Podcast Episode 102: Deanna Renda | The Tenacity of an Entrepreneur

Deanna Renda | The Tenacity of an Entrepreneur

Bob Phibbs, the Retail Doctor's guest is Deanna Renda, the Founder of Naples Soap Company to talk about how she started from humble beginnings as a nurse and trying to solve her child's skincare problem to building her network of 11 stores throughout Florida.


Tell me something good about retail

Deanna Renda: The Tenacity of an Entrepreneur



Three Key Takeaways:

  • Know what you sell
  • Stay true to your brand and focus
  • Do whatever it takes. The day after the hurricane, she was out looking for backup locations to reopen.

Listen to it on Apple Podcasts.

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Bob: I know you and your story so well. I always start off the podcast, who are you and what do you have to do with retail?

Deanna: Oh my gosh, I live, eat, sleep, and breathe retail. I am the owner and founder of Naples Soap Company. And we are a very niche boutique chain in Florida. We have 11 stores in the State of Florida. And we carry our own brand of natural and organic bath and body products from bath bombs to body butters, scrubs, face products, soaps, you name it.

Bob: And again, I know that you are busy. And I don't remember 11 stores the last time we chatted. You know, you started out from such a different background. You were a nurse, you had a child, you noticed that she's got a rash, and the doctors are all saying more chemicals are the answer, and that's kind of the back door that you came into retail with, right?

Deanna: Yeah. I really took my experience. I started in 2009 with a little, tiny 300 square foot store. And it was a kind of several epiphanies happening simultaneously. My daughter had eczema and psoriasis, and I've had eczema and psoriasis my whole life...I'm sorry, my daughter had eczema, I have eczema and psoriasis. And I wanted to open a little shop. I had been working in the medical industry, and I was a nurse, and I was working in medical sales, and I really just was tired of it. And I had a friend of mine come to my house and I said, "You know, I'm thinking about opening a shop next to my girlfriend over in this little kind of high tourist traffic area, and I don't know what my concept should be." And I've always loved retail. My first job was a in the men's department at J.C. Penney's when I was 15 years old.

Bob: Oh my goodness.

Deanna: I know. Right? Scary, yeah, scary. But I've worked in retail since I was 15 years old off and on. I just love retail. And so anyways, a friend of mine that was there, he has some retail business as well, and he went in my bathroom and he came out, and he said, "How come you have so much damn lotion and soap, and just stuff all in your bathroom? What are you doing?" And I said, "Well, I've got eczema and psoriasis and this one works, and this one doesn't work, and this one's got shea butter in it but I like the cocoa butter better," dah, dah, dah. And so, you know, we started looking up and, you know, we looked up natural soaps, and boom, the concept was born. And he said, "You know, always sell what you know. Sell what you're passionate about. If you're passionate about something, you can sell anything as long as that you're interested in and that you have passion for."

Bob: Great point.

Deanna: Yeah. So that was the genesis of it. So 300 square feet, I took a little, tiny store, I didn't wanna bite off more than I could chew. And I had customers coming in. And I figured out I got a couple of manufacturers, started kind of customizing some of the products slowly, very slowly, but I was just talking to my customers, and listening to them, and getting feedback from them. And people would come in and say, you know, "What's your story?" But I always shared my story even if they didn't ask, you know, I said, "Well..." You know, me. I'm gonna take [inaudible 00:03:36] whether you want to or not. I might even show you a rash here or there. I actually have you on [inaudible 00:03:42] Facebook live showing your rash somewhere.

Bob: That's right, because you make it easy though. In all fairness, Deanna has this warm spirit of, "Well, let's just figure this out. Let's work together," which I think probably drew those initial customers to you, right?

Deanna: Absolutely. And it is that, you know, I'm really not shy when it comes to talking to people. Having a nursing background definitely helps because, you know, I have been, you know, intimate with human beings in a very delicate setting and situation, so that takes some apprehension away. Especially, you know, when you're in a sales environment, you know, you might be a little nervous to get in someone's space or something like that. So fortunately for me, I had a really great background in nursing. And I was very comfortable speaking with clients about the products. 

