Harmony Soapworks has the uncanny ability to transport you places: to a lavender farm, the seashore, an old-growth forest, breathing in the flora and mists … all without leaving the tub.
Despite her penchant for the craft, for owner, Diana Thompson, soapmaking wasn’t always the plan. She and her husband had been employed elsewhere but were looking to own their own business, so they joined the business management program at a local community college. It was there that their advisor and fellow classmates inspired them to start making and selling soap.
Harmony Soapworks got its start at festivals and farmers markets but expanded when the Thompsons relocated to Pacific County in 1999. With the peninsula as their home base, Diana sells her soap through distributors and her online shop. But you can still find their PNW-inspired soaps, like Ancient Forest and Scurvy Dog Wash, at the local shops.
How did Harmony Soapworks go from a booth at a festival to being found in shops as far away as Japan? Diana clued us in on the secrets to her success:
Why did you choose to start a business in Pacific County?
In 1997, my husband and I started the soap company in Portland, OR. We both had regular jobs but would run the soap company on the side, working festivals and farmers markets.
We had been to the peninsula before and liked it a lot. We came down to sell at the Garlic Festival and did that a few times. Then, ultimately, we bought a place here. The economy was good, and we had lots of conversations with our business advisor along the way. We sold our soap in the early days of the farmers markets in Ilwaco and Astoria.
We said we’d give ourselves a year to see if it’d stick. Well, that was in 1999.
If you had one piece of advice to offer someone starting a business in Pacific County, what would it be?
Get into a community college and take a business class. And make sure it’s a class with a good advisor.
I’ve seen too many businesses where people start them and they just don’t last. Having an advisor who understands your business and helps you through tough times makes all the difference.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
We looked and looked for businesses to buy and couldn’t find anything that really fit or that we could afford. Someone in the business class had a little sideline business doing soap; we got into it through them and figured: Okay, let’s see where this goes.
How did you come up with the name for your business?
The business class again. The facility where we took the class was on Harmony Road. We came up with three or four different names and had our class vote. That’s how we came up with Harmony Soap Works.
A woman in our class was a graphic artist, and she designed our first logo. There were many resourceful people in that class: one was a third-generation business owner, one was in a start-up company, etc. There was so much to learn from everybody.
How do you define success?
Financial success but also recognition. When people say “I really like your product”, that makes me feel like a success. So that kind of positive feedback, and being able to keep moving forward and try new things.
What is unique about your business?
We’re very different from the majority of soapmakers. If you look at a bar of handmade soap at the farmers market, it’ll have rough, uneven sides. Ours doesn’t.
In 2002, we started building a relationship with a Japanese-based company that has numerous shops throughout the country. And in Japan, soap is cosmetic and highly regulated. This forced us to be precise. So we have molds to maintain consistency. The bars are always the same size and the same weight.
And rather than doing a lot of little batches, we’re good at large-scale production. Though we still make a variety of scents for the farmer’s market.
So we’re a manufacturer and a production shop. Very different from where we came from, only selling soap at the farmers market.
How do you view your role in the community?
We’re a part of the community.. I do some volunteer work, and I feel like we contribute to the community with this business. I pay my employees, who shop at local stores. And when fundraisers hit us up for baskets, we’re always happy to donate.
If you had to do it all again, is there anything you’d do differently?
I would have wanted to be a good salesperson, or have gotten help from a good salesperson, to get my product into more local shops. Like in Astoria and along the coast. We make soaps for a couple of companies already, but it’s nice to get into shops where more people can see the product.
I also would’ve listened to my business advisor more. Not that I didn’t, but I would’ve hung on to every word he said.
Thinking about starting a business in Pacific County? Here are key takeaways from Diana’s experience:
- Sign up for business classes at a nearby college and build a support network with your fellow students.
- Explore all your options; you never know where you’ll end up.
- Find a great advisor you can learn from and turn to when you face challenges.
- Practice sales or find a great salesperson to help you expand your business.