Bootstrap marketing

Amilya Antonetti is making her own mark in the soap business, one customer at a time

When Amilya Antonetti began to talk seriously about breaking into the $4.7-billion U.S. laundry-detergent market, in 1994, industry veterans told her she had to be joking. "They all laughed hysterically," Antonetti recalls. "They'd say, 'Honey, have you ever heard of Clorox? Have you ever heard of Tide? There's no place for you here." Time and again, buyers for grocery stores told Antonetti that none of their customers would be interested in the hypoallergenic cleansing products she began developing after learning that her infant son's health problems were aggravated by the chemicals in standard brands. After one such conversation Antonetti came close to admitting defeat. Then she did an about-face, marched right back into the guy's office, and declared, "I have one more thing to say to you: I am your customer."

Convinced that there were others out there like her, Antonetti did her own market research by haunting grocery-store aisles. She spent loads of time talking with female shoppers, she says, "asking and asking and asking, What is it here that's missing?" She persuaded a retired soap buyer for Safeway to put her in touch with formulators. Then in late 1995 she and her lawyer husband, Dennis Karp, sold their home, secured $120,000 in loans from the Small Business Administration, and set up shop as SoapWorks in northern California's San Leandro.

It's been a long haul, but five years later, grocery-store buyers are no longer laughing. Antonetti now has shelf space in 2,500 stores from California to Florida. She generated revenues of $5 million in 1999. And she owes her success to the very customers that grocery-store buyers claimed did not exist. "There was very clearly a niche that was not being served," says Antonetti, who has boldly enlisted would-be customers in her sales effort. "If a mom comes in here and asks, 'Why are you not at my store?' I tell her, 'Look, your store already knows about me. I've already talked with every major chain. If you want us to be in your store, you need to talk to your store manager."

That's just what happened with Joellen Sutterfield, a fashion-industry executive who credits SoapWorks products with reducing the skin rashes she has suffered all her life. Sutterfield boasts that she hectored Safeway store managers for more than a year before they placed their first $50,000 SoapWorks order, in April. "Now," Sutterfield says, "I'm working on the manager at the Whole Foods Market in San Ramon."

At Trader Joe's, SoapWorks has found a "cult following," says product manager Annette Davidson. A SoapWorks customer herself, Davidson says store managers at the 131-store chain reported such "huge demand" from customers that she decided to stock an expanded product line. Indeed, Antonetti's customers have become such apostles for SoapWorks, it's as if she's mixed a marketing ingredient into her formula.

But the secret to SoapWorks' customer-driven marketing scheme isn't solely in the suds. What really makes it work is Antonetti's demonstrated allegiance to her customers, who are smitten as much by what SoapWorks stands for as by what's inside the bottle.

Amilya Antonetti deliberately aligned herself with the market, presenting herself as equal parts mom and CEO.

Under heavy cloud cover on an early morning this spring San Leandro seems like a small town stuck in time. Railcars and truck trailers are scattered like massive jacks around warehouses loaded with iron and metal supplies, welding materials, marble, and stone. Amid this industrial sprawl, SoapWorks is not an immediate standout. Stepping inside the start-up's offices, though, a visitor is swept up into a supercharged atmosphere. The energy epicenter: 33-year-old Antonetti.

Having started her day with a solitary predawn yoga session, Antonetti is in high gear, rattling off a long list of amusements she intends to bring in for a fair in the parking lot behind the building. It's going to be a back-to-school bash, and Antonetti is inviting all San Leandro's young families. She's also enlisting as her cosponsors the local chamber of commerce, the public library, and San Leandro's boys' and girls' club, which will help cover the costs of fun stuff like moon bouncers, balloon twisters, and a petting zoo. A producer and an executive from San Francisco-based talk-radio station KFAX scribble furiously, trying to keep up. "I already talked with the mayor," Antonetti says, her electric blue eyes flashing. "She will definitely be here."

The KFAX collaboration -- by far SoapWorks' biggest media event ever -- illustrates how Antonetti has deftly deployed modest advertising dollars to generate positive consumer reaction and thereby expand her market reach. It all began back in 1998, when KFAX senior advertising consultant Caroline Stevens saw a little $75 ad in a local parents' magazine. Because the ad touted SoapWorks as a company created for moms by a mom, Stevens sensed that Antonetti might want to tell her story to listeners at the family-oriented station. Granted, in keeping with KFAX business policies, Antonetti would have to buy airtime at about $2,500 for the first three months and $4,000 for the six months thereafter.

