Mera McGrew: Founder of Soapply

Episode 404

Mera McGrew, Founder of the terrific brand Soapply, created her company to be clean and simple. They make great products that consumers love with ingredients that are just better. We hear all about why she started Soapply and how seeing a hole in the market convinced her that it was time to start a company that would clean it all up. Her strategy of helping fund clean water and sanitation projects too helping millions around the world is so inspiring. I love her commitment, the back story, the products and I can’t wait for you to hear more about Mera’s journey in building Soapply. You are going to love this episode of #TheKaraGoldinShow.

And experience the rich lather of Soapply and start reverberating change with each hydrating wash today. As a listener of The Kara Goldin show, enjoy 20% off your first order on with code KARAGOLDINSHOW. Happy washing!

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be, you just want to make sure you will get knocked down. But just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone. It’s Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show. And I am so excited to have my next guest. Here we have Mara McGrew, who is the founder of Soapply. And if you have not heard of Soapply, maybe you’ve seen it at West Elm stores, and many other locations as well. It’s also available online, of course, but it’s an incredible, incredible product and with an incredible founder and CEO as well, who is Mara and we are very, very excited to have her here. Soapply is really pretty simple. They sell great. So on their site, they actually the site is so plied and they sell amazing soaps, but the consumers love, but it has a lot better ingredients. And truly better ingredients, very unique ingredients that not only are better, but also feel better. And after learning about the lack of label requirements, transparency and some safety regulations, Mara saw a hole in the market that she needed to clean up. Sound familiar? Sounds like a entrepreneur in the making for sure. So Soapply is also funding many amazing projects in the water and sanitation space, too, and helping millions around the world. And I love her commitment and the backstory. And of course, the products are absolutely amazing. So I’m super excited to have everybody introduce to Mara and the company. So welcome.

Mera McGrew 2:21
Thank you for having me here. I’m so excited to be here and to share supplies store I love talking about so saponification the global importance of hand washing, so you’ll have to stop me I can talk all day. Oh, I

Kara Goldin 2:33
love it. No, it’s so great. So before we get into hearing about supply and your journey and building it, I would love to hear more about what you were doing before you started. Soapply.

Mera McGrew 2:44
Okay, so my background is actually in science. I started my career working in a marine chemical Ecology Lab. I was doing antimicrobial and anti bacterial research working on drug discovery, which has come full circle and helped quite a bit when it came to formulating and creating a superior product. But my career did start in a marine chemical Ecology Lab. Like I said, I was doing what I would consider pretty sexy science. We were I only use that word sexy. By the way, when I’m describing science, which I think might say something about me and who I am. But pretty sexy science. We were scuba diving and some of the most pristine coral reefs in the world. We were collecting organisms, we were collecting sponges and seaweeds. And we were taking them back to the lab. We were testing them for anti microbial anti bacterial, anti cancer, anti malaria properties. We were then purifying those compounds and patenting them and then working partnering with some of the largest players in the space to push drug development forward. And it was in doing that research that I first had an opportunity to get exposed to journalists because journalists were excited about the story. You know, marine scientists scuba diving to find the cure to cancer. It’s six sexy headline. And I realized I loved being the liaison between the lab and the journalist and communicating and disseminating scientific information in a way that was factual, but also got people excited and allowed them to understand what was actually happening. And then I ended up getting offered a position at National Geographic, which was my childhood dream and took it and then that turned into an opportunity through TED talks, where I was hired to build out what is now called Mission blue, which was the result of Dr. Sylvia hurls TED Prize, and it was through talking at a event in Idaho. Have someone in the audience was one of the founders of one of the largest tourism operators in Africa. And he came up to me afterwards and shared this vision of formalizing their impact and how and why it was so critical to their business to their bottom line to fund conservation and empowerment in the local communities have local Biet. How to formalize that, how they were looking to really roll it all out, I let them know, I’m not really interested in the tourism space. And two weeks later, my bag was packed, I was on a flight to South Africa, and it was the beginning of over two and a half years living on the continent. And really, that ended up being the propeller that experience the exposure that I got through that experience. That set me on the journey to start supply.

