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Soap star - Running a small business in the New Forest

Catherine Shutler is the owner of Cyril’s Soap Shed and makes a range of soaps from goat’s milk. Here, Catherine shares her experiences of setting up a business in the New Forest with the help of the New Forest Marque.

I’ve always wanted to run my own business, but I never quite knew what I wanted to do and I didn't have the finances or the guts to give up full time work in the HGV industry.

My chance came when I went on maternity leave with my first baby - I decided not to go back to work and to be a full-time mum. However after my second baby, I soon realised I needed to work and as leaving my children wasn't an option to me I had to find something to do from home.

I decided that as well as my fruit and veg gardens we should get some goats for milk. I quickly learnt how to make cheese with the milk but I needed another use for the milk as there was so much left over after the cheese making. I discovered goat’s milk soap was becoming popular, and so set about learning soap making too!
xmas fair
At first it didn't occur to me to start a business with it but one of my friends suggested I sold my soap and so I looked into the rules and regs. Once I was compliant I went to my first show at the Hamptworth estate on the northern edge of the New Forest. The soaps sold well, I received lots of positive feedback, and the business was born.

This was my first business venture and I knew nothing about how to run a business. I knew I had to advertise it, market it, and most importantly sell my soaps, but I had no idea where to start! I built a small website, which was completely out of my comfort zone, but I couldn't afford to pay anyone to do it.

I put my website details on relevant online directories, but I wasn't really generating sales – I needed to get out there in person! I started doing some farmers markets, but found them quite daunting and, like most people selling their own products, I hated it at first. I was so self-conscious. I realised that although the markets that I was attending were generating sales, they were too big for me and I needed to build slowly and more local.

I went to look around a small New Forest market and found everyone so friendly and helpful. I got chatting to John and Jenny Howat from Howat’s Hives, who invited me to the next market as a stall holder. In that one market, chatting to the other producers I learnt so much about running a business. Everyone had been new to it at some point like me, and they all had stories to tell about good things to do, or not to do. I gave up the bigger markets, and attended all of the New Forest markets.

dWhile smaller, these markets felt more relaxed and were great for a beginner like me. My confidence grew in being able to talk to people about my product, and all the stallholders worked as a team, covering each other’s stalls for breaks.

I worked out quickly the best way to advertise my soaps was to get out and about and talk to customers. A few people had mentioned the New Forest Marque to me, and so I contacted Sarah Hunt (New Forest Marque Manager) who came to chat with me. My soaps met the criteria, which say that a minimum of 25 per cent of the product’s ingredients have to be local produce from the Forest. My soaps all contain at least 34 per cent goat’s milk from our own goats. Sarah explained that being a Marque member I would be able to be in the Marque directory of producers, and I would be eligible to attend courses and events, and have discounts on pitch fees at certain shows. It sounded really good, and so I joined.

The Marque has given me leads for outlets to sell my soaps, including shops, hotels and B&B's. I still have to do the hard work myself, but the initial introductions are done, making it slightly easier!

cyrils soap

My first big show was the New Forest Show, and I wouldn't have been able to do it without the help from the Marque. The local produce area is only Marque and Hampshire Fare members, and I knew most of the other stall holders. It helped make what can be a very daunting process quite relaxed and it has given me the confidence to do other major shows and events all around the UK.  

The Marque members all help each other out and support each other as much as possible. All the honey I use in my honey soaps is from Howatt’s Hives, I swap soaps with Calendula Organics in return for dried calendual petals which I use in my soaps, and I borrow tractors from Lyburn Farm to move the hay in return for a couple of bottles of home brew!

I now thoroughly enjoy everything about my business and I have learnt all about goat keeping and milking, as well as soap making. Weekends are spent at markets and shows, and I love talking to customers about goats, soap and the Forest.

Cyril's Soap Shed is now a flourishing full-time business, which is growing all the time. Without the help of New Forest Marque, all the producers at the markets, the customers, and my brilliant husband and family I would never have had the confidence or know how to get this far. If anyone is thinking about starting their own business here I would say go for it! It’s not easy, takes up far more time than a 9-5, but the rewards far outweigh that. There is plenty of help and advice out there, not least from the New Forest Marque.

Find out more about the Marque at www.newforestmarque.co.uk and meet Marque members at events across the New Forest this summer.

This entry was posted by Matt Stroud on Thursday 17/04/2014

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