Emma Heathcote-James: Little Soap Company

My accidental journey started by wanting to find a creative hobby to get me off my laptop and to start doing my own thing. My background was in PhD research in the anthropology of religion, which took me straight into broadcast and television research. A few years after moving to the Cotswolds I was desperate to put down roots, so I changed track and set up my own PR agency, concentrating on the creative industries in the South West. I was surrounded by creativity and loved every minute yet there was no room – let alone time – for me to be creative.

Then somehow through a bizarre series of events, culminating from the realisation you couldn’t buy proper soap in the supermarkets, I started hand-making soap on the Aga. I was ready to start selling – farm shops first, then in sub-zero degrees at local farmers markets, craft shows and school fetes, then up scaling and producing literally hundreds of thousands of bars and liquid soaps in factories across England, becoming the first organic bar soap to line the shelves nationally of the UK’s top end supermarkets…

1) Tell us about your dream job as a child.

I never really had the compulsion as a child to be a doctor or vet – I never really knew what I wanted to do. We laugh that it took till my 30s to find my dream job…!

2) Why did you go into business in the first place?

I’ve always been freelance, all my life, working in the media. Before Little Soap Company, which I created quite simply because I used to get so frustrated at being constantly reigned in or dictated to by boards or directors, and having to do things I didn’t agree was the right path. Even before working life, when I was at Uni researching my PhD, I would get reigned in for going too off piste or it being too risqué – all my life it felt like I was being reigned in – I wanted something I could have that was my own, that I could make decisions for and follow through with and not be answerable to anyone else. I think really I’m just totally unemployable ;)!

3) What or who has been your greatest influence in business and why?

My Dad was expected to enter into the family accountancy practise straight after school and worked his way up to partner. He worked there for almost 50 years and despite being hugely good at it he never really enjoyed it. I used to go and cover the receptionist in the summer holidays and found the building, the grey suits, the monotony of office life and doing the same thing day in day out the most dreary thing ever. I couldn’t understand how everyone did it. Work for me needed to be something fun, in a beautiful building in a really lovely place and most of all doing good – it had to have a real sense of purpose. When we took on the office building and workshop in Broadway, Dad stood in the empty front room and said he so wished he could have run the business from somewhere like this – I think if he could do it all again he would change a lot of things. I learnt so much from him and that business really – perhaps mostly in terms of what I didn’t want.

4) What is the best and worst decision you’ve ever made?

Best business decision was taking time out to upskill – the 10k Small Business programme at Aston University. It was a 5 month program (like a min MBA) that took place every other Thur from 12-8pm. I was fretting I didn’t have the time to do it and often sat with my laptop during breaks playing catch up but that single decision enabled me to take the business off the kitchen table and grow, from being just me to taking on a premises and employing a team. Less than a year later, with more hands helping I was able to create an entire exclusive range for Waitrose of bar and liquid soaps – something I could never have achieved on my own, juggling all else.

Worst business decision – bringing a friend on board. Just don’t – for so many reasons, don’t.

5) What do you think is the most significant barrier to women in business?

Being a parent while running a business, is at times hugely challenging – these dual responsibilities often clash. There is definitely the perception (be it your own or externally) that you could be more effective and dedicate more time to the business if you weren’t having to juggle childcare and school times on top. Work-life balance is a goal for many, regardless of their gender, but for women to simultaneously run a home, a family, and their own company (plus finding time to exercise and have a social life on top!) is at times incredibly hard, and is one of the areas where traditional gender expectations most definitely prevail. It is hard for women to attend early morning breakfast meetings or after work events without a huge amount of logistics to enable it to happen – perhaps one of the reasons so many of these such events are dominated by men?

6) What’s the best advice you have received in business?

Always say yes even if you don’t know how you will do it. You can work the logistics out behind closed doors later. ‘Yes’ is a word that opens doors, that enables the magic to happen. The more it scares, you the more vehemently you should shout ‘yes’. Say yes. Seize opportunities with both hands. Listen. Put yourself out there. You never know who you may meet or be put in touch with and how that will change your business, and in turn your life….

7) What do you do for fun?

I always have a course of some sort booked, to look forward to and often drag my other half along – glass blowing, silver smithing, black smithing, paper making – anything arty – we even made our own wedding rings (which she admits to being the most stressful day ever and even cried with relief at the end when it turned out perfectly!). At home I just love being out doors – we live on a farm so just hanging out with the family and our black lab Henry either walking or being down by the river, with us all messing about in kayaks or swimming – that’s a warm day nailed!

8) What did you most fear in the early days of your business?

I am terribly number blind, so when it was just me the hardest thing I struggled with was the financial side – I was so fearful of the logistics of getting the supermarket orders in, the right quantities, the right date and the cash flow of it all… I wasn’t big enough to take someone on to do it for me and that was what I fretted about the most. Taking on someone who not actually knew what they were doing but also enjoyed doing it was the biggest relief ever and really served the business well. If I could change things I would have made that happen sooner as I wasted so much time trying to learn it all, doing things so slowly and often incorrectly.

9) What’s next for you and your business?

Next for me, is getting married next month in June! Next for the business are new products that we are amid the final throes of development for, an organic shampoo and conditioner that has taken over two years to bring to fruition – we are also launching our current products in more stores and generally just growing the business both on and off line.

10) If you could tell your younger you something what would you say?

Listen to (and always follow) your gut instinct – it’s always right.

Little Soap Company

www.littlesoapcompany.co.uk

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