Fifteen years ago in the small town of Kamień Pomorski in northwestern Poland, on the Baltic coast, Ania Bieluń was a young mother working as a photographer, and her sister, Ula, had just passed the entry exam and was about to start studying architecture at the faculty she had been dreaming about – but their life was about to change completely in one day. Then inexperienced and not knowing what was waiting for them, the two sisters today run a successful company producing quality handmade soaps and cosmetics. The secret behind their success is high quality natural raw materials, good craftsmanship, hard work and a lot of positive energy.
I met Ania and Ula in Warsaw on the sidelines of a cosmetics study tour organized by the Polish Investment and Trade Agency (PAIH). I was invited by the PAIH to see and examine the dynamics of the Polish beauty market together with international cosmetics business and media delegates from a number of countries, including Turkey, Hong Kong, Indonesia, China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
We paid a visit to the two sisters' workshop in the center of Warsaw, where we were involved in a funny and relaxing practice of making our own bath scrub, a situation I hardly believe I accomplished successfully.
Generally dubbed a must-visit destination by travel lovers, Poland has now become a country making a name for itself in another industry, namely the global cosmetics industry. It has reached a situation in which it is one of the largest cosmetics player in Europe; it is the sixth-largest cosmetics market in Europe and will move to the fifth place once the U.K. parts company with the European Union. Products of a number of Poland-based companies can be found on shelves around the world.
Ministry of Good Soap (Ministerstwo Dobrego Mydła) is a success story written by Ania and Ula, two young sisters filled with positive energy. The two have devoted themselves to producing completely natural cosmetics at a very high quality from the best raw material and providing it to customers in a modest way.
They now proceed on their journey with a team of 30 people, a part of them in Szczecin, the capital of the West Pomerania Province and the seventh largest city of Poland, where they established their workshop and distribution process shortly after they moved from Kamień Pomorski.
"It all started 15 years ago. In Poland, we did not have lots of natural cosmetics. I was working and raising my son, she [Ula], was very small then. There is a gap of 8 years between us. And we did not have any money. The natural care, facial care, mostly from Germany, was really expensive. So, we could not afford to buy those kinds of products. We started doing research on how we can make something for ourselves," Ania said.
It was a story about handmade soap, Ania, who at one point became interested in natural cosmetics, continued. "Sold in malls and cut into pieces from the blocks when being sold, everything about them [soaps] was said to be organic. I was buying them and was paying lots of money. They were very expensive during those days for me because we were students. Then I learned to read their list of ingredients and understand them. And I found out that those soaps I was buying were actually not natural and were not handmade. They were being bought as almost already finished products and just being decorated with herbs or flavors. In fact, there was nothing natural about them. It is just like playing with the base of a product. And I felt cheated. Because I was pretty sure it was organic and was handmade from scratch. I was annoyed," Ania said.
Products being made in the Ministry of Good Soap's lab in Poland.
"I sat down and typed: 'How to make soap?' into the search engine. I tried to write it in Polish, but there was almost nothing, maybe two websites with basic recipes. Then I put the same phrase in English, and a dozen things came in front of me, it was so colorful. It was something really new for me because in Poland we didn't have soap crafting at all at those times... Handmade soap was popular decades ago then went dead, now we are going back to it," she noted. Ania then went on to buy her first ingredients, some simple oils. Not having any mold, she took a milk box, cut it in half, took the milk out and poured the ingredients into it. After her first try, she successfully produced her first soap. "It was successful. It was like wow! I have done it myself. It was a kind of feeling that you are making something that, until that moment, was thought to be impossible to make at home. But those kinds of soaps are not ready, you have to wait six to eight weeks for them to be ready. I was like 'Oh, now I have to wait eight weeks to try it.'"
LOTS OF SACRIFICES
The two sisters officially established their company in 2014. They now have two locations in Szczecin, a production and a distribution place. They produce some 1,000 soaps per day at their production facility in Szczecin. Once ready, products are being delivered to the distribution place where they are being packed. Having started with a workshop and carrying out their sales mostly online, they now also have a workshop in the capital of Warsaw, a shop that they opened in the center of the city two years ago and a stand in Galeria Mokotow, one of the biggest malls in the city.
They are also selling abroad, including Germany, the U.K., France, and some other countries in the EU, but mostly to the Polish people since their website is currently only in Polish, but will soon also get an English version, which they hope will increase their sales.
Although it seems it was an easy journey, it was not. The beginning of the Ministry of Good Soap was a stressful one and the two sisters made some serious sacrifices on their path to success. There were moments of them wanting to quit dozens of times, but they persevered. They both left universities along the way.
"I finished university but did not graduate," Ania said laughingly. "We are all uneducated people. But it is okay for us when you are doing what you like." On the other hand, Ula, who was then about to start the first year of architecture school, her dream, quit her studies in her first year.
Continuing her story, Ania said the next few years were a period of just making handmade soap. "We found out very soon that it is about the law. For cosmetics produce, it does not matter whether you are a big or a small company, the rules are totally the same. Independent of the amount of your production, you must go through the same paperwork process. It was very hard and very expensive just to start everything because you have to have a special workshop and other stuff. All those things are very expensive, and we did not have that kind of money. I was a young mother, she [Ula] was a student. We were stuck. We thought it will never happen. We thought the soap will just remain our hobby."
Having no money to start and a perception that they could not have that kind of money, the two sisters consoled themselves that their dream of a big company would just continue being their hobby.
