Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews David Simnick

The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews SoapBox CEO and co-founder David Simnick. Read excerpts from the interview below.


Clemons: Tell us the story of how your company SoapBox went from being a small company with eight employees to now providing supplies to Wegmans and Starbucks.

Simnick: The story of SoapBox is one of resilience and relationship building that has fostered trust with a lot of our retail partners. So yes, thankfully, we have a lot more than eight people now, which has been strange to be hiring people during these trying times. But it's also been incredibly refreshing to be able to provide these opportunities for people to come and join our work family. To build on what you said earlier, we've always made hand soap and body wash, shampoo and conditioner and a wide range of different products that you could buy in various different retailers as well as online, and we've always had hand sanitizer in our product pipeline. But we brought this forward because a couple of our customers reached out to us in February, basically saying, “Hey, this is gonna be a lot worse than most people think it is, and we need you to start making this for us.” So because of those relationships, we were able to contact a bunch of our partners — Walgreens, Wegmans, Ascendant, which is North America's largest office distributor. And very few people realize. We were able to contact CVS and Harris Teeter, Giant and Stop and Shop and Riteaid, all phenomenal partners and basically say, “Hey, you know, you've known us for 10 years. We've started making this. How can we help?” And I think the other really interesting thing for us has been, there had been a ton of partners that we didn't supply. So hospitals and nursing homes and front-line workers that we were able to form very quick partnerships with and get necessary, either soap or hand sanitizer or other hygiene products to people in the front line of this that are making a difference in fighting this awful virus.


Clemons: Is it stressful to move from being known for unique and special products to the mass production. Has that been a stressful transition? And have you been able to maintain the aesthetic of SoapBox and the stuff you're producing now?

Simnick: So it’s a great question, has it been stressful. I don't think the majority of our team has slept for the past couple months. So to answer your question, yes, but it's also been a incredible honor. I remember, you know, in April when you were able to have a conversation with a procurement director at a hospital network and we were able to tell her that we were gonna be able to get her hand sanitizer and she started crying on the phone. And although that hospital network was able to be taken care of through a different provider of hand sanitizer, I'm never gonna forget that conversation because with SoapBox we sell more or less commodities. We sell shampoos and deep conditioners, and body washes, liquid hand soap and bar soaps to hand sanitizer. And although you know they’re natural and they’re great, thank you so much for your compliments on our packaging. I don't think I've ever seen someone cry over our products before. So for us, that's something I will always remember.


Clemons: Though you're a smaller firm, supply chains hit everybody in terms of this. Do you feel the squeeze out there with folks competing for product and for supplies to make the kinds of things you do. Does that hit a company like yours?

Simnick: Absolutely. ... I think the way that we often view how one of our competitive advantages of being a smaller firm in this gigantic consumer product world is we can be that little speed boat that is able to go around the gigantic aircraft carriers named P&G and Colgate and Unilever because we're more nimble and were able to react faster. We have less layers of individuals that have to go through or approve on something. ... Just this past week, The Wall Street Journal wrote about how difficult it is to try to find pumps in the market. And yet we have millions upon millions of pumps that are arriving from all corners of the globe into our factories, of which we have many throughout the United States. So, to [COO and President Daniel Doll]’s credit and to the scrappiness and the relentlessness that we take to our supply chain, I think we've really been able to make a name for ourselves and thus solidify the future for our brand. And Steve, one of the things that I want to talk about is, our brand is a social mission brand. So every time someone buys one of our products we’re actually donating a bar of soap for each and every purchase. So if you ever see this logo with the name SoapBox on it, know that through that purchase you’re actually impacting the life of someone who you don't know.


Clemons: Right, and my understanding is you're just about to donate your 10 millionth bar and that you're making a large contribution to the Navajo Nation. Tell us about what you've been able to do by way of the social contribution side of SoapBox?

