What I have learned, both in life and throughout the numerous events we have attended during the last year is that I am supposed to be happy. How many times have we all heard the phrase "Cheer up, it might never happen" or "Think positive"? When trading at shows, it is not unusual for the event organisers to add a reminder to traders to always smile, be constantly engaged and, whatever else you do, don't dare look miserable! After all, everyone knows that the happy, positive traders make more sales! This is all good advice and it does produce results. Unfortunately it can also lead to feelings being bottled up, left unvoiced when you aren't feeling quite at the top of your game.
So, today I am going to throw caution to the wind and be honest. I am fed up! I am frustrated and feeling downright low! It is the so called "Super Saturday", July 4th 2020. The day when England can finally see some "normality" returning to the world with the re-opening of pubs, hairdressers and even Children's play parks. Except, things aren't normal, for us they are far from normal. In the last two weeks, we have had even more shows cancelled for 2020. These include an outdoor event in September and a Christmas craft show in mid-November. I am not going to pretend anymore, the cancellation of the Christmas event had me almost in tears, it feels never-ending.
A snapshot of just 3 days in our 2020 diary. It is the same every week for months ahead.
So today, watching the news and hearing all the stories from people overjoyed to be back to "normal", I couldn't help but feel a strange mix of envy and frustration. Why is it "safe" (enough) to be sat in a pub, out getting your hair done or visiting a large shopping centre to purchase a luxury item, but not safe to be at a craft fair where proper social distancing has been put in place? Please don't misunderstand me, the health and well being of everybody is the most important thing and I am thrilled for the people and businesses who can now, at last, be out earning again, I just wish that we could be among them! We worked our backsides off in 2019 building our business from scratch and working near on 7 days a week. We anticipated that 2020 was going to be the year that we started to see a return on this effort - how wrong we were!
Now, I am quite a positive person generally, my proverbial glass is of the half-full variety and I don't like dwelling! So, I decided to take a breath and count the positives. I am going to look back over the last year and see just how far we have come. Heck, I may even allow myself to feel proud for a moment or two! So, if you have managed to read through my self pity, then please do join me now to learn a little more about where we were a year ago and how far we have come!
Our soap making journey began back in February 2019. We had tried a few recipes and talked tentatively about starting a business, but we had no idea about how to go about it all! I had previously owned a business selling party accessories, so knew how to keep records and take control of the day to day running of a business, but I had never worked as a manufacturer before. The information on what had to be done to legally manufacture and sell soaps and other cosmetic products in the UK was so overwhelming that we almost gave up right there and then. However, we somehow worked our way through each requirement, learning all the time and gradually developing a deeper understanding on how to make a safe, legal soap!
I won't bore you too much with the legalities of selling soap, as they are long and involved (other than to say we are happy to confirm that we do comply with them all!) So, let's move on! We decided that our main focus would be on face to face selling at craft fairs and events across the South East of England, with a secondary focus on selling wholesale to independent shops and selling through our own website. We booked our first craft fair for 10th May 2019, a boutique shopping event at a hotel in Uckfield run by the lovely Michelle and Faye of Country Lifestyle Fairs.
Now we needed to make soap - and lots of it! Wayne is generally pretty good at stopping me from "running before I can walk" and this is why we generally work well together. He will take stock and think logically about what we can achieve and what is possibly a bit over-ambitious, whereas my own mindset seems to parallel the Queen Lyric "I want it all and I want it now". So, in a nutshell, I had spent three months trying my best to completely overfill our diary - there were even a couple of "accidental" double bookings, because I knew that one way or another Wayne and I could both manage to run different venues on the same day (despite the fact that only one of us can drive!) I am pleased to say that to my pleasure and Wayne's horror, I succeeded in jam packing nearly every weekend of 2019 from May to December full of events! This is why we needed to make soap - and quickly!
You may think that with an ever increasing number of events filling up our diary that we would concentrate purely on them, but no! In between soap making and planning, we sent out a number of emails to local, independent shops to inquire as to whether they may be interested in stocking our soaps. We were over the moon when we received our first positive response from Jackie at Forget Me Not gift shop in Rye, inviting us to visit her with some of our soaps. It was mid-April when Wayne and I ventured to Rye to meet Jackie. We were both so nervous, unsure of what to say or do! Thankfully, we worked our way through the meeting, helped massively by the fact that Jackie was so lovely! We walked away from that meeting with our very first wholesale order and a massive smile on our faces!
Forget Me Not in Rye A wholesale Order
Still, there was no rest for the wicked, so on we plowed with the soap making and preparing for our first craft show. On the 9th May 2019, we ventured down to the East Sussex National Hotel to set up for our first event. It was raining heavily and I remember both of us trying to lug heavy boxes of soap into the hotel, trying our best to stop the rain getting into anything! I couldn't sleep that night, I was so excited to see what the next day would bring, would we sell anything? Would people like our soaps? Perhaps we were just kidding ourselves?
Finally, the day was upon us. Our first show went like a dream. We didn't sell huge numbers of soap, but we sold enough to make a small profit and we also got to introduce people to our brand. It was such a wonderful moment watching customers smelling our soaps and exclaiming at how nice they smelled! It was also at this show that we met the lovely Robyn of Lumen Of Lewes, a lighting and homewares shop. Robyn explained that she and her Mother were opening a store and would be interested in stocking our soaps - we couldn't believe it! This was the first time that someone had approached us about stocking our soaps and it felt good! We are very pleased to say that we are now stocking Lumen Of Lewes with our soaps and Robyn has been wonderful! She has even given feedback to us on bars which she has personally tested and this has been invaluable.
