ANN ARBOR – When Zach Layle started an entrepreneurship course at the University of Michigan, he didn’t expect to end the semester with a fully-fledged business.
At the beginning of the course, U-M alum Dr. Eric Fretz tasks his students to break out into groups, ideally with diverse backgrounds, to create an “epic” business pitch.
Once his group was established, Layle said one group member joked about doing something with soap. After presenting Dr. Fretz with a long list of ideas, he left soap as a “weak maybe.”
The group narrowed down their vision to include bars of soap in the shape of every state in the U.S. Each soap’s scent would embody their respective state. Their idea was approved and Fifty State Suds was born.
Naturally, Michigan was their first prototype.
“We had one engineer on the team, so we put him in charge of developing molds for the soaps and looking at 3D printing,” said Layle. “There was a lot of experimentation in the beginning.”
One team member who was good with numbers was put in charge of finances and another student who had already created a separate business and had strong art and design skills designed Fifty State Suds’ logo and packaging, said Layle.
After their roles were designated, the team worked on honing a soap base. They decided to go all natural with the base and essential oils.
A mold they found on Etsy proved to do the trick and their Michigan soap’s fragrance features the essences of sweet cherries and apple blossom -- a homage to Pure Michigan summers and the fall harvest.
The Michigan bar comes in three colors and costs $5.99.
The team continues to craft the soaps in Layle’s kitchen and offers shipping and local pick up.
They have also been meeting with local businesses, including Downtown Home & Garden, to explore selling their Michigan-made soaps in gift shops, boutiques and specialty stores around town.
“We started off as a bunch of classmates but we’ve really grown into a tight-knit friendship,” said Layle. “It’s more than just a business at this point. We’re all friends in this making soap together.”
This story is part of a “Be Epic” series on Dr. Fretz’s Entrepreneurial Creativity class.
About the class
Dr. Fretz’s Entrepreneurial Creativity class (P223/ALA223) is one of the more unusual classes on campus. As the core course for everyone taking the #1 ranked Entrepreneurship minor, almost 2,000 students have gone through its unique structure since Dr. Fretz created it in 2014. This class gets students out of their comfort zone by assessing their personal characteristics that contribute to creative and entrepreneurial success, like: EQ, IQ, Grit, Personality, and Divergent Thinking. Almost 300 students per term form small teams that are sorted into sections and encouraged to develop a list of creative ideas that will improve the community, create something novel, or make money as well as “be epic”!
Each team reviews their ideas with Dr. Fretz and they agree on the best choice as well as a rough plan for the term. Four GSI’s assist with supervising and mentoring each team throughout the term as they grapple with planning, teamwork, and leadership issues, while applying class concepts to those same issues. With periodic check-ins and energetic mentoring Dr. Fretz ensures each team has the best chance to reach their full potential. The very best teams are provided a chance to compete for funding with a Venture firm in NYC and participate in the “Big Show” after classes end. While never conceived as an incubator class, over two dozen companies of varying size have begun from class projects.