Simnick: Absolutely, so my background is I used to be a subcontractor, like the lowest on the totem pole that you could be for the United States Agency for International Development. And that was back in 2009. It was in an internship that then turned into part time employment, and while there I got to see the importance for water, sanitation and hygiene, usually acronymed as WASH in the policy world. And back in 2009 there just wasn't a lot of focus on hygiene. There was a lot of focus on water and a lot of thanks to Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for bringing much needed focus towards the sanitation aspect. But hygiene just wasn't wasn't something that we saw a lot of investment in. So the original idea for SoapBox was, how can you turn a natural product into a significant brand that fuels each and every single purchase a donation to various different NGOs, both here in the United States or local homeless shelters and food pantries, of which in the D.C. area we work with Thrive D.C. and Miriam's table and Martha’s Kitchen and the Face Project in Baltimore and community action networks all throughout the country or feeding America or Feeding South Florida or Feed the Children and we just have the privilege of working with so many different NGOs and then around the world, we get to work with the American Red Cross and work with Direct Relief, and we work with Clean the World and Splash and Sandora and So Pink and I'm going on a tirade here. I might be on my soapbox, but the reason we do this is now more than ever, having access to clean water and soap allows you to defend yourself against the spread of COVID. So, just like with Navajo Nation and Core, which is Sean Penn's charity, we’re able to provide tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of bars of soap to much needed organizations and tribes throughout the country.


Clemons: Is washing one's hands a political act today like wearing a mask or not has become?

Simnick: You know, we've always thought of ourselves as a brand that was bipartisan because it's soap, so I think for us it's something that both the left and the right can agree upon is that washing ones hands after defecation or going to bathroom or before food prep is probably a good thing. But for me personally, and I only speak, you know, as behalf of myself as David Simnick, I don't understand how masks have become political, and I think that everyone should be wearing the mask not just for themselves, and their own safety, but because you can positively impact and safeguard those around you. So for us, we take a stance of, everything that we've heard, everything that Anthony FauciAnthony FauciThe Hill's 12:30 Report: White House, Dems debate coronavirus relief package Trump: COVID-19 vaccine may be ready 'right around' Election Day Fauci: It's 'entirely conceivable' we could be 'way down' on level of cases by November MORE has said, everything that the CDC has put out or the other countries that we have a privilege of selling in and their respective medical agencies have put out, shows that proper health hygiene, proper mask wearing can significantly reduce the transmission and spread of this deadly virus. And if you wear a piece of cloth over your mouth and that can potentially save the life of someone else. It's not that much of a burden.


Clemons: Do you have any insights, just from your phenomenal success, to politicians, to businesses, to all of us media people, about what are the building blocks to get trust back in place?

Simnick: So, Steve, first and foremost is we have a long way to go. I still remember making the first couple batches in my college kitchen 10 years ago, which, if you, when you start making soap as a 22 year old, a lot of people have a lot of questions because it looks a little suspicious. But the best advice that I would say to any social entrepreneurs out there or if I'm given the permission to give advice outside of our vertical is that it takes years to build trust. It takes seconds to erase it. So for us, we stand behind every product that we make. We have an incredibly extensive vetting process with any potential supply chain partner that we look at bringing on. And then the other thing is, we actually go through third party auditors both on our mission, we’re a Certified B Corp. Which actually changes the legal structure of our company. In our by laws, our board and shareholders hold the executives of our company to a higher standard to care about the community as well as the environmental impact in every decision we make. So we actually have a fiduciary duty not just to maximize profit as being a B Corp, but also to consider how does this relate to our mission in terms of one for one and how that one for one is done properly so we don't ship soap from the United States to the country's that we serve outside. That would potentially cause more harm to local soap makers. We work with those soap makers on the ground in order to actually create more jobs as well as recycle that soap within. And I think that, you know, trust is about action. It's about showing up, day in, day out. It's about communicating when you have bad news. And I think if anyone listening to me right now actually has any, thinks that I have any credibility in talking about such an important issue, it's that actions speak so much louder than words.