When Laura Collins turned 10 in April, she spent some of her allowance on a simple soap-making kit at a discount store. Nine months later, Laura — with the help of her parents, Shane and Holley Collins — has made and sold more than 1,000 bars of all-natural soap to customers nationwide.
Laura wasn’t happy with the first batch of soap she made in her Payne Gap home using the basic kit. She didn’t like the texture of the soap and the kit didn’t include fragrances.
“It didn’t smell too good,” Laura said.
She told her mother that there had to be a better way to make soap.
“She wasn’t real impressed with that little kit, but it did get her mind working in that direction,” said Holley Collins, a first-grade teacher at Burdine Elementary School. “She had a lot of questions as to how people make their soap smell so good.”
Laura made a few more bars of soap with the kit and then decided to order scented oils to add to a soap base. Honeysuckle and lavender were two of the first oils she used to make her scented soap.
“It didn’t take that long for me to realize that I really liked making soap,” she said. “When I first started making it, I didn’t think I wanted to start a business or anything. I thought it was kind of fun and I’d like to buy a few more of those packs, make a little more, and make it smell better.”
Shane Collins told his daughter that since she enjoyed making soap, she should start her own soap-making business.
“When we started looking at maybe selling soap, we got together as a family,” said Mr. Collins, a retired teacher. “We looked at what scents we wanted to do. (Laura) came up with the names of the scents and wrote down what she would need. She kept a ledger.”
Laura went on to fill several pages of a notebook with ideas, her mother said.
“She really got into it and I think that made us more enthusiastic about it,” said Holley Collins. “If she has a dream, then we all have that dream. We’ll definitely do whatever it takes to help her realize that dream.”
The family agreed to stay away from adding colors and detergents to the soap base. The Collinses use a glycerin soap base with goat’s milk added to it.
“I wanted it to be good for your skin,” Laura said.
Unless it is a specialty item on the shelf, Mr. Collins said, consumers aren’t going to find a non-detergent soap.
“Detergents supposedly clean better, but the problem is they are harsher on your skin,” he said. “The detergents that they put in it dry your skin rather than moisturize it. A lot of places will add an oil to it. They’ll put Shea butter or some kind of oil in it to counteract that. At the same time they are still drying you out because lauryl sulfate is pretty well a salt. So it is drying out your skin and then they use something to counteract it in order to make it cheaper and at the same time trying to give you those benefits of what we are doing.”
Laura also doesn’t want any ingredients in her soap to have been tested on animals.
“That’s important to her,” said Mrs. Collins.
Initially, the soap line consisted of grapefruit, blood orange, honeysuckle, lavender and jasmine. Blood orange and grapefruit are two of Laura’s favorites and lavender and jasmine are Holley Collins’ favorites.
In the earlier days of Laura Farms Soap, Laura and her parents mainly made soap just for fun and gave handmade soap to family and friends. Then the Collins family began selling handmade soap for $4 for a four-ounce bar online through eBay. The website is www.laurafarmssoap.com.
“I think that is another reason why people like our soap,” Laura said. “We sell it for very affordable prices.”
“I know what we are using is better,” said Holley Collins. “It feels better. It smells nicer.”
Laura began selling soap at a community fundraiser and by passing out business cards.
“I think the hardest part of our company was getting it started,” she said. “We had to get our name out there before we could sell any of it. We had to sell it to so many people to invest back into it.”
During a visit to Breaks Interstate Park, Shane Collins noticed soap in a gift shop and told Laura that she could sell her soap in state park gift shops, too.
Laura wrote e-mail messages and letters to State Rep. Leslie Combs to learn how to get her soaps placed in state park gift shops.
In June, Laura Farms Soap obtained a business license, was labeled as a “Kentucky Proud” product and sold 150 bars of soap to be distributed among nine state parks in Kentucky.
“That was really the kickoff to our business and from there we got other ideas,” Holley Collins said. “Slowly through all of this, the online business started taking off. That was just kind of in the background. We weren’t doing a whole lot with that. Almost overnight we started realizing that most of our orders were coming from online.”
In June, Bill Bentley, owner of Pine Mountain Outfitters, agreed to be the exclusive Letcher County retailer of Laura Farms Soap.
“She went down with her little sales pitch and letter,” said Holley Collins. “We went with her. She likes to have that backup.”
Laura said blue spruce was added to her line because Bentley showed her a blue spruce-scented candle that he liked and said he wanted that scent to be in his shop.
Holley Collins describes blue spruce as a vanilla, woodsy, pine scent.
“It’s very nice,” said Holley Collins. “It’s very refreshing. ”
The family makes Happy Camper, a natural oil-based insect repellant soap that is available at Pine Mountain Outfitters and nine state parks. The all-vegetable glycerin soap contains goat’s milk, eucalyptus, citronella, peppermint, lemongrass and litsea oils.
“My mom had a terrible problem with bugs,” Shane Collins said. “She would go outside [and] come back in with mosquito bites all over her after five minutes.”
