#85. Soapwalla is raising the bar on clean skincare. We talk with founder Rachel Winard about staying true to her origins and growing her business organically, but not recklessly. The Loose Threads Podcast features in-depth discussions with leaders across the rapidly changing consumer economy.

Check out the full transcript below.

Richie: [00:00:07] Welcome to the 85th episode of the Loose Threads Podcast, a show about the rapidly changing consumer economy. This episode is brought to you by Loose Threads Membership, which gives you actionable analysis and insights that drive growth, and Loose Threads Espresso, your energizing and high-pressure filter for consumer news—in context. We also have a newsletter that features the latest open letters to CEOs, podcasts with industry leaders and news from Loose Threads. Check it all out at LooseThreads.com.

Richie: [00:00:34] Joining me today is Rachel Winard, the founder of Soapwalla, a clean skincare brand that came out of Rachel’s need to find products that would not aggravate her sensitive skin. She launched the brand in 2009, years before clean beauty would become what it is today, not to mention she was making the same products for herself many years before that.

Rachel: [00:00:51] We’re a unisex brand and that’s on purpose. I say, “If you have skin, you can use our products,” and I mean it. I don’t dictate to you who I want our customers to be because you are our customer.

Richie: [00:01:05] What has followed is a brand that has stayed true to its origins, growing organically, but not recklessly, as people around the world realize the purity of products made from only natural ingredients. Here’s my talk with Rachel Winard.

Richie: [00:01:25] So why don’t we just start. Talk a bit about your background and then we can work our way up to this company existing.

Rachel: [00:01:30] I have a really varied background. I started playing violin when I was four and took to it immediately. I often say it’s my first way of communicating and I went professional when I was 12. So I was a professional, classically trained violinist from the time I was 12 until I was 19. I toured, performed with a number of orchestras. It was really lovely. I went to Juilliard. I did the whole thing. Realized when I was 19 that the business of music was not the same as the art.

Richie: [00:02:03] Did you go to Juilliard before you were 19?

Rachel: [00:02:05] Yeah, yeah.

Richie: [00:02:06] Wow.

Rachel: [00:02:06] I graduated high school I was 16 and I turned 17 in that summer interim. So 17 and 18, I was at Juilliard. That was really tough realization for me because I was a violinist before I was anything else. I knew from the time I was a child [that] this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. So when I made that realization, I finished undergrad at the University of Washington in Seattle. My parents were living in Seattle at the time. It just made sense. I loved the varied kinds of classes that I could take because conservatory is not like that. It’s music theory, music theory, performance and performance.

Richie: [00:02:43] And like one English class that you take.

Rachel: [00:02:46] “English class” in quotes. I’m a curious person by nature so the fact that I could study 20 different subjects and with people who are experts in their fields and loved these topics—I ate it up. I mean, I could be a lifetime college student. So I ended up creating my own major: Society and Justice. It’s a philosophy major generally. It was the relationship between societal structures and justice and how we define that and the common good and all of those big, meaty issues and, because I was excelling in those kinds of classes, my advisor advised me to take the LSAT, which is the prep test for law school, and then when I did well, she advised me to apply to law school and since I loved New York and wanted to get back, I applied to Columbia. And then when I got in, she advised me to just try it out. I was in such a state of—I sort of felt like a piece of driftwood. I didn’t know who I was, what I wanted to do, so I just latched on to that idea. My parents, who I like to say are the anti-stereotypical Jewish parents—they were like, “Are you sure you want to go to law school? Are you sure you don’t want to be a starving artist?” But I signed on the dotted line, moved across the country. I wish I were exaggerating, but about 30 minutes in that first class I thought, “Oh, this is totally not for me.”

Richie: [00:04:13] What was it specifically?

Rachel: [00:04:15] Really the whole thing. Law school sort of breaks you down to build you back up and make you think—

Richie: [00:04:22] That sounds like Juilliard, no?

Rachel: [00:04:23] Yeah, but in a different way.

Richie: [00:04:25] Yeah.

Rachel: [00:04:27] Yeah, I like really tough projects. I like to hurt. The way you have to analyze everything was just very foreign to me and the Socratic method—I still, to this day, shudder even when I say it. I just really dislike that form of teaching, which is really you pummel someone until they make a mistake and then you move on. So that probably was the thing that triggered for me. I’d never had stage fright. I could perform in front of 5,000 people, no problem. Socratic method made me terrified of opening my mouth in front of people. But I was already $55,000 in debt so that was the end of that. I knew I was going to stay till the end. And also I felt like I’d already quit a career and so I was determined to see this one out.

Rachel: [00:05:11] The second day of law school was 9/11. So those two things, for me, are permanently intertwined. I also got very sick during law school. That first semester I literally went overnight from being totally healthy my entire childhood to very, very sick and it took a year and a half to be diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus or lupus for short, which is an autoimmune illness. Autoimmune illness just means that your body gets confused and you start attacking your own cells thinking they’re foreign bodies. So I was dealing with all of that during law school. There was a whole chunk, there’s a whole semester I really have no recollection of because I was in such a health crisis.

