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Friday, January 18, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Soap makers' sweet niche: Renton family doesn't let recession delay entrepreneurial dreams

Seattle Times business reporter

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For Carolyn and Paul Ossorio, most of 2001 was a frenetic blur as the Renton couple prepared to launch their all-natural soap business.

Then Sept. 11 hit.

In the uncertain aftermath of the attacks, as economists warned of a looming recession, the Ossorios grappled with sobering questions. Should they delay — or even abandon — plans to start their own business? Should Carolyn, who left the work force after daughter Sophie's birth in June 2000, go back to work as a sales-account executive?

"After Sept. 11, I was thinking, 'It's over,' " said Carolyn, 29. "My résumé has always been ready to go."

After weeks of deliberation, the couple decided to go forward with the business, SoLu Soap. Today, they're glad they did: In just over three months of business, they've managed to get it on the shelves at several area stores.

At first blush, a recession might seem like a lousy time to start a small business. But despite all the gloomy economic news, more small-scale entrepreneurs such as the Ossorios are deciding to give it a whirl.

The Seattle office of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) reports that applications for its standard loan-guarantee program are up 16 percent over this time last year. And since Sept. 11, attendance has jumped at the SBA's twice-monthly loan briefings, which are aimed at people looking to start or expand a business.

Spokeswoman Michele Liebes said more laid-off workers are finding their way to the SBA office, looking for new ways to generate income.

"Some of them just don't have any other options right now," Liebes said. "(Starting a business) is something they have always been thinking about, and the time is just right."

For borrowers and banks, an SBA guarantee on a loan is even more desirable during riskier economic times, Liebes said.

The Ossorios toyed with the idea of applying for a loan but ultimately decided to tap into savings to get their business started. Using their own money, they reasoned, would give them more autonomy and flexibility than having a monthly loan payment.

They converted the basement of their Renton home into a makeshift workshop, bought a stove for melting vegetable oils, and hired a graphic designer to come up with a packaging concept. They registered with the state as a small business and set up accounting software. All this while Paul, 31, worked full time as a software programmer and Carolyn cared for Sophie.

Before SoLu Soap registered its first sale, the couple had spent more than $20,000 in start-up costs.

"We knew that we were going to have to make sacrifices, but realizing that it's only for the short term enabled us to make that leap," Paul said.

Lately, those sacrifices have begun to pay off. The Ossorios have landed a broker to help SoLu Soap branch out to other stores and just this week reached a deal with PCC Natural Markets.

The soap is sold at Larry's Markets in Bellevue and Redmond, and at Thriftways in Renton and Vashon Island.

This is the first foray into small business for Paul, a programmer at Hulabee Entertainment, and Carolyn, a former sales-account executive for Qwest Communications.

While it has been a consuming ordeal, they said the journey has had unexpected rewards.

"When you see your own product (on the shelves), you're like, 'I know how this got there: I produced it; it's there because of me,' " Paul said. "I see some missing because of sales, and it just makes me smile."

Starting a business during a recession, the couple said, has sharpened their sense of focus and made them more determined to succeed.

"We weren't counting on the recession happening," Carolyn said as she made a batch of "PeppyMint" soap, sending the scent of peppermint oil wafting through her basement workshop. "(But) the idea of not going forward with it was, 'Well, that's kind of wimpy.'

"We just decided, we're gonna go for it. We're not going to let this totally wreck us, make us afraid and turn back on everything that we put up. If we fail, we can say, 'Hey, at least we tried.' "

Jake Batsell can be reached at 206-464-2718 or jbatsell@seattletimes.com.

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