Dave Simnick is the CEO and co-founder of SoapBox Soaps, a company that works to empower customers to change the world through everyday, quality purchases. SoapBox products are currently shelved in tens of thousands of stores across the United States and beyond.
As an Eagle Scout, Dave’s dream was to found for-profit companies with a social mission at their core. Since then, he has worked as either an intern or consultant to USAID, the U.S. Army, Michelle Rhee, the U.S. Senate, and was a Teach for America educator in Northern Philadelphia. Dave’s got a house full of notebooks; he doesn’t like to let ideas get away from him. Give him any concept, and Dave will start tinkering with it. He’s worked on various sides of the startup industry: helping companies expand, getting the ball rolling with funding and publicity, making connections, and putting ideas together from the ground up.
BRYAN WISH: I’d love to know about your One Away moment.
DAVID SIMNICK: I’d say there’s a mentor in my life. Here name is Liz Spencer. She is still the director of Naperville Community Television. I’m from Naperville, Illinois. We have this phenomenal public access. Think like Wayne’s World. It was more Wayne’s World when she came into the role and she brought it up to a level of an ABC, and NBC local affiliate. It’s phenomenal what she’s been able to do.
While working there, as an intern, I started in middle school which I don’t think I was even supposed to be there at that age. Liz came in, in my freshman year of high school, and had a huge effect on my life in every, single way you can imagine. Professionalism, character, follow-through. I remember there was a time she pulled me aside and was like, “If you were an employee here, I’d fire you right now. This is where I’d be firing you.” I was like, “Aagh.” She continues to be a mentor. She’s a wonderful individual.
She loves coaching and grooming and scouting talent. Back when I was in high school, I thought I wanted to be in front of the camera. I thought I wanted to do news and journalism. She’s just amazing. In so many different ways, she really helped me grow up.
BRYAN WISH: It’s important to have those people in your life who see so much in you and help develop and invest in you in a way that you’ve never been given the support before. They’d be that first person to show you how things are done. At such a young age for you, it must have been a very prominent, informative experience. To work in that kind of environment from a young age, how did you get into that type of opportunity? The fact that you were so young and were open-minded to start working says a lot about you. I’m also curious how the opportunity came to life and maybe what you were doing specifically in the role.
DAVID SIMNICK: I always was a little crazy. I remember I went to my mom and I wanted to start a candy stand. I was running and trying to upsell Snickers by 100% markup to my friends and a local parade that would happen on July 4th. Every which way, in which I could potentially get someone to be a part of my “enterprises.” We ran a local newspaper. We called it The Brush-Hill Times because I grew up at Brush-Hill Circle and I sold it to a bunch of my neighbors.
It was basically 25 cents an issue but if you signed up for a year subscription, you only had to pay us $1.00. I don’t think I really understood the margins behind that but I got some people to advertise. That was fantastic. It was chocked full of grammatical and spelling errors. A bunch of people thought it was super cute. I printed it on my dad’s printer paper which once again, margins didn’t add up on that. There always was a “dream big; go and chase after big, hairy goals.”
To my parents’ credit, I was incredibly fortunate to have the family that I have. My mom and dad were always, “Yes” and willing to support me. Liz was able to bring some of that real world professionalism tough love that sometimes parents aren’t able to do because they’re playing the role of parent. That was always where I was kind of at. TV teaches you a bunch of things. It teaches you to think on the fly.
It teaches you to consistently problem-solve because nothing is ever exactly the way that it should be when you show up to a new story. You’re either dealing with the wind or people behind you or you don’t have enough equipment or a battery died or the lighting is all wrong or a microphone fails. You consistently have to make it work.
The other thing that helped me a lot is selling. We own four different companies. We sell those products through a wide range of different channels. All of us here on the team, in one way or another, are sales people. Even our controller, our accountant, and our bookkeeper are all sales people. Selling is great storytelling. It should be a real story. It should be honest. It is also about taking someone on that journey of why this product exists and what this product can do for them.
BRYAN WISH: You had this experience from a young age that has maybe enabled you to really dream big and what you’re doing now. A little bit more on Liz. What about Liz? It sounds like she was super great for you in raising the bar in your life. What did you see in her as an individual that made her so good at what she did?
DAVID SIMNICK: Liz was the leader. I try to emulate Liz as a manager of our company and the person who, probably most in our company, brings people on the door. Hires people. Vets people. Ensures that they’re a cultural fit. The thing that I loved about Liz is that she really embodies servant leadership. Servant leadership is not a new concept but it’s ultimately, how are you empowering your people to be their best?
It takes the manager aspect of people work for you and it flips it around where the manager is working for the team. What resources are you giving them? How are you allowing them to grow? Are you really listening intently of where they want to go in their career? I think I could do a much better job at that. Liz did that incredibly well. Liz is incredibly hard on herself. If she is listening – hi, Liz. What’s so interesting is I would do anything for her. I remember working for her where the thing that I feared the most is when I would disappoint her. You knew how much she cared about you. Not just your work product but about you as a person.
