Bellingham’s soap queen: building a soap empire

Bellingham’s soap queen: building a soap empire
Anne-Marie Faiola, founder and CEO of Bramble Berry, on the set of

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Filed on 08. Oct, 2014 in Contents, Features

Editor’s note: The print version of this story incorrectly stated that Anne-Marie Faiola put $50,000, rather than $15,000, on a credit card to start her business. The online version has been corrected. 

Anne-Marie Faiola quit her job as a corrections officer 16 years ago, put $15,000 on her credit card, and started her soap making company Bramble Berry.

It turned out to be a good decision.

The company has blossomed and is on track to do about $10 million in sales this year. Faiola employs about 70 people in two warehouses in the Sunnyland neighborhood. The original warehouse buzzes with busy employees. Desks are on one side, and the other, much larger side, has buckets, bags, and boxes of soap supplies stacked on 20-foot-tall shelves.

Bramble Berry sells hundreds of products for soap making–everything from complete soap making kits to ingredients like essential oils, dyes and exfoliants, as well as ingredients for making lotion, nail polish and other beauty products.

Bramble Berry has grown steadily since Faiola started it at 20 years old (she’s 37 now). In the last three years sales grew by about 60 percent.

She credits that growth to two things: the beginning of the recession, and the slow end of the recession.

Forty percent of Bramble Berry customers own soap businesses. Before the recession, many of them made soap part-time for a supplementary income, Faiola said. Then the recession began.

“All of the sudden a lot of these part-time soap makers became the full-time breadwinner for their families. This was a viable way for them to support their families as their husbands or spouses experienced setbacks in their professional lives,” Faiola said. “That’s really been a huge part of it.”

A few years later, as the economy slowly improved, those new businesses grew and made larger orders with Bramble Berry.

Faiola started making soap at 16. Her soap empire ships products around the world. She has a downtown retail store at 301 W. Holly St.called Otion, a blog at www.soapqueen.com, and a Youtube channel with instructional videos. Her most popular videos have nearly 400,000 views.

She’s writing her second book, called “Pure and Natural Soap Crafting.” Her first book, “Soap Crafting,” is on its second printing. She has several new soap ventures planned for next year, as well as lobbying trips to Washington, D.C. to get small businesses exempt from FDA regulations geared toward mass-produced soap.

Faiola and her chief operations officer, Norman Vigre, also volunteer at local nonprofits each month, and donate to dozens of organizations detailed on her website, brambleberry.com

“She’s incredibly productive,” said Erin Baker, CEO of Erin Baker’s Wholesome Baked Goods. Baker and Faiola are in a business group together. “The kid has a nuclear power plant inside her. She’s just one of those high-energy, productive people.”

Sixty percent of Faiola’s customers are small business owners, the rest are hobbyists buying products for birthday parties, baby showers, holiday gifts, or just for fun, Faiola said. They are one-time customers that Bramble Berry has to replace every year.

One way Faiola does that is through social media. Bramble Berry’s twitter account, which has 9,246 followers, is updated a dozen times a day. She posts pictures of her soap creations–typically bars of soap with swirly patterns, bright colors, or intricate designs–on Instragram, where she has 4,239 followers.

And she has been using social media for years, starting with chat rooms.

“She really was on the forefront of harnessing social media to market and sell her products,” Baker said. “As far as I know, she’s one of the pioneers.”

Laser-focused

Faiola worked constantly until three years ago when she and her husband had their first child. Two years later, they had a second.

“Having kids has laser-focused me on doing things that really matter for the company,” Faiola said. “Before, there was a bucket of work to be done and a 24-hour period to get it done. Now, there’s a bucket of work that needs to be done and I have eight hours at work and then I have three hours after the kids go to bed. I have to be a lot more targeted.”

Faiola’s priorities at work shifted. In the last six months, she brought the amount of time she spends answering emails down from 25 percent of her work time to 14 percent. She tracks her time on her iPhone using an app called Eternity. (She even tracks her free time, 41 percent of which she spends reading. She’s in two book groups.)

The time Faiola used to spend communicating with customers she now uses come up with and carry out new ideas.

New ventures

Cardboard boxes are piled in a corner of Faiola’s office, next to the front door of Bramble Berry’s main location at 2138 Humboldt St. Faiola is researching subscription programs–programs where a fee gets subscribers a monthly box of products in the mail. She signed up for 30 subscription programs for everything from beauty products, to T-shirts, crafts, and food.

She’s launching her own subscription service in November, called Handmade Beauty Box. It’s a $29.99 monthly box stuffed full of do-it-yourself beauty products for making soaps, lotions, and other do-it-yourself projects.

“If we get the market saturation I’m planning for and hoping for, that will be a major area of growth,” Faiola said.

Another big area of growth for Bramble Berry will be producing soap for other companies, Faiola expects. Companies approach Faiola with ideas for soap they want to sell, and they beg her to design and produce it for them, she said.

“In the past we’ve always said no. Now we’re saying, ‘Wait, we are the experts in soap making, why wouldn’t we say yes?” she said. “It’s a natural fit and it’s super fun. We can grow our business in Bellingham using this already existing skill set.”

Leaning on employees

Faiola has learned to lean more on her team as Bramble Berry grows.

She handled all the company’s social media three years ago. Now she employs a full-time social media manager and a full-time blogger.

Many Bramble Berry employees have been with the company for years. Faiola said they are like a family.

“They are phenomenal people. They are phenomenal at what they do,” she said. “They think differently than me and using their strengths has helped out our company a lot.”

Bramble Berry should move to Tennessee to be near FedEx’s Memphis World Hub, Faiola said.

“This is probably the worst place we could be for shipping, but we love Bellingham,” she said. “There are so many people who I would not want to run this company without, who are such a huge part of my day and my joy in this company, that I wouldn’t want to move.”

What keeps her up at night

At the beginning of October, Faiola will fly to Washington, D.C. to talk to senators and representatives about upcoming FDA regulations. The FDA has been drafting new regulations for soap makers for the last seven years.

Some of the drafts, Faiola said, would put Bramble Berry out of business by burdening the small businesses that buy from Bramble Berry with paperwork.

“They are rules made for the Procter & Gambles of the world,” she said. “We want product safety, but the rules made for a multinational company cannot and should not apply to small business.”

Through it all, Faiola stays inspired because she loves soap. She still makes soap in her free time.

“I’m obsessed with soap. The way I look at soap is that it’s a consumable art form,” she said. “I’m constantly inspired by what I see in nature, by what I’m reading in magazines, by what I see on Pinterest. It’s a great way to express my creative side.”

 

Anne-Marie Faiola and warehouse manager Mike Jones handling soap making supplies.

Anne-Marie Faiola and warehouse manager Mike Jones handling soap making supplies.

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Soap at Bramble Berry headquarters in Bellingham’s Sunnyland neighborhood.

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IFRoZSBKb3VybmFsPC9saT48L3VsPg==