Rachel: [00:05:57] Graduated, found the most artistic kind of law I could, which was land use and that is local, New York City zoning development and I worked, specifically, on pro-bono and with art and educational institutions to help them realize the physical space that embodied what they were creating. So I loved that and the people I worked with were really wonderful. I worked at two firms. One firm for the first 11 months and then the remainder of my four-year law firm career, I was at Bryan Cave and I’m still friends with my old bosses. They’re really lovely. They support Soapwalla and me and I feel very lucky that I know them. Just the practice of law itself is inherently highly stressful and not so good if you have an autoimmune illness. So I was in a flare the whole time I worked. I couldn’t get my health under control. At one point, my specialists had me on chemotherapy to just get rid of my immune system. Not a way to live permanently and I knew it. I knew this was not sustainable in any way, shape or form.

Rachel: [00:07:08] So the way that I make decisions is I sit on them for a really long time and then the second I make them, I’m done. I act immediately. I remember really struggling with what to do and how to keep myself alive really. I knew I needed to go to India and see an ayurvedic doctor. I had already been making skincare for myself this whole time, really out of necessity. Alongside the internal health issues, I had ridiculous skin issues. Skin is almost always involved in some way with lupus. I say it’s a little like the canary in the coal mine. Like if you have really intense systemic issues internally, your skin is going to tell you about them in some way. I couldn’t use anything on the market so that’s how I really got into the making of skincare, never to have a business.

Richie: [00:08:02] Interesting. What was it like the first time you started doing it? Was it challenging? Was it interesting? What was the first thing you made?

Rachel: [00:08:09] Soap. I needed a cleanser and I needed a moisturizer. So soap and what is now our Restorative Face Serum. I loved it. Like I said earlier, I am a curious person by nature. I’m also a perfectionist and I jump in feet first if I am intrigued by something. So I taught myself chemistry. I taught myself formulation. I read everything I could on botany, on aromatherapy, on herbology. Old wives tales actually have a ton of information about medicinal uses for plants stemming back hundreds of years. So I just soaked all of that up and I loved it. It’s also creative. I need to feed that part of me and when I formulate, it is more like a musical composition than it would be like a traditional formulaic, I think, in musical terms. So it was the perfect outlet for me. But that’s how I found out about ayurveda was through all of this research for skincare and it really resonated with me. So I knew, when I was going to get myself healthy, I was going to take myself out of the entire environment and just focus on getting better. So I went to my boss, the partner of our department, and said, “I’m going to India for four months.” And I figured he was going to say, “Good luck. We are letting you go.” And instead, he said, “Okay, we’ll hold your position. We’ll give you a sabbatical,” which floored me, especially as a junior associate and a big New York City firm.

Rachel: [00:09:40] So I went to India. I saw my doctor every single day and, when I got back, my bloods were normal for the first time since I’d been diagnosed. It really gave me a much better understanding of the intricacies of natural ingredients. I became a better formulator after that period. I went back to work and almost immediately I knew I wasn’t going to be there for very long. My blood levels started creeping back up. I could sort of feel myself getting that kind of rundown that I wasn’t ever going to allow myself to be again and I made the decision to leave law completely.

Rachel: [00:10:19] It took a year and a half of friends and family really gently prodding and telling me that other people might be interested in using the products that I made. Because I’d perfected a whole line at that point. Whatever I needed, I made. Whatever friends and family needed, I made. I made sure it was as good as it could be. So, very quietly, I premiered Soapwalla in December of 2009. I put up an Etsy page and I didn’t tell anybody and I was very lucky. A blogger, I think by chance, found us, bought some of our deodorant and a couple other products, really loved them, wrote a glowing review and then that took off.

Richie: [00:11:01] As you look back, do you have any sense why you never thought of doing anything with it besides yourself? It’s interesting that the prodding came externally to the point of actually pushing you to go do it.

Rachel: [00:11:12] I think it was my experience with music. That was my first love and I was heartbroken when I realized that doing it as a career was nothing like doing it as a passion and I didn’t want to experience that again. So I was very hesitant for this new passion of mine to be sullied by the ugliness of business.

Richie: [00:11:38] And what made you overcome that at a certain point? Or what was said or agreed upon to the point where you were like, “Okay, no, no no. Let’s try this again?”

Rachel: [00:11:45] I think that’s why it was such a quiet opening. I figured, if anything happens, it was kind of meant to be. But I wasn’t going to put myself out there in that same way, 100%, until I was okay with it. And it was a very conscious growth pattern. I turned down big-box retail earlier on. I wanted to be in control of this narrative and I have such strong guiding principles for how we make the products, with what ingredients we use, how we market them, [whom] we sell to, everything. And that’s when I decided that was going to be the number-one driver—not profit—and that helped me feel more in control of this.

Richie: [00:12:33] So this thing starts on Etsy. This blogger writes a piece. What was the result of that piece?

