What does it take to learn a skill completely from scratch and then use that curiosity and experience to turn a child's skin rash into a successful money-making venture?
In the case of Bonnie and Kevin Reherman, it was the simple matter of their baby daughter, Nyla, developing a skin allergy. Setting aside typical store-bought products, they purchased some natural products, which cleared up the problem.
Thus, Bonnie, 39, began experimenting with her own recipes for natural bar soap and eventually landed on the right one. She and husband Kevin, 42, then decided they should take the newly developed product to the next level. Suddenly, in 2009, EarthBaby Soap Company was born.
The business, which has expanded to products such as shampoos, bath salts and soy candles, is now starting to mature. Business is growing at trade shows, through wholesalers and via the Internet, despite juggling it all while raising a family -- Nyla and older brother Zeke -- and holding down two full-time jobs.
Bonnie is a process improvement consultant at TSYS, while Kevin works in information security at Synovus Financial Corp. The Midland couple spends most of their spare time making products and packaging them -- often with the help of good friends -- and attending every festival or craft show they can fit into their schedule. In Columbus, you'll find them downtown at Market Days on Broadway on Saturdays.
The Ledger-Enquirer spoke with Bonnie recently at The Posh Peach, the boutique on Broadway where EarthBaby products can be purchased. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
So you knew nothing about making soap before this all started?
I knew nothing about it. Actually, with my first few batches, I just practiced with Crisco as my base fat, and some lye. From there I learned about balancing oil and balancing the right types of oils for different types of qualities in your products. Some are more creamy. Some are more moisturizing. Some are more bubbly. Pretty soon we had a good base recipe that we kind of expanded off of and we came up with four types of bar soaps and now we're up to 19 different varieties.
But you've gone beyond the bar soap?
We started off with bar soaps then moved into liquid soaps. Liquid soap is a little more tricky because you have to consciously play a little bit more with pH, with neutralization and such. From there it was kind of a natural transition into dog shampoo and people shampoo, which is surprisingly a lot different than dog shampoo.
Did you research some by 'Googling' ways to make the soaps?
I did try to copy some recipes. But it's still something that you just have to get a feel for, especially when you're working with chemistry and working with base fats and different chemicals. You have to learn when to do certain things and you have to learn what temperature is the right temperature to add certain things in, and it can vary by recipe. So you just learn when to do what and try to come up with a repeatable process, which we've done ... It takes about six weeks to make a bar of soap since it's got curing time. The natural process takes longer.
All of this in the kitchen?
We started in the kitchen. But last year we purchased a facility out in Midland, so we actually have a dedicated EarthBaby production facility.
That's a big moment?
It's huge. That has really been how we got through our last holiday season. Now our production of just bar soaps is up to 160 bars a day. A lot of that travels all over the country. We've got wholesale clients. We do a lot of online business, which has really taken off in the past six months.
You manufacture all of your products?
Yes. We make all of our products from scratch.
Do you have any employees?
We have people who come and help us on Fridays, our 'Good Clean Fun Fridays.' It started off with just a couple of our close friends who didn't have anything else to do, I guess, on Friday. Pretty soon word got out and everybody wanted to see how we do the stuff. They wanted to be fed and wined. Sometimes we have in excess of 10 people there, and sometimes we'll throw a larger than usual party and people will show up.
Is 'Fun Fridays' based on how large your orders are?
Yeah. Right now I've got some custom orders I'm working on. We've got some wholesale orders. So just depending on volume, we'll have to try to get more people in on Friday.
But it's far beyond a hobby at this point?
It's definitely beyond a hobby. We get quite a bit of vacation time from our jobs and all of it is going to shows. We have to prepay for our shows a year in advance, so it's quite a commitment, especially all of the holiday shows. We travel down into Florida, all over Georgia, to South Carolina and North Carolina.
Are those events where you're trying to find wholesale or retail buyers?
These are actually big trade shows. It's wholesale and online buyers. We go to these shows and we also have retail customers there and hopefully they get hooked on our products and end up ordering from us online, which has happened.
You say your products are not organic?