Kara Goldin 5:52
That’s wild. So it’s one thing to be doing a lot of scientific research and enjoy soap and believe in it. But it’s another thing to actually decide I’m gonna go and produce these products and also develop a company around it with no experience doing it. So very courageous on many, many levels or stupid. I’m not sure that’s what I always say about starting the company that I started hint. So tell me a little bit about that day.

Mera McGrew 6:29
Yeah. So I think when it comes to the why behind supply, the reason that I started supply really is impact. And it’s at the center of everything that we do when people talk about starting a business to your point is it, you know, stupid, I’m not sure. But really the why behind supply was, I saw the reality of preventable child mortality, I saw the difference that the simple act of hand washing could make. I saw kids getting sick from diseases like diarrheal disease and respiratory disease. And they weren’t just missing out on a day of school. They were losing their life. And it was personal. I realized it was something I cared about immensely. I saw the difference that it could make that sustainable investments in water, sanitation and hygiene, hand washing, specifically the difference it could make in an individual life, in a classroom and of an entire community. And I said, I want to like this, I want to figure out how to fund it. And I realized that my background, my network, put me in a position of privilege that I thought you know what, I could do a fundraiser, I could raise money, fund a project. But I didn’t want to fund a project, I wanted to change how we fund hand washing, I wanted to set new benchmarks, I wanted to save lives. And I realized to do that I needed a sustainable business, I needed a sustainable revenue stream. And so the initial idea for supply really was sell. So that helps get soap in the hands that needed. It was inspired by learning one stark fact, that is depressing. And I share only because it’s important to know a problem exists to be able to solve the problem. Well, yeah, I learned that 1.7 million children under the age of five were losing their life every year before they were able to celebrate their fifth birthday, because of diseases we could prevent entirely through the simple act of hand washing. Today, that number has been reduced slightly. Today, 1.4 million children under the age of five are losing their lives every year because of diseases we could prevent, entirely through the simple act of hand washing with soap. It’s crazy. I started supply to change that. And I will not stop until we do. preventable deaths should be prevented period. And it was really that unfortunate fact, that inspired me to start supply that made that light bulb go off in my mind. And I moved back to the US saying you know what, I’m going to start a soap company that’s going to solve this global handwashing problem. And it was only in getting back to the US that I realized we have a soap problem of our own right here in the US. And we could do more than just solve this global access problem. We could solve the problem we’re facing as consumers in the United States. When it comes to this product that we’re using every single day. We could take an everyday essential soap, make it better and solve essential problems. I love that you might be thinking like what’s the problem that we’re facing here in the US? Yeah, yeah. And it’s safety soaping. US is surprisingly unsafe. Most soaps on store shelves, they’re not so good all their detergents are drying determine the last few years, we’ve been washing our hands more than ever. And you probably looked down at some point, looked at your skin and thought, oh my gosh, is that snakeskin or is that my skin, they’re dry, your nail beds are dry, maybe cracking, people often don’t realize that that has a lot to do with the soap you’re using your soap supplies a true soap, not a drying detergent is not going to strip your skin as it cleanses. It’s going to nourish your skin, it’s going to leave your skin feeling moisturized, you don’t feel like you have to reach for lotion. So the problem that we were facing here in the US was around safety. It was around ingredients, it was around quality. And again, and I think that, you know, when I talk to any entrepreneur, you know this, it often is personal. You see a problem you’re facing, there isn’t a solution, and you say I’m going to solve it. And for me, I grew up with eczema. Soap has always been something I’ve been aware of because as a kid, it was an irritant. I couldn’t wash it up with certain soaps, because it would cause my skin to break out. You know, anyone that suffers from any kind of sensitivity, knows that pain. There’s nothing like searching for everyday products that you actually need that will work that won’t cause you to break out and be irritated. And so growing up I was aware of the sensitivity, I was aware of the soap I was using I was reaching for so that my dermatologist had recommended when I was a kid, and I was using it blindly because it worked. I never look back at it and look to see what the ingredients were. But at that point, I’d moved back already in the back of my mind, I’m like I’m starting a soap company, I’m going to change the world, I’m going to convince people to help us fund this problem globally. And unfortunately, my mother was going through chemo. And well, at that point, she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. And I flew back to Colorado where I’m from, and I was meeting with her and the doctor. And the doctor gave us this stack of things that she needed to be aware of while she was going through chemo. And within that step was a list of things she needed to avoid everything from a buffet, which might have bacteria to soap. And my little brain start saying so why. And that’s when I learned that most soaps or detergents. And they’re really harsh. And my mom when she was going through chemo, like so many people, her skin thinned. And when your skin thins, it’s more susceptible. And so when you might be using a soap that often, you know, creates a little bit of irritation in the day to day, you might not think anything of it, maybe it just a little bit. But if you’re susceptible, you’re thin see your skin is thin. And all of a sudden she looked down, she was using the soap product that I had been recommended for sensitive skin. And all of a sudden it was creating almost what look like ulcers. And she’s needing to wash her hands, you know, at a time in her life where she needed to be washing them more than ever, she was the sexual. And now it turns out, most soaps on store shelves are next to your sink or your friend’s sink or your favorite restaurant. They’re heavily scented. And she was so sensitive to scent, and it would make her nauseous. And it put into motion this idea that here’s this product that all of us actually need. So we need soap to keep us clean. But more importantly, we need soap to keep us healthy. We all need three things when you really break it down. Food, water and our health.

