August 3, 2011

Craft Entrepreneur Profile

Kathy A. Gambrell talks with the Craft Entrepreneur about her Montgomery County, Md., wholesale and retail bath and body products business Bay Soap of Maryland with the Craft Entrepreneur.

When did you start your business?

I started soapmaking in 2005 and opened the business in 2006. It started under another name, Chesapeake Bay Bath and Body, which everyone told me was much too long. I officially changed the name in 2010.

What do you make and what makes it unique?

We wholesale and retail handcrafted soaps and bath products. We use the oils, butters and botanicals from Maryland and around the world to create a rich, aromatic bathing experience.

How did you begin making your product?

It actually began as a hobby. I bought some melt and pour soap from the craft store as a way to entertain my young son, who was then about four years old.

What made you decide to provide your product to the general public?

It was a natural progression. I was giving my soap bars away to friends when, around Christmas time, someone asked me to make a couple of gift baskets for her to give away as gifts. The light bulb went off.

What process do you use in making your product? How long does it take to create your product?

Our soap are made in what some call the Old World method. We use oils and butters combined with sodium hydroxide, or lye. We had essential oils and botanicals, then pour them into molds, that we insulate for up to 48 hours. After that we pull the soap out of the molds, cut them into bars, and allow them to cure, or dry, for four to six weeks.

When did you do your first market? What made you decide to do a market?

When I became serious about selling my soaps, I looked around for a small market that I could participate in. I found a Strawberry Festival that was held every year and signed up. It was completely trial and error, but I managed to make more than $300 that day. I was stunned, and I have returned every year after that. I keep working to make my products better and to create new ones for more variety. I add a few products every year in the spring and in the fall.

What factors do you use to decide what market to do? How many do you do a year?

In the beginning, I did any market that asked. I quickly learned that was not a very cost-effective thing to do. Shortly after the Strawberry Festival, I was asked to do the local county fair. I was told they'd heard about me and they didn't have anyone else in the product category. It was nine days and it typically drew more than 250,000 people. I was so flattered that I was asked, I happily plunked down the $600 fee to participate. It was my worst move ever. I wasn't ready. My product wasn't ready. That, coupled with the fact that we were in the most horrible location that had no foot traffic at all, we only sold to three customers in three days. And there was another body products vendor who was better positioned and was doing incredibly well. We pulled out after the fourth day. I lost a huge amount of money. Our lesson was that we weren't invited because they loved our product. They invited us because they wanted to sell booth real estate.

Now, I am much more judicious about what shows we do. We set a cap for table or booth fees and stick to it. We have to have verified attendance numbers before we go outside that cap. So we do a lot more research on a show now before saying yes.

What is the most unique market experience that you have had?

That had to be a Washington, D.C., tourist site we did this year. They have a fundraiser each year, and it's very expensive to participate, more than $300, plus another a portion of the sales. It turned out to be a great event. They even had a place for vendors to go to get change so we didn't have to leave to go to the bank. It was an incredibly well run event that focused on making sure the vendors had everything they needed - even free parking.

What makes a great customer?

Anyone who truly appreciates the hard work and passion you put into your product.

Who is your business hero?

That would have to be Richard Branson. He brings such energy and passion to every venture he engages in. And I think having each of his businesses separate from the others is a brilliant move, as well. I wish I had his sense of daring and adventure when it comes to business risk.

What is the best part about being a Craft Entrepreneur?

No limits. I can do and create whatever I want. If something doesn't work, I can go back to the drawing board and figure out how to do it better, or work towards some unique innovation. There is no

How do you process your credit card payments?

We just started using Square. Love it!

Do you use any unique technology to reach your customers?

My son. He and his friends typically fan out during the larger shows and pass out samples, coupons and business cards.

Do you use social media?

Facebook. We share our promotions on Facebook and like to engage with our customers there.

Do you care to say how much revenue your business generates?


Do you have employees? If so how many?

Right now, one part-time person, but during the busy season, we add more people.

Do your employees get any special benefits?

Free soap!

Do you support any charities with your business?

I support the Treatment and Learning Center in Rockville, Md. They help kids with learning issues. They are kind the parents and treat the kids with respect. That is huge with me.

How much does your business donate to charity annually?

We branded one of our Body Butters this summer and are giving 50 percent of the proceeds from the sale to TLC.

What is the one thing you want people to know about your business?

We work hard to do what we love for people we care about - our customers.

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