I remember I’d do crazy things. I’d do whatever it took to get whatever the job done because I really cared about her and I knew how much she cared about me. I think a lot of the impersonality and the coldness that sometimes comes when people say something like, “It’s just business,” that always drives me up a wall. It’s not just business with us. We started Soapbox in my college kitchen because we wanted to create an enterprise that could donate to kids who don’t have hygiene products. Like what? Don’t tell me this is just business. It’s not.
I take the same sense whenever I’m dealing with someone and we’re hiring someone or whether we have to let someone go. Even if it’s for cause, I still feel awful about it. It is incredibly personal. I think one of the things that Liz does incredibly well is she invests in her people. She serves them. She empowers them. In return, they’re willing to go to the end of the earth for her as a manager.
BRYAN WISH: It reminds me of a mentor of mine who I worked with in college. The way he treated the people, the way he led the people, grew the people, whether they were the intern, his direct report, or the person right under him, it was a class act. It’s cool you were able to see that. You saw that very early and that shaped you. When you were there, were there any experiences or moments working in TV and entertainment that stick out to you?
DAVID SIMNICK: There’s a couple of big things that I’ve learned. This is one that I’ve learned most recently. To anyone who is listening who is an entrepreneur or not, this is the way that I viewed time. When people say, “Thank you so much for giving us your time,” really doesn’t matter a lot to me anymore. Yes, time is incredibly important. It’s more about energy. Not to sound super woo-woo, but there are things that drain my energy and things that build it up. I can have a five minute conversation with someone which is not a lot of time but it just really depletes me. Then the motivation to go back to work is that much harder to get back engaged. I genuinely believe in paying it forward. There are not hundreds.
There are thousands of people who have helped us get to where we’re at. We still have an incredibly long way to go. At the same time, I want to help as many people as I possibly can but I also have to be really careful and guard my energy on behalf of my team, on behalf of our shareholders, on behalf of our customers, and on behalf of our aid partners. All those people are counting on us being able to grow at the way that we have been in order to achieve all the objectives that we’ve aligned with each of those stakeholders. With that being said, I don’t think about time anymore.
A 30-minute conversation with someone can super pump me up and then I’m clocking away at the keyboard until 11 or 12PM and that’s fine. Like a 2-3 minute conversation with someone could just drain it out to where I can’t hit another key. It’s not about time. It’s about energy. That’s one of the biggest lessons I’m going through right now.
The other crazy, big thing that’s going through… And this is just the evolution of our company. Soapbox acquired an amazing food brand called Bushwick Kitchen back in 2018. We’ve since acquired two other brands in 2020. We had explosive growth last year. It helps when you make liquid hand soap and hand sanitizer in the age of a pandemic. All those things said with a lot of humility and sobriety with how awful COVID is but at the same time, because we’ve doubled our team, because we continue to hire more people, I’m no longer really the quarterback. I’m the coach choosing the quarterback. That is really a fundamental shift for the way that I’m thinking. Maybe that’s not the proper analogy in a bunch of different ways.
What I’m really trying to emulate is that I’m no longer the person really calling the plays. I’m empowering leaders that we’ve got in our team that are far more experienced and have amazing skillsets that I do not have and I’m really just saying, “Look. Get to the end zone. How you get there, I trust you.” That requires relinquishing control and really believing people. Liz’s fingerprints are all over the last one. I think the former is probably more my parents in terms of protect your time, protect your energy, and invest properly. I still pinch myself that we’re able to be on podcasts like this or other types of media and that people actually care enough to hear what I say. This is incredibly thrilling.
BRYAN WISH: I couldn’t agree more with you about time. Seeing how you empower people and how that dictates back to what you learned as a kid is so cool. How were you thinking about your journey in college? What’s allowed it to morph into what you’re building today?
DAVID SIMNICK: It has been a winding path to get here. I was fortunate enough to graduate early. That was 2009. Really bad time to graduate because the job market was not good. I was able to get a job with a subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development. While there, I saw a gigantic need within water sanitation and hygiene programs which just use the acronym W.A.S.H. I wanted to change the way that we were doing a lot of hygiene. Called up my best friend and I said, “Hey, I want to start making soap. For every bar that we sell, we’re going to donate a bar of soap.”
He was like, “Do you love soap? Where did this come from?” I was like, “No, I just think it’s going to be a really powerful business.” I did not know anything about CPG. I did not know what I was doing. Nothing about packaging or price point or anything. As I often like to say, we fell down the consumer product goods tree or the CPG tree hitting every branch on the way. Then we were just so determined that we decided to climb back up the same tree. That really is the story of Soapbox. We had awful packaging, terrible price point, and no clue what we were doing and how to get in stores. We just didn’t know. Had I worked for a bigger company and/or gone and worked for Target and then realized how to launch… We just didn’t do any of that. Thankfully, we just surrounded ourselves with a bunch of people who really knew what they were doing and/or advisors or mentors. Then we just continued to get better and push ourselves.
