Melinda Coss, when soap turns into biz

There are people you meet at certain points in life who have the charisma to open your mind, to bring new visions, to inspire you new paths to explore. I use to include Melinda Coss into this category because it is all down to her if one day I suddenly bumped into handmade soap making 13 years ago and I have never stopped enjoying it since. Interviewing her, here on my blog, is truly a great moment and also a way to showing her my gratitude after all these years.

We all know Melinda Coss for soapmaking books, soap business and expertise but who is Melinda Coss when she is not talking soap? How could Melinda Coss describe Melinda Coss? Favourite interests, places you like, food you remember, books you read, things that make you happy…
I guess I am a product of my generation as I grew up during a very exciting era when everything seemed possible.  Whilst I like to retreat into creative work what really excites me is the potential for turning ideas into realities. I’ve lived through Beatlemania, the empowerment of women, globalisation and the birth and growth of the internet – it puzzles me when I see people struggling to make a living as so much opportunity has now become accessible.  What makes me happy – solving problems and finding new ways to motivate people and spending quality time with my family (I have three children and seven grandchildren) :-).
I also love marketing – I find it hugely creative – probably more so than soap making itself.   I have lived in a number of different countries but I have no real attachment to place, I like to move and totally change my life every six or seven years. I paint china for a hobby and I’m a vegetarian. I also love animals and have two very large standard poodles. As for books, I read a lot of novels my favourite authors are Toni Morrison and Rose Tremain. As a child I went to a stage school and spent four hours a day studying drama and dance.  I left school at 14 with no qualifications so perhaps that is why I find everything around me so fascinating – basically, if you take time to stop and look around, life is just a big school room. The one thing I got from a theatrical education was confidence and the ability to express myself – I think that is all I ever really needed.
What about your story with soap: when did you discover natural soap and handmade soapmaking for the first time? How did your soap business start?
I spent a lot of years making a living as a professional author.  I’ve written 27 coffee table type books on numerous crafts most particularly on knitting and embroidery.  Whenever I got involved in a craft I couldn’t resist turning it into a business and at one time I was employing 400 home knitters, ran two hand knit shops in London and was selling my jumpers to all the major stores in New York.  I stumbled on soap at Paddington market in Sydney and had what my partner calls “a ding moment”.  On returning to the UK I discovered there were many small soap makers in the States but no one seemed to be making soap in the UK.  I persuaded my publisher to commission a soap making book from me and, with the help of the advance I received I took a year out to explore the craft.  It was a little bit like walking blind in a desert as there was very little information to be had at the time but the result was “The Handmade Soap Book” which has to date sold around a quarter of a million copies and been translated into several different languages.  Following the publication of the book I had a lot of people contacting me wanting to buy the soap so I set up a manufacturing unit and in 18 months I was supplying all the supermarket chains in the UK.  I must add that it would be extremely hard for anyone to do that in the current financial climate and also that because I had run successful businesses in the past I was able to find investors to fund the project.  The whole business was based on a five year plan. I won’t commit to doing anything for more than five years because I burn out. I am great at making things happen but once they are up and running I get bored very quickly.
Could you remember and describe one of your “perfect” batch and/or your “monster” batch?
I can certainly tell you about a monster batch – it was a sixty kilo block of soap made from mainly coconut oil with a coconut fragrance and it was left too long in the mould.  By the time we got around to cutting it was rock solid – we couldn’t even get a chainsaw through it!
Which is your favourite soap, that one you always want to have at home?
My favourite soap is olive oil, coconut and hemp oil fragranced with lavender and chamomile and coloured with Annato.  Whilst I love some of the amazing artistic swirling that is going on now I would much rather use a plain chunk of well formulated soap on my skin.
Which are your favourite ingredients and, if any, where do you use to source them?
I love water melon oil and bay berry oil, I also tend to use Patchouli oil more than I probably should. When possible I buy my oils direct from the growers but these days I do not make soap to sell so only really need to buy in small quantities
You have surely experimented lots of soapmaking methods. Which is your favourite if any? Have you ever developed some new method yourself?