Antonetti seized the opportunity to speak directly to KFAX's 250,000 weekly listeners. Instead of having a station announcer present her advertising message, Antonetti insisted that she do it herself. "I have a pretty good radio voice," she says. As she has done in all her marketing, Antonetti deliberately aligned herself with the SoapWorks market, presenting herself as equal parts mom and CEO.

At the same time, station producers invited Antonetti to talk on the weekly program Life Line, where she soon became a frequent guest. Her role on the program involves answering callers' questions and dishing out tips on how to cope with common little problems. Want to take the sting out of a bee sting? "Mix spit with dirt," she advises. Looking for a painless way to pull out splinters? "Tape: the stickier the better." Listeners can't get enough of it, says Life Line producer Wanda L. Sanchez. "When she's on, the phones are ringing off the hook. The show is over and we still have callers on hold." By propelling her into local stardom and attracting attention from other media such as the San Jose Mercury News and Time, Antonetti's $6,500 KFAX advertising outlay has proved invaluable for SoapWorks.

In order to meet payroll for her 52 employees and eke out a profit that she admits is on the low end for the industry, Antonetti says she budgets no more than $60,000 a year for advertising. That's less than the cost of a single 30-second commercial on prime-time network television, which can run anywhere from $80,000 to $400,000. And it's minuscule compared with the $119 million that brand giant Clorox reports as its advertising expenses just for the first quarter of 2000.

But as Antonetti sees it, pouring lots of money into advertising would be not only a financial mistake but also ineffective. "I can't compete against Procter & Gamble and Clorox when they're right after Sesame Street and right before Mister Rogers," she says. "I had to find a different way to let people know who I am."

Antonetti's solution has been to interact constantly with current and prospective customers, forming a bond that she perceives as intensely personal. Eager to tap into the same sorts of frustrations that put her on the soap trail in the first place, she has positioned her products as empowering, all-natural alternatives for female shoppers fed up with a barrage of advertising hype. She has vowed that customers won't have to pay a premium for choosing SoapWorks. She personally accepts many of the 75-odd calls that come into SoapWorks daily. She hands out free samples (100,000 a year) in children's hospital wards and women's shelters. And she invites all the people she meets to share with her their problems and their needs. "They feel like they know me, and so they speak on my behalf," Antonetti says.

Another incentive for Antonetti's customers to promote her products is their genuine need. After a year-end sales slump, for example, the Albertson's supermarket chain pulled SoapWorks products, only to be confronted by customers "who went back in droves, saying, 'Where is this product? We really need this product," says SoapWorks broker Tom Oneto, president of Adobe Sales, based in Pleasanton, Calif. The upshot: at press time, Albertson's had begun restocking SoapWorks products.

"Our customers fit into a niche that was not being served by Tide and Cheer and All," says Antonetti. A black binder chock-full of customers' letters and e-mail messages attests to that. A few gripes do jump out from the correspondence: dishwasher powder left undissolved and weak grease-cutting agents. But most of the missives read like this: "After meeting you in Children's Hospital, we began using the products you gave us, and they are wonderful. We no longer need to leave the house after cleaning, and we all breathe much easier." Another writer credits SoapWorks laundry and bar soap with ridding them all of "painful, dry, flaky skin." Then there are those who simply seem smitten with Antonetti: "Thank you for caring about me and my children."

Now that she's gained a foothold in the market, Antonetti is more aggressively taking on the mainstream competition. She has a new label with a much bigger brand name and bold-colored bubbles. She's also formulated a more upscale product line based on cold-processed whole-leaf aloe.

SoapWorks has doubled its revenues each year since its launch, but, as is typical at growing companies, Antonetti and husband Karp, who serves as chief financial officer, are grappling with chronic cash-flow problems. Moreover, with every advance Antonetti makes in the market, she runs into new demands for costly promotions, such as a buy-one-get-one-free campaign she agreed to do as part of SoapWorks' planned entry into 100 Walgreens stores. To step up production -- and thereby increase profit margins without boosting prices -- Antonetti has decided she needs to bring in outside investors. It's just that she hasn't yet found the right ones.

If SoapWorks does get capital, the challenge for Antonetti will be staying true to her vision. "Customers are buying into the concept and the message of the company as much as they are buying the product," observes Debra Lynn Dadd, author of the book Home Safe Home, and a SoapWorks endorser. "Amilya's concept originated from within herself, from her problems with her son. That has resonated with other mothers and other women who have been attracted to joining her cause."

D.M. Osborne is a senior writer at Inc.

For more tips on customer-oriented marketing like Antonetti's, try our guide to customer-driven marketing.

Please e-mail your comments to