Pamela Love Black had just been laid off from her job and had nothing else to do, so she decided to combine her business savvy with a longtime hobby, soap making, turning it into one of those strange-but-true overnight success stories.
Black's Salt Lake City-based firm, Soap Crafters Co., began in her spare bedroom with $100 for advertising. The idea was simple: an Internet-based mail order company carrying the supplies needed by hobbyists who make their own soap.
After 2 1/2 years, she now leases 2,500 square feet in a warehouse at 2944 S. West Temple, employs five people and already has realized $300,000 in sales this year.
With many people so stressed out and pressed for time, who would want to make their own soap?
Lots of folks, apparently.
"The last Christmas rush count was probably 4,000 (customers)," Black said. "It's a combination of people who want to do this with their family, small business, people who make soap and sell it to gift shops, fund raisers for churches, synagogues, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, you name it."
Soap Crafters offers customers the raw ingredients to make soap from scratch, but those aren't big sellers because lye is a key ingredient — something most people don't want to handle.
Far more popular are the ingredients to make the kind of soap you want using "noodles" of ready-made shredded soap that can be melted, mixed with other ingredients and poured into molds.
"That way, they don't have to mess with the lye. We do the hard part for them and they get to do the fun part," Black said.
She also sells the makings of glycerin gel soaps, which she said are pretty and even easier to make.
Still, why bother with homemade soap?
"Once you use it, you'll never go back to store-bought soap," Black insists. "You control what's in it. Homemade soap is really rich and creamy. It isn't exactly what grandma used to make — they used wood ash to get potassium hydroxide (for the lye). That was very harsh. Now we've got it down to a science. We know how much sodium hydroxide to use per pound of fat, so the end result is a very gentle soap on your skin."
No lye remains in the soap after it has cured.
Black said people also enjoy mixing different scents and colors. A Christian spot on her Web site under "Religious Soaps" offers Bible verses with references to ingredients and recipes to make soaps that contain biblical scents.
One soap scented with frankincense and myrrh that can be wrapped in gold foil is a popular Christmas gift, Black said. Recently, a customer suggested that she create a milk-and-honey soap.
Black has been making her own soap for about 10 years. "My desire started in elementary school, reading about the pioneers making their own soap," she said. After reading a how-to book, she "made my first batch and couldn't stop making it."
Black is no stranger to entrepreneurship. Among other businesses, she started an employment agency in the early 1980s and also owned a small medicinal herb company. Still, she was surprised by the speed and intensity of Soap Crafters' success.
"With my other businesses, start-up took a year, especially in mail order. But with the Internet, it's bang-zoom, you're in business. I turned my first profit in month two. It was just amazing. The first year, I took in $50,000. Last year, it was a third of a million. This year, I think we've probably outdone last year."
Now she's investigating a new division: supplies to make gel candles that are colorful, see-through and gaining ground among hobbyists. "Candle gel is the next hot rage," Black predicts.