Shubham Issar and Amanat Anand go from the UNICEF Wearables for Good Challenge to Shark Tank and beyond.
Shubham Issar and Amanat Anand grew up in New Delhi but met at Parsons School of Design in New York. They loved working together on hands-on design projects that made a difference. In 2015, they entered the UNICEF Wearables for Good Challenge. While investigating the challenge, they ran into a statistic that shocked them. Hundreds of thousands of children under the age of five die annually from infectious diseases that handwashing can prevent. Shubham and Amanat were determined to do something about that.
They returned to India to see handwashing in action. They sat in classrooms and observed. They discovered that teachers, overwhelmed by a student ratio of sixty-to-one, were rationing soap. Proper handwashing was not happening at critical times during the day.
They also observed the children enjoying their favorite pastime, drawing with bright colors.
Shubham and Amanat had an idea to make handwashing fun. They developed a prototype of a soap pen. Kids draw on their hands with brightly colored soap. It takes 20 to 40 seconds to wash off the design, ensuring proper handwashing.
UNICEF selected their design as one of ten winners of the Wearables for Good Challenge. And so, SoaPen, the product, and the company were born.
With the prize money, Shubham and Amanat conducted research and development. In 2017, they conducted a Kickstarter campaign to fund a production run. In 2018, they launched their first product on Amazon, but they struggled with sales.
“Talking about 2019 itself, it was just such a hard year for us,” Shubham says. “We were bootstrapped. We launched on Amazon because we wanted to be where the parents were. But when you launch on Amazon, you’re this little fish in this massive pond. You don’t know how to reach the right audience.
“In October of 2019, we were featured in Real Simple magazine. Being the millennial I am, I had no idea the power that print media had. We completely sold out our entire inventory in two and a half weeks.”
SoaPen’s supply chain was not ready. Amazon’s algorithm sent people to their page, but SoaPen could not meet the demand. Their supplier took more than eight weeks to produce new SoaPens. When the SoaPen products returned in stock, the wholesale channel took 70% of that order. So SoaPen remained out of stock on Amazon.
“On Amazon, if you’re inactive for two weeks, you’re essentially starting from scratch. I think that was very stressful. We finally felt like we had market validation, that the parents were interested in the product and that it was filling a need.”
That was January 2020. Then, COVID hit, and they sold out again.
During this time, SoaPen received crucial customer feedback. Parents wanted more vibrant colors. And, they wanted a smaller roller ball for better drawing. When it seemed like SoaPen should rush into production, they decided to pause to get the product right.
With a redesign and supply chain issues, they took time to get the product back on shelves. They missed sales opportunities, but they developed a product that kids and their parents love.
SoaPen Built a Network of Supporters
Shubham and Amanat came to the United States as teenagers. They were young, immigrant women without a business network. To make up for perceived disadvantages, they were bold.
Winning the UNICEF Wearables for Good Challenge provided opportunities for connections. They met mentors and supporters. They met their heroes at Frog Design. They met chemical engineers. “We started understanding the power of community just through being in that accelerator – feeling supported,” Shubham says.
SoaPen was part of the Pursuit Incubator (now Because Accelerator), where they met their first angel investor and future board member. They participated in the Conscious Venture Lab accelerator. Someone from an accounting firm introduced them to someone in the Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) space.
Since their Wearables for Good Challenge, the SoaPen founders have been recognized as Forbes 30 under 30 and Toyota Mothers of Invention. Recently, they were featured on Shark Tank, where they met Nirav Tolia and Megha Tolia, two powerhouse investors and mentors.
Shubham says part of their secret is “being okay with asking for what you need. Put your ask out there to strangers. Be shameless about it. As I grow older, I think I’ve just kind of gotten rid of a lot of inhibitions. I DM celebrities I want to give SoaPens to. I DM everybody. And I just don’t have a lot of shame in asking for what I need and want.”
Learn More About Shubham Issar and SoaPen:
- SoaPen: https://soapen.com
- SoaPen on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3MFh7nj
- SoaPen on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/mysoapen
- SoaPen on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mysoapen
- SoaPen on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mysoapen
- SoaPen on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/soapen-inc./
- UNICEF Wearables for Good Challenge: https://www.unicef.org/innovation/stories/team-soapen-paper-prototype
- Frog Design: https://www.frogdesign.com
- Because Accelerator: https://becauseinternational.org/accelerator
- Conscious Venture Lab: https://www.consciousventurelab.com
- Andreessen Horowitz, Talent x Opportunity: https://a16z.com/talent-x-opportunity
Full transcript of the conversation with Shubham Issar of SoaPen:
Shubham Issar: Hi, I’m Shubham Issar; I’m the co-founder of SoaPen.