In my latest book “Natural Soap” I am heavily promoting the very cold method where only the heat of the lye is used to melt the solid oils. This method is a God send to soap makers who are working in under developed countries as it requires absolutely no energy. I was introduced to the method by a friend and colleague and I find it works really well.
There are many kind of soapmakers: Those who make soap because is funny, the soap artists who make sculptures, the eco-friendly soapers, the dermatologist soapers…. Which kind of soaper are you? What is your “philosophy” in making and selling soap?
Over twenty five years as a soap maker I don’t think there is an avenue that I haven’t explored and thoroughly enjoyed but running a business needs a very different mindset and in my view the success of a business is 80% based on marketing skills and 20% on the quality of the product.  I think it is essential to find a niche that you believe in and to find an original way to get to market.  Everybody uses soap and even after all this time I can still find niches that nobody has exploited.  That is why I have stayed so long in this business and remained inspired by it.
What is “good quality natural soap” in your opinion?
A soap made with love, knowledge and integrity.
You write about soap, you produced soap, you teach soap… what in soap does still appeal to you most? What has kept you going for all these years?
I am particularly interested in businesses that offer opportunities for people who need to work from home.  I was a single mum with three under two year olds when I started my first knitwear business and to me soap is very similar to textiles except you have the added advantage of scent and texture to play with. Also, it fascinates me that a bar of soap means so many different things to different people. When I moved to France I did not intend to continue with my soap making but then I got involved with the French Cold Process Movement and was asked to become an Honorary member of two of their associations so, – here we go again :-).  I am also very interested in using soap just as a creative medium, i.e, I have been known to make jewellery and mosaics with it as well as some statement pieces like my ‘cupid plaque’.
You are also working with charity organizations in developing countries. Could you tell me more about this, for instance when and how did you start, where, any particular project to highlight?
Yes, I have helped to set up three soap making enterprises in Africa but I am not a charity worker. The projects were well funded by philanthropists, government organisations and in one case the First Lady of River State in Nigeria. I have not worked in African villages but there are several soap makers from the UK and US who have been dedicated enough to do that. Of course I can and do teach practical soap making skills in Africa but I am only one person and I strongly feel that my own value, time and skills are best used teaching people how to build sustainable businesses rather than just how to make soap. In South Africa I worked with 18 youngsters whose lives had been impacted by HIV on a project designed to use soap making as a medium that would teach them business skills, I also helped a soap making entrepreneur in Tanzania to build her business and batch sizes so that her soaps met standards required by EU cosmetic legislation. I also took seven soap maker colleagues over to Nigeria to help train 2,000 women how to make basic soap that they could make, barter and sell in their villages. I am extremely privileged to have been in a position to do this work.
You have been an endless source of inspiration for thousands of soapers around the world, included myself, but are there any people that have given you inspiration along these years?
I admired Anita Roddick.  She started out with a very simple proposition – she wanted to sell toiletries in small refillable bottles and that is how she originally built her business.  The reason I admire her so much is that as she grew her business she developed political and ecological views and had put herself into a situation that empowered her to then dedicate time and energy promoting her views and helping others through trade not aid.  There are many companies today who trade on the “ecological and fair trade ticket” who despite their passion do not have the ability to run a business – there is a saying, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.  Whilst creativity and strong ethical beliefs are important, all solid, sustainable businesses are based primarily on good financial and managerial decisions.
Is there a soap recipe that you would like to share with blog readers?
All of my favourite base recipes are in my latest book “Natural Soap” but I do hope I’ve shared some soap business insights with your blog readers  🙂
What is the Number One suggestion you would give to a new soaper?
Keep it simple.
What is the Number One suggestion you would give to somebody who will start a soap business in Europe?
Know yourself. If there are areas you are not strong on (like maybe book keeping or marketing) don’t ignore them – find someone else with those skills that you can work with. Also, make sure you understand and can meet the requirements of the new July legislation before you spend money setting up.

Melinda Coss can be reached at her website or at her Facebook page

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