1.5 Million children die each year due to diarrhea. Proper handwashing with soap can prevent over two-thirds of those deaths. Amanat Anand didn’t know that she wanted to be an entrepreneur, but when she came across this statistic she instantly knew what she wanted to do. She entered a business plan competition with a simple idea. Children need access to soap and a reason to wash their hands consistently. By making their products affordable and fun to use for kids, SoaPen can accomplished both goals.
In this episode we learn how Amanat and her co-founder Shubham, both voted Forbes 30 Under 30, focused on being relentlessly resourceful in their first year of operation to secure funding, develop their chemical formula, and refine the supply chain process for their soap concept. We cover how they were able to quickly sell over 100 units of their product, leading them to their first major production run of 10,000 units.
We also discuss how the first time entrepreneurs think about team dynamics, from dividing responsibilities and roles, to refining their decision making process to stay on track. If you’re interested in physical product businesses with a social good component, this interview is the ideal case study for how to approach the first few years of building this type of company, from ideation to execution.
1:00 Graduated from Parsons in 2015 with her cofounder and had some time that summer before they started work, and decided to work on a side project when they saw a competition online
1:20 Had a job lined up in a furniture division of an architecture firm
2:00 Competition was Unicef Wearables for Good competition via Frog Designs.
2:37 Over 1.5 million children under age 5 die due to infectious illnesses that are preventable by hand washing
3:00 Entered the competition with a sketch to see how it would go and ended up winning a few months later
3:10 Sergei: Did you think you were going to be an entrepreneur when you were in the school?
3:19 Grew up with an entrepreneurial family but this to her was very far in the future…thought in the US would be hard to start a business if you’re not from here
4:20 Marc Cuban says that passion develops when you start solving a problem and something works
4:40 Amanat still wanted to learn more about consumer goods and that curiosity made her apply for this competition
5:38 Her experience as an industrial designer made this type of product not intimidating to try and build because she knew how to do it
6:10 When they became finalists they had 2 weeks to refine their pitch. Decided to go to India to go to a few schools to test the concept with the students.
6:52 Found out that schools in india treated soap as a precious commodity and it is usually hidden by teachers and isn’t being used as much as is should be.
7:20 They decided to make the product fun and easy to use in the classroom
8:20 Sergei: You mentioned you were getting a lot of advice before this was even a business. What was some bad advice you got?
9:10 Got a lot of bad advice on packaging, and also people pushing them to sell through retail, even though they’re not sure they want to do that yet
9:50 Vadim: Since you have never been an entrepreneur before, how did you know what steps to take?
10:10 Biggest thing was learning how to ask for help
10:45 Hardest thing was coming up with the chemical formula and manufacturing
10:54 Originally thought they would manufacture in India but couldn’t find reliable suppliers
11:30 There are a lot more contract manufacturers you can find in the US for soap products
11:40 In the US people are passionate about helping small businesses grow
12:20 Ended up finding a supplier through an intro from their accountant to another consumer goods company who was generous enough to make an introduction for them. Their chemical engineering team even helped.
13:00 Being young is not an advantage when dealing with manufacturers
13:20 Side question, how much did you spend on taxes that year? Many founders don’t know you have to pay taxes even if you’re not making money.
13:40 $500 on the CPA and $1500 on taxes
14:00 Sergei: Because of this I typically don’t recommend founders form a corporation until they have customer or are raising funding…or generally have some liability.
14:31 Been a challenge trying to get a manufacturer, but they have been getting intros through connections which has worked
15:00 Vadim: Have you had your first run of production?
15:03 Starting to have the packaging arrive on Sept 5th and launching on October 15th online on Global Handwashing Day
16:00 Been mostly getting press opportunities from the competitions they won, and that lead to signups
16:50 Sergei: A lot founders come to us, have been working for a product for 6 months to a year, have it all figured out, but when they put it in the market they hear crickets. So what did you do to test demand?
17:20 When they won the Unicef competition a lot of people emailed them asking where they can buy it. That was enough proof for them.
17:50 Sergei: Where did you find the kids to use the product to test it?
18:00 Been a challenge because they don’t know a lot of kids. Have reached out to schools, talked to principals etc.
19:20 Met her cofounder in college. Both from New Delhi
19:29 Vadim: How do you guys divide responsibilities in the business
19:35 Difficult because they have very similar skills and are still learning how to divide things, but it’s getting easier as the business grows and there are more responsibilities
20:03 What about decision making?
20:29 Have been lucky to see eye to eye on big decisions. Few disagreements. Learning how to not get mad at each other over mistakes.
20:50 Important in the beginning to figure out the major decisions of the business and setting the expectations that you will be aligned on certain decisions together and will have a process for making them. Having the difficult conversations upfront.
21:45 Her cofounder is really good about having the awkward conversations when necessary and she values that
22:00 When they struggle with a decision they reach out to a mentor to help them
22:30 Sergei: You mentioned you were motivated to solve the hand washing problem in India. But since you’re starting off charging $5 per Soapen, and likely poorer areas can’t afford that, who will be your first target customer?
22:53 Initial program will be buy one give one
23:30 Targeting schools and daycares here
24:00 Pricing is still something they’re experimenting with because costs are still high
25:35 Vadim mentions how all entrepreneurs face these issues. Wandering Bear Coffee, who we interviewed here, significantly underpriced their coffee in their first few sales.
25:45 You need to be in the market to understand how sensitive it is to price fluctuations
26:00 Launching October 5th on www.soapen.com
26:15 Since you’re still figuring out your customer, who are you marketing to?
26:17 Parents because it’s the fastest to get to them. Direct to consumer. But for more scalability, schools would be better.
26:40 How did you figure out how many units to order first?
26:47 Doing the minimum that they’re allowed to buy from the factory. 10,000 units with 3 color options
28:00 For our audience’s benefit, can you tell us how you made it to the Forbes 30 Under 30 List?
28:10 She doesn’t know exactly how they got nominated, but Forbes put out a call for nominations. You submit a form and Forbes selects the winner
28:40 We offered two introductions for Amanat. To Mera McGrew and Michael Levine, both of whom have been on this podcast
29:49 What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing now?
29:55 Deciding on go to market strategy – many people advising on retail vs. online
30:30 Sergei: Great that you’re starting direct to consumer so you can see how people react to the product. Don’t feel pressure to go the retail route if you don’t want to.