Having a bubbly good time, naturally

Soap Ministry is on a mission to educate the public on the benefits of going au naturale.

MACARON, char siew bun, ice-cream - the list goes on. The range of food on display looks delectable enough to get one salivating. But wait a minute - a waft of rose and lavender greets you and you realise that the "food" is actually soap.

Diana Ong, founder and director of Soap Ministry, says that the company is one of the pioneers in conducting workshops on natural handmade soaps in Singapore.

It is also one of the few companies in Singapore to have ventured beyond the melt and pour process to cold process after obtaining the lye licence from National Environment Agency in September 2014. The firm now conducts workshops at the retail & workshop head office in Pioneer Point using the cold process method.

Unlike the melt and pour process, which involves melting a pre-existing soap base and adding colour, treatment herbs and essential oil into 3D silicon moulds, the cold process involves making the soap from scratch using various carrier oils such as avocado and sweet almond with customised formulae. The lye - which is needed when using the cold process method - and moisture will evaporate after a one to two-month curing process. The procedure requires slicing the soap and placing it in an airy place.

After obtaining the cold process licence, the company entered what was unchartered territory for them - making soaps using breast milk.

Ms Ong says she feels there is a market for breast milk soap, especially with the growing awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding.

 "It is such a waste to discard the leftover breast milk. So, as long as the milk is frozen, one can make soap with it. The milk is rich in nutrients and antibodies which makes it ideal to make soap with to protect the skin."

Ms Ong says that breast milk soap can only be made using the cold process method.

"Breast milk is more 'sensitive' as the nutrients will be destroyed under high heat. The soap will turn very yellow, which is an indication that the essential fatty acid is gone. Hence, you need about two months to produce breast milk soap due to the low-heat process and curing procedures. Temperature is key when making any soaps using the cold process method."

"The mothers will pass us the frozen breast milk. After thawing it, we mix it with, for example, extra virgin olive oil. We will then cure it and place the soap in the incubation box for two days to keep it warm so the temperature will be maintained. Of course, for hygiene purposes, the soap will be given to the mother and not sold to the public. To my knowledge, we are the only soap company in Singapore that makes breast milk soap and teaches mums to make it."

Ms Ong adds that the classes are popular among nursing mothers.

Product expansion is never far from Ms Ong's mind, and although the company has now extended the product range to include bath bombs and cleansing oil - all made with natural ingredients - the founder says she has recently obtained the potassium hydroxide licence, so developing its range of liquid soap and skincare products is in the pipeline.

However, the ultimate aim for the 44 year-old entrepreneur is to start a franchise in the near future.

 "My dream is to grow the brand globally. And to have a factory where I can mass produce my products," she says.

 Looking at the group of children hovering around the fridge, waiting for the soaps they have made - probably for the first time - to set, it is hard to believe that the Soap Ministry has been around for seven years.

 Financial woes are par for the course for almost any budding company, and Soap Ministry was no exception. 

Ms Ong says: "When we told potential partners and other people that we wanted to venture into the soap business, some were not very receptive (to the idea). Hence, we did have an initial problem with funding. It started out more as a family affair as my husband, parents and best friend provided the capital to kickstart the process."

When asked what spurred her to embark on this soap-making journey, Ms Ong became slightly pensive. The seed was planted after she joined the cosmetics industry for 15 years, she says after a while.

Going natural

"I realised that  some businesses did not want to go the natural way as that route is more time-consuming and has a lower profit margin. Hence, chemicals such as parabens and preservatives are pumped in to extend the shelf life of the product. Consumers are also paying a lot more due to packaging. As I travelled to places such as France and Australia,  I noticed that the people there were big on using natural ingredients and I thought to myself 'why not bring it to Singapore?', especially since I found the natural product and workshop scene in Singapore a little underwhelming at that time."

However, the catalyst that helped turn Ms Ong's idea into reality was none other than her now eight-year-old daughter.

"I had her in 2009, and she had eczema even as a baby. She was prescribed steroid cream and although her condition would get better after application, the results would only last for a few days. So I started buying handmade soap from the US but oil prices went up that time and it was so expensive, so I decided to DIY."

Ms Ong had to travel to Malaysia to make the soaps as she did not have the licence then. "I realised that my daughter's condition had improved and the frequency of relapse decreased. And that got my husband and I thinking of starting a business."