SoaPen is a soap kids can draw with on their hands. Kids are encouraged to draw all over their hands, and washing erases the drawing. They wash their hands for 20 to 40 seconds. So we make handwashing fun and also help avoid all the nasty germs and diseases you can get from not maintaining proper hygiene.
Tony Loyd: I’m trying to get a picture of this. So it’s a soap. It comes in a pen, and the company is S O A P E N. Right? SoaPen. It comes in different colors.
Shubham Issar: In three colors. So think like a liquid soap bottle roll-on bottle filled with liquid soap. You can roll the soap on it saves soap, and also kids have fun. They draw all over their hands who doesn’t love drawing. So we just wanted to make something that some kids think of as a chore and turn it into something that actually is a fun activity for them.
Tony Loyd: Okay. And why is that important?
Shubham Issar: When we started the company, we had just graduated from the Parsons School of Design. The industrial design program. Both my co-founder and I were very interested in social impact. We found the UNICEF Wearables For Good Design Challenge online, which highlighted horrible statistics around infant mortality. Things you and I don’t think about kids under the age of five dying of diarrheal diseases, respiratory infections, and more than 50% of diseases that can lead to death at that age can be avoided by just washing your hands with soap.
And when we found this statistic through the UNICEF Wearables For Good Design Challenge, it was just so shocking to us. We both grew up in India, and these stats, a lot of them came from our home country. So that’s why we wanted to focus on handwashing with soap, making it a fun activity. And yeah, it’s just a cause that’s really close to our hearts.
Tony Loyd: Yeah. So you’re from New Delhi, right?
Shubham Issar: Yes.
Tony Loyd: And then you went to Parsons School of Design. How did that happen?
Shubham Issar: Yeah. So growing up in India, I was very, very interested in, I think art, in general, more I wouldn’t say design specifically. Growing up, I loved doodling. I was a good student, but I think my interest and happiness it definitely lay in arts and crafting and just, I’m very, very interested in that.
And I also loved reading. So my ideal job, when I started thinking about what I wanted to do after school, was I wanted to be a book jacket designer, that’s it. I wanted to design book jackets. And I was like, okay, that’s typically graphic design. I should think about that. And so I started looking at schools to apply to. I applied to some schools within India as well.
And then and in the end, I ended up looking at Parsons School of Design in New York; I’m from New Delhi to New York. I think I was just very attracted to the city’s bustling energy and diversity, and I felt like I would really fit into the very, very diverse culture that already existed in New York.
Yeah. So, that’s when I came to the United States to go to Parsons school of design at the young age of 17. Officially this year marks my 10th year in New York, which is pretty crazy. Um, but yeah, that’s what I initially came for. And then I ended up just starting a company and settling in New York.
Tony Loyd: Yeah. So you were in Parsons School of Design, and I understand that you started to understand that you liked designing tactile things. And so you were attracted to more the industrial design side of things, right?
Shubham Issar: Yeah. So I went in undecided, even though I had this dream crazy job of being a book jacket designer. I
Tony Loyd: Which, by the way, is great, that’s a great job. I would love to have that job. That’s a fantastic job.
Shubham Issar: maybe. Yeah. Maybe I’ll get to it later on in life. But yeah, I went in undecided, and at most design schools in the US, you have one year that’s foundational in the undergrad year, and you try different things. So we had art classes structured in 2d, 3d, and then we had a lab class that introduced us to different communities around New York.
And I realized that my favorite class was 3d. And I just really loved working with my hands. That was one point, I think I really loved this one project where we had to create a sort of like shelter. And I created this jacket that turned into a sleeping bag, and I was like, wow, this is so cool. I love working with my hands and thinking about spaces and how objects fit into them.
So that’s what really attracted me to industrial design. And beyond that, I think the idea that we’re essentially problem solvers and looking at a, at a particular problem and thinking, how can I make this better? Whether it’s furniture, whether its what you’re sitting on or it’s the lighting in a room or whatever it is. So I really loved that aspect.
Tony Loyd: Yeah. And so you go through this, you meet your co-founder. What’s your co-founder’s name again? Amanat Anand. So you and Amanat, you graduate. And then you stumble upon this UNICEF wearable for goods challenge it. Did I get that right?
Shubham Issar: It’s UNICEF Wearables for Good Challenge. And Amanat’s name is A M A N A T Amanat.
Tony Loyd: Okay. Thank you. I’ll get it wrong. Sorry. Sorry. All right. Thanks. Thanks for helping me with that.
Shubham Issar: Fine too. She goes by Ama
Tony Loyd: Okay. Okay.
