Written by Marla Hardee Milling | Photos by Anthony Harden
Got the spring cleaning woes? Just pop one of Mari Fox’s pills or brew some of her “tea”…
If residents in one Weaverville neighborhood didn’t know better, they might start raising eyebrows at the curbside exchanges in front of Mari Fox’s house. She openly trades bags of pills for handfuls of cash, but there’s no reason to call in drug enforcement agents. The pills she’s pushing prove the perfect remedy for smelly laundry. Her patent-pending capsules contain powdered soap nuts and offer a non-toxic, environmentally-friendly, chemical-free, and fragrance-free way to tackle laundry, as well as other household chores.
While she is willing to sell at the curb at home, most customers find her Shecology booth at area tailgate markets. She rotates among the North Asheville Tailgate Market on the UNC Asheville campus, the Asheville City Market, and area festivals. There’s a calendar on her website—www.shecology.com—detailing where to find her any given weekend. Her products are also offered at a wide range of businesses in Western North Carolina.
Watching Mari interact with tailgate market customers is a joyful experience as she injects enthusiasm and laughter into every conversation. This is a woman who really believes in her mission—she calls it her “destiny”—to provide an easy, eco-friendly solution to household chores that really works.
Quite a few people curiously, and somewhat skeptically, eye the glass jars of pills, while she proclaims, “These little pills will take the odor out of anything.” Then, a repeat customer comes along and proclaims, “I love these!” and gives a spontaneous word-of-mouth testimonial to the potential shopper standing beside them. “This is another reason I do markets,” says Mari. “I get direct customer feedback.”
On a recent morning at the North Asheville Tailgate Market, a tried and true customer went a step further. Regina Loveday of Asheville encouraged Mari to pull out her cell phone and tape her giving a testimonial of all the products she’s used and loves. “Put that on your website,” said Regina.
You see, the enthusiasm is infectious. Once people try Shecology products, according to Mari, they most often come back for more, and also eagerly talk the products up to others. “It’s spreading and my customers are helping spread that for me. Once they become a user they want to help me spread the word. Who knew cleaning supplies could be so exciting?” says Mari, with a grin.
“The ball has started rolling,” she continues. “I just have to keep the momentum up and build it. If customers will go off the board and try something new, that’s when I get them coming back for more.”
The Special Ingredient
The idea for her business was sparked one day when Fox, a military veteran and a single mom, was sitting at a red light. She had been driving around town trying to find someone who sold Seventh Generation dishwashing liquid. Then the irony hit her—she was using gas to drive around to buy liquid packaged in plastic. “Just how environmentally friendly is that?” she asked herself.
“To me, that is one of the big downfalls for the cleaning industry,” she says. “All that packaging that gets thrown into landfills. Even if you recycle the plastic, it’s not a good thing. It’s not the best option out there. The best option is not to contribute to the humongous amount of plastic being added to the environment. I’m always trying to innovate and make it easier for customers, while still aligning with my philosophy of lightweight, non-liquid, do-it-yourself things that make eco-friendly cleaners affordable to everybody.”
From that lightbulb moment, she began researching different companies and trying out different products to see if she could come up with something better. Her market research took her to a natural products show in Boston. A woman was selling soap nuts and Mari bought some. The testing process went well and she knew “this is it”—that she had hit on a great all-natural ingredient.
Soap nuts are the main ingredient in the laundry pills, but they aren’t really nuts. They are a type of fruit. If you’ve never heard of them, these curious little pods are only grown in Northern India and Southern Nepal. There are different varieties of soap nuts, but Shecology uses one called Sapindus Mukorossi. After extensive research and testing, Mari chose this variety because she believes it’s the best for cleaning.
She bought a half container load of soap nuts—which equals three tons’ worth, approximately 6,600 pounds—from a grower in India and began experimenting with packaging. It is possible to use the actual soap nuts in washing machines, but when she went through an introduction to business program at Mountain BizWorks, focus groups there had a hard time understanding how to use the odd little pods.
Her greatest challenge involved creating a method that would be psychologically easier for people to embrace when doing their laundry. Mari took the soap nuts into the Natural Products Lab at A-B Tech and began grinding them into powder. That’s when she hit upon the strategy of putting the powder into capsules that can be simply tossed into the drum of the washing machine. The pills consist of a dissolvable vegan capsule filled with the soap nuts and two other natural ingredients.
One of the first questions potential buyers ask at her booths is: “Will they work in high efficiency washers?” The answer is yes. The pills are safe for all machine types, fabric types, and temperature settings. She advises using one to four pills, depending on the size of the load.
Testing on soap nut liquid revealed that it’s powerful enough to kill salmonella, E. coli, black mold, staphylococcus aureus, and yeast.