And, you know, what? I didn't have this great, big, you know, huge concept when I started. The evolution of my business really was from listening to customer feedback. And the more I heard the customer feedback, the more I realized there were so many people like myself out there that connected to my story, and that understood, you know, that I was on a mission and that, you know, that I was solving a problem. And I really realized that, "Okay, here's the problem. Solve the problem. What do I have that solves the problem?" 

Bob: Well, I think what's so interesting with your story is, so that's 2009. And by the way, she's being a little modest, she also, before she took that story, she's actually was out at farmers markets on her time off on the weekend selling her initial soap line. And still to this day, your number one bestseller is the one you came up with to solve the problem that your daughter and you had, right?

Deanna: Yes. And the thing is that, you know, when I started, I had all of these products. I had, you know, probably 50 different soaps. And I kept coming back to the same product that was getting the most feedback, and I said, "Okay, how am I gonna build my business? I'm gonna take one concept and one product, and I'm gonna make that a rock star. I'm gonna focus on it. I'm gonna move it." And we have, you know, like I said, right now, we have about 400 of our own branded products, but our unscented sea salt soap, and we've done a couple of branches off of that with an eczema soap now. But that has really...I've stayed true to the brand. I've stayed true to the product. That's my workhorse, and that's the bar that really built my business.

Bob: Yeah, I think that's really important. And to your point, I'm still listening to them and knowing that. And, you know, it's a family business with you. Your fixtures aren't something that you went down and had custom built by somebody in some fancy Soho region, you had it built by fancy people in the South, right?

Deanna: Yeah, that would be my fancy cousins, and uncles, and stuff. Not. They have some business where they go and tear down barns in the area that my family has been living in in Georgia for about 200 years. And they tear down old barns and they started making fixtures and furniture. So I kind of enlisted them to help me and started designing some of my fixtures and furnitures with the help of family. And that's been really fun, except that some of those fixtures just like 1 shelving unit weighs about 800 pounds. 

Bob: But it looks great. That's all that matters.

Deanna: It looks great. It's just that wherever you put it, that's where it's gonna stay. But it also prevents the retail staff from doing floor moves without permissions.

Bob: Oh, nice. Well, the other thing that I noticed about you also is that, you know, you are this beachy type of a boutique with the kind of driftwood, the weathered barn, it's a real authentic West Florida brand, which is interesting because you really are only on the west side of Florida at this point, right? That is being true, the look of your of your stores, correct?

Deanna: Yeah, the stores are very coastal. And I'm a native Floridian and those are my roots. I grew up on the beach here, and that's where I learned how to damage my skin as well.

Bob: I use sun lamp, so that was mine.

Deanna: Oh, yeah, brutal. Absolutely brutal. You know, and I grew up in the '70s and '80s where we used to just bake our skin with baby oil, and olive oil, and iodine, and the most, you know, awful things that we could put on our skin and blister and peel. So, yeah, I had a lot of great experience in Florida growing up just, you know, brutalizing my skin. And now in my late 40s I'm, you know, in my second lifetime trying to repair all that damage...

Bob: I like that.

Deanna: ...like others. But, yeah, the stores have a really... You know, and again, it's choosing something to focus. I go into a lot of retail stores, and there really isn't like a theme or there isn't, you know, something that you can kind of gravitate to. Most of our locations are in high tourist traffic areas, so we try to make it to where it has that local appeal to each location. I've got a couple that are in some downtown historic districts, so we take some, you know, old Victorian and old Key West elements and incorporate that into the store themes. We are in the Panhandle now. We have a couple stores up in the Panhandle and Destin in Panama City Beach, and so we've broken out. And we're in Mount Dora just north of Orlando, and that's a very quaint, old, historic district as well. But, you know, I try really hard to give a little bit of local flavor for each store. It doesn't have to be cookie cutter, and it doesn't have to be an identical footprint. There just has to be branding elements that are consistent through each store so that your brand is recognizable when they go location to location.

