Little Flower Soap Co. in Chelsea started as a small hobby business and has grown into a full-time job for owner Holly Rutt and her husband Justin.
Holly Rutt's interest in handmade soap dates back to 2010, when a college friend gave her the first bar of handmade soap she'd ever tried. She fell in love immediately and asked the friend for more information about handmade soaps. Rutt went on to learn soapmaking from that friend's sister in a one-room log cabin, an experience she describes as "magical."
The problem was that the initial recipe she used made 125 bars of soap, much more than the Rutts needed. They gave much of that first batch of soap away as wedding favors when they married in 2010.
"The favors were really well received. Guests were sniffing each other's soap," Holly Rutt says. Several friends also encouraged her to market her soaps.
Her first try at selling soap was an art fair fundraiser for the roller derby team the Derby Dimes, but she was unsure who would pay $4.50 for a bar of soap or $20 for five.
"But everybody bought five, and we sold out," Rutt says. That's when she knew it could be more than a hobby and began selling her goods online through Etsy.
Justin Rutt is an osteopathic doctor with an interest in herbs, and Holly Rutt also runs a floral business, Sweet Pea Floral Design. The two areas of expertise work well together in the bath and body business.
The couple went on to create lotions, bath balms, lip balms, candles, and other bath and body products. Justin Rutt writes the "recipes" for all products except the original soap, while Holly Rutt hopes to farm enough lavender to create all the essential oils she'll need for her soaps and other products.
Rutt says she was worried that 2016 was going to be an "off" year for the business, since sales on Etsy were down. But then she got in on the ground floor of a new Amazon program called Amazon Handmade, which provides a market for artisans offering unique homemade goods.
"If it wasn't for Amazon Handmade, we would have had a down year, but we ended up with an up year in 2016, and we've done 50 percent more in sales this year, too," Rutt says.
Rutt says a surprising side effect of this decision was picking up more male customers. Customers at Etsy had been 95 percent women, but the mix of customers from Amazon is closer to 50/50 men and women, she says.
The business has grown steadily since 2010. Now, in addition to Holly and Justin Rutt, the Little Flower Soap Co. has one full-time employee and two part-timers who work year-round, as well as 15 temp workers filling orders during the holiday rush. The Rutts also sell their products wholesale to about 200 small shops around the U.S.
Holly Rutt continues to run her flower arranging business in the ground floor of the old barn on the Rutts' Chelsea property, while the soap factory operates upstairs.
In the future, the Rutts are hoping to add an all-natural deodorant to the product line and, after the success of a recent offering of bourbon-flavored lip balm, more booze-inspired lip care products. Holly Rutt also hopes to offer various classes on flower arranging, soapmaking, and candlemaking.
This piece is part of a series highlighting local business growth in the Ann Arbor area. It is supported by Ann Arbor SPARK.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy of Little Flower Soap Co.