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The Latest Soap Design Techniques are Beautiful, But Are They Worth It?

A lot of folks found Modern Soapmaking through one of my tutorials or YouTube videos, and that’s fabulous – really, it is!¬†I love playing with new soap design techniques and of course, challenging myself with difficult color schemes (rainbows!)

Are Intricate Soap Design Techniques Worth It?
Are Intricate Soap Design Techniques Worth It?

I’ve noticed lately that there is a hot new soap design technique coming around every month or two, and it will continue to grow and trend as long as soapmakers continue to share online. Again, this is super awesome – I love seeing the¬†handcrafted soapmaking industry continue to grow and thrive.

If you are a hobbyist soapmaker, exploring new soap design techniques will help you learn the craft by challenging you to get outside the box and your comfort zone. Most of often, problems crop up when you are trying complex designs Рfragrances misbehave, trace accelerates, emulsions break, and so much more.

Certain types of formulas make complicated soap design techniques easy, while other formulas are either to slow to set up or give you a race to the mold. Pushing yourself with new soap design techniques teaches you how to handle the multitude of variables that affect how a batch of soap turns out. (And if you need help conquering your soap pot, this article talks about how you can control trace to make it easier to turn out beautiful designs!)

However,¬†if you sell your handmade soap, we have to have a little heart-to-heart chat about all these fancy swirls and pretty soap design techniques…

When I coach¬†soapmakers in business, one of the biggest issues they talk about is¬†slow sales and low cash flow.¬†Many of the soapmakers who report dwindling cash in the bank and cricket noises on their website¬†are trying to manage all their marketing moves by using¬†social media, blogging about their business, and/or sending regular email newsletters. (High five!) They often complain that they don’t have enough time to do¬†all the “business tasks” on their plate and state that they feel overwhelmed by their businesses.

One thing all these soapmakers tend to have in common? They¬†spend¬†a whole lot of time and money on making tons of¬†products to offer their customers a huge variety of choices. They make new¬†products using the latest and greatest soapmaking design techniques to try to pull in more sales and cashflow. They’re chanting and pointing¬†at sparklin’ shiny bars of soap, fresh off the curing rack, through their¬†social media channels, blogs, and email newsletters.

And this is the number one area I know to look at for business owners!

Why Intricate Soap Design Techniques Are Bad for Business

We all have different goals when starting a business, whether that’s to create a full-time income that supports your family or a side game that makes enough profit to support a hobby.

Regardless of the reason you are in business, there are a couple things about business that are undeniable:

  • With¬†more types of products you are making, you will have¬†more money tied up in supplies and product
  • With more¬†complicated products in production, you will spend more time making products
  • With more complex product designs, you are more likely to hear from customers that it’s too pretty to use
  • With more varieties of products and/or more complex product designs, you will spend less time actually selling your products¬†which means less¬†cash flow

Having less available cash flow for your business and less of your time available to sell your products, you will be creating a perpetual cycle of problems for your business! No one wants that!

Before You Start Selling Your Handmade Soap

If you just starting your business, it’s the perfect time to prevent problems before they start! Here are my top three tips for tackling soapmaking as a business owner rather than a hobbyist:

Limit each product line to 10 or less varieties. I know, I know! You think you have the upper hand by offering more varieties of products to your customers, but time and time again, it’s been proven that consumers do better with less choices.

The benefit of this is that the less products you make, the more time you have to market and sell your products rather than producing them.

Study your target market and identify what varieties would appeal to them the most and then limit your options to¬†ten or less choices that are appealing to your target market. For instance, if you create products for a teen market, you will likely create scent varieties that are fun, playful, or fresh. However, if you create products for men, you won’t likely create scent varieties like florals or sticky sweet scents.

Consider design and production complexities. It may be tons of fun to pull off a Taiwan Swirl or Tiger Stripe, but in practice, these soap designs require a lot more time than you should be spending on production. Most consumers just see a swirled soap, so use that to your advantage!

You can create a variety of beautiful designs using techniques like:

  • In the pot swirls and in the mold swirls
  • Layering and embedding
  • Pencil lines
  • Textured tops
  • Combinations of the above techniques

Limit yourself to fast and easy techniques for production soapmaking to maximize your efficiency.

Create efficient production practices as soon as possible. The very first step in converting your hobby to a business should be to eliminate inefficient production flows. For most soapmakers, this means creating larger batches of soap and masterbatching your ingredients.

If you currently make 2 pound batches of soap that give you eight bars of soap, you are going to spend a lot more time to keep up with production than if you upgrade to 5, 10, or 20 pound batches. You can easily increase your production capacity by making your soap molds and using buckets, a drill, and a paint mixing attachment from the hardware store.