Rachel: [00:12:39] I saw a tenfold in hits to the site and purchases and then more people starting to reach out and say, “I heard about your deodorant and your body oil”—those were the two things she wrote about—”Tell me more about this.” And those purchases went up and then people started writing about them as well. So it was this really organic—no pun intended—marketing that wasn’t any control of mine. But I think, because it was sort of an honest way of getting the word out, people really resonated with it. It wasn’t coming from me or the company. It was coming from people who tried the products and swore by them. So I think that held much more weight.

Richie: [00:13:18] Do you consider this part of clean beauty? Or where does it sit, if anywhere, from a term perspective? And then where was that market and offering, generally, when you started this?

Rachel: [00:13:27] Yeah, absolutely. I would say we’re clean skincare. I don’t personally use the word beauty, but I understand the interchangeability of that. We’re a unisex brand and that’s on purpose. I say, “If you have skin, you can use our products” and I mean it. We don’t use human models anywhere in our marketing. Like on our social media if there’s a person and it’s not me, it was a customer who posted something and we just repost it. There are no people on our website. I don’t dictate to you who I want our customer to be because you are our customer. I tend to say clean skincare or natural skincare, organic skincare. They’re are all sort of interchangeable at this point.

Rachel: [00:14:08] The market’s changed dramatically. I don’t even really recognize it at this point from where it started in 2009 and definitely before. We were one of the first brands that came about during this revitalized movement, I would say, or more conscious movement. But the market looked totally different in the mid-2000s especially—so I was diagnosed during 2002, 2003. There was nothing I could find. That’s why I started making these products. They were either very expensive and just used the terms I was desperately seeking “hypoallergenic,” “for sensitive skin,” “natural” as buzz words or they were, I like to say—and I don’t mean it in a demeaning way it’s just as evocative for me—a hippie granola, at the farmer’s market, made in someone’s kitchen and it was kind of oily and gloopy and it was hard to use and I didn’t know really what ingredients were in there. And as I and my skin became more and more reactive to things, I was much more hesitant to use anything that it didn’t know exactly what was in it. I mean, look at the marketplace today. It’s saturated. It’s completely saturated. I read a statistic and I wish I could remember where, but 100 green beauty brands are launched every single day around the globe.

Richie: [00:15:32] That’s crazy.

Rachel: [00:15:32] Now, probably 70 clothes every single day. So you know it all washes out but—

Richie: [00:15:36] Right.

Rachel: [00:15:37] Still that number was astounding to me and, at the same time, not terribly surprising.

Richie: [00:15:43] So I assume you made all the stuff in your kitchen. You still formulate there in some form?

Rachel: [00:15:47] I’m the sole formulator, but we do have a studio. We’ve had a studio for the last eight years. I wanted to get out of the apartment as quickly as possible for two reasons. One, for just sanitation-wise. I really wanted it to be a true professional operation. And two, I don’t think it’s a good idea to have like a business like that in your home. You’ll never stop working.

Richie: [00:16:07] Yeah.

Rachel: [00:16:07] But I am still the sole formulator. I love it. I really love that part of my job.

Richie: [00:16:12] It would seem with a lot of consumer products, there is often this mass barrier between the design and the creation; the idea that a lot of creation it happens very far east and overseas and so forth and you get this thing back and so forth. There [are] often ideas around a lot of complexity, whether it’s apparel, which takes time to design and manufacture and source, beauty also known for a ton of different formulas and all that. Was there a paradox you found that all of the fine print on the back of most skincare was over-complicating everything and if you actually stripped away the things you didn’t want, it was actually an easier thing to do? Because a lot of people look at skincare like, “I have no clue how to make this.” It just seems like people in a lab in white coats made it and all these things. But I’m wondering if, paradoxically, the focus on the clean part actually made this much easier?

Rachel: [00:16:53] Yes, I did make it easier on myself. Well, easier and harder. So easier in the sense that I don’t need a massive HVAC system and a hazmat suit, which you’re going to see in a lab, because I’m not working with such highly volatile compounds [where] I’ll blow my face off if I do something wrong. So that eliminated a huge barrier. I didn’t need that equipment just to start.

Richie: [00:17:15] And you can start in a kitchen.

Rachel: [00:17:16] You can start in a kitchen and you can also start with simplified formulations and get more complicated as you become more comfortable. That being said, I am beholden to the environment. If you make something in a lab and it’s 100% synthetic, you can make it all day, every day to the end of the world and you’ll know exactly what it looks like, smells like, feels like, acts like. Natural ingredients? Not so much. Each batch we get is different.

Richie: [00:17:41] Right.

Rachel: [00:17:41] It depends on what the bees pollinated before they pollinated those flowers, if there was a drought, if there was a heavy rain season, if the winds had shifted, if a farmer two acres down planted a new crop, if the soil was tilled properly, a million other variables. Which I love. I love that part of the job and that’s also why we still keep our hands literally in the production of the products because you can feel that and you can see it and you can smell it. It’s something that takes a little bit of an education to the consumer because two bars of soap are not going to look exactly the same or smell exactly the same. Two batches of our body oil will not look exactly the same or smell exactly the same. They will be nearly the same. I’m talking 98% similar, but there’s a small difference. It’s like wine vintages. From year to year there are going to be slight differences. That’s the excitement about it. It’s a living thing that you’re working with and I really want to get that excitement across to the consumer.

