With a new market of consumers in need of laundry detergents and household products that are hypoallergenic, natural or sustainable, product manufacturers are now creating a new line of products fit for the niche market. But before the major brands conquered it, Patricia Boswell, creator of laundry detergent Safonique, developed the product in the 1990s using essential oils as ingredients and sustainable materials as packaging for the lavender scented detergent. Boswell used her background in manufacturing to create a product any consumer can use, regardless of household or health need.
“Products didn’t have the sustainable label when I first started. I was the first to put essential oils in detergent in 2004. Other brands now break down their oil; I don’t break down my oils. I actually put the oils in my detergent. Oils are different then perfumes; they are not broken down yet,” she told us.
Boswell’s hypoallergenic and sustainable detergent has won the International Health and Beauty Award for New Products in 2004 from the Food Marketing Institute as one of the first laundry detergents to include essential oils in its ingredients. Her 50-ounce pouch of detergent can be found in over 600 stores, including online at Amazon and Wal-Mart, and has earned her the credit of being one of the top entrepreneurs by The Wall Street Journal’s Small Business section.
Boswell talks to MadameNoire about pioneering a niche market, competing in a saturated industry with major brands and being the creator and master of her own brand, down to the packaging and graphics.
MadameNoire: You created the detergent Safonique years ago when the idea came to you in the early 1990s. What was the process like to take the detergent from conception to completion?
Patricia Boswell: We didn’t have the internet back then, so all my research was manual. Now, you can do everything right online. My business plan was written like a thesis, and it’s still a good business plan which I still use today.
Other detergents have come out after [Safonique], but my detergent, when I created it, there were several things I wanted to accomplish. I wanted to make a good detergent with good ingredients for the masses to afford, and at the same time to have a hypoallergenic and sustainable product as the packaging from day one.
A package of product is almost like having a baby. You start with the chemistry part of it, putting it together, and designing and growing it. I would say Safonique is my Ivy League kid! You’re nurturing it and growing it.
MN: What was the inspiration behind creating Safonique?
Boswell: My background is in sustainability, nursing, financial planning and manufacturing. I’ve always been conscious of recycling waste and played around with chemistry sets since I was a child. While working with AVON manufacturing their cosmetics line, I knew I always wanted to put a product together when I had the opportunity to. I would walk through the aisles of supermarkets and think about what I could make and couldn’t make, and detergent was an area I knew I could make.
My father had his own business; he was a business owner in Harlem, NY. He was a butcher. My mother made costume jewelry. So, I had it already. I had the entrepreneurship bug. I had a lot of job offers in the late 1980s, but I had to make a choice about what industry I wanted to go into, and I chose health and beauty.
MN: How many trials did you have to go through to get that perfect detergent?
Boswell: A lot, because at the time that I started during the dot com boom, no one was touching household cleaning products and I just saw an opportunity there. It’s an everyday use product.
MN: What was the initial reception from customers of Safonique?
Boswell: I’ve always had a positive response to Safonique, even when it was in powder form. The detergent is in a pouch now and the fact that it’s in a pouch now, women are really comfortable with it. We are really starting to appeal to mothers.
People use [Safonique] to clean carpets, to clean upholstery, put it in their potpourri for the lavender scent, clean their cars and floors. Everybody has something different to say [about Safonique].
MN: With all the competing brands in the detergent and laundry industry, both big and small, how do you market your product and continue to compete?
Boswell: I didn’t realize how competitive the household industry was. Detergent, for a major company like a supermarket, is one of the most profitable products on the shelves. I’ve been able to compete with the larger brands by getting the shelf space and creating the demand for my product. Partnering with Wal-Mart has been really good, as it was my first chain retailer. The first store that sold Safonique was a health food store in Tallahassee when I lived there with my husband. I met with the buyer, he was willing to try it, went back seven months later and he put it on the shelves. Currently, I am up to my sixth buyer.
Partnering with Wal-Mart was challenging because you have to meet with the buyer, have your numbers right and know what you want while meeting their needs. Having a manufacturing background, I understood the process. I had some very good mentors too.