After You Start Selling Your Handmade Soap

If you’ve already started selling your soap in your business, it’s not to late to save your hide and get moving in the right direction. Here are the four tips I can offer you to clean it on up:

Cut back on your offerings. Evaluate which products are selling, and eliminate your worst sellers until you have ten or less varieties on your plate. If you have a product that sells seasonally, remove it from your permanent line and only make it during the season in which it sells. This does two fabulous things for your business:

  • It eliminates production when no production is needed.
  • It gives you something new and shiny to talk about seasonally without additional research and development.

There is always going to be folks who complain when you remove products from your line, you can choose to take custom orders for those products with the purchase of full batches or you can offer the product seasonally. At Amathia Soapworks, a particular product I eliminated from my line was super popular during the summer, so I moved it to a season item. When the time came, my customers who loved that product stocked up!

Simplify designs and production complexities. If you currently make crazy intricate soap designs in your line, you will want to simplify those designs or raise your costs to account for the extra labor required.

When I set up Gratitude Soapery, I intentionally created a product line full of solid color soaps and one special bar of soap that featured a rainbow tiger stripe. While being a much more complex and labor intensive design to create, I made sure to charge more for that particular product and customers loved it! They happily paid more for that special design, and seemed to appreciate the design intricacies more because it stood out among the line.

If you need to simplify a design, please consider how much the change will cost you. Will you need new product photographs? Will you need to print new wholesale or marketing materials? Weigh the benefits and long term costs of continuing to produce the product versus the short term costs of taking new photos or creating new materials. Nine times out of ten, the short term costs seem scary, but actually save money in the long run due to labor costs.

Evaluate production efficiency and make changes.¬†If you haven’t yet, detail your entire workflow in production, calculating the time you spend during each step, to see what is really hanging you up.

For most soapmakers, steps like beveling soap, shining soap, or removing ash on soap are all extra production processes they started doing as hobbyist that they quickly realize are not cost-effective for their businesses. The benefit of offering these steps as part of your production process is usually greatly outweighed by the cost involved. If you insist on keeping these steps in your processes, make sure you are financially compensating yourself for them in your product costs.

Make the steps necessary to increase your production output, whether that’s larger molds or larger batches or masterbatching.

Outsource production work or business tasks. If you¬†spend more than 20% of your “work” time on production, you are spending too much time focusing on the production and not enough time on the selling and marketing.

If you want it to stay that way, outsource the necessary business tasks to ensure your business is profitable and making money. Whether that’s outsourcing your bookkeeping or hiring a social media manager, if you want to stay over the soap pot, put someone else over the business side.

However, if you spend more than 20% of your work time on production due to demand of your products and have already taken the steps above, it’s time to hire production help. If you can’t afford to hire production help, it’s likely that you need to take a deeper look at your product costs and possibly, your pricing.

So, are those intricate soap design techniques worth it?

Probably not!

However, in the end, it’s your call, isn’t it?! I’m a huge proponent of rocking the U in bUsiness, so you do you.

Oftentimes, when I talk about this problem in¬†classes and talks in person,¬†I see a lot of light bulbs flicker on above soapmakers’ heads. When you start a business, it’s hard to take off you soapmaker’s cap and wear the business hat, so if you haven’t made that transition yet, I hope this has helped you do it!

Have you taken these steps to eliminate intricate soap design techniques or limit your product offerings? Share how that went for you in the comments below!

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31 Responses

  1. Any thoughts on keeping product offerings feeling fresh and exciting without overwhelming yourself with projects? My wholesale accounts tend to ask, “What’s new?” Is seasonal enough? Do you have any tips on deciding when adding a product to the line is a good idea? It’s a huge amount of work to launch something new, but I don’t want to avoid it to the point my products seeming stale. That said I know classics are classics for a reason!

    1. I totally agree, Stephanie. The first thing most of my customers ask is “What’s New?” so I have to keep it fresh and exciting even though I know too many products are killing me…

    2. Personally, I did seasonal offerings twice a year. Usually, they were not necessarily new, just return offerings. But if you think about how many new customers you pick up in a calendar year, they seemed like the new fresh thing every time they came around. In the spring + summer, I did two or three varieties. And in the fall + winter, I did five or six. This corresponded with my sales growth in the 3rd and 4th quarter.

      Even if you choose to do a seasonal offering based on a holiday, season, etc., that should give you enough product rotation without being overwhelming. For example, two new varieties each quarter (Jan/Feb/Mar, could have a V-day focus; Apr/May/June, could have a summer/spring/mothers day focus; July/Aug/Sept, could have a focus on cooling/refreshing/4th of july/back to school; Oct/Nov/Dec, could have a fall/holiday/winter focus).

