Denise Zannu began making soaps in her kitchen years ago to give to friends and families as gifts. These days her company, Black Mermaid’s Bath and Body, manufactures all-natural soaps and other products that are used in upscale hotels and spas and sold in a variety of shops.
The idea for the Snellville-based business was planted around 2013, when friends who received her gifts of soap asked if they could buy more. After making $500 in three hours of selling her soaps at a church holiday bazaar, Zannu knew she had a winning concept. But the thought of starting a business was still intimidating to the special education teacher.
“I was smart enough to know what I didn’t know,” she said. “Luckily I had a great resource with the Snellville Economic Development office.” She attended seminars, took part in the peer mentorship program, and used the office’s online resources. She also worked with mentors from the Small Business Development Center. In 2014, she entered the Gwinnett Chamber’s Amazing Entrepreneur contest and won, then launched her business.
Black Mermaid started small and local. Zannu attended area festivals, building the brand and seeking retailers to carry her products. (The gift shop at the Gwinnett Heritage Center was her first Gwinnett customer.) She also attended trade shows to find retailers.
From her early line of soaps, Zannu has expanded her product mix to include moisturizing body whips, bath salts, sugar scrubs, and a line of men’s soaps and shaving items called the Poseidon Collection. She also manufactures spa products, focusing on private label items for hotels, spas and other clients. Private label customers include Loews Atlanta Hotel and Athena Spa by the Sea on St. Simon’s Island.
Marketing to boutique hotels and upscale spas is a perfect niche for Black Mermaid, she said. “Some [hotel or spa] customers want a natural product, and options for those products are limited. We are able to meet that need with an all-natural, high-quality, private-label soap and spa line. We are looking at boutique hotels, B&Bs, spas, natural product stores. That’s our target audience.” She hopes to export her all-natural bath and beauty products to hotels around the world.
Zannu – who refers to herself as a “kitchen chemist” – learned to make soap from her grandmother and studied aromatherapy to learn the benefits of essential oils. “Once you know the benefits of an oil to skin or hair, you learn how to blend it to get the highest benefit,” she said. For example, Poseidon beard balm uses argan oil, which moisturizes the beard and the skin underneath it.
Black Mermaid is a micromanufacturer, making high-quality items in limited batches. Currently the company, which has several part-time employees, can make 1,000 bars of soap and 1,000 jars of other products each week.
You have to change and adapt. You’ve got to follow through.
Zannu’s advice for would-be entrepreneurs is plan, but not too much. “A business plan is a living document, and as your company meets new challenges and opportunities, you have to change and adapt. You’ve got to follow through,” she said.