Carol Cain Free Press Business Columnist
Published 6:00 AM EDT Sep 8, 2018
For Spencer Kelly, being an entrepreneur isn’t just a calling, it’s part of the elixir that changed his life.
Now 17, Kelly has overcome challenges he will talk about on a national stage in Las Vegas as he hopes to blaze a trail for others.
In two years, he’s gone from starting the Expedition Soap Co. in his parents’ Lake Orion home to selling almost $100,000 worth of his products.
It started as a way to pay back $300 to his dad for a replacement bicycle after his bike was stolen in June 2016. Kelly had left his bike outside a restaurant “for just a moment” when he dashed inside, only to come out and find it stolen. His dad bought him a new Schwinn bike with the understanding that Kelly would repay him.
“I was thinking about a business that I could start, to make the money to repay my dad, and it dawned on me: Soap! I use soap, you use soap, the guy down the street uses soap, even the president uses soap. Who doesn’t use soap?” he said.
Kelly launched his soap company that September, just as he was beginning 10th grade. His luxury handmade soaps feature all-natural ingredients.
Passionate about history and explorers, Kelly came up with the name “Expedition,” which was the perfect moniker for his company.
He partnered with a local artisan who worked with him to create all of his handmade products. Spencer and his family then finish and package the products at home, sell them online, at vendor shows, and via his website. ExpeditionSoaps.com).
He’s added other handmade natural products, such as body butter and bath bombs.
What also makes Kelly’s story even more compelling is that 10 years ago, he wouldn’t have been able to tell me how his bike was stolen or what motivated him to start his company.
He was diagnosed at age 4 with Asperger’s Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum Disorder that can cause social and behavioral challenges. His parents took him to doctors to find out why he wasn’t talking or connecting with people.
“It’s horrifying to not be able to talk to your mother or have her understand what you are trying to say,” Kelly recalled.
He is smart and an avid reader. “But [as a child] I was kind of like a one-way sponge,” he explained. “I could take everything in, but I couldn’t get anything out.”
He began getting speech, occupational, social and biomedical therapy from the Judson Center, along with chiropractic care. At age 7, Kelly began participating in social and recreational programs offered through the Oakland University Center for Autism Outreach Services (OUCARES).
“The Judson Center and OUCARES helped me a lot when I was younger, “Kelly said, “And now OU has helped me gain skills including learning about business and team building, because since last year, I have been dual-enrolling at OU as a student [while still in high school], as well as participating in their excellent summer programs.”
“Becoming an entrepreneur has been the No . 1 way I have been able to cope and deal with my Asperger’s Syndrome. It has helped so much and helped change my life,” Kelly said. “I feel so passionate about what I am doing.”
He has well over 2,000 customers — many he knows as repeat customers.
“When I started my business, I wasn’t able to speak to people very easily,” he said. “That’s a challenge I’ve definitely overcome.”
Frank Cardimen, lecturer in OU’s School of Business Administration, taught Kelly during summer camp.
“He is a very bright, articulate and energetic student who has a genuine interest in learning about business. His market strategy for his soap company has worked well and he continues to grow his business,” he said.
“Spencer is a doer. I believe Spencer is a change agent, and he also has a warm personality and kind heart. Spencer has all the qualities to be successful,” he added.
Expedition Soap Co. products are sold in five area stores and one in Marblehead, Ohio. He sells them online and at craft and vendor shows. Kelly will be among vendors at the TEDxDetroit event Wednesday, Sept. 26, at Masonic Temple.
His education remains paramount, and he schedules working on his business around it. When he does have free time he rides his bike, plays video games or hangs out with friends.
‘Baskin Robbins of soap’
His mom, Tracie Kelly, home schools Spencer and his younger brother, Grant, now 14. His dad, Stephen Kelly, is a salesman for 3-Dimensional Services in Rochester Hills.
The soap company has become a family affair. They sell handmade body butter, bath bombs, and approximately 73 varieties of soap, which are biodegradable with a blended base of vegan oils and organic Shea butter.
“We’re the Baskin Robbins of soap,” said Tracie Kelly.
To further hone his skills, Spencer spent time in Ann Arbor at the LEAD Summer Business Institute, which is a two-week program for high school seniors to expose them to finance, marketing and other elements of business.
Kelly has his sights set on attending the University of Michigan next year and hopes to attend the Ross School of Business. He has six other ideas for businesses he hopes to eventually pursue.
When he goes away to college, the plan is for his brother, Grant, to take over the soap company.
“He’ll be 15 years old, just as Spencer was when he started the company,” Tracie Kelly said.
“It’s almost hard to remember how challenging it used to be,” Tracie Kelly said. “Spencer came from not being able to hold any sort of conversation, repeating the same words and having lots of daily motor functioning challenges as a kid. To look now at how far he has come to level out in a very typical manner and at all that he has accomplished is phenomenal.”
Kelly’s getting national attention. He will serve as a panelist at the 2018 U.S. Autism & Asperger Association World Conference & Expo in Las Vegas on Nov. 28-Dec. 1. The event will attract over 1,000 people.
Power of entrepreneurship
He spoke at last year’s event in Portland, Oregon, and was part of a panel with Temple Grandin, the internationally recognized Autism expert who has shared her experience of living with the disorder.
“One of her reasons for speaking at the conference was to emphasize how it’s important for young adults on the autism spectrum to become entrepreneurs,” Kelly said.
OUCARES Director Kristin Rohrbeck added that entrepreneurship can be a path to employment for others with autism as well.
“A lot of people on the autism spectrum have found success through self-employment, especially when they have a strong support system to help them develop their business. That is certainly the case with Spencer and his family,” Rohrbeck said.
I asked Kelly what lessons he’s learned as an entrepreneur.
“I learned that nothing is instant,” he said. “You have to work hard. Also, I wish I had known about trademarking early on. It’s easier to do at the beginning of the business than waiting a few years to do it.”
He has lofty goals for his soap enterprise. “I hope to double sales next year from this year.”
He also shared his dream of having his products sold at Grad Rapids-based Meijer stores, “because it is a local company owned by a family who do great things in the community.”
Kelly donates a portion of his sales to organizations that have helped him, such as the U.S. Autism Association and OUCARES.
Through the ups and downs, his goal remains the same — to inspire others and be the voice in autism for those who cannot.
“I’ve given up on so many things in my life,” Kelly said. “My business taught me not to give up. It taught me to take responsibility and see things through.”
Contact Carol Cain: 313-222-6732 or [email protected] She is senior producer/host of “Michigan Matters,” which airs at 11:30 a.m. Sundays on CBS 62. See DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, Denise litch, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Charlie Beckham on this Sunday’s show.
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