Firstly, tell us a bit about you?
I was born and bred in Hackney, East London. I’m the middle child (and only girl), so I was always fighting to be heard, which I think played a huge part in my determination and drive. My parents were both from Nigeria, so growing up we used to spend time there, which I think nurtured my curiosity of the world around us. Travel brought to surface my intrigue for the senses – especially for how things look and smell.
I started working young and got my first job in Woolworths at age 15. I wasn’t actually old enough, but the Manager needed staff, and I was determined to get a job like my brothers. I am a self confessed ‘Busy Bee’ (something I have passed onto my own daughter!) and even at a young age, I thrived on having a purpose, and getting stuck in with my hands.
I think I first dipped my toe into Entrepreneurship when I started selling make-up to my friends at school as a side-hustle to my Woolworth’s job! I used to sell Barry M, Sleek, Colour Girl – all the brands everyone loved in the 90’s. I would pick the products up cheap on the local market and sell them on. I also dabbled in fragrance and found dupes of ‘white musk’ and other popular scents. My love of fragrance was prevalent then – and I was obsessed with all these new and exciting treats I could get and pass on to my friends – with a profit of course!
I moved out of London at 18 to study Business at University in Liverpool and from there I worked in retail for QVC, then onto cruise ships before eventually landing back in London and finding myself working in events. I loved creating unique, memorable experiences for people and eventually I took the plunge and launched my first business, an events company that rented Chocolate Fountains for weddings and parties. This was a mad time for a young 24 year old and I learned so much; mainly to treat your customers like family and to put yourself in their shoes! I’ve never forgotten this to this day and it is prevalent in our values and approach to work at Soapsmith.
I eventually sold the Chocolate Fountains and the business to Thorntons as I wanted to get back to working with my hands, creating ideas and products. The cash generated from the sale gave me the time (and some cash) to think about my next moves – which, turns out, was Soapsmith….
Tell us about your business, how did you come up with the idea?
The Soapsmith journey began in 2010 when I first started to look to create something that leaned towards my love of creating something in a more practical way. My love of scent and natural curiosity for the world and places, alongside my ‘Busy Bee’ nature, meant I loved those first two years perfecting the art of making our first products and scents. I knew this was a craft and a business I loved and could pour my heart and soul into.
In a true act of faith, I poured all the money I had made from my last business (plus I pawned my old engagement ring!) and set up a space in the Old Clockworks in Walthamstow, which remains our home 12 years on.
Bath & body at the time was not a particularly interesting market when I founded the business, and the scents were especially limited and overdone. As someone that has a deep connection with scent and places, my idea to create scents that were inspired by memories of places and moments in time was a little random, and certainly not done before! But as a creative entrepreneur, I went with it and the scents and their stories are integral to our identity.
I had a few lucky breaks along the journey and also as an Entrepreneur I am not afraid to crack open some doors myself. I think that’s the Londoner in me, you have to do what is required to create opportunities and so I always let retailers and contacts know what the ambition for Soapsmith was – then once they learned more about the product I let fate take its course. And deals happened when they were meant to happen. Quite early on in the business we secured Harrod’s as our first retail partner and this set the brand off on a positive trajectory.
What is your main inspiration and driver for your business?
My mission for Soapsmith is simple: to bring a little bit of sensory luxury to the everyday, for everyone.
My vision for Soapsmith is not so simple: to become a household must-have brand.
I was originally creatively inspired by London, my hometown; it has always been the driving inspiration for Soapsmith. Our most popular scent is Hackney, which is where I was born and raised. Hackney is inspired by my childhood memories of long summer days and balmy afternoons spent wandering along the River Lea and playing football on Hackney Marsh with my brothers. I have honoured many other areas of London through our collection; the gorgeous eclectic culture, diversity and energy of Brick Lane and Camden, the beauty and elegance of Bloomsbury and Marble Arch, and the rich history of Lavender Hill. As the business has progressed, Soapsmith has become known for its ability to capture places through scent, leading to partnerships I never would have dreamed of when I started out, including a collaboration with the exclusive Chateau Denmark, a collection of no-expense-spared Session Rooms and Apartments for the party-goers, as their amenities partner with bespoke scent. Coming out of the Pandemic I am now very keen to start investigating areas outside of London and start creating products that represent other places that I love. The energy of the world inspires me everyday, my curiosity is still with me and I love to create products that can offer this to our customers.
In terms of success I’m not necessarily motivated by money but I am motivated to give my daughter a good life. Building a legacy for her is everything to me. Although the world is beautiful, it’s tough, and I will do everything I can to lay a solid foundation for her
What was the moment that everything changed for you?
Around 6 years into the business we were busy managing numerous large-scale retail partners while growing our own ecommerce too. My role as a Founder is to stay focused on growth, and I could see we were hitting a ceiling in terms of revenue. My ambitions were big for Soapsmith and I had a gut feeling that the business needed something new. Like the old phrase “what got you here, won’t necessarily get you there!”.
It was around this time that I met Gush and Johnny, Founders of Leading Global Brand & Design Agency, Bulletproof. We were introduced through a mutual contact, and we spoke about a partnership that could stimulate the next level of growth for Soapsmith. In 2018 they became my business partners, bringing a marketing and commercial knowledge base into Soapsmith as it sought to make big changes to the brand, product portfolio and business at large, as part of a reset and disrupt strategy. Bulletproof became our design agency, responsible for the full-scale rebrand of Soapsmith and continued brand guardians. The new identity was a category disruptive stroke of genius, with a packaging design worthy of the products inside them. It has been quite extraordinary to see the traction we have seen since. Our vision for Soapsmith is great and we have plans to expand in many areas over the next five years.
