On being Audacious

The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.
~ Tacitus

De l’audace, encore de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace!
( Audacity, more audacity, and always audacity!)
~ Napoleon Bonaparte, attributed.*

But can you really make a living selling soap?
~ Concerned friends/family, when we started out.

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One unexpected thing Kate and I had to face when we decided to do this full­-time was the occasional, if well-meaning, questions from friends and (often) from family about whether this whole idea was viable as a way to earn an income. Heck, we still get the occasional question from old friends and strangers when they find out what we do. I usually answer with some variation of “well, it’s been working so far!” or “I hope so!” It hasn’t been a cakewalk, by any means, especially when we were starting out, but we’ve managed to do OK, I think, and yes, we’ve had help from our friends and family, with them being our
first customers and promoters.

I still remember how excited we were when the majority of our page’s fans switched to people who we weren’t friends on Facebook with! Would we have got to the point we are today though, if we had listened to the doubts people had about whether the path we were starting out on was could lead to success? It would no doubt have been easier, and less risky, to simply apply for jobs as salaried employees of some business or organization, but we decided to go with what we felt was a great opportunity at the time, and see if we could make it on our own.

We were feeling a lot of pressure when we made the decision (a story for another time), but we could still have carried on with our lives the way they were and not risked everything, but we were confident in our product, and ourselves, and I for one, certainly had the audacity to think our product could
compete with anything else out there. We decided we want to target the high end of the handmade soap market, and it was challenging at rst, trying to explain to people why we weren’t trying to get our product into health stores, and the more traditional venues where you see handmade soaps for sale at R25 per bar, with two or maybe three essential oils in their scent blends- we just didn’t think that market was for us – we want to make the best soap in the world, and have it in the best packaging too.

That’s why we blend our essential oils using the same principles as the perfumers of old, using anywhere from 8-12 essential oils in each soap – to capture the essence of the African landscapes that we love. That’s what’s behind our decision to do the artwork and design our own packaging. We know that you will appreciate the places where the ingredients come from, understand the stories they tell, and share that with your friends or loved ones when you give it as a gift, or when you breathe in the scent of an African landscape as you relax in your bath.
Maybe the world could do with a bit more audacity.
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*OK, so Napoleon was actually quoting Georges Jacques Danton, but it’s more inspiring to think of it as coming from a legendary general than some obscure politician.
If you like experimenting with audacious, adventurous scents, you might like our Marula & Charcoal soap and its scent.

How We Grew Our Craft Business

People often tell us how much they’d love to start a craft business, or that they have a craft business on the side and they wish they could just get it to grow a bit faster, and ask us how we’ve managed to do it full time. Well, there’s quite a bit to it, but mostly, I’d say the practice that’s really helped us get where we are has been….standardisation.  What do I mean by that? Well, a lot of crafters make really beautiful products really well, but each one is unique and a once-off item. For some crafts, this can be a very successful business model, especially if your product is valuable enough to command a high price for each  individual item. But for most products, as much as crafters don’t like to hear it, a superior business model is to standardise a product, or products, and get larger volumes out into the market.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not talking about getting your product manufactured in a factory and distributed via wholesale distributors either. It’s possible for a craft business to become a cottage industry. In our case, for example, I started out making batches of soap of about 25 bars at a time, and once I started selling them, I realised I had to increase my output. Since I still had a day job at the  time, and soap-making opportunities were limited, I had to increase my batch size. So 25 bars became 50, and once I was confident that I could do that number of bars without reducing quality, I pushed it to 100 bars per batch, then over 100 bars, and today, I make just over 200 bars per batch of soap. And I’m doing it full time, so I can make more batches per week than when I had a different day job. Progression from Craft to Cottage industry.

 

Anyway, the point of this is, it would be really difficult just to produce this quantity of soap every week, if I were always chopping and changing my recipes and packaging for each variety. I used to do a lot more experimenting when the batch size was small, and I didn’t really know what our customer base liked. That was our experimentation time, and we used it well. But once I started to get to a larger batch size, I wanted to know that we’d be able to sell all of the soap fairly quickly, so I started to narrow the focus to the products that I knew had been popular, and before I knew it, we had a catalogue of products I’d repeat, and repeat customers were familiar with.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This also simplified our purchasing on the raw materials and packaging side, because I could match output to required inputs much more easily than if I were to come up with a new essential oil blend for each batch I made, for example. It also allowed us to switch to a professionally printed packaging solution, which I’m sure you’ll agree is stunning, thanks mostly to Kate’s artwork ( I did inspire the concept though, I’m pretty sure. She probably recalls it differently ).