Our very first show, 10th May 2019
2019 was flying by at a rate of knots and it was filled with some really fantastic moments! But of course, there are always lows too. We had two really low points in 2019. The first was at the Wealden Midsummer Fair. This was our most expensive event of 2019 and one that we were pinning a lot of hopes on as it had been advertised as a large scale, very enjoyable shopping event. It was staged over three days in June.
It was a gorgeous day when we set up at the Wealden Times fair, but sadly, that was not to last!
The first day was fantastic. The vibe was brilliant and we met so many lovely people, the sun was shining and we had a fantastic time. Sadly, this was not to last. The second day, the traditional British weather came in to play with torrential downpours. We had an outside stand and the weather just did not let up. We had a very wet, disappointing day, but things were about to get worse! Winds were forecast to get high, but we spoke with some other traders who all said they were leaving their gazebo's standing overnight. The heath and safety Gentleman came round to check our stand and said that he though our gazebo would be fine to be left standing. How wrong we were!
On the final day of the fair, we arrived to find our gazebo a tangled mess of metal on the ground. It was just bad luck, ours was the only gazebo that had crumpled overnight (despite being the same brand as many others on our row). All we could do was pick ourselves up and trade without a gazebo, crossing our fingers for some good luck in the form of no rain! Apart from one heavy but very short downpour, where we had to hastily cover our stand with tarpaulin, we were lucky! It did not rain! Unfortunately, the wind was still very strong and as a result people were again not venturing to the outside stands. People ask me if we would do this event again, given how wrong it went for us, but I would say yes, absolutely! The weather was no ones fault and I honestly feel that if we had been luckier with the weather it would have been a brilliant few days. However, next time I will be booking us into an inside space!
Our second biggest low was in August at the Firle Vintage Fair. Again, the wind was a problem! It seemed to follow the same pattern as the Wealden Fair. Day one was good, but by the end of the day the wind was already high. Having learnt our lesson at the Wealden Fair, we dismantled our gazebo that evening. Many other traders had hired gazebos from the organisers and unfortunately, the organisers were sure that their gazebos could withstand the wind. The next day we turned up to trade and were met by security guards refusing access to the event. The wind had ripped through the event overnight and one guard said to us that it "looked like a bomb had gone off". Apparently there were gazebos flying through the air and the whole place looked like a disaster zone. The fair was cancelled for that day but was due to be back on the following day. We did return and manage to trade on the third and final day, but it was a sombre occasion. So many others vendors had lost so much the previous day that it just felt a little sad.
The highs continued to outweigh the lows though and by late 2019 we had added another 9 independent stores to our range of stockists, bringing our total to 11. We had also developed our website and were starting to see a small number of online orders flowing in. The orders that made me smile the most were the few we received accompanied by a note saying that they were a repeat customer. Reading notes from people saying how they had found us at a fair and loved our soaps enough to purchase more through our website made us burst with pride! A first purchase is fantastic, but to me, a second is even better!
The last three months of 2019 went by in a blur. We were busier than we could have ever anticipated in the run up to Christmas, attending multiple fairs every weekend as well as a good number on weekdays too. It wasn't all fun and games, but it was so worth it! I remember trying desperately to free my car from a muddy field at the Weald & Downland museum in Chichester (eternal thanks to the mysterious stranger who appeared and pushed me out!) before driving down to the South of England showground in Ardingly in the pouring rain down pitch black roads to pick up Wayne from their Winter Fair! Wayne too will tell you of the times my multiple event bookings didn't quite come off timings wise - he was left sitting outside in near freezing temperatures for nearly two hours on one occasion when a traffic issue caused my journey to him to take twice as long as the AA route planner promised me it would be!
Just a very small number of the events we attended in the run up to Christmas 2019
But we got through it! By the end of 2019, we were exhausted and in need of a break. The phrase "Be careful what you wish for" springs to mind here, as all we wanted was a weekend off! Funnily enough, I look back on those crazy, tiring days now and I yearn to get back to them!
We only had a couple of fairs booked in the first three months of 2020, so we had planned to take those first three months to develop our business. We had planned to try and grow our list of stockists and develop some new products. Well, needless to say, things did not go to plan! We attended just three fairs in 2020 before lockdown was put in place. My carefully choreographed diary became emptier and emptier as the weeks dragged on. Each time I crossed out an event, I felt a pang of disappointment. Clearly, growing the wholesale side was not possible either, as so many other businesses were closed and struggling too.
But we were determined not to be beaten! So far, since lockdown began we have developed and brought to market a range of Whipped Body Butters in 8 different scents. We also have a luxury range of Sea Salt Bars with skin loving oils, currently being assessed and due to go on sale within the next few weeks. Natural deodorants, lip balms and solid lotion bars are being experimented with here at soap HQ at the moment and we are not stopping! The only benefit to lockdown is that it has given us time, time that we did not expect to have and we intend to use it wisely. Products that may have taken us months to start testing are already in development and new ideas for new products are already afoot.
A sneak peek at what we have been working on during lockdown
We also had some good news in Mid-June when we learnt that our Dead Sea Clay soap has been shortlisted for an award through the "Free From Skincare Awards". Results will be out at the end of July or early August, so we are crossing our fingers! Even if we don't manage to win an award this year, we still feel it is a fantastic achievement. In fact, I have to say, that as I have been writing this blog, my mood has lifted! Recalling everything that we have achieved in just over a year and remembering how hard we have already worked for everything renews my passion and strength a little! So, I am going to sign off here, give myself a large pat on the back and go and start planning for the future - whatever it may look like. I just hope that in 2021 I can return to being a full time soap maker/event trader and relinquish my job as a substitute teacher for two unruly teenagers!