Howly Dog, Growly Dog (alternately titled: Boundaries)

I told you the happy version of the story. Now it’s time for reality. We learned a LOT of lessons the hard way with this project and have definitely counted the wisdom gained as the most valuable profit to come out of the whole thing.

Our very biggest problem was that we totally ignored our own boundaries because we were so excited about the largeness and high profile- ness of this request for dog soap.

Tip #1: Know your boundaries and state them plainly. Soap takes 4 weeks to cure. Period. There is no getting around that. When a customer calls and requests thousands of bars of soap in less than three weeks, my response should be nothing short of “NO”. It’s impossible. I knew that was a boundary with handmade soap, but I also didn’t want to lose the order. I figured that if I made it all in the first week, it could sit for two weeks with a dehumidifier and be fine. I also knew that it would have plenty of time to cure before it actually made it to anyone who was going to wash with it.

One other small boundary we ignored: my current handicap, aka pregnancy. Small detail, I know. But we forgot to calculate that a very very pregnant lady cannot lift heavy jugs of oils or heavy pots of soap or heavy molds filled with soap. And even if I could, doing all that myself would take way more than 3 weeks because I’m big and slow at this point.

What are your boundaries? Timelines, pricing, minimums, payment schedules, details, details, details. Think about it and write it down! What is a reasonable time line for your business? What is the best competitive pricing you can offer (remember to pay yourself!)? What is the smallest amount of work/product that will make the project worth your time? When and how do you expect to be paid? What are you going to do if you are paid late? To establish boundaries, go through a project for your business, in your mind, start to finish. If you know any super anal retentive people, you should enlist their help in this. Try to imagine every little detail that may need to be covered and cover it. This will establish good communication between you and your client. You can never assume that any small detail is common knowledge for anyone. People are crazy.

For instance: a photographer should have already written out and stated their sitting fee and how many photos/poses that includes. That’s the very bottom line. But what if you have a client that wants all ten poses to be in different outfits for their one year old? Have you already established a limit on the number of wardrobe changes permitted for a photo session? If not, you may be looking at a very long afternoon that will end up not being worth your time. What if they want you to meet them an hour away? It can be awkward when you’ve already stated your fees, and then the client mentions they would like the location to be far away. Now you have to figure out how much you are going to charge and change the quote on them. If you know your boundaries, you would have already stated, “My sitting fee is x for on location, x hours, x number of wardrobe changes, and an additional x for distance locations, an additional x for every x minutes, an additional x for x or more wardrobe changes…”

Tip #2: Be Firm

I’m not trying to toot my own horn or anything, but I have a really high quality product that I’m offering. I have chosen the top rung and don’t do any part of it cheaply. This is a big deal, and I should be confident in it. Without me, these people have no wonderful awesome dog soap on a rope. They are paying me, so they call the shots, but I respond equally as aggressive with my limitations and requirements as well.

Now, I’ve done business before with folks who had a list of policies a mile long and rather sassy quips all throughout their FAQ section. It was a real turn off and I wondered what made them so grumpy and difficult to work with. Now I know. My soap studio became a sweat shop over the last two weeks, and it was rather unpleasant. Don’t get me wrong, I think that we should bend over backwards for our clients and customers and duh, work is hard sometimes. But even that can go too far, and it sure did with this project.

I should have responded and said, “NO, but I CAN do this in 6-8 weeks for you.” What other option do they have? They’d have to find another soap maker equally as skilled enough to even figure out how to get rope into that many bars of soap, and formulate a recipe specifically for dogs. I guarantee you there are not many others out there. That makes ME the commodity, not just my product.

Going back to the photography example: If the person cannot afford to pay the extra for the distance location, you will have avoided their embarrassment of having to state that to you if you told them up front of your extra charge, before they even asked for it. You give them your policy statement, and they can gauge their request to what they can afford. You don’t go to a restaurant and order from the menu and then find out how much the food costs, do you? No. You know exactly how much it costs to get cheese on that burger or extra guacamole with your burrito because it’s written for you right on the menu. And if you can’t afford it, you don’t order it.

Mammas, take pride in your work and be confident. Yes, we are little mammas churning out wonderfulness from the comfort of our own homes. But if you let someone walk all over you, it will very quickly become un-comfortable.