Shubham Issar: Yes. UNICEF Wearables for Good Challenge.
Tony Loyd: Yeah. And so I’m trying to picture this moment, right? So you’ve graduated from this design school. Were you looking for a job? Did you find a job? Like what happens right in there and then you, and Amanat, you find this challenge.
So to describe that moment,
Shubham Issar: Yeah. So both of us had just graduated, and while we were at Parsons and our senior year, we had collaborated on a lot of furniture projects together. So we knew we loved working together. And then, post-graduation, I started a job in fabrication designing for a design-build in New York. And my co-founder Amanat also started a job in furniture design.
So we both had our own jobs and because of that love of collaboration. When we were at Parsons, we had access to the woodshop, the metal shop. We were always working on new projects together.
So, definitely, we’re like, okay, we see this challenge. Apply and work together once more. So that’s what started our brainstorming into looking into SoaPen.
Tony Loyd: Yeah. And so you find this challenge, was it how did it work? Did you put together a pitch deck, and this was, you didn’t actually have a physical product at that time. Right? You were just like, this is an idea. That’s all you had was an idea, right?
Shubham Issar: Exactly. So we come across the UNICEF Wearables for Good Challenge. The reason that we found it was that UNICEF partnered with two organizations called ARM and Frog. Frog Design is like the pinnacle of industrial design. They’ve done incredible work in the field and kind of are thought leaders in industrial design.
So through just being in the know of what’s happening in the design world, we saw that Frog had collaborated with UNICEF on this. And that’s the reason that we applied.
So the challenge highlighted a couple of areas that they wanted designers to respond to. So they range from maternal health, lack of emergency responses, and then infant mortality like I mentioned. So anything that related to mother and child since that’s UNICEF’s focus.
So when we saw the statistics around infant mortality. That’s when we started thinking about, okay, why? What is the root cause? And is there anything that we can look into that we can actually address from a product perspective? And handwashing really stood out as the golden rule of prevention for a lot of diseases. One of the things that designers also talk about is at that level, trying to create behavior change in kids.
Around three years of age is when most behavior habits, especially around hand hygiene and hygiene in general, set in. So we wanted to focus on kids and that young age and create a fun habit that they carried through to life.
Tony Loyd: I like this whole concept that you see the challenge, and the challenge is very broad. So it’s how might we reduce infant mortality? And so now you had to do your research, and you probably knew something about this anyway, but you had to do your research, and in your research, you see this whole thing about WASH about, handwashing is so important to prevent infant mortality.
Yeah. Am I getting that right? But you either had previous knowledge about the importance of handwashing, or you had to do your secondary research to find that.
Shubham Issar: A little bit of both, so even though I grew up in India and obviously very, very aware of the lack of hygiene in rural areas sometimes, or, or forget lack of hygiene, I think just general lack of awareness. But also, Amanat and I grew up in very privileged households where our parents knew the importance of maintaining proper hygiene.
We went to schools that had access to soap which for a lot of low-income places is not possible. So we actually came back to India in the period that we submitted to the challenge. There were two stages, so we submitted an initial concept, and then ten of those concepts went on to the second stage.
So you reiterate more, you work with some mentors that the program provided, and then we then submitted a more refined idea with how we see this product being used to what are, what is our reasoning? How are we going to make it a reality? And then, when you submit it, that pitch is when you get picked to the next stage.
And in that two-week period being selected as the ten finalists, we came back to Mumbai and New Delhi and went back to schools in India to see, okay, what is the reality in low-income schools? And we realized that often there’s a one-teacher to 60 students ratio in each classroom. And when resources are so strict, kids they’re very conscious as a community, Indians are very, very conscious about waste.
And I think the teachers realized that if they gave kids free rein to use soap whenever they wanted, which is soap, which is often donated to the school, they were just over pumping the entire bottle and using it in one go. Or they were stealing it and taking it home. So they were regulating soap.
So it was one teacher to 60 students, and the soap was kept in the classroom cabinet. And then, she would squeeze a coin-sized amount into each child’s hand around the midday meal. So in most low-income schools, there’s a government program that gives you a midday meal. So they were essentially washing their hands once a day.
And then if there wasn’t a helper, helping the teacher with the handwashing. She would just not use soap. So kids would sometimes go a whole day without actually washing their hands even once. And then we found that really shocking. So we were thinking, what if we created something that’s portable? So a soap that you can take on the go that can travel with you, that the teacher can monitor within the classroom.
And then the kids can go and wash their hands outside. So this was one of the top thought processes behind creating like a roll-on application rather than a pump bottle. And then it also ended up just actually reducing the ton of waste that was happening in schools.
