Oregon Soap Company was started in 1993 when the founder was a struggling musician, playing in several Portland bands and teaching music. One day, friend and artist Jamie Hayes told him he should start his own business - a soap company called Oregon Soap Company... and here we are today, 27 years later!
Basement Soap Shop - Original OSC Label Sweatshirt by Jamie Hayes
In 1994, I was 24 years old, teaching guitar lessons at a music store and playing in a band with an artist named Jamie Hayes, who had been ‘self employed’ his whole adult life. At the time, he was traveling around the world buying and selling semi-precious gems and fossils. He was one of those kinds of people that spots business opportunities everywhere. He was also an artist and sold his artwork at a local crafts market. He became my mentor.
One day, he said, “Gregg, you need to start a business, so you have more time to play music”. There was a person at the market that was making soap—she would come once per month, sell out, then come a month later. Eventually, she went out of business because she couldn’t figure out how to make enough of it to keep up with the demand.
So, I walked up to Powell’s Books (a famous bookstore in Portland, OR), bought a book on soap-making, then went to the butcher and got some beef fat to render. I cleaned it, cut it up into small pieces, and put it in a pot of boiling water to cook for 6 hours. My housemate came home and said “Mmm… what’s that smell? It smells great!”. I had to chuckle when I showed him what it was…
After a few months of experimenting, I started calling soap-makers around the country asking them questions like, “How do you cut all the bars and make them the same size? How do you mix the soap?”. I met a guy from the East Coast who said, “I just spent $50,000 on our soap-making operation. You should buy soap from us. You can sell under our name… your name… we don’t care… just buy soap from us!”. I had looked at a lot of soap at this point, and his was by far the best soap I’d ever seen. I was committed to making it myself though, and kept working on my formula.
End of summer rolled around and Jamie said “Gregg, you’re going to need $5,000 to start your business”. I thought to myself, “FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS?! HOW AM I GOING TO COME UP WITH FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS?!” I told my dad what I wanted to do, and asked if he’d co-sign a loan for me. Without hesitation, he said “Yes, I trust you son…”
At that time, there seemed to be two different parts to figuring out how to make soap. There was the chemistry/engineering (developing the formula and figuring out how to make it efficiently) and the scent/color. I was excited about the chemistry/engineering part, but all the recipes I’d seen for the fragrance read something like “5 drops petitgrain, 3 drops palmarosa, and 1 drop lavender”. I didn’t know what those things were, and I’d just freeze up when I’d look at that part of the book.
I visited another shop in Portland where they were making a quarter million bars of soap per year. They used artificial fragrances to make the soap, and I thought my problem had been solved. I then focused my time on developing the formula and figuring out a production method. I got the process down to where I could make a 250 bar block of soap, and cut the bars so they’d all be the same size.
Around August or September, Jamie said “You need to quit your job so you can focus on making soap and you need to be open by Christmas!”. I rented a kiosk in a mall, and focused my time on developing the formula and figuring out a production method.
It takes 5 weeks to make a batch of soap. I had 8 weeks until I had to be open.
I started adding the fragrances to the soap. Instead of turning into soap, it turned translucent green colored and squishy. I had quit my job working at Apple Music, was living off my line of credit, had to be open for business in a month, and had no soap. Jamie said, “It sounds like you better call the East Coast guy!”, which I did.
So, there I am, at a kiosk in a mall, selling soap that’s made in on the East Coast but calling it Oregon Soap, feeling like a miserable loser, standing there for 13 hours per day, and selling about $80 per day in soap.
My original intention was to be a Portland Saturday Market business, but in order to sell there, you had to make the product yourself. I had already applied there once with my own product, but the label was hand drawn, and they told me, “Come back when you get your packaging worked out”. It was Christmas time, and there weren’t any booth spaces available. Jamie knew of a vendor that made rings and he’d usually only have 10 rings in his whole booth, so Jamie suggested that I go there and offer him $50 to share his booth with me. The ring vendor said, “Yes”!
So, not proud of it, I lied to the market and told them I made the soap, and sales were booming! I was selling a few thousand dollars of soap per weekend.
Jaime asked, “What are you going to do for the winter? The market is closed”. He had a few ideas for me… take my guitar and go to Prague (which he said was very American-friendly, inexpensive, and fun), go to New Orleans… but then the best idea came—he said, “I’ve been all over the world... and I’ve never seen anything like this… beautiful turquoise waters…sandy beaches… and every day, four cruise ships pull in and 10,000 people get off the boat, all looking for something to take home. You should go to the Virgin Islands and start the Caribbean Soap Company. They have a market there where anybody can sell anything they want.” He went on to say, “When I was in Mexico about 6 years ago and remember walking past a place that made tricycles with big baskets in the front… you could get one of those, peddle down to the market in the morning and sell soap, then go to the beach in the afternoon”.
