The coronavirus was making headlines in early March when David Simnick and his team at Soapbox were sitting in on a routine call with a Wegmans representative.

The grocery store chain was ready to order 50,000 units of liquid hand soap when Simnick’s team mentioned Soapbox was expanding into hand sanitizer.

“We will take 1 million,” the Wegmans rep said without hesitation.

The call proved transformative for the 10-year-old Georgetown company, fueling explosive growth for the already profitable business just as covid-19 fears were leading to acute shortages of hand sanitizer. Soapbox’s liquid and bar soaps, shampoos and body washes are carried by Amazon, Sally Beauty Supply, Walgreens, Rite Aid, Meijer, Giant and Harris Teeter, among others. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Soapbox’s experience echoes that of other Washington-area companies, including Marc Katz’s Virginia-based apparel-maker CustomInk, that have developed new business lines in response to the pandemic. Katz is a Soapbox investor and CustomInk is a customer.

I wrote about Soapbox five years ago, when they were a $1 million company trying to scale up. The beauty and personal care market is tough on smaller players. You have to sell large quantities because you make pennies on each dollar of sales. Giants like Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive have pulled it off because their markets are global; everyone needs tooth paste and shampoo.

“We are profitable, but it isn’t huge,” said Simnick, a former Eagle Scout who is Soapbox’s chief executive officer and co-founder.

Simnick declined to divulge financial details, but did say that hand sanitizer sales have helped drive Soapbox revenue up tenfold. His shampoo line is the most profitable, followed by hand sanitizer and then plain soap.

By my estimate, Soapbox sales could easily eclipse $50 million in 2020. Simnick would not confirm or deny that number.

Simnick said there are 277 brands of hand sanitizer. Purell, a privately held company based in Ohio, dominates the sector, but Soapbox is growing fast.

“We are now number 18 in sales,” he said. “We weren’t even making it before covid. Hand sanitizer just wasn’t a big market before the pandemic came along.”

After the Wegmans order, word spread that Soapbox was making hand sanitizer. One of the world’s largest coffee makers — which Soapbox had been courting for its soap business for months — called and asked whether Soapbox could deliver hand sanitizer for its workforce. The coffee giant is now a client.

“There was absolutely a run on this, and once people found out about us — this little company they never heard of — they started calling,” Simnick said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Essentially, Soapbox and its eight employees cobbled together a group of manufacturers across the country that would make the hand sanitizer to Soapbox’s instructions.

“We knew how to make hand sanitizer,” Simnick said. “It’s not that hard.”

Simnick calls it “a supply chain miracle” and credits chief operating officer Dan Doll and his team with pulling it off.

“It’s sort of filling in the pieces,” said Doll, adding that making liquid hand sanitizer and liquid soap are pretty similar, except for thickening agents and the use of ethyl alcohol in the sanitizer.

Soapbox really had to scrounge to find enough ethyl alcohol, which has proved effective at killing microorganisms like bacteria and viruses. At one point, the company bought 23 tanks, each the size of a tractor trailer, worth of it. It also sourced plastic bottles, bottle pumps and labels. A pen company was willing to make bottle pumps, which now take more than a year to deliver.

“I will never forget a call that Dan and I were on where a sourcing manager for a hospital started crying after we informed them that we could get the hand sanitizer that they needed,” said Simnick, adding that he and Doll haven’t had a day off since February.

Not everything went smoothly. One of the seven factories that mix their product had to shut production after a covid outbreak. A couple of batches of sanitizer came in with too much alcohol. “We called those the ‘Margarita mix’ batches,” he quipped.

By early May, Soapbox had orders for 13 million units of hand sanitizer.

Soapbox hand sanitizer comes in five sizes, starting at 4 ounces all the way to a gallon. Retail prices range from $3.99 for the four-ounce to $6.99 for the 16 ounce bottle. Packaged goods products are sold to retailers for roughly half or less of the retail price.

By that metric, Soapbox stands to make many millions from its sales. The company also donates a bar of soap for every unit sold through such organizations as Feeding America, Feed the Children, Eco Soap Bank, Clean the World and The Carter Center. The company has donated more than 10 million bars of soap

Simnick had told me five years ago that he anticipated a series of crucibles that Soapbox would need to endure before they reached their goal of building a household brand.

Soapbox may not be on everyone’s lips, but it’s getting closer.

Value Added

Thomas Heath