And then we also obviously saw what are kids under the age of five actually doing. Even in that preschool setting in that young age there, they love drawing. That’s what they’re doing; color theory, they’re drawing on everything that they can see. So we wanted to take something at that they really loved, which is playing with color and drawing and marry it with something that they would maybe think of as a chore which was handwashing.
Tony Loyd: I love this story. Thank you so much for sharing those details, Shubham I liked that you went from this sort of secondary research to this primary research. You can’t solve a problem that you don’t know. You have to be in this space with the problem and observe it in order to really get a feeling of what’s actually happening in the classroom.
And for the people in that space, a lot of times, what’s happening is invisible to them, right? And so you’re observing them, regulating the soap. You’re observing children go an entire day without washing their hands. You observed the children drawing.
You observed their playfulness and color and all that. And so you go from this sort of, how might we reduce infant mortality to how might we increase handwashing to how might we change behavior? Especially in very young children around handwashing all taking into account all these things that you observed within the context.
So now you go through this second presentation. In your first presentation. Did you have the concept of a pen that you draw on yourself with, or was it something else?
Shubham Issar: Yeah, the drawing aspect was always there since the beginning, but obviously, what it looks like now is not what it looked like on day one. Initially, we wanted I don’t know if this is if you’re very familiar with these, but you know, there are these wax crayons that you can peel the paper off. It was about as simple as that.
So it was a soap stick that you could essentially peel the paper off as you’re going and using. And we went from bar soap to liquid soap due to a lot of happy errors. We ended up also realizing that kids just prefer liquid soap to bar soap at that age. But initially, it was we couldn’t really chemically engineer the bar soap at the time; well, sneak peek, we are working on a new version of that initial idea still.
And it seems very, very possible. But yeah, initially, it looked completely different. I cannot tell you how many iterations we’ve created, maybe like hundreds and hundreds of prototypes. Yeah.
Tony Loyd: So you put in your second pitch to this UNICEF Wearables for Good Challenge. And then what happened?
Shubham Issar: Yeah. So, I mean, we came to know that we won, which was pretty crazy because of the fellows who were also a part of the challenge. There were just some incredible ideas, and it just felt so validating to think that someone else sees the value in this idea as well. It was a crazy time. I remember the challenge posts that we got some prize money that we could put towards research and development.
They flew us out to San Francisco for an intensive, post-winning the accelerator, where they connected us. We saw our heroes at Frog Design in real life. We connected with a lot of people at UNICEF. Initially, just a lot of mentors who, when you come up with this idea, we had side jobs at the time; no one knew that this could be something real.
It just helps when you have community. And I think early on since that day, we started understanding the power of community just through being in that accelerator feeling supported. And then being able to take the conversation forward talking to people and being like, I don’t know how to make soap. I’m an industrial designer, do you know a chemical engineer? So thinking about things that way and really being very transparent about not knowing things. I think that’s, that’s the big thing I learned early on.
I didn’t touch, touch base on something that you said where you were like you looked at this problem and then you went into this problem. I feel like growing up in India; I obviously knew that all these issues existed. But I think going to design school sort of gave me the tools to address them. I grew up in a very socially conscious family; my parents. My mom’s a lawyer. Half of her practice is pro bono. She does so much social work. My father too. So my mom would always say, as long as you’re giving back to the community, that’s all that matters no matter what you do.
And that just was such a grand idea to me, like giving back to the community, how but I think going through design school, I just got the tools that I needed to respond to problems in a structured way if that makes sense.
Tony Loyd: Oh, I love that. I love that. That’s a great call-out that, you know, lots of people have a burning passion for, let’s say, the climate crisis. So they really, they care. They care about this thing, but the design gives you the tools to do the empathy work. To ideate and iterate your way towards a prototype and then test these ideas.
So it takes that sort of concept level of the heart. I have the heart right now for this issue for WASH for children dying unnecessarily. I have a heart for that, but then the head part is that design stuff that you’re talking all about. The other thing that I’m interested in is you’re talking about the community. You were a 17-year-old when you came to New York. And so I want to talk a little bit about was there a community around you, even though you came here to New York, you came to New York as a 17-year-old, did you land within a community that supported you? And then also a little something about being an immigrant entrepreneur -how those two things kind of collide together. Let’s answer that first question first about the community when you were there as a 17-year-old.
Shubham Issar: Yeah, I think it was definitely very overwhelming. I grew up in a very tight-knit family. I’m extremely close to my parents that even now, I call them two times a day. So it was extremely hard. But I think what’s great about going to school in New York is that, especially Parson’s, there were just a ton of international students.