Eventually, we got to a point where back in 2015/2016, we started getting into bigger stores. We realized we had a branding problem. We then fixed that in 2018. I think a lot of people thought that we were going to fail out and we just kept on pushing. Now we’re in a far better spot and we’ve been able to acquire three other brands. The biggest lesson in terms of going from USA contractor to starting a soap company and then there was a period of time we were doing evenings and weekends where I was a Teach For America educator. Eventually, we decided to go full-time in 2012. Honestly, all of this comes down to I believed that the most successful entrepreneurs that you come across have a certain level of grit and resilience. They’re able to pound through the really tough parts. That’s the trait that I see across a really good entrepreneur. You can just go through the crucible of the really bad times and come out the other end.
BRYAN WISH: You’ve been at the journey now 8 or 9 years. I think that’s fairly remarkable to be full-time at something. You’ve maybe taken a more sustainable, long-term vision approach which I can appreciate. To be on the journey nine years, you probably had some super low lows and some really big wins. I’d love for you to share times where you’ve had to bring out resilience and grit where you didn’t think you were going to make it or stand for tomorrow.
DAVID SIMNICK: If we had three hours, I don’t know if I’d even be able to cover all of them. The long story short, the worst time in our company history was 2017. That’s where the new branding hadn’t come out yet. We kept on getting all these reports showing that the branding would do really well. We just kept on pushing forward. We also had to lay off half of our team which is actually surprisingly one of the things that I’m most proud of in how we did that. We did it with dignity and respect and we ensured that everyone had a job before we officially said, “You got to go.” That’s helpful. It’s easier to do when you have a small team like we did but it was still really painful to say goodbye to my close friends that we had felt we had gone to war together for a couple of years. That was gut wrenching. That was the hardest.
What I’d say is that how you get through times like that is 1) have an amazing co-founder. My co-founder is phenomenal. Dan Doll asked me to be the best man at his wedding. I was incredibly honored by this. I will absolutely ask him to be the best man at mine. He’s a phenomenal human. I jokingly say this all the time – him and I are work-married. When you know someone that damn well, you know everything about them. I know how to order for him in every genre and restaurant. I know what peeves him off. I don’t believe that the really tough moments as an entrepreneur are meant to be gone through alone. I think that you build a community of other entrepreneurs who understand what it’s like. Just like if you were a super high profile lawyer that was working all the time. It helps to be around other lawyers who understand.
If you’re a doctor and you’re really stressed out because you’re working the ER shifts, surround yourself with other ER doctors who understand and can empathize. Having been a former school teacher in a really tough school, I don’t think that entrepreneurs actually work harder and/or have this super human ability that other people don’t have. I think entrepreneurs make a decision that they’re willing to tolerate that much more risk without a proven manual of how to do something. I think surrounding yourself with other people who’ve also made that conscious decision and are willing to put forth the hours to get it done, that helps. I don’t think you have to go through the darkness alone. I think number two is perspective.
One of the other things is it gets easier. I was talking to one of my entrepreneur friends who was in corporate America and she started something 1 ½ years ago. She’s like, “How do you deal with it?” I was like, “What do you mean?” She goes, “The really bad news.” I’m like, “The good news is that the bad news actually stops being so bad. The bad news is that the good news stops being so good.” What I mean is the highs aren’t as high. The lows aren’t as low. It all starts shifting out and you build this reservoir of resilience where you’re just, “I’ve been through this road before. I know what a cash crunch feels like. I know what it feels to be up against a wall and you have to call shareholders and say, “Hey, we have to maneuver around this.” You build up that muscle memory.
BRYAN WISH: So relatable. I want to applaud you in how you laid off part of the team with dignity. Phenomenal perspective. Why don’t you share a bit about the brand itself.
DAVID SIMNICK: What we’re trying to do at Impact Driven Brands is Soapbox makes goodness easy to find. That’s the cornerstone of what we want to do. What we mean by that is 100% vegan, clean beauty, amazing ingredients, at an affordable price, sold at every retailer that you’d like to find it at. Knowing that Soapbox is not going to be at Sephora. Are we going to be at Target and Walmart and Walgreens and CVS and Rite-Aid and Amazon? Yeah, absolutely. We make hair care. We make personal care. We make hand care. We want people, when they see our amber bottles, to know that it stands for something that they can trust in, that they want to put on their body, but then through each and every purchase, they’re helping someone who is not a part of the equation. That’s the belief behind Soapbox.
