Billie Goat Soap may have become a household name for its curative abilities, but as founder Leanne Faulkner will tell you, building the $2 million business wasn’t an easy ride.
Leanne Faulkner’s foray into the soap industry was brought about by her desire to cure the eczema and asthma that plagued her youngest son. After moving from the city to the NSW Central Coast and making failed products for a couple of years, Faulkner finally found a winning combination. Not only had she created a goat’s milk recipe to heal her child, but it was also to become the staple product of a business that would turn over $2 million at its peak.
It might sound like a dream run, but Faulkner’s business was almost derailed when she was struck by depression. Not only was the retail slump eating away at her sales, but she was also battling to keep her emotions in check in the workplace – walking out of meetings unexpectedly and crying on her way into work each day.
Here, she discusses the intense pressure she felt as an entrepreneur and reveals how she turned her fortunes around during her darkest days.
What did you find most difficult about getting the business off the ground? How did you manage this?
The initial challenge was convincing retailers there was a market for goat’s milk soap. When I began, I would pack my boot with my soap and call on health food stores throughout Sydney. At that time we were the only company offering goat’s milk soap in commercial quantities, so it took all my sales skills to encourage buyers to add another soap bar to their range.
It was an ongoing challenge to adapt what was essentially a craft-type product – something that retained its handmade integrity – but make it available in a volume buy. Each time the business grew, we had to adapt our production processes to cope with demand and given there weren’t a lot of businesses out there delivering handmade soap in the volumes we were (we had to service over 1800 retail doors), that was a real learning curve for the whole team.
I read that you suffered depression at the same time as your business’ growth began to slow – how did you get through this?
That’s correct. We had a very hard trading year last year, in line with the downturn in retail overall, and this took a toll on my health. The sense of responsibility I felt as the owner to everyone connected to the business was overwhelming, and I had to step down from my role as Managing Director as a result. I had to take time out.
I knew I needed to get help because I was displaying all the symptoms of a business owner who was under enormous stress – I would leave meetings unexpectedly, I was short-tempered, I would cry on my way to work each morning and I lost all interest in anything outside of my work problems. I just didn’t want to face another day. Luckily, I had heard about a program offered by the University of Tasmania called Business In Mind and I enrolled. It’s a program specifically designed for owners of SMEs, and I found it really worthwhile.
I also sought local counseling and that helped me get on the road to recovery. Most importantly though, was the support and help I got from my husband – John. John showed a patience and understanding that was beyond most people and he stepped in to run the business when I could no longer go to work. He did an incredible job supporting me and keeping the business running.
What was the hardest thing about running a business while you were suffering depression?
It’s feeling pressure to pretend that everything is OK! There is a belief in society that entrepreneurs are always successful, very resilient, unstoppable and unbreakable and I don’t think this is real for most business owners in this country – and it certainly wasn’t the case for me.
The very big challenge for me was dealing with impact that my depression had on the team that worked at Billie Goat. When I became too ill to work, the team had to carry on without me. They had to adapt to working with John at the helm, and they continued through very tough trading conditions. Then they had to adapt to having me back when I had recovered and was able to return to work!
Do you think there’s enough emotional support provided for Aussie entrepreneurs and small business owners? If not, who/what could be doing more to help?
No – there is a lot more needed. Thank you for asking this question. We need to get real with business experiences and recounting stories in the media. I’ve found it challenging to be so honest about my experiences over this past year, but I hope my story will help other business owners.
Yes, we need our business heroes (we learn a lot from them) but we also need to hear stories about the realities of running a business. I think if I had had more role models who were really honest about their own struggles in business I may have had a faster recovery. Just as Jennifer Hawkins is to women everywhere, we need to accept business leader “supermodels” are in fact the exception, not the norm.
In addition, we need more resources that are specifically designed for business owners. There is a lot of support out there for employees with mental health needs, but nothing, for owners of SMEs, aside from Business In Mind. After all, we are the biggest employer group in the country! I think we need our own crisis support line, easy access for all to Business In Mind (in both print and online formats) and more business ambassadors who are willing to admit that there are times owning a SME can take a toll on your mental health.
What did you do to turn around the slowing growth of Billie Goat Soap?
It took us a while to realise it but we needed to change our marketing focus. We were very good at marketing ourselves to retailers, and in our last year or so before sale we put more focus into marketing ourselves to consumers to drive demand and this was a positive shift for us.
We grew our social media presence, committed to brand advertising and introduced some fantastic brand promotions. As a manufacturer/wholesaler, this was quite a change in focus for us.
The Heat Group acquired Billie Goat Soap recently. Was it hard to let go of control of the business you’d worked so to hard to build and grow? What (if anything) helped make this easier?
Yes, it was tough but it was time for the brand to grow beyond me.
In this tough retail trading environment the brand really needed more resources and infrastructure to develop and I recognised that a sale was the best way to make that happen. The decision was easier for me because I already had a relationship with Gillian Franklin of The Heat Group and over the years she had come to know Billie Goat quite well and I knew she would be just as passionate about the brand as I had always been. Billie Goat Soap is in good hands.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned in your time as an entrepreneur?
There have been so many lessons I have learned! Perhaps the biggest for me is the realisation that I am not the business. To this day I am still introduced to people as the “goat lady” or the “soap lady” but today I know that I am so much more than a business.
It’s a wiggly line to reach business success, and I understand now that I am a worthwhile person even when the line is dipping on the chart.
Are there any entrepreneurs you look up to? Who are they and why?
The 95 percent of Australian businesses out there who are run by the small/medium business sector. I admire every one of them for their contribution to the country, their ability to keep people employed and their ability to overcome challenges in their own way.
I no longer have any individuals of note because I’m not convinced their stories provide us with a complete entrepreneurial experience.
What are you working on now?
Over the years, I’ve been approached by other SME owners looking to grow their retail sales and now I am able to help them with my new consultancy – Reaching Retailers. I work as a sales advisor, helping business to increase their sales into retail doors; from independents to national accounts. After all, if I can grow a business from my kitchen to the world, the possibilities are endless.