Interview with Michelle Forrest of Townsend and Main Soap Co.

Hello Friends,

When you see a photo of Michelle Forrest, the owner of Townsend and Main Soap Company, you see a woman with an infectious smile and a love for what she does every single day. When I look at her photo I see so much more, I see myself. I see myself for a multitude of reasons, she has a successful soap business that I am working hard to have, but also because she is my long-lost aunt that I just recently found.

Michelle and Ernie of Townsend and Main Soap Co.

Our story begins about 6 months ago when I started looking online to see if my mother had any siblings from her biological parents. I soon stumbled upon a marriage license that had Michelle’s name on it and listed my biological grandmother as her mother as well. I could not believe what I was seeing!!! I did not expect to find anything but here was a half sister that lived about 30 minutes from my mother! My mother grew up as an only child and didn’t know her biological mother so when I told her she had a sister, she was amazed. I reached out to Michelle to let her know that she had a sister, not knowing how she would react and she welcomed us into her life with open arms. After getting to know each other, we could not ignore all of the coincidences in our lives like all of us having August birthdays, how much the 3 of us look alike, and that Michelle and I both have soap businesses!!

I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Michelle and learn all about her thriving soap business, Townsend and Main Soap Company, how she got her start, and where she is headed from here.

Tell me a little bit about how you started with Townsend & Main, sort of an overview…. 
T&M started brewing in my mind after a vacation and discovering a big box store with handcrafted natural soaps.  The seed was planted and I was buying handcrafted soaps every chance I got.  Months later, I decided that I could make my own.  I started making soap for personal use and that seed that was planted months earlier blossomed and I decided to sell my soaps.  I wavered back and forth and finally booked a craft show, then another and another and ta-da……here we are.  

How did you come up with the name, Townsend & Main?  
I looked into many names and all of the “Michelle” names were already taken or not exactly, what I wanted.  I then looked into “Forrest” type names and none of those appealed to me.  Townsend is the street I grew up on and where I got my start in life.  Main is the street that I now live on and where my life began after my divorce, and where this business was born and got its start.  Townsend & Main Soap Co. felt right.  

You left a steady job in order to pursue this business.  You just took a leap of faith.  What was that like? 
I was working in the “real world” and running my business on the side doing weekend shows and midnight soap making marathons. My “real” job with a steady pay was not healthy.  I was working crazy hours, on call more days than not, my health was suffering, I was having panic attacks, not sleeping, not eating properly and had little to no time for my family.   I took a 2-week leave of absence and noticed that I was sleeping better, not getting daily migraines, and was overall happier.  I was making soap daily and working on the business.  It was so much more than a leap of faith.  It was the most frightening, exhilarating decision.  I changed my mind countless times in those 2 weeks but in my heart, I knew it was time to leave the steady job and devote myself to trying to make this business succeed

Beautiful display of products at a local market

Why soaps?  What made you pick soaps?
I have always been crafty and have a passion for creating. While we were on vacation, we were in a big box store and discovered handmade soaps and fell in love with the way those soaps felt.  I loved the way my skin felt.  I was totally hooked.  When we came home, I started noticing handcrafted soaps and buying them more and more.  I loved that they were natural.  I loved that I could pronounce the ingredients and talk with the makers.  I started making my own and realized that my soaps were as good as those I was buying at shows, so I took a leap of faith (my first of many) and signed up for a craft show, and then another and another, and then ….. here we are.  

You mentioned that you have more or less a “benchmark” for doing well and that will determine if you go back to a regular job or not.  What is that benchmark and how did you reach it? 
My benchmark is that the company has to support me financially by the first of the year.  Understanding that there will be ebbs and flows in any business is a given, but, honestly, I am not independently wealthy and cannot live off my savings forever, so …. the business has to make enough money to pay the bills.  If I don’t reach that benchmark, then I will look into part time employment and continue to grow the business by whatever means necessary.  The first of the year will be a little over 6 months.  I am aware that the timeline is aggressive, but I feel good about it.  

