Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Science of Evasion... Damn you Chemists!

If something has to be done as a matter of importance, it's an imperative with varying degrees of urgency depending on the job type. If a Formula One driver needs to turn left as a matter of urgency then we can usually expect a response from him in a fraction of a second. If a fireman needs to respond to an inferno then odds are they'll be there in 10, maybe 13 minutes (traffic allowing). However, if several emails and 2 voicemail messages are anything to go by, the man I employ to Chemically assess the safety of my products will respond to a matter of urgency in... well, it's been 9 days and still no response.

I suppose chemistry is amongst the most baffling of subjects and those who practice the sciences have every right to lord it over those of us with Humanities degrees (stupid, pointless, waste of time Humanities degrees!) but really, there's basking in your knowledge of covalent bonds, allotropes and the principal causes of Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (inhalation of silica dust, obviously) and there's just being rude.

Documentary footage of scientists at work.
Basically, I can't sell new products if they're not chemically assessed, it's not legal and rightly so; you can't just have any Tom, Dick or Harry making soap and demanding the public smear it on their face it's cause more skin issues than a 5 years old's knife throwing party. I'm not putting people out here, I'm willing to pay them money (in fact, there seems to be a frustrating disparity between the amount of work carried out and the price charged) but all I need from them is a 'Yes' or a 'No, can't be bothered' so I can start bringing BarSoap Moisturising creams to market.

Until next time Soaplovers...

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Sunday, 12 June 2011

Intense Market factors and Heavy Pretensions.

These days I’m not as prone to spouting bygone aphorisms from philosophers and the minds of past millenia. Whilst there is something to be said for learning about the great thinkers, they’re not always the most knowledgeable about the subjects most pressing to the entrepreneurial soap salesman (ever hear Socrates, Dr Johnson or even Nietzsche waxing lyrical about Search Engine Optimisation or Ebay listing fees?) That said, Machiavelli does suggest that ‘whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times’. What a clever clogs!

So, when I say that a substantial proportion of craft fairs I’ve sold at have been, by and large, a waste of time; devoid of customers and, in some cases failing to recoup costs. How should I deal with this? Whilst Machiavelli might console the organizers of such events after all ‘There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.’ Personally, I no longer have the inclination to reassure.

One recent notorious example where the close of play revealed a net profit of -£28 (not including an hourly wage) still saw the organizer approach me with an admirable level of optimism to encourage my booking onto their next event. Now, no matter what your level of education, it is patently obvious that -£28 is an unsustainable business model for even the smallest financial concern. So, in light of the single figure attendance to his event I was forced to politely though emphatically decline. I tried to spare a thought for his feelings but, in the cut-throat world of Soapmaking, as good ol’ Nicollo Machiavelli says ‘It is better to be feared than to be loved, if you cannot be both

As financial concerns become more prevalent (our current speculate to accumulate business model seems so heavily weighted towards speculate I’d equate the monthly outgoing on soap supplies as on a par with a reasonably severe marijuana dependency) I’m looking for more assured Markets that are guaranteed a heavy footfall. To that end, I’ve had to concede that although the official Manchester Markets might have an inflated booking charge, I’ve a much greater chance at recouping losses when there is some chance of a customer walking by as, in spite of the cost, ‘Never was anything great achieved without danger’. To this end, as I peruse a thoroughly depressing financial statement (my bank has even started sending me abusive text messages) I echo Niccolo’s sentiment ‘I'm not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it.’

I’m guessing this is a common problem for the majority of sellers just starting out. Certainly I’ve bemoaned a lack of sales with fellow stall holders; we swap success stories and failures and eventually come to the understanding that the more expensive, established stalls are, in fact, less a gamble more a necessity. When it comes to spending money though, it’s an obvious lesson that is the hardest learnt I suppose ‘The wise man does at once what the fool does finally.

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Monday, 6 June 2011

Lip Balms part 2: Even Balmier!

In a manner comparable to Indiana Jones - bloodied though roguish and unyielding - as he returned the 3 Sankara stones to their rightful owners in legendary 1984 documentary The Temple of Doom, I too feel a serenity, a peace... A journeyman's sense of rest as he pierces the fog leading towards the end of lands at those four disparate Atlas points.

Cocoa Butter. Where Gods and Men are made equal in hydration.
 What began a fevered rash of alchemy and bone splintering labour has culminated in perhaps the easiest mechanism for any one man to process raw ingredients in solid gold. Now, whilst Gold can be taken as either literal or figurative... I for one find far greater satisfaction in my ability to consistently replicate the perfect Lip Balm that is grounded in Cocoa Butter and a raft of other skin hydrating ingredients (Coconut oil, Olive oil, Vitamin E oil, Beeswax) than that other Fool's Gold; who would smear a Rolex across their parched lips in these arid coming months,? Who indeed would take comfort in the sharp metallic odour of a polished Gold ring?

Indeed, none but a madmen.

Yes, the scent of the Cocoa Butter Lip Balm is nature's true Gold (not the imposter element Au) and you can purchase these divine sticks right... HERE

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Thursday, 26 May 2011

Holy Cow... Lip Balm!

