A Conversation With Emily Voth, Founder Of Kansas City’s Indigo Wild And Zum Soaps
Stepping into Zum Soap’s airy brick headquarters in Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District is like an olfactory head trip with a wagging tail—several, as it turns out. Manufactured by Indigo Wild and helmed by owner Emily Voth, bars of Zum (rhymes with “hum”) fill row after row of stacked wooden shelves from which a merry band of canine attendants emerge alongside a crew of employees. Shaking hand after hand of smiling Indigo Wild employee brings to mind the magic of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” without Oompa-Loompas. Notes of lavender, vanilla, myrrh and lime float up the stairs made of repurposed timber toward the second floor of open office spaces.
The corner spot where Voth spends much of her time first resembles a swank party room for festive bacheloretting. Ensconced in its plushy chambers—surrounded by three or four dozing dogs—we toast homemade kombucha and get real about running a growing natural bath-and-body company out of America’s heartland.
Like many people, I discovered Zum Soaps at a local grocery store. The display smelled so good that I had to turn around and check it out. What is the relationship between Zum Soaps and Indigo Wild?
It all started in the ’90s as Indigo Wild—I didn’t even have the soap yet. When I started it, I had a coconut facial cream, citrus room mist, lip balm, that sort of thing. I named it “Wild Indigo” because I love the plant, from the sweet-pea family—it’s a beautiful dark purple, and I used it for dye. For some reason we just kept saying “Indigo Wild” instead of “Wild Indigo,” and that just stuck for some reason.
The name of the company goes along nicely with the kind of playful irreverence of your brand image, and this space.
I can’t think of one other natural body-care factory on the market that manufactures their own products. Companies like Burt’s Bees, MyChelle, etc—they’re all manufactured somewhere else. When we started, all these companies were very serious in their branding. The packaging was brown, there was a lavender sprig in the label and [it] depicted a woman in the spa, or the garden, or whatever. We decided to make the whole “natural-products” image a lot more fun—not so much “Use natural products, or you’ll die!”
Not as preachy.
Yes, I think that the image was a refreshing thing for people, and now even more so. Some of these consumer info websites are printing inaccurate information, and it’s scaring the hell out of people. They’re worried about the smallest things, when we really need to look at the big picture and the big companies—the massive body-care companies that make products with so much garbage in them.
There seems to be an American tendency for socially conscious people to sometimes have unrealistic expectations, even of businesses that are scaling in a morally correct way.
Exactly. We have over 300 SKUs, and while a few have trace amount of fragrance oil as opposed to essential oil, none of them have phthalates, which is a plasticizer that gives people headaches with fragrance. But most women have petroleum-based lipstick and don’t think twice about it. The goal is to do as much as you can in an industry owned by big companies that use chemicals—like parabens—proven to cause cancer.
In all of our branding, we try to avoid being judgmental. People need a break and want to be around products that make them feel good. People believe all sorts of things, but everyone can use a natural soap. We have to be profitable and stay in business to keep people employed, so that we continue to get natural products out there to make a difference. I always laugh when people say they want to start their own business because they want to “be their own boss and make a lot of money.” And I’m like, “Well, don’t start your own business,” because all that might not necessarily happen.
When did you decide to move from small-scale coconut facial cream to something larger scale?
I think it’s in my DNA. At the farmers’ market where I started out, we were so small-scale that we used to hand-watercolor the labels! I wanted my table to look like the department store came to the farmers’ market. One day, I sold $500 worth of product, and I told my husband, “This is what I’m going to do. People like this! They like what I made!” It was a huge rush. I took my $500 and bought more bottles and essential oils. I didn’t have a specific goal in terms of employees or SKUs, but rather doing more and more everyday to share my products with as many people as possible.
How did you learn to make these products in the first place?
It was all self-taught, for sure. I was selling my products at the market, but one product was missing. Not everyone uses a whipped face cream or peppermint salt, but everyone uses soap. At first, soap seemed way too complicated, but it was the one thing that was missing. I ended up finding a goat’s-milk soap that I loved and experimented in my kitchen, playing around with it until I landed on a formula that became the Zum bar.
What do you like about goat’s milk—it’s an ingredient in so many of your products?
It’s super moisturizing—very close to the pH of your skin. Goat’s milk is also very gentle, and filled with so many vitamins and fats that are good for the skin. Women have been taking milk baths for centuries. And there aren’t many goat-milk soaps on the market. All of the goats that create the milk we use are all treated very well.
What’s it like being an ambitious person in your field in the Midwest?
I’m from small-town Nebraska, so for me, Kansas City is a big city [laughs]. We have so many arts that people don’t realize. It’s a sizeable city, but it’s also so livable. It’s bigger than Lincoln, Nebraska, but smaller than Chicago. We also ship all across the country—our biggest customers are Whole Foods, Publix and other grocery stores that are getting into natural products. And we can do it all right here.
What are you most excited about right now?
I love the product side of things at the moment. I just bought a big bag of Tocos—it’s a dehydrated rice bran that’s supposed to be excellent for your skin. I can’t wait to get home this weekend and mess with it. Is it water soluble? Is it oil soluble? Can I put it in a toner? In a drink? It excites me to make something new and to have fun. The fun part of my company is hugely important. If it starts to be a drag, then something has to change.
In my previous job in PR, you had to dress up, there was no music, there were no dogs. It taught me a lot, but I also realized that I wanted to have my own company where you can wear what you want, be around people you want to be around, where you can listen to music and don’t have to be quiet, where you can bring your dogs. That vision has been a hugely important thing to me personally—and a hugely important part, I think, of Indigo’s success.