What were the initial challenges you came up against and how did you overcome them?
I am fortunate that I have a very positive outlook and generally most challenges I face always seem figure outable! I am a great believer that everything really does happen for a reason and all arrows have to point to yes. With that said, business is tough! And it’s naive not to be prepared for sales to slow down, the economy to shift and all the other surprises we’ve had particularly in the last few years – but I think having a strong team that work in harmony, that can adapt, roll with the punches and ultimately get sh*t done is the secret to keeping businesses alive.
What was the first win that made you feel you were onto something?
I’m really proud of our carefully curated selection of retail partners – everytime I go into Liberty and see Soapsmith there I pinch myself. Taking it back to the start though – I think the feedback I received from the first customers early on was the biggest boost – I still recognise their names on orders today and can’t believe they have stayed so loyal to their favourite products.
Did you take the investment route for your business or are you self-funded? Can you share some insights on your decision and the process?
It was 100% self-funded, to begin with then in 2018 the partnership with Bulletproof occurred. I would tell fellow Founders to be open to partnerships – you’ll know when you find the right fit. I’m a firm believer that two heads are better than one; no one is good at everything, and more importantly no one enjoys doing everything. My partnership has enabled me to focus on the things I both enjoy and am good at, because they have brought to the table the things they enjoy and are good at.
What has been your best investment?
This isn’t just to win brownie points with our brand team, but probably our best investment has been in PR activity; without PR we never would have survived the pandemic. It gets your brand out there, sparks conversation and generates awareness that leads to more customers and opportunities.
Have you made any mistakes or faux pas? If so, can you share it with us?
Plenty! Of course, it’s all part of the journey and we wouldn’t be half the business we are today without them. From typos discovered on packaging after printing thousands of units, to signing contracts or agreeing to payment terms that result in business losses. You can’t ever be perfect or avoid mistakes, no matter the size of your business. It’s how you manage yourself out of these mistakes, and how you work with the team around you to find solutions that’s important.
What’s your experience of being a woman in the start-up ecosystem and what in your mind needs to change?
Being a woman can mean having disruptions and things to worry about that traditionally men don’t. I feel that these small details can actually impact a lot of us from progressing quickly and just getting through our days efficiently.
Most of us are juggling a lot of plates so I learnt a long time ago that you can’t do it all and you can’t please everybody. I keep my circle small now, so I don’t waste precious energy on things that really don’t matter and I can’t change. I’ve got big ambitions and worrying about things that people sometimes still put on to me, probably because I’m a woman, just isn’t something I give my time to now.
In the UK society has made great strides toward equality for working women, but there is still a lack of women represented in the C-Suit boardroom. I’m fortunate to have a 70% female leadership team, but Soapsmith is an anomaly. Whilst society and businesses have progress to make, we as women have the power to adopt and spread the word: that being a woman is a very real and true superpower.
What’s been the greatest lesson you’ve learnt since starting your own business?
That together is better! You can’t do it all alone – if you’re lucky enough to come across a great potential partnership, consider it, because more skillsets, perspectives and expertise is better than yours alone.
Have you had any role models or mentors along the way?
My Mum was a great Mother and is still 100% my number of cheerleader and supporter She also keeps me grounded and is the first to offer some perspective when I need it. She is always there to step in to help with childcare when I need to work late and Geir (my partner) is away working.
What was your biggest learning of 2022?
To keep your eye on the vision – life is throwing curveballs left, right and centre; so stay on course, be agile when needed, but keep the vision in sight.
With the future in mind, where would you like to be/where do you see yourself in the next five years?
We have big growth plans for Soapsmith that do involve expansion into new territories. Las Vegas is my favourite place (after London) so I can dream that Soapsmith might make an appearance there at some point – I would love to create a fragrance that represents the energy of that incredible place! Ultimately, we want to be a household brand, globally, so if we can achieve that in a few key markets in the next 5 years I’d be a very happy entrepreneur….
What books, podcasts or resources would you recommend?
Staying hungry to learn and keeping on top of what’s going on in the world is key, so I tend to use business forums/publications, podcasts, newspapers and even Instagram as a way of getting new ideas. Signing up for newsletters in your industry is a great way of keeping up to date. For example for me, my main sources of industry knowledge comes from cosmetic business and Happi (formulation news). I also watch Dragrons Den and Shark Tank to hear stories from other founders. Finally, Podcasts like Courier, How I built this and Secrets of a side hustle are a great way to get inspiration, and learn from other peoples’ experiences and challenges.
What advice would you give anyone about to start a business?
Jump in with two feet, but don’t try and do it all alone. Seek counsel from old colleagues, friends, community forums online. It takes a village to build a business.
Finally, where can we find you/how can we support you?
Soapsmith would love to offer F+F readers £5 off your first Soapsmith order – please use the code FFHELLO5 at checkout.
About your author
Hayley Beatts is the Blog Editor for Found & Flourish, working with Founder Lara Sheldrake to ensure every piece of published content is empowering, inspiring and well presented, just like the women we work with.
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