Richie: [00:18:45] So you launched in 2009.

Rachel: [00:18:47] Yep.

Richie: [00:18:47] It’s an Etsy store. This blog post happens. For the rest of that year, what is the focus and how does the business evolve up and to 2010?

Rachel: [00:18:57] Through the rest of the year, we saw a steady increase and definitely by that holiday season, I was overwhelmed.

Richie: [00:19:05] And it was just you?

Rachel: [00:19:06] It was just me. Yeah. My partner Stacey, who’s my life partner, she would definitely help me out since I had taken over every flat surface in the apartment at that point.

Richie: [00:19:18] It’s unavoidable.

Rachel: [00:19:18] It is. And after that holiday season, she very nicely said, “How about in January I help you look for a space?” And it was the right move. So I found a tiny little space. I think right around the same time that spring or maybe early summer, I found a market a 20-minute walk from our apartment in Brooklyn—this really cool brick building in Gowanus and really talented artisans. Sometimes those markets can be a little hit or miss and this one was just high, high caliber. Everyone in there. And I loved it. And when it came time to look for a space, I reached out to the person who curated that and he was the landlord for this building that we were in the ground floor of and he helped me find a space in the building and we’ve been in that same building for eight years. We moved from a 500-square-foot space to 1,500-square-foot space right next door. I hope never to have to leave that building because I really love it.

Richie: [00:20:18] And so that’s an internal—that’s an office studio? It’s not a sales.

Rachel: [00:20:21] No.

Richie: [00:20:22] So it’s still internal.

Rachel: [00:20:23] Yes, it’s internal, yes. [We have our] ecommerce site and then we have 250 retail partners in 30 countries around the world.

Richie: [00:20:28] But not yet.

Rachel: [00:20:28] Oh, sorry.

Richie: [00:20:29] Not not in 20—

Rachel: [00:20:31] No, not in 2010. I think we had two retail partners, which was very exciting for me. And then late that summer, the New York Daily News wanted to do a feature on me, which I was excited about and a little hesitant about, but it ultimately was a positive piece. That was when we got our first out-of-state retailer. People read that around the country and started reaching out wanting to get more information.

Richie: [00:21:00] And was the retail something that was just like, “Oh, this is logical to do”? Because the following years it would be no one would want to do it and then now they all want to go back in wholesale again. But how did you start to think about distribution? I guess you had an Etsy site and then just a few retail [options] started to happen.

Rachel: [00:21:16] Exactly. I was excited about it because it made sense to—I mean we have this environmental aspect too. We’re very conscious of our footprint and it made much more sense to me to ship to one person a larger volume and have people come to them to buy it than me shipping a million tiny packages all over the country. So it made perfect sense to me. Plus, I’ve said this a couple times, so I apologize for repeating myself, but there is an educational aspect to natural skincare and it’s really helpful if there’s a representative on site who can walk through that with the customer. Especially someone the customer already trusts.

Richie: [00:21:54] So it sounds like that first year, the focus is really just, “Get this thing out the door, set up a little bit of infrastructure and keep it moving.”

Rachel: [00:22:02] Fly by the seat of my pants.

Richie: [00:22:05] That was really the first year you ran a business.

Rachel: [00:22:07] Oh yeah.

Richie: [00:22:07] What was that like in retrospect?

Rachel: [00:22:11] In retrospect, it was exhilarating. It really was. Right around then was when I realized I was an entrepreneur by nature. I think you are or you aren’t. I’ve really come to realize that. I think there are certain traits that we have. That insatiable curiosity and that need to get something out in the world in that way that’s yours. That was really feeding that part of me that I didn’t even know existed before that.

Richie: [00:22:37] I guess you hit 2010 then. Still you?

Rachel: [00:22:40] Still me, yeah.

Rachel: [00:22:42] Stacey definitely started helping more formally, I would say by 2011.

Richie: [00:22:47] Okay.

Rachel: [00:22:48] Well, I hired people to help me out every once in while for short periods of time. But I want to say 2014.

Richie: [00:22:55] So you spent almost four years. It was just you plus some people helping.

Rachel: [00:23:00] Oh, definitely. I didn’t take a salary either. Every single cent went back into the business, which is how we’ve been able to stay in the black. I run things very leanly. I don’t over-max anything. Like when I travel for business, I take subways. I don’t fly first class. I don’t do some of the things that it can feel really sexy to do because I know exactly where that money can go to grow the business and really sustain it. I also feel a real responsibility to my employees. So I would never hire someone if I didn’t think I could provide them with the work and I want to make sure, once I hire you, I can keep you.

Richie: [00:23:43] I assume you were adding SKUs throughout that time.

Rachel: [00:23:45] Yes.

Richie: [00:23:45] Just in terms of you started with the two and then in those few years while it’s still just you, how are you developing new products and thinking about where to expand?

Rachel: [00:23:54] Although we’d started with a larger line.

Richie: [00:23:56] Okay.

