‘You’ll never make a living out of soap,’ said a helpful bystander to Emma Heathcote-James, founder of the Cotswold based business, The Little Soap Company, but boy would she prove that person wrong.
What started as a kitchen table hobby for Emma, after being unable to final 100% natural soap amid her weekly shop has turned into a national brand stocked in several major retail outlets, independents stores and boutique accommodation.
We caught up with Emma to get to know more about her and her hugely successful business.
As a youngster, Emma grew up using soap her Granny collected on her travels. Pure, natural soap, free-from any chemicals was the norm for the family.
It was only after her beloved Gran had died and the stocks had started to dwindle that Emma was forced to buy her first bar of soap and was shocked to find rows and rows of ‘beauty bars’ and products that called themselves soap but which were actually synthetic, chemical interpretations.
“Even after searching high and low I still couldn’t find anything like Granny’s soap amid my weekly shop, and this wasn’t something I was prepared to live with,” explains Emma.
“I tried to make my own bars but the soap wasn’t very good. Then in 2008 while visiting the local village fete, I picked up a bar of handmade soap and met my first real live soap maker.
“Her soap was like nothing I’d ever used before. It was hard, it lathered, it was fantastic. We talked and became friends. She guided on me where to buy good quality oils and I started to ‘play’.”
This was a turning point for Emma. She taught herself how to make her own soaps, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Turning a hobby into a national brand
Emma began making soaps from her kitchen table and selling them at farmers markets and craft shows. Little did she know that this would be the start of her own collection, the Original Artisan Range, that would be the first organic soap to hit the supermarket shelves.
“My mission statement for the business is, and always has been, to ‘make pure, natural soap accessible to everyone’ and this is something that underpins the entire business,” explains Emma.
“As soon as I started selling the soaps I could see that I had created a product that people wanted and needed and that there was a demand for my soaps. The key was to create the products at a price everyone could afford.”
Emma knew she could achieve this but needed to make large quantities to benefit from economies of scale and for this, she needed the supermarkets to ‘buy-in’ to the concept. “Looking back at this now, I wanted the impossible. I was asking for their buy-in to a product that wouldn’t physically exist until they signed up for a national shelf fill.
“However, I went for it, and buy into it they did,” says Emma.
The determination to barter, take a risk and deliver on honest handshakes means the business has self-funded its own growth. “I was very fortunate that the first few factories we worked with knew we had deals with the major supermarkets and agreed I could pay them when I got paid.
“This is not something you won’t find in a business textbook but if you don’t ask you don’t get. It was this factory that really enabled the business to happen. It was a massive punt for them but that’s business really.”
Emma now has four different collections sold in Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Booths, Boots, Ocado, Amazon and sells her products wholesale into other independent stores.
Being the first organic soaps to hit the shelves has played a major part in their success to date, but so too has creating a brand that people believe in and can relate to.
“When we first started we noticed fairly early on that no other soap brand had a provenance or a face attached to it,” says Emma.
“From day one I signed my name on every label as I am hugely proud to stand by the ingredients we use which are still the purest and finest despite us having upscaled considerably.
“We’re a company that is open and transparent, we make all our products in the UK and we’ve created a brand that showcases this, as well as our roots in the Cotswolds. It’s a brand with personality that has genuine heritage and in today’s world this can go a long way to helping build a loyal customer base,” she adds.
Women in business – what does it take
Running a business is never easy whatever age, stage or sex you are. For Emma, having to learn every aspect of business from the ground up has been a challenge. “Imposters syndrome is something that a number of business leaders suffer from including me.
“Having to build the business from scratch and in a relatively short space of time, I often felt uncomfortable about not having the right qualifications to run the business. Self-doubt does creep in every now and then, but you have to shake it off or else it’s totally paralysing, and nothing gets done.
“In addition, the hours I’ve put into the business have been hard work, working from 6:00am until 9:00pm to get the business off the ground and grow the business, and with this comes sacrifices. Spending time with friends and family has, at times, had to take second place but understanding friends do get it and it helps when you can see light at the end of the tunnel.
“Mistakes are another one that often provide a challenge to overcome and put right, but these are what help grow you and the business. A couple of big mistakes we have made include sending the wrong stock into stores, an incorrect number for a barcode on a delivery note and launching an innovative organic foaming body wash first rather than a normal shower gel as no one got what we were doing.
“There are of course highs and low in any business, but there is nothing better than helping others and getting emails and calls from customers saying their skin has improved as a result of using our products.
“I still wake up with that fire in my belly and desire to leap out of bed in the morning wanting to change the world. And, while things are flowing in the right direction, we will carry on just as we are.”