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Business Observer Wednesday, May 13, 2020 2 months ago

Top Entrepreneurs: Founder grows company, builds strong culture through challenges

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Entrepreneur Deanna Wallin has built a successful retail and ecommerce business by addressing a personal need and focusing on company culture.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

Soap is having a moment.

Pre-pandemic, most people didn’t spend much time thinking about soap and hand washing. Now proper techniques and video demonstrations are top of mind. 

Pandemic or not, Deanna Wallin is always thinking about soap. She’s the founder and CEO of Naples Soap Co., a skin care company that sells soaps and skin care products for the body, face and hair, including products for people with sensitive skin. With just under $9 million in revenue in 2019, it operates a retail network of stores, an e-commerce business and has wholesale clients nationwide. Its products also launched in every Dillard’s store last year.

Courtesy. Naples Soap Co. sells soaps and skin care products for the body, face and hair, including products for people with sensitive skin.

The spotlight the virus shined on soap has had a tug-of-war effect of Naples Soap Co. On one side, there's a surge in demand for soap and related items, such as hand sanitizer, which the company also sells. People are spending more time at home and looking for little luxuries to cheer themselves up too, like Wallin’s bath bombs or sea salt scrubs. In April, online sales increased 600%.

On the other side, Wallin analyzed its 13 stores and decided to close four, all of which had leases up between now and June. The company will focus on its nine remaining stores and its 11,000-square-foot corporate office and warehouse. Wallin also had to make hard decisions about layoffs. “I love adding jobs,” she says. “I love adding people to our team. I know when I’m adding jobs, it means we’re growing, and it means we’re successful. For me, these past couple of weeks, to be removing positions and removing people, have been some of the worst times of my life.”

Wallin, who previously worked as a nurse and in home health care sales, started the business because she wanted products that wouldn’t harm skin and that would work for people with eczema and psoriasis, which she and her daughter are affected by. “I think it’s so much easier to connect with people when you’re passionate about what you sell,” she says. “You don’t have to memorize a sales pitch when you’re passionate about it.”

‘I think it’s so much easier to connect with people when you’re passionate about what you sell. You don’t have to memorize a sales pitch when you’re passionate about it.’ — Deanna Wallin, Naples Soap Co.

Her first retail location, which opened in November 2009, was a 300-square-foot space in Naples. The business took off, and within a couple months, it expanded to include the space next door. 

In the early days Wallin also sold her products at farmers markets. “I think I gave away more product than I sold,” she says, adding it was like one of Oprah’s giveaways — “You get a soap! You get a soap! You get a soap!” It paid off. By offering product samples, Wallin received good feedback and developed eager fans.

Another key way Naples Soap Co. has grown its sales and customer base is through a concerted effort to capture customer email addresses. “They love the brand, and they trust us,” she says. “They want to be part of our database.”

Wallin remains involved in every aspect of the business, including product development. “We’re always adding new products,” she says. “That’s the fun part of the job. My bathroom looks like a science lab. I try every product. If it doesn’t meet my standards, it doesn’t make it to the floor.”

Wallin has built a strong culture at Naples Soap Co. in part through her transparent, straightforward approach with employees. “They know they can talk to me, and I’m a hands-on owner,” she says. “I think they respect what I’ve built and how I treat them and how I treat our customers.”

Courtesy. Naples Soap Co. has nine retail stores.

When Wallin is in one of her stores, she talks with customers about their skin issues and recommends specific products. “I have a love affair with brick and mortar,” she says. “I love people and talking to people.”

Her people-first focus has helped her during past challenges, too. All the stores were in the path of Hurricane Irma, for instance, and afterward, Wallin had five families living in the warehouse. But the pandemic tops it all. It has required quick shifts on a daily basis, interacting with banks and landlords and reacting to decisions from several municipalities.

Prior to the coronavirus-related layoffs, the company had about 80 employees. Now it has around 65. Wallin received personal messages from several employees, even staff from stores that are closing. “We have such a connected Soap Squad,” she says. “They considered us family. They move me to tears. They’ve been told they don’t have a job, and they’re taking the time to send me messages of ‘We love you’ and thanks and support. It speaks volumes for our team.”

In the weeks ahead, Wallin will continue to manage fluctuations in e-commerce and brick-and-mortar sales. “Obviously, it’s a difficult time, and people are nervous and scared,” she says. “We’re trying to be positive and move forward and put some of the fear aside and do what we do best. I just have one speed, and it’s forward motion.”

Editor's Note: This article was updated to reflect the month and year the first Naples Soap Co. store opened. 

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