I recently saw an intriguing post on one of the shaving forums. It asked something to the effect of “How do you approach new artisans?” The idea was that there are a ton of shaving artisans out there, and that phenomenon contributes to a unique supply saturation that isn’t always seen in other industries. As a consumer, you have a lot of great shaving soap to choose from, so how or why would you support new brands? People chimed in with all kinds of pointed answers about how they make a purchasing decision or what their opinions are of a given brand and why.
Most of us who start up a small soap making business generally lurk behind the veil of what I’ll call “business etiquette”. We’ll act like we’re bigger than we really are or like we’re expert soap makers to give you the impression that we’re trustworthy and we’re worth your business. We want to be able to say “Me too! I’m just like those other brands you like!” Personally, I think people sometimes get a little burned out on that. Today I’m going to practice some self-awareness and kind of tip my cards a little to let you see where I think my place is here with respect to West of Olympia.
First, I’m a little wary of the word “artisan”. It’s obviously in the logo and it’s mentioned on the site, but I use it in the context of “small and passionate”; as in my stuff isn’t commercially produced. I’m careful not to label myself an artisan in the context of a respected brand or tradition. The fact is I’m new on the scene and I haven’t earned a thing from anyone. I fear that if people use my name as an “artisan”, it artificially raises me to the same level of esteem as brands like Barrister & Mann or Stirling Soap. I think this is perhaps what rubs people the wrong way when new entrants announce themselves. Even if I were to make the world’s best wet shaving products today, I would not be comfortable with people touting me next to the likes of those two brands (and many others). I don’t have the brand recognition, I don’t have the track record of stellar customer service, I don’t have the history of interesting and unique product offerings, and most importantly, I don’t have the confidence and respect of the community. Because that takes time and it takes a proven commitment to you. A hobbyist is what I am right now, and that is absolutely appropriate.
So let’s talk about why so many shaving soap brands seem to crop up. In my opinion, there are two reasons. The first is that wet shavers are naturally very passionate about the hobby, and therefore more likely to take it to “extremes”. The second reason is that making a usable shaving soap is actually pretty easy and low cost. Again, I don’t think many soap makers would be willing to say that, but soap making is basically just following a recipe. If someone has the passion for shaving, a few thousand extra dollars, and the ability to follow a recipe, that person could start a small soap brand.
Notice I said that making a usable shaving soap is relatively easy. Understanding the ingredients and chemical processes well enough to formulate unique and innovative products is another story. Despite the ubiquity of “homemade” soap, formulation chemistry is a massively complex, intricate, and wide area of study. I dedicate time every single day to cosmetic ingredient research. And I’m not even on the surface of the tip of the iceberg.
Here’s an analogy – you can find a really great meatloaf recipe online. If you have the passion and drive, you could even open up a restaurant that sells that meatloaf. This doesn’t, however, mean that you have the understanding or knowledge to troubleshoot the recipe when it cooks funny in a new oven; or describe why the spices work well together; or articulate what you could add to enhance the flavor. In my opinion, the essence of a truly great soap maker is the unquenchable thirst for knowledge and how that knowledge is applied.
I am not at all suggesting that new soap makers lack knowledge of their products. I’m only describing the (lack of) “barriers to entrance” in the soaping market and how it contributes to the density of product offerings we see.
With all that in mind, what in the world should you make of me being here?
Well, I firmly believe that you should have the ability to form your own opinion. And hopefully some of that opinion is informed by your impression of the products I offer you, my tenor, and my ability to deliver the type of experience you expect.
But I can hash out my own opinion of me. Am I an expert soap maker or formulation chemist? Absolutely not. I have spoken with true experts in this field (authors of some of my favorite soap making books, for example) and let me just say there is a large gap in the knowledge they have and the knowledge I have. That being said, I am extremely passionate about the science of making soap. I spend a lot of time reading about it, thinking about it, and experimenting. And I can only get better, and that is very motivating to me.
I’m also not a veteran business owner. I’ve never done this before, and I’m learning there is a lot to concern myself with all the time. I’ve only been open a few months and I’ve already made quite the laundry list of bad decisions, and I fear I have quite a few more in my future. But I do make decisions to the best of my ability every day and the mistakes are what shape the journey.
What I CAN tell you is that I am absolutely committed to running this venture with the utmost respect for the customer. That’s a very big piece of this philosophy. To me, it means that full price is a fair price. That’s why these products rarely (if ever) are on sale. It means not abusing a customer’s email for relentless marketing campaigns. That’s why you only see quick product announcements and blog posts if you’re on my email list.
So why am I here and why am I doing this? Really, because it’s fun. That’s it. I’m not trying to compete with the big guys, I’m not trying to make a bunch of money, and I’m not trying to be better than anyone else at it. I just want to learn, have fun with it, and participate in my own small way. It’s the same mentality I had about playing baseball growing up. Did I have any illusions about playing in the big leagues? Of course not. But did that deter me from playing for fun? No - and why would it.
At the end of the day, there are a lot of small soap makers. And as a customer myself, yeah, sometimes it feels a bit overwhelming, ridiculous, and unnecessary the amount of people who want to sell me stuff. Maybe it’s naïve, but I feel fortunate to have the outlook that I do. When you don’t feel like you’re in competition with anyone, you get to focus on your own passion and ignore the noise around you.
"It is obvious that we can no more explain a passion to a person who has never experienced it than we can explain light to the blind."
-T. S. Eliot