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The Soap Making Business and Sustainability | Featuring Zen Soap

by Pablo Fuentes | Last Updated March 15, 2017
The Soap Making Business and Sustainability

For those of us that grew up in the 90s, it's hard to talk about making soap and not think about Brad Pitt's role as Tyler Durden in the movie Fight Club.

However, that's the perfect setup for today's episode of Small Business War Stories.

We talked with Chris Cabiya, of Zen Soap, who is also a practitioner of Jiu-Jitsu. Chris is now in his second year of operation as a small business owner. 

Chris combines his passion for Jiu-Jitsu, a vegetarian diet, and his concern for the environment to create a high quality sustainable soap products.

We talked to Chris about how he got into the soap making business, why sustainability is important to him, and what advice he has for anyone starting a new venture.

Check it out:

Listen to the podcast:

Show Notes

A summary of our interview with Chris Cabiya of Zen Soap is below.

You can use the links below to jump to your interests.


How did you start making soap?

Chris Cabiya: Basically, I was working a job where I was pretty much miserable. I was in the construction industry and had gone to trade school. I was working 40, 50, sometimes 60 hours a week. You know, just trying to make money. I didn't really know what I was going to do.

I was coming out of a kind of rough part of my life, at the time. This was towards the end of my late 20s. It was kind of like I stayed at the party a little too long, I would say. I was just kind of stuck in this job, kind of miserable, not really having any direction in life.

My brother had turned me on to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He had taken a class and was training at the time and said, "Hey, you know, you really need to go try this out, 'cuz it's awesome."

I finally went and took a class and fell in love with it as so many people do. Pretty much from there it became about, how am I going to train more? How can I create a lifestyle that revolves around me doing what it is that I want to do?

That's basically how I got started in it.

Jiu-Jitsu and soap, these two things literally go hand in hand for me.

Why is it that Jiu-Jitsu and soap go hand in hand?

Chris Cabiya: Yeah. From a practical standpoint, you're sweating, you're exercising, and your sweat is mixing with other people's sweat and whatever else is leftover on the mat or in somebody's gi (uniform). It can be pretty nasty, because it basically just soaks everything up.

In Jiu-Jitsu, traditionally, for the most part is trained on the ground. So, you're essentially rolling around on the ground with other people sweating. It can be pretty nasty by the end of a training session. So, it's important to have good hygiene.

People that train jiu-jitsu like the idea of using an all-natural products to cleanse themselves. They don't want to use something that has a lot of ingredients you can’t pronounce on the back of the label.

Before you'd ever made a bar of soap, how did you start researching this and get into it? How did this all come about?

Chris Cabiya: I mean, I still ask myself that question sometimes. I'm like, "How did I actually latch onto soap?"

As an artist, there's so many different mediums. It's basically limitless, right? I mean, as far as what you want to create. Honestly, I still don't really know exactly what attracted me to soap. Maybe it was just kind of like, I don't know, the universe coming together and pushing me in this direction, you know?

I see so many metaphors and so many different ways of looking at it. Like I mentioned, I was kind of like one of the guys that had been partying real hard, and just kind of was looking for another way to get out of that lifestyle.

Jiu-Jitsu was initially what grabbed me and pulled me in. Then, as I begin to train and begin to kind of just work on this project to free myself from this trap that I had found myself stuck inside of, I begin to see, well, getting clean through Jiu-Jitsu and getting clean through the process of taking a shower with good, natural, soap. There was a lot of crossover there for me.

So, I really kind of latched onto that. I was like, "There's something I can do here." It's more than just creating a good situation for myself. I want to pass this on to other people. Because there are lots of people that have different kinds of struggles in their life whatever it may be, whether it's addiction, or anger issues, or maybe they spend too much money, self-control issues, you know? I figured that Jiu-Jitsu would be a vehicle for me to develop this company, or this way, where I could spread my message.

Before we started recording, we were talking about a book on the shelf here, called Instructions to the Cook, that it talks about how meditation and zen practice is basically this process of cleaning the kitchen every day. Living, existing, and being is sort of like cooking with the ingredients that you have in your life, and then meditating is sort of that process of cleansing that. Is that what making soap is like for you?

