Washpool founder Melissa Thomas – alongside husband Warren, their three daughters, poodle Dickens and cattle herd – are cleaning up the world of soap.
Peppermine Magazine Autumn Issue 53. Photos KELLEY SHEENAN
Tell us a bit about Washpool and what inspired you to create it...
I know the classic reason for creating a skincare product is the driving force of a loved one with a sensitivity to ingredients in commercial products. A problem, a solution and a great story.
The truth, for me, is a little different. In my mid-thirties I left Bris- bane and an academic career in education to marry Warren and move to our remote cattle property. The next few years were a whirlwind of record-breaking, soul-destroying drought interwo- ven with the birth and nurturing of three beautiful children.
While my hands were full, my mind wasn’t, and I desperately needed to fill my head with new knowledge as a distraction from the mundane routines of drought feeding and the ever-present threat of the Black Dog. Fortunately for me, a gift of handmade soap that made my skin feel good sparked a curiosity that has not diminished to this day.
My brain is geared to ‘deep diving’ on topics that interest me, so I set about learning and practising everything I possibly could about handmade soap first and, more recently, a broader range of natural skincare.
How did going to a trade fair change your direction?
This was an ‘aha’ moment, for sure. I had spent around $10,000 to attend a trade event in Sydney. In the lead up to the event, we had also been focused on designing retail-ready packaging, displays and support material – so it was a huge commitment. As I stood listening to potential buyers, I realised that all this expended energy was to sell to buyers who were dispassionate about our actual product and were more interested in margins, turnover and profit. These were not our people, and what’s more, by focusing on this market, we may have been neglecting those who were our people – the everyday customers who were choosing to support our small, rural business. I returned to Queensland with absolute conviction that ‘our people’ were our wonderful retail customers, many of whom had been supporting us from the very beginning.
Why is price and product accessibility so important to you?
Plenty of marketing courses will advise entrepreneurs to set high prices, with the often-heard mantra, “You’re not your cus- tomer.” But what if I am my customer? What if the very people I see as my customers – people who care about the who, what, where and why of the products they use – are like me and are price sensitive and want to use their income for other purposes? How do I serve customers like me who value quality, effective products but don’t want to spend disproportionate amounts on elaborate routines or overpriced “anti-ageing” elixirs?
The traditional marketing method goes something like this: manufacture a product for $2, wholesale for $4 and retail for $8. In this model, the manufacturer is under a massive amount of price pressure and the retailer is paying a price that has dou- bled at least twice (usually more). I started asking why I, as a manufacturer, couldn’t sell directly to our customer so that the price we received was more sustainable and the price the customer paid was more economical. I ‘discovered’ this rev- olutionary idea had a name: direct-to-consumer. In reality, of course, it’s not new at all. Surely a direct relationship between artisan and customer is the oldest way. With e-commerce it’s much more viable for a maker to deliver a product of excep- tional quality at an economical price.
How do you balance practicality with sustainability and ethos?
When we, as artisanal producers, are under less price pres- sure, we can make the ethical and sustainable choices that are important to us. When conventional or organic is available, we can choose organic. When we want to leave out palm oil from our soap – and the alternative is a much more expensive, fair trade, organic shea butter – we can (and do). The hardest part is to educate consumers that they cannot assume that the highest price is also the highest quality.
Peppermint Magazine - a print magazine about style, sustainability and substance.
Support Peppermint Magazine and purchase a copy of the current Issue on newstands, or head to their website to subscribe or download a digital issue here - Peppermint Magazine