And I’m very lucky in that because that would not have been the case 20 years ago. But there were just so many international students who had landed in New York for the first time as well. And we were navigating through this crazy undergrad year together. And I think there is definitely a community in that.
I also, very early on, learned that I connect with people over food, and New York is just such a great place to do that. Cooking for people, eating their cultures’ food, I think it has, over time, really embedded itself in my life. So I definitely built a community that used food as a way to build community as well.
And then the rigors of art school. It may sound so fun, but it’s just such a hard, hard year to go through, and you’re really going through it together. My oldest friend now is someone I met in my freshman year class. You know, we’ve known each other for ten years now. And I definitely couldn’t have gotten through it.
Plus, thank God for FaceTime and video calling where you can; I can see my parents, who were two continents away. It’s almost like you and I are talking.
Tony Loyd: I’m very interested in how you went from this concept of you, you win this challenge and you get to go meet some of your heroes at Frog Design, but you still have an idea, right?
And you need to go from that idea to something tangible to market. I thought it was interesting. I ask how you first funded everything, and you use the phrase, grants, challenges, and incubators, and I wanted to go lions, tigers, and bears, oh my. Right?
Shubham Issar: But it’s the truth. It really is the truth. That’s how we did it. We had part-time jobs, but after winning the UNICEF challenge, we’re very frugal. I think that also comes with being an immigrant entrepreneur. Both my co-founder and I are extremely frugal people. We are very conscious about our resources.
Finding the right partners was really the hardest thing. Initially, we also tried making soap in India and spent quite a lot of time trying to connect with chemical engineers here. It didn’t really work out, and then we moved production. And we were looking for someone to connect in the US.
It was crazy. The big break that we got in connecting with the right partners was we were at an accounting firm, and the accountant was cycled. There’s this Indian CEO of this company that you should really meet, who he’s in the CPG field. So he ended up connecting us with a CPG mentor who really connected with us as another immigrant entrepreneur and made the connections for us to go and meet contract manufacturers.
Because until then, every time we would talk to a chemical engineer on the phone, it all sounded great. And we would show up in person, and they’d realize how inexperienced we are. They’d realize that young girls who really don’t understand anything about chemical engineering and all these problems would crop up.
And it was just all our quotes would go up, and then it’s like those scare tactics would start. So I think that’s when I understood the power of a warm intro. And this mentor of ours just really helped us find the right people. It really takes that one person to be interested in you. And give you space in, in a field that you might not know anything at all about. So that’s how it starts.
Tony Loyd: I love something you are bringing up here. So you have the challenge of being a young entrepreneur being women entrepreneurs, being brown entrepreneurs. We know the statistics, right? That like less than 2% of all venture capital goes to women entrepreneurs. Black, indigenous, people of color. – even the lower percentages. So this was a key thing to leverage your network and to leverage your network’s network in order to get the kind of credibility and mentoring that you needed in order to navigate all of that.
Shubham Issar: Yeah, absolutely. I think there was definitely hesitation, at least on my part, about talking about SoaPen. Then I realized the more I talk about it, the more people who might be able to help us or might have some good ideas about how we can take it to the next level would hear about us.
I’m a big believer in cold emailing. I’ve literally DM’d every person I’ve ever looked up to, and the worst is that they don’t see it, and they say no, but oftentimes you know, they respond. I have reached out to so many people, and I’ve just been so surprised about how many people are willing to have a conversation on the phone for 15 minutes.
Tony Loyd: You had to prototype; you had to actually design, develop, create these SoaPens. You mentioned something to me before we started here about a misstep that you took about prototyping these. Okay. Can you share that with us?
Shubham Issar: Yeah. So initially, we had a bar soap concept, and we’d gotten pretty far in it. And then we put a break to it because I’m going into technicalities here, but it requires a lot of pigment for bar soap to actually mark. Traditionally bar soap is hard, and it’s not really, you know, we’re essentially trying to create a lipstick that is a soap.
So existing bar soap manufacturers weren’t really sure if they could do that because it would literally stain in the entire machinery that they have to make other soaps in it as well. So we had to kind of pause there, and the liquid soap was a little bit of a happy accident.
So we started working on the liquid soap version realized that sort of like a deodorant roll-on deodorant might be a really good fit for it. We started looking at these tubes that we felt like the soap was getting dispensed from very well. Everything was great. It was marking so awesome.
And like, it was going really well. And then we got these; we placed an order of a large amount of those tubes. And initially, when we got the first few samples, we were like, oh, let’s go try it out with a couple of kids. And, we don’t really know -if it were in India, I would have so many aunts and uncles that would have some kids, or I could just go up to the neighborhood that I grew up in and be like, Hey, do you guys want to try it?