At approximately 16:43 (Greenwich Mean Time) I made possibly the finest batch of lip balm the earth has ever seen. That's Right. My hands are shaking as I type this, my breath ragged and I've double and triple checked to confirm that, yes, this is the finest batch of lip balm the earth has ever seen.

Interpol have already contacted me suspecting the lip balm may contain Ambrosia, famed drink of the Gods (it doesn't of course, just the finest Olive oil, Coconut oil, Vitamin E oil, Beeswax and Essential oils) Though their interrogation was uncomfortably thorough, they eventually left somewhat satisfied that I hadn't scaled Mount Olympus to unlock the secrets of Zeus. Though I do have to notify them every time I leave the country which is just as well as I've already booked a flight to the city of chapped lips, Sisimut (somewhere in Greenland) where they will worship me as a deity for bringing these lip balm elixirs.

Just... Awesome!
Whilst all the above is clearly steeped in hyperbole, you'd better believe it was I who prevented last week's Rapture (what else could explain it?) and all after striking up a clandestine agreement with St Peter (God Bless him, he just loves Citrus based beauty products) for exclusivity in all distribution rights for my products in the afterlife. Sorry Harold Camping, maybe next time...

Basically, I've no idea why you're still reading this! Head on over here if you just love the fresh, zingy scent of Orange or here if Lemon is your poison. Purchase the finest tube opposable thumbs can manipulate!

Fondest regards,

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Sunday, 22 May 2011

Customer Service #2

A word to the savvy seller, you should never arbitrarily clap your hands together in a fruitless attempt to stop an insect at your stall. The lady who was ogling our wares was completely taken aback, it took some considerable reassurance to convince her that she wasn't in any immediate danger.

Rest assured, she didn't make a purchase though seemed satisfied that I wasn't going to attack her (It was a really loud clap)

Every step an adventure for the travelling salesman...

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Tuesday, 10 May 2011

On the topic of Soaps...

There are two mathematical certainties when one works in Manchester city centre:

  1. People you don’t know will approach you and ask you for money
  2. Every magazine will contain glossy photos of people I don’t know and offer to reveal their secrets to me, or show their entire form naked.
For the first point, I started to wonder about the last time a stranger engaged me in conversation without wanting money (there’s no evidence, given the clothes I wear, that I have literally one penny to spare) For the second point I initially feel a paucity of emotion given I don’t personally know these people; this rapidly transforms into mild irritation at the publisher’s presumption… That I might care about the bedroom antics of these people? Preposterous. This irritation then descends into mild despair and finally a beleaguered acceptance that clearly a large enough social demographic do care about the movements and activities of these complete strangers.

It’s a complex series of emotions for one man to experience whenever Hello magazine features the unholy trinity of Jordan, Peter Andre and Subject X (Subject X being the person Peter Andre of Jordan happen to be sleeping with at that exact minute)

That said, despite my dislike of celebrity interviews and gossip, just recently I’ve found people approaching me (or more accurately, the business) for interviews and articles; what makes us tick, our inspirations; people wanting to understand the life and times of the modern soap maker.

Basically, it’s difficult for a soap maker to spin an amusing tale; I’m not Iggy Pop, there’s only so many soap anecdotes people are willing to sit through before ostentatiously checking their watches and conspicuously mentioning “I’m very bored.”

I’m considering lying about the method of preparing oils; if saponfication takes place at the wrong temperature then the castor oil becomes sentient, a malevolent unusually focused kitchen oil that annexes the other ingredients forcibly… When this happens there’s no other choice but to call upon the Guild of Soap makers to sterilise the area. Obviously it’s still not as interesting as Iggy Pop’s average Friday night but that’s the best I can do. Oh and incidentally, there really is a Guild of Soap makers, I can happily say I’m a member.
Castor Oil, Improperly handled.
For the meanwhile, until I’ve ironed out all the little details in my super-intelligent castor oil fable, I suppose I’ll try to keep interviews light with soap trivia (“Did you know that Roman soap makers employed people called fallones to collect people’s urine to serve as key ingredient in soap? The ammonium carbonate reacted with… oh, bye”) and try to avoid trite and stock answers. Maybe I’ll just send Kate instead.

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Wednesday, 27 April 2011

I'm Fired!

We’re all no doubt familiar with the basic concept of the international T.V hit the Apprentice. A group of bizarrely confident people in suits are tasked by Sir Alan Sugar (or for the American reader, Donald Trump) with selling items to the public, or to shops or to industry experts. It’s great Television, that’s not to say that I couldn’t imagine the majority of participants mugging members of public with a pool cue to garnish their bottom line whenever they’re off camera.

The sociopathic underlying nature is the central folly of most contestants; all brushed aluminium androids in Armani who see nothing inherently wrong with saying things like “Everything I touch turns to sold!” – “I am a brand!” – “I’m not here to make friends!” I mean come on guys… it’s nice to make a friend sometimes.

