This Soap Could Save the World

In the latest example of creative start-ups in the Washington area, one company will donate a bar of soap to an impoverished child for every bar of soap it sells.

National Journal
Add to Briefcase
Matt Vasilogambros
Dec. 2, 2013, midnight

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.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.