Now, for the story….

The very first thing that went wrong was that it took forever to get some of the pertinent ingredients to me. I did not have enough essential oils on hand to do 2500 bars of soap. And most essential oils cannot be overnighted due to their flammability and combustibility (can you believe that’s a real word?) So, I had to wait for them to make their way here, all the way from Ohio, via UPS truck.

Then, since I had to go with a different rope company in my hurry, the rope I got was all wrong! When I cut it, it frayed like cotton balls and was so fat and hairy I couldn’t force it into the soap. I had paid a LOT of money to have this rope practically overnighted from Chicago. I had my mother and grandmother come to town to watch the kids for a very limited two days. I spent most of that time troubleshooting the rope issue. By the time I found the local rope company that solved all my problems, it was time for my helpers to leave!! I had solved one problem, and now had a new problem on my hands…

Which I solved by enlisting Aunt Ellen, who lives 10 miles away, as honorary soap maker… for four days. Her muscles were strained, her skin was burned, and I don’t think she totally comprehended how much work it was to make soap up until that point! (I hadn’t either!) She and I worked side by side for about 30 hours in those four days. My fingers were literally bleeding from inserting so many pieces of rope into raw soap. It was hard to get the rope in right with gloves on, and my fingertips kept grazing the surface of the soap. I finally did find some gloves that were tight enough on my skinny fingers to not be bulky.

I managed the last few batches on my own last weekend when Brent was off all weekend. Then I had to start slicing. It was too much. I was exhausting myself and almost literally went into labor at one point. Midwife demanded I slow down…way down. That wasn’t so much of an option, because if they didn’t get the soap on a certain day, I wasn’t getting paid. And we were in it for good now. So, we bought more slicing supplies and Brent and I sliced together while our kids got educated and doted on by Dora and Steve (from Blue’s Clues). I think their brains actually shrunk and fell out of their heads, but we’re working on fixing that now.

Oh, and did I mention that we hadn’t been paid one pretty penny for any of our work clear up to the day the soap got shipped out?!? I kept asking for a check and they just kept either totally ignoring my requests, and eventually saying they had mailed it. We did finally get the check, and it wasn’t even for the original amount I had quoted them. What moron makes and ships out $9,000 worth of soap without getting paid first?!?! Me. We haven’t been cheated, don’t worry. They understand that they have to pay the rest within a certain amount of time. And if they don’t, I’ll be tacking on late fees. I don’t mind working with people, but I went way over the “favor limit” with this one.

Even boxing it all up went wrong. We stayed up late the last night, wrapping stacks of soap in bubble wrap and brown paper bags when we ran out of the bubble wrap. We had totally gotten shafted on boxes, and paid like $50 for 9 or so of the strongest ones around. They started falling apart when we went to move them to the driveway for pick up (each box had about 150 pounds of soap in it). We had to buy more boxes and repack them in the driveway. And by “we”, I mean “Brent”. He spent about five hours in the heat repacking all the soap, when the 18-wheeler was set to be there at any moment that day. Fortunately, he finished in time, with a couple of hours to spare, and the trucker got there right before the rain began!

The entire thing was miserable and we never should have attempted it. It literally ruined my life for three weeks straight. I started to feel like I was stuck in a nightmare or something.

Yeah, the profit is still really great, but was it worth it? Yes and No. Yes, in that we really learned our boundaries and can plainly state them now, as requests continue to roll in for other projects. Yes, in that we are thoroughly equipped with molds and such to handle any size order.  No, in that it really disturbed our peaceful little life here and ate up the last few days of energy that I had left to get my life in order before having a baby. I may never recover by the time I go into labor!

Now what?

I have typed up a very detailed policy statement for whole sale, bulk, and custom orders and will be contacting all of our whole sale accounts this weekend with the updates. Life is changing for us. Baby #4 is very quickly on the way, and I’ve always said that if anything becomes a burden, it will be the soap, not my family. They are first. Very first. And this project put them second and it made me mad. Totally my fault, and now we will fix that so that it doesn’t happen again. I’m sure that most of them will be very happy to comply with some of our new minimum requirements and such.