Spencer Kelly is cleaning up in the business world – literally.
The 15-year-old Oxford Virtual Academy student is the founder and owner of The Expedition Soap Co., which sells handcrafted soaps made in small batches using a variety of all-natural ingredients.
“Anyone can start a business here. That’s why I love America so much,” said Spencer, an Orion Township resident. “I love the spirit here.”
Business has been booming as the company has sold approximately 1,500 bars – that’s about $10,000 – since the launch of Spencer’s website www.expeditionsoaps.com on Sept. 1, 2016.
“I plan on this growing and growing and growing,” he said.
Starting a business can be a daunting challenge for anyone, but Spencer is a determined young man who doesn’t let anything stand in his way – not his competitors, not his workload and certainly not his Asperger syndrome, an autism-spectrum disorder.
Asperger syndrome is considered a disability in society, in medicine and under the law, but Spencer doesn’t view it as something that limits his ability to succeed.
He believes people who face physical, mental and emotional challenges shouldn’t let those conditions define them or prevent them from pursuing their dreams.
“Judge yourself the same way any other person can be judged because you are no different than anyone else,” Spencer said. “Everybody is on an equal playing field here.”
“Jump onto that field and start playing,” he continued. “Don’t let anything hold you back. Don’t let them tell you, ‘Oh, you have autism, you can’t do this’ or ‘Oh, you have autism, maybe this isn’t the best idea for you.’”
Crime does pay
Hard to believe, but Spencer’s business all started with a crime. Early last summer, he and a friend had their bicycles stolen while visiting an area restaurant.
“That was a pretty cruddy day,” Spencer said.
His father, Steve, replaced his bike, but in order to teach his son a lesson in responsibility, he had one condition – Spencer had to repay him.
About a week or so later, a business opportunity presented itself. Through some friends, Spencer was put in touch with a family of artisan soap-makers.
He jumped at the chance to sell their product because there’s a built-in demand for it.
“Everybody uses soap,” Spencer said. “You use soap. The guy down the street uses soap. The president uses soap. Who doesn’t use soap?”
He spent June and July planning and preparing. In August, he formed his limited liability company and The Expedition Soap Company was born.
The name was inspired by tales of Victorian-era explorers making their way across the African continent, from the real-life exploits of Scottish missionary Dr. David Livingstone (1813-1873) to the adventure novel “Five Weeks in a Balloon” by 19th-century author Jules Verne.
Spencer considered himself well-prepared to start a company because he’s been reading business books since the fifth grade and he has a mind for strategy.
“I’ve always been very good at games like Stratego or chess,” he explained. “Business is basically just a giant strategy game.”
But experience has taught him there’s a lot more to running a business than what’s printed in books and it’s not as simple as a board game.
“It’s been more stressful than I thought originally,” Spencer said. “It’s pretty tough, but it’s definitely a lot better than flipping burgers.”
Spencer has his hand in every aspect of the business. He designed his own label. He has final approval over the names of the soaps, which the family chooses together. There’s even a large workstation in the basement of his home where he and his family cut, label and wrap the soaps.
“Sometimes I’ll stay up until one (o’ clock) in the morning packaging the soap,” Spencer said.
What’s the dope on the soap?
The Expedition Soap Co. offers 65 different varieties of soap. Although they have different scents ranging from sweet to savory, they all have the same mixture of natural base ingredients, which includes five oils (coconut, olive, hemp, corn and soybean) along with organic shea butter.
Instead of being filled with a “bunch of chemicals,” like mass-produced soaps, Spencer said his product is made with “real ingredients” that “keep your skin super smooth.”
Plus, he said, “They all smell great.”
Spencer sells his soaps online and ships them across the United States, but he also peddles them face-to-face at vendor shows.
Last year, he did 17 vendor shows in four months. This year, he’s working on securing booth space at more than 20 shows.
A trunk show featuring Expedition soaps will be held at Merge Studio & Gallery (33 Pleasant St.) in Oxford Village on Friday, Feb. 17 from 5-7 p.m. and Saturday, Feb. 18 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Doing these shows and interacting with many different people has helped Spencer overcome some of the social awkwardness associated with Asperger syndrome.
“It definitely has (helped) because I used to be much more shy,” he explained. “You wouldn’t believe it because of how well I talk now, but I used to be extremely shy, wouldn’t talk at all.”
Tracie Kelly, Spencer’s mother, has witnessed how running the business has bolstered his confidence and made him “more okay with who he is.”
At each vendor show, she said Spencer undergoes a transformation. He starts out “nervous and shy,” but as the day goes on, he becomes more natural and at ease.
“People always enjoy talking to him,” Tracie said.
Running his own company has taught Spencer two valuable character traits.
One is persistence.
“You’ve got to make a sale,” he said.
The other is patience.
“You have to be very patient when running your own business,” Spencer said. “You think it’s all going to happen overnight. That’s what I thought. It’s not the case.”
Running a business isn’t all about profits to Spencer. It’s also about helping others and giving back.
Instead of selling the usual cookies, candy, popcorn, wrapping paper and pizza kits, organizations can sell Expedition soaps and retain a good portion of the proceeds.
For every bar sold, an organization can earn $2.26 to $2.50. For every soap saver sold, a group can earn 60 to 75 cents.
Spencer also plans to make annual donations to the US Autism & Asperger Association, a nonprofit dedicated to helping everyone living with autism, Asperger syndrome and other related disorders reach their fullest potential through education, training, resources and partnerships. He plans to donate every April in honor of National Autism Awareness Month.
“I don’t have it that bad myself, but there’s just so many kids out there who have it way worse than I do,” Spencer said. “It wouldn’t be right for me not to give back.”
Thanks mom and dad
Spencer is grateful for all the help and support his parents have given him and continue to provide.
“They’re really just so loving and caring and they’ve done so much for me,” he said. “I plan on paying them back when I can.”
“If I were to say they are the proudest parents on Earth, that would be an understatement,” Spencer added.
Tracie agreed. “I think he’s doing a super job,” she said.
Go for it
To everyone out there contemplating starting their own business, Spencer has three words for you – “Go for it.”
He said people shouldn’t let fear and doubt stop them from “living up to their full potential.”
“Just grab it and run,” Spencer said.
When he’s not busy selling soap, Spencer enjoys competing as part of the Oxford High School Quiz Bowl Team.
“Not to toot my own horn, but I’m pretty darn good,” he said.