The reason I mention all this is that now I find myself in a similar situation to the candidates; I too am now approaching shops with the hopes of them stocking my fine products. I immediately dismissed the bullish, sales focused demeanour that I observed in my Apprentice contemporaries (one contestant demanding a storekeeper waive V.A.T on his purchases, dismissing the storekeeper’s protestations that it was “Tax evasion” and “illegal”)

I find that if you are insistent and rude then people are less likely to respond favourably to you, dismissing you as a “fool”. However, if you are polite, knowledgeable on your wares and willing to listen to shop-owners concerns and, where possible, make concessions, people are far more likely to engage with you and show an interest. When someone gives me negative feedback on my product I try to take it on-board and revise either the product or the packaging (within a degree of pragmatism) I am not the Alpha and Omega, I am but a humble soap maker and with each shop I approach I learn a thing or two (yesterday’s lesson: I need to help shops display the soap, to that end, if they order 15 bars or more then we’ll provide a free wicker basket that thematically suits the BarSoap range)

To that end, I have received orders from two shops and have received interest from two more which I will follow up in due course. Four shops seems to be plenty given that the majority of my soap production still takes place in my kitchen and I’m still can’t remember the difference between gross and net profit (someone should make a rhyme about it for businesses like the one children use to learn how many days are in the month…)

Anyone care to share any tips for the aspiring entrepreneur? I’m not too big to ask for help and advice… Good God I need help and advice!

Much obliged,

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Friday, 8 April 2011

Soap: A slippery road ahead...

“Keep your feet still!” This is not an ambiguous phrase; it is a very clear imperative. If someone told you to keep your feet still, you would most likely have a very good idea as to what they were getting at. However, in pursuing my goal of becoming England’s premier soap-salesman I’ve had to finally learn to drive and, due to a highly specific form of mental degradation, I don’t seem to be able to grasp this concept of keeping my feet still.

Basically, my clutch control is appalling.

My clutch control is so bad some police came round to question it in a series of unsolved, grisly murders; my clutch control is so bad that a soiled nappy left out in the sun phoned to complain about the smell; my clutch control is so bad Chancellor George Osborne blamed it for stalling the economic recovery of the U.K... I just can’t keep my feet still.

Unfortunately, the mountain will not come to Mohammed so It’s looking more and more likely I’ll have to drive my soap to potential customers/distributors and, far from the liberating experience I’ve so often heard it described as, thus far I’ve only observed hassles, heartbreak, expense and a gamut of stupidity in other drivers that can only be described as fascinating. Hell, thy name is Manchester’s one way system.

Needs must though; fiscally, it’s a misnomer to have 2 people going to craft fairs for relatively slight returns (last weeks combined man-hours for 1 craft fair: 12, not including journey times) especially when one of those people is a highly qualified solicitor.
Next Tuesday I’ll be having my 9th hour of driving instruction, I can turn both left and right at roundabouts; I could be anywhere… maybe even a neighbourhood near you.

Drive safe.
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Friday, 25 March 2011

Revenge of the taxonomy fascist!

Picture the scene... you'd really like a packet of Skittles, it's understandable enough; Skittles taste great, worth every dental problem they cause. So great is your desire for a packet of Skittles that you go to a shop and ask for them, after some deliberation the shopkeeper comes back with a packet that is 50% Skittles and 50% M&Ms and asks if this is O.K.

Clearly it is not O.K - it is only 50% O.K in that the packet contains 50% Skittles.

I'll now ask you to imagine that rather than Skittles, you have asked a supplier for 60 litres of Pomace Olive oil, you have specified the word Pomace and have been told to pick it up before 5pm that same day. You arrive there to be offered 60 litres of Pomace Olive oil that is blended with 50% sunflower. Now, Accuse me of taxonomy fascism if you will but surely Pomace olive that has been mixed with 50% Sunflower oil ceases to be Pomace olive oil - it becomes something else. Specifically, it is something entirely worthless to me.

The only reason this has garnered such a diatribe is that, basically, Kate and I had to drive across Manchester (a city whose road layout resembles a drunken toddlers' first attempt on a Spirograph, a superficially damaged spirograph at that) when I was feeling the acute affects of Red Stripe Lager from the previous evening. The drive to the supplier was fraught and basically fraught, coupled with the full spectrum of frumpy Manchester drivers, was the last thing I needed.

Punishment for an unnamed Manchester Supplier...

I suppose the lesson for all you crafters out there is that a reliable supplier is like your best friend who, unlike your actual best friend, won't ever want to borrow your money or C.Ds. Treasure them; a delay in supplies causes a delay in production which causes a delay in me earning money (I'll spare you a more detailed financial breakdown - I'm not great at capitalism)

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Sunday, 13 March 2011

Ten Seconds to Midnight...

Before I begin this blog entry I'd just like to direct the readers attention to the terrible events in Japan and, if you have any spare money, to please donate to a recognised charity for the disaster.

I began thinking about this entry at around 2:03pm on Friday the 11th. The mundane grind of my University job slips from my shoulder and shatters amongst the financial statements, letter-headed stationery and is lost amongst the interminable noise of the students (their youthful energy and their bizzarre tastes in music appal me)

I cycle home, invigorated as the Manchester sun beats down on me - arriving back at 2:23pm I begin work - what I see as my actual job - at BarSoap. I prepare an order for posting and deal with some Internet correspondences (mainly detailing my last blog, though with a couple of informal inquiries) and begin preparations for making a batch of soap (Goats Milk, Honey and Oatmeal) I have neither Goats Milk or Honey so I plan a trip to Tesco (a simple plan: Walk to Tesco) for the ingredients. Such are the minor obstacles of soapmaking.

