From Making Soap In My Basement To Building A $1.3M/Year Business
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, I am Kelly Perkins, Founder, and CEO of Spinster Sisters Co. We are a natural skin and personal care company that manufactures premium quality products that are better for people and better for the planet.
In November 2021, we launched a “Free From” collection of concentrated bar products free from water and plastic packaging that has been received well. In just over a month, we have received purchase orders from several grocery store chains for this new, innovative product offering.
After starting in my basement in 2012 with just me and a single batch of bar soap, there are now 18 of us and we operate out of our 8,860 sq. ft. wind and solar-powered Microsoapery in Golden, Colorado. Our products are currently sold in over 2100 stores across the country in both natural and mass grocery, and we just expanded to Canada in 2021.
The business and the products have received numerous prestigious awards, and we have a robust direct-to-consumer business (approximately 24% of our sales) that has grown organically until this year.
We recently hired a marketing agency to help us continue to grow this channel as well. Last week we had the biggest sales week in company history, and I am so excited about the growth potential that is active in our sales funnel right now.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I am a hippy at heart. I grew up in Boulder, CO in the ’70s, and have been a natural products junkie for most of my life. I stopped eating meat when I was 16 years old, and have been a rabid recycler/composter/gardener for as long as I can remember.
You almost have to give all channels a shot, to try to drive growth, brand recognition, and new sales.
I read an article about Triclosan in the early ’90s. Triclosan is a toxic chemical that is in most large-scale production formulas for personal care products. It took my breath away. I just didn’t know what I was exposing my body to, and I knew my friends and family didn’t know either.
Triclosan has been banned in many countries outside of the US for years, and just got banned in the US in 2016, but the law change allowed many years for personal care companies to get the chemical out of their formulations.
This sent me down a path of researching the chemicals in skin care products, which immediately made me realize that what I wanted to do was protect myself, and my peeps, from these chemicals.
I rode my bike down to Boulder Bookstore and bought 3 books on how to make natural soap. I made my first batch of soap and gave it away to everyone I knew, for Christmas that year. Thus started my soap-making obsession.
Fast forward a lot of years, I met my husband, and we moved about 20 miles south of Boulder. He had to move about 20 bins of my rotating soap scents, and said “maybe you should try selling this”. Thus began my career as a skin care mixologist, and the birth of Spinster Sisters.
At the time I was working as a Business Analyst for a large corporate travel agency. I had no background in running a business, but I had the drive, and the motivation to want to help people. I learned as I went, and it was far from perfect.
Failures do not have to be total business failures, they can just be a lesson learned that takes you down another path than you originally planned.
I can honestly and humbly say, mistakes were made. But I learned, and I am now supported by an amazing team, and we made it through to survive, thrive, and grow. It has been the most fun and rewarding professional experience of my life, and I only wish I had leaped sooner. I am so thankful for our very loyal customer base that continues to grow every day.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I would love to say that formulating my first batch of soap was a science - a regimented, and perfect process, but honestly, it was just me reading a book and playing. I was doing craft fairs and farmers' markets at the time, so not a lot of packaging was required.
It wasn’t until I started getting wholesale requests that I realized this could become a business. It was a hobby that took on a life of its own, and I just kind of buckled my seatbelt and went along for a ride the first couple of years.
My husband and I are both very sustainability-focused. When I started the business in earnest with the desire to grow it to a national brand, I wanted to make sure that we kept our values as the core values of the company.
Not an easy thing to do at a time when people were so cost-conscious, and not necessarily aware of the damages their skincare products could be doing to them. Sustainability costs more, pure and simple.
That is why toxic chemicals are used so prevalently because they are cheap. They purposely dry out your skin, so you will buy more and boost their profits. I set out to create a company that was focused on health, clean ingredients, and the lowest possible impact on the environment. If there is anything good that came out of this pandemic, it is that people are now realizing that what you put on your body is just as important as what you put in your body.
We use pure, plant-based ingredients in our formulations. Where our competitors use phenoxyethanol or parabens for their preservatives, we use non-GMO coconut extract – equally as effective, but much better for your skin, and the planet. We use fair-trade and sustainably certified organic ingredients in our products.
