You could say Anne-Marie Faiola made a clean getaway from her original profession of choice: Corrections officer.
In December of 1998, then 20-year-old Faiola left the justice system because "it wasn't terribly satisfying or a good fit," she says. That month, Faiola—who'd made personalized soaps for friends and family as a teenager—put $15,000 on her credit card to buy a pallet of soap, five fragrances, and a handful of molds to start an online soap-making supplies company in her Bellingham, Washington, living room.
Today Faiola's company, called Bramble Berry, has more than 2,500 products, a retail store called Otion, and annual sales of some $5 million. (The company donates about 10 percent to charity, and everyone at the management level donates time.) Last month, the now 34-year-old Faiola was recognized by the U.S. Small Business Administration as Washington State's small business owner of the year.
Faiola's biggest challenge: "Definitely learning to work with employees and being a decent human resources person," she says. "There are so many personalities to learn how to manage. I'm still learning this part of my job and suspect I always will be."
Faiola says she knew within three months of starting the company that it could sustain itself. But her goals then weren't lofty: "I just wanted to pay the mortgage and have a little leftover for food, so it was a little easier to envision success," she said. Sales rolled in slowly, but, she says, "I loved what I was doing and people seemed genuinely thankful that I was around to help them out."
Faiola, whose major business experience when she started consisted of breeding angry Russian dwarf hamsters to sell while in high school, did have one dream that at the start seemed unfathomable: She wanted to attend MIT's Entrepreneurial Masters Program, which is for business owners under the age of 40 grossing a million or more in sales. She ripped out the full page, sepia ad for the program (then called "Birthing of Giants") and put it on her wall.
The first year she grossed $70,000, none of which she took home. "I thankfully had craft shows and a few wholesale outlets to keep selling finished bars of soap at," she writes on her blog at SoapQueen.com. (SoapQueen.com and SoapQueen.tv are the company's social media outlets, offering tutorials and information on all things suds.) "I didn't eat out at a restaurant more than one time in two years...and we didn't have heat in our home for three straight Christmases."
In year two, the company rang up sales of $280,000. And when Faiola was 24, her four-year-old company grossed its first million. She applied to MIT and was one of five women (out of 65 students) accepted into the three-year summer program.
However, the formal training neither kept her from struggling with funding nor with making mistakes. In 2003, after five years of profitable growth, she hunted for a loan to help her launch a retail store and get a new warehouse.
"After the dotcom crash, many banks were unwilling to loan on a purely online play and my youth and relative inexperience played against me," she says. In 2004, after finding a banker and forging ahead, Faiola admits she nearly bankrupted the company. It went $280,000 in debt in less than a year, as she underestimated how expensive retrofitting the warehouse would be and how slowly cash would come into the retail store. (Faiola has no outside investors; she is the company's sole shareholder.)
Faiola hired a business coach and kept working. Key to her company's success, she thinks, is likeability and authenticity. "People buy from people they like and though the mediums to connect with customers have changed, I believe our success has everything to do with being genuinely excited about the craft first and sales second," she says.