Rachel: [00:23:56] And I’m atypical in the sense that there’s sort of a standard in the personal care industry that you release a SKU every quarter. We don’t follow that. So if I think there’s something good that we need to release, we’ll release it. So this year we’re not releasing anything because I don’t think the products that I’ve been working on are ready yet. Some years we’ll release one thing, some years we’ll release two things. I purposefully don’t follow that schedule. That feeds into that saturation that we see. I’m very mindful of the story that we present to our consumer as well.

Rachel: [00:24:35] But all the time I’m sort of playing with formulas. At this point, I have half a dozen that I’m tweaking in some way or other. How it started at the beginning was [if] I needed a product, I’d start working on it or a friend or family member would say, “Hey, I need this. Please make this for me.” And then I would delve in, do all the research I needed to do and then start unraveling it and then re-piecing it together into a new piece. Now it’s mostly consumer-driven. So we have clientele who will ask. Once I see a critical ask point of something, I really start delving into it.

Rachel: [00:25:12] So one thing we’re working on is a natural sunscreen that works—that’s not streaky, that doesn’t have zinc because my skin doesn’t do well with zinc, which is tricky because almost, I think, every natural sunscreen on the market needs a physical barrier and that physical barrier is zinc. So that’s been a tricky one but I’m very excited for when I bust that open. We’ve also been working on a spot treatment for a particular kind of acne, cystic acne specifically. That’s the part of my job that I absolutely love.

Richie: [00:25:45] Yeah. So just talk through how the product line expanded in those first four years in terms of what did you actually launch with—because I guess it was more than two? And then if you hit 2014-ish, where are you from a product perspective?

Rachel: [00:25:57] So we had one deodorant, our face serum, one body oil, three kinds of bath salts, three kinds of body wash and six soaps, I think.

Richie: [00:26:09] At the end of 2014 or when you launched?

Rachel: [00:26:11] No, when we launched.

Richie: [00:26:11] Wow, that’s a significant—

Rachel: [00:26:12] Oh yeah, I had a full line.

Richie: [00:26:14] Did you have inventory of things or you would just have them developed and when someone ordered them you made them?

Rachel: [00:26:19] I made to order. Partly because I didn’t have the space in my teeny teeny, tiny tiny little Brooklyn apartment. But also I didn’t want to sit on products if I didn’t know they were going to sell. These are perishable.

Richie: [00:26:29] Right.

Rachel: [00:26:30] I mean they’re not like two weeks perishable, but still I wanted people to have the freshest products they could. So I did not sit on inventory. I made as I went and at the beginning, it was easy. Now we don’t do that, but we also turn over virtually all of our inventory in 14 days. There are a couple products we can’t, just by virtue of the chemistry of making them. Like soap in particular. There is just a timeframe you have to follow for that. We still want people to get the freshest products that they can get.

Rachel: [00:26:57] And I apologize I’m—oh, yes. What I launched with in the intervening years. So a couple soaps particularly addressing skin issues. So I launched the Bergamot & Cinnamon soap bar because that’s that’s very good at addressing psoriasis and eczema as well as our Activated Charcoal & Petitgrains soap bar which is for acneic and sensitive skin. A lot of times acneic skin is not oily. The issue isn’t derived from overproduction of oil necessarily. It’s often a sign of sensitivity in the skin so you want to address it slightly differently. We also launched lip balms, facial toners, different kinds of body oils including a pregnant belly oil. We’re unisex brand so I went back and forth on calling out pregnancy. [I] realized that pregnancy is a medical condition and there are particular things you need to avoid when you are pregnant. So I ultimately did want to call that out as, “this is safe to use when you are pregnant.” It will help your skin repair itself during all of these changes. But we don’t use any gendered language like “mom” for instance.

Rachel: [00:28:07] We also, over the last two years, released our spray, which is our multi-functional spray. It’s a hand sanitizer, a bug repellent and it freshens up your gym equipment and I use it as a summer scent because I love the smell of it. And also our Concentrated Repair Balm, which is one of our top sellers now and our Phosphorescence Facial Mask, which is the super cool algae-based mask. It really doesn’t look like anything else I’ve really seen on the market. It’s got this cool sort of jello-like consistency and it’s got food-grade chlorophyll in it. So it’s green. It kind of looks like a swamp thing. I love it.

Richie: [00:28:45] Very cool. It’s interesting because normally most companies couldn’t afford to launch with that many SKUs but, because you had no inventory, it didn’t really matter because it was just your own time and energy. Did you find that launching with that wide of an assortment was important and/or beneficial? Versus if you had just launched with one or two that maybe people would have been like, “I don’t need those things,” but because you had nine or ten or however many it was, there [were] a lot of possible entry points for someone into the brand?

Rachel: [00:29:11] That’s a great question and no one’s ever asked me that. I think in some ways it was a blessing and a curse. We ended up getting the bulk of our press on our deodorant cream; I think because it was a 100% natural deodorant. You can eat 90% of the ingredients in there. And it worked. That was revolutionary. And it was in a pot which was—actually deodorant creams were very popular in the 20s, 30s and 40s. But once we realized what petrochemicals could do for us societally, we had byproducts which were plastics and that’s when we started getting sticks and rolls and fancy-pants gadgeting. So that wasn’t a new delivery system, but it was sort of new to this generation. So those really helped us stand out.