We offer some of the cleanest products on the market, all of them biodegradable. We use recycled recyclable, or biodegradable packaging. We use wind and solar energy to power our Microsoapery.
We are thoughtful about every step of the process of creating new products. What are the very best ingredients we can use that are the most healthy and healthful for skin and hair? What is the least environmentally impactful packaging that we can use to deliver them? We are very purposeful in everything we do.
Once we have prototypes in place, we survey our consumer base for thoughts on it. We test the formulations, both internally by the team, and externally with customers, friends, and family. We do market research to make sure the product is something new and innovative, something that people want, and that our product and packaging are on point before we launch.
Patents for skincare products are difficult, so we protect our products and formulations through trade secrets. We have a very experienced legal team that we run everything through, to make sure we are protected, and every step of the process is above board.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Again, our business kind of launched on its own. We had to kind of makeup ground after the fact, getting business plans in place, budgets, etc. We did the whole process in reverse, but somehow, by some miracle, it all worked out.
We initially sold through craft fairs and farmers' markets, then started selling to spas and boutiques. I built the most pathetic website you have ever seen. Truly, it was a sad thing. Just being honest.
Over the years, we learned and we grew. I knew that ultimately the natural/mass grocery channel is where I thought we had the best opportunity to thrive, but the pricing/distribution models for grocery are very different from wholesale spas and boutiques.
In 2019, a week before the biggest natural consumer products trade show in the US, I completely pivoted the company to focus on that channel. We cut SKU’s, we changed our pricing model, we closed our retail stores, and we went for it.
Our first “natural” customer was Whole Foods Market, and I can honestly say, I have never looked back. It was the best thing I possibly could have done for the growth, exposure, and potential of the company. We are now sold in 2,100 doors around the country and have several hundred new doors opening in 1Q22. We have a beautiful website now, with a robust Direct to the Consumer base.
I bootstrapped the company for the first 9 years, to land at $1.3M in sales. Every cent we made went back into the company. We grew it with loans and personal funds. We realized in 2021 though, that to grow the company, we are going to have to bring in investment to help us fund marketing spend, digital spend, staffing, and manufacturing equipment.
We started our seed round of capital raising in mid-2021, with an equity crowdfunding campaign on Republic, and are launching another one on WeFunder in a couple of weeks. I am also reaching out to investors and angel groups to try to round out the investment on our seed round.
Biggest lessons learned - you need support, you need to believe in yourself even when you do not believe in yourself, you need to take chances, you need to let go of aversion to risk. Starting a business is a risk, and it may not always work out, and it will never, ever be easy, but in the end, it is so rewarding when you hear your customers say “your products have changed my life for the better.”
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We have an omnichannel approach to sales. And when I say omnichannel, I mean omnichannel. We are in all the places and do all the things. We sell Direct to consumers (DTC) via our website, we sell wholesale, we sell/ship direct to wholesale, we sell/ship via distribution partners UNFI, DPI, and KeHE. New channel? We have probably tried it.
Things are evolving so quickly since the start of the pandemic. Sales methods have changed, trade shows have gone away, brokers/sales teams have become more important, our DTC business has grown 3X. Things have not leveled off yet, they are still changing daily, so you almost have to give all channels a shot, to try to drive growth, brand recognition, and new sales.
Our social media channels have grown organically over the years, but we realized during all of this change, that we had to change our approach to the DTC business as well. We recently started with a marketing agency, to try to drive growth. It has not been an easy or smooth transition for us, but I think it is something that has to happen.
We do not have the expertise in-house to drive DTC growth, and that is why marketing agencies exist. They know what they are doing, and they know how to drive growth. We are very excited to see what this agency can do for us. This is our first foray into social and google ads - so I will keep you posted. Keep your fingers crossed for us!
Currently, our largest DTC sales driver is our email marketing list. Without fail, it brings in the best sales for us, with each email sent. It is a lot, lot, lot of work to manage, and a balancing act of not enough emails vs driving people crazy with too many emails so they end up unsubscribing. We have learned a lot about this over the years, and how to best leverage that sales tool to continue to grow our business.
Amazon. What can I say about Amazon? It is a beast. Until last year, we did not sell on Amazon at all. I didn’t want our products there, but I learned quickly that it is an essential channel strategy.