Chris Cabiya: Yes, absolutely. Cooking's a great example. I mean, you can pick anything, and if it's something you enjoy doing and you're in the moment, and you're just completely grabbing on to everything that you're being offered in that moment ... the breath that you breathe, the smells that you smell if you're cooking, you're washing the food, you're cutting the food ... it can be a very calming, almost mindless type of meditation.

You're not really necessarily thinking about what you're doing, but you're completely focused on it at the same time. Mindfulness through no-mind is the juxtaposition. This is the irony or the opposites that we find in life. The push-pull, you know? I see so much of this through these kinds of practices, whether it's soap, or cooking, or Jiu-Jitsu.

Thinking about your first batch of soap ever. How did you start?

Chris Cabiya: The first batch didn't turn out very well. It was after training one day and we went out to go get lunch at a local restaurant here in Austin, Bouldin Creek Café, which is an awesome restaurant. After lunch, we were just wandering around on the street, and there was a little soap shop that's been here in town. A woman owns it by the name of Annette Mayfield. It's called Austin Natural Soap. She's like the OG soap maker here in town, you know?

I stumbled in there and just was talking to her, and through the conversation she was just telling me about the whole process. Everything seemed very natural and organic. I felt like I should buy something by the end of our conversation.  She answered so many of my questions, you know?

So, I bought what's called Melt and Pour. It's a clear glycerin base that somebody has already made. It's essentially soap that you melt down and then you add whatever kind of fragrance or color you want. Whatever flair you want to put on it, you put on it, and then you pour it into your mold.

So, you're kind of taking somebody's soap base that they've already created and just adding to it. That was how I initially got started, but it really sparked the fire of "I want to make this from scratch."

What is the difference in the process that you initially did to make soap versus what it is today?

Chris Cabiya: There are basically two main processes that you can use to make soap. There's what's known as the hot process, and there's what's known as the cold process. You can combine them. There's hot process/oven process ... Not to bore the readers with too much of the details. I get bogged down in too much of that stuff, but you can combine hot process and cold process.

I essentially started out with hot process, where you take oil and caustic soda, you combine the two, and then you add heat to it. It'll make the bar come out looking a little more rustic. That's how I started. There's not as much flexibility in terms of making decorative soap or putting nice fancy swirls in it. You're kind of limited on that aspect, but it's a really good way to start. I used a Crock-Pot.

That's basically how I started. It was hot process for a while, and then I started researching more and more. Now, everything that I make is cold process. Cold process is basically the same process as hot process, you just don't add heat to it.

You work with some dangerous chemicals. How do you deal with all that?

Chris Cabiya: I use caustic soda…it's what's know as lye. All soap makers work with lye. If it touches your hand, it'll burn you. There's no way to stop the chemical burn other than using a chemical. It's a very strong base. So you use white vinegar, which is and acid, to neutralize it.

That's a super important part of making soap and working with the lye, is taking all the safety precautions that you need to take ... eye protection, white vinegar, keeping that around, because it's going to get on you, no matter how safe you are.

Is getting burned by lye like getting burned by a flame?

Chris Cabiya: Well, that's interesting because I've actually ... I had two skin grafts because I got burned by a flame on my leg. It's a bit different. It's a little different. It's painful. It's kind of scary because you really can't stop it. You try to wash it off with soap and water and it just doesn't stop burning. It just gets more intense.

What’s something that most people don't know about the soap business?

Chris Cabiya: I feel like there's so many things that I'm still learning about it myself. I guess one of the things that I could share personally, I really started to unpack all of the things that I was putting into the soap. So in terms of like, what are the ingredients that I'm using? Where are they coming from? Why am I putting this in there? What is the purpose of it? How is it going to affect the soap? How is it going to affect the person that's using the soap?

I really started to kind of nerd-out on that, like the ingredients, where they're sourced from. Is it ethical? Is it sustainable? How is it going to affect the environment? How is it going to affect the region that it's coming from?

Can you tell me more about sustainable palm oil and how you think about sustainability in your business?

Chris Cabiya: Globally, it's a big issue. It's not just the soap industry that it's a big issue in. Palm oil is in almost everything. It's in peanut butter. It's in food. It's in a lot of consumer products.

So, there is a big push by people that are concerned for the environment, the habitat, because what's happening is in the areas where it's harvested, they're basically clearing rainforests and making plantations for palm oil. It's destroying the habitat in different parts of the world.