Bob: Yeah, and I think we get your store really quick to be [inaudible 00:09:39] which I appreciate. And it's not over perfumed, and it's not...so this assault on the senses, it's organized, really clean, and really easy to shop. And, you know, it all sounds great. And I'm sure that everything has gone perfect for you. But I'm curious, you know, what do you think your biggest challenge has been in the last just three years, and how might you've overcome it? Just the last three because you've been on a growth spurt for quite a while now.

Deanna: I have been on a growth spurt. We added four stores last year, I snuck a few in on you since you were...

Bob: I know, you said you weren't gonna add any last year. And now, you added four, crazy.

Deanna: Well, here's the deal. After that, we actually got... If you drew a path where Hurricane Irma came through Florida, it was basically a swath from Key West up the West Coast to the panhandle of every Naples Soap Company location. So we got hit by a hurricane. We lost a store in Key West. We had two feet of water in that store the day before the hurricane came. And that's always fun watching that on cameras when your staff has been evacuated, and you're watching water rise. And then we have a location that's on the water here in Naples, Florida, and that building was damaged. So we opened a backup location in Naples, Florida because we are Naples Soap Company, and we need to have a flagship.

Bob: So not only did you open these backups, but then you kept them open?

Deanna: Yeah, we're doing really well with our store on Fifth Avenue. The funny part is me calling my commercial realtor the morning after the hurricane, and saying, "Jay, I need keys to get in the store. Can you get me in?" And he said, "You do realize we just got hit by a hurricane, you relentless evil retail woman." 

Bob: And you said, "That's right, I don't want my competitor to get there."

Deanna: Yeah. I said, "Jay, there's gonna be a scramble for space, and I need this space." That just happened last fall as far as our situation. But I honestly would say, over the last three years, Bob, staffing is a really huge challenge for us. And, you know, I have this discussion with so many people about trying to find good people that have work ethic, and that are consistent, and reliable, and trustworthy. You know, we have a very large people problem in this country.

Bob: Yeah, yeah, it's very true.

Deanna: And this has been a consistent. One of the ways that I have tried to improve that situation for us is I actually hired an excellent vice president of HR. And she's been doing a phenomenal job helping us screen, helping us edit out, and change our job descriptions, and how we're posting, and how we're hiring.

Bob: Good. What do you think the best advice you've ever received was, ever received?

Deanna: I think the best advice I ever received because I'm a racehorse is sometimes the best decision you make is not to do anything.

Bob: That's got to be hard for you. 

Deanna: That's a tough one [inaudible 00:12:34], especially if you're someone like me that is addicted to growth. Sometimes, it's okay to stay still. Sometimes, it's...you know, this person was really talking about perfecting systems, getting things tightened up and getting everything flowing like a well-oiled sewing machine. And we've had a lot of growth. And, you know, sometimes, the best move and the best decision is the one that you didn't do.

Bob: And I want you to think. So there you are, you're with your girlfriend, your buddy, guy, girlfriend, doesn't matter, you've known them for a while, and they tell you, "I'm thinking I'm gonna open a retail store because I've always wanted to do this." What would you tell a friend over Starbucks that was looking to get into it?

Deanna: Interesting because I just had this conversation with someone last week. Number one, concept. Really need a solid concept and a theme for what type of product or services that you're gonna do in that retail store, and location. I have a real estate background which I apply every day location, location, location, location. Just because you have a fantastic concept, if you have a cruddy location, doesn't mean if you build it, they will come. I'm a huge believer in mass amounts of foot traffic. Everything that I have is placed in high tourist traffic areas or high foot count areas. So, you know, it's retail, it's a numbers game, and you need the bodies to make the numbers.

Bob: And what if they say, "I wanna keep my other job, and I'll just hire someone to run it."

Deanna: Yeah, that's not gonna work. Good luck with that. Good luck with that. Yeah, it doesn't work that way. I mean, if you're really truly...If you're a good retail owner, you're involved. You're in your stores, you're on the floor, you know what's happening, you're eat, sleeping, and breathing, what's going on with your employees, what's going on with your customers, with merchandise mix, your inventory management, you know, there's so any aspects. This is not a part-time job, not unless you really wanna lose your savings and backside.

