How (And Why) I Quit My Job To Become A SoapMaker, Part I

When I graduated from law school, and then passed the Maryland Bar Exam on the first take, I was a happy camper. Not only had I made my parents proud, but my hard work and dedication had resulted in the achievement of my goal of becoming a practicing attorney. Not only that, I had majored in Journalism, Public Relations and Telecommunications law, so my background uniquely qualified me to take advantage of the next thousand years of technical innovation. I was ready to rise through the ranks. My next goal was to learn enough about the business side of things to become an executive at a tech company.

soap with lavender

But a funny thing happened on the way to the corner office: I discovered how to make soap. I know, I know. How weird is that? Well, turns out it's not so weird after all. It happens all the time these days. But back then, it was practically unheard of. And that's what makes it all the more interesting. Here's Part One of the story of how I quit my job to become a soapmaker.

  1. The beginning. It all began when I found a bar of lemon scented soap at the Smile Herb Shop in College Park, Maryland, near my hometown of Washington, DC. I lifted it to my nose and fell in love. I read the back label and saw that it was handmade at New York-based SunFeather Natural Soap Co., whose CEO, Sandy Maine, had once been an Adirondack mountain guide.

    Up until that moment, just about the only things I ever thought of making by hand were either food or pot holders. (You know the ones.) Hmmmm. If Sandy could make soap by hand, couldn't I?

  2. The kit. Within a few days, I had contacted Sandy's office and purchased a SunFeather Soapmaking Kit, lemon scented of course. It came with pre-measured lemon essential oil, coconut oil, olive oil and palm oil. There was also a detailed instruction pamphlet, along with a packet of lye, a wooden spoon for stirring, and a thermometer. It was packaged in a sturdy box that doubled as a mold for the soap I would make.

    Unable to control myself, I stayed up until 3:00am making soap. I poured it into the mold, and covered it with every blanket I had (because you need to keep handmade soap warm during “gel phase,” while it hardens), and waited patiently. Two days later, I had a big block of lemon scented soap. And the entire world knew it too, because I gave everyone I knew a piece of it. (Most people thought they were little blocks of cheese. LOL!)

  3. The compulsion. For most, that would have been enough, right? Make something new, have a bit of fun on a rainy day and go back to making a living doing your job, right? Not for me.

    From that day forward, every moment I was not working was spent making soap, cutting soap, looking at soap, thinking about soap, using soap, analyzing soap, looking for molds for soap, talking about soap, e-Grouping (remember e-groups?) about soap, and yes, even licking soap (you soapers know what I mean, admit it!!). It was a compulsion. I was at a complete loss to explain it.

  4. The reality. After a few months, the reality set in. Soapmaking was destined to be a part of my life. Through a series of phone calls, I found the late, great Nancy Brown Manville in Grapeland, Texas. (Who knew?) Nancy helped me improve my soapmaking skills.

    But this whole soapmaking thing was about more than a hobby or a useful consumer product. It was about my life.

    It was about creativity and the confidence . About the joy of making something amazing from a few simple ingredients. About how a woman thousands of miles away in a tiny town could teach a big city girl something new about the world and about herself. About how even a well-paying job might not be enough if it did not make you happy to perform it. About how a woman discovering a new skill could turn into a woman discovering another new skill, and eventually helping another woman discover a new skill. About how no matter how much money you make, if you are not fulfilled in the task that produces the cash, life is drained of much of its meaning.

  5. The reality was that if I could not make soap more than I practiced law, I was not going to be happy in my life. But what to do?

  6. The time had come. By then, I had practiced law for nearly a decade. I had developed expertise in employment law, commercial litigation, products liability, negligence, intellectual property, contracts and more. I had worked for a small city law firm, a big international law firm and worldwide Fortune 500 corporation. And just as I was poised for the corner office I had always dreamed of, I decided to quit.

    Yep, quit my job to become a soapmaker, and I opened my own little soap store in historic Takoma Park. (Read the news story.)

I was on cloud nine, and I wasn't sure exactly why. I kind of figured I would make and sell soap for the rest of my life. If Sandy could make a living doing it, why couldn't I?

Well, as it turns out, there are about a trillion reasons why, and they're for the next post in the series.

Question: If you are a soapmaker, how did you learn to make soap? What was your soaping story?

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About Donna Maria Coles Johnson

Donna Maria is an author, podcaster, attorney, and the founder and CEO of the Indie Business Network, providing affordable product liability insurance and mentoring. Donna Maria teaches Makers and Creative Entrepreneurs how to use technology and community to build a profitable, sustainable business.