Heck yeah—sign me up!!!
He made some phone calls, found the place that made the trikes, and I bought one. It was only $175, but they accidentally shipped it second day air, so by the time it got here, I had a $500 tricycle. Then, I had to air-freight it to St. Thomas, so I now had a $1000 tricycle. I had all my labels reprinted to say “Caribbean Soap Company”, and Jamie found an answering service in St. Thomas that would answer the phone, ‘Caribbean Soap Company’ should anybody call. Living the dream! Back then, 4 color printing was expensive. I had to buy printing plates, and order 100,000 labels. I didn’t have money to pay for the printing, but Jamie said “You just paid cash for a job… ask the printing company if you can pay on net 30 terms.”
I showed up in St. Thomas with a tricycle, 8 suitcases of soap (most of which still had Oregon Soap Company labels on them), and was down to my last $50. I thought—“no problem—enough to get a room for one night and something to eat… I’ll just start selling soap tomorrow”. Perhaps the soap gods were smiling on me… a Discover Card showed up in the mail a few days before I left, which helped!
I arrived in the morning and my plan was to collect the tricycle, pedal into town, and start selling soap. I chickened out, because I decided to go into town and check things out first. If I had proceeded with my initial plan, I may have had a totally different adventure, but here is what happened…
St. Thomas is a volcanic island. The roads are steep and curvy, with no shoulders, and people drive on the opposite side of the road. Well really, they drive on whatever side of road they want. Driving a one speed tricycle loaded with 600 pounds of soap just wouldn’t work. The beaches and water were amazing… but the market Jamie told me about didn’t exist anymore. Instead, another market space was created, but you needed a license and there were no licenses available in January (peak tourist season). I found a cheap place to stay for the night, and got to work unwrapping Oregon Soap and relabeling it as Caribbean Soap. My neighbors, both of whom worked in the ‘adult entertainment industry’, were very kind and told me where it was safe to go and which places I should avoid. As an aside, I’m happy to say that I ran into one of them on the beach a few months later and she very proudly told me that she was not working in the same industry anymore, and that somehow our meeting inspired her to go back to school.
Anyway, back do the story. Day 2... I’m walking up and down the beach saying “Hi- I’m the Caribbean Soapman- do you want to buy some soap?”. I was doing okay, making $100 a day, feeling a little bit nervous and constantly looking over my shoulder for anybody that wouldn’t want me to be there. One guy approached me and said “How can you be the Caribbean Soapman? You’re white as can be!”. My response was “That’s because I just got here yesterday!”.
Now, St. Thomas was beautiful, but it also had lots of issues with drugs and violent crime. One night, 4 guys had a shootout and all shot each other dead. Taking that as a sign, I loaded up my rental car and took the ferry to the next island over... St. John! About 70% of St. John is a part of the US Virgin Island National Park. It was super relaxed, safe, laid back… my kind of place. I slept in my rental car for a week or so, and eventually made friends with people that were looking for a housemate. I spent about 5 months in the Virgin Islands, working in a vegetarian restaurant called Luscious Licks, made some lifelong friends, and by the time I left, I’d traveled to all three of the United States Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John), and setup about 50 accounts with gift stores.
By the time I got back home, I was about $15K-$18K in debt. My mom, step mom, dad, and former step-dad had all either loaned me money or paid for soap related expenses on their credit cards. Each month I had to come up with about $650 so they could all make their minimum payments.
Not seeing any other options, I went back and sold soap at the Saturday Market. I felt really good about the product itself, but the fact that I had to lie and say I made it, caused me to build a wall around my life. I couldn’t befriend any of the other vendors because I was always afraid they would ask “where do you make the soap?”. It was one thing to chat about the soap to customers, but another thing to lie to would-be friends about where the soap came from. It was time to come clean.
After 2 years of this, I’d paid off most of the money I’d borrowed (everything except for the Master Card, which I felt I could take care of), and had gone back to college to study Environmental Science. I quit the Saturday Market, went to its Board of Directors and told them the whole story. As far as I know, I am the first and only person to ever be BANNED FOR LIFE from selling at the market.