Rachel: [00:29:57] At times it was a little overwhelming for people to be like, “Wait, wait, wait you have more than just the deodorant? Or just deodorant and two oils?” And soap is in our name—Soapwalla—so that can also throw people off. I don’t know if I would have launched with that many if I had to do it over again and I definitely would not in this market.

Richie: [00:30:15] Because?

Rachel: [00:30:16] It’s so busy that if you have one thing that stands out, you’re more likely to get noticed.

Richie: [00:30:22] What was the hardest thing to develop?

Rachel: [00:30:24] Probably the deodorant. So the original took me about 2,000 tries.

Richie: [00:30:28] Literally 2,000?

Rachel: [00:30:30] Oh, literally. Like books of notes. Told you I was a perfectionist.

Richie: [00:30:34] No. We used to talk to people who, on the apparel side, they’ll do—if you do 20 samples of something, that’s considered significant. 2,000 is many times that.

Rachel: [00:30:44] It is. And then the sensitive skin deodorants that we released I think two years ago now, that took five years. It took me a significant amount of time until I was willing to release it.

Richie: [00:30:57] How do you know when it’s ready?

Rachel: [00:30:59] You just know. It’s hard to describe. I think the feedback I get from my human testers is overwhelmingly positive and then I know I’m ready.

Richie: [00:31:11] Yeah.

Rachel: [00:31:12] So I test it a number of times personally before I send it out and then I send it to family and friends who don’t care if I fall on my face the first several times and then once we get past those steps, I go to another layer of testers who will test it and then I also include, for the next step, a biochemist, a dermatologist and sort of more—

Richie: [00:31:33] Rigorous.

Rachel: [00:31:34] Yes. And more degrees of removal from me so they’re not like, “I’m your friend. I’m going to tell you I like it even if I don’t.” Because I really need brutally honest feedback. I don’t want it once it hits the market. My rule is: once it hits the market, I’m not changing it. It has to be perfect before I hit the market because you don’t want to make that mistake publicly.

Richie: [00:31:55] I’m just interested in the model but it would also seem that, I’m guessing, the cost to do 2,000 samples is still pretty cheap?

Rachel: [00:32:02] Yeah.

Richie: [00:32:02] Right? Relative to 2,000 samples of apparel or a shoe. You would bankrupt many times over.

Rachel: [00:32:08] I’m sure. But also I was doing them.

Richie: [00:32:10] Right. Fully vertically integrated.

Rachel: [00:32:13] If I had to send that out to a lab, “Oh, forget it.” That would have bankrupt me. [Versus] doing it in-house.

Richie: [00:32:22] Also amazing how many tries you can have.

Rachel: [00:32:24] Mhm. And also, I understand my products implicitly in a way that I think, possibly, other skincare owners don’t. Because, not only did I formulate it, but I worked with it. So I know what happens when X goes awry or when Y doesn’t act the way that I want it to.

Richie: [00:32:41] Right.

Rachel: [00:32:41] And I also now know how to make small changes during production to account for those since we’re working with natural ingredients. If it’s a super-humid day, some things act a little differently than they would otherwise, even with as much climate control as you can do in a 1850’s studio.

Richie: [00:32:58] It also raises an interesting question around [how] you often see a lot of column ideas or companies start when the person running them feels a need for something.

Rachel: [00:33:08] Mhm.

Richie: [00:33:08] And there’s always a big question, though, if that thing can translate into an actual business and does the thing that they actually feel or need have resonance well beyond them to hundreds of people or thousands or millions or whatever. For all the ones you see where [it] works, there are all the ones you never hear of where someone has some crazy invention or trap, whatever they wanted. What is it like navigating that where you had such a personal need, but also you’re not the only customer for the business anymore? It seems like a very interesting balance.

Rachel: [00:33:35] Well, I have the most sensitive skin of anyone I know.

Richie: [00:33:38] You’re the ultimate customer in a way.

Rachel: [00:33:41] I kind of am. I feel like, if I can continue to use the products, pretty much everyone is good. Also we’ve been around long enough that we’ve got a core group of solid customers [whom] I can bounce ideas off of in a professional way, but make sure that I’m still servicing the people who are supporting us. That keeps me in check. Also I keep my ego in check. Like if I love something and I really, really love it and nobody else does, I’m not going to release it. I’ll just make it for myself.

Richie: [00:34:10] Right. Because you have that ability.

Rachel: [00:34:13] Yeah.

Richie: [00:34:13] So we hit 2014 now. Where’s the business at that point?

Rachel: [00:34:17] 2014 I feel like [2014] was the real turning point. So that’s when we started getting a lot of press elsewhere. We launched in France. We became much bigger in the EU. We started selling in Australia. That was really when we became an international company, all because of word-of-mouth press really. Up until this year, all of our 250 retailers found us. This is the first year we’re going out and seeking new retailers on our end. I’m really proud of that.