Bob: Yeah. No, that's really good. You know, I think that's the thing that I find that people kind of say, "Well, you know, it used to be easier." It's like, "No, it didn't really used to be easier. It's always been hard to compete in retail. I just think we're more aware of everything now." In the old days, you didn't know that somebody was going down the road to a shop somewhere else because there was nowhere down the road like you. And now, let's face it, there's an awful lot of people that are selling an awful lot of things that are a lot like everybody else's. 

And, you know, I think that's one of the things I've seen that has really changed that idea of endless aisle. In a lot of ways, this kind of shut people down. Like we go into a store that has 150 pair of shoes, you're like, "Oh, my God, they didn't come to work today." Just narrow it down, what's the best thing, right? We don't wanna have all of that kind of... But what's changed about the way you thought about retail? I mean, you've been in it now 9, 10 years. What do you think?

Deanna: Well, I think just like a lot of other retail that's evolving, you know, we focus on experience. It's not just put a fabulous product out and make it pretty, you have to have a complete customer experience. And a lot of other retailers are going in the same direction, but it's about service. I don't think traditional retail will ever go away because I'm one of those people that, yes, I will order things on Amazon. I'll order things online for convenience. But there are things that I wanna touch, I wanna see, I wanna feel it, I wanna smell. 

And guess what, especially in my model, if I'm on vacation, I'm gonna go shopping. It's what I do. I pick up [inaudible 00:16:20]. I'm not ordering things online while I'm on vacation. Well, I might be ordering my groceries to deliver at home when I arrive home from vacation from my app. But, you know, it's a convenience factor. So you have to realize, you know, "Am I doing this? What's my audience appeal?" You know? So there's a lot of evolution in retail. But I think if you keep your experience unique, that will help with word-of-mouth, and also with your social posts, and things like that. It's just that very unique guest experience.

Bob: Absolutely, absolutely. Now, you know, you're like maybe a driver, we just run, and run, and run, and run, and run, but when you feel overwhelmed or, you know, you've lost your focus temporarily or, you know, something is kind of not right, what do you? You know, how the things we... I get people on my Facebook videos, they're saying like, "How do I overcome, I've been doing this for 18 years," or, "How do I motivate myself?" And we all have those moments. So what do you do?

Deanna: Like I said, I'm in retail so I pray. You know what? It's really tough for us because especially retail, we're open long hours, were open seven days a week, and it's a constant machine that needs to be fed. So that is really big challenge for those of us that work in it, and that own retail is to create some type of work-life balance. And I personally have gotten to where I drop my personal time on my calendar. It sounds so simplistic, but before, I would have all these appointments every week, "This, and I gotta do this, and this, and meet with a marketing company, meet with, da, da, da, da, da."

But I realized that my personal battery recharging wasn't happening, and I wasn't setting that time and priority for myself. And that was the most important time because if you burnout, and you're tired, and exhausted, you can't be creative, you can't make good decisions, you know, you get stale and flat with your affect when it comes to your business. So I just started dropping those appointments for my self-care on my calendar and blocking out the time. And my staff knows, "Hey, she's not available right now," or I try to take like an every other Friday off and spend time with my family by the pool or something like that. So really carving, you know, it's difficult to carve out that time. 

Bob: That's a great point because I think entrepreneurs, we are always available.

Deanna: Correct.

Bob: [Inaudible 00:18:52], right? You do anything. If I told you, you know, "You might get a mention on the local TV show but you have to be down there 5 a.m." "Great, I'm down there." But to your point, if everything gets equal billing and it's always being on that treadmill, it makes it awfully hard to really bring that fresh spirit of, "Oh, gee, what's next?" right? It's like, "Oh, my God, what's next?" And I think that's how people get bitter. That's how people stop trying.

Deanna: They do. And the exhaustion, you know, especially if you're a smaller business owner and an individual retail owner, it's a lot of weight. It's a lot of pressure on your shoulders, you know, we're always competing against those numbers, competing against our [inaudible 00:19:36] numbers. And, you know, are we making goal, are we making budget? You know, there's always pressure on us. And even when we're not in a physical location, or office, or out on the floor, our brains are always working. And the clock is always running for us. So just giving myself permission to be human again was really big. 

