Couple owns an Oysterville soapmaking business with significant sales in Japan
By Cynthia Washicko
OYSTERVILLE — There’s a learning curve to making soap — one that gets much steeper when a customer orders 8,000 bars at once.
Diana Thompson and John Adams were thrown into that particular curve shortly after a Japanese company placed just such an order with their business, Harmony Soapworks. When the order came in Harmony Soapworks had been open for about five years and, up to that point, had consisted largely of making their soaps and selling the product at festivals.
The routine started to change when Thompson took on work helping another Portland-based soapmaker with administrative duties, she said. The woman was transitioning out of soapmaking and into creating decorative soap molds, and needed Thompson’s help with bookkeeping and other tasks.
“She wanted more time to work on her soap molds and her artwork and such, so I became her front office,” Thompson said.
After her friend was contacted by a Japanese company looking to order soap molds, Thompson brought some gifts from the peninsula to the meeting — dried cranberries, canned oysters and a sample of her soap. The soap sample interested them, she said, and they asked if Thompson would be interested in creating more for their company.
“They came here and watched us make soap and they said, ‘We’re going to order 4,000 bars of soap and we want you to come to Tokyo and do a trade show with us.’”
The initial request for 4,000 bars doubled before Thompson and Adams had even finished the order, and shortly thereafter the Harmony Soapworks owners were attending trade shows in Japan over the next few years, she said.
The relationship grew from there, and added a new set of challenges to handle. Japanese regulations classify the soaps Harmony Soapworks produces as a cosmetic product and, as a result they’re subject to strict industry rules, Thompson said. Those regulations mean soaps must be within a 10 gram — about one-third of an ounce — range of what the advertised volume is, she said, a constraint not present in the U.S. market.
“Because of that we just become really precise, and we just have to be,” Thompson said. “With the kind of cutters that we’ve got, when we purchase these kinds of things we say, ‘It has got to be exact, it can’t be off a quarter of an inch or an eighth of an inch.’ It won’t work for us.”
Added to that is a the challenge of meeting the demands of a customer who wants everything to be exactly the same from year to year, regardless of variations in natural ingredients. That became an issue one year when a crop of grapeseed flour — added to soap for its red coloring and antioxidants — had a slightly different color than in previous years.
Her Japanese customers refused to buy it, she said.
“They want it to be the same, and it has been a struggle because some of the ingredients we use are natural and there are variations,” Thompson said. “It’s not that one is good and one is bad, it’s natural variations.”
Natural variations present another hurdle when they impact the commodities Thompson and Adams need to produce their soaps.
When a drought in one of the few places in the world that produces jojoba — an ingredient in some of the company’s products — prices for the plant-based oil skyrocketed. That put added pressure on Thompson and Adams to keep the prices for their soap stable while simultaneously dealing with a jump in their own costs, she said.
“We’re small and we don’t have a ton of space here...if we hear that something’s going wrong in the market we can’t go out and buy a 55-gallon drum of seven different things to try to manage the prices,” Thompson said. “We’re stuck.”
The company isn’t done developing. Thompson said she would like to expand into more U.S.-based business to balance her Japanese client, a goal that she said will include adding as sales staff to help the company reach out and sell their product in stores stateside, she said.