Jun 2, 2016
12 minute read
The Story of the Brazen Soap Maker Who Beat the Banks With Bath Bombs
Lisa Jolly refers to her business as both a drug and a sport, sometimes in the same breath. Her story plays out like a soap opera bred with an action-comedy film, and she doesn’t mince words in telling it. Lisa, founder of The Honeybunch Shop, has no time for “PC rubbish” – she swears like a sailor, and pours out her personal and professional failures (#nofilter) on social. It’s this catharsis, I’m certain, that has carried her through a two-year entrepreneurial rollercoaster, smiling through every plunge.
“Just say yes,” Lisa tells me over Skype from her hotel room in New Zealand.
That one little word – yes – was the catalyst for big things.
I caught Lisa at the end of my day and the beginning of hers. 16 hours ahead, in a hotel in Cambridge she says, “I’m new to this video thing. Go for gold!” She’s almost Suess-like – high ponytail, rosy elfin cheeks, bouncing in her seat. Though it’s early morning and she’s soon to be a grandmother, her energy is fizzy and pre-teen.
On the heels of a landmark sales month for Honeybunch via a wild plan to circumvent the banks, she and her daughter are on a New Zealand-wide road trip, bent on individually delivering $90,000 NZD in bath bombs, by hand.
To those who don’t know her, the idea seems half-baked and borderline insane. To the rest, it’s just a typical day trip down the Lisa Jolly rabbit hole.
Lisa has been self-employed for 20 years, mainly in retail. She started her last business, Scent, with a $300 investment before growing it significantly into a franchise model. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she admits.
During its latest growth spurt, a customer from China walked into her shop with a translator, asking her to make twelve soap samples. Lisa, again, said yes. At the time, she was procuring the stores’ soaps from another supplier, and had zero knowledge of soap making.
“I hopped on a plane and flew to the South Island to meet the guy who made our soap. When I arrived and he had a woman there – he'd sold the business to her that week. I said to her, ‘Look, can you please make this soap?’ – I saw myself more as a broker – and she said no. I flew back thinking ‘OK, I'll just have to make the soap myself.’ I got on Google and rang a hippie person who was based in a treehouse (I'm exaggerating, but I'm trying to give you an idea of this person). I asked, ‘Can you teach me how to make soap? I'll pay you a thousand bucks if I can come tomorrow.’”
Over a weekend, she learned to make basic melt-and-pour soaps using a microwave and tested them on her neighbours, plied with wine. She delivered the samples to the Chinese customer, inadvertently entering the manufacturing business.
“It was on my fortieth birthday and I received this hundred thousand dollar order! I bought eight microwaves and I made about eight tons of soap in my kitchen. It nearly killed me physically. Of course, what happened then – because I already owned these four stores and eight franchises – was that I realized that I didn't need to buy the soap from the supplier anymore. I just quite liked making it, so that’s what I did”
The microwaves were toast after her first wholesale order, and she jokes, “the divorce was pending”. She upgraded her operation to four outdoor barbeques and giant pots.
The original supplier, under new ownership, suffered with the loss of Lisa’s business. “You should have said yes,” she told her. She tried to coach the supplier, to help her find new customers, but the business continued to flounder. That’s when Lisa received the call: would she want to purchase the factory?
Lisa agreed to buy it, by paying off the owner’s loan over 15 years, on the condition that the she ship the factory to Auckland and train her staff for six weeks. She crammed a 500 square-meter factory setup into 90 square meters. “The woman was horrified,” she said.
I was like a mad scientist. That's how the soap business started.
“At the time, my team was basically Amy, who was a retail assistant in the shop. I asked her – because Amy's very anal about measuring stuff, whereas I'm crazy – ’Do you want to be a production manager?’ There are two sorts of people who will work with me: one sort will leave within two weeks, because they can't handle the energy and the vision. They can't handle being promoted from a retail assistant to a production manager just like that. The other sort, like Amy, will become part of the family and really enjoy it.”