You know how when you get out of a bad situation, you feel that sigh of relief? There was no sigh of relief for me. It was as if I had a neon light-up sign in my chest, right over my heart, that would light up the word “SOAP” every 12 seconds or so, just for a split second, but it was incessant and never ending. I’d be trying to concentrate in class and the neon “SOAP” would light up… even in my sleep... “SOAP” would light up.
After about three weeks of this, I was feeling very befuddled and bewildered. What am I supposed to do? I can’t go back to selling soap at the market—that bridge is burnt. I was shopping one day, and I ran into a hat maker from the market that said “GREGG! Where can I get some soap?!” I said something like, “you know the story… I’m not selling soap anymore…”
She said, “don’t stop selling soap… just sell it across the street where you can sell anything you want!” There was another market across from Portland Saturday Market, which was mostly imports. For the first time in 3 weeks, there was some hope—a pinhole of light that was very far away, but a light nonetheless.
So, I followed the light. I sold soap across the street, and focused on school.
Turning it around
One day, I got a call from somebody that used to work for the East Coast soap guy who was now working for another soap company - he said, “Buy soap from us!”.
I bought a little bit of soap from them, but one day the owner said “Gregg, I can’t keep up with production. You should make your own soap. Don’t let the East Coast guy tell you how hard it is... you can figure it out! I’ll answer 2 questions about soap-making for you, so you’d better make them good!”.
At that point, I had two fears. First, I’d already bombed out miserably the first time, and I didn’t want to go through that again. Second, I couldn’t just switch the soap out on people. They’d come to me and say, “What happened? The soap used to be so good, and now it sucks!”.
I remembered reading in a book once that you can always take a negative experience that you’ve had, and turn it into a strength. “How am I going to turn this around? All those people [selling on the other side of the street] think I’m a liar and con-artist.”
I’d also heard of a product development process called benchmarking where you go and find the best similar product that’s out there, then use if for comparison.
I’d already had a good following of repeat customers who really loved the soap I was selling but there are always things I didn’t like about it… It didn’t suds enough, and the scent profile was just a little different than the way I wanted them.
So, I worked on my own soap base, and versions of the soaps that I was already selling. Each time somebody would come and buy a bar of soap, I’d offer them a sample of the new and improved formula I was working on. After about two years of this, I’d had my own new and improved versions of the soap I was getting from the East Coast, developed about 15 scents of my own, and nobody purchased the other soap anymore because they liked my product better.
One day, I got a call from the Oregonian newspaper, and they were looking to do a story on a company that had experienced a major setback, moved beyond it, and were ultimately successful.
Three weeks later, there I was on the front page of the business section! They did an immaculate job of writing the story, and when it came out, the dark cloud that had been following be around for 5 years lifted, and I was able to apologize to the whole world all at once.
Soon after, I had to hire an employee, then another, and then another. I spent the next 10 years traveling around in a Volkswagen bus with my dog, selling soap at various festivals and crafts fairs.
I then met the love of my life, got married, and wanted to start a family. Living in a hippy house with 6 people, making $20,000 per year - I felt like I was flush, but that wasn’t enough to live an adult life, by ourselves and raise a family.
I went back to school. After the first term, my wife said, “I did not marry a college student!”. Everybody in her family were entrepreneurs, and her father in particular said, “Gregg, I think you’ve got a goldmine… you should just focus on growing Oregon Soap Company.”, and my wife was on board.
We redesigned the logo and packaging, and got a booth at Natural Products Expo West, a trade show in Anaheim. It cost $5,000 for a booth for 3 days! There were a few important things I learned at that show; it was going to cost about $250K the first year to try and take Oregon Soap national (which wasn’t an option, because we didn’t have $250K), nobody cared about Oregon Soap because there were thousands of small soap companies all over the US, but there was a lot of interest in our products themselves, and people were interested in selling our products, but with their brand name on them.
So, since that time, while we still have our own regional brand, we have focused on contract manufacturing and private label. Now, in 2021, Oregon Soap Company has made millions of bars of soap since its beginning in 1994. The soap is certified organic, made with renewable energy, and we’ve helped plant over 750,000 trees in partnership with Friends of Trees and Trees for the Future. We’ve grown to a staff of dozens and have 4 production facilities in NE Portland. We believe that each worker should be valued, that our work should support the life's purpose of everyone involved in our business, and we've dedicated ourselves to leaving the Earth cleaner than we found it by fighting climate change with sustainable business practices.
The original Oregon Soap Manufacturing Facility in NE Portland.