We normally celebrate entrepreneurs for their accomplishments, ignoring their journey. All entrepreneurs face challenges when starting and running a business. Challenges vary and the individual’s reaction to them varies even further.
Charlene Mercieca is a Maltese entrepreneur and owner of Soap Cafe. The shop is famous for creating soaps which look so tasty you could eat them. Charlene started the business at 25 and has seen the startup flourish into a successful business which remains true to its roots. Apart from being an entrepreneur, she is also a qualified beautician, herbalist, spa consultant and, a cancer survivor.
I met Charlene at her shop in Sliema and asked her questions about her philosophy in business and life. The interview comes just as the business is about to celebrate another milestone; moving to bigger premises.
How did you make the leap from solving a personal problem to starting a business?
I guess you could say that my journey into this industry started when I had a variety of skin issues at a young age. I visited many doctors and felt like a guinea pig being tested on. No one really provided me with a solution I felt happy with. I felt like I had lost control over the situation, and I don’t like being out of control of things. [So,] I decided to research and come up with my own products.
It all started as a bit of a hobby and it gave me an opportunity to learn about herbs and other things. Eventually, at 16, I was studying for my make up artist qualification. One instructor was particularly interested in natural products and this helped me continue my discovery of herbology. I kept on doing research, but it was always a personal quest, not a business goal.
Fast-forwarding a few years, I started working at this company who sourced artists to create unique pieces. I was the floor manager at the time. My manager, returning from a business trip, came across these special soaps and we looked into importing them. Due to import issues, this was not an option, so instead, I looked at making them myself. I felt like I had a good background to do this. I began by making simpler soaps, and the reception was immediately positive.
An exciting opportunity to move to Thailand and run an eco-farm came and I jumped on it, together with my then partner. Due to some visa issues, we had to return to Malta, but our goal was always to go back there. Life had a different plan for me, and I remained in Malta. However, my desire to start a business and make my own products was growing. Whilst working a part-time job here I also started what would eventually be Soap Cafe. I would sell my products at fairs and markets and they were quite popular.
My journey from product to business took years to form and to happen. I didn’t just see a Facebook post about starting a business and jumped right into it. It took this long for me to research the products and ingredients, be inspired to start a business and actually start the business.
What three attributes help you run Soap Cafe?
Number one would definitely be a stubborn determination. I have a passion for the business and the products and this helps me keep going even when there are problems. I love what I do. As a third attribute, being creative and innovative is also important. This is especially important when you need to do problem-solving. Once the business starts the problems multiple and your ability to innovate allows you to turn problems into opportunities.
How do you deal with personal and business challenges?
I find myself going along with whatever my day brings. In the past, I used to cope with challenges, but this made me sick. I felt like I kept trying to survive, trying not to drown, but it was not sustainable. I learned that going with the flow works better. For a person like myself, who must be in control, letting go was not simple. I learned to accept what comes to you and take it as an opportunity to become better. Each challenge can either make you bitter or better, depending on your attitude towards it.
I wouldn’t separate personal and business challenges. Dealing with a challenge, and I don’t mean fighting it, but accepting it and using it as an opportunity, is the only way I have found that really works. For example, the imminent move of Soap Cafe came as a result of a business challenge we were faced with. We had a choice: stop or move on and we obviously chose to move on… If it wasn’t possible to move on, I would have made the most out of closing the shop.
Many entrepreneurs are always chasing success without knowing what it means to them. What is your idea of success?
This is a very important question because many people see owning yachts, sports cars, and expensive watches as being a sign of success. Success is not what you own, but how you feel. It is the feeling of being content where you are. Even if you can’t afford a cup of coffee, if you are content where you are then you should feel successful. It is very difficult to be content when you have a lot of problems, in business, in health and any other sort of problems. It is easy to feel unlucky, unhappy, unsuccessful.
I had a similar question even before my diagnosis. At the time I believed the same thing, but it was not easy to accept my own mortality. It was not easy to be content in my situation. Ultimately, if you would be happy to die today with no major regrets, then I believe you can consider yourself to be a successful person. Today, I certainly feel successful.
Do you celebrate success? How do you celebrate it?
To be honest, I am still in a situation where I am learning to celebrate success. Many people have told me that I need to release my inner child. With so much having been going on in my life, from studies, to work, to my health, my business, I only managed to realise what I have been through over the past two years. I was constantly looking at my next goal. Things changed with my diagnosis, where I started to learn to appreciate every small breath.
Today, I am still learning to celebrate the little things, my small accomplishments. Every time I achieve something new I need to realise this and learn to celebrate it. This is still not automatic for me. Fortunately, my partner and colleagues make me aware of these achievements.