Bushwick Kitchen is a phenomenal brand. We’re so in debt to the initial founders who created it. It’s a foodies brand in the sense that we really want people to think of that condiment first. We were one of the first people to create a curry gochujang sriracha which basically gochujang is a beautiful, Korean paste that is divine. Sriracha, your listeners are probably familiar with as well as curry.
You put all those things together and that doesn’t really seem like that much. We want to create things that people think about first and then think about pairing it with food. Oftentimes people think about condiments only after they’ve made a main choice on what they want to eat. Then condiments are a plus 1 or a topping or something that can enrich that. We want to make things that are truly unique and different that people first and foremost go, “Oh, I’m craving this. What can go well with this?” That’s the brand thesis behind that.
Fresh Science which is our homecare brand, we’re incredibly excited about its potential. We went from about 50,000 to 3 million in about three weeks last year. That’s because it’s homecare and we were able to get our disinfectant wipes out to a wide variety of our customers especially in a time of need.
The last one which I can’t actually disclose the name because it’s still in stealth. It’s a celebrity cofounder led baby care brand that we’re incredibly excited about. It’s all about sustainability. It’s all about trying to reduce our carbon footprint. It’s about offering the cleanest ingredients to a mother’s child while also reducing the harm of what consumption brings to the environment.
There are three pillars that any brand within our Impact Driven Brands have to have. Better ingredients, more sustainable for the environment, and then a direct giveback that helps someone who is not in the buyer/consumer relationship.
BRYAN WISH: It’s super cool how you’ve been so intentional about the way you thought about architecting the company. The opportunities aren’t endless but I think your ability to have multiple product lines across the board is awesome. How have you interconnected the products between one brand to the next? Is that a strategy you implement?
DAVID SIMNICK: I think that’s a phenomenal question. I remember growing up where General Motors started allowing everyone to know that the same people who made Pontiac were the same people who made Oldsmobile and the same people who made Chevy. To me, that’s a crime. Why someone wants to buy a Pontiac is very different than why someone wants to buy a GMC. I look at that and I say that is a failure of brand management. I don’t need people to know Impact Driven Brands. That’s not my thing. In my opinion, that’s corporate ego. That’s someone out there that’s like, “I want people to know this is a Unilever product or this is a PNG product.” That’s not a good thing.
People want to know that the brand that they’re buying is only that brand and it has authenticity. I believe that because of what we believe, each of our brands and their origin stories and how they came to be, are authentic. I don’t want there to be too much cobranding or interplay. What I will say is the amount of learning that we’re getting from all of these brands is phenomenal. I understand why these bigger conglomerates out there have so much power; not just in buying power but because you get to learn so much. You have all of this new data coming in from this category works this way and we just tried this over here and can we try that promotional strategy over here? The learnings that are happening and applying from all brands are awesome.
BRYAN WISH: You come across very authentic and intentional. That’s an extension of how you’re building the companies. Who you are is going into everything you do. That’s a lot to be proud of. I admire how you got about things. When it’s all said and done, what’s the life you want to look back on and say that you’ve led?
DAVID SIMNICK: Thank you. I don’t know if there’s ever going to be a destination for me. I don’t know if I’m ever going to feel like I’ve hit the summit just because I’m 33. I’ve got some wear and tear in this body. I also really enjoy it. I also think that I know I’m a challenge junkie. I know that I really thrive in building organizations and trying to put people into positions that they really love. I want a team of people who believe that they’ve found their dream job. That being said, I do think that people enjoy struggle and challenge and meaning.
I don’t want necessarily a happy life. I want a meaningful life. I think there’s a difference. Meaning to me brings purpose and happiness. I’m the type of person that will find my way into problems because I want to solve them. I won’t make new problems just to solve them but I’m going to try to push into trying to do things bigger and trying to make the world a little more just. The central thesis of each of our brands is consumption is not going away. Consumerism is here to stay. How do you make that less harmful to the planet and more just to humanity?
BRYAN WISH: Well said. Where can people buy the products? Where can they find you if they have a question?
DAVID SIMNICK: Somehow my parents put up with me. I don’t know how. I drove them insane. I was the kid who was just like, “Now karate practice. Now soccer. Now this.” My mom took me out of school on my 16th birthday to get a driver’s license. That’s how done they were. “You can drive. Here you go.” The most beat up car. It was a handy me down of a handy me down. The fact it even ran was amazing. Rightfully so because I was crazy. You can find our products in a lot of places. Walmart, Target, Wegmans. I love Wegmans. I cannot say this enough. I love the partnership that we have with them in so many ways. Same thing with Sally Beauty. Amazon, Grove, Giant, Safeway, your local grocery store.
BRYAN WISH: Thank you for sharing. I love Wegmans as well. Their coffee bar is phenomenal. If you get free discounts, I’m very jealous of you. I appreciate all your knowledge and authenticity today.