"I never expected to be an entrepreneur," says Angela Carillo,...

"I never expected to be an entrepreneur," says Angela Carillo, who makes soap in her Bethpage basement. "It's been a learning process." Credit: Jeremy Bales

Angela Carillo has cooked up some creative concoctions in the kitchen of her home-based soap studio.

She's made soaps that look like Van Gogh's "Starry Night," Monet's "Water Lilies" and even a vampire soap that bled red for Halloween.

While her Bethpage-based business Alegna Soap (Angela spelled backward) has had success selling at craft fairs and through local boutiques, competing online is proving to be her biggest hurdle.

"It's difficult being a small fish in a big sea," says Carillo. "The challenge is just getting noticed."

And this challenge isn't uncommon.

"Over the last decade the number of businesses competing online have multiplied tenfold, if not more," says Christopher Ulrich, president of Direct Response Group, a Melville-based Internet marketing strategy firm. "The cost of marketing online has also increased as more advertisers are bidding up the cost of ads on the Internet."

"I never expected to be an entrepreneur," says Carillo, 56. "It's been a learning process."

She started making soap 15 years ago for family and friends and decided to start a business three years ago. Carillo holds a day job as a science materials coordinator at North Shore School District in Glen Head, and is hoping Alegna will be a source of income in retirement.

Heavy lifting at craft fairs

She started turning a profit this year and is on track to double sales. But selling at craft fairs -- the bulk of her business now -- is time-consuming and "physically exhausting," she says. "Soap is heavy."

Carillo goes to at least 30 fairs a year, including just about every weekend in the fall. With more online sales, she'd have more time to market her products. The Web currently represents only about 5 percent of her sales.

As the overall online retail marketplace has grown to an estimated $262 billion, attracting customers has become "more challenging and expensive than ever," Ulrich says.

Because of this Carillo needs to adopt a targeted-search marketing strategy with strong search engine optimization, he says. She needs to use more relevant keywords on her website that consumers may be searching for -- not just "soap," for example, but perhaps "soaps made with organic ingredients."

Her site should focus more on benefits to customers in using her handmade soaps, not just the features, and she should be leveraging social media "to nurture a community," advises Ulrich.

Carillo has a Facebook page and a Twitter account, and recently added a Pinterest account.

Admittedly, the first two years of business were devoted to just learning the ropes of entrepreneurship and building her business.

"I was just trying to get my name out there," explains Carillo, who taught herself how to make soap by reading books and experimenting with various ingredients.

Word-of-mouth marketing

She started selling at fairs and networking events to build a customer base and sent samples of her soaps to bed-and-breakfasts. Through word-of-mouth she started building retail accounts last year.

Carillo sells her soaps and scrubs -- made with organic oils and butters -- at a half dozen stores on Long Island, and makes private-label soaps for about eight other businesses under their names.

She makes more than 6,000 bars annually in the studio in her Bethpage home that includes a kitchen with a stovetop, where she melts the oils and ingredients that are eventually poured into handmade soap molds.

Her peppermint scrub soap is a top seller.

"You can smell her soaps as soon as you walk into my store," says Deborah Orgel-Gordon, owner of Gem Craft Boutique in Glen Head. "It sells itself at that point."

Other soap varieties include honey oatmeal, lavender, and lavender lemongrass, as well as about 10 limited-edition soaps including mojito. They retail for $6 each.

Carillo's hoping to get more of her limited-edition soaps on her website to boost online sales. She's also started offering soap-making classes that she hopes to promote online.

"I haven't really focused online," says Carillo. "That's my next adventure."

At a glance

Name: Alegna Soap in Bethpage

Owner: Angela Carillo

Product: Handmade soaps, scrubs, body and lip balms

Estimated 2013 Revenues: $30,000

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