Interview: Elizabeth Carnahan from Longcroft Soaperie

Elizabeth Carnahan from Longcroft Soaperie in Scotland is one of the success stories of the boutique bath industry.  Elizabeth has parlayed her hard work and genius with product development into a cottage industry that has been on the pages of some of Europe’s top magazines.

As well as producing, marketing and selling her soap, Elizabeth has also launched her own fragrance oil line, supplying other soapers and cosmetic companies, and Longcroft Soaperie has gotten big enough that she’s now got new digs overlooking the moors.  And if that weren’t enough, she’s also raising two kids, a host of critters, and maintaining an ancient farmstead as old as the heather.  So, a big thanks to Elizabeth for taking the time to answer a few questions for us.

Q: How did you come to soapmaking?  Many professional soapmakers start as hobbyists, and turn pro when they find that their closets have filled up with soap.  Tell us what turned you into a professional soapmaker.

I started out making and selling bath salts. From there I got into balms and butters which eventually led me into soap making. Since I already had an established cosmetics business, selling soap seemed like the next logical step – and it was. I have since scaled back on all of my products and make soaps and lip balms only.

Q: What were your first forays into the market?

The first selling I ever did was at a home-party hosted by my lovely sister-in-law. It was a big success for me at that time, and I started getting quite a few phone orders. I decided to try farmers’ markets, too, and those were a lot of fun. I used to do three a month, but now I only support one market.

Q: What has been your most successful method for marketing your brand?

Definitely the internet. Since getting a website in 2004, things have really taken off for me. It’s lead to interest from the press as well as some lucrative wholesale accounts.

Q: What was your greatest disaster in marketing?  What did you take away from the experience?

‘Unmoderated’ craft fairs have always been a disaster for me. While my products are reasonably priced, I can’t compete with cheap toiletries imported from China. Before doing any craft fair or market, I always make sure that the organizers are strict about the products being sold. If the organizers don’t insist on all of the products being hand-made, I don’t attend.

Q: You’ve tested a lot of products above and beyond soap.  How do you determine what products you bring to market?

I used to have a huge line of products, but I’ve cut way back due to time constraints. When deciding what to cut, I thought a lot about what I actually use – soap and lip balm. So now that’s all I make.

Q: When doing product development; do you plan on a lifecycle, or do you keep a line open until it ceases to be viable?

I try to pay attention to what’s selling, and there are some items (like cardamom soap) that are sold seasonally. I keep a basic line of about eight soaps and then add limited editions as needed.

Q: Have you ever developed a product that you thought would be a fantastic seller, that didn’t move at all?  What questions do you ask yourself when a product doesn’t do as well as expected?

Oh yes. Oil cleansers. I’ve been using the oil cleansing method for a couple of years, and am beyond pleased with the results, however, trying to talk my customers into using oil to clean their skin just didn’t work out. It was frustrating, because I knew they’d love it if they tried it, but I just didn’t have the ability to sell it. So my main question now is ‘will this be easy to sell’. If it isn’t, I don’t bother with it.

Oil Cleansing?  Like unto what the Romans used?  Tell us a little about it.

Ooh!  I was hoping you’d ask.  Oil cleansing is where you massage vegetable (or seed) oil onto your face to clean it.  The principle is the old chemistry of ‘like dissolves like’, and it works really well.  An effective oil cleanser will contain a base of castor oil, as it’s the most cleansing of all of the oils.  In that, you can add different oils depending on your skin type — or even your skin’s mood.  I know my skin is different from day to day and week to week, so it’s great to be able to mix something up to suit the moment.

A great recipe for normal to dry skin is:
50% Castor
25% Olive
25% Avocado

To use the cleanser, you wet your face with warm water and massage a small amount of oil into your skin.  I use less than a dime sized drop.  The massage is important, so use circular motions and never abuse the skin.  Let the oil sit on your skin for about 10 minutes and then place a warm wet cloth over your face to sort of steam the skin.  You can use the same cloth to remove the oil by gently wiping it away.

Avoid the temptation to dig at your skin with the cloth, and don’t rinse.  You’ll notice cleaner, clearer, glowing skin after the first use.

Q: Tell us about the genesis of your fragrance company.  What factors moved you towards creating your own line of fragrance oils?

There was a real gap in the UK market. When I first started out making bath salts, I couldn’t find quality fragrances. I began working directly with a manufacturer who helped me develop a few exclusive fragrances, and the products I made the new scents sold well.

Q: Are you using equipment in house like Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometers to map the molecular structure of your fragrances, or do you do your development “by nose”?

Oh, by nose only! I am not a chemist. But I do have a decent sense of smell.

Q: You’ve just opened a new location, will you be using it as a retail storefront, or is it a new and expanded warehouse for your growing product line?

It’s a warehouse for storing the raw materials I sell through gracefruit.com. Nothing exciting, I’m afraid.

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge to new people coming into the soap business?

Complying with EU legislation. There is a lot of it. We have such strict laws here. For instance, every product we sell has to have its formulation assessed and approved by a cosmetic chemist. The process can be daunting. (Editorial note: Regulations in the US are about to become even more restrictive than the EU restrictions.  Look for an article about these regulations soon.)

Q: What about challenges for existing businesses?

Keeping up with all of the micro-soaperies opening every day. There is a lot of competition that wasn’t there a year ago.

Q: What secret goodies do you have planned for launch this year?  Come on, you can tell us.

Nothing for Longcroft, but I’ve recently begun working with a large medical-supplies manufacturer. Their goal is to get into the cosmetics market, and I’ve been doing some formulating for them. With a little luck, there will be a new line of balms on the supermarket shelves soon.

Elizabeth, that’s great news, I can’t wait to see what’s coming out of your formulations lab!  Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with Soapy Hollow and it’s readers.   We’ve been talking to Elizabeth Carnahan from Longcroft Soaperies, who offers a limited edition of her soaps and balms here, and operates Gracefruit.com which offers fragrance oils and raw materials.

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