Kara Goldin 14:05
So one of the things that I realized was has been sneaking more and more into soaps that didn’t even have it before is a lot of the sulfates and it’s it’s fascinating to me because that’s something that has always my skin is very sensitive to and it’s very frustrating. Because yelps that I’ve used before. They’ll sneak it in there. Maybe they’ll get acquired by a company and then they’ll go and sneak it in there as it’s a preservative and so I’m I’m very aware of it because it will cause me to have cystic acne on my face.

Mera McGrew 14:46
I would say yeah, that is it near hitting the nail on the head. I think a lot of people don’t realize that. When acquisitions happen. One of the things that happens with a lot of these especially luxury products is there’s often a reformulation And there’s a higher ticket costs. And so it’s one of these things where quality and price are directly correlated. It costs more money. Use good ingredients. Yeah, like sneak in a sulfate is the cost saver?

Kara Goldin 15:15
Totally. And that was. So I’m so curious, like when you actually went to formulate your product, you’re probably dealing with some of the same manufacturers, and you’re bringing in a, you know, formulation that they’re like, you could just use this, this and this instead. And it’ll be fine. How hard was it to find a co Packer that would actually do this product that in a different way? Because we definitely went through that when we were formulating without preservatives, but I’m so curious, like, how difficult it was for you?

Mera McGrew 15:53
I mean, the short answer is crazy difficult. The long answer is, when it comes to soap, one thing I realized really quickly is that soap making is an art. It’s a craft. And it’s something that has been perfected over the ages, you know, different regions of the world use different recipes. They’re using different formulations and practices to cure this. So. And one of the things that became really interesting to me, you know, and this is where my research and background in science came in is I was like, I want to learn from the best soap makers in the world. And I started making soap with anyone and everyone I could I made soap with the oldest family making soap in Tripoli. I made soap with soap makers throughout France, throughout Canada, the US. And I had a very long list of things that I said, I know, I don’t want in here. And here’s what I didn’t want. And it turns out, like you said, people want to cut costs. And one of the things we wanted to make sure was not in our soap was Pomo. Yeah, you know, home wins in almost every single thing that’s on store shelves. It doesn’t need to be in the soap you’re using. It’s cheaper. But it doesn’t need to be there. And so how can we work with an individual or a group that is willing to produce a formula that doesn’t cut costs in that way that won’t add that in? And then you know, what we realized and what was important to me early on is not just saying that we’re safe, not just say that we’re making a difference in terms of using better ingredients. But how do we actually show it? And so it turns out, soap does not. It’s not regulated, it’s not required to be labeled. It’s not required to be tested for safety. And so how do you add transparency, when that’s not required? And so one of the things that early on, I said is we’re going to use food grade organic oils that is regulated, we can source that, and it can add a bit of transparency. And then when we’re formulating, how do we say it’s safe? And no, because what happens to the little guys often times and you know this is they’ll say one thing, and then they sneak something else and you have no idea. And for supply, we realized that saying that it’s organic, is not enough, supplies certified, made safe. It’s a third party, nonprofit that tests the product, it will not bio accumulate in your body, it also is safe to go into our ecosystem, right? What you’re putting on your hands, is going down your drain. And it’s a triggering system. Yeah. And so we want to make sure it’s not going to bio accumulate and hurt the little fishies. And the plants and the environment that we love so much. So supplies certified, made safe. It’s something crazy proud of what’s in our product, but more importantly, what’s not. Yeah, so