      I know it’s challenging to feel like you always need to offer a sparkling brand new product, but if you set yourself up with a limited seasonal offering to answer those calls, it will minimize its impact on your business.

      And the benefit is that you could take pre-orders for those offerings if you plan in advance, to give you a better idea of how much to make. ūüėČ

  2. For us we streamlined our bar soaps into the 5 best-selling fragrances (well actually one is unfragrance). We also sell liquid soaps, balms, scrubs etc and so felt that 5 is more than enough choice.
    I wanted our soaps to be distinctive and so have tried to come up with simple techniques which aren’t too time consuming and can be repeated easily. I don’t make the soaps (we’re a social business and so this is one of the tasks the men do) and so I’ve taught the guys how to make them. My goal was to keep colours (natural) , have each bar look different, but yet not take too much time. We use various techniques to pattern – contrast colour of grated soap, ITP swirl, layers, texture mats dusted with a layer of colour etc.
    It’s been a case of finding the balance between producing in larger batches, keeping everything handmade and also working in a cost efficient way whilst producing unique soap bars!
    I think it’s been worth doing we’ve now got a nice range of distinctive soaps which work well with the brand and also the packaging of all the products together. It’s taken time and a lot of learning – but we’re getting there.
    We’ve recently added a men’s range to our products – only one fragrance for now, but that will increase as demand grows too.
    I think when we started out we should have gone with a total of 3 fragrances, it would’ve been a lot less expensive to set up and would have helped us feel our way a bit more in the market.
    Great article, thanks

    1. Yes, it’s definitely a balancing act! What I try to remind soapmakers of is the number of companies that launched and focused on one singular product. Or look at your favorite products out there. A good example is the iPhone. The first iPhone came in one size, one color. As the versions have gone on, they have expanded into a couple different memory sizes (3 tops, I think) and a couple colors (they have 3? now.) There’s no harm in creating a limited number of varieties and really focusing on getting those going before adding to the mix!

      Nicely done!

  3. My best selling soap is my Guinness beer soap – it’s brown and ugly! Why? It’s the fragrance! 90% of people base their purchase on the scent. I have 2 or 3 soaps that I spend extra time on the designs, but I’ll only sell one or two here and there, I end up dragging them around. Even extra additives: people didn’t care about my tussah silk, my argan oil, etc. – if it didn’t smell good, they didn’t buy it. About a year ago I posted a picture on one of the Facebook pages of me shredding all my pretty cupcake soaps. I think that sums it up.

    1. Yes! Most people do not buy soap because of what it looks like. Scent typically comes first in person. When you aren’t selling in person, the photography is more important than the design, and the copywriting. Don’t spend all that time on making intricate designs – put it towards your photography and copywriting!

      I would really recommend giving those 2 or 3 luggers the axe! If you don’t sell them often enough to restock them, why bother making them at all?!

      High five for learning this hard lesson on your own with those cupcake soaps. They work for very few soapmakers – and it’s completely dependent on target market. ūüėČ

    2. I totally understand about the cupcake soaps. But to be able to bring them out at a few special markets through the year attracts the customers. Most will not buy them, but they do bring in more buyers as they turn heads. BUT it has to be at select markets, so they look different, otherwise it is just the same old, same old.

  4. This is SOOOOOOOO true! If you want to keep it fresh offer one or two new things. Otherwise you’ll develop the expectation in your customers and needlessly wear yourself out. Just my humble opinion from my personal experience.

    1. Yes! It’s all about training your customers.

      If you always have new things, they expect new things. If you always run sales, they expect sales. If you always hand deliver an order, they expect delivery. Etc., etc. A lot of business can be summed up down to balancing expectations and what is cost effective and beneficial for business. Soapmakers do a lot of things that aren’t very smart for business, but develop high expectation from a customer base who likely isn’t paying for it’s worth.

      Very good point!

  5. Oh, Man! Focusing on ten items is going to be a challenge! I just went into the soap shop and counted my varieties… TWENTY TWO! Six different lavenders alone! Part of my challenge is in learning this new market!

    1. I know soapmakers that have 60+ varieties. It works for *very* few businesses.

      Evaluate your target market, and get to know what is important to them. Then focus on that!

      1. Okay, guilty. I am a business that has more than 60 varieties (depending on the time of year I have 100) BUT (and I think this is an important BUT) I only do soaps. I don’t do balms or lotions or shower steamers or bath bombs. I just make soap. They are on the whole very simple, hot processed and I make big fat batches so that some of them I only have to make once or twice a year. Because we are something of a niche (all natural and barely scented), I wanted to make sure we had enough varieties to keep our bases covered. There are days it feels like too much but overall the look of relief on someone’s face when they see I have a soap they can use is worth the weeks on end of being covered in oil.