The manufacturing business thrived solely on the orders of her one customer in China. Feeling spread thin, and suffering a blow at the hands of the recession, she sold her original retail franchises to focus on the more lucrative of her businesses: soap making. The business now employs some of her family members, the most vocal of her naysayers.
“My hubby’s been with the same job for twenty-five years and joined me when he saw the business growing. Blatantly honest? My family had never supported the business. They think I'm crazy. Their catchphrase is, "Why can't you just get a job?’ yet they're always happy to go on the holidays when I have a good month. My husband, in particular, is a real pessimist, so for him to come and work for the factory was just absolute shock and horror.”
Lisa’s mother balances out her own big ideas and wild energy by tackling the more tedious aspects of the business, like wages and administrative tasks. “She's retired and would prefer to be playing golf,” Lisa admits, “but does it out of the love for me.”
Shopify Build A Business Competition
Lisa has the energy and enthusiasm of a labradoodle, leaping joyously from one challenge to the next. For her, the monotony of manufacturing bored her very quickly. She missed the connections to people.
“You're covered in stuff all the time and you look like a factory worker. OK, I look a bit factory-ish, but I'm not actually a factory worker at heart."
Her patience with soap making waning, she poked around for a new challenge. “I’ve got this inner shark,” she tells me. That’s when Lisa discovered Shopify’s Build A Business Competition.
“I thought, ‘I'm just going to win this competition and start Honeybunch,’ because I've always had this plan to have an international brand. Even when I was 20, and people asked ‘What are you going to do?’ I’d say that I'm going to have an international shop somewhere, that I'm going to be internationally famous in some way. I don't care. I'm going to do it, because people say that you can't do it, right?”
Lisa launched The Honeybunch Shop, an online store selling her own soaps and cheerfully scented bath products, as part of the competition in late 2014. That’s when she popped up on our radar.
In our conversation, I told her that she had achieved international fame already – at least in Canada. At the time, I was managing Shopify’s social team, and noticed an influx in engagement from one particular merchant. Honeybunch’s Twitter account tirelessly promoted the business and cataloged, minute-to-minute, the ups and downs of her journey. She directly mentioned Shopify and the competition’s mentors multiple times a day. We couldn’t ignore her if we tried.
Her persistence paid off – Daymond John and Nate Holzapfel of Shark Tank fame, who could similarly not ignore her advances, each placed online orders. She flew from New Zealand to Utah to personally deliver the packages (a $25 NZD total value, with free shipping), and boasts that she and Daymond are now Linkedin connections. I’m not surprised – you can’t help but get swept up in her energy.
If Build A Biz was judged on effort or creativity or sleep-sacrifice (A+!), I’m certain she would have crossed “kite-sailing with Richard Branson” off of her bucket list. It wasn’t, and she didn’t.
I was in the fetal position for probably two months. But then I told myself, 'Don't be stupid!'
The idea however, was growing teeth. She picked herself up and decided to run with it anyway. Next up was a brick and mortar location in Hong Kong (along with a dedicated ecommerce site), fulfilling her dream of going international. She’d racked up plenty of experience with the Chinese market through her manufacturing and wholesale adventures, and it seemed like a natural first step outside her homeland borders.
People still told Lisa, “No, you can’t do that,” which, I have learned by now, is her fuel. She takes pleasure in rebelling against the haters. She says yes. “My store manager asks me, ‘Are you off?’” she laughs. This question only encourages her.
The culture shock has been a challenge, and she struggled with balancing being respectful of cultural nuances and being herself. “In China, I wouldn’t say ‘Buy my f*cking soap,’ like I would in New Zealand.”
Authenticity won out, and the Hong Kong store has been bumping, but not without the chaos that seems to trail behind Lisa wherever she goes: a flood, staff thefts, a brain hemorrhage causing partial blindness, and run-ins with immigration police.
If something crazy happens, it happens to me.
Despite all of it, the store still stands, and so does Lisa, though she’s spending more time in the air than on the ground these days, keeping things buzzing.
