‘I’d Never Seen Someone Cry Over Soap’
DavID Simnick is busy growing a man bun.
‘I really want to know, from a shoulder-length type of hair, what it feels like to test the different types of shampoo products we’re bringing to the market. I think I have the most legit excuse ever to have one.’
In 2009, Dave [pictured above right] graduated from American University and began working as a subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development. Although great strides were being made in global water and sanitation work, he noticed less of a focus on hygiene.
Dave called his childhood best friend, Eric, who was a business student at Purdue. Together, they came up with the original concept for Soapbox—a social-mission soap company and economic engine that would provide the resources to improve global hygiene.
With a vision in place, Dave returned to DC to alumni audit an entrepreneurship class. There, Daniel Doll—a college acquaintance—was finishing his senior year.
‘The end deliverable for the class was to write a business plan,’ Dan says. ‘Eric was in a similar class at Purdue, doing a similar project. Dave and I took our business plan, fused it with Eric’s, and officially created Soapbox in 2010.’
For every product purchased, the idea was to donate the equivalent to a developing country. But social-mission soap was not a familiar concept. Dave and Dan spent nights and weekends spreading the word on their passion project. Eventually, they scored their first major retailer—a new Whole Foods store opening in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania.
‘They basically said you’ve got this theory you’ve been bugging us about relentlessly for a year, so go out and prove it,’ Dan says. ‘We spent a lot of time standing in Whole Foods aisles throwing soap in people’s carts. We were selling in a weekend what the average soap brand would sell in a year.’
‘I think the biggest thing for us was, I’d never seen someone cry over soap,’ Dave says. ‘We were so excited about what we were doing and that excitement transferred. That really affected the whole team.’
Soapbox was approved for distribution throughout the Whole Foods Mid-Atlantic region, Dave driving his SUV full of soap from Ohio to Virginia every weekend. By 2013—after countless calls and car trips—the company went national. Their big break came later that year when they pitched to Target.
‘We were selling a product with a shrink sleeve, like how Yoo-hoo is packaged,’ Dan recalls. You need to apply heat evenly to have it shrink to the size it needs to be. We didn’t have any implement to do that. We had our rental car and drove out to Target to buy a hair dryer, a heat gun and a steam iron, and tried with the samples we had to apply them to the bottles. We showed up to the meeting with these arts and crafts projects we were doing an hour ago. The buyer—a very stoic Millennial—paused, picked it up and looked at it, and was like, ‘I’ve seen worse.’’
It was good enough. After a short trial, Soapbox officially launched with Target in 2015. The following year—a small staff now in tow—they moved into their Georgetown office on 33rd Street.
Today, Soapbox is sold in 55,000 points of distribution across the U.S.
‘In those pitch meetings, you have 30 minutes—an hour if you’re lucky, 10 minutes if you’re unlucky,’ Dan says. ‘We would come in and say hey, you’ve got plenty of people you can buy soap from, but if you want to create a partnership, we’re the brand. Together we can do a lot of good and help save a lot of lives.’
‘We’ve always been David and Goliath, going up against P&G, which is the largest advertising company in the world,’ adds Dave. ‘It’s incredibly humbling, scary, and thrilling.’
Soapbox both sources and produces its products nationally. Dan and Dave test everything (thus, the man bun), and say they’ve built a brand based on being thoughtful—from product design to price point and (lack of) toxins.
A unique ‘Hope Code’ is on the back of each product, which customers can enter on their website to see exactly where their donation went. It’s a way for Soapbox to lend transparency to its partners and customers, while also enveloping them in the mission.
Most often, Dan and Dave donate by way of funding local NGOs, who then fund their own artisans.
‘Imagine you’re a soap maker in Northern India,’ Dave says. ‘The last thing you want is Dan popping out of a shipping container with 40,000 bars of soap. It’s not good for you, and it’s going to teach the community at large to not worry about buying local because we’re just going to come and give it for free. This is a far more sustainable model, with a lower carbon footprint because we don’t have to ship. And we don’t want to have to be in this role. The idea is to empower a community with either its awareness or financial restraint or whatever it may be. By enabling a community to know where they can they can buy these products, and hopefully through both the hygiene and the education, that becomes a more stable part of their hygiene practices.’
The Soapbox model for giving is nimble. In a handful of medical clinics outside of Nairobi, for example, the cost of soap is subsidized down to the equivalent of a U.S. penny.
‘They still want their patients to associate value with purchasing something like a bar of soap, but they want to make it incredibly accessible,’ Dave says. ‘Some people are like, ‘you say you’re doing one-for-one donations, but someone in that country still has to go out and buy soap.’ Yes, but we also don’t know that community like our NGO partners who have boots on the ground. We don’t think we should have a dogmatic approach. It’s always with an understanding of service. We are there as a partner to serve, not as a savior. We do not go into the countries in which we’re welcomed thinking we know best. Often times the solutions are there, but can you actually listen and become a partner? Can the solutions be delivered and created by the community you’re serving?’
Dan and Dave are incredibly selective with their partners, and have traveled to Haiti, East Africa, West Africa, and India—in addition to U.S.-based homeless shelters and food pantries—to see the respective programs firsthand.
To date, the company has donated nearly 3 million bars of soap—saving potentially hundreds of lives.
‘If you look at what washing your hands with a bar of soap and clean water can do to reduce acute respiratory diseases and diarrhea, which is one of the top five reasons for death for children under 5, it’s phenomenal,’ Dave says. ‘When you’re dealing with Ebola or something like that, the first line of defense is how strong is hand-washing in that culture.’
As Soapbox looks to expand even further, their mission has never wavered: Delivering a quality product that provides a sense of hope with every sale, while respecting the dignity of the people they serve.
‘I was in Haiti, making sure our wash programs were being managed properly, and a little kid runs up and gives me a high five, and he literally had soap suds on his hand,’ Dave says. ‘That trip was the first time I truly saw that there is a face to our work. We always wanted to have Soapbox be like getting a high five from a little kid. That feeling of warmth and joy, that you’re truly making a difference, is really hard to convey when you’re picking up shampoo at the store. But that is in fact what you’re doing.’