In 2009 Alana Rivera founded Etta + Billie, makers of handcrafted, small batch, all-natural soaps, scrubs, lotions, oils, balms, and sprays. Here we visit Alana in her San Francisco workspace while she makes a batch of organic lavender soap, and shares the story of how she got started, her values, and the lessons she’s learned on her journey.
What drew you to making soap, and how did you learn your craft?
I found soap making through a gift from my mother. Somehow she knew that it was the right creative outlet for me because it combined two of my favorite things – great scents and elements of cooking! Through that book, I taught myself the basics of soap making, then went on to take some group classes, eventually, TA’d for those classes and just kept building my skills. I had been making soap for over three years before I launched Etta + Billie!
“. . . how and where something is grown, matters. Seasonality matters. Why an ingredient is chosen, matters. Our ingredients are chosen to protect the integrity of farms and those that grow our ingredients.”
What type of work did you do prior to starting Etta + Billie, and how did you transition into starting your own maker business?
Before Etta + Billie, I was pretty adrift career-wise. My original goal of going into PR had to be re-evaluated pretty quickly after I actually started working in PR. It just was not the right fit for me. I decided to focus on the natural product industry and received a certificate in Herbalism at the end of 2008 – right when the recession struck and no one was hiring! From there I got into legal support and recruiting, eventually deciding to start selling my soaps and creations on the side. I did that for almost 5 years before I took the leap into full-time business ownership.
Your use of all-natural, earth-friendly ingredients echoes the Slow Food Movement. Is that an inspiration to you? Tell us about your ingredients and how you source and select them.
The short answer is yes. Around 2005/2006, I started reading a lot more about where our food comes from and how it’s grown. I was sickened and saddened about what farming had turned into. That knowledge really changed the way I looked at ingredients in general. I became deeply aware of all the junk and fillers that were making up the majority of ingredients lists. From that point on, I knew that whatever I created had to echo my belief that how and where something is grown, matters. Seasonality matters. Why an ingredient is chosen, matters. Our ingredients are chosen to protect the integrity of farms and those that grow our ingredients. We don’t work with ingredients that are on endangered plant watch lists or ingredients that are wreaking havoc on natural eco-systems.
“Community has been a vital part of both my personal and professional growth. Without the support of other makers, I definitely would not where I am today.”
I know you are engaged with the maker community and collaborating with other makers. Tell us about the importance of community and collaboration.
Community has been a vital part of both my personal and professional growth. Without the support of other makers, I definitely would not where I am today.
I’m incredibly thankful for all the food-focused artisanal companies I’ve had the privilege of creating unique goods with. Those collaborations not only feed my creativity but they allow me a peek into other’s processes and passions, which is incredibly inspiring.
As a mother of an infant, please shed some light on achieving a healthy work/life balance. Is it possible?
No, it really isn’t. There is no way that I know of to really be able to do it all and feel like everything has an equal share of your attention and energy. Thankfully, I’ve given up trying to “balance” everything. I know that some days my attention will be more focused on my son and family and other days it will be all about the business, and that is OK!
You’ve been on this journey for ten years, what are the most important lessons you’ve learned about starting and sustaining a maker business?
It’s kind of hard to believe that I’ve been in business that long! Some of my biggest lessons are creating a network of support (both professionally and personally). Look to your local business community and see if you can form a mastermind group or business group so you have other folks to lean on for support and perspective. Another important lesson is getting honest with yourself about your skill sets and talents so you can look for people to help in the areas you aren’t so good at. This will allow you more time and energy to build your business!
Thanks to Nicole Morrison for the photos in this piece. Nicole is a lifestyle and food photographer based in San Francisco who is inspired by new foods, places, and people; and learning their stories and translating them into images. She is especially interested in people and brands that are working towards the betterment of our food system and a more sustainable planet. www.nicolemorrisonphotography.com