Another frequent question: “How do Shecology laundry pills stack up against major brands?” She can confidently answer that question because of third party testing. “I tried to get comparable detergents that didn’t have any fragrance and had stain testing done. The stains were coffee, red wine, salad dressing, spaghetti sauce, grass, and soil. My laundry pills cleaned coffee and red wine better than Tide Free & Gentle, Seventh Generation, and Ecover, and was just as good for salad dressing, spaghetti sauce, and soil. I’m really proud of my stuff. I know it works. The latest customer testimonial—people feel compelled to tell me—is that my laundry pills take out pesto and blood. Oh, and fruit juice and tea.”
In addition, when soap nuts are simmered in water on the stove it results in a liquid that can be used for all-purpose household cleaning. Testing on soap nut liquid revealed that it’s powerful enough to kill salmonella, E. coli, black mold, staphylococcus aureus, and yeast. She sells bags of the whole soap nuts for people to simmer into a liquid, but she also has hit upon a new idea that has her regular customers clamoring for more. Her newest product: soap nut tea bags. Just simmer a tea bag for 10 to 15 minutes in two cups of water, let it cool, and then fill a glass jar with nozzle and spray it as an all-purpose cleaner. Mari says she even cleans her fruits and vegetables with this liquid, adding, “You can use it for everything.”
Her product line now consists of the laundry pills, soap nut tea bags, whole soap nuts, powdered soap nut laundry detergent (she found some people were opening the capsules and dumping just the powder in, so now she sells the powder alone), goat milk soap, doggy bath soap, Anytime Shine suede-like cleaning cloths, and wool dryer balls.
Her mind is always swirling with new product concepts, so don’t be surprised to see other things appear at her booth.
Mari works out of the 1,100-square-foot basement of her home. It’s where the capsules are produced, although she has stopped grinding the soap nuts herself in a giant rock tumbling device she had an engineer build for her. She now orders the powder from a grower, but she still sifts it to create a finer consistency.
“I have three part-time workers,” says Mari. “They make the dryer balls, put the soap nut powder into capsules, pack the powder, and pack gift envelopes. I pay them way more than minimum wage. That’s another big philosophy of my business, to pay people well and help them make ends meet. I’m going to be looking for part-time sales help as I continue to grow this year.”
The business doubled in 2015 and is on track to double again this year. Her goal is to sign eight new wholesale customers every month. She’s also called in a consultant to help her with pricing and other financial considerations.
“I got help from the smartest person I know. His name is Joe Luna. He was my former boss at Colbond out in Enka. It’s now called Bonar. He was director of sales and marketing, but he’s retired now. Getting his help is one of the smartest things I’ve done in the past year. I just feel much more confident about the financial side of my business; marketing is my specialty, but the financial part always bogged me down. We had our first meeting in August 2015, and since then he’s come over once a month with his calculator and we go over everything. I have targets I hit every month. I really look up to him—he’s an advisor I trust.”
Hitting those monthly targets has been helped along significantly thanks to online sales. It’s very easy for customers to order because her products are lightweight and inexpensive to ship. She offers a laundry pill subscription service and can now offer a custom delivery schedule. Previously, customers had to select a monthly or bi-monthly option, but now they can create the schedule that works best for them. “One of my most unusual subscription customers is a holistic after-school care in Atlanta,” notes Mari. “It’s all about holistic living and teaching kids about clean living and natural stuff. They get 400 laundry pills every five weeks.
“One of the main reasons I do festivals is because a lot of tourists are there. When they go home, they order my products online. I believe that’s why my online business is half of my sales.”
She’s working to continue elevating her online presence, including customer testimonials and YouTube and Instagram videos showing how to use the products. She’s also honing in on niche markets that can benefit from a product designed to tackle harsh odors—places like animal shelters, nursing homes, businesses that cater to people who have sensitivities to chemicals and fragrances, and also to travelers, because since the pills aren’t liquid, they are easy to pack.
“I donated a big pail of laundry pills to the Asheville Humane Society. They probably put 10 pills in their big commercial laundry machine. They have garbage cans full of urine soaked towels from cages and it sits there sometimes for a day or two. The smell is horrendous. Their laundry volunteer was totally impressed with how it smelled when it came out of the washing machine, but she still had doubts. When it came out of the dryer, it smelled clean and fresh.” Because the laundry pills don’t suds up like traditional detergent does, this was concerning to the volunteer, and she couldn’t believe that something that didn’t suds up in recognizable fashion could leave the towels smelling so clean.
Mother’s Little Helper
If her dreams come true, at some point she’ll get her laundry pills into the hands of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Their sweaty concert clothing can definitely benefit, but that’s not the main reason she wants to approach them. As a die-hard Rolling Stones fan, Mari keyed into their song “Mother’s Little Helper” when devising a tag line for her laundry pills. Each jar has a logo that says “Mother’s Little Helper” over the design of a butterfly, and she has trademarked that phrase in the laundry category. While the mother’s helper referred to in the original Stones song was valium (a “little yellow pill” that “helps her on her way, gets her through her busy day”), Mari’s laundry pills are also intended to assist moms with their busy days.