Bob: Yeah.

Deanna: I went like a racehorse for about seven years and realized that the burnout factor for me was getting very high. And it's okay to carve out some personal time, whatever issue. If something isn't blood, flood, or fire, it will probably be there tomorrow.

Bob: Is that your mantra? Is that like on a wall somewhere? What is that? Blood, flood, or fire?

Deanna: Blood, flood, or fire. And that's what the staff knows that, "Hey, listen, I'm gonna be off at this point. You know the deal. If it's blood, flood, or fire, you can contact me. If not, it's probably something I can deal with tomorrow." And I realized that I make much better decisions long-term and short-term when my brain is recharging.

Bob: Nice. And, you know, the name of my podcast is "Tell Me Something Good about Retail," so can you tell me something good about retail?

Deanna: Let's see. Something good. Well, I think that what I do appreciate is I appreciate that the evolution of what's happening with retail is forcing retailers to be more creative, and I really like that. I'm a creative person and I love experience. And I see that across the board, in big box and in small retailers. So something good that's coming out of this retail evolution that we're going through is an increased creativity and an increased end user experience. And I really like that. You know, for so many years, we walked into retail, into stores, and, you know, nobody's in the aisle, nobody's helping you, you know, and the customer experience really lacked. And that's why a lot of these companies have gone under. But now, something really good is that it's forcing everyone that is in brick-and-mortar to be much more engaged.

Bob: Yeah. I think that's really an excellent point both for us as the shoppers and as retailers, right? It's not becoming impossible to find great customer service. Yeah, there's hit and miss, that's for sure, but the ones who seem to be winning it, you know, yeah, some people are gonna do it, and they think the answer is just gonna be technology, some people think the answer is gonna be people, I think it's probably a mix of both. But it certainly isn't just about product because nobody needs... You know, I'm a writer and I was taking my writing courses in Los Angeles in January, February. And my writing guru said, "Your story is boring." Everybody's got a story. It's how you write it. And it's kind of the same thing in retail, I think. You know, your product is boring. But how do you make it in such a way that people...it resonates with them? So in your case, you're authentic, you've got a story. I think you hire people that are more of being of service than of standing around. And I think that certainly makes it a great time to be more creative in how you touch those people with an open heart, yes?

Deanna: Absolutely. I agree with you 100%. And it's forcing us to be more original, it's forcing us to be more original with our sales pitch, it's forcing us to be more original with our content, how we are delivering the message on the product to customers because customers are educated, and they know, they can get on their phone. And while they're standing right in front of you, research what you're saying and call you out on it.

Bob: Yeah, yeah.

Deanna: Really, in the long run, what's happening in retail is going to squeeze and force a much better interaction for the customer and for the retailer. And, you know, it seems painful at the moment, there really is a great evolution happening right now.

Bob: I love that. That's an excellent point, Deanna. Well, what's ahead for you? Anything else in our final moments here? Are you opening 20 more stores? Are you doubling down and not opening anything? What are you most excited about working on the rest of this year?

Deanna: The rest of this year, we are actually installing a new POS systems and upgrading all of our...which is incredibly painful, as you know. That's a nightmare into itself. But we are putting all the infrastructure in so that we can get...we're at 11 stores, our goal for the next 5 years is to reach 25 stores. And so we're putting all the framework and infrastructure in place to do that. So this year, we're playing a little bit of catch-up from the hurricane, and also just putting the underpinnings in so that as we do grow, we have the ability to do it kind of seamlessly.

Bob: Excellent. Well, I think that's a great place for us to end, the idea that data is everything. Without data, you're just flying by the seat of your pants and that's certainly not a way you get to 11 stores. So thank you very much for joining us today, Deana. 

Deanna: Thanks for having me on, Bob. It's always a pleasure to talk to you.

Find out more about Naples Soap Company here 

Deanna Renda

Find out more about Deanna


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