The sustainable palm oil thing, it's basically just a push to use suppliers that are involved in the sustainable chain. It's still an issue that I'm kind of on-edge with because the more I research it, the more I just really try to get away from using it.

That's where the crystal soaps come in. I've been putting stones in certain bars of soap. That basically came from my research about palm oil. I started to just feel a hard-core conviction about it, you know? I look at the pictures of the orangutans and look at the pictures of the plantations and the land and what's going on in these different parts of the world, and it's kind of heartbreaking. I don't want to have any of that blood on my hands. It's kind of the opposite of what Zen Soap is about. I don't want to be part of that destructive process.

That's where the crystal soaps came in. I started putting the crystals in the soaps because it cost more to use other materials than palm oil. That's one reason palm oil is so popular; it is extremely inexpensive and it's versatile. It makes a really hard bar of soap, long-lasting; it makes great soap.

But the crystal soaps don't have any palm oil in them at all. I use a blend of six different oils. It's coconut oil, castor oil, hemp seed oil, olive oil, cocoa butter, and shea butter. All unrefined, unprocessed

I still carry some palm oil soaps, and I reached out to the people that I purchase the palm oil from and they assured me that everything that they sell is ethically and sustainably sourced. So, I feel like I'm on the right side of that situation, but the idea behind the crystal soaps was to just kind of test the market because I charge a premium price for those. They cost more to make, and the stone has an additional cost to it. They're really fat bars. They're almost eight ounces, which is, you know, half pound so I charge a little more for those just to see how people would respond to it, and the idea is to eventually just completely phase out palm oil.

How long has it been from the first time you sold a bar of soap until today? And how long ago did you start really learning about all these issues around sustainability?

Chris Cabiya: This is my second year in business as Zen Soap, but I've been making soap almost since the beginning of my Jiu-Jitsu journey which has been about six years.

In terms of sustainability, it was a process. When I first started making soap from scratch, I was using what is known as tallow, which essentially is animal fat, or lard, which again, makes awesome soap. It's basically how people made soap on the farm. It's a great way to not waste any kind of product.

But I don't eat meat. I have a plant-based diet. So, it kind of started there, you know? I was like, "Oh, animal fat."

You know, I'm not really living on a farm, so it's not like it’s readily available. I have to go to the store and buy it, and it's like ... I don't know, man. It was just kind of weird to me. It kind of has a certain smell to it. You can kind of smell the fat in it.

I'm just always looking for alternative ways, better ways, to do things. To me, getting away from using animal fat in the soap was the first big eye-opener as to what ingredients I'm putting in there.

From there, it's just been a progression. I don't use any micas, which are like a synthetic colorants, and no animal byproducts are used in the soap. It's completely, 100% plant-based. All the colorants are earth-derived, so they're either natural clays or root powders, so a root that's been taken and ground up. Same thing with the fragrances and the way that I scent the soap that are ... It's an all-natural product.

What advice would you give yourself if you could sit down with Chris from when you first started the business?

Chris Cabiya: Trust your instincts, for sure. Always just believe in what it is that you're doing.

I found that in the beginning I was trying to kind of please everybody. That's a really hard thing to do. Really what it comes down to is just doing something that you believe in and making something or creating something that you believe in. I feel like if you're passionate about what you're doing as an artist or anything, and you really believe in it and you're going for it, there's going to be nothing that's going to hold you back. 

There's going to be nothing that's going to stop you. There'll be challenges and roadblocks in the way, but you're going to find a way to move around it, and people are going to support you because they can feel the vibration and energy that you're putting into your product and that you're putting into everything that you're doing because it's real. People want to connect with something that's real.

I think that's the most important thing is just to believe in yourself.

What are some of the wackiest and oddest things that you've seen in the soap business?

Chris Cabiya: Oh, man. Just all the people that I meet. There are so many different kinds of people in this world. I go to these markets, and I'm already kind of surrounded by an eclectic group on purpose. I like to be around creative types. I like to be around people that are just maybe considered weirdos or freaks or just ... They have a different way of looking at life or approaching life. I love that. I feel like it just adds a richness to the culture of art, if you will.

Musicians and just people that paint or soap makers or martial artists, whatever it may be. Just the random people that I come across, just conversations that I have with people. I have a rule that if I hear something coming from different people at least three times, then I generally follow that. That's something that I've applied in my life and especially to the soap.  I'll get people, "Hey, man, have you thought about this?" If it keeps recurring, if it's a recurring theme, I latch onto it and I go with it.