She opened a second China location in Nansha this year, borrowing less than half of the money she needed, and literally building it herself. In fact, when I asked about her favorite business tools, she includes, “a hammer and nails” alongside Facebook Ads and Daymond’s The Power of Broke.
Big Trouble in Nansha, China
Honeybunch Shop crossed our path once again recently when Lisa began hyper-sharing the success of her cheekily-coined campaign, We’ve Got Balls. In the entrepreneur Facebook Group Grow & Sell, she posted this screenshot of her Shopify store sales for the month:
Well, now you have our attention.
When Lisa and I connected, she and her daughter were gearing up for another day in the car. They were mid-road trip, chipping away at delivering more than 45,000 bath bombs, sold as part of the campaign.
There’s a method to the madness, I learn. Earlier this year, Lisa was featured by her bank in a national ad campaign for small business services, a testament to her long-standing relationship with the lender. A few months ago, the bank’s team turned over, and her finances were suddenly brought under scrutiny. The impersonal treatment drove her to take matters in her own hands. She became interested in the concept of crowdfunding, and took a stab at it, adding her own flavor, of course.
She announced on Facebook in March that she was going to pay back her bank overdraft by selling bath bombs – 75,000 of them at $2 a pop – and deliver them in person all over the country. “We don’t want to spend our awesome energy on jumping through hoops for banks,” the post reads, “we want to be self sufficient.”
"Basically, the Facebook post was just a heartfelt rant. I would consider it one of my strengths to be able to honestly relate to people without dressing it up. I'm not afraid to say, ‘I'm broke’ if I'm broke. But I'm also the person to celebrate anything that's successful. People seem to connect with that, and with me.”
The post reached her existing audience – an engaged bunch who have followed her wild ride from the outset – and she boosted it with a few Facebook Ads at about $5 per day. Her tweet-crusade also resumed, harkening back to her in-it-to-win it push during Build A Business. Some reported her for spam and she was even briefly ejected from the Facebook group. “All worth it,” she tells me, “It just went nuts!”
The campaign took off when she began selling bulk orders to schools and clubs as a fundraising tool. In the end, she sold nearly two thirds of her goal in less than a month and a half, thanks mostly to persistence. Along with her daughter, she’s personally delivering every order, but also continuing to strive towards her goal.
“We’re letting people know that we're going to be here or there, at this time or that, having dinner. ‘If you come within half an hour you can come get a bath bomb’ – things like that. We're just making it up as we go.”
Storytelling and Success
Lisa’s wins have made her a beacon for would-be entrepreneurs. After her recent Grow & Sell post, she received more than 100 personal Facebook messages from people seeking help with their own businesses. They’re asking her, “What business should I start?” She’s incredulous: “Do what you love, of course.” She’s also found success in sharing her story, and advises others to do the same.
"Not everyone has to be a technical whiz, or understand code. If you engage with people, they will want to be part of your business. Just tell your story!"
Her gift for networking and her infectious spirit have brought people together – she’s amassed a global sisterhood of women who share her entrepreneurial vigor.
“We are really strong group, always helping each other, chatting, messaging. I will finally come to America, maybe after all of this bath bomb stuff, and try and get these women in the same place.”
While Honeybunch is well on its way to paying back the banks, Lisa is poised to sell the factory – securing a strong supply agreement with the new owner. She has three offers on the table as of today. I suspect she won’t be content to stop there, and focus solely on her three retail stores – there’s a new scheme brewing, another madcap adventure is penciled in. “Are you hiring?” she asks me, laughing.
Lisa Jolly turned up her nose at every rule in the book (and in fact, she’s now writing her own), feeling her way through marketing and business and international relations with no formal education. And no fear. There are no hard, tactical lessons to be learned from her success. The formula is less math, and more magic.
You don’t have to be anything special – you just have to really want to do it, then do it. Be happy and stop trophy hunting.
Author -- Dayna Winter is a Storyteller at Shopify. She follows more dogs than humans on Instagram and isn't a real redhead.