Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A mom starts a soap company to give her autistic boys life skills

I recently learned about Soaperior Organix, a company started by New Jersey mom Sharon Artz and her husband, David. They're parents to three boys ages 15, 13 and 1/2 and 11 1/2. Their oldest two have autism, and the company's tagline is "Hope thru soap: empowering autistic teens thru entrepreneurship." This is their story, as told by Sharon.

What first got you thinking about work for your boys?

Before I started Soaperior Organix, I often wished that my sons could start vocational training earlier. It's the logical thing to do given that they take longer to learn. They are still young, but they are not in grade school anymore and time only marches forward. I had to do something. Anything. When I was their ages, I started babysitting and ran children's birthday parties. While I didn't grow up to become a professional babysitter or party-thrower, I still learned about life skills like responsibility, decision-making and managing money. When would my sons' have the opportunity to learn the pre-vocational skills we all learned through teenage jobs?

How did you come up with the idea for Soaperior Organix?

It's funny how the idea of Soaperior Organix developed. David, who's a doctor, was talking about having a French soap shop. My mind kept thinking, family vocational training. He dropped the idea, and I took it over. Soap seemed perfect because we all use it! Last year, I spent a few hundred dollars buying merchandise. I searched for a terrific soap that people would want, not for the cause but for themselves.

How did you actually make it happen? 

Y'know, while it wasn't the easiest thing I've ever done, it also wasn't as hard as I thought it would be, and I'm saying that as a person with zero background in retail, branding, pricing and marketing. I've never even worked in a store. I have a degree in psychology and, in a million years, if you ever suggested I would own a soap company, I NEVER would have believed you.

Basically, I thought about it for several months and did very preliminary research. One of the things I learned is anyone can start an "LLC" and it takes about 10 minutes to do so. Even after I had my company name and LLC, I still didn't know what to do, but just kept researching. I researched soap, soap companies and vocational training, and I bought a domain name for a website.

I didn't start to invest any money until I was sure I could fully pursue this idea (I can't tell you how many ideas I've had that never came to fruition), and I still gave myself an "out" even then: "Well, if it doesn't work, I'll shut it down and we'll just have a lot of soap in the house!" Whenever I started to dream, think pretty big and feel overwhelmed, I returned to my mantra: "Me and my boys in the basement." In fact, I truly believe that it's because of my mantra that I got this far. Baby steps.

I made a few firm decisions. One, we aren't actually making the soap. Soap requires lye, which can be very dangerous if proper precautions aren't taken. I did not take out a loan. I worked very hard to minimize my costs, and I loaned myself the money which will take time to repay. We buy the soap from an incredible organic wholesale (private label) soap manufacturer. Their values are sympatico with mine and the soap is terrific—they're made of plant-derived base oils and essential oils. Two, we would only be an e-commerce shop. I can't afford to rent space and it makes no sense for me to sit in a soap shop waiting for customers while my kids go to school. Plus, my kids know computers, so I wanted to start with their strengths.

How have your oldest boys participated?

I really only told my older boys about Soaperior when it was about to become a reality. And, of course, I presented it in very positive terms, like learn job skills and earn money. They work on it a few weeknights every week and a few hours every weekend. My boys package all the soap. That means they put each soap in an organza bag, wearing gloves, and then they label each bag with a sticker. When we get an order, my kids determine whether it's a drop-off which is bagged or a shipment which is boxed. If a box is necessary, they make the box. This accomplishment cannot be overstated given how darn difficult that packing tape dispenser can be! Then the kids fill the order (making the gift bags is newer, but coming along).

Sharon's middle son, bagging soap
For a shipment (we have a lot of those), they go online to our account on usps.com and prepare a mailing label by which they also pay for postage, which also means they are learning to weigh the packages. After they load the labels into the machine and print them out, they go back online to arrange for the postal pickup at our house. At the end of filling any order, they go onto the back-end of our website and check off the order so that the customer receives an email informing them that their order is complete and ready to go. In addition, they add a quick note to every order. My middle son usually writes "I hope you love your soap." My oldest's messages have shrunk from "I hope you enjoy your soap!" to "Enjoy your soap!" to "Enjoy"—true teenager on that one!