Yeah. We could probably claim a percentage of organic, but because a lot of materials are sourced overseas, like patchouli essential oil, I don't know that it's worth it to try to get any kind of certificate of organic-ness, for lack of a better term, from Indonesia or India or Russia. A lot of these essential oils are grown in their native regions and we just can't make that claim, nor is it really worth it anymore. You don't to have to be all that organic to put an organic or natural term on your label.
At what point did you know that you were going to become a consistent money-making business?
I think it was from the feedback of our customers, where we saw our products really help somebody with a condition that they've been working on or suffering from. Of course, we can't make any medical claims, but we have so many success stories and so many testimonies. We have a customer who can't leave her house because of the condition of her skin. We deliver products to her and our products have been the only things that have given her relief. And we have people tell us, you can't ever stop, so we can't ever stop. (laughs)
That's pretty cool?
We do want to build this into something that was born and raised in Columbus, and something that Columbus built and can be proud of. We just want that.
You bring your products to Market Days downtown on Saturdays?
We go to any kind of vendor event that we can get to. Market Days, of course, is our most regular one. But we do the Cotton Pickin' Fairs (in Gay, Ga.), both this spring and in the fall. We do the Hummingbird Festival in Hogansville. We do all of the Made in the South shows. Pretty much anything that we can attend and they'll let us throw up a table, we'll do it. We want to get out and meet people.
Does it wear you down sometimes considering you and Kevin both have full-time jobs? How do you balance all of that?
I think that's been the biggest struggle, because we have two kids that we want to spend time with. However, we want to build this and turn it into something that we can hand to our kids.
I've heard that more than once from people who are growing a business?
Yeah, but in the process you end up sacrificing some time that you could otherwise spend with them. We try to make them as much of a part of the business as possible, especially since little Nyla is our muse and she's really the whole reason that we got into this. My husband always calls her the original EarthBaby. She helps us with labeling and putting stickers on stuff, and she likes to help cut paper. She likes to be more involved than Zeke does, who at this point is more interested in making money. So I'll have him helping me with Market Days and loading up things and doing this or that.
How did you come up with the EarthBaby name?
EarthBaby was a concept, I think, before I even made my first bar of soap. I had the logo and the concept and everything that we wanted to stand for in my head before I started creating products. And I think it was more of a conceptual way that I wanted to live my life and making these products was kind of my step one.
Now here we are with this big EarthBaby line of branded products ... Our logo is a globe with green lettering signifying the different areas of Earth. We just wanted something that was very basic and recognizable and that people would recognize that we were earthy, maybe a little quirky, and maybe relatable to products they can trust. That's our biggest thing, is we want people to trust us and trust our products and that we'll always put natural, good things in them.
There's a trend for people to not want chemicals and sulfates and detergents in their personal care products?
There's a huge trend. I would say at least one in three or four people that we meet have some kind of skin condition, and it seems to be almost an epidemic. People are suffering from psoriasis, from eczema, from some kind of overactive autoimmune thing that just makes their body react to everything.
One of the things that is recommended, that people like that do, is just go back to the basics, go back to easy digestible natural foods, go back to products that don't have any harsh chemicals, don't have preservatives, don't have dyes and perfumes. That's really how we've built EarthBaby is that, with all of our products, we don't use any perfumes. Everything you smell is plant based. We don't use any preservatives. We don't use anything that you couldn't actually eat, except for lye. You have to use lye to make soap, but your finished product does not have any lye in it actually. That's always a question that I get.
Is soap the biggest seller?
Yep, bar soap. Probably next would be our soy candles. It's probably a toss-up between soy candles and body butter. Body butter sells really well in the dry months, and then we also have a line of products that's good for natural insect repellent. We sell a lot of that during the summer months. The candles, we just try to keep those seasonal, but not surprisingly our biggest months for candles are during the wintertime.
Are you continually looking to add new products?
When people constantly ask us for certain things or say you should do this or you should do that, then it goes on our list, and every time somebody asks for that item, it moves up the list. I think most of what we're doing now is expanding what we already have because we have such a recognizable brand now regionally.
We are also in the trademark and patent process for a sub-line of EarthBaby. I can't tell you what it is, but we're real excited about it, and it's going to be something that we can maybe eventually promote with apparel ... It would be based on our other set of products, so we would have soap and moisturizer or maybe some lip balm under this sub-brand.