On the way back I stop by the post office with the package. Now, my local post office is a fascinating place; the worker, far from being grateful for my handing over money for the service he provides, views me with intense distrust as though I have some insidious motive for sending a package. He will not speak to me, he will not smile, he will take my money but that is it. Once again I leave questioning myself, did I do something wrong there?

My post office manager.
I return home to make the soap, I won't bore you with the details. At some point later I return to the P.C and discover that my chemist (the man who checks over our ingredients and methods and deems them safe) has responded to my request to allow us to make Lip Balm (BarSoap is expanding its product range!); he wants money from me... they all want money from me. So, I am currently in negotiation as to what the bare minimum of money I can give him is (I also want money, I just love it so much)

At some point Kate returns home, I am obliged to stop working on the business and spend some time with her. I'm sure fellow craft makers can relate to occasionally having to speak to loved ones when there's work to be done, it's frustrating but it's a slippery path towards becoming a sociopath otherwise. After some perfunctory snuggling, we have a brief discussion about marketing and postal options (now postage to the U.S works at a loss in order to encourage trade, bah) it is then time for bed. BarSoap ends for 8-9 fleeting hours.

It is Saturday. We wake and deal with the correspondences of the morning - there are two sales to be packed and posted. Whilst negotiations are ongoing with the chemist I decide to waste no time in designing labels for the lip balms. Using MicroSoft Publisher is an emotionally neutral experience; the process is so dull and yet the program itself is so efficient... it gives the user a sort of glazed mental state - I sit there for 40 minutes adjusting this and modifying that, a vacant smile on my face throughout. I felt pleasure when I'd finished the designs though remember nothing else of the preceding 40 minutes.

I attempt to print the labels and stick them on the lip-balm tubes though our printer seems to have finally perished. It makes incomprehensible whirring sounds, complains of a lack of ink then a lack of paper and, when I finally coax a print out of it, gives a smudged, horrendous copy of the labels. The Devil moves in mysterious ways, though he is very real; I feel his hand in designing the Epson Dx8400 printer, the printer makes sinners of us all. I calmly imagine myself pounding the machine into atoms, my fists bloody and bruised though the infernal machine is dead. I discuss my feeling with Kate and we decide instead that I should order a replacement printer from Amazon.

It is Sunday now; there are no orders to prepare this morning - instead we've been in touch with a graphic designer to work on some sketches and ideas for both our online store and our promotional material, also a customer has a query about the oils we use and I am happy to oblige him (I really, really love talking about soap) In-between disparate episodes of Futurama and Family Guy I do a quick stock check and decided to make some Gin and Tonic soap (I've had Gin on the brain for 30 hours now) Making the soap I cut quite the figure, wearing a Dressing gown that can only be described as "stained", yellow rubber gloves and over-sized tinted Elvis shades to protect myself from chemical burns.

You might say I looked utterly insane, but that's the joy of working at home: I can listen to music I like, if I want to momentarily pause for thought and then watch the action scenes from Terminator 2, I can. That's what this is all about really; hopefully the business will take off and it'll be my inalienable right to watch Terminator 2 at any time during the day. So, that's fifty hours in the life of a SoapMaker - certainly it's more work and less money but, although it's now ten seconds to midnight and my 'official' University job is a mere nine hours away, I am not resentful.

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Thursday, 10 March 2011

Results night for the Etsy Oscars!

Well, this is exciting! The first thing I'd like to do is thank the lovely Kate for "Suggesting" I write this review, it's been nothing but a pleasure to research the 70+ shops that entered this competition. My eyes may be bleeding, but they're tears of seeping, bloody joy. Yes, it was genuinely humbling to look over some of these shops; usually when I come across people more talented than me I sulk and try to avoid making eye-contact with them, though in this case I have to write a blog celebrating their superiority so... thanks again for this Kate.

However, let's get started. Initially I drew up a shortlist of 25 shops which, fundamentally, really is far too long for a shortlist. So I was able to whittle this down again to 9; Jenn's Zen almost made it through sheer descriptive power alone "Mouth Watering and Delicious Fuscia Pink Chalcedony Earrings" - Well played, I was almost interested in earrings for a short time (Kate thinks they're lovely too) There were also several promising Burlesque entries; basically I want more women to look like this and this (not safe for work) - it's shameless but I have noticed 80s fashions making a comeback and I'd do anything to stop that happening.

I think my sub-conscious desire to be able to draw anything beyond stick men is why I choose this from Sunny Lee Studios. The featured pieces seem so vibrant - I always think watercolours are one of the more organic and exciting painting styles (also, there's a freakin' Pterosaur painting, which is always terrific for a young man to see!) The same goes for Firebelly Art even though none of them look like anything specifically (it's abstract you see) I could imagine looking at them from time to time and enjoying the colours if there's nothing on T.V. Oh and Andralynn for the sheer whimsy of it, I just love whimsy.

