[EDITOR’S NOTE: Amilya has closed SoapWorks and is now involved in a new business called LuckyNapkin.com]
Amilya Antonetti struggled to find a cure for her son’s ailments, and found with it a successful business.
Amilya had just given birth to her son, David, but her joy quickly turned to horror when the newborn would constantly cry in pain. The baby experienced shortness of breath and skin rashes. Not knowing what ails the baby, she and her husband consulted various specialists and doctors, to no avail. No one could them what is wrong with David or what triggers all the pain.
Her spirit undaunted, she made a careful record of her baby’s life in the hope of finding the triggers to David’s painful reactions. She discovered that David’s pain was worst on Tuesdays, the day she cleans the house. Careful research led her to finally discover the culprits: chlorine and ammonia from her household cleaning products. The synthetic ingredients in the cleaning products caused David tremendous discomfort and pain. Amilya threw out her cleaning products and David’s crying finally stopped.
She then started her quest of developing cleaning products without synthetic-based ingredients. Using vegetable-based ingredients, she created a line of household cleaning products that are safe to use around David. Before long, word got around of the hypoallergenic cleaning products she developed. Her business, Soapworks, was born.
Soapworks (http://www.soapworks.com) has now grown into a $10 million business in three years that it has been in business. Amilya’s company now offers a line of cleaning products: Laundry Powder or Liquid Laundry, Automatic Dishwashing Powder, All-Purpose Cleaner, Glass Cleaner, and Spot Cleaner.
I interviewed Amilya to share with us her road to entrepreneurship and the struggles she met along the way. Learn from her experience.
Your son’s health condition was the inspiration for your products. At what point did you think that you must formulate your own “soap” to take care of his problem? And when did you think that your naturally formulated cleaning products could be a good business?
All I was trying to do was to make something that would work and not cause him distress. I had laundry everywhere and needed to clean his sheets, his clothes, diapers, etc. I didn’t really think about “formulating” – just needed a soap that worked.
I never really decided to start a soap making business and become “Amilya, the soap maker.” I was sharing all the products with friends and family and they kept encouraging me to start a business. When I ran an ad in a local newspaper “Calling All Moms” and saw how many other mothers were in the same position I was, they also said you need to get this soap out to others. Because of these “mom gatherings” I was hosting – with moms testing the products — the business really started without me even realizing it.
When and how did you start the business?
I started the business in 1993 making soap in my sink and later in my garage. This continued into 1994 as I continued my fact-finding research on the hazards of chemicals. In 1995 with all my notes and research in hand, I hired formulator and SOAPWORKS was born.
In another interview, you mentioned that you liquidated everything you had and that your husband quit his job for the business. Talk about big risks! What gave you the confidence that these risks were worth taking?
I feel strongly that once you gain knowledge you have to share that – it is your responsibility. I felt morally obligated to let others know what I had learned. I almost killed my son and people needed to know how to make their children safe. It had nothing to do with confidence but a desire to educate and help others.
How did you finance your business?
Originally with savings, credit cards and selling anything of value. Then with an SBA-guaranteed loan acquired in 1997.
Bringing the Product to Market
How did you bring your natural cleaning products to the market? What were the challenges you faced?
Initially I gave my product to doctors, took it to PTA meetings and community and civic groups, schools, etc. It was basically word of mouth. The challenge – always cash flow, cash flow and cash flow.
When you launched your products, what was the market’s initial reaction? Was the reception as warm as you expected?
Customers were very warm and receptive but the businesses (supermarkets, chain stores) were not at all receptive. I learned quickly that it is all about business and the money.
The buyers wanted to know what they – their store – would get by purchasing the product, i.e. special discounts, coupons for their customers, etc. Store space is a premium and I was competing in an $8 billion industry for that space. No one was going to hold my hand and walk me through what I needed to do just because it was a good idea or a great product. I had entered a dog eat dog business.
What were the challenges you faced in the formulation and manufacturing of your products?
I couldn’t make the product and sell it and be cost-effective.
I spoke to dozens of manufacturers and none could be competitive because it is a numbers game. The more products you make, the more boxes/packaged you produce to put the product in the cost per item goes down. I wasn’t even in the ballpark with those numbers compared to my competitors. It had little to do with the formulation.
I finally found a manufacturer that believed in my products and was willing to manufacture the line making little to no money in the hopes that one day I would be a big player and I would remember him and throw the bigger business his way.
It is still a challenge today because I am still not in the arena with the Tides, All, 407, Clorox, etc. Remember, this is an $8 billion industry . . . that is a lot of soap.
Your products are sold online and in specialty grocery stores such as Trader’s Joe. What is your distribution strategy? Where else can buyers find your products?
We started close to home and in an arena that understand us the best – the health food stores. Then we moved to mainstream grocery stores. We are focusing on education so that the product is driven as much by our distribution as by demand by the consumer.
Marketing the Products
Who are the primary markets of your product?
Anybody who is taking a shower, cleaning the house and doing the laundry.
How are you marketing your business? What are your offline and online strategies?
Marketing the product by educating the consumer to make the best decision so that the push is consumer driven. That was one of the reasons I wrote my book, “Why David Hated Tuesdays”. The book shows people where the chemicals and toxins are in their home and offers them choices to make a change . . . like using SOAPWORKS products if they so choose.
This year we will be doing more on-line marketing but initially it was all guerilla marketing and pressing the flesh.
The increasing emphasis on a healthy lifestyle and clean environment has spurred the growth of natural cleaning products. How is Soapworks differentiating itself from its competitors?
Our products are all we do. We are not diversified. Though we are aware of our competitors we don’t worry about them. We just continue to do what we think it “the right thing to do”.
How did you grow your business into a $10 million enterprise in less than 3 years? What were your key strategies?
We continue to strive to put the best product out. We don’t worry about the money. We control our growth. We continue to educate the consumer.
What do you think are the keys to your success?
Every day I remember why I started the company, which was for my son. I continue to stay very connected to that purpose. The focus has always been to help educate and bring a better choice to the consumer.
Next Steps for the Business
Your business appear to be a family endeavor, with you and your husband involved with SoapWorks. How do you balance your family life and business?
We started as a family business but have gone way beyond that now. I balance my life by duplicating myself and building teams for everything. I have a team for David’s needs; for my business; a personal team that keeps me grounded. No one can be the “end-all” and if you think you are . . . well you’re in for a rude awakening.
I surround myself with people who can be an extension of me as well as people who bring what I don’t have to the table – in both my business and personal life.
What are the next steps from your business? What are your plans for next year?
Everything has been reformulated to make it safer and better and been re-packaged. We will be rolling out a national advertising campaign and will continue with my main focus, educating the consumer.
Any lessons you want to share to other start-up entrepreneurs?
It will take more time and more money that you ever thought. Never lose sight of your goal and your purpose.