  6. Kenna, you could not have timed this article better. I had not tried the multi color tech on my soaps but I was thinking about it. Your other advice for a brand new business is spot on what I needed this week. Thank you!!!!!!

    1. When I had Amathia, I did do the pretty techniques for tutorials and soap challenges and such like that. I used those soaps as my limited edition releases seasonally (and I charged more for them!). ūüôā No one says you can’t have a little fun, but be smart about it!

  7. Thank you for this article! I don’t make any soap that I consider intricately designed and since I haven’t had great sales since I first started selling, I thought that may be the culprit. This helps me to try to figure out what IS the culprit!

    1. No! It’s likely not the culprit at all! One thing to keep in mind is that it usually takes 3 to 5 years for a business to turn a profit. First year sales are typically totaling $15k or less for new handmade soap company owners. Yes, folks do better than that, but most do not. ūüėČ It’s likely that you are simply just getting started!

  8. My problem was playing with and developing new recipes. I’d narrowed it to 4, but after reading you article the I think I’m at 3. My light bulb moment came a few months ago when I gave away a bag of soap to a senior community. Definitely a good cause, but a waste of money. I called it my learning curb. I’ve officially been in business about 2 year, but have been make soap for 7 years. My customers demand shea butter soap and it sell very well. I love cocoa and mango butter and I have one other formulation. I had a 4 recipe for my organic/EO soap, but I can use one of the other 3. Organic cutter are better priced than a few years ago.

    This is all a balancing act along with trial and error. Hopefully the recipe error is over. Only 10 fragrances, that’s gonna be hard.

  9. Love love LOVE this article! I’m out of the business now and trying to figure out how to re-enter on a solid basis. I remember being seduced by all the beautiful techniques, colors and scents being discussed in blogs and social media groups. Then I realized that having all those intricate designs drives up production time and makes it difficult to scale for anything over 10 bars! It takes DISCIPLINE to restrict yourself to a few scents and a few designs and balance your love for the art with the savvy needed to run a business. Thanks for the tough love! ūüôā

  10. When creating a packaging design, is it important to show the soap’s design itself? I noticed that there are a lot of commercial soaps that are colored white but with different scents and wrapped in different packaging. Will it make a difference in sale-ability displaying the soap fully wrapped with a customized branded packaging not showing it’s design? I have this impression that the soap might look just like an expensive commercial soap if i fully wrapped it rather than showing the soap design. I want to sell handmade soaps that are very unique, safe and natural. Where will i focus: soap design technique or soap packaging? which of the two will be more catchy for customers?

  11. I have been thinking along these lines for a few weeks. My designs are so intricate, and have so many colors – it is almost impossible to duplicate them! So I end up having many singular offerings. I do have a base of about 6 regular designs that are easy to duplicate, and (hint to me!), those 6 are my most popular, LOL. This is a creative outlet and making art makes me so happy. I would be less fulfilled if I stopped making my singular designs! Maybe I should cut them down to just 3 or 4 per season. I will keep thinking on it.

  12. When I googled ‚Äúhandmade soap‚ÄĚ I found a lot of artistic sops there. So, I thought how people could use this kind of works for our daily use.
    This article gave me the reality of sopers. I can imagine making a lot of artistic works must be quite hard work…

    Proposing something related Japanese stuff without too much complicated design might be the way for my wife’s soap.

    Thank you for the interesting article!

  13. Thank you this is so true and I have already eliminated some of my other products (like bath salts scents that weren’t selling well) in order to streamline. Now, I make them only if a customer asks (this is possible with bath salts as it’s very easy and quick to make). I already do seasonal soaps, but I’m going to take a long hard look at my remaining soaps also. Thank you!

    1. Nicole,
      So glad you are working to make smart choices about your offerings! Make sure you don’t underestimate your time on those one-offs, though.

      You are welcome!

  14. I couldn’t have found this blog at a better time. My soap business just began this March and I’ve gone a bit overboard with making new soaps (Specialize in melt and pour soaps at the moment). I love bright colors and swirls, but have also experimented with other fun ideas I’ve had rolling around in my mind. I’ve been fortunate enough to do two vendors shows since starting in March and it’s amazing what soaps people gravitate towards and ones I think will be hot sellers just sit there so lonely needing a good home to go to. ūüôā Reading this has inspired be to streamline my soap products and keep researching what my clients love and want to use in the tub!

    1. Congrats on the new biz, Kristy! And for figuring out so early what takes some makers years! Make sure to keep excellent records so you know what you should be making in the future – what’s really making a profit! And poke around the site a bit more as you have time. We have a ton of resources for your first year!

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