Also, have you ever wished a greeting card could double as a Basil plant? I know I have. Well wish no more friends, I really think this kind of juxtaposition is indicative of a mind that sees the world not as it is, but as it should be. And, from the ecologically prescient to the pragmatic, I think this stuff might be the only thing to prevent me actually slipping into a waking coma at my current job so thanks for that Peachy Keen, I need that job to pay the gas/electricity bill.

Well, I think I've gone on far too long... onto the main event. It's a hearty congratulations to Penny Farthing!

The style of Steam-Punk Victorian Gothic has, until now, been a criminally under represented fashion chic. However, this ring...
... is somewhat eye-catching I'm sure you'll agree; something Edward Scissorhand might wear for a night on the town and anyone who thinks that's a bad thing is -actually- insane. Now, I'm not claiming I'd be able to pull off wearing such a ring (especially given the amount of cardigans and knitted clothes I've been wearing recently) but I'd love to meet the man who had both the confidence and the wardrobe to match an item like this. Not to mention the lady who'd carefully apply her make-up and make arrangements for the evening before casually slipping on this...
No, it doesn't tell the time - but that's not the issue. I appreciate the minutiae of detail in some of these pieces and, whilst some pieces can lean towards the ostentatious, the style seems to almost insist on a certain esoteric fan-base. Certainly, this fusion of melancholy and the mechanistic presumably isn't to everyone's taste (my friends certainly wouldn't permit me such body adornments) but it's certainly striking - sure, a gold ring with a diamond in it looks pretty, but it's been done... I must have seen at least 10 people last week wearing a gold ring (maybe more!)

Also, I defy anyone to tell me they wouldn't look dapper wearing these cufflinks to any given formal event...
They're unisex which doubles their potential user-base and this is me, right now, throwing down the gauntlet for someone to mix and match with them. I know there's a tuxedo or female garment out there that is screaming out for domino cufflinks, I -actually- know it and I want photographic proof to show that the reality is as beautiful as it is in my head. Is there no-one among us who will take up this challenge? (I'd do it, but the chances of my ever being invited to a formal event are akin to finding a needle in a haystack where there isn't a needle)

So, as I've been researching and writing this for almost 5 hours now I'm going to wrap it up. A heartfelt thanks for everyone who entered; I think Kate is going to do a treasury featuring some of the shortlisted artists; there's too many to feature you all and for that I apologise (you're all just too talented, feel free to give yourselves a round of applause, all of you) I'll try and write another one at somepoint - so thank you again, you're beautiful people.

This is Dan, signing out. 

P.S - Fr33na, Coquette Bath and Buddhakitty Glass you almost made it for this, this and this.

P.S.S  - This is directed at Custom knit treasures I don't know if you're reading this but Kate mentioned your concern about a sales drop off; I've looked into it and as you sell scarves in Florida I'm guessing the sales dip is related to the weather...

This Google search of Florida reveals that scarves are pretty seasonal there, I hope you don't think I'm being presumptuous but I suggest Sunhats for the warmer months. Apologies is that sounded flippant I do genuinely hope it picks up for you.
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Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Customer Service

Customer service should be the easiest thing in the world; this is a group of people that want to give me money for a service which I provide. Their money allows me to continue providing the service and, as a by-product, allows me to purchase much needed food from time to time. I also find that the better my products become, the more customer revenue is generated and this is why I strongly believe in the notion of meritocracy and, to a lesser extent, the capitalist model itself.

I find the process whereby people give me money to be, frankly, beautiful.

However, this seamless revenue cycle wasn’t always so smooth. Back in December 2010 (BarSoap’s debut) both Kate and I were particularly green as salesmen; we knew wanted money, but how to get it? I can very simply outline our problem with this flowchart.

Desire for Revenue   >   Create Saleable product   >   ???   >   Revenue

Basically, we lacked one vital element.

Although we sold a respectable 41 bars that day I felt our customer interaction could use some work. We were friendly and enthusiastic but, if you’re asking people to pay £3.50 for a bar of soap, you need to lucidly explain why this is twice as expensive as supermarket brands. Initially we tried to encourage discussion with the informal query “This is all hand-made, so if you have any questions…” Unsurprisingly, no-one had any questions about hand-made bars of soap – I’m a Soapmaker and I’d struggle to come up with a suitable question about soap if someone put me on the spot like that, I’d just stand there gawping like a dunce.

Me, selling a moisturising Goats Milk and Honey Bar

Our shortcomings were pointed out to us at the next fair by a stall owner who sold bits of newspaper fashioned in the shape of animals (quite a market for them apparently) and bless her tiny newspaper animals, she was right. Kate decided a better line of questioning would be “Have you tried handmade soap before?” which invites a response of at least “Yes.” or in other cases “No.” thus allowing us to explain the benefits to people who haven’t previously used handmade soap.

Now, I have noticed that other stall holders don’t actively engage customers as much as we do; I can understand that if someone had made a knitted jumper or fashioned a bracelet encrusted with diamonds and other shiny things then they’ll pretty much sell themselves. However, whilst I don’t like to think of us as pushy, this is a heathen age of shower gel, alcohol wipes and misleading beauty products, the humble soapmaker has to scream, shout and fight to survive. That’s right... fight to survive.