Anyway, if you’re looking to start or grow a craft business, take a look at what areas you can do some standardisation in. It could pay off . I’m currently working on increasing my batch size from about 200 bars per batch to over 300 after more than two years at the same batch size – I’ve been limited by the maximum size of the stainless steel pot I had, but I’ve just found something bigger…and I’ve got some new soap cutting equipment that’s allowing me to make more batches per week…

If you’re more interested in purchasing our standardised craft products than in making your own, check out our’s here.

Sketches on bus trips

I sketched, coloured and painted all the artwork on our packaging, and designed the layout on paper (wonderfully computer-proficient graphic designers took it from there).

sketching the art work

Initially, they were just little Idea sketches, but they just transformed into the illustrations for our packaging. So, am I qualified/trained in Packaging Design? Well, when I was about 10, I went through a phase of designing wrappers for my dream chocolate bars (hmmm, I wonder what happened to those…) but, no, the simple answer is no. But, I have always loved drawing.


I have a background in Nature Conservation (working in the parks and game reserves of KwaZulu-Natal), and a degree in Botany, with a particular interest in Ethnobotany. I have always enjoyed adventure travel – which mostly involved hiking, backpacking, hitch hiking, or just jumping on a bus to small town destinations that nobody goes to unless their Great Auntie in that place has died. My favourite thing is to look out the windows at new scenery, making quick sketches in my notebook or taking blurry photographs, and chat to the locals on the bus about those places – hearing their stories makes these places meaningful and memorable.


So, fast forward a few years, to when Chikondi and I had started a family and had to think about ways to make a career out of a hobby, my inspiration came from those backpacking trips. South African landscapes are so beautiful and varied, and I wanted to showcase these places in a range of soaps to reflect the diversity of each biome. Not just the images of sunsets, mountains and plants,
but also the people I met there and made connections with. South African Landscapes are wide and huge and wildly beautiful, but, unlike many other places in the world, they cannot be seen without the influence of humans.


The History of People and the Land in South Africa – and Africa – goes so far back, that we cannot only think of the the plants and animals as the place. Acknowledging this led us to explore these areas, and to search for small-scale farmers and communities that we could source authentically local ingredients from for each soap. To bring something special to each scent, and to connect the drawings to the content. Bringing it all together, and the rewarding feeling I get from the enthusiastic response from folks who know these landscapes, has been wonderful. In future blog posts, I will chat more about each soap, and the story behind it.


In the meantime, you can browse through our soap collection here.

We have this Thing about Rondavels

Here at Rondavel, we love finding out about the sustainable uses of natural resources – their historical, current and future potential. Most of our product formulation is about taking raw ingredients from Nature, and combining them to create something new, that is both functional and true to its roots. The traditional Southern African hut, a rondavel (Afrikaans for Round House) is a perfect example to us of how human hands can take natural materials and shape them into a functional, beautiful form. This is why we have chosen this humble dwelling as our logo.

Although Chikondi and I spent our childhoods in quite different worlds, (me in small-town Apartheid South Africa, and him in-between the freer countries of Zambia and Malawi), we both have early memories of spending time in rondavels. Whether is was visiting family on dusty farms for school holidays, or grandparents in rural Malawian districts, there were always rondavels polka-dotting the landscape with their round, unobtrusive forms.

Traditional rondavels are made with locally available materials, and the walls can be stone with mud mortar, or wattle and daub, or just an earth mixture of clay, sand and cow dung. The roof structure is made of tree branches, and is always thatched with grass stems or reeds. The thatch is sewn on with grass rope, starting at the bottom and working to the top, to make a waterproof layer. The floor is made with compressed red clay and cow dung, that is often fired to harden it, and polished with fat until it glows.

Sleeping in a wonky old bed, or on a grass-mat, the sweet smell of new thatch (or the dusty smell of old thatch), the rounded, rough earth-plastered walls, the cool floor beneath bare feet as you walk towards the old wooden door to greet the morning – and the noisy chickens that woke you up so early- and the adventures of the day that lay ahead…these are some of the memories we have of staying in a rondavel. I believe humans, especially children, respond favourably to experiences with natural materials. These memories of scent, touch and sight give us a connection to the builders, and the natural materials they used. Nothing plastic or pretentious. And if these rondavels were left to the elements, unmaintained, they would slowly disintegrate and return to the earth from which they were made. What better model for our soap? Made from natural ingredients, combined with centuries-old techniques by human hands to form something functional and wonderful, and when no longer needed, will gently biodegrade back into the earth.