As a Maltese woman entrepreneur, do you feel that it was harder for you to start a business?
I see a lot of people making a distinction between businesses run by women and those made by men. Personally, I have never felt at a disadvantage for being a woman entrepreneur. I have been lucky to have many supportive men in my life. I never felt that I would have accomplished anything differently had I been a man. Perhaps, I could have done better if I were a much bolder person who took bigger steps. These are traits which are usually linked to men.
No one ever stopped me because I was a woman and had this happened I would have become even more aggressive in my determination. I felt, however, discriminated against by the authorities when they wanted to shut me down because of my soaps which looked like real food. The reason why I felt this was because many other companies were doing this, but somehow I, perhaps because of my small business size, was the only one facing these difficulties.
I am often asked this question and I don’t really understand why. Perhaps it was because I’ve been self-employed for a long while, so I didn’t experience discrimination for being a woman. I believe that, in general, woman do sometimes have confidence issues. They tend to take a step back whilst men tend to be bolder. All I can say is that I had the same education as my brother as well as the same opportunities as him.
What advice would you give readers who feel like the world is crashing down on them?
My advice would be to decide how to perceive the problem. Any situation can make you either bitter or better. You can either turn the situation, whatever it is, into an opportunity or you can make it your hell. Any situation is an opportunity to grow. Life is very unpredictable, however, I believe that it has a plan. When things look really bad, even for me, after a while, something happened which helped me move forward in my life. At the instant, however, the problem looked like the worst thing ever.
I can think of several examples where I felt like my world was ending. When we had to move from our first shop, because the owners wanted to sell the property, I felt kicked out. But this helped me move to my current shop which is bigger and better. Then there was the time when the authorities wanted to close down my shop, but this eventually led to excellent and free PR. There was also that time when a staff member who had been with me for a year decided to leave, but she was replaced by my partner. Then when he knew enough to handle the shop whilst I looked at the bigger picture, I was diagnosed with cancer. Fortunately, by then I had the necessary staff so that the business could continue operating without my daily input.
The diagnosis helped me reflect on my life and what I really wanted to do. I compare it to a handbrake on a very busy lifestyle. My body was telling me to take a break. If I hadn’t listened I might not have survived. And now, yet again, we are being asked to move out of our current shop, so we had to once again locate a suitable alternative to move to. Now, that the location has been found, I’m actually really looking forward to moving into a larger space. This will be a new start, where I can make things differently.
I feel that when we remain in our comfort zone for too much, life shakes our world for us to help us progress in life. So if anyone is passing from a difficult personal, financial or whatever, just take a step back and look at things from afar. Don’t over analyse. Some things will not make sense immediately. Just think how you could use this situation to either make things better or, if not, be ready to let go.
What changes would you like to see in terms of entrepreneurship in Malta, particularly in youth?
I had found a lot of bureaucracy when trying to obtain any grants or support from the government. Things might have changed now, maybe I lacked the know-how at the time. I also meet young people who idolize the idea of being an entrepreneur, without realising what it really means to be one. When they face certain difficulties, even though they might have a good idea, they tend to give up. I think they would want things to be easier. I believe you should never expect people to help you, you should help yourself.
Where is Soap Cafe today? What are your ambitions for the business?
I always wanted Soap Cafe to be a place where people can meet friends and relax. This was the idea behind the name. It’s about going to a shop to enjoy the experience and take your time. We have always made the cafe to look informal, eco-friendly and welcoming. We are strong believers in environmental sustainability. Beauty products do not necessarily have to cause damage to the environment.
The next step is to improve. New products we would like to introduce. We are also reaching out to small artisans and entrepreneurs in Malta in order to collaborate with them. I aim to strengthen this idea of a community and that Maltese products are just as good, if not better than foreign brands.
We want to continue to help our visitors to understand their issues. We don’t consider people as walking wallets, but rather as individuals who are facing their own challenges in life.
How do you make running your business fun?
As many people who have and continue to work here will tell you, the element which makes Soap Cafe fun is the opportunity to get your hands dirty and create something beautiful. Had this been a large company, every new creation would need approvals and multi-level processes. Fortunately, Soap Cafe is a small business where staff can share ideas in the evening and create something new in the morning. Creating, for all of us, makes us happy and working here fun.
And finally, how do you unwind after a busy day?
At the moment, after I get home, I start studying for my Masters in Business. I’ve learned, however, of the need to find time for myself. This morning, for example, I had martial arts training. Punching stuff makes me feel really good. I also enjoy exercising, such as walking and swimming. Evenings are also my creative time, it’s when most ideas come to me. I accept this and ensure that my ideas are implemented in the morning.