How did De Hekserij start
We received this question a lot of times, we answered it a lot as well. We therefor thought it makes sense to write the story down. For those who want to know everything.
The story starts in 1969 when Jan was born, Jan: that is me. I am curious and I like to learn. Don’t get me wrong, at school I was not always the best student, maybe a bit too pigheaded. But besides school there was reading. My mother regularly catched me when reading long after bedtime. The reading lamp was still hot (long live the LED lamp!). I read everything. My parents were subscribed to a newspaper, several magazines and owned thousands of books. In our local public library more books were available. I read everything and went on with the school library and later on the university library.
Partly because of my granddad, who worked as an engineer for an electricity company, I was interested in electricity. When visiting my grandparents we played with old plugs and coils. Of course I read books about the subject, like many Dutch translations of Ladybird books. I remember “Magnets, Bulbs and Batteries”, but there were more like these. I soldered a bit, I took electronics apart and read a lot. I also focussed on electricity when assisting my friend Erik with restoring his Skoda Octavia Combi from 1968. I remembered once a transformer used to test the headlights, melted in the window of his sisters sleeping room. Good, but dangerous times.
Mixing and stirring
Around 1980 I discovered the book “Mengen en roeren” (Mixing and stirring), by L.P. Edel. It was filled with al kinds of formulations to make many types of products: adhesives, document ink, soap, cleaning agents. I absorbed the contents of the book and enjoyed terms like casein and Turkish Red Oil. Our village chemist’s sold some of the ingredients, but not everything. Epsom salt in a plastic bag, certainly, but when I needed beeswax he sold me beeswax based polish. It was the time the business of a chemist’s changed: from a supplier of raw materials it changed into a store for prepared products. In Groningen I found an old fashioned chemist’s, that -according to the pointed paper bags they used to pack the products- sold 606 different chemicals (besides many other materials).
Collect and experiment
That discovery was the beginning of collecting materials and doing experiments. The Dutch celebrity scientist Midas Dekkers once told about his chemistry kit: that was used to look at and enjoy its contents, of course you did not use the contents, that would be a waste! Many of the materials I sourced were indeed never used, othere were. I made a cold cream (using the polish mentioned before). I did a lot of electrolysis experiments. My little brother once drank one of my experiments and had to be brought to the hospital to have his stomach pumped. This sabotage of my own brother made me a bit less keen on experimenting for a while. Still: I was the best student in chemistry at my secondary school and one of the best in biology.
In the 1990’s I did a lot of completely different things. I went to University, for instance, but also theater play and singing. In the end I became a computer programmer, for that reason I was relatively early connected to the internet and email. For nostalgic reasons at some moment I used the Alta Vista search engine to search for soap making. I found a (seen from our POV) old fashioned forum for soap makers. There I found many people who made soap or tried to. They wrote about the problems they met when trying. I realised that I could help these people. I had some experience with making soap. I had enough chemical knowledge. I had (and have) the will to examine, try and understand the unknown. It took but a while when most users of the forum assumed it was my forum…
A tricky thing for many was the purchase of raw materials. Where to find a suitable colourant or fragrance for your soap? Another problem: in some books the forum users found the term Melt & Pour soap, but that was not available to consumers in The Netherlands at that time. Others wanted to make shampoo, but could not find the materials for that either. I had still some stock, some contacts and I researched.
Then a dilemma appeared. I found the M&P soap in an US online shop, I found the fragrance at some small supplier in the North of our country, I found a German shop, just over the border for the shampoo materials. And that was just the beginning. Should every one purchase at all these suppliers. Or would it be handy if I coordinated?
I thougth about some cooperation, but it would take a lot of legal and administrative work, so I decidde to do it myself. You look for annatto, then I found it, purchased it and sold it. I found a name for my activities: Three Witches. Why? I had the image of three witches around a cauldron who made soap in it. Or shoe polish, whatever thet wanted. For me witches are fairy tale figures. Later on I found out that some people have other thougths , but it was too late, so we sticked to witches. We started our first internet domain www.de-drie-heksen.org. We sold materials for all kinds of products and posted recipes. After a while we found that most customers wanted to make soap, cosmetics and perfume. These became our specialty.