Kara Goldin 18:46
interesting. So you also talked about funding projects, and which is, you know, close to your heart. And obviously, you had worked on a lot of different initiatives prior to starting so play. But can you talk a little bit about that, like how, how does that all work?

Mera McGrew 19:03
Yeah. So when it comes to how, where and why we give the way we do supply is looking at a impact model where we tie a direct donation to every ounce sold. Every eight ounces of supply is tied to a direct $1 donation. That means that our six type bottle is tied to a $1 donation. Our refill bottle is tied to a $4 donation. It’s a large part of what we do and how we do things. When it comes to how we give. We’re we’re aware that each community is unique. Each region is unique. It has unique needs. You know, if you go to one school, there might be the possibility of having, for example, a well in another area at another school. The only option might be a water catchment system, and you need local resources to help fill work on those needs so that things can be repaired, you need local buy in ownership. And so what we really do is we look very areas specific, we work one area at a time, one region at a time, we work through local NGOs. Right now our impact is focused in Ethiopia. And in India, we work through breast and through slash. And that is something that, for me, is really what keeps me going, it’s the why behind supply, it’s the thing that keeps me up at night, you know, making sure that I’m putting in the extra hours because I care endlessly about it.

Kara Goldin 20:38
That’s, that’s so great, it’s so great to be able to really tie your passion and your your, you know, interests in, in disrupting and changing something for the better into a product, obviously, you’re not a nonprofit, you are a for profit company, but you’re able to do that. And I think that that is something that, you know, we, we have been able to do as well at hint. And I think it’s surprising to many of my friends who sort of have those kinds of passions that work in a for profit sector, a big company, but they just don’t think that they could ever do that in a, you know, small startup. And I think you’re just another great example of being able to do that.

Mera McGrew 21:26
And it’s an opportunity to your point, I mean, I think that with the size of the company and coming in, when you’re a smaller company, you have the opportunity to really do things to say, when it comes to, for example, to water, sanitation, and hygiene, the NGOs are, you know, they have a way that they give, and they have reporting that they need to do. And when it comes to these Goliath companies, they’re looking at marketing, and they’re looking at a lot of different things. And sometimes it takes the little guy to come in and say, You can do it better, we’re going to prove it. And here are all of these individual consumers who care as much as we do. And they’re going to show you with their dollars, that you not only can do it, you have to do it. If you’re not going to value a line, they’re not going to buy from you. You have to stand for more. And so that’s been really, I think rewarding, too, is not just saying, here’s this thing we’re going to do, but seeing how consumers are part of it. They’re not just saying like We’re upgrading our so they’re proudly sharing, you know, oh, did you see that bottle of soap in my bathroom? It says it’s more than so at a dinner table. They’re telling their dinner guests, here’s why I love it. And it’s talking about the importance of hand washing. And it’s something that, you know, in the US, we often take for granted, we don’t think of it as a lecture, but it absolutely it No,

Kara Goldin 22:58
I love I love that. So how have you gotten the word out? You talked about consumers and sort of word of mouth. But obviously, getting the word out and marketing, especially when you’re a small company, like how have you gotten the word out about about supply?