Clearly, bagged orders are less work and my oldest son figured that out quickly and prefers those. However, my kids are paid by time spent working. So, even when he is reluctant to work, he is eager to earn money. They earn $8 an hour, chosen because it easily breaks into quarters. My oldest has bought books and his own snacks at school; my middle son is saving up, I think for a videogame; and the youngest guy seems happy just to save the money. But he's very into clothes, so we might be shopping soon. Sundays are pay day.

Sharon's oldest son fills a large order for a baby shower
What have been the boys' reactions to working?

Generally positive, with some variation! One of my very best days was when my oldest son asked me to buy him something, but I didn't want to spend the money. So he said, "Can I work today?" (!!!!) He made the connection that I had been trying to teach for so long. That's not to imply that he loves working; he doesn't. He prefer some tasks over others (don't we all?), but he wants to earn money, so honestly, that's good enough for me. Although he is also perfectly happy to play music and sit and package soap for awhile.

A drawing by her oldest son of a delivery truck
My middle guy generally works after his shower at night, which has been a real blessing. He has a hard time filling his leisure time constructively. He has a short attention span and a high activity level so it's very difficult to find things to do inside. While some might not consider "working" as a leisure activity, he does. He needs a ton of structure with concrete directions and working provides that for him. He is very proud of himself and hoping to work as a vendor at his school's annual walk-a-thon in the spring.

My youngest loves to fill orders (not package soap) and he loves to discuss entrepreneurial concepts. It's pretty amazing what an 11-year-old can ponder.

The oldest and youngest work together to prepare a package for shipping
Some of my proudest moments, aside from their individual accomplishments, are when we are all in the basement working together. Sounds so simple, but like I said before, I take nothing for granted.

Have you branched out?

The Life Skills Program at a local high school runs a branch of Soaperior Organix from their classroom; kudos to their awesome teacher who sought an opportunity for her students and went for it. The students are responsible for promotions, sales, packaging and delivery. At the moment, I understand they are planning a bowling trip with their profits. From what I hear, Soaperior Organix has been hugely motivating for them on many levels and their teacher has all sorts of lesson plans derived from their working experience as it relates to shopping, banking, etc.

Meanwhile, through this experience we are developing a vocational training curriculum to market our program to school districts. I strongly believe that our kids should learn vocational training in a meaningful context and running a business would provide the context for the teens to practice their job skills. I don't want my boys to learn packaging by packing pencils and dumping then doing it again. I want my sons to get the whole picture. And I don't want it for just my children—I want it for all of our kids. We have a generation of teens with special needs who are growing up and will need a place in society as adults. I want us to start figuring that out now.

I truly, truly believe that, as parents of children with special needs, we have to think creatively and "out of the box" as we contemplate our children's futures. In my endeavor, I had role models online of other parents who set up family businesses for their adult children with special needs including Special Kneads and Treats, Inc; Anthony's Beehive; Tim's Place and Puzzles Bakery and Cafe. If I can inspire someone else to do the same, that's great. We have to support each other because ultimately we are all in this together to create a compassionate society where our children can live and thrive.

You can purchase Soaperior Organix products here.


  1. This is great. I know at my high school the special ed kids make gourmet dog biscuits and sell and ship them.

  2. I want to open a business called Atomic Cupcake and sell boldly colored and flavored cupcakes because I like baking and neon colors. There will be a job program for people with special needs and I won't hide them because Atomic Cupcake is all about being unique. Let's just say you will find no mundane cupcakes.

    1. Maybe someday you will do just that!

  3. I am always inspired when I read about the business and program ideas that parents have come up with to give their children the opportunity to work. Thank you for sharing Sharon's story. For another inspiring story, check out The Farmers House in Weston MO. http://thefarmershouse.org/

  4. This is one of the most practical and interesting ideas I've read about in a while! What a great way to instill some of the life skills that can't be gotten in a school environment!

  5. Amazing and inspiring, what a brilliant idea...congratulations Sharon!!! I have an autistic child and have been worried about practical ways he could learn to manage his life financially when he's older other than what he learns at school...thank you so much for sharing your story, you've just opened a new perspective for me as well...


Thanks for sharing!

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