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Molding a business out of soap

Kitchen hobby helps homemaker pay kids’ tuition

SHARE Molding a business out of soap

SEATTLE — Between driving her kids to school and fixing meals, Paula Gibbons makes a nice chunk of change making soap in her kitchen.

The 52-year-old homemaker started her business, Paula's Soap, as a way to live up to her Martha Stewart-wannabe friends. Now, she makes enough money to pay for the family groceries and part of the private school tuition for her two sons.

And it's almost entirely done out of her house.

"The advantage of having a job in the home is that you don't have to leave," Gibbons said. "The disadvantage is that it never goes away."

Her kitchen — with her huge pot, numerous scales and gas mask to handle lye — doubles as a soap factory. Off the kitchen is a room that holds racks of soap being cured for a month, boxes of finished soaps, bath-oil tags and paper to package the finished products.

Steve Anderson, Gibbons' husband, estimates that she has sold more than $500,000 worth of soap during the past decade or so.

Gibbons' business is not unusual. Nationally, there are more than 10 million home-based businesses owned by women, according to Sharon Hadary, executive director of the National Foundation for Women Business Owners in Washington, D.C.

"Home-based businesses should be taken seriously," said Hadary, who adds that the trend is growing.

Gibbons has hired other women — mostly other mothers — to help polish, cut and package her soap. That, too, is a growing trend among women working out of their homes, Hadary says.

"Women naturally have wonderful networking skills and are using that to extend leverage for others who are home-based," Hadary said.

Gibbons started making soap as Christmas gifts for friends who always gave homemade gifts. The response was so positive that she took some to a hospital bazaar. It quickly sold out, and Gibbons decided to go into the soap business. Now she spends her weekends at craft shows, art festivals and Saturday markets.

Gibbons says she carefully matches scents, colors and other ingredients. For example, a soap made with aloe vera and jojoba — both desert plants that help to protect the skin — will be paired with desert-inspired colors and scented with native desert flowers.

"The whole concept comes together and makes sense as a whole," she said.

Her business has grown by word of mouth. Friends regularly rely on her for last-minute presents, which gives them an excuse to pick up a soap or Bain Bombe — a fizzy bath bomb — for themselves. Gibbons says about 70 percent of her business is from repeat customers.

"I always give her stuff as gifts because there's just no comparing," said Geri Flynn, who recently attended one of Gibbons' soapmaking classes. "Her stuff is just absolutely wonderful."

Gibbons' classes double as a laboratory, where she can experiment with new mixtures of essential oils, colors and other ingredients.

During a recent class, seven women in jeans and sweatshirts sat around the kitchen table, sipping coffee and nibbling bits of strudel as Gibbons shared a favorite soap recipe. She gave tips on how to handle lye and where to find inexpensive kitchen utensils that can double as soap-making tools.

As her children get older, Gibbons is re-evaluating her business. With children busy with school and other activities during the week, Gibbons is deciding if she still wants to spend her weekends at craft shows. She would also like to teach more classes, although not necessarily in her kitchen.

"I keep taking my pulse — 'Is this something I like to do?' " Gibbons said. "And I do."