We at BarSoap do try to engage our customers and be friendly *and* informative though, at present, we don’t subscribe to the “Customer is always right” maxim. For example, the three customer who smelt each bar several times (and spent over 15 minutes at our stall) constantly intoning “But I don’t use soap” in an ever increasing vocal pitch… they were wrong (though did buy something to which I thank them) The customer who started using our soaps as lego blocks whilst making strange tutting sounds and asking Kate if soap would make his girlfriend love him, he was wrong (soap alone isn’t going to make anyone love him, I fear) and the customer who very vocally wanted a 50% discount on one bar of soap… he was wrong too. That said, customer service, for better or worse, does expose one to the gamut of human personality traits and I eagerly await out next stall – be it profitable or anecdotal.

A virtual hug to the person who posts their most disagreeable customer…


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Friday, 4 March 2011

The Woman in front of the Man

Self-worth is an important trait, I like to believe that I can achieve things with a little effort and rational thought; in fact, I find it hard to operate without that assumption. Just today for example; I made some toast, made a cup of tea, I managed to cycle into work and I’ve been at work for 44 minutes thus far; I haven’t done anything in the time I’ve been here save write this blog and yet I haven’t been sacked or even reprimanded, quite the achievement.

However, it should be noted that none of these events happened in a vacuum; my significant other (the delightful Kate) had a hand in these tasks: I asked her to take out the toast when it was burning (I was busy trying to repair the P.C) she fetched the mug and tea bag and –actually- made the tea when all I did was turn on the kettle and she was also able to financially support us through the previous 2 jobs I was sacked from for dilly-dallying. The only thing in my morning routine she didn’t help with was probably the cycle to work; it would be unreasonable to expect her to help with that.

Up to now, Kate has been a largely unsung commodity in this blog; my blog hitherto being a platform for me to express my rage at the price of coconut oil. That said, I should point out that during the process of the soap’s creation to it arriving freshly at your doorstep there are other hands at work aside from mine. Although the idea of making alcohol themed soaps was mine, what’s a theme without a clever wordplay? Yes, that’s right the moniker “BarSoap” was punned by one Kate Griggs, the name references the structural form soap is likely to take and then pairs it with a licensed establishment where alcohol is consumed; it is only then that a Mojito Soap Bar seems to make sense. Semiotics, a powerful force.

Also, it should go without saying that the use of Jules Cheret paintings was proposed by Kate; I like paintings of things in a very general way I suppose (I’d enjoy a drawing of a cow under a nice tree on a sunny day… a cottage in the background, maybe) However, if someone were to suggest we packaged soap with 19th century paintings evocative of a gaudy, burlesque style – the father of Belle Époque era French painting – to give a sense of period chic and boutique desirability then I’d most likely stare blankly at them until they started to think something was wrong with me. I’ll have to commend her on that though, people seem to like it; a word to all budding craft makers out there, an over-riding theme or style can really give your work a unique sense of direction and identity. 

Kate's role in BarSoap
Also, there’s the day to day stuff like networking and social contact which I neither have the patience nor the aptitude for. It goes hand in hand with selling and I’m happy to let someone else be the public face of the company (just last night she at a legal gathering, she gave a presentation on soap, to strangers… I would find it very hard to approach strangers and engage them on the subject of Soap). Whilst I do make the soap, without generated sales all we’d be left with is a house that smelled very pleasantly and a stockpile that made walking in the living room very difficult. Granted, whilst looking at people’s necklaces and knitted items on internet sites like Etsy and Folksy doesn’t really constitute hard work for a girl, it needs to be done nonetheless.  

That's all for now Soap fans...

P.S. Kate reminded me after proof reading this (she does that for me too) that she also came up with the logo.. though due to restraints of the Blog format I've had to tell her she's literally too awesome to fit into one blog entry.

P.P.S. I'm definitely, definitely not being forced to write this under pain of forced abstinence. Definitely not.

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Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Humble Beginnings and Humbler Finances...

Never Again...
Cast your mind back… it was a garish time of baggy clothes and drum machines – yes, it was the early 90s. We didn’t have a lot; we had Conservative rule and the first Massive Attack album. Whilst we did have Coca Cola, I’m not altogether sure my generation could be classed as Generation X; we just didn’t have the energy on these shores.

However, what my luminaries and I did have were hopes; one day we would be adults and our roles were not yet defined. Brutal realities hadn’t permeated my idealistic notions of meritocracy and, happily, my vague comprehension of nepotism and class based injustices remained comfortably vague.

In short, if I -just- worked hard enough, who’s to say that I couldn’t become a rally driver? Who indeed would shatter my unshakeable belief that I could hold a Chemistry role of importance; my discoveries were a force for good and that my name was spoke in reverence (like those other noteworthy chemists, whose names escape me just at the moment)

Now, of course, I’ve yet to learn to drive and if someone were to ask me the chemical makeup of salt then my eyes would cloud with self-doubt and a forced grin would vie for position over a mask of outright terror (NaOh?). However, I had these dreams at one point or another in my mentally capricious youth. Nowadays, in this climate, I can’t imagine what young people imagine their roles to be: perhaps homeless? Maybe the more ambitious ones dream of securing DSS payments from the Government? Either way, the conflagration of negativity the media is bombarding students can’t be a force for good.

