Once again, we have made it to Friday Eve or Throwback Thursday if one follows social media trends. I will go with the Throwback Thursday theme today. It’s difficult to process that we attended our first Ligonier Country Market in 2017, six years ago. It’s also hard to believe that I have been making soap for seven years, and we have had goats for eight years. I never saw myself as a goat farmer. I love animals of all kinds, but I never thought I would be a full-time farmer or small business owner.
I attended the Ligonier Country Market as a customer in 2014. My friend and I went and made a day of it. I remember we got lost, totally missed the exits, flew by the signs, and ended up a half hour or so out of the way in the opposite direction of the market. We have a habit of talking and not paying attention to anything but our conversation when we ride together. After finally finding our way to the market, I walked around in awe of all the talented vendors. I had a feeling, an intuition if you will, that the Ligonier Country Market was where I belonged. However, at that time, I was not making soap or anything else for that matter. I just knew it felt like a place I wanted to become a part of and enjoy. Ironically, I never went back to the market. However, I tucked away the feeling of wanting to be part of that community and kept it close.
Fast forward to 2016. I had just begun my soap-making journey. I talked to Nathan, the owner of Back to Nature, and he agreed to sell my soap in his store. I was becoming comfortable with the idea of selling my soap, and at that point, the possibilities seemed endless. I went through many phases in the early stages of our business. I initially thought I wanted to open a little soap boutique, maybe something here on the farm. As always, the bib overall wearing nay-sayer I married felt that was a bad idea. The Bibbed Wonder worked away a lot back then, and the idea of strangers coming to the farm made him uneasy. He reminded me that one of the things we loved about our farm was our seclusion. Eric felt that having a store on the farm would ruin our peace and privacy. I grudgingly concurred.
I then thought my main focus should be on wholesale accounts. After all, how easy is it to make a product, box it up, mail it out, and not worry about making sales? Wholesale seemed like the correct answer. Again, The Bibbed Wonder questioned my decision. He asked me why I would want to sell my products for half price to someone else when I could sell my products myself for the retail price. With my limited perspective, traditional selling methods seemed like my only option.
Eric proposed a website or online store. I had no experience with building a website or online sales. I turned to my friend’s computer-savvy son to get me started. He spent the day with me, taking pictures and putting together the foundation of a click-and-drag website. My first attempt at building an online store looked a little rough and amateurish, but it sufficed. Eventually, The Bibbed Wonder, who has a minor in computer science, took the time to tweak and refine it. For a year or more, each time I received an online order, I would clap and say, “Well, the website paid for itself this month!” I now roll my eyes and laugh at the low bar I set for myself.
My greatest fear when I began this journey was doing something stupid that would cost our family a ton of money. I read books and online articles and joined small business forums for insight and guidance. My goal was to keep everything in-house, not use credit, not take out loans, and work within the confines of my budget. I sold things I thought I needed to make me happy to fund my little endeavor. I did everything by hand. I printed my own labels on the computer, cleaned all the bars by hand, worked in my kitchen, and sat for hours sticking labels onto boxes I had built by hand. Sometimes Eric, Jordan, or my friends would come and help me, and sometimes I worked alone. Eric helped me as much as possible while working 50-60 hours a week and maintaining the farm. I could not have done this without him.
I eventually took the leap and signed up to sell my soap at a two-day local show. It was my first show and almost my last. The show’s website claimed a crowd of 50,000 or more. These numbers may have been accurate at the peak of the show’s popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, but it was a far cry from correct in 2016. I sat for two days, bored out of my mind. The other vendors, who were well-seasoned in the craft show world, were grumbling and unhappy. Two good things came out of this experience. One, I met Bill Gillard. Bill traveled the country selling organic handmade jewelry and was an endless well of information for all things show-related. He shared insider tips for a successful setup, equipment to buy, apps to use, pricing, logos, tents, display ideas, and financial advice. Bill was a God send. I also met the mother-in-law of one of my first customers, who became a loved friend. I would never have met Leslie if it weren’t for that disappointing show. I made enough money to cover my table fee but not much more. However, I walked away with two good friends, a lot of helpful information, and a reality check to not always believe what you read about vendor shows.
It took me a while to recover from the disappointment of that failed show. However, I eventually decided to get back up on the live show horse and check out the Ligonier Country Market. The Bibbed Wonder, The Bean, and I went to the market to check it out. We arrived early and simply walked around, taking things in and observing. It was as lovely as I remembered. I talked to a few friendly vendors about the setup fee, the process, and the ability to get in as a vendor. I also inquired about the crowd and sales. Everyone had positive things to say. With that, I went home and applied as a casual vendor.
We were accepted as vendors, and I signed up to sell my soaps every other week. Eric was a tremendous help to me in figuring out this process. Even though he was working full time, had the farm to maintain, and was gone more often than not, he helped me figure out my setup, purchase what I needed, and made me practice setting up and taking down so we “wouldn’t look like “posers” when we attended our first show.” I get annoyed with him, but most of the time, I am grateful he is anal-retentive over things I am not. My big concern was making our tent inviting, interesting, and pretty. He was concerned about making the process easy and having a routine to follow. We were successful on both fronts. Our neighbors could not believe we were first-time vendors because our setup went so smoothly, and our display looked good. That year, I was a bundle of nerves, but it was my first lesson in conducting myself like a professional, no matter how inexperienced I felt.
It took some time for us to gain footing at the Ligonier Country Market. I distinctly remember the first time we “broke the $200 mark.” I called GramBarb and excitedly announced we had made over $200 in one show. I was beside myself and could not believe that many people had bought my products. It was a good feeling. An even better feeling was when people would return to purchase my soaps and tell me how much they loved my products. Not only did they love my creations, but my products were also helping people. A few weeks later, One of my first customers returned to tell me that my facial products had cleared her rosacea. She asked if she could hug me, and I was over the moon. I just saw her last week as she stocked up on facial products. She has been a faithful follower from the beginning, making my heart full.
We are now in season seven of the Ligonier Country Market. My intuition was correct; it is a place I feel I belong. I now consider my fellow vendors, the director, and the customers part of my family. Some of my dearest friends have been made at the Ligonier Country Market. This community of makers is supportive, insightful, kind, uplifting, honest, and helpful. I know if I needed anything at all, I could count on these amazing people to be there for my family and me. I continue to be nervous during the first few shows of every season, but it is a good sign when one cares enough to be nervous. My goals have changed, I have raised the bar for myself and our company, but my philosophy has remained unchanged. I believe that there are enough chemical-laden products on the market. People should have a choice as to what they put on their bodies. As the years have passed, I recognize that my products are not for everyone, which is okay. For those who like my products, support my family and company, and have become part of my soap family, I will move mountains for you. I will never cut corners, use cheaper ingredients, or fill my products with anything I wouldn’t allow my child to put on her body. I will always treat you the way I would want to be treated. That is my golden standard. For you, I am grateful.
On this smoke-filled sky Thursday, stay safe, be smart, remember your journey, appreciate those who have helped you along the way, and keep washing your hands.