Rocky Mountain Soap Market began 12 years ago as an experiment in Jennifer Ross’s kitchen.
At the time, Ross was a math teacher at Falcon High School. She became interested in soap after seeing a story online about how much math and science is involved in the soap making process. At 48, she had experience as a musician and teacher, but soap was a whole new world.
“My first batch of soap didn’t come out at all, it was a total disaster,” recalls Ross, “but I was hooked. So I started making soap while I was teaching, and doing farmers markets in the summer—because I was a teacher. so it was available – and then craft fairs throughout the holiday season.”
Since then, Ross says he’s had tremendous luck with rentals, bulk buyers and employees. In 2014, when Ross got serious about a physical location for her business, she was still a school teacher and her husband was a firefighter—and they didn’t have the money to pull it off. But her retirement advisor helped Ross find the exact amount — $20,000 — she needed to open her first storefront. Another apparent stroke of luck: In 2017, a representative from a major wholesaler approached Ross’ daughter at Rocky Mountain Soap Market’s Lakewood store, looking for local bath and body products to be in Colorado supermarkets. Safeway. The representative’s daughter attended the beauty school across the street and had recommended the store. The representative offered Ross a contract, and Rocky Mountain Soap Market products are now in 42 Safeway locations.
Ross, now CEO of the business she founded, says her faith gave her a sense of direction during the uncertain times of starting and growing her brand. “This is definitely God-breathed work,” she said. “I am not afraid at all because I feel that I will be taken care of if I know where I have to go. It removes the fear.”
As well as Safeway, Rocky Mountain Soap Market products can be found at The Broadmoor, The Ritz-Carlton in Denver, Vail and Bachelor’s Gulch, and even the Summit Visitor Center at Pikes Peak. The company closed its Lakewood location, but its sprawling Tejon Street storefront boasts 62 products ranging from bath bombs and face serums to goat milk scrubs and lotion.
Tell us about your transition from math teacher to soap maker.
I have taught middle and high school math for nearly 20 years. And in 2010 I wanted to ease my way out of the classroom and do something else. It was about time. I am an artist and musician so I looked into doing a few other things from sewing to art. And then I read an article online about soap making and how much science and math went into the process. All formulas for oils and what not require [math and science] so i tried it. And I said, ‘Oh my god, that’s amazing. It’s really a cool thing to do.’ … So I started making soap while I was teaching. … In 2014, my husband and I were walking downtown and saw [what would become] My first store — really small. The woman was leaving that day and had a sign that said For Rent. The Downtown Partnership had a pop-up deal where they would help you with the rent, then the guy who owned the building said he would help with the rent. So it was a no-brainer to go, “Let me see if this is really going to work.” I opened November 1, 2014 and the rest is history.
What was your first batch of soap?
It was the hardest soap you could make. I tried making a soap that had milk in it, which is really hard to do, and it had fresh berries in it—strawberry milk soap—and it was just a disaster. So I’m like ‘Okay, I have to back off and just go to the base. Just figure out how to make a simple bar of soap.’ And so it was a lot of work and trial and error, but it was fun and I was really excited to do something completely different. So I stuck with it.
You seriously had never made soap before, never in your childhood?
never. So you can do anything – anything is possible. We’ve been open for eight years, it’ll be eight years this November, and I just turned 60. I was 52 years old when I started this business, which I hope will encourage people who are in that season of their life to go, ‘Yeah, I can start something completely different.’ I would be a huge advocate of that. It’s never too late.
What is your business philosophy?
I don’t care about selling the product, I really don’t. But my philosophy from Day 1 was that our staff loves people who come in here and they love talking to you. I just want customers, when they leave, to go, ‘That was a really great experience. I really enjoyed being there.’ Customer service is simply a rarity. I think it is the key to success. It’s kind of slowed down, I think maybe because of the stress because of COVID and people are just generally feeling a little bit more stressed than they’ve ever been, so it’s hard to find really good customer service. But that’s the secret sauce.
Was it difficult to scale up your operation?
In 2016, we opened a second store in Lakewood. My daughter went up there and managed it, and she was making the product. We had shelving units that cut half the store and she made the product and bottled the creams there. Suddenly you’re growing, you’re pushing too hard, and you can’t do things fast enough, well enough, to meet the demand. Then you sit down and brainstorm and go, ‘Okay, this isn’t going to work.’ We needed a small factory type environment. So you go out and search, find it, make adjustments, hire staff – because it was just us doing everything, so now we need a team. So it’s getting to a point where you know you’re getting ripped off and then you’re leaning back and rethinking, ‘How can I do this to accommodate growth?’ I honestly believe that most would-be entrepreneurs and business owners, it’s the fear that ultimately leads them to make a decision not to do it. Or not to expand, or maybe not to go to the next level – because the unknown is too scary.
Did you rely on your faith to start your business?
Yes, you just need to know that God has you. And it may be something that he has a task for you in your life to do that you haven’t even thought about yet. For me, at 52, to go, ‘Yeah, soap is your ride.’ I mean – really? Soap is my ride? I used to be a professional musician. I’ve been this, I’ve been that – but never soap. You have to be open about it. Honestly speaking, this is huge. Being ready for it and just listening to God and listening to what he has to do. I mean, the money to start this – we didn’t have it. … It was like, ‘Where do we find those 20 grenades?’ Someone from church had said, ‘God just told me he’s going to give you 20 grand,’ and within a few days we talked to my retirement advisor and he said, ‘Oh, no, you can’t see that in the end, but we’ll put $20,000 into that account.’ That money [from cashing in a retirement account] it was the money we used to start the business. This is a small iceberg of why I am not afraid. I just rely on that. If I make a wrong move, God will correct my move and it will be okay – turn bad decisions into good decisions in the long run. I mean, there are still struggles and there are still things to overcome and we have bad days. We wonder why things happen, just like everyone else. But in the end, it’s been a great ride.