Interview with CEO and Co-founder of SoapBox Soaps – David Simnick

Recently we launched a new series in our blog, interviews with founders and entrepreneurs. We are taking interviews with the smartest and most innovative leaders, to share their knowledge and experience. Recently we got the chance to interview David Simnick, CEO and co-founder of SoapBox Soaps. Their mission is to empower people to give back something to society and the world through quality purchases. David and co-founder Daniel Doll has taken the company from eight stores to 1,500 stores. He has some novel wisdom to share with budding entrepreneurs.

SoapBox was founded in 2010 with the mission to provide people with the ability to change the world through every day, quality purchases. SoapBox Soaps is a mission-based personal care company. For each of their products sold, a bar of soap or month of clean water is given to a person in need. Their donations are distributed both domestically and abroad, providing hygiene items to food banks and homeless shelters; soap and water to orphanages and hospitals around the world. They have two lines of products, their everyday line, SoapBox and all-natural line Soapbox Elements that include products like bar soaps and body wash as well as shampoo and conditioner. Their products have ingredients that are good for your body. With a mission to do well for their country and the world, SoapBox means Soap = Hope!

What motivated you to start your company?
Well when I was working for the government and government aid organizations, I was pushed to try to do aid in the private sector. I think there are better ways to do aid, in more sustainable ways and in ways that don’t hurt the communities that we mean to help. Ultimately money is power, and if you have power you can use that power for good things. So I would say my business is definitely influenced by those beliefs. I learned that thousands of children die from diseases that can be prevented by clean water and washing hands with soap. Clean water was being addressed but providing soap was not. I just felt like I had to do something!

 When was your startup founded?
SoapBox was founded in 2010, but SoapBox’s President, Dan Doll, and I didn’t quit our day jobs and go full time with it until 2012. In March of 2012 we launched in our first Whole Foods in Glenn Mills Pennsylvania and we did so well there with just our bars (we only had three bars at the time) that they expanded us to 8 more stores. After that they kept expanding us, eventually to the entire region. Now we have two lines of products that are distributed in thousands of stores across the nation!!

What were you doing before starting this Startup?
I was in school at American University, interning at various government and nonprofit offices trying to figure out what to do. I spent time as a Teach for America educator in Northern Philadephia, was a subcontractor for USAID and was thinking about joining the Marines when a friend of mine asked me to help him get his start-up on its feet. During that experience, I felt like I had found what I was made to do. With the combined knowledge of how aid was being done through my internships and work with USAID and this new passion for starting something from scratch, SoapBox was born.

What problem your product, service or concept is going to solve?
More than 17,000 children (under the age of 5) lives could be saved every day from preventable diseases. Diarrheal diseases and respiratory infections make up the majority of these deaths, which are spread through poor sanitation and lack of clean water. 35% of these cases would be wiped out through the simple act of washing hands at critical times.
That’s why SoapBox provides bar soap and clean water. That numbers is reducing every year thanks to advances in how we as a whole community are providing aid, but there’s still so much to do. There is a need for these products here in the states at homeless shelters and food banks too, to provide our own people with the necessary tools to keep themselves clean on the outside and healthy on the inside.

Why did you choose this particular domain or industry?
It made sense to start a soap company if we wanted to give soap, and natural personal care is growing rapidly as an industry. It was a way for us to start doing good quickly, so we jumped on the trends as we saw them. The more we sell, the more we can give back, so it’s a win win when we grow.

What are the challenges that you have faced in your niche industry?
Competition! Soap is a commodity, so we have to be creative in marketing our product, innovative in our packaging and have a top-performing product to be able to compete at all. People will buy a social mission product once because they think the story is cool, but especially in personal care, unless they love the actual product they will never buy again and businesses are built on repeat purchases.

Social mission companies are on the rise too. For us, we see our differentiator in the focus we put on HOW we give. When we work abroad, we prefer to have a local soap maker or purchase soap within that marketplace instead of doing “soap drops”. That way, we are not flooding their market with free goods or teaching aid dependency. Of course, the exception to this is during emergency aid situations, for example in West Africa with Ebola. In that case, we are sending tens of thousands of bars of soap because the local market can’t handle the demand for those supplies.

Our domestic focus also sets us apart. We are doing one for one with our soaps for local homeless shelters and food pantries in people’s own towns and cities which make the aid feel real to them. Finally, we partner with existing aid partners whose work is designed to both create long-term change and be sustainable. We also are focused on transparency. Each of our products has a Hope Code, a unique code that our customers can take to our website and enter in and see which project their donation will go to fund.

What does a typical day in your office consists of?
Honestly every month it’s like working for an entirely new company. We are rapidly growing and scaling and learning every day. I would say my typical day consists of surprises around every bend and challenges I’ve never faced before, but it’s the most exhausting, interesting, and fulfilling work.

What are your future thoughts about your industry?
For social mission businesses in particular we’ve learned a lot about marketing, and I think both nonprofits and social mission businesses will soon learn to change their messaging from the negative statistics to the positive.You would think that with a mission like ours, you would want to talk about how you are preventing deaths. When we first started, we tried to go for the shock-and-awe effect, but we noticed that drove customers away. We found we were getting a faster first purchase by guilting people, but those customers didn’t want to purchase again because they didn’t want to re-live the guilt every time they used the product in their shower or at their sink.Now we focus on the fact that our customers are giving and saving lives, which excites customers and partners every time they use the product. We call it the warm and fuzzies

Your suggestions for budding and upcoming entrepreneurs?
Surround yourself with mentors and advisors who have succeeded in your vertical before. Ask them lots of questions frequently and be open to their constructive criticism. Accept that entrepreneurship is a roller coaster ride. You have to moderate the bad days and temper the great ones in order to win the marathon.

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