Irregardless of social background and economic privilege, I can only assume that no little boy or girl harbours a secret desire to make soap. Frankly, I see this as a positive; there’s charmingly esoteric and there’s just weird. Parents, look to their offspring to be figures of consequence and means – gender specific roles such footballer or model (generalities aside) are expected… doctor, film director, accountant are afforded prestige in this regard, but Soapmaker? My parents asked me “who uses soap?” “How can money be made from soap?”

“What is wrong with you?”

Like many businesses, there was single defining moment. The foundations were laid over a 45 minutes period as Lord Sugar dispatched two teams to create and sell soaps in hit BBC show the Apprentice; I was coming to the end of a fruitless 9 weeks working at o2 telephonica in a call centre and the prospect of being my own boss (or, more accurately, Kate being my boss) seemed so appealing I literally couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life – one of the teams made a profit and I supposed I could make a profit too. Subsequent to this, I’ve never had a conversation with people who care about specific phone applications of differing Nokia handsets. In this regards, I’ve never been happier.

It might seem a banal observation but it really is so liberating to work for yourself; if you had a job where the manager can, in good conscience, reprimand you for taking 2.3% of your working day on non-scheduled personal breaks as opposed to the company stipulated 2% - it is a scientific impossibility for you to attain a quantum of satisfaction from your work. The financial rewards are not immediate, the learning curve is steep and I’ve had more conversations about soap than any heterosexual male in history but, crucially, I can listen to music I like whilst doing it and, in accordance with Thomas Hobbes’ natural laws, I am free to make the journey to bathroom with the minimum of bureaucratic red-tape.

To those about to entrepreneur, I salute you.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Soapmaker's dirty secret...

Soap makes you clean – everyone knows that. On the balance of probability, most people probably don’t know how it makes you clean (a soap micelle contains both hydrophobic and hydrophilic elements which interact with immiscible liquids to… I’m boring you, I’ve literally no idea who’s reading this but I can just tell I’m boring you) it doesn’t matter, the important thing is that it makes you clean.

However, what’s the story behind the story? Where does soap come from? What processes and alchemy take place? Well… It’s been my experience as a soapmaker that this is not a clean process – a fascinating dichotomy, I’m sure you’ll agree. In fact, further to this, I have documented proof from a house letting agency drawing issue to the fact that certain areas of the house were “embarrassing” when they were showing potential viewers. I’m not going to name names here as we’re about to try and get the deposit back and it’s all going a bit febrile.

Anyhow, the perfectly cured and wonderful, emollient and hard bars we generate usually begin life as one of several oils. The simple task of getting them into the right mixing pan, at the right temperature (even the right chemical state) can be somewhat trying; handling castor oil is the equivalent of trying to give jelly a hug… and not in a good way. So, right off the bat we have spillages and removing oils from areas where there should be no oil is no laughing matter as any number of BP chief executives can testify – crude, olive, castor… it’s persistent.
                                                                  Me, hard at work...

Then there’s the highly alkaline nature of pre-formed soap; all soaps contain sodium hydroxide (lye) and that requires the diligent soapmaker to wear rubber gloves, aprons and protective glasses as just one grain of NaOH can burn through your skin. The rubber gloves make it hard to hold anything, the glasses become smeared in oils which impair vision and the kitchen apron just… make a man feel emasculated.

These factors conspire against the hapless soapmaker; I’m none too graceful in any event and with the addition of artificial handicaps… well, it’s a comedy of spills and, due to the highly caustic Ph levels of uncured soap, thrills. It all adds up to numerous blotches of hardened soaps in every hue and shade the mind can conjure, as well as various ‘reject’ lumps of soapy putty of differing pliability and scent.

You’d think the simple application of water to a water soluble product would erase the problem… THINK AGAIN!

An immutable surfeit of soap. Did ever a man face such a dilemma?

Where were you when the world changed?

It is Beethoven; approaching his piano... days later the Hammerklavier is unveiled. It is Thomas Edison, circa 1870, dreaming of a world bathed in electrical lamps. It is Copernicus, looking to skies; looking and realising there is more.

It is Daniel Burt; tentatively experimenting with Activated Charcoal in a poorly lit utility room…

The genus of a world-changing notion is seldom juxtaposed with grandiose surroundings and a fanfare of expectation. The catalyst of change is not always one easily quantified ‘Eureka’ moment, more a favourable circumstance combined with an undiluted will.

In this instance, after weeks of saponfication, curing and airing, of subtle formulation and great personal sacrifice – BarSoap takes no small pleasure in unveiling its latest creation ‘The Black Stuff’ bar.

A bar imbued with the relaxing hops, herbs and minerals of a 500ml can of Guinness and granted a wonderful texture and the colour beholden by so many by with addition of activated charcoal – a substance which boasts both incredible cleaning properties and a lovely texture in this form. It’s all rounded off with a creamy head on the top of each bar.

Now, I hope this doesn’t sound too arrogant when I announce that I have created the finest soap… in the world. I was surprised when it happened but I double checked, this is the finest soap… in the world.