Mera McGrew 23:16
Hand to hand person to person? And I think this is, you know, one of the beautiful things about having a really strong Why is it makes you do some crazy things to make sure you’re getting in front of the right people. So why started when we first launched, I worked with Westone. And they allowed us to do these pop ups in store. And we unofficially launched with them every single day from Thanksgiving. No, yeah, the day before Thanksgiving, until Christmas day. I was in store by myself with my cart of soap that I would bring every day set up my little stand. And Westone did an amazing thing. They said, You know what? You set it up, you take payments, we won’t take anything from you. We want we believe in what you’re doing. We want you to succeed. And they said here’s the deal. You have to stay with your product. We’re not responsible for it. And so I didn’t have employees, you know, it was me. So I’m taking the subway in New York City with my cart and so I’m going into you know, West Elm before they open. I allowed myself to have one cup of coffee, one glass of water one snack bar because that couldn’t go to the whole you my product and anyone that walks through that door. I was telling them about supply. I was telling them about our mission. I was telling them how changing their soap wouldn’t just keep plastic out of our oceans right were bottled and refillable glass bottles, but would help us fund this project in these programs around the world we’re saving lives. And people thought people became part of what we were building what I was building. And unbeknownst to me, one of the people who bought who bought multiple boxes, I think 15 ended up being a journalist for The New York Times. And awesome 24 hours before the New York Times ran a feature on supply, I got a call fact checking my name, my age, and I think where I was from, and you know, as an entrepreneur, it’s the absolute dream. And we funded supply for two years based on the sales that came off that app, it was we sold only prepaid subscriptions today, we sell one off purchases, and also we have Pay As You Go subscriptions. At that time, I started supply with $5,000. You know, people say things like that I actually started supply with $5,000. And a crazy hustle. And this lofty vision, it just, I wouldn’t stop until like, I love it. So that sort of like hustle is really it’s you know, individuals telling them about it, but then turning around in the Empowered individual that’s informed choosing to share supply. And so the New York Times featured supply, food and wine featured supply, the Wall Street Journal, Vogue, I have a crazy story about Vogue, where I got that the news that they featured us while I was in the middle of an impact trip violently ill. But reports of our our business,

Kara Goldin 26:41
that’s amazing. Well, I love the ESG approach and everything that you’re doing around developing a product and, and really developing a better product that is not only you know, better ingredients, but also just such a beautiful packaging, it feels great. Everything about it is just super, super lovely. What do you think is probably the hardest thing for you that maybe you didn’t think was you were going to encounter when you decided to launch this company? I think it’s you know, there are so many aspects every single day and being an entrepreneur that you run into all these barriers. That but is there something that you’re that, you know, is just sort of been a wall, but and you said I gotta figure this out somehow some way?

Mera McGrew 27:41
Hmm, that’s a great question. I mean, I think that it continues to change every year, you know, supplies been around since well, before hand washing was cool, but delicate. And it means that, you know, each year comes with its own challenges. The first challenge is, you know, how do you get into the retailer? The next one is, how do you increase the funnel? How do you not just get in that partners door? But how do we expand those stores? I’d say the thing that has been a challenge and also such a gift for supply is we take such a holistic approach to what we do. It doesn’t just matter, you know what’s in the product, it matters, how it’s packaged, it matters, what the impact of that the ingredients, the packaging, and the sale itself what that does. And so, owning the supply chain has come with extreme challenges, but also rewards that I never could have imagined. And I talked to other entrepreneurs that asked me about, you know, what’s one thing you’d recommend doing at the beginning? And one of the first things I say is know your supply chain, you’d be surprised how many founders do no idea. And we’re roughly reminded of that during, like peak pandemic. But one of the examples I get is supply has this really beautiful artists degrees. It’s one of the things that I love the most. And we have six unique artists, their incredible. The first artist is Oliver Jeffers, he’s a New York Times Best Selling illustrator and author. We have New Yorker cartoonist and National Geographic Explorer. And all of them bring their own style and create this unique artwork for the bottle. And part of that process is it’s a limited edition run, and we silkscreen each of those by hand. And one of the things I learned in that process is one of the artists came to me and said, you know, here’s the design, I want it printed in this color. And the color was read. And I went I don’t know if you’re saying because maybe you know this, but I didn’t at the time. So I go to the printer and we’re sitting there I’m talking to the folks that are going to subscreen it and I share the color swatch. And I say, here’s what we’re going to color match to. And they look at me and they just say, no. What? Why not I paying you? Yes, they say, No, you can print with that color, one place in the world that is so toxic to print with red ink. And guess what there is red and gone a lot of glass interesting. There are oddities with red ink on them. There’s rainbows on glass bottles, there’s measuring cups with red who’s not know though. There’s high end face creams with reading, it turns out it contains mercury is banned. And you can read print with that in China. And it’s something that without having direct access and control over the supply chain, even as an entrepreneur who cares a lot, I wouldn’t have known. And that is the kind of detail. And also, frankly, the authenticity with which supply is being built, that allows us to be a brand that I can come on and chat with you and be super proud of the details. Because at the end of the day, it’s the details that matter. And it is those unexpected challenges that pop up that you have no idea about until you know, and owning the supply chain, really understanding the supply chain, as a founder. You’ve got to do it. But it takes time. And sometimes you don’t want to sometimes it’s easier to say, just give me the quote, I’ll sign off.