How have the experiences that you have had during your entire career influenced the way you now run your own company? 
My background is 30+ years in the legal field, with office experience in bookkeeping and a handful of other odds and ends.  I run my company with an eye toward growth and the legalities that are involved in growth.  On a day-to-day basis, the business is always run with an eye on the bottom line.  If we can do it in house, we do.  If we can build it ourselves we do.  Every purchase is considered carefully before it is made.  Production of products is in small batches so that we can gauge the popularity of it before committing to it long term.  We shop our competitors to see what they are offering and at what price point.  Every product is researched and once we agree to make it, it is tested in house and with testers before it reached the public.  I typically work 6 days a week but have the flexibility to still spend time with family.  My prior jobs demanded total dedication and allowed little time or tolerance for family.  Family is of the utmost importance to me and I make sure that I have time for family and those I love.  

I know that you do everything independently.  But do you ever bring someone on to help you with a big project or a big market? 
At this time, Ernie is my sidekick for shows.  However, there are shows that I do on my own.  I do rely on my family to help out when needed, even if it is something as simple as loading the car or helping with set up.  At this time, we are self-sufficient.  Ernie helps with production on occasion; he is my builder of signs, display stands and other items.  He has a strong background in marketing and web design so we share those responsibilities.  

How do you select the businesses that carry your products?  
We were very fortunate in that the first business to carry our product is a woman run business, which is run by a woman that I greatly admire.  She is a cheerleader for everyone she meets.  She encourages people and no matter what is going on in her world, she always had a smile.  She was a customer of mine when I worked in water mitigation and we became friends.  She encouraged and supported my business decisions and offered me a spot in her store.  Other locations have been selected based on what they have to offer, the shop owner, the location, access to the shop, traffic patterns, their social media, their reputation in the community, business hours and overall vibe of the shop.  I have to like and respect the business owner and the deal that they are offering.  There has to be room for us to grow in their show as our business grows.  

How do you select the markets that you go to?
Initially, we picked shows and events based on date, location.  We have learned that first time events are usually not as successful as events that have a history and a following.  We are now more selective in our shows, even if it means a weekend without a show.  We listen to other vendors and their experience with shows and venues.  Due to family issues, we do not travel much more than an hour from home.  We look at the history of the host of events, the venue and the reputation of the venue and also look at what other vendors will be there.  Of course, we also look at the date of the event and if it is indoors or out.  An outside event in December in Ohio is probably not going to be one we attend.  

How are things going in your company in general?  Are you hiring, downsizing, or staying where you are?  Are you expanding? 
At this time, we are focused on growing our business and would like to have our own retail establishment.  We are still in our infancy and not ready to hire employees. 

What is it like working with your partner?  How do you keep that divide? 
He has a job in the real world that he gets to go to everyday.  During the week, he is limited as to what he can do here.  But he does research, works on the website, and behind the scenes things.  He has Wednesdays off from his job and we have recently declared that as “date day” where we just spend the day together, focused on us, not the business.  The weekends are dedicated to events and soapy things.  We keep communication open between us and are focused on our relationship and the business.  When I started this business, he was supportive but not overly involved.  He would go to shows with me but was more of a behind the scenes guy.  Since then, somewhere along the line, he got hooked and is all in.  Him having an outside job is our saving grace.  It gives us balance and perspective.  

Clove and Black Amber soap

Could you describe a typical day? 
A typical day starts with coffee.  Nothing happens without my lifeblood!  Coffee, emails, social media, shower, production.  Production can be soaps, bath bombs, lotions, beard balm, candles, and wax melts, whatever we need.  Or it can be packaging product, product research, ordering supplies, or visiting our retail locations to restock.  I am out of the production area around 5 to start dinner and spend a little time with family.  Then I am often back at it after 8 updating social media, following up on emails, reading  and researching new products or techniques, new supplies, suppliers and the like.  Mondays are usually a more relaxed day after a weekend of events.  

What advice would you give to someone who is considering starting a business similar to yours?  Someone who is thinking of doing what you did.
I took jujitsu lessons for a while and our coach always said, “The way you train is the way you fight”.  The message was clear.  Train properly and it will become second nature.  I have carried those words with me and apply them to my business.  Instead of not tracking inventory, I have tracked it from day one.  Instead of taking shortcuts because we were new at this, we looked at how successful businesses did thing and adopted those from the beginning.  Simple things, we have a cash-box.  Every show starts with the exact same amount of change in it.  At the end of a show, once we get home, we count the drawer, take out the change for the next show and match the receipts to our records.  My advice is simple, thing big because you will be as big as you think you are.   Ask those who have gone before you, they will share their success stories and their failures.  And most importantly, be a cheerleader for other businesses and other business owners.

You can find all of Michelle’s pages here

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