An Expedition to Entrepreneurship
by Karen Krejcha
In many ways, Spencer Kelly is a typical teenager. He enjoys talking with friends, riding his bike and playing strategic games. However, Spencer is anything but ordinary. This 16-year-old entrepreneur diagnosed with Asperger’s recently spoke on a self-advocacy panel at the US Autism and Asperger World Conference in Portland, Oregon in August 2017.
Listeners were impressed by his intelligence, humor, and charm as Spencer shared his story of starting his own company at age 15. With the support of his family, The Expedition Soap Company just celebrated its 1st anniversary and is gearing up for the holiday shopping season.
Spencer was eager to share about his business with Autism Empowerment and Spectrums Magazine readers. He is hoping to encourage and inspire other autistic youth and adults who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs.
Tell us a little about yourself and your early years of life:
Hello, I am Spencer Kelly, a 16-year-old entrepreneur that dual-enrolls at Oakland University in Michigan and homeschools for high school. I am in 11th grade. My favorite subjects are history, business, politics, and science.
For most of my life, just doing the simplest daily tasks were an extreme challenge. I was unable to speak until after I turned four, when I saw an upper cervical chiropractic specialist. I also have motor tics that used to include severe arm and hand contortions, while having focusing issues simultaneously. These happened probably 100 times every day. When I used to lay for sleep every night, my body ticked endlessly for several hours before I could fall asleep. In the past two years, my motor tics have simmered down quite a bit, along with most of my brain and nervous system functioning issues. And for the first time in my life, I began sleeping peacefully, without ticking.
However, having these serious challenges didn’t mean I was limited in every way. By the time I was two-and-a-half, I had taught myself the alphabet and all its phonetics, had learned how to count to 40 (in English and Spanish), and I had begun spelling and reading. Reading was and still is my favorite activity, as I enjoy learning by reading books.
My early years were often spent in and out of therapy and doctor’s offices. When I finally did speak, I was echolalic and my conversations would go in circles because I was obsessed by the same topics. I liked to read signs anywhere I was and follow routines, such as driving or walking on specific street patterns or going to the same gas station.
After completing 5th grade, I began homeschooling. Although I was improving, I still faced the overwhelming challenges of never finishing work in school and having too much homework. I also had social challenges including difficulty participating in groups and in transitioning from class to class.
How did The Expedition Soap Company come to be?
In 5th grade, I read my first business book, called Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert T. Kiyosaki and my divine purpose became clear: I would start a business and be an entrepreneur! I rallied my classmates, readied my plan, and then… well, I was ten! I had no idea what to do, where to go, and how to do anything! Eventually, my opportunity came about five years later.
One day in late June of 2016, I was riding bikes with a friend. We had stopped at a small restaurant to grab a bite to eat. Not five minutes later did we come out to find that our bicycles had been stolen! My father bought me a new bike, but then made it clear that I would have to pay him back. I knew he was serious and I began to think up ideas. A week later, we had a bonfire with some family friends over, and my plight came up. We all started talking business ideas and the idea of a handmade luxury soap business came up. I immediately thought it was a great idea and I spent the rest of that summer working on creating my business, The Expedition Soap Company, and my online store, ExpeditionSoaps.com. On September 1st, 2016, I launched my company and website, and the real expedition began!
Tell us about your business.
My company began a year ago with 20 varieties of soap bars. It quickly grew to 40 a month later, along with a second website that I created just for fundraising, ExpeditionSoapsFundraising.com. Today I carry almost 80 different soap scent choices, along with lotions, body butters, and bath bombs.
To date, we have set up at vendor shows 16 times in 2016 and for the 2017 year, it will total 36 or so different shows. We (my mom, dad, sometimes my little brother, and me) do these shows at different locations, mostly on weekends. We have served over 2,000 customers so far. We are looking to join in more fundraising activities as people become more aware of my company, brand, and great products.
How did you choose your company name?
I chose the name The Expedition Soap Company because when I was a child, my fixation was expeditionary history. I adored the stories of Verne and Attenborough, marveled at the tales of Magellan and Columbus, and read many books, from the eras of ancient times, to the Victorian explorers in Africa, to our foray into outer space. I find the stories of the people that shaped our world to be fascinating!
What are some of the strengths and challenges of owning your own business?
The biggest challenge of owning a business at my age is balancing my business and my education. I package and ship orders first thing in the morning. Since I homeschool, I have the flexibility to change and adapt my schedule depending on my workload for both work and school. Homeschooling has also been a massive aid for my Asperger’s, with it allowing me to feel comfortable learning, reading, and discussing topics without sacrificing my education. My social life hasn’t suffered, since I have around 25-30 friends right now and a young lady I’m – ah, perhaps a gentleman’s machinations about romance should stay hidden.
I do have some help from a few local teens in my neighborhood when it’s time to fulfill inventory stock. They come in and help wrap and package my soaps, body butters, and bath bombs in exchange for earning service hours for school. Also, my younger brother Grant handles the designing of the labels and packaging all the body butter and lotions. My parents have been a great help as well, through all aspects of my business. My mom handles the organizing of fundraisers and mini soap bar special order labels. Both my mom and dad help me set up and sell on weekends at vendor shows. I am lucky to have so much support! I don’t think any one person can run this busy business without help!
Having Asperger’s is a strength for me in certain ways, as it allows me to go “full focus” and finish work, like bookkeeping, or wrapping soaps, or when initially creating and now editing my websites. It is a weakness, however, in that it is harder for me to follow multi-step tasks to get things completed. This can easily feel confusing and stressful. When there is a lot to do, say when preparing and packing for a vendor show for the coming weekend, I have learned to compensate by working with written to-do lists. Also, keeping the business organized and more routine has been helpful to making sure everything gets kept up.
What would you like to tell teens and adults on the spectrum looking to start a business?
It is important that all Spectrums Magazine readers know that I am not the only teenager or person in the autism community who can start a business. Starting a business is hard work, and it does take some help and a fair amount of money and research, but you can do it too. Be fearless and go for it! Don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot do things. Find your strengths and put them as your focus, and go for it! Oh, there will be more challenges than you could ever dream of, but there are also odds that you could get killed by a coconut falling on your head! So, forget about the odds and test your hands on whatever trade you wish, from carpentry to accounting. The reward of all your hard work is the best reward of all, because it’s your business that you created!
Remember, think about what drives your inner passion and dreams, and don’t let fear hold you back! Take that leap into starting your own business adventure!
Where can Spectrums readers go online to purchase your products?
Head on over to ExpeditionSoaps.com and see what my company is all about! We have something for everyone on your holiday list! We have custom mini bars, full size soap bars, soap savers, lotions, body butters, and bath bombs. All of my products are handmade with organic Grade-A Shea Butter, natural and vegan ingredients, no harsh chemicals, and amazing scents. My soap is made by cold-process and has a creamy, dreamy lather. So, whether it’s a gift for yourself or others, Expedition Soaps can get you clean without the chemical sheen!
With the holidays around the corner, our products are always available to order, and they are a perfect size for a quick little gift or a stocking stuffer. (See our black soap called Coal, it’s our #1 stocking stuffer!) I hand cut, hand wrap and name each soap bar myself!
This article first appeared on pages 14 and 15 of the Winter 2017 issue of Spectrums Magazine published by Autism Empowerment. Photos courtesy of the Kelly family and The Expedition Soap Company.
For more information about Spencer’s business and personal journey, an extended version of this interview can soon be found online at this site. (Coming soon!)