Life is coming up roses—sweet-smelling soap roses, that is—for Fanwood resident Ellen Cagnassola, a wife, mother of two, and the self-titled “SEO” (Soap Executive Officer) of
Sweet Soaps, a successful web-based wholesaler of novelty and custom-made soaps.
The New Jersey native started making soap as a fun, craft project in 1998, just when the Internet was starting to take hold of the business-to-business landscape. Little did she know that her part-time hobby would lead to a full-fledged company, that one of her best-selling products would be featured in the December issue of Real Simple magazine, and that her humorous blog and Twitter tweets would bubble up an interesting side career.
“Originally, I wanted to stay home with my kids, and soap making seemed like it had a lot of creative possibilities so I started experimenting with it,” explained Cagnassola. “I have a background in art, but I don’t have an MBA and didn’t know anything about marketing. Sometimes ignorance is bliss and knowing very little kind of helped me. So I built a very small, basic Web site. My intent was really to create interesting, unique soaps and sell them retail.”
Through trial and error, Cagnassola perfected her melt and pour soap-making technique, adding interesting colors and fragrances to the clear glycerin base and molding the bars into non-traditional shapes, including her company symbol, the fleur de lis. After what felt like years “working for cheap or free,” the Sweet Soaps Web site and its original, hand-made product offerings were discovered by stores across the country that wanted to purchase the soaps wholesale, and the bulk of Cagnassola’s business shifted. In 2003, the company landed sales to two catalog giants, Neiman Marcus and Horchow, and after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005, several stores in New Orleans signed on with Sweet Soaps, anxious to restock shelves with Cagnassola’s fleur de lis products. To fill orders, the SEO was producing over 1,000 bars of soap a week—all in her tidy, basement studio.
Sweet Soaps was also fortunate enough to win the attention of two television programmers as well, who both found the retailer through Internet searches. In 2006, Cagnassola created custom logo soaps for “Two and a Half Men” and “The Ellen Degeneres Show.”
Cagnassola continued to stretch her creative limits, inventing new techniques, gimmicks, and injecting humor into her products to further set Sweet Soaps apart from the competition. While other soap manufacturers were merely producing embossed soaps, Cagnassola figured out how to embed a full-color image into the center of the bar, ensuring the photo or message would last until the very last soap bubble popped. She also found an alternative way to cater to the holiday décor market and dreamt up “Santa’s Coal Soap” (which will be featured in Real Simple magazine), “Snowman Poop Soap,” “Ghost Poop Soap,” and “Bacon” soap, which smells faintly like bacon with heavier smoky, maple syrup top notes.
“The bacon soap started out as a joke,” Cagnassola said. “I started using social media to brand myself and get my Web site out there, and I use humor a lot in the things that I tweet and say online. One night I joked about making bacon soap. It sounded disgusting to me, but all of a sudden I had all these people responding to me and begging me for it. The next thing I knew it became a viral bacon campaign.”
Cagnassola’s humorous, off-hand remark resulted in one of her hottest-selling soap products, a feature on baconlive.com, and a 4-D bacon soap sculpture commission that she is creating for an art show in Philadelphia. The Sweet Soaps project will look like a pig and smell like bacon.
What’s next for the busy entrepreneur? According to the SEO, it’s more soap, as well as two potential side-businesses that she has just begun to dabble in. Cagnassola’s latest art creation is a recycled paper, molded wall hanging that’s as light and sturdy as Styrofoam. She is also devoting more of her time to two new clients who have hired the comedic writer and self-taught marketing guru to create Twitter campaigns for them.
“The best things that happen to me are always by accident,” Cagnassola said. “Believe me, in between those happy accidents I’m just like everyone else stressing out about what’s the next move. I don’t think about Sweet Soaps like a business, and I don’t want to become a huge soap conglomerate. It’s just this crazy, fun thing that I do. I never said I want to make ‘X’ amount of dollars. When you’re able to do what fulfills you and you can take care of your responsibilities as a mom and a wife and everything that goes with it, that’s success to me.”