Keeping it clean
In Fosston, Minn., a small-town soap company is finding big opportunities with online sales and marketing.
A few years back, Pete and Heidi Danos stood in the middle of a busy street fair in a Chicago suburb, their booth filled with an array of bar soaps and their company name displayed loud and proud:
DIRTY KNEES SOAP CO.
On the surface, the name was clean. But the Danoses wanted to put the dirty designation to the test.
“We started getting feedback on the name, which came in very different ways,” Pete said from under the brim of his Dirty Knees Soap Co. hat. “We had people who would stop by and say, ‘Dirty Knees. That’s a great name.’ Or,” he continued, shifting to a jokingly judgmental inflection and single raised eyebrow, “‘Dirty Knees?’”
This was the start of the pair’s business journey, which began in the Chicago area after the birth of their twins. That’s where the name truly came from – chasing around two little crawlers on hands and knees.
“I just started by making a batch of soap and handed it out a little bit and realized, wait a minute, we’ve got something good,” Heidi said.
Once Dirty Knees started getting soap into a few stores in the Chicago area, the Danoses got the itch to move the family to Heidi’s hometown of Fosston, Minn., and press the gas pedal on entrepreneurship. Pete admits that he thought it would be harder to build out the brand in a Minnesota town of 1,500.
“But then, through strategic efforts, we decided to really focus online,” he said. “With the unfortunate trend of brick-and-mortar shops closing down and the big box shops taking over, that trend showed us that we needed to focus on online marketing, online space, newsletters, Facebook, Instagram and things of that nature.”
The risk paid off. Soon, Heidi and Pete’s “something good” evolved into a booming business of bar soaps, body washes, beard oils, body butters and lotions. Since emphasizing online, the operation has grown a couple hundred percent year over year.
“All the fears were kind of washed away naturally,” Pete punned.
Raising the bar
The backyard shop where Heidi crafts and packs creations like Minnesota Wood bar soap, Bare Naked lotion and Bean All Over body butter is unlike any other shop environment. Visitors experience an aromatic mix of earthy spice and clean linens and shelves methodically lined with bottles, boxes and tins marked with the Dirty Knees logo.
When this space came on the market three years ago, it was just in time. After three years back in Fosston, the company landed a wholesale deal with Whole Foods and needed a larger and more efficient production area.
“The way that we positioned the machinery and the processes allows us to do as much as we can, while still keeping the integrity of small batches with limited ingredients, without mass production, so you’re still getting top quality,” Pete said.
Heidi says her modest ingredient lists allow her to put more of the good stuff in a bottle. Each soap, lotion, body wash and cream contains fewer than 10 ingredients (compared to the average 15-20 in other brands) and, because of the simplicity of the recipes and process, they can keep the customer cost at a boutique bargain.
“We keep our retail prices accessible as we want to make it available to as many people as possible,” Heidi said.
Heidi and Pete’s fans have driven the development of their product line. When a friend asked for a lotion that wouldn’t irritate her sensitive Scandinavian skin, Heidi whipped it up. When online customers started requesting body wash versions of their favorite bar soap scents, Heidi made it happen.
“Then we had our bearded mascot over here, so we now have beard oil,” Heidi said with a glance to bewhiskered Pete. “It’s all just grown very organically.”
Dirty Knees Soap Co. couldn’t leverage its dynamic customer feedback and engagement without a reliable internet connection.
The Danoses have had access since they moved back to Fosston, but things ramped up when Garden Valley Telephone Co. ran a fiber internet upgrade through town in 2016. The Minnesota cooperative is extending its system even farther now after receiving a $20 million USDA rural broadband loan in 2018, part of a larger nationwide effort to connect rural America to high-speed services.
That speed has helped the Dirty Knees duo pick up the pace on the dozen different web-based platforms they need to run and market the business, encompassing the online storefront, bookkeeping/accounting, social media, blogs, newsletters, email tools, etc.
When asked if she could do it all without strong internet, Heidi was matter-of-fact. “It would be impossible,” she said. “There’s no way I could do it.”
With broadband, Dirty Knees sees 75% of its sales from online orders, shipping to all corners of the country with single orders, large store orders and its new subscription service – a popular addition that has grown 150% over last year.
As the business continues to thrive, Pete and Heidi are looking for expansion opportunities. For now, they are happy to be in the heart of rural Minnesota, using their artisanship and tongue-in-cheek style to foster a national Dirty Knees following.
“The name sparks something in people. We do sell a lot in Minnesota, but we’re also shipping it all over,” Heidi said. “I think of it like buying a Kentucky bourbon in California. We’re sending Minnesota Wood all over the place, too!”
My Stuff Bags
Dirty Knees has teamed up with the California-based organization My Stuff Bags Foundation, which provides duffel bags filled with personal care items, blankets and other necessities for children who must be unexpectedly removed from their homes in cases of abuse or neglect.
Every quarter, Dirty Knees donates small, tropical-scented “My Stuff Suds” body washes to be included in these kits. “When kids are taken out of their homes, they’re often taken out very quickly and they don’t have anything,” Heidi said. “We wanted to align with an organization that could help.”