But in a country where I didn’t know anyone, it was just very hard to find access to kids. So we finally managed to put together a group of moms we still call our SoaPen moms, so super parents. And we were like, let’s try these tubes out.
The first time I saw a child hold it, I was like, wow, this is such a big mistake because they would just squeeze the whole bottle out in one go. So a tube form would never, ever work. And, it was just such a huge foresight, and we’re so particular about really keeping the user around every step of the way. I was like, oh my God, this is such a massive mistake. How could we overlook this?
So we ended up just taking a hit on that 5,000 unit order and being like, no, we cannot launch with something like this even though we’re completely bootstrapped. And is this is putting a serious dent in our budgets. So we decided to go back to the drawing board and launch with something that wasn’t a tube.
Tony Loyd: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, that is a, it’s a painful story. You can laugh now, but when you’re sitting there with 5,000 units of something that doesn’t work, as opposed to let’s make some and give it to some kids and have them play with it and see what happens. So, that prototyping misstep, that’s an important lesson learned, and I appreciate you being honest enough to share that. You get these 5,000 that don’t work. So now you have to go back to the drawing board, and you design what is approximately the SoaPen that you have today, right?
Shubham Issar: Yeah, exactly. We’ve made a couple of changes recently, but we went with a roll-on bottle that was off the shelf. And yeah, very similar to
Tony Loyd: Yeah, yeah.
Shubham Issar: made it a thousand times better.
Tony Loyd: A thousand times better. That’s great. What year is this that you think, we’ve got a product, and it works?
Shubham Issar: So we won the UNICEF Wearables for Good Challenge back in 2016. And in 2017, we conducted a Kickstarter campaign, a crowdfunding campaign to fund a larger production run. And then the end of 2018 is when we launch. So it took a bit to even post that having some funding, it took us a bit to get to market.
Tony Loyd: Yep. And so you get to the end of 2018, and 2019 is like your first full year of production, and then comes 2020. And there’s this little thing called a pandemic. And suddenly, handwashing became really critical. So what happened to you and your business during that time?
Shubham Issar: Yeah, I could never have imagined it. Talking about 2019 itself, it was just such a hard year for us. As I said, we were completely bootstrapped, and we launched on Amazon because we wanted to be where the parents were. But when you launch on Amazon, you’re this little fish in this massive pond. You just don’t know how to really reach the right audience.
In October of 2019, we got an article in Real Simple magazine. We were featured in Real Simple magazine, and it was this incredible print feature that was in the national publication. And being the millennial I am, I had no idea the power that print media had.
And we completely sold out our entire inventory in two and a half weeks. And that was when I was rationing it out. I feel like if we had production, we would have been – and that’s what gets the Amazon algorithm also going is having a large amount of people come to your listing and purchase.
And then it starts to get to know your customer, and then it starts to just – the platform optimizes that way. And being sold out, it’s like the worst thing that you can do. So I just to put you in the context of where we were going into 2020. So that was October of 2019. We got the bad news from our contract manufacturer that it’s actually going to take us about eight weeks to get back in stock.
On Amazon, if you’re inactive for two weeks, you’re essentially starting from scratch. I think that was very stressful. We’ve finally felt like we had market validation that the parents were interested in the product and that it was filling a need. And so we didn’t actually have more products till January 2020.
And when we came back in stock, all of our retail partners – we sell on wholesale, through small boutique platforms – bought 70% of the production upfront. But then, at the same time, COVID happened, and we sold out again. That was the first time we’d launched this beta version of SoaPen. It was the first time that we were putting it out there to a lot of customers. And we got two main pieces of feedback.
One, parents felt like the soap wasn’t vibrant enough. There’s a very delicate balance in SoaPen where you can make the soap vibrant and not staining. So it’s this delicate balance of finding the right coloring.
And then, the second piece of feedback was that the soap rollerball was too wide, and it wasn’t rolling on smoothly. And parents felt like the kids weren’t able to really draw.
So when that happened, we were like, why don’t we take this crucial time where handwashing with soap is really important. And it’s important in a global context. I felt like at times when I would pitch SoaPen, parents would love it regardless of where they were, but we would get this question like, okay, I see the importance of handwashing with soap in India or in places where the awareness isn’t really there, but what’s the use of it in the United States?
Like why should we care about handwashing with soap? And this was the first year that I wasn’t getting asked that question. And so we decided to go back to the drawing board and address those two things. And we were actually in a redevelopment phase; all of 2020 and COVID supply chains completely messed up.
So we didn’t end up getting back in stock after we created a mold and a custom rollerball applicator to dispense our soap better. So it just draws really smoothly on the hand. The ideas that kids draw all over. So we also made a more vibrant soap and launched it in three new colors, orange, blue, and green.