Richie: [00:34:50] Did the natural nature of all the products allow you to scale globally easier because of different restrictions or testing or so forth?

Rachel: [00:34:59] I would say it’s actually the opposite.

Richie: [00:35:01] Really?

Rachel: [00:35:01] It’s harder. If you make the products in the lab and all of the ingredients are synthetic, you test that once, you’re done. It’s called PIF [Editor’s note: product information profile]. I don’t remember what the acronym stands for, but it’s the EU regulations on skincare that are imported and they kind of kill us every year. They’re very in depth. I understand the reasoning behind it, which is consumer protection. From my end, especially because we use natural ingredients, so with new batches, you’ve got new tweaks that you have to make and a lot of regulatory hoops that you have to jump through as a small business—it’s exhausting. It’s terrifying and it’s expensive. I think in some ways if we were a more conventional skincare brand, it might be easier.

Richie: [00:35:44] So you said production also is all under the same roof as well.

Rachel: [00:35:49] Mhm. We have help now with our deodorant because we just can’t physically keep up with the demand. We still produce in-house, but we also have some outside help. While we have a somewhat strict production schedule—we know when we’re going to do production throughout the day—if we get a big order of something, we shift everything around so we can produce whatever product it is that needs to get out the door.

Richie: [00:36:12] What lessons did you learn scaling that production? Because, again, normally it’s something where you do the prototype and than you kick it off to someone and then you just call them until it’s done. But it sounds like you have and have continued to, I assume, put a lot of SKUs out and a lot of the products out through that same system.

Rachel: [00:36:28] Scaling is what keeps me up at night if I’m being brutally honest. Scaling is terrifying. It never goes the way you think it’s going to go. It’s like making rice. If you make a cup of rice, it’s like a half a cup of rice and a one cup of water. If you make ten cups of rice, it’s five cups of rice and eight cups of water. The ratio changes and for every single one of our products, the ratios change and never in the same way even if they’re nearly identical products. Something goes off. It’s a constant dance and it’s a constant worry because I don’t want to sit on raw materials that I don’t think we’ll be able to use in time, but I also don’t want to run out and I don’t want to put too much pressure on the farms that we work with. It’s a constant tug of war, which I love. I would not do it if I really hated it and I really appreciate the fact that we can control a lot of this.

Richie: [00:37:21] Right, and that you’re there for it too.

Rachel: [00:37:23] Yeah. Also [if] something goes funky, I can figure out where in the line it went funky and fix it.

Richie: [00:37:29] How important do you think that is to the future growth in terms of: Do you think, as a good problem to have, you’ll have to continue scaling and at a certain point, like you did with the deodorant, start to get outside help?

Rachel: [00:37:39] Yes.

Richie: [00:37:39] How do you manage that? Because you’ve done it for so long, but also it would seem to be a limitation at some point too.

Rachel: [00:37:45] Exactly, yeah. We want to keep everything in-house as long as we absolutely can until the very, very last second. But if I purposefully keep everything in-house like that I’ll stifle the company. So I do know that. At some point, you have to let that go so you have the room to start thinking of other things as well. We will wait until we can’t do it anymore and then we will find reputable partners who have the same ethos as [we do] and really understand where we’re coming from and are willing to work with us and letting me be in the space, probably looking over their shoulder.

Richie: [00:38:22] And then, to bring the business up to the present, in terms of the last four years to now, what have been the focus areas? It sounds like you’ve hired and brought a team in.

Rachel: [00:38:33] Yes.

Richie: [00:38:33] And started to more formalize a lot of the infrastructure as well.

Rachel: [00:38:36] Yeah. So there are three of us in the space. Soon to be four, possibly five. This year, we’re doing a hiring push. And then I’ve got two offsite people as well as my two accountants and a web—we’ve got the whole sort of—

Richie: [00:38:51] Supportive team.

Rachel: [00:38:51] Resource team. Yeah. But I do want to hand over some of the day-to-day things that I do—that I really should not be doing and they’re eating up brain space that I really need to think about bigger-picture issues—to Stacey who is currently the sort of Director of Operations. So she would take on a different role and we would hire a Director of Operations to help. Also I really want to expand to South Korea and Japan as well as the Middle East. We have a small presence there, but not as large as I’d like, and that will take some real, culturally sensitive know-how and I want to hire someone [for whom] this is their area of expertise and they can really help that be a seamless transition for everyone. So yeah. We’ve get a lot of growth in store to really help position Soapwalla as a go-to, safe, clean, non-judgemental, universal skincare brand.

Richie: [00:39:50] How have and how do you see the channel that’s growing between the retail piece, between the ecommerce piece? You don’t have stores, right?

Rachel: [00:39:58] No. And that’s purposeful. I don’t want a store. I get asked that a lot. I really want people to be able to smell our products and try them out, but that’s why we have these wonderful retail partners. And I’d much prefer to send them to these people [whom] I have real, long-lasting relationships with. I consider a lot of our retailers like close friends at this point. And that’s the beauty of a small business, is we are the economy builders and I want to help them build their businesses and they want to help me build mine—[it’s] a really beautiful symbiosis.

