ALEXANDRIA, Va.—In the small, hardwood-floor office in Old Town Alexandria, just outside of Washington, six millennials—the youngest 21, the oldest 28—run a fast-growing start-up called Soapbox that began with a simple pitch.
For every bar of soap it sells, the company will donate one bar to a child in need somewhere in the world.
It's not necessarily the scene that you'd expect from a business that sells bar soaps, liquid soaps, and body washes in close to 1,000 stores nationwide, and provides new soap, vitamins, and clean water to children around the world. But these twentysomethings are in their element in the start-up's office—the first floor of a converted house with burnt orange walls, fitted with white shelves filled with extra soaps, pamphlets, samplers, awards, photos of the children they've helped, and what some in the office call "hipster art."
On this late November morning, the debate in the office is not over which stores to reach out to next, but which music to play: bee-bop or hard-bop. They settle on slow jams and turn on Conya Doss's "Don't Change," a fitting choice for a company that has resisted calls to get rid of its social mission in exchange for higher profits.
Sitting under a painting of the company's motto—"We empower customers to change the world through everyday, quality purchases"—is David Simnick, the company's 25-year-old, bearded CEO. The Chicago area native's navy-blue T-shirt reads "good. clean. hope." Dark blue jeans and boat shoes complement his casual look.
The young chief executive makes his pitch to customers: "Instead of me asking them to write a check, or make a donation, or pledge, or be a part of this charity fundraiser, all I'm asking them is switch your soap."
How It Works
For each of its products, there's a different humanitarian element. With every bar of soap sold, Soapbox will work with local soap developers in other countries to donate an unscented bar to a child in need. Unscented soap bars also go to women's shelters, nursing homes, and homeless shelters here in the U.S.
For each bottle of hand soap sold, Soapbox works with a company called Rain Catcher to provide one month of clean water for a child. And for each bottle of body wash it sells, Soapbox partners with Vitamin Angels to provide a year of vitamins for a child.
The results have been impressive. So far this year, the company has donated 60,000 bars of soap, 20,000 months of clean-water capability, and 20,000 years of vitamin supplements. The humanitarian relief has affected countries from Thailand and Kenya to Ecuador and Haiti. However, after making the soap, selling it and donating to different causes, Soapbox sees smaller profits than soap brands without a humanitarian mission.
It All Started in a Basement
Soapbox's mission is also similar to other social entrepreneurial companies that have been widely successful across the country. Toms Shoes, founded in 2006, is one of the bigger names. With every pair of shoes that Toms sells, the company gives an impoverished child a pair of his own. Simnick, however, does draw some differences between Toms and Soapbox: Purchases are less frequent and there is a bigger cost to consumers, but Toms has higher profit margins.
The idea for Soapbox came when Simnick worked for a USAID subcontractor in 2009 and saw the way the U.S. and nongovernmental agencies helped Third World countries. He explains, "We would put in these wells and filtration systems, and you would see a lot of kids run up and wash their hands, but never in the pictures were soap."
This observation jibes with one of the studies the company cites in its pamphlets. According to a 2012 report by UNICEF and the World Health Organization, more than 3,000 children's lives could be saved every day with something as simple as clean water or a bar of soap.
So, that was the inspiration, but what about the product? Simnick decided to try his hand at making soap himself in the basement of his house in northwest Washington using kitchen utensils. He had no idea what he was doing. "I Googled it," Simnick laughed.
From there, Simnick and his other cofounders worked nights and weekends to build the company in 2010. At that time, Simnick was in Teach for America in Philadelphia, while the two other cofounders finished undergraduate degrees. They worked with scientists and fragrance and business consultants—who had been Burt's Bees, Unilever, and Proctor and Gamble employees in the past—to help develop both the soap and a business model.
It wasn't until Whole Foods decided to give Soapbox one store in Glen Mills, Pa., in March 2012 that they went on full time. They sold out five times in two weeks. From there Whole Foods gave them eight stores, then a region, and then a few more regions. Other stores like Harris Teeter, Giant Eagle, Earth Fare, New Seasons Market, My Rouses, and the Vitamin Shoppe soon joined in.
Simnick dropped out of his University of Pennsylvania graduate program in education. Another cofounder, Dan Doll, quit his position at LivingSocial after working there for just a few months. The company has grown 500 percent from last year, Simnick said.
While Simnick's explanation for how the company grew is simple enough—"If your product is selling really well, they'll give you more shelf space"— the company had to change its prices, business models, and packaging several times to get it right.
In fact, after Soapbox gained traction, other companies launched with similar bar-for-bar missions, including Me Soap, Jack's Soap, and Hand in Hand soaps. However, of the five or so companies that started in the last two years, only one—Hand in Hand, which sells bars of soap at $11 a piece—is still around. Simnick said he does not consider the latter company a direct competitor because of its higher price. Instead, Soapbox is aiming to "replace your Dove, not replace that $11 purchase you make at Christmas time," he said.
In Stores Across the Country
One of the stores that sells Soapbox soap is a Whole Foods located just a few blocks away from the company's offices in Alexandria. Gary McLemore, a team member at Whole Foods, restocks the shelves of soaps and lotions in the supermarket that is a favorite of the organically minded consumer unafraid of spending a little extra money.
"If it's a good product and it's natural, even if it's a little pricier, they'll still buy it," McLemore, 26, tells me.
Soapbox bars (at $4.99 each) share shelf space with several other high-end, organic soaps—Dr. Bronner's magic soaps ($3.29), Stack ($7.99), South of France ($4.99), and Made by Mieka ($5.99), just to name a few. But the boxes stand apart from the others, featuring the face of a child in need, next to the slogan: "soap=hope."
One of their products is a black soap. Handmade in Indiana, it's a gluten-free mixture with shea butter and charcoal. In West African tradition, black soap, made with ash, is thought to heal rough skin through its detoxifying and moisturising qualities. It smells like lavender and neroli.
While Whole Foods sells a number of products that give back to the community—whether it's through fair trade or sustainable practices—Soapbox is unique compared to other like products because of its specific social mission.
The Start-Up Culture in Washington
LivingSocial has helped launch the start-up scene in Washington in a fundamental way in the six years it's been around. When it started in 2007, it designed Facebook applications and moved into one of the largest daily-deals websites. It's apt that Doll, one of the Soapbox cofounders and Simnick's right-hand man, came from the tech start-up.
"There's not a whole lot of consumer product goods companies in D.C., but there are a few," Doll said, sitting under a wall map of the world, pinpointing where Soapbox helps children. "And I think that the culture in general in D.C. is starting to embrace something that's so foreign from this area is built on, in terms of policy, politics, government contractors."
There is plenty of young, smart talent in the D.C. area that's not looking for the normal 9-to-5 job at an accounting firm or government contracting company. That energy in the start-up scene is where Soapbox thinks it can reach potential investors. So far, the company has raised over $500,000 through around 10 investors. Soapbox wants to raise an additional $1 million.
"When you're starting so small like Soapbox started, you have to convince a lot of people to believe in you," Simnick said. "That investor is not making an investment in your business or your idea. They're making an investment in you."
Since start-ups are usually seen through a tech-sector lens, commodities, like soap, might seem unfamiliar to some investors. But the humanitarian side of the company "takes those walls down" for investors in the politics- and humanitarian-rich Washington, Doll says.
Simnick not only wants Soapbox to become a profitable household name. He also wants to change the way companies sell goods.
"A business should be focused on both their immediate community and the world," Simnick said. "Change the world," he often repeats, sitting behind his messy desk in his unassuming office filled with his young, yet talented staff.