An Interview with River County Soapworks: How to Knock Out Obstacles & Build Your Best Biz
When Kenna tasked me with doing our Soapmaker Success Stories interviews, Robin Hertz of River County Soapworks was at the top of my list of makers to reach out to. (Y'all might remember Robin from our article about living through a surprise visit from the FDA to check to see that she was following labeling rules and cosmetic regulations. Wowza!)
Many soapmakers can relate to Robin's story. She's trying to balance biz and family. She faces the challenge of making her business work when the area it's located in isn't a great market for handmade soap. And, she's working to perfect her good manufacturing processes (GMP), all the while being a bit nervous that the powers that be are going to swat her hand for every little mistake.
That said, what makes Robin really special is how openly and generously she's shared her story with the Modern Soapmaking tribe. So, I was thrilled when she agreed to once again update us on her trials, tribulations, and triumphs with River County Soapworks.
Modern Soapmaking: How were you introduced to handcrafted soap making?
Robin: I was at a large holiday bazaar and purchased soap from a vendor. It was beautifully designed and smelled wonderful. I loved it.
Modern Soapmaking: What was your favorite resource as a beginner?
Robin: When I first started making soap, YouTube and Facebook were not in existence. Soapmaking books were few and far between. The only one really available that was comprehensive was The Soapmakers Companion by Susan Miller Cavitch. I read this book from cover to cover. It has always been one of my favorites, and trust me, my copy is well worn!
Modern Soapmaking: How long have you been making soap?
Robin: I have been making soap since 2000. When my son was 2, I started selling at our local farmers market as a way to get out of the house. He is now 18.
Modern Soapmaking: What are your favorite molds?
Robin: I have both large silicone molds and wood slab molds that my husband made for me when the silicone mold suppliers went out of business. I would never have thought I would prefer the wood molds. But, I do. Every single one of the silicone molds has experienced shrinkage, which gives me one log I must cut differently.
The wood molds are accurate, and it doesn’t take much time at all to line them with 3 mil plastic bags. As far as wrinkles, that has not been an issue with any of my clients, so I find myself reaching for the wood molds first.
(MS: Want to follow Robin's lead and try wooden molds for your soap production? Check out our DIY wooden mold tutorial.)
Modern Soapmaking: Besides a stick blender, what is one soapmaking tool you couldn’t live without?
Robin: I finally purchased a heating tank from SoapEquipment.com. The original idea was to use it for liquid soap making, but then it dawned on me that I could also use it for masterbatching oils and lotion making. My only regret is I should have gotten the bigger size. But, when I hit the buy button, I was thinking liquid soap. From now on, I will buy bigger than what I think I will need. That is the lesson I learned. So, now we are going to have to buy another tank, giving us one for liquid soap making and one for melting oils.
(MS: If you are ready to start scaling up, don't miss our production soapmaking equipment picks for any budget).
Modern Soapmaking: What inspired you to start River County Soapworks?
My two children were born 13 years apart, and my son, Austin, was an unexpected surprise. Until he was born in 1999, I had always worked outside the home. But, with him I was at the point I could stay home, so I did.
However, when he hit 6 months, I was going crazy! Consequently, I made a conscious decision to build a business making soap. I had always been right brained, and soap making just appealed to me.
Modern Soapmaking: Do you make soap for a specific niche?
Robin: I make soap for companies that, for whatever reason, wish to outsource their soap making. These companies can buy from River County Soapworks regular line, or we do custom manufacturing based on their specifications for bar size, dimensions, and fragrance. Custom manufacturing is one of my favorite things to do because it allows variation from the regular run.
Modern Soapmaking: How fierce is the competition in your area? How do you compete?
Robin: It’s huge. Gigantic!
Prior to 2013, I did markets and fairs like everyone else. That route went nowhere, so it was either adjust my business model or do something different entirely.
The last market I was a member of yielded on average $246.00 for an entire weekend before fees. And, each weekend meant two 12-hour days of packing, driving, setting up, tearing down, and putting away. This was at the largest market we have locally, with 400 artisan vendors attending, so clearly something had to change.
Modern Soapmaking: We think you are a rockstar at private label, custom manufacture, and wholesale. Can you tell us a little more about how you took your River County Soapworks in that direction?