"Then it was this one phone call. One of my friends called me one day and informed me that Szczecin Marshal's Office was organizing a competition associated with EU grants in which grants for business development were to be allocated. There was a lack of one candidate. But I couldn't get the grant because I had already been given a grant before. I was a photographer and I already got it before. So, Ula was the only option. She was also a fundamental option for me because I knew I could not make it myself. I had a two-year-old son and I was working as a photographer. And it seemed impossible," Ania said.
"It was crazy because I was young and didn't notice all of the duties. And it was like okay, let's make a business. It was all very natural," Ula, who was just about to start her university at the time, said.
Dropping everything they had then, the two did not only attended a competition but a path with no turning back.
"When we are thinking today of what all had happened then, would I make the same decision about starting everything with all the knowledge I have now. No. I would have not started it at all," which of course surprisingly made me ask her why. "Because it was the time when we were really young. There were too many responsibilities. And we did not know what would come. Now we know it was crazy to start that kind of business."
They won the competition and their parents agreed to let them use their old flat, a huge asset for them at the time. Many did not believe their business would be successful and thought that "two girls making handmade soap" was nuts. No one believed except them and their family, which they say was their greatest supporter all the time.
"We were granted around 40,000 zlotys [some $10,433 today]," said Ania, with the two continuing together, "It was big money then. And we thought it would be enough. But it was not. It was only half of the money we needed."
They used the grant money to establish their workshop, however, were left with almost no money in the aftermath and a need to acquire a lot of ingredients to make their products. The two, later on, found a company that produces labels which agreed to provide them a small number of labels, namely ten labels for each of their soaps for the start, which cost them around 50 zlotys at the time. As they went on, they say they kept coming back for more labels, whose amount they say rose to hundreds and now they are buying in thousands.
Speaking of investments in their company, the two sisters said were thinking about it, however, noted it was a difficult decision as someone who wants to invest, looks to have a piece of the "cake."
"We have one. A family guy who was pushing us really hard. At first, he was our bank, with the best offers... Nobody has an offer as the bank Vieslav," Ania said, speaking of their father whose name is Vieslav. "He has got the best offer. He had never given us the money like here, you can have some money, go and spend it. Sometimes he was lending us money, but always with a percentage. It is a business. We are loving each other like a family. But it is a business. He has lent us some money a couple of times since the beginning and in a better offer than a bank," the sisters laughingly said. "But still with a percent, just so to let us know there is no joke [with the money]. And we were always making statements about the period in which we will be paying it back. I'm also teaching my son about money, how to use it and how to spend it. During the last couple of months, our father asked us whether he can invest in our business. We rejected it in the beginning but accepted it later on. He is a partner now, but with a small share," Ania noted.
Independent of the amount they earn, they say they reinvest most of it to improve and further develop their production.
Continuing with their exciting story, Ania said there are really happy now and that they were used as an example company in five master degree thesis. The two sisters and their brand started to be mentioned in many circles, also witnessed by their friends they were told, as well as during many seminars and presentations.
NAME INSPIRED BY BRITISH COMEDIANS
I could not leave without asking them why they chose the Ministry of Good Soap as a name, which they say was inspired by Monty Python, a British comedy group from the end of the 1960s and beginning of 1970s, and a sketch performed in the troupe's surreal sketch comedy series called Monty Python's Flying Circus.
The sketch, called "The Ministry of Silly Walks," involves a famous English comedian John Cleese as a bowler-hatted civil servant in a fictitious British government ministry responsible for developing silly walks through grants. Cleese, throughout the sketch, walks in a variety of silly ways. It is these various silly walks that have earned the sketch its popularity.
"So, we thought at the beginning of our business, we are like blind people, like do we even know what we are doing? So, we are like those guys, but in a soap [business]. So, we wanted to have in the name something about what we are doing. We are the ministry like them, of the good soaps."
Having started with a bar of soap, the company is now producing nearly 40 kinds of mostly natural cosmetics products, such as bath bombs, different kinds of oils, including face oils, and consistently continues to develop new ones.
"We are currently working on shampoos, toothpaste, and face care for women. The brand is growing really fast," said Ania.
Prices of their products vary from 6 zlotys ($1.57), such as small bath bombs, to 80 zlotys ($20) that include advanced cosmetics for women including vitamins and lots of ingredients.
"We are ready now because, in the beginning, we decided not to sell our products to shops. Not to do wholesale. We wanted to sell our products only ourselves and control the whole process. But then the clients started asking for us in small cities, which made us change our decision. We will open soon for the wholesale but for the smaller markets. We are still preparing for it. It will be a huge step for us because, besides our own shops and the website, we will appear in other Polish shops," Ania explained.
The two sisters now have their own employees, whom they teach themselves, and Ania said it takes a year or two for them to become really good at what they do. "We are putting real pressure on them not to leave the standards but also to write down the standards, to put everything on paper," Ania noted.
Besides, they are also having a number of groups coming to their workshop, which they say is mostly for entertainment. They work on integration and team building. They say big brands come to them just to have fun.
Now, Ania lives in Warsaw and takes care of the shops. Ula, on the other hand, is in Szczecin where she takes care of production and distribution. Ula said Warsaw is a city too big for her and that there is no traffic in Szczecin and that she likes its nature. On the other hand, they also said a number of big companies, mostly from Germany are coming to Szczecin, located near the Baltic Sea and the German border, and have begun doing business there. The city is also known as a major seaport and the biggest export destination of Poland, which the two sisters also hope will contribute to their overseas sales in the future.