DIY soap making has been a hobby I’ve always said I wanted to try, but never took action on. The high cost of soap making classes and the lack of know-how to do so at home are my main barriers to try it as a one-off activity.
In contrast to me, a group of doctors enjoyed the activity so much that they began operating a social enterprise around it called Smooth Soaperator. Hailing from KL, Selangor, and Penang, the full-time medical practitioners work on this passion project together as their leisure activity.
Dr Nadia, founder of the business chimed, “We started soap making as a way to de-stress and ended up loving how amazing handmade soaps are, as compared to commercial soaps. We actually had too many soaps in the end, so we decided to sell them for charity!”
People were willing to pay for them
Initially producing the soaps at a faster rate than they could use, the team began giving out extras. It was well-received by the public who soon demanded to buy the soaps, much to the team’s surprise.
The for-profit social enterprise was launched in April 2020 in conjunction with Autism Awareness Month. Due to the MCO, usual fundraisers came to a sudden halt. That was the doctors’ trigger to start selling their products online and channelling proceeds to the cause.
Despite raising those funds to sponsor autism programmes, however, the charities used Smooth Soaperator’s proceeds as cash donations to poor families during the first MCO.
“We usually don’t dictate the terms for the charity or organisations. They are happy to take any donation (especially non-tax-deductible organisations), but they do ask for privacy which we respect,” explained Dr Nadia.
On how the group of 6 doctors finds time to make soap, Dr Nadia shared that it could be done with intention. “Work is undoubtedly stressful and it can be overwhelming at times, especially during the pandemic, but we have always found ways to do things outside of work as a coping mechanism, like soap making.”
An inside joke for a name
Smooth Soaperator’s name doesn’t require much for one to draw reference to the 1984 Sade song, Smooth Operator, to which Dr Nadia confirmed was true.
Dr Nadia told Vulcan Post the brand’s name started as an inside joke amongst the doctors where they’d make fun of those who dropped their tools (safely) during surgery by saying “smooth move”.
She added, “Since the art of soap making feels like a de-stressing operating environment, (as we had to also wear gowns and gloves like in surgery) we thought of the song: Smooth Soaperator!”
Handcrafted soaps in Malaysia is already a saturated industry with brands like LUSH, BUIH, Sluvi, and many more small-time players sharing the space. But the social enterprise isn’t fighting to be the best, nor is it the team’s goal to stand out.
That didn’t stop them from finding a niche, however. The team is conscious of the public’s fondness for bespoke products, a trend which handmade watch and jewellery brands Konnii Watch and Left & Right are also leveraging. Thus, they offer customisation services for their handmade soaps and bath products too.
For instance, the team will get requests to create petite bath bombs to fit in baby bathtubs, so parents can make bath time fun for their toddlers, and other suggestions from customers that drive R&D.
A side business full of dedication
R&D for new products is a vigorous yet fun process, said the team. As inspiration can come from anywhere with creative work, the soap makers have their own soap journal that functions somewhat like a Pinterest board.
With festive designs and soaps that incorporate crystals, the team must ensure that their products are both functional and charming. New recipes for soaps are made in small batches to avoid wastage since certain formulas are hard to work with.
Though only 2 hours are required to make the soaps, the curing process takes another month before they can be used. Before the products are released to the market, the doctors will first test them with the help of their network.
Because the business is a passion project for the doctors, they’ve yet to achieve economies of scale. It’s where a proportionate saving in costs is gained by an increased level of production. Hence, each batch of soaps made by the team only yields around 13 bars of soap.
“Zero wastage (in materials) also means lower volume and high costs per unit. So our price ranges between RM13-RM25, depending on the size and ingredients used in the soap. We outright calculate the charity contribution upfront, which is RM2-RM5 per soap,” said Dr Nadia.
“It’s a tough balance that we needed to find as for the price point, because we need to have a good amount to be contributed to charity, and at the same time be affordable enough for people to buy.”
To me, paying for a bar of soap at that cost is actually quite reasonable, even more so after knowing that a portion of the profits will go to a good cause. It’s likely a sentiment shared by Smooth Soaperator’s customers as well, who are mostly people with sensitive skin, Dr Nadia reported.
Featured Image Credit: Dr Nadia, founder of Smooth Soaperator