Ms Ong says that the soap which she used for her daughter had Jojoba oil, which is good for eczema and sensitive skin. Together with avocado that has essential fatty acid, the soap not only hydrates but protects and heals the skin.

The timing was impeccable as Ms Ong was in the midst of completing a retail diploma course by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency - which she started in 2007 - and one of the modules required her to come up with a business plan.

Ms Ong decided to go the whole hog and used her idea for the project. And as they say, the rest is history.

She managed to register the company five months before graduating and the soap business officially began around mid-2010.

Armed with an initial investment of just S$75,000. Ms Ong adds that they had to operate on a shoestring budget when they first set up shop in Orchard Central (the company is now at Liang Court) and had to inject more funds subsequently for rent and to purchase equipment. Total investment to date is about S$500,000.

"It was initially tough getting grants. But in the later stage, the government hired a consultancy to help us with the application. However, we had to scrimp and do a lot of things ourselves in the beginning. From the application with Health Science Authority to the interior design and renovation of the firm, we did it ourselves with minimal help."

Ms Ong says that she  went for a Millionaire Mind Intensive programme and learnt that cost effectiveness was important for growing a business. Some people ended up spending a lot more on reinstatement when they moved to a bigger location.

"Hence, we did the design in such a way that we could move out within a short period of time. I guessed it worked as it only took us two days to move out of Orchard Central to Liang Court."

Budget concern was not the only obstacle Soap Ministry faced as Ms Ong insisted on using quality natural ingredients.

The organic goat milk and centella soap base were not easy to source and get distributorship for as they are from a premium Korean skincare manufacturer.

"It is not easy to penetrate the Korean market if you don't speak the language, especially since we were also just a startup and not ordering a large quantity. So we didn't have a choice but to find a company who already had orders with them and tag on our orders. But after our business grew, we wanted to secure a distributorship and I had to convince them by writing a proposal and pitching the idea that Singapore may be small, but our firm has the potential to grow. After two years, they finally gave it to us, but not without their constant telling us to order more," Ms Ong laughs.

"To order the minimum quantity, I had to get the funds and hence applied for a micro-loan with OCBC."

Ms Ong does not get her product from just one supplier or one country as she is wary that they may mark up the price. So she has a wide range of essential oils from Europe, the US and India that she purchases after doing her research, testing and comparing prices.

"I have a team who is qualified in the study of essential oils. After all, we do not have a marketing budget and depend on our customers' recommendations. Hence, we place the utmost emphasis on good, natural ingredients."

Right from the get-go, the firm did not just sell soap but conducted workshops as well, which Ms Ong says is very good advertisement.

Curious customers

"People who walk past our shop get curious when they see others in action and they make enquiries. Their interest gets piqued and we have a customer! Some customers also leave testimonials on our website sharing how these handmade soaps have improved their eczema or hives conditions."

From these workshops, Ms Ong started getting requests to do birthday celebrations and corporate events as well. The scale has since expanded and they are now able to conduct a workshop offsite for about 100 people.

"We just did a workshop for SingPost family day for about 100 people. Our events range from the corporate sector to schools and just normal parent-child bonding workshops. Children actually ask their parents to bring them here to make soaps as a reward for doing well."

Ms Ong says they were lucky they did not have big or direct competitors when they first started out. "We also have the widest range of selection of moulds and ingredients to choose from," she adds.

The company broke even in the first year of operation and Ms Ong says she reinvested whatever profit the company made and did not get a salary for a few months. The firm was consistently in the black, except for the few years following the opening of the Pioneer Point workstation. But with the cold process method gaining traction among her customers, sales are picking up. The staff strength has also increased from just one part-time staff initially to about seven - including  single parents and people who have speech and hearing impediments.

Ms Ong says that her staff must have passion in terms of what they are doing, and must know the product well enough to be able to sell it.

"There is no boss and subordinate. Even the boss can sweep the floor," she says with a grin.

But, most importantly, Ms Ong wants to raise awareness about the benefits of using natural products, hence she gives talks in schools as she believes in "starting from young".

She firmly adds that using such natural products is not only good for the skin but also the environment and explains that it takes about one to two months to reprocess the water solution which contains the soap or shower gel that is chemical laden, but only a few days for the solution with natural ingredients.

"I believe the Earth and people's health are badly damaged already. Sooner or later, people will go back to the natural way. Hence, I want to do a business that can help people. Of course. I still want to make money so that more people can benefit, but my ultimate aim is to create awareness for natural products, and to do good."