Owner: Chris Sniffen
Business: Handcrafted soaps and wholesale essential oils
Chris Sniffen is a man in a women’s world.
“I still can’t believe sometimes that I make soap for a living,” he said.
The farmers markets and craft shows where he sells his products in person are populated with ladies in the industry. Nearly all of Sniffen’s competition are women-owned businesses.
He and his brother Ray launched Ray’s of Colorado in September 2010. The business has doubled its production and revenue every year since and it’s now enough to support Sniffen financially.
“This is all I do,” he said. “I make soap.”
He’s a one-man operation. His brother, Ray Sniffen, passed away in the summer, making the business name all the more meaningful. It originally was named for the men’s father, who taught them all they knew about building a business.
Sniffen and his brother were working in retail and restaurants back in 2009 and 2010. None of the jobs they’d had up to that point were very rewarding or interesting, Sniffen said.
“We wanted to start our own business based on what our father taught us,” he said.
His dad was a contractor who owned his own construction company when the boys were growing up. He always told them about the virtues of being his own boss and owning his own business.
It became something Sniffen and his brother wanted. But they didn’t know where to start or what kind of business they would build together.
They worked with the Small Business Development Center at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, doing research and looking into different trades.
The brothers considered opening a bar or a restaurant, because it was an industry they both knew well. But it was never their passion, Sniffen said. And it would have taken a big initial investment.
“We wanted to start this with our own money,” he said.
In researching business ideas, Ray suggested soap-making. Chris Sniffen thought his brother was joking at first. They laughed a little and then they gave the idea a real look.
There was a lot of opportunity in the growing handmade and natural soaps market. It wouldn’t take a big investment and it was something they could grow slowly.
“I pretty much read every book ever written about soap-making,” Sniffen said. “I taught myself about the chemistry behind soap and what makes a quality product.”
He spent $1,000 on a double electric burner and boiling system, then he started out experimenting with different methods and oils.
“You learn about what gives different soaps that longevity,” he said. “Things like avocado oils make a softer soap that dissipates faster than harder oils like coconut.”
The trick was to make luscious soaps that were moisturizing and pleasant, but that lasted.
He uses a hot processing method and cooks his soaps twice so he can mold them into shapes instead of cutting them into square bars. The method results in a stronger and longer-lasting bar, he said.
“It takes longer and it’s more work,” he added. “But it’s worth it for the final product.”
It took a little more than six months after the initial soap-making efforts began before the brothers started selling their product, Sniffen said. He wanted to know what the shelf life was like and how the soaps would hold up over time before they started selling them to customers.
But as soon as they hit the farmers markets and craft shows, their soaps started selling, Sniffen said.
People love the product and they love the family’s story behind it. There’s something about a couple of guys standing behind a table of handcrafted soaps at a craft show that attracts attention — and good business, Sniffen said.
Feeling the need to do something a little more masculine, Sniffen said he started developing shaving soaps at the request of his brother-in-law.
“People who buy shaving soaps are very critical,” Sniffen said. “They’re not afraid to say if you have a bad product.”
Fortunately, that works in the other direction as well. Ray’s started getting rave reviews on shaving websites, and business picked up substantially. In 2011, the shaving soaps made up about 75 percent of the business with most sales happening online at websites like ebay.com and etsy.com.
“I thought the shaving soaps were going to be it,” Sniffen said. “I figured that was what would carry our business.”
But soaps made with beer and wine have become increasingly popular, Sniffen said. And he’s stumbled onto a new market in the past year.
While handcrafted soaps are constantly becoming more and more popular, people don’t just want to buy the soap anymore, Sniffen said. They want to make it themselves.
The trouble is that the supplies are pricey and made even more expensive with shipping. Sniffen has been buying his supplies in bulk and selling the oils wholesale in Colorado so buyers can save on shipping expenses. That’s a growing part of his business that looks like it could overshadow his shaving soaps.
“Of course, I’ll never stop making the products I have,” he said. “My customers would be really upset.”
He’s dedicated nearly his entire house, which is in Calhan in northeastern El Paso County, to his soap-making operation. He takes a cart of packages to the post office every day and ships 10 to 20 boxes of Ray’s products off to buyers.
“I want to keep working out of my house as long as I possibly can,” Sniffen said. “But I am bursting at the seems.”
He said the next step, which he expects is at least a year away, will be to find a storefront in Colorado Springs where he can work and also sell his products, along with the oils, and possibly teach soap-making courses.