AU grad finds niche in local soap business

Three years ago, David Simnick sat down at his computer and searched for “how to make soap.”

Then he bought some lye, a 20-gallon steel drum and a portable oven, and made his first batch of soap in the basement of his shared house in Friendship Heights.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Simnick, 25, said. “I used way too much tea tree oil. My friends were complaining to me saying they smelled like tea tree for days.”

After a few more tries, Simnick partnered with childhood friend Eric Vong to start Soapbox Soaps. The Rockville-based company donates one bar of unscented soap to charity for every bar that is purchased.

Donations are distributed to orphanages, homeless shelters and other organizations through local charities such as Thrive D.C., as well as nonprofits on five continents.


(Courtesy of Soapbox Soaps)

“What it really boiled down to was that we had this mission [to distribute soap] ,” said Simnick, who graduated from American University in 2009. “Learning how to make soap and run a business came later.”

Today, the company has sold more than 20,000 bars of soap, which are available at Whole Foods stores and mom-and-pop pharmacies around the country. Its products are manufactured at a facility in Indiana.

It took about a year to get the company off the ground, Simnick said. He, Vong and Daniel Doll, the company’s chief operating officer, pooled together about $25,000 from their savings. (A subsequent round of angel funding brought in another $340,000.) They asked family and friends for contributions, and rounded up a group of mentors and advisers, including former executives from Burt’s Bees and PDM Plastics.

“We didn’t know anything about business,” Simnick said, “but we knew to listen to people who were successful.”

About a year ago, Whole Foods agreed to give Soapbox Soaps a trial run at one of its new stores in Pennsylvania. Sales were so promising that Whole Foods began selling the company’s products at locations throughout the region.

“When Whole Foods picked us up, that’s when we started to realize, ‘Oh my God, we actually have a real company on our hands.’”

The popularity of brands like Toms, which donates a pair of canvas shoes for each pair purchased, and Warby Parker, which does the same with prescription eyeglasses, has inspired a crop of new companies with similar business models.

In Simnick’s case, he says large profit margins for health and beauty products — especially those produced in large quantities — have made it possible to donate generously.

“When we were just starting out, we sold a $6.99 bar of soap at Whole Foods,” he said, adding that the prices will continue to inch down as the company manufactures more and more units. “Now we sell a $4.99 bar of soap. Over the next year, we can lower that price down to $2.99.”

Simnick would not disclose revenue, but said that sales are on the rise. In the first three months of this year, Soapbox Soaps brought in more revenue than it did in all of 2012. Later this month, the company will begin selling liquid hand soaps and body wash.

“People want products to be purposeful and meaningful,” Simnick said. “Being a great product isn’t good enough anymore. [Customers] want to know, ‘What does this do for others?’”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section.
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