Grants, Challenges, and Incubators (Oh My!) with Shubham Issar of SoaPen
For a full transcript and extended show notes, see https://tonyloyd.com/shubham-issar.
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.