Shane Collins’ mother, Rhonda Collins, used the soap this summer and didn’t get attacked by mosquitoes.
As the summer grew longer the business began to evolve.
“Each one of us took on our roles,” Shane Collins said. “I take care of the bookkeeping and shipping. Holley takes care of the labels and packaging.”
Mrs. Collins and her daughter went through four different packaging designs before they were satisfied.
“(Laura) had a very specific idea of what she wanted,” Mrs. Collins said. “Cost is a factor. We don’t want to pass the cost of packaging on to people. We want it to be very affordable for people.”
Shane Collins prints off the online orders and Laura makes a list of every scent that she needs and how many of each one she needs. The list goes on the refrigerator.
“We are really homebased,” said Holley Collins. “We are not high-tech at all.”
Shane Collins uses a large cutter to trim off pieces of a 24-pound block of soap base. Laura sets out oils and molds while her dad melts the soap base on induction cookers.
Laura is the soap maker. She adds a specific amount of fragrance oil or essential oil to the liquid.
“Usually one bar of soap has a half teaspoon of scent in it,” Laura said. “It depends on the scent. Rosewood is really strong so we don’t use that much in it. Honeysuckle or lavender takes more.”
Laura has made enough bars of soap that she has memorized measurements needed to make each scented bar.
“We usually go under the recommended amount with essential oils,” said Mrs. Collins. “We want it to be gentle enough for a baby. Anyone can use it.”
With the exception of the Happy Camper soap, Laura doesn’t mix oils.
“It might be overpowering to the soaps,” Laura said. “Sometimes you can add a little bit more of one scent and a little bit less of one scent and it will make it smell different. So if people order 12 bars of one scent you are going to have a mismatched batch.”
If Laura isn’t satisfied with the end product, she’ll melt it back down and start over.
“I’ve got to make sure the soap is good quality. No flaws,” she said. “We’re selling four ounces. If you aren’t giving them four ounces, you have a problem. Accidents do happen. You spill it sometimes and have to redo all of it, which is kind of annoying. You got to do what you got to do.”
Laura pours the mixture into the molds. After an hour or so of curing, Laura and her parents put the soaps into packages.
“If you get the soap out when it is soft, it will break,” Laura said.
Large online orders are usually received on Wednesdays and weekends. That’s when the family makes an assembly line and fulfills orders. As a top seller on eBay, Laura Farms Soap offers next-day shipping.
“We produce it and it’s in the mail the next day,” said Shane Collins. “We do all custom orders and don’t keep any in stock.”
Laura said sometimes not everyone wants to make soap at the same time.
“It’s difficult when you just finished a batch of 75 bars and he goes and checks his email and he has three more orders waiting,” said Holley Collins. “We pull together and we do it anyway.”
Shane Collins enjoys the time he spends with his family making soaps.
“Usually once we get into the groove of it, we enjoy it,” he said.
Since November, Laura Farms Soap has gone through four 24-pound blocks of soap base. Each block makes about 96 bars of soap.
The Collinses were busy four or five days a week during the Christmas season. “We’d have a table full of orders and rows and rows of molds laying on every counter in the kitchen,” said Holley Collins.
Laura said sugar cookie and gingerbread were the top sellers at Christmas.
“Everybody wants our Christmas scents that we have,” Laura said.
Some of the Christmas soaps remain popular all year, Holley Collins said.
In October, they began making lotions that were added to the Laura Farms Soap website in November.
“It’s a Shea butter, goat’s milk and honey lotion,” Laura said. “We add the scents to it. First, we have to get it warm to a consistency where we can pour it and then we add the scent. Put it in a bottle and chill it for a bit.”
Laura and her parents try out all of their products before selling them.
“There are little sample bars of 50 different soaps in my bathroom right now,” said Holley Collins.
Soaps and lotions are available in 29 scents — lemongrass, ocean rain, tea tree and chocolate fudge to name a few.
Naming scents and choosing new scents, Laura says, is her favorite part about her business. Next, she wants to add bath oils and lip balms.
“We’re putting her to the books to see what she can find out about it,” said Mrs. Collins.
Laura continues to come up with new product ideas.
“We want to add lots more to our business,” Laura said. “We don’t want to just keep it at lotions. We want to go big. We want to make a whole bunch of things.”
As a long-term goal, Laura said she wants to open a storefront.
“I kind of wanted to be a doctor, but now that I am thinking about it, I might want to stick with this and grow my business a little bit,” she said.
Earlier this week, Shane Collins finished submitting paperwork to begin selling soap at the Completely Kentucky store in Frankfort.
Shane Collins describes Laura Farms Soap as a wholesale business that does online retail.
“We’d like to become just a wholesale business and let somebody else retail it for us,” he said.
Holley Collins said she and her husband are proud of their inquisitive and creative daughter who thinks outside the box. Although Laura is only in the sixth grade at Jenkins Middle High School, Holley Collins is looking ahead and would like to put Laura through college with profits from the family soap-making business.