You're continuing to evolve your business. You just launched a subscription service you call it a 'soapscription service.' Can you tell me more about that?

Chris Cabiya: Yeah. Absolutely. It is an idea that has come from the collective group of people that I surround myself with. Basically, it's just a monthly subscription box. You go to our website, and you pick out how many bars of soap you want sent to you every month. Choose your scents. We send them every month, and you can add on different one-time purchases, such as beard oil, or our soap savers, or some of the other products that we offer. It was just something that came about from people suggesting that maybe that's an avenue that I should investigate.

Also, the majority of our sales are coming from these little markets, these pop-up art markets. I do some wholesale orders, and I've done some other little ... I'm in a few boutiques around town. Rabbit Food Grocery is one of them. I'm in Gracie Humaita, Shed Barber Shop, Atomic Athlete, along with some other little spots. It was kind of an idea to help maybe create some more stability in the business.

Where can people find you online? And do you have any offers for our listeners/readers?

Chris Cabiya: People can go to Zensoapco.com, and there's a little link there if you go down on the website, and if you're interested in the subscription service, you can click there and follow that. For listeners and readers of the show, use 'PODCAST' as the coupon code, and you get 10% off.

Let's talk about Austin a little bit. Austin is changing so much. Where do you see Austin going in the next five, 10 years? You know, you see ... It's a city with a lot of soul. It's also a city that's seeing a lot of development and a lot of institutions that maybe have not been able to keep up with that pace. How do you see the city growing?

Chris Cabiya: Yeah, that's an interesting question. I'm a native Austinite, so I've been here and I've kind of watched everything kind of explode, you know? It was kind of just this sleepy little hippie town like 10, 15 years ago. Then, a bunch of the tech businesses moved here, and everybody kind of found out how great Austin was.

Everybody moved here, which brings with it good things and bad things. The economy's grown here. There's lot of jobs. There's a lot of money here, so it's good for people like me, little small business owners, because people want to buy stuff like that and they have the money to buy it, which is good. But at the same time, it kind of pushes guys like me out because I think initially the attraction for artists to move here was because of the cheap rent. So, somebody could be a musician or be a soap maker and afford to live here on that kind of a "starving artist," air quotes, type of income.

But you know, rents are being raised, and everything's just getting more expensive. It's kind of trying to find the balance. Where does it stop? Is the bubble going to burst? I hope that the underlying current that is the vibration that Austin has that initially attracts people to it does not die.

I hope that it stays. There needs to be people like us that keep that alive. As long as there are people like you and me around to keep it alive, I think it'll stay alive.

There's some old Austin people still here that are passing that along. Annette is one of those people. She's a great example. She passed on the soap thing to me, so I kind of feel like I'm an ambassador.

We need to keep creativity flourishing. We need people to keep thinking outside the box, and we need people to take chances and just to decide to have an idea and run with it.

Is there anything else that you want to share with our audience?

Chris Cabiya: Yeah. I just think my whole message with Zen Soap is just to believe in yourself no matter what it is that you're going through in life, whether it's something good or you're in a really hard spot and you want to make a change, you can do it because I'm living that right now. I am a living example of this.

I came from a spot where I would literally just daydream while I was at work about doing something different and lay down on my bed at night and fantasize about how I wanted my life to be.

When I look back on it now, it's only been a couple short years, but I've already reached those goals and surpassed them, and it's become more than I could even imagine. I know it's just going to keep getting better.

Just whatever it is, whoever's reading out there, just really grab on to that and take it inside of you and dream. Really focus on those dreams, whether you want to call it meditation or whatever you want to call it. Just believe in yourself and go after it if you're passionate about it because the universe will come together to make it happen for you.

Final Thoughts

Chris discovered his passion when he started making soap and has been able to turn that into a successful small business.

He (and we agree) says that when starting a business it's important to trust your instincts and do something that is authentic to you. People want to connect with something that is real.

If you have any question or comments about today's episode, please leave a comment below.

Topics: small business war stories, podcast

Pablo Fuentes

Written by Pablo Fuentes

Pablo Fuentes is the CEO of Proven. He is a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and UCLA. He is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner and a blues guitar player and builder.

 

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