Helen Cross had always been concerned about the amount of single use plastic in her kitchen and bathroom, but like many busy Mum’s she was understandably, too preoccupied to find alternatives. It wasn’t until she sat down to watch Blue Planet on a Sunday afternoon in 2017 that she found herself horrified by the effect oil-based plastic was having on our natural world.
Driven by her passion to help consumers find plastic free alternatives, Helen launched her very own plastic free, chemical free hand made soap brand, North Devon Soap’s in 2019. Just four years later Helen left her teaching career and is working at the business full time, with multiple new ranges added as well as launching her own soap making courses, the business is stronger than ever. BIPC Devon talks to Helen about her sustainable small business success story…
For someone who doesn’t know what you do, how would you describe North Devon Soap?
“We hand-make organic, plastic free, palm oil free and vegan friendly body wash and shampoo bars. My husband and I started North Devon Soaps in 2019, we already had a business which was focused on compostable food packaging, which aimed to take plastic out of the system. I was working as a primary special needs teacher full time and we were trying to look at other ways that we could get people to take plastic out of their lives. We did a plastic free fair down at Westward Ho, which was fantastic and met a lady who made soaps and just thought maybe that was something that we could do. I did a course with her in early 2019, then I developed our initial artisan range, initially selling them at markets on weekends and they went down really well!
So over the next couple of years I reduced my hours down at the school to part-time, and then lockdown happened so I had a little bit more time to develop different ranges, I came up with our coffee range and our Ocean range. And then it came to late 2020, things were going really well so I took the plunge and moved full time into the business! This allowed me to come up with new products such as the solid shampoo and conditioner bar which we launched end of last year, and that’s where I am at the moment!
How did you find that jump from working full time, to running the business full time?
“It was very hard. Teaching part-time can still quite often feel like a full time job! I was doing three days at work and then the other four days were running the business, so like many other entrepreneurs I didn’t really give myself a day off!
During the summer we have all our markets and fairs, so that’s all your Saturdays and Sundays taken up, so it was really tough juggling two very different things.
The planning skills developed in my teaching careers really helped me. But I don’t come from a business background so trying to understand all the ‘business speak’ and accounting was challenging. Additionally the other thing has been getting to grips with social media, I don’t think I quite realised how massive that is, it takes up a lot of time. I try to post at least once a day, I’ve done a bit of free online webinars to help with this which has been really helpful.
When I was developing my soaps I just taught myself how to do the colours and designs, from copying videos on Youtube!
Soap making is much bigger in America, but it is growing particularly in Devon. There’s quite a few of us, with more and more coming along and there really is space for everyone. In addition to selling our own range, we also run soap – making courses! These are appropriate for everyone whether you are thinking about starting up yourself or just picking up a new hobby! The most important is just finding a niche that sets your soap apart!
Finding Your Niche
And what sets North Devon Soaps apart?
We created Devon Soaps to be Devon’s sustainable gift soap. When you come to Devon on a holiday, rather than buying a plastic wrapped fudge, you have the option of purchasing a lovely bar of soap that was hand made in Devon.
Minimal packaging is a big thing with us so other than having the label which is a legal requirement we don’t wrap the soaps. Our gift boxes are always recyclable and we try our best to make them from recycled materials. Where possible we always ensure that we are using sustainable ingredients.
What are the challenges that you have faced so far and how have you overcome them?
Coming from a totally different background and then jumping in to this business world has been a steep learning curve I have to say! Regularly building our social media has been the most consistent issue – our Instagram is doing quite well now and we get some good engagement there. But it’s also the accounts, I’ve never had to use accounting software before, so it’s being learning how to do all of those boring bits, not just making lovely soaps!
Sustainability, customer service and the future...
Running around local craft fares, selling her products online as well as running her own soap making courses is a logistical challenge, but it’s the a challenge that is worth it when she hears the glowing reviews from loyal customers.
“I’m really big on on customer service, it’s important from a business perspective to drive sales, but it’s also that one to one connection with individual customers that keeps me going when times are tough! When we do markets people will come up and ask you questions and you can give them information about the soaps and how it interacts with their skin types
We’ve got some amazing customers, who will go out of their way to find us and let me know how much they love the products! They tell me how the how it makes them their skin feel, and it makes them happy using the products which is just absolutely lovely.
Last year we submitted a gift set to the free from gift awards and we won gold in the eco-gift awards which was amazing! Winning that award was great because it really just embodies what we are, we want to make eco-gifts that are use as little waste as possible, and have been hand made in Devon. It makes it feel like it’s worth keeping going when things do get a little bit tough!”
Have you got any exciting plans for the future, or products that are coming in?
“We’ve just launched our lathers dual shampoo and conditioner bar, it’s completely plant based, vegan, and palm oil free dual shampoo. We’ve also had lots of feedback from our customers requesting a travel soap from our best – selling Ocean range. We’re listening to our customers and investigating that so keep an eye out!
In addition we’re always running our regular soap making courses! Our next beginners one will be on 13th of May we’ll be at Broomhill Estate – you’ll also get lunch as part of the package, so we’re particularly looking forward to that one!”
Inspired by Helen's Story?
Small businesses like North Devon Soap’s, who are driven by creating products which support customers to look after their local enviroment, is what makes the local Devon business ecology so special. BIPC Devon is here ensure that local business ecology continues to thrive. Whether you simply have an idea of how to turn your passion into profit, or are an already established business owner, we are here to help you.
So if your feeling inspired by Helen’s story, why not check out our free Women in Business course which runs until the end of May 2023. Designed and deliver by Devon-based Business women who want to empower others to realise their full potential and pursue their dream careers.