Monday, August 26, 2013

Q & A with Amy Scott of The Laughing Pear Soap Company

Today, I am delighted to be featuring a good friend of mine here on the blog - Amy Scott, the owner and operator of the Laughing Pear Soap Company based near Halifax, Nova Scotia.  The Laughing Pear aims to create a quality soap bar that's free of harsh chemicals and easy on the wallet too.  Each bar is handmade and feature over 20 different scents!  Amy graciously agreed to answer some of my questions, and after seeing some of her designs and products, I'm sure you'll be a big fan too!

Q: When we met, we were completing our education degrees to become high school teachers.  How did you go from teaching to being an entrepreneur?

A: It turns out that teaching in the public school wasn't a great fit for me- I had a hard time trying to balance being available for supply work while also taking on other non-teaching work to pay the bills. I stuck it out for about a year of supplying, but eventually felt this wasn't sustainable (and it turns out I also didn't really enjoy the public school work environment!)

So, by 2010 I was working in a lot of different arenas- I was teaching science labs at Mount Saint Vincent University, tutoring, working with Dalhousie Medical School, doing a little catering- you name it! So when the opportunity to get into small business came up, I jumped at the chance to focus on ONE thing for a little while. I had always daydreamed about working in a more ‘creative’ field and being more independent as well, so entrepreneurship ticked a lot of boxes for me.

Q: Tell us about the Laughing Pear Soap Company.  What inspired you to start this particular business

A: Laughing Pear is the current iteration of a 30-year old business- it’s had a number of names, owners, and locations over time, but the main soap recipe has stayed the same throughout. Just before I owned it, the business was run by a wonderful lady named Liz England. I would see Liz once a year when she came to the Halifax area to do a Christmas Craft Show. I would buy a year’s worth of her soap because it was awesome soap and the only kind I’d use.

So in November of 2011, I am at the craft show getting my year’s soap from Liz, and she has a little note on her booth that says ‘this business is for sale...serious inquiries only.’ We started chatting about it and I said, basically, that this was the least-serious inquiry she’d ever get, but if she was interested I’d love to discuss purchasing the company. She told me she had another buyer already, and that was that.

Except that I went home and spent the next two weeks trying to shake the disappointment of not being able to buy the company. I had asked Liz about it completely on a whim, but the idea of owning a soap business had gotten under my skin and wouldn't let me go. I was really bummed that this opportunity that I didn't even know existed had gotten away from me.

The happy ending is, of course, that Liz called by early December and told me that her first buyer had fallen through and was I still interested? By then I knew that I desperately wanted to go for it, so I was able to confidently say ‘YES!’ even though I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. All that was left from that point was to break it to my husband (and business partner) that he’d just gotten into the soap business, and to beg and plead with my parents to let me set up production in their basement...

Q: How do you come up with your soap designs and scents?  What are some of your products, and your personal favourite products?

A: We offer a line of about 20 different bar soaps, all made from the same base recipe but varied in their scents and textures. We also offer milk baths, tub truffles (like a smaller “bath bomb”), lotions, decorative soaps, and some soaps for kids. Most of our products were already in production when we bought the business (in fact, the ‘pear’ in Laughing Pear came from my favourite soap scent, Champagne Pear!) but we are slowly branching out into new things, and I have a huge list of things I’d like to try next!
This year we chose three new scents to launch- Lupin Meadow for the spring season, Pumpkin Spice which is a yummy fall scent, and Sparkling Cranberry, which has a rich, Christmas-y scent. I get lots of ideas from different blogs and magazines, and from hearing what our customers are looking for. One awesome product that was born this year came out of a customer’s request to do soaps for her family reunion- she grew up on a potato farm and wondered if I could work with that. We played around a bit and – voila- potato soap!

Potato Soap!

Q: The fact that your soaps are all handmade in your own home studio is amazing.  How did you adapt your house/room to accommodate your business?

A: When I started Laughing Pear we were living in a small semi split, so I didn't even try to fit the soap production in our place. Instead, my parents graciously allowed me to retrofit the utility/storage room at their house into our production studio, and the rest of the packaging, supplies, and storage basically took up the rest of their basement!

While it’s been great to work out of mum and dad’s, I’m happy to say we just moved into a larger house, one which allows ample room for the soap company. In fact, we bought a bungalow that had had its basement renovated into a rental unit, so it came equipped with a second kitchen (perfect for making soap) and a couple extra bedrooms downstairs which will serve as my office and storage areas. We are now in the process of painting, doing a little electrical re-wiring and building some storage cupboards, and then Laughing Pear will be moving in- I’m really looking forward to having it all under one roof!

Soon-to-be Office 

Soon-to-be Studio

Q: Were there any hiccups along the way?

A: Well, it turns out that making soap is not as easy as I thought. And it’s especially tricky during the summer months- the humidity really messes with the reaction and the curing phase. Summer of 2012 we burned through 6 batches (so, 600 bars of soap) in one weekend, and the vast majority of it came out... not great. So we ground that up for laundry soap (we have enough laundry soap now to last us, and everyone we know, until the end of time) and I went back to all my undergrad chemistry textbooks to try and figure out the ins-and-outs of the soap-making reactions.

Q: Do you remember your first sale?

A: I do, actually! We had to have our house appraised as part of the business loan application, and my first-ever sale was to the appraiser. She bought a bar of lavender soap, and I kept the $5 bill, planning to frame it to hang in the soap studio someday.

Q: What are the best and worst aspects of owning your own business?

A: The best things are being able to stretch yourself, try new things, and be really proud of what you do all day. It’s super gratifying to hear customers say they love what you do! And I really like that entrepreneurship gives me a chance to do a lot of different things- I am a big nerd for data and statistics, but I also love being crafty, and I love meeting new people. In the run of a day at Laughing Pear I might start by analyzing last weekend’s sales data (yay graphs!), then play around for a while with new hand-written labels for my booth, and on market days, I get to meet all kinds of people who stop by to chat and shop. 

The challenging bits are that you are never, ever ‘done.’ I’m always thinking of new ideas and more efficient ways of doing things, and keeping up with orders, scheduling shows, and simply making soap is quite a handful. And when you are in charge of the whole project, it’s hard to hand it off to someone else to take care of while you take a break!

Q: What’s one thing you wish you knew before you started?

A: If I could go back and tell myself one thing before starting Laughing Pear, it would be to say that it’s all worked out reasonably well! I was really nervous to take such a big step outside of my areas of expertise, and spent a lot of time agonizing over all my early decisions (how to word my loan application, what colours to choose for the labels, etc. etc.). And I do think it’s important to take these things seriously and give them your best effort. But it turns out that there’s a lot of leeway for new entrepreneurs to ‘learn-as-you-go,’ and every decision isn't life or death. If you surround yourself with good help, be gracious to everyone you work with, and are willing to ask for assistance, it all turns out to be a pretty fun and gratifying experience!

Thank you Amy for sharing your wonderful story with us!  I can totally relate to the idea of wanting to do something creative and focusing on one job at a time.  It's something I wish I could achieve in my own life!  I love that potato soap, it looks like a real potato!  To see more of Amy's soaps, or to make a purchase, you can visit The Laughing Pear website, or check out her Facebook page.  I can't wait to see what she will create next!


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