Robin: While I enjoyed the social aspect, I never felt selling at a market would build a good, reliable income where we are located. I always knew I would go wholesale but planned to do so when Austin was older.
So, in the beginning, I sold at markets and did craft fairs, with a website on the side. Sales were okay, but they were nothing to write home about. Mostly, the business just paid for itself.
Then the economy tanked, and things went really south. I stopped doing our local market, and I went across the river to Portland. Sales were pretty awful there too, for the size of the market, and I was getting very discouraged.
In 2012, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and during the year of treatment, I made the decision that if I was going to make a go of this little business, something had to change. Doing more of the same wasn’t going to cut it!
So, I made the decision to stop trying to sell locally and went 100% wholesale, private label, and custom manufacturing. (MS: If you aren't familiar with those terms check out our wholesale primer, so we can get you up to speed.) That was the best decision I have ever made, and River County Soapworks has seen consistent growth every year since making the switch.
It might surprise people, but my customers are not near where I live. The majority are on the East Coast.
Truthfully, I look at River County Soapworks actually becoming a real business in 2013, when I got serious and actively went after wholesale business. I started paying for website search engine optimization (SEO) focusing on wholesale, which I still do.
(MS: Is SEO a mystery to you? We've laid out the basics of search engine optimization.)
We did trade shows in Portland and Seattle a couple of times. We discovered that trade shows near where the business is located have gone into the toilet and are mostly empty of buyers. I stopped doing them, but, if we lived on the East Coast, I would do the Atlanta trade show in a heartbeat.
At this point, my new business comes from referrals and inquiries on the website due to great SEO. It took time for the investment in SEO to pay off, but it does.
Modern Soapmaking: If you could offer one piece of advice to a soapmaker starting their business, what would it be?
Robin: Think before you leap. I didn’t do this. Instead, I just jumped, and it cost me.
And, branding, branding, and more branding. I can’t stress this enough. I just pulled the name River County Soapworks out of the air, and we built the logo around it. Because, at the time, my husband didn’t like any of the names I came up with, and I just wanted to get my license and go sell.
This was one of the worst mistakes I made. I don’t feel I have a brand; I just have a name. My goal is to continue to have River County Soapworks LLC as the custom manufacturing and private label part of the business and then to eventually branch off with an upscale brand that we exclusively wholesale. Of course, that may change, because the custom manufacturing is really the bread and butter of the business. Consequently, it keeps me very busy just by itself.
(MS: Find out what other pros would change if they could start their soap business over.)
Modern Soapmaking: What is your guiding philosophy in business?
Robin: Fake it till you make it. Thinking this way has never failed me. So, if someone asks if we can make 20,000 bars, I say, "Of course!" and figure out the logistics later. If I waited till I had everything figured out, the opportunity would fly by.
Modern Soapmaking: Your last feature on Modern Soapmaking was a gift to the soaping community and influenced so many. Is there anything you'd like to say about your progress and follow up visits from the FDA? (And if you are sick of talking about it, that's just fine!)
The truth is those visits are always in the back of my mind. They are stressful, but my goal is to have all my ducks in a row.
I listen to others either question the rules, ignore the rules, or think the rules just don’t apply to them, because they only sell at a farmers market or small craft shows. This is just not true. Then there are those that keep saying that because so and so does it, they can too.
Well, yes, there are tons and tons of websites and sellers mislabeling, making improper claims, and more. Trust me when I tell you it doesn’t matter what anyone else does. It is extremely stressful to have an FDA badge flashed in your face. Personally, I want to avoid that.
Modern Soapmaking: We were thrilled to see you were taking off during the holidays to be with your family this year because you've struggled in the past with taking time off as River County Soapworks grew. Any tips on learning to manage life/work balance?
Robin: This is one of my biggest struggles because, at the moment, the “shop” is in the garage, so the work is always right in front of my face. I have a hard time leaving it.
We are to the point that we are able to build a separate shop building on our property. It will be built several feet up the hill behind our barn, so I will have a bit of a walk to work. My goal is to get to the point of leaving the work once I shut the door, just like when I had a regular 9 to 5 job. I’m also trying to convince myself that it is ok to hire some housecleaning help in order to take some pressure off at home.
Has Robin's story about finding her niche with River County Soapworks inspired you to build your own version of success? Well, why not say a quick, "Thanks!" in the comments? And then tell us what you are doing today to build your best biz!
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