Do you fall under any regulations or have to get certifications to make your products?
Surprisingly, it's not too heavily regulated, which is scary. So a lot of the policing is through the community. We follow very closely EWG.org, which is Environmental Working Group, and they have a cosmetics database. So there's a lot of community-based policing organizations like that.
The bad thing about it is that it leaves a lot of the research up to the consumer, and you're not going to have the big guys tell you, look, our product is bad for you; these ingredients that we put in these products are carcinogens or they are bioaccumulative, which means that even though you have a small, trace amount in your body, it accumulates. It can't get back out through your body's cell walls.
So we don't want to appear on that bad list. It's very important to us that our products stay as close to the earth and as natural as possible.
Do you and Kevin bring any of your skills from TSYS and Synovus to this venture?
Yes. I've been working at TSYS for seven years. Prior to that, I worked mostly for small businesses, so going into the corporate world was a big shift for me. But I took a lot of the business practices that I saw at TSYS and I applied them to EarthBaby. Some of those things are the commitment to the customer. TSYS is so very customer focused and oriented. It's just rich in the culture. And they are so wonderful to all of their team members, all of their employees.
Phil Tomlinson's retired now, but I would go and listen to him and he would inspire me with just how focused he was on being a good person, being nice, very approachable. It seems so basic. He was very customer focused. He got it. He realized that without the happy customer, you don't have a job.
You bring that mentality to EarthBaby?
Absolutely. If somebody is not happy about something with our product, we always try to make everything right.
What's the toughest or most challenging part of your EarthBaby job?
I would say juggling everything. Sometimes we get a charge out of a certain thing. Maybe we've gone to a really good show and we got a really good response from that community, then we're just on cloud nine. Then the complete opposite could happen. We could go to some motorcycle show and nobody responds to us at all and we're like, oh, what did we do wrong; we just need to quit. Let's quit and spend more time at the beach. (laughs) So I think it's staying self motivated and staying focused on what our vision and passion is.
You face competition at times?
Yeah. I think that is something that I've had to grow a thick skin for is competition. And I think that's with any business owner. If you don't ultimately get a handle on that right out of the gate, then you might as well not be in business.
What's the most satisfying thing you get out of your job?
When somebody comes and tells me that our product has changed their life, or has changed their daughter's life. I think that's the most gratifying thing, to know that we made a difference in somebody's life and that they came to me personally and told me.
So it's full speed ahead now, no stopping the EarthBaby?
If we stopped, we would have too much to get rid of. What do I have, a big yard sale or something? (laughs) We have a 2,600-square-foot facility full of raw materials and packaging materials and stuff. We have a lot of paper for our packaging.
It's been a big commitment?
This is a huge commitment. EarthBaby bought a piece of property and EarthBaby can't default. (smiles)
Is there anything else you would like to add?
How much we give back to the community ... We are in our fifth year of House of Heroes support -- donations and fund-raising for the Run for the Heroes-Run/Ride Across Georgia. Additional charities we support every year is Children's Miracle Network, Cancer Awareness via the West Georgia Cancer Coalition, United Way, Eye Care for the Needy in Zimbabwe, and countless other fund-raisers throughout the year that require gift baskets for raffles and silent auctions.
Names: Bonnie and Kevin Reherman
Ages: 39 and 42
Hometowns: Fairbanks, Alaska & Chicago, Ill.
Current residence: Midland area of Columbus
Education: Bonnie — attended high school in Fairbanks, and college at Austin Peay State University; Kevin — attended high school in Chicago, and college at University of Illinois-Carbondale
Previous jobs: Bonnie — currently works at TSYS as a process improvement consultant, past experience as an insurance agent; Kevin — currently works at Synovus in information security, and worked in internal audit at TSYS in the past
Family: Two children — Zeke, 11, and Nyla, 5
Leisure time: With their fulltime jobs and the EarthBaby venture, there’s not a lot of extra time. All of their vacations are spent traveling to and from trade and craft shows. They enjoy spending time with their friends, especially on Fridays when they hold “Good Clean Fun Fridays.” That is when they provide food and wine for friends who come and help them finish work on their products, such as wrapping and labeling. They also enjoy playing with their kids and dogs on their property in Midland