In our Nifty 50 spotlight, we feature Abound brands who are ready for retail. This week we sat down with Cathleen Miller, founder of Catalina’s Cottage. Catalina’s Cottage sells Bath & Body Products, is based in Kelso, Washington, and has been in business for two and a half years.
Robin: Why did you decide to start this business? Why this business and not a different one?
Cathleen: I am very self reliant. I was raised a country girl, but moved into corporate life for the money after college. I sold steel for 20 years, then left the steel industry to “walk my path” so to speak.
We moved from the Washington DC area to Washington State where I am from, and bought a secluded house on 10 acres that we call Catalina’s Cottage. Peace at last. I began gardening, raising chickens, canning, etc.
My husband began having a problem with itchy skin due to detergent, and requested I make him an all natural soap in hopes it would help. I researched, studied, and watched several videos, then headed out to make it. It turned out great and helped him so much I made a batch for myself also, then my family and friends requested soaps.
I became obsessed with soap making and people loved them so much, I thought wow! I could make a business doing something I loved! I attended a few trade shows, selling my soaps, and began to expand my business. I have never turned back and couldn’t be happier with my choice. I want to help people feel good, and use natural products. My motto is “We care about your skin.” Because I really do.
R: How was your country girl childhood? What special skills or unique perspectives did you learn through that upbringing?
C: I was a little girl who loved horses. I spent my time riding, and as I grew into an adult, I raised horses on a mini farm with cows, chickens, etc. It was hard work, it required kindness, gentleness, sacrifice, and tenaciousness to get up so early in the morning and keep everything running well.
R: How did you get into selling steel? What is that job like?
C: I was hired by a company because of my work ethic and leadership abilities. I was working in production at another mill initially. I was terrified. I knew nothing about steel. I learned everything I needed to know by reading, lots of reading, and I moved up from production to shipping to supervisor to sales.
Steel sales is very competitive. Dog eat dog, but very exciting! It paid very well and I had to be really tough. I had to deal with big accounts, big money, big projects, big general contractors and big egos. I was a woman working in a man’s world. There were only 6 women working in steel piling sales in the entire nation back then.
My customers loved me and I built strong relationships. I loved it in many ways, however it left no room for work life balance. I was raising children at home too and they were a priority to me. I had to make a choice. I was a newlywed with a new blended family. It was so hard to blend the family. My evenings needed to be with them. Traveling often was not an option anymore.
As I tried to navigate that, it upset my boss. I couldn’t spend my evenings entertaining customers at the bar, I had to be home. He tried to explain that was where the deals were made. It was all about numbers, they wanted more and more money. The more he pushed the more I pushed back. I started to feel like I had no control over my life. Eventually, I had to leave for my own priorities. So once that happened, I took it as an opportunity to do something more heart centered. I chose family first, I only had one chance to do this right.
R: What are the most important things to consider when making an all natural soap? What are the biggest no-nos?
C: For me, making soap is not just about the production of it. Catalina’s Cottage is about really hitting all the basics. Making it beautiful to look at, making it feel amazing when you glide it over your skin, the lather being extra soft, then how your skin feels afterwards. I try to use the very best ingredients we can afford in our products.
I want my soap to make you feel like you just used the best product you could find on your body. I want my soap to help people have great skin, not dry, itchy, scratchy skin. I spend a lot of time researching my ingredients to make a wonderful soap. My work experience has taught me how to create processes and make sure you do the same thing every time to limit non conforming product.
A big no-no to me is cutting corners for profit. Or introducing a product in the market without fully testing it to ensure it is amazing. Those kinds of mistakes are reputation killing.
I use a trial process which I learned in the steel industry. I created a form that I send out to different people with the product. I ask them to use the product over a 3-4 week period and answer all the questions I have listed and mail the form back to me. It gives me the kind of feedback I need to make decisions. I file the form for later use.
R: How did you make your first prototype? What changes have you made to your product since then?
C: My first prototype was a soap for my husband. It was rosemary mint with avocado. I continue to make that soap to this day. I have not changed the recipe. It is amazing.
R: How do you make your product? Yourself? A manufacturer? What’s your process like?
C: I create all my products myself. I plan my production, gather all the appropriate ingredients, gear up for safety and get to work. I work long hours, and am a perfectionist, so it must be perfect to go to market. I trial all new products prior to selling using a formal process.
R: What was your initial investment? How did you get the money?
C: I used my savings, then my credit card, and would charge $300 at a time.
R: Where was the first place you sold your product?
C: My first sale was at our local grange Mother’s Day Bazaar.
R: Where do you sell your products now?
C: I have a few retail outlets that purchase wholesale, an Etsy store, a website, and a very small Amazon Handmade Store.
R: Where would you love to sell your products in the future?
C: I’d love to get to 100 store fronts.
R: What’s your marketing like? Is social media an important part of your business? If so, how?
C: Social media is critical for me. I use Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Pinterest, but it needs more attention than I can currently give it. I believe social media is everything.
R: What are some of the most frustrating challenges and/or moments you’ve had with Catalina’s Cottage?
C: When you first start this business, it is really in the hobby stage. You use extra funds to make soap. When you decide to proceed into selling soap, you make more and more products, the money becomes tighter, you use credit and expand.
Because I did it slowly and was trying not to open a storefront downtown, my funds got sucked up pretty fast. I have so much I want to do, and quickly! People want to loan me money, but I currently don’t want to give up control of my business.
It’s hard to be both producer and salesperson. It’s a delicate balance even though I sell my products better than anyone. This delicate balance costs money and causes your finances to swing. I soak most of my money back into my business through marketing, and perfecting my brand. Eventually, I will need to borrow to expand further.
R: What are some of your greatest achievements and victories you’ve had with Catalina’s Cottage?
C: I discovered how many people suffer from Eczema and Psoriasis. I did a deep dive study on the subject, reading blogs, white papers, and medical journal writings regarding what people in other countries use to treat these issues, and created a soap recipe. It is my sensitive skin soap.
I sent it out for trial to two different people who have skin issues. The trial notes were for 3 weeks. It was a huge success and they loved the soap and their skin conditions began clearing up. I immediately marketed the soap on my Etsy and website, but I need to do much more.
It’s a fabulous soap. I had a customer love it so much, she claimed she didn’t have to pay for her acne medicine anymore because she no longer needed it. I was so thrilled. When I hear my products help people have better skin it is the best achievement ever.
R: What advice do you have for people who want to sell a product?
C: Perfect it, get your packaging lined out, know your product inside and out and go for it! Begin your marketing face to face. Tell its story!
R: Is there any business advice or quotes you’ve heard that you think about often?
C: “Sales is KING!” – Jeff Friedman. He said that to me once, and I will never forget it. Jeff was a CEO at one of the steel companies I worked for. A very smart man and the best leader I have ever had the pleasure to work with.
He was an awesome motivator. He spoke to every employee and through his motivation and listening skills, he turned our non-profitable company into a hugely profitable company in one year.Then we were sold off and he left. He influenced me in a profound way.
R: What’s your favorite thing about being a business owner?
C: Pride in my products and success. Manifesting your success through your own vision. I love creating, I love sales, I love it all. It allows me to help people. I love that the most.