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When Amilya Antonetti's newborn son became seriously ill, she was frantic. It wasn't until she kept a log of her activities and his illnesses- included asthma, eczema and severe colic- she realized his outbreaks coincided with her cleaning days. The products that Antonetti used contained chemicals that nearly killed her baby, who later was diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivity. "It was a toxic time bomb," says the 32-year-old. "But I wondered how I was going to [clean] without these products."
From that moment on, Antonetti was on a mission. Unable to find all-natural products on the market, she sought advice from cleaning experts of yesteryear. Elderly women explained how they once used ingredients like vinegar, lemons and baking soda to clean their homes.
After talking to other mothers with ill children, Antonetti was convinced that a market existed for products containing such ingredients. "Detergents break down the immune system, so anyone with immune system problems- with cancer or AIDS, for example-'t be around them," Antonetti explains. In 1994, using an initial $300,000 of her own start-up capital, Antonetti launched SoapWorks in San Leandro, California. She and a core group of volunteers worked like women possessed, developing an all-natural soap, then a laundry detergent and an all-purpose cleaner.
But building the business while competing with giants like Tide and Clorox for precious supermarket shelf space has taken a Herculean effort. At one point, Antonetti sold everything she owned, including her house, and got a $220,000 SBA loan to capitalize the business; her husband, Dennis, left his career as a lawyer to help her. Antonetti's been laughed at, ridiculed and threatened by industry giants who seem hell-bent on putting her out of business. "A lot of back-handed, rotten things have happened," she affirms.
Despite the obstacles, the business is growing. All of SoapWorks' products are sold online (www.soapworks.com) and in 2,000 stores across the United States-a number Antonetti expects to double by year-end. With 52 employees and $5 million in sales, Antonetti is heartened by her fast progress. "I'm creating my own niche," she clarifies. "Failure is not an option. I couldn't look at my son and not do this. I made a deal with God six years ago: If you let me keep him, I'll make a difference."
Pamela Rohland, a writer from Bernville, Pennsylvania, completes stories for Business Start-Ups and other national publications with assistance from her four cats.