unity in moving the indie beauty industry to where it's never been before. This is not a time for doing business as usual...for any industry.
One of my personal goals is for soap and cosmetic makers to feel courageous in presenting themselves uniquely. I want them to start allowing themselves to charge, market, and create from a space that isn't business as usual but business the way they want to do it. Creation and business on their terms.
Plus, who wants normal results anymore? If you're a member of the Guild, you'll create something from your soap and cosmetic business that is leaps and bounds above average.
Modern Soapmaking: Do you handle website design and maintenance yourself? If not, who do you tag in?
Charlene: I do have websites for all of my companies. I initially design them all myself. But, I'm grateful to have staff members that help maintain and manage the day-to-day operations.
Hiring someone to do the initial creation, photos, and product descriptions is certainly possible...but it's my thing! I just love it. It also allows me to stay connected to my customer's voice and to tell my unique story through my products and brand.
Modern Soapmaking: That's right, readers, she said, "all of my companies". Charlene, tell us about what motivates you to have multiple business and, for Bathhouse, multiple storefronts.
Charlene: My motivation is fueled from being aligned to exactly what I am truly meant to do in life. For me, it's about seeing transformation in anything I'm working with, whether it's soap, a retail location, or even a person. I'm addicted to defining an outcome for success and taking action towards that outcome.
Specifically for Bathhouse, it stems from the need for self-expression as an artist. When I pair that with my drive for success, a natural motivation is created, because I am doing exactly what I'm meant to do with my gifts.
Modern Soapmaking: How fierce is the competition in your area? How do you compete?
Charlene: Our first Bathhouse Soapery location is right smack-dab in the middle of THE Spa City. We are located directly across from world-famous Bathhouse Row. There are dozens of spas, four independent soap shops, and countless gift shops that sell soap in a five-block radius from Bathhouse Soapery.
Three of the spas sell our product line. The competition is fierce, and it's literally right next door, in our faces. Even one of the local auto-body shops sells soap!
How do we compete? We don't.
I don't mean we don't come close to our competition; I mean we beat our own drum. We capitalize on our uniqueness, which is creating a customer experience based off of our core values and core focuses. Our focus is always customer centered, and everything we do speaks to an experience that is beautiful, exclusive, alluring, and seductive for them.
My team of 60 and I always focus all of our efforts internally. We aren't looking the other way on how to do business. We do us, all day, every day. And we chant everything Bathhouse in our sleep.
What does this do for our competitive edge? EVERYTHING RIGHT. We smash through sales goals and production goals. When we focus on us and not what's happening outside our door, we win everyday. The bottom line proves it.
Modern Soapmaking: This year, you even decided to "compete" with yourself. Tell us about your new-to-you soap biz.
Charlene: In mid 2017, I purchased Villainess Soaps. While it doesn't have a retail location, it's a direct competitor with Bathhouse. They each have their own core values and core focuses and that's what sets them apart. They beat their own drum. That's what keeps them successful within their own communities.
Modern Soapmaking: What is one of the biggest mistakes you’ve made in business and how did you overcome it?
Charlene: One of my biggest mistakes in business was not protecting myself and it from predators. Dangers and harm to you and your business can come in many forms and no matter where you are in your business success, they'll always be lurking.
My specific mistake was not having non-compete and non-disclosure agreements in place before hiring outside of my family. I'm someone who takes people at face value, and while I think it helps me see the best in people, it doesn't always benefit me in the case of hiring sometimes.
I employed a seemingly sincere individual who made over everything I created. After she had been working for me a few months, I drove past an empty store front, a mere block from mine, and saw her painting windows and setting up her own soap shop, strikingly and confusingly similar to mine.
I pulled up my big-girl panties, employed the legal protections I have a right to, and used the entire experience to grow myself and Bathhouse into the massive success it is today. Five years later that business is still situated a block from mine, but I am now a firm believer that mistakes have the influence to turn you into something more powerful than you were before.
(I actually hate the idea of making a real, sincere team member sign those forms, but I have a duty and obligation to my business and the others it employs.)
Modern Soapmaking: If you could offer one piece of advice to a soapmaker struggling with their own business, what would it be?
Charlene: Most of my struggles have diminished when I have help and support. My advice is to get solid, consistent help the minute you can. Even if it feels like a stretch on how you are going to pay them, hire. When you free yourself up, the universe will find a way to take care of your need to compensate the other party.
Our industry of crafting soap and cosmetics is like a chocolate and vanilla twist ice cream. Manufacturing products is the chocolate and the selling of the products is the vanilla. They have to twist in a synchronized fashion to make a beautiful treat that is delightful to customers.
Once one of them becomes more or less powerful than the other, it's no bueno. A synchronicity must exist, and you have to have the support to recognize when there is a trip up.
At first, pick the area that you connect most to, most of us creatives pick the manufacturing side, and hire help on the other side. As your business grows and becomes successful, you'll bounce back and forth.
Once I accepted that it was my duty and responsibility, as a business owner, to stand back and recognize where I needed to focus and adjust, my business propelled quickly to where I wanted it to go.
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