The first years
I made invoices, to prepare for a real company. The first invoice was in guilders, for my father in law who grew orchids and wanted to try an old formulation foran orchid fertiliser. The website went online at Januaru 13, 2002. We had by the way only 19 official sales in 2002 and the last customer number in december was also 19. However, every year sales increased, and two parcels in a month changed over time to half a day in the week. My programming work took about 60 hours a week (work, travel, learning), so I was glad Willem, my husband could take the Hekserij job. He just finished as a temp, had it for a while with bosses and, though he always said never to be an entrepeneur, that was what he became.
Where would the three witches purchase their materials: in The Witchery of course, which translates in Dutch to De Hekserij. Sounds like a cheesy name for a boutique or so, but why not. We chose a new name, a new website (this one). Two year later De Hekserij changed to official business, Willem started as a sole trader. He filled the bottles, bags and jars, he processed the parcels. I assisted in administration, customers service and purchasing. We stored everything in our little house in Kampen. In the study, in the box room and any other free spot we could find. Clearly we had to find a better place. In October 2005 we moved to a business location in the city center of Kampen: 50 square meter, we could tango if we would like it.
The two of us
But slowly the 50 square meters were used more and more. For starters Willem worked less than a day a week for De Hekserij, Jan half an hour a day. December 2007 it was a full time job for Willem and over a day per week for Jan. The problem was that the work I did for De Hekserij was not easy to transfer. I learned to purchase over the years. What prices are good, how to check for quality. What legal frases should be put on the label. I was the one who answered the technical questions. Changing Jan was possible, but would be expensive. We had to choose: end De Hekserij or downgrading, for instance by dropping part of the product range. I therefor choose to end my very well paid ICT job, but our customers could continue to purchase our rare materials unavailable elsewhere.
In 2009 De Hekserij changed from Willems sole trader business to a general partnership. We both worked full time, it seems practical and fair. It was not an easy time, financially it would have been better not to do it, or not this early. On the other hand we probably would have over worked ourselves otherwise. Our building was overstocked and the city center was not an easy place for the larger trucks that supplied us now. The stock of flamable products increased to near a level we would need a permit. We had to make some painfull choises by dropping products that hardly sold from our range. Having a product costs money and time. The first competitors started. We changed focus: soap was less important, perfume and fragrance materials grew more and more important. Not only in the Netherlands, we exported these to every continent, except Antarctica.
In 2011 we moved to an industrial zone in IJsselmuiden. We needed the space, the safety and we assumed we had to hire personnel soon. The last bits of work I did from home moved as well, we had some office space. It was exciting, much more rent and we had to purchase many rack cabinets, but it paid off, despite the new competitors we increased sales, despite the world wide crisis. What we lost in sales on some products was compensated wy the increase of sales for other products. From a few square meters production space we now had a large dedicated production space and much more natural light. The office was large enough.
But the sales increased every year and we still were one of the very few sellers of fragrance materials in small amounts world wide. Probably because it is not easy stuff. In the busy season we worked often six days a week. We needed assistance. How could we find someone: an unique company that naturaly grew together with us. Outsourcing was not a good option, we found out. Either the quality was not good enough or it was much too expensive. We delayed the new risks and responsibilities regarding work place safety, absenteism and salaries until a friend needed work and thougth of us. She was the first and still works for us. Today we work with five people and one dog.
We still have to think economic, the cost of the work have to be compensated by the sales. It is a pity, there are thousands of fragrance materials and we ‘only’ stock about 250. But there we intend to grow. Cosmetics materials are still important, but we already have a good range that we optimalise. The remaining part, left over from the first days of De Hekserij is harder. We promote this for education in science, but in reality it is used for about anything. From 19 customers in the end of 2002 we went to way over 20000 now. The future will show how we continue.