“I am writing Mick Jagger. I am not holding back this year,” she says, adding that she is hoping for a sixth degree connection to the Rolling Stones—a friend or acquaintance who might be able to put her laundry pills into their hands.
One interesting thing she’s noticed is that men get as excited about her products as women do. “There’s such a diverse group of people who are early adopters, including a lot of men. They love this stuff. It’s easy. It works. It’s cool and different. It’s really exciting to me. Stuff like that keeps me going,” Mari says.
“I recently gained a couple of new wholesale customers,” she continues. “The owner of Weaverville Drug Store went home and tested it. He has a farm, and clothes usually wind up full of dirt and horse manure. He told me later, ‘My jeans were cleaner with your four laundry pills than when they came straight out of the drawer on my day on the farm.’ He was so impressed he put in a big wholesale order. Now it’s available in my little town of Weaverville.”
She’s equally excited to be expanding out of the immediate area. A new shop called The Local Company in Johnson City, Tennessee, contacted Mari first. The owner had received a pack of laundry pills for Christmas and loved them so much she wanted to stock them. “I took her a wholesale order in January and she reordered before even opening the store,” says Mari.
Shecology products are offered for sale at a wide variety of retailers. In Brevard and Hickory, they can be found at Food Matters Market; in Marshall, at Madison Natural Foods; in Boone, at Boone Healing Arts Center; in Asheville, at West Village Market & Deli, Villagers, French Broad Food Co-op, Willow’s Dream, The Littlest Birds, aSHEville Museum, Asheville Visitor Center, Herbiary, Jus’ Running, and Green4Life; in Fairview, at Trout Lily Healthy Mini Market; and even at a retailer in Charlotte and a couple of stores in Indiana.
She also signed up for a few festivals this year that she hasn’t participated in before—Greening Up the Mountains in Sylva (which took place in April), the 2nd Annual WNC Natural Parenting Expo (Sunday, May 22 from noon to 5 PM, at Stephens Lee Recreation Center), and Asheville Vegan Fest (Sunday, June 12 in downtown Asheville). “I might also go to the Southeast Products Expo in Florida in December,” she says.
“Another big thing—Rock Star Health Consulting in New York just approached me and wants to put my laundry pills in gift bags for all their customers. They are a growing business. It’s health consulting, so they see the benefits of using something natural that doesn’t have any toxic chemicals in it. I just sent them 200 travel size samples to put in their new client gift bags.”
Thinking outside of the box is a daily priority, and she’s open to the idea of investors or a partner who will help her take Shecology to greater fame. “So many people have told me they think my product is innovative enough to be on Shark Tank,” she says. “I’m not ruling out anything. I think the possibilities are exciting and endless with my product line. It’s just so far ahead of all the other eco-friendly businesses. I feel like I have something really special.”
The Army also taught her to work with what you have and be resourceful. This taught her to be a creative problem-solver.
Motivation to Succeed
Mari applies the same “can-do” approach to her business that she used when she was in the Army and as a single mother. She enlisted after graduating from high school in her native Connecticut because she wanted a chance to travel and explore before settling down. Her service lasted for four years, including time spent living in Europe, but she remained for 10 years in the Army Reserves and wound up spending eight months in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm in 1990.
In between the four years of regular duty and being called up to go to Saudi Arabia, Mari earned a degree in journalism/advertising/marketing at the University of Georgia, and had a daughter, Alison (“Ali”), who she raised on her own. (Ali is now preparing to graduate from Appalachian State University in Boone this month with a degree in exercise science. She plans to go on to physical therapy school.)
Spending time in the Army gave Mari the self-reliance and leadership skills she now demonstrates in running her own business. It’s also where she developed her high standards of cleanliness.
“In the Army, I was pushed to the limit physically and emotionally,” says Mari. “It just made me know that I could do anything I put my mind to. I feel confident that I can rise to any challenge. When I left the Army, I was a Sergeant and a Squad Leader, so I was in charge of five people. I would never ask someone to do something I would never do myself. I don’t think I’m above any of it—to me that was the good quality of a leader, to do whatever they are asking you to do.”
She says the Army also taught her to work with what you have and be resourceful. This taught her to be a creative problem-solver and eventually set her on her path to being an innovative entrepreneur who is putting her mark on the world of eco-friendly cleaning products. She’s confident enough to predict continued growth for her business, noting, “Last year was the first year I was able to pay myself and make a profit. I feel like this year my business is going to explode.
“I’m going over the edge, I swear—I’m going over the fence.”
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