Kara Goldin 31:46
Well, I think you’re 100% Right, I think really understanding expecially you know, as a as a founder, every aspect of your business until you can have somebody come in. And actually, as I say, spend more time on it, not necessarily do it better. But spend more time on it so that you can you can definitely adjust and, and make lots of improvements along the way. As you’re doing it. I think that that’s really important. But having an understanding of every single aspect of the business is absolutely key. And I think also having an interest in in really wanting to learn to that. I think that that is a key thing for entrepreneurs is really having a passion and an understanding like that you’re building the puzzle as you’re doing it. And I think that that is so right on what you’re doing right now. It just seems so, so clear. So last question, what is the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received?

Mera McGrew 33:04
Whoa, the hard hitting questions, the best ever? Huh? That’s a great question. So I’m sure I should share a piece of advice that an advisor or investor or someone gave me but I think that my This is advice to live by, I think and it carries over into the work that I do and the ethos with which I want to grow supply which came from my brother. In a letter he left on my pillow when he went to college on the younger sister. He wrote me this letter. And in it, he said, he’s the best Big Brother, I’ll preface it with. But he said, to settle for the status quo is to be ordinary, and you’re anything. And as I build supply, that is something that I come back to, which is sometimes it’s easy to settle for the status quo. And it’s hard to push forward. And I guess then a piece of advice and an advisor has given us the people who succeed, keep going and to be relentless in your pursuit of something more than the status quo. That would be my advice.

Kara Goldin 34:17
I love that. Well Mara, thank you so much for joining us today. We’ll have all the info in the show notes for supply and and for you as well. But thank you so much for sharing all of your wisdom and best of luck with everything. We’re so excited to have everybody try it as well. So everybody needs to go online and order and and definitely check out the website for more information where you can get it offline as well. So thank you, Mara.

Mera McGrew 34:51
Thank you for having me on. And I think hopefully we can share a discount codes. We can get you all supply.

Kara Goldin 34:56
Awesome. Thank you. Thanks again for listening. To the Kara Goldin show if you would, please give us a review and feel free to share this podcast with others who would benefit. And of course, feel free to subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode of our podcast. Just a reminder that it can be found on all platforms at Kara Goldin. And if you want to hear more about my journey, I hope you will have a listen. Or pick up a copy of my book on daunted which I share my journey, including founding and building hint. We are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. And thanks everyone for listening. Have a great rest of the week, and 2023 and goodbye for now. Before we sign off, I want to talk to you about fear. People like to talk about fearless leaders. But achieving big goals isn’t about fearlessness. Successful leaders recognize their fears and decide to deal with them head on in order to move forward. This is where my new book undaunted comes in. This book is designed for anyone who wants to succeed in the face of fear, overcome doubts and live a little undaunted. Order your copy today at undaunted, the and learn how to look your doubts and doubters in the eye and achieve your dreams. For a limited time. You’ll also receive a free case of hint water. Do you have a question for me or want to nominate an innovator to spotlight send me a tweet at Kara Goldin and let me know. And if you liked what you heard, please leave me a review on Apple podcasts. You can also follow along with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn at Kara Goldin. Thanks for listening