*recommended for (but not limited to) oily skin, acne, Guinness drinkers, soap buying public at large.
**The Black Stuff bar should be available in the next seven days!

Oil, Oil everywhere and not a drop to saponify...

It is a little after 1am I have the dream. Every night it is the same; I am jolted away from a fractured unconsciousness into a frenzied state of alacrity – Kate tries to comfort me and all the while, I silently mouth two words again and again “Coconut Oil”

Coconut Oil: it is what drives a soap maker, what gives a bar its lustre – without Coconut Oil a bar will not lather luxuriously; it will not be as durable a bar. In short, soap without this oil is simply not the best soap it can be; it is a pale facsimile, a sweet smelling lump of matter pretending to be hygiene product… an abomination.

In my dream I am a man of wealth and means, it is my simple desire to buy 12.5 kg lumps of coconut oil fairly and without deceit. Now, since its invention some 5000 years ago, money has allowed transactions like this to take place thousands upon thousands of times a day simply and without occurrence. However, in my dream I walk the labyrinthine streets of Manchester searching for this product – I am turned away from supermarkets (Asian and domestic), met with blank faces when I ask about kitchen suppliers at restaurants (Asian and domestic) and internet resources quote astounding prices; prices that make you forget that this is a simple compound that’s formed by hitting coconuts with hammers – there are loads of coconuts in the world and there is no shortage of hammers either… why the price disparity?

What compounds my dreams is that most mornings I get out of bed only to find the nightmare world and the material world have colluded and there is, in fact, no reasonably priced coconut oil to be found in all the land.

People sympathise; they advise me to search on the internet, seemingly mistaking me as someone who comes from the past who hasn’t heard of the internet. Unfortunately, it is what it is; the rather blinkered tone of this blog is endemic of a wider problem: food prices are up with bread, wheat and oils all being affected by a poor global harvest – I suppose in the face of this, two soap maker’s problems don’t add up to a hill of beans in this crazy world but really… £30 for 12.5 kg? Really?

Daniel Burt

Bar Soap Launch 18/12/10

The lamp shade cast an otherworldly glow throughout the living room - our lighting, casualty of a malaise of faulty wiring and ungodly coincidence, was but a distant memory, one of many mod cons we'd forsaken this greyest month of grey flecked Manchester. Kate and I sat, single minded and near feverish, wrapping, stamping and arranging soaps. The elegance and extravagance of our wares shaming the neglected Christmas tree - its baubles and tinsel ostentatiously garish, the rotting Scottish shrub bared its desiccated needles like teeth as we laboured on oblivious. As the fan heater battled against the temperature drop (-7 according to Google, our central heating long perished) I pondered out current predicament...

It is almost 7 days previous, as I laboured in Manchester Metropolitan Universities' labyrinth of bureaucracy and recycled air. I received an email from my sweeter half reading thus "Ok Mr Burt, your mission should you choose to accept is to sell at least one bar of soap legitimately by 12:00am Christmas Morning." I pondered this. There was no question of refusing - we'd been testing the soap; giving out samples, modifying and experimenting. We had a theme, a logo... dammit we had a brand! Continents had been conquered with less. It was time. Within the hour I located a suitable market stall at a craft fair on the 18th. The gauntlet had been thrown down and then picked up again with all the speed a broadband internet connection would accommodate.

Now, I find myself wrapping and considering pragmatic issues of book-keeping - it is the 17th and we are fast approaching the witching hour. However, with 7 brands of unique soap ready for sale, Kate and I succumb to our rapidly failing senses and sleep. We wake up at 6:15 knowing only two things; there has been 4 inches of Snowfall and the good people of Bradford deserve our soap

In spite of my near constant navigational errors and black ice that makes any kind of steering a futile gesture, Kate manages the journey to Victoria hall; a magnificently turned out slab of Victorian majesty and a fine venue for the finer things in this world. Our stall is set up; resplendent in period decoration and ornate baskets and if it wasn't for the near fatal lack of sleep I'd be thoroughly elated.

As people filter into the hall I find myself manning the stall as Kate mingles with the other stall holders. As people browse the stall I find myself slipping into an easy rapport - I want their money but I won't beg for it - I find myself discussing the science of soap making, the benefits of each constituent ingredient. Kate assures me that not everyone wants an in-depth discussion on saponification and the humectant benefits of honey - it gives me pause; so many people idly wipe this chemically formed block around their body and have not a clue as to how it works. Well, I'll save that discussion for another blog...

I have to say, there is a charming sense of community among the sellers here - as Kate gets names and information and swaps ideas with other sellers - some also come and peruse the store (our first sale, truly a moment of controlled euphoria, was to a jewellery seller) Kate also purchased a doll from this store... Basically, if you manage not to spend all your profits on idiosyncratic gadgets and adorable stuffed toys, it's a very pleasant way of spending a Saturday.

Well, in summation: it's with a sense of enormous satisfaction that we managed to create and package something that sold so well - not to speak out of turn but I'm thinking the average O2 worker doesn't feel this amount of joy after peddling an I-Phone (no offence intended O2 workers, do you need a bar of soap?). I'd say it's awakened a long dormant sense of mercurial capitalism (dear God...) Until next time Soap Lovers.

Daniel Burt