Five years ago, David Simnick made the first batch of SoapBox Soaps products in his kitchen. Today, the brand is in stores like Whole Foods, Target, Sam’s Club and CVS all over the country. What happened in between? A lot of learning experiences that led to the business tips that Dave shares in today’s Design Your Life column. This is a guy who’s honest about the humility and resilience it takes to start a business. “Ours was not an overnight success, and we still have a long way to go,” Dave says.
We’ll let him take it from here.
We started SoapBox Soaps because of a desire to empower customers with the ability to change the world through everyday, quality purchases and a one-for-one giving model. While this desire has remained a constant throughout all of our product development and launches, practically everything else has changed.
A great indicator of a successful entrepreneur/leader is the chops of that person’s team.
My best friend and I started SoapBox a little over five years ago, but only quit our day jobs and went full-time on the endeavor three years ago. Having just passed the anniversary of our giant risky leap into entrepreneurship, I wanted to share some of insights we’ve gained along the journey. Here are five lessons we learned from all of the bruises, scrapes and scares that we faced:
1. Plan as if “Plan A” will fail.
One of our best mentors told us to always prepare for our first plan to fail. More than that, we should train our team to expect backup plans B, C, D and E to fail too. Why? Because nothing ever goes according to plan. Ever!
Having numerous backup plans ready to go, or even launching them simultaneously, is how we hedge against failure. For example, with almost every new retail partner product launch, we have multiple marketing initiatives launching at the same time. We learned this the hard way after banking everything on one or two programs that didn’t have the success we planned for, leading us to have to scramble to pull something off in time.
2. Accept that your baby is ugly.
Almost everything within your organization could be improved. Oftentimes the biggest challenge entrepreneurs face in improving those weaknesses is developing the humility and self-awareness to consistently acknowledge their baby is ugly. There’s a reason so few organizations do this.
Constantly examining and improving is exhausting. As humans, we want to feel secure, confident and like we’re at least good at a few things. However, at SoapBox we are always pushing ourselves to re-examine all of our assets to see how they could be improved. One example that we’re going through now is retooling our packaging, ingredients and product value to our customers, even though we just went through this process a couple months ago. We still feel like it could be better, and we face that truth head on.
3. Hire people who are smarter than you.
A great indicator of a successful entrepreneur/leader is the chops of that person’s team. Is the vast majority of their team smarter, more experienced or wiser than the leader is? As cliché as that advice sounds, too many entrepreneurs allow their ego to get in the way of hiring great people and, more importantly, listening to them and truly valuing their expertise.
The real trick is how to attract expert-level players when you don’t have the budget for them. Social-mission companies actually have a HUGE advantage here. Tons of SVP’s, VP’s and directors have risen to their respective ranks in Fortune 500 companies and achieved their corporate goals, and at that stage begin looking for ways to give back and be a part of something truly meaningful. There are plenty of creative ways to get experts on your team that don’t require matching their six-figure salaries. Honesty about what you can and cannot afford starts the dialogue correctly and helps you both find creative ways to include them, whether through part-time or full-time work or as an adviser.
4. Track metrics that matter.
This practice sounds simple, but it’s often not implemented. I’ve seen many early entrepreneurs fall victim to believing their own hype and thus make poor strategic decisions based off data that don’t drive the bottom line. In the early days of SoapBox, we were fanatical about tracking vanity metrics like Facebook likes, only to discover that we let our eyes stray from the game ball. Sell through by SKU, same-store sales, cash flow, profit margin by SKU and inventory turns were the real metrics that drove our B2B retail business. Eventually we learned that course correcting based off a weekly dashboard of these key performance indicators would spell either defeat or victory for our young company.
Bottom line: Ask mentors, advisers and investors what metrics your company should be tracking and then rigorously track them.
5. Build a culture and protect it.
In the early days of SoapBox, we didn’t spend too much time defining our culture. Dan, Eric, Stephanie and I (the founding team of SoapBox) were just being the people we were and naturally expected each person to work as hard as the next. Little did we know that we were building the foundation of a culture that would define the work ethic, character and tone of the SoapBox office we have today. As you hire beyond your founding team, start to write down the values you want your organization to live by. Be the most careful of the cultural indicators of each additional person you hire, because their beliefs and standards will either strengthen or erode the culture you are trying to build.
I hope that these lessons will help anyone who is building from scratch an idea they believe in into a company they are proud of, like the help of the countless advisers and mentors who have walked, and continue to walk, alongside our young team. We are still facing adversity and overcoming roadblocks in the journey toward building our company into the first mission-based personal care company to become household name brand!