Tony Loyd: And one of the things and I want to come back to 2020 in a second, but one of the things that you do that we haven’t even mentioned yet, is that you donate either soap or percentage of your profits to partner organizations. So can you talk about that?
Shubham Issar: Yeah. So early on, the social mission is ever-evolving. We’ve done handwashing campaigns in New York. We’ve done handwashing campaigns in New Delhi and Hariana, and all over India. And we’ve worked with partners to conduct those campaigns, or sometimes it’s a team member and me also going in these places.
And I think what’s been really exciting to see is SoaPen in action and how it can really be a great teaching tool to teach kids the importance of handwashing and have fun doing it. And then, other than that, we also realized that we might have an equally good platform impact if we donate profits to organizations that are working in the WASH space.
So, for instance, when we launched our hand sanitizer in 2020, we donated 10% of our profits to organizations that were working in COVID. We specifically donate to one organization called the Emergent Fund that worked with black people who had suffered due to COVID. So we, we like to work with different partners, and I think we’ve realized more and more that there’s not one particular program – donating profits or donating SoaPen or donating soap. So we want to be open to trying out and working with our partners to see what they think would fit best in their giving.
Tony Loyd: So your company has been bootstrapped, right? So, in other words, you make money, you reinvest the money back in the company, and that’s how you grow. You also mentioned your grants, challenges, and incubators. But when I met you, actually, you were pitching on a pitch day for the Conscious Venture Lab.
And it’s an organization that I admire quite a bit. So can you talk about your experience of just going through that?
Shubham Issar: Yeah, that was the first time that I’ve done a virtual incubator. Which was pretty, pretty interesting. We’ve been a part of many accelerators and a lot, most of them have been in person, and it’s really awesome to have that community there, but Conscious Venture Lab’s biggest learnings I think I’ve had is just investing in people and how important culture is to actually make it or break it kind of scenario. And the culture that you build, even starting from two people in your company to four people, to six people, how much of an impact that can have and how important it is to invest in people first.
I think that is my biggest takeaway from Conscious Venture Lab. We actually ended up fundraising not from CVL but through angel investors in 2020 as well. So bootstrapped until then. And then we raised a round, but it was really cool to have an online community. I think check-in every week and accountability partners. So in a hard year, that was 2020. It was a really big silver lining.
Tony Loyd: You said at one point you said SoaPen happened to you, as opposed to you setting out at the beginning to be an entrepreneur. That really wasn’t what you were out to do. Talk to me just a little bit about what it was like to raise your first round of angel funding.
Shubham Issar: It was pretty again, pretty crazy and random. I told you that we were literally made by incubators, grants, and accelerators. And we were a part of a very small impact accelerator called Pursuit Incubator that was down in they’re based in Idaho. In my final pitch meeting, one of my advisors or someone who was judging me and giving me feedback on the pitch was Chris Graph.
And he ended up reaching out and being like, are you guys fundraising? And if yes, I think I’d be very interested, keep me posted. And he connected us to another friend of his who is in the manufacturing space and really has helped us out so much in that regard. And they ended up just being very, very interested in us personally and coming together to invest as a vehicle. And they also ended up creating a vehicle for impact investing in general. So I feel like it was just a perfect marriage that started with, SoaPen, and one of the investors is also Indian born and raised in the US but of Indian origin.
So I just feel so happy that we definitely have someone who’s a person of color on the board and kind of looks like me and I can look up to.
Tony Loyd: You’re in this accelerator, and you meet Chris Graft, and then you end up with Amish (Shah) on your board. And so things are going pretty well, but there’s one more story that you haven’t told yet. And it’s just; it’s a crazy story. So talk to me about your experience with Shark Tank.
Shubham Issar: So cool. Such a rollercoaster. I don’t want to give too many spoilers, but there’s a very dramatic ending to the whole episode. And I really felt those emotions in real time as well. I think a lot of people tend to believe that, and to an extent, I also did before my experience the scripted aspect of reality TV. And I just feel like it was such a real experience, and I think Shark Tank does a really good job of making sure that that comes through in the entrepreneur’s experience when they’re recording it and in the audience’s experience when they’re viewing it. So what you were seeing is exactly how we felt it.
And yeah, rollercoaster, but spoilers, we did get, we did get funding from Nirav Tolia and had been working very closely with him and his wife post the show as well. And it’s been incredible, kind of building the business with them.
Tony Loyd: And his wife, what’s her name?
Shubham Issar: Megha. Megha Tolia.
Tony Loyd: Megha Tolia.