Richie: [00:40:32] So you’ve actually found the partnership in wholesale partners.

Rachel: [00:40:36] Yes.

Richie: [00:40:36] Not some of the other ones that I think a lot of the negativity comes from.

Rachel: [00:40:40] Yes. We work with boutiques, small businesses, a lot of women-owned businesses, a lot of queer-owned businesses, a lot of people [whom] I support and I’m a part of those communities. And then the ecommerce site I also want to build because it’s just an easy way to get product to somebody and also get the word out. If they are in a rural area and there’s no other option for them and maybe they don’t feel comfortable going into those stores, they can buy from us. We’ve established that trust and I don’t want to give up that line of communication.

Richie: [00:41:19] How do you think the law background has helped you build the business if at all?

Rachel: [00:41:23] I do think it’s helped. So no regrets there, though I did maybe while I was in it. I did not think analytically in that way prior to law school and it’s really helpful. I can read a contract and not get terrified and know what it means and hold my own in a conversation as a female business owner. And I’m small, I’m five feet tall. It’s shocking at times how I’m treated by other people in the profession and being able to whip out that knowledge can really help level a playing field that would otherwise be quite skewed.

Richie: [00:42:00] What’s the cheapest and most expensive lesson you’ve learned building the company?

Rachel: [00:42:04] Cheapest lesson is, “Put my head down, get the work done,” which I learned being a violinist. It’s also the least sexy lesson I’ve learned, but the most vital. Really try not to pay attention to what anyone else is doing, put your head down, do the work and you will see. You will reap the rewards.

Rachel: [00:42:23] The most expensive, huh? Everything we source that’s not raw materials, so our packaging and our jars, our bottles, our lids and our shipping materials are all made in the U.S. Nothing’s made in China. Our raw materials are made all over the world, but all of that is in the U.S. and we had been using one label producer. That relationship ended and I, in a panic, went with somebody [whom] I did not vet and that was a terribly expensive mistake. I ate all of those labels which were—

Richie: [00:42:55] They were just wrong?

Rachel: [00:42:56] They were terrible. They were every possible kind of wrong. The formatting was wrong, the colors were wrong, the sizes were wrong, everything was wrong and that was painful.

Richie: [00:43:07] Gotcha. What do you think—two parts to this—is the most misunderstood part of the brand that you would want to clarify and then, two, just clean skincare more broadly?

Rachel: [00:43:17] We’re not just a deodorant brand. We are a full-service skincare brand. I always like to make sure that that’s clear to everybody. And, sorry, what was the second?

Richie: [00:43:25] Misunderstood about clean skincare more broadly?

Rachel: [00:43:27] That it’s ineffective. The purpose of our products is that they are as effective, if not more effective, than the conventional products that you can find. Just because it’s made in the lab does not mean it’s better.

Richie: [00:43:40] It would seem a lot of stuff is trending toward the clean beauty skincare space. Do you see that continuing for the foreseeable future because of larger trends of awareness and so forth? Do you think there are good things that can be done in labs? What’s the spectrum there?

Rachel: [00:43:54] Yes, I think that trend is going to continue. Once you’ve learned things, you can’t unlearn them. It’s like once you’ve seen something, you can’t unsee it. So I think once the consumer education and awareness is there, it doesn’t go away. What green skincare or green beauty looks like is going to change. I think we’ll see more technology and then a swing to less tech. All of those swings will happen but the business of organic skincare is not going away. It was a $13.2 billion dollar market earlier this year and it’s expected to double by 2024. It’s definitely—it’s not going anywhere.

Rachel: [00:44:31] And, yes, I don’t think that labs are the definition of evil. I just think you need to know and make informed choices and make choices that make sense for you.

Richie: [00:44:45] Almost more on the transparency side than it is like the black box.

Rachel: [00:44:48] Exactly.

Richie: [00:44:48] It’s not the lab itself that does anything.

Rachel: [00:44:51] No. It’s just decide if that is something that you want for you and if it is, great. You understand exactly what it is and how it’s made and what its purpose is. If you don’t, good. You’ve got all of these other options as well. I try not to vilify anything.

Richie: [00:45:06] And then where’s the name from?

Rachel: [00:45:08] Ah, thank you. So I had already been making soap before I went to India and when I came back, a friend of mine who had also spent time in India dubbed me “the soap walla” because walla is a “maker” or a “master” in India. So a chai walla is your chai maker and I loved it. Technically, I think I’m supposed to be a walli because I’m female but I like the walla.

Richie: [00:45:30] It flows, yeah. Awesome. Thanks so much for talking.

Rachel: [00:45:32] Thank you so much for having me.

Richie: [00:45:37] Thanks for listening to the Loose Threads Podcast. You can read full transcript of the podcast and join the newsletter at LooseThreads.com. Feel free to leave a review on iTunes—we always appreciate it. And thanks to Georgia Drake, Jr. for editing this episode. We have a great roster of upcoming guests including Kara Cohen of DripKit, Eliza Blank of The Sill and Rachel Silver of Love Stories TV. Thanks for listening and talk to you soon.