We do not have the expertise in-house to drive growth on Amazon though. It is an extremely complex, and costly platform. We have products out there, and they sell, but I know with some expertise, that our sales will explode on Amazon. One of our goals for 2022 is to bring an agency on board to manage Amazon for us and drive sales.
We have also not invested resources, or money, into PR, until this year. We are starting to stick our toes slowly into the PR pool. PR is essential, it is expensive, and if you don’t know what you are doing, it can cost you dearly. Do your research, get referrals, vet several agencies, and set expectations right out of the gate. That is my best advice.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
On November 15, we launched the truly innovative line of personal care bars, all free from the usual nasty ingredients, plus we eliminated the water from the formulations, and got rid of the plastic packaging entirely.
There is nothing else like it on the market. Skin care products, all in bar form, delivered in biodegradable paperboard boxes, printed with soy ink. The ingredients are entirely plant-based, and the packaging is compostable/biodegradable. Lotions typically contain mostly water, which we have eliminated to serve up pure, healing oils, making them so much more effective, targeted, and clean than any other product on the market.
We already have commitments and purchase orders from 3 chains, with some serious interest from some very big players. Skin care is a very crowded space, and I am so proud to say that we have created a revolutionary new form, that is exactly what consumers are looking for.
Our DTC sales on this line have been through the roof, and last week we had the biggest week in sales in company history. We did more in sales last week than we historically have done in a month. So, to say things are looking bright is an understatement. We have found our niche, we have found our tribe, and there is nowhere to go but up from here.
Across our product line, we have a 54% blended gross profit margin and a $16 Cost Per Acquisition on an average order value of $55. Our retention rate is above industry average, we have a net promoter score of 87, and an email conversion rate that is 4 times that of the industry average. Direct to Consumer sales are currently 18% of our business, but we know there is huge potential to grow that channel.
We recently launched our first global expansion effort into Canada, with Whole Foods as our anchor account. Whole Foods in the UK will be bringing in our products in the first half of 2022. We are distributed through UNFI, KeHE, and DPI Specialty Foods, across the US, and UNFI in Canada.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Be prepared for anything, at any time. Stay nimble. Pivot when you think it is necessary. Keep your team small in the beginning, and trust your instincts as they are almost always right. Failures do not have to be total business failures, they can just be a lesson learned that takes you down another path than you originally planned.
Hug your mama and your papa at every single opportunity. Ask for help when you need it. Find mentors in your community/industry.
Do not get every certification that is presented to you, just because it is presented to you - only get certified if it is something that resonates with you, otherwise it is just inauthentic. Be true to your values. Establish your values and your mission early on, so they can become something that your team lives day in and day out.
Trust your team – they have your back and are there to support you. Hire people that are smarter than you. Give credit where credit is due. Make your mama proud, even when it is the harder path to take.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Like many companies, we utilize a variety of tools and platforms to conduct business. We rely on some for daily operations and others for maintenance and targeted tasks.
In addition to the team, communication, and project management tools, we depend on Shopify and a bunch of integrated apps along with it for sales, inventory, and fulfillment. Remember that disastrous website I mentioned earlier? Even I could have created something clean with Shopify back then. It has been great for us. It integrates with our rewards program through Smile.io, our reviews through Okendo, and, of course, our all-important email system, Klaviyo.
Plenty of other wholesale platforms have entered the mix, and we’re just staying nimble to make sure we’re keeping what works and changing when something fits better with our goals.
Like so many others since March 2020, we’ve gotten all too familiar with Zoom.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Podcast - How I Built This
Books - Ramping Your Brand, EOS, Venture Capital for Dummies
Resources - WBENC, TIG Brands, Climate Collaborative, New Hope Network, Naturally Boulder, RSPO, Rainforest Alliance, Sustain.Life, Palm Done Right, B Corp, and so many others
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
None at this time, but our careers page is here.
Watch it if you are interested.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a message below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
Get our 5-minute email newsletter packed with business ideas and money-making opportunities, backed by real-life case studies.
- 4,818 founder case studies
- Access to our founder directory
- Live events, courses and recordings
- 8,628 business ideas
- $1M in software savings