Shubham Issar: Her experience is amazing. Um, Yeah,
Tony Loyd: …alignment. It was like the stars aligned there.
Shubham Issar: It really did.
Tony Loyd: What’s Megha Tolia – what’s her experience then that…
Shubham Issar: You know, we have a soap company. So Megha, it’s like – Megha was the ex VP of e-commerce at Method Soap. In design, when we were building SoaPen, we read the book by the Method Soap founders it’s called The Method Method. And I would honestly, it’s one of my favorite books about entrepreneurship and, you know, going off the beaten path.
It was just so cool to be working with someone who’s, who’s worked with such an influential group that has been just so inspiring in our journey. So we started working with her. She’s so cool. Such a powerhouse has so much relevant experience, which is very hard to find. So it’s been, it’s been really amazing.
Tony Loyd: Alright, if people want to see the pitch, they should look at season 13, episode four of Shark Tank, and it is dramatic.
And can we reveal a little bit about just right how it ended?
Shubham Issar: Yeah, absolutely. So we do the pitch, and, you know, everybody was extremely supportive. My worry was that the sharks weren’t going to get the idea. They’re going to think that it’s stupid, or do you know, you know, all those doubts that you were going through when you were being put on like national television platform.
But they were very supportive. Everybody felt like we were too early in the journey for their investment. So we walked out of the tank with no deal, and as we were walking out, so there are a series of interviews like every viewer who watches Shark Tank knows that once you walk out at the tank, you do an exit interview on the carpet when you’re walking out.
And as we were doing that interview, Nirav like rushes out. I just thought he’s coming to say hi, probably feels really bad. He’s also Indian and was just like coming to say, hello, Indian to Indian. But that wasn’t the case. He ended up offering us a deal, and It was such a rollercoaster because we had that, you know, deep disappointment of not getting a deal. And then suddenly being offered one from a person that was just such a direct fit. And he mentioned on the show as well that his wife has experience in hand and soap, I mean, she is like decades of experience in hand and soap. So that was really awesome. And then we ended up closing the deal on real life as well, which is really cool.
Tony Loyd: Just one last thing just to bring everybody up to date, you’ve recently landed in another accelerator. So, talk about that.
Shubham Issar: Yeah. It’s been a really cool experience. Andreessen Horowitz is like one of the biggest VC firms in the country, if not the world, and they started an accelerator called TXO, the full form is Talent X Opportunity. And the focus is on minority founders. So women of color, women in general. Focusing on minority founders who might not have the network that Andreessen can provide us.
You know, I’m an immigrant we don’t have those connections. We didn’t do a friends and family round because we didn’t have any family here to fund that round. So similar to that, there’s just so many founders of color and female founders who just don’t get those opportunities, and TXO is making those connections available to us.
And part of the accelerator is focusing on your marketing, really building a strong presence in, in marketing channels. And then the other is a connection to VC funds, especially if you’re going to be raising a round which I think most of the companies that are in the program are.
Tony Loyd: Yeah. Something that you’ve learned on your way, a piece of advice that you could pass on to other social entrepreneurs.
Shubham Issar: I think just learning how to ask from very simple tips. If you’re writing an email, just a two-sentence about your ask and then ending with a question is just a very helpful format that I like. So as simple as that tip to just being okay with asking for what you need and putting your ask out there to strangers.
And being very shameless about it. I think as I grow older, I’ve just kind of gotten rid of a lot of inhibitions. I DM celebrities I want to give SoaPens to, and I DM everybody. And I just don’t really have a lot of shame in asking for what I need and want.
I think the flip side of that is learning also to say no. I’m the kind of person who jumps at every opportunity. Just seizes everything and says yes to them. With the help of my co-founder Amanat, who has more of a practical approach. I think I’ve been able to stop and think what is the end result? Like, where is this leading? What am I looking to get out of it?
And being okay saying no to an opportunity that might not lead anywhere.
Tony Loyd: If people are looking for, SoaPen online or on social media, where would they look?
Shubham Issar: Yeah. So we’re on all social media platforms. We are “my SoaPen”, M Y S O A P E N. And our website is SoaPen.com. And you can also find us on Amazon.
Tony Loyd: If you were to call on us to go and do something as a result of this conversation, what would that be?
Shubham Issar: Wash your hands.
Tony Loyd: Wash your (laughs)
Shubham Issar: Tell that three-year-old in your life to tell them to wash their hands. And if they’re having trouble with it, get them a SoaPen.
Tony Loyd: Oh, Shubham, I thank you so much for sharing your story, and thanks for being here on Social Entrepreneur.
Shubham Issar: Thank you so much, Tony, for having me.