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They say that necessity is the mother of invention. Sandie Ledray must have thought about this when she started her Seattle-based business, Brookside Soap Inc., dedicated to the creation of gentle, all-natural soap products. "I'm a fair-skinned redhead, and had a lot of trouble with the products that were out there," explains Ledray. "I wanted something natural."
When Ledray, now 37, found that many commercial soaps irritated her sensitive skin, she began making her own soap and laundry detergent, both free from synthetic materials and animal products. Today, her product line consists of eight varieties of bar soap, such as Tangerine & Witch Hazel, Cinnamon Hand Scrub, and Avocado & Calendula, as well as Best Friend Pet Shampoo, formulated specifically for dogs and cats.
Ledray's soaps were an instant success even before she started Brookside in 1988. She started out making soap in her kitchen for her own personal use. "Friends would go away with armloads of the stuff," recalls Ledray. Soon after her acquaintances discovered Ledray's soaps, friend Mary McIsaac, now 51, contributed half of the pair's initial $300 investment for a stainless steel mixing kettle and the two basic ingredients needed for soapmaking--oils and sodium hydroxide. When Brookside was incorporated in 1990, Ledray presented McIsaac with half of the stock and made her vice president and co-owner.
The Start-Up Phase
Ledray pinpoints these meager financial beginnings as one of her secrets to success. "The advantage to having to work from that position is that you have to use ingenuity," she notes. "You can't just buy your way to an answer to a problem. You have to find a way to create what you need, and that's been a very good learning experience for me."
The low start-up investment that the women made was initially counterbalanced by the immense amount of time and labor that went into creating a body-care product line. Ledray spent three years testing soap recipes, researching government requirements, creating products, and designing packaging and artwork. The Seattle native knew from the beginning that she wanted to create a soap that was gentle, pure, and free from animal products and animal testing. "There's no reason for there to be animal products in soaps and shampoos," says Ledray, a vegetarian, "and soaps are so much nicer without animal products in them anyway."
When she began researching soapmaking recipes, the ambitious Ledray ran up against her first challenge. "The basics are not too hard to find, the saponification (a catalytic, chemical process) values of different oils, things like that," she notes. "But I wasn't too happy with the basic recipes that were out there." When she started her research, Ledray tested old recipes that she found in soapmaking books pulled from reference stacks in the local library; at the time, there was only one soapmaking book on the commercial market. "The recipes in that book were unusable," says Ledray. "From a chemical standpoint, they were really poorly thought out."
Regarding her own technical knowledge of the soapmaking process, the creator admits, "I didn't have any background in organic chemistry--which is what you need for this--but I certainly do now." To make up for her lack of formal education in the field of chemistry, the ambitious experimenter studied up on her own, taking a very scientific approach to creating her products. "I've taken notes on every batch of soap I've ever made, and I've gone back and checked the pH level, and looked at the properties of the soap and what it's doing," says Ledray. "I followed every batch all the way through, and that was a good learning process."
In addition to creating her own product line and designing her products' packaging, Ledray built the very molds used in making the soap. She says that her carpentry and construction backgrounds have really helped in this business, and remarks, "I use things from every job I've ever had."
Ledray advises doing all of your research first. "Once you start your business and have customers, you don't have time to do research and run around and get things together. There is such a thing as starting too soon."
Brookside Soap Inc.
Today, Brookside Soap Inc. makes soap for a half dozen other companies who market the soaps under their own private labels. The company sells its own name-brand products in health-food stores and market-specific catalogs, such as "The Vegetarian Times." Ledray maintains that marketing the soap through other companies does not mean her company is competing with itself. Instead, it gains access to other markets, such as the gift and pet industries. Brookside has now started exporting to the Japanese market, in what Ledray calls a "small, controlled way."
While she is predicting sales to rise steadily in the upcoming years--the company currently grosses over $200,000 annually--Ledray holds fast to her philosophy on growth: Slow and steady wins the race. "We are trying to get a really broad base underneath us, instead of going straight up with this thing. I want to be okay in case one of our private labels decides to do something else instead of making soap next year. No matter what, our company will be around, and be safe and healthy."
Although many companies rush to be the biggest in their markets, Ledray would rather anchor Brookside with a good foundation and long-term profit potential, while staying within the limits of what the company can feasibly produce now. As she explains, "It's not necessarily to your advantage to do high volume with something that's labor-intensive. It is to your advantage to find a niche where you can offer something that other companies can't. We can do small-volume, high-quality private labels."
When this manufacturer talks about a quality product, she means business. Ledray is proud to use only the finest oils in order to produce a soap with the most desirable characteristics. "Oils are made of fatty acids and glycerin," Ledray explains. "Different fatty acids have entirely different properties when you turn them into soap." Some fatty acids can be more drying than others, some can clean better than others, some are mild while some are harsh, some can lather well and some cannot. Ledray uses only coconut, palm and olive oils in her soaps. As she says, "It's the combination of them that makes a nice product."
The glycerin in the oils gives the soap its moisturizing properties, while fresh herbs are used for fragrance. Ledray boasts that most of the herbs she uses are grown locally in the Seattle area. She is a stickler for creating just the right combination of herbs. Her top-selling soap is the Rosemary and Lavender bar, in which Ledray combines three different lavenders. When this herb connoisseur wanted to create a soap scented with mint, she created a bath-and-shower Spearmint bar, in lieu of making one scented with peppermint, which, she insists, is too harsh-smelling. It is this attention to detail which has won high praise from Brookside's customers.
Brookside is also praised in the local community. Ledray's company donates bar soap and laundry detergent (made from grated soap remnants) to various charitable causes, such as the Cuban-American Friendshipment and the Chicken Soup Brigade, a food bank for AIDS patients. Brookside also donates products to Angeline's House, a day center that provides a way for homeless women to, as Ledray explains it, "come in off the street, shower, and do their laundry."
Brookside's efforts in the community are much appreciated. Ledray contacted the Cascadia Revolving Fund, a nonprofit, community-development loan fund in Seattle that provides loans primarily for women- and minority-owned businesses that are doing environmentally friendly work in the area. Cascadia granted Ledray and McIsaac a $30,000 loan.
The money from Cascadia took their homebased business to the next step. Brookside was experiencing a bottleneck in its production process at the wrapping stage. Still, the two were daunted by the pressure of investing in an expensive piece of wrapping machinery. Finally, after receiving the loan from Cascadia, Ledray remembers, "I bought a piece of used wrapping equipment that we lovingly call `Lucille,' which wraps all of our soap now. We had to have her rebuilt to our specifications."
"Lucille" allowed Brookside to wrap the soap as fast as it could be made. Also, part of the product's appeal certainly is its packaging. "I designed our house-brand packaging and hired a botanical illustrator to do the artwork," says Ledray. "It went from a simple two-color offset printing to a four-color process and dry-brush botanical renderings." In keeping with Ledray's environmentally conscious product design, all packaging is 100 percent post-consumer waste recycled, printed with less toxic soy-based inks. "We try to do as much right as we can find to do."
Although there are many body-care product lines on the market today, Ledray maintains that Brookside was one of the first small companies to come onto the scene. "I was pretty much on my own when I started this," she says. "There weren't a lot of folks doing this kind of business, making these products." After all is said and done, Ledray finds that the hard work and struggle were worthwhile. "I really enjoy the chemistry and working with herbs and the equipment we have," she comments. "Running my own business and doing design work on packaging . . . just about everything about it is a nice combination. It fills a lot of needs for me."