When Dennis Anderson was living out of his car and unable to shower daily, it was hard to imagine he'd go on to start a upscale handmade soap business one day.
Anderson's stint of homelessness came after a slow downward spiral. After completing his Massachusetts community college program in 2003, he had no direction and couldn't find a well-paying job. He moved from his ex-fiancee's apartment to his old bedroom in his father's basement but after having family problems and totaling his old car, he fell into a deep depression. "I was at rock bottom," Anderson said. "I was really having a hard time with everything, and didn't know how to cope with it. I was about to give up on everything and was thinking about driving off a bridge or something."
Instead of driving off a bridge, Anderson withdrew his entire savings of $300 and drove across the country. Ending up somewhere between San Francisco and Sacramento with only $40 left, he slept in his car for nearly four weeks.
He eventually found temporary work as a day laborer and moved into a room he rented on a weekly basis. But his big breakthrough happened when he met his now-fiancee, a jewelry maker who sold on Etsy. Inspired, Anderson invested about $20 to start making soaps he could sell on the online marketplace.
Today, Anderson Soap Company, his Portland, Ore.-based vegan handmade soap business -- with big hits such as his Guinness Beer soaps and Chocolate Drizzle Soap in a Jar -- has grown to the point that Anderson comfortably quit his day labor job and moved into a three-bedroom home with his fiancee, two daughters and stepson. He considers his journey from homelessness to home-based business "surreal," admitting, "It's a blessing for me to still be here."
Was starting a business a goal or even a thought of yours when you decided to drive to California?
No, I was 26 and wasn't really motivated to do much at that time. I'd always wanted to drive cross country but never had the opportunity to, so basically I thought, "I have no place to live, I might as well go." When I drove cross country, I had just enough money to get me from point A to point B, gas-wise. I just went until my gas tank was empty.
What did you think when you realized you had to sleep in your car?
For about a week, I was thinking, is this how my life is going to end up? Living in a car is uncomfortable. I could sleep comfortably in a four-door Dodge Neon, but it wasn't as good as a bed. And I was wondering if I was going to have to give up my car, because I was still making payments on it. I basically started to feel like I had to take responsibility for myself and take action. I started working as a day laborer, where you show up every day and they assign you to a one-day job.
And that allowed you to move out of your car and into a room?
I found phone numbers in a laundromat for a room I could rent per week. So I found a room about three to four weeks after moving to California. I wanted to be able to get out of my car. Living in my car is not something I'm proud of doing, but I had to do it.
How did you meet your fiancee -- and how did she introduce you to Etsy?
She was working at Target, and I would park my car at Target for a couple hours a day because it was a good, safe place to be -- I'd go there after my day labor job and get a few things I needed here and there. She was very nice and we started talking when she was on break, hit it off and went on a couple dates. She had a side job making her own jewelry and would sell it at fairs and then had an online shop on Etsy.
And that inspired you to sell handmade soaps on Etsy as well? What was your connection to soaps?
In a college chemistry class, we made soaps one day as an experiment, and I was doing it for personal use ever since. I didn't have any ideas about starting a soap business until I found Etsy, and then I decided to take a stab at it. I started it on a whim.
And you started with an incredibly low investment.
I started with $20 to $40 to buy materials to make a batch, and when I sold that batch, I put the money back into the company to buy more supplies. We had just a basic digital camera, so a new camera was the first major thing I invested in, and pictures came out 100 times better, which helped sales.
How did you get the idea for Guinness beer soap?
I would chat with people on Etsy and customers would ask if I could make soap out of this or with that flavor, such as Guinness beer. I'd say, "Sure. If it comes out do you want to buy some?" So I started off with most of my products being customer requests.
And you have celebrity customers now as well?
Yes, I have a few. I can't reveal who they are. It's exciting, but all my customers are equally important to me. I read all of my feedback on Etsy.
What are your future goals for the business?
I want to eventually have a storefront. I hope that happens in the next year or two, after I get some stuff situated with my credit. When I was homeless, I basically let everything go and didn't pay bills for a while. I'm waiting for that to clear so I can get a small-business loan.
You've come a long way from not paying your bills and living in your car.
I have so much more. Back then, I had my car packed with my clothes and my computer. Now I have a warm place to sleep at night. I don't ever want to go back there again. It was the scariest time of my life. But I had to keep pushing forward. If I didn't, I don't think I would be here today. I've had to overcome so much in my life, even before this, to be where I am now, and I am not even close to where I want to be.
And now you have this great soap business when at one point you couldn't shower every day.
It's pretty ironic, isn't it? Yeah, I was pretty stinky when I was living in my car. And now I love the way my house smells. I'll walk by the packages and pick them up and just take a whiff.
Name: Dennis Anderson
Company: Anderson Soap Company
Location: Portland, Ore.
2012 Projected Revenue: $85,000-90,000