Karen Wylie is the author of Backroads Business. She is an entrepreneur and co-owner of The Blue Ridge Soap Shed, a handmade craft and tourism business located just off Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 331 in Spruce Pine, North Carolina.
She is also a lifelong educator and business consultant with advanced degrees but more importantly, as a rural small business owner herself, Karen has developed a unique perspective from the trenches of rural Appalachia.
Karen is a speaker and coach on small business & microbusiness start-up, rural small business, tourism business, home business and seasonal business.
Karen can be reached at karen @ backroadsbusiness.com
More About Karen Wylie
Karen created The Soap Shed in 1998, to put her then-retired-chemistry-professor-husband back to work. This heritage business was designed as a regional tourist enterprise to capture seasonal visitors to the Blue Ridge mountains, and takes advantage of its location just 6/10th mile off The Blue Ridge Parkway. Visitors to The Soap Shed can see soap made, attend daily soap making demonstrations and enjoy more than 100 varieties of handmade soap in the retail shoppe.
Karen created and markets over 150 varieties of handmade soap to retail, wholesale and internet customers, making twelve tons of soap and shipping thousands of orders each year. After 16 years in business, The Soap Shed has a solid web presence, selling to retail customers in all 50 states, 27 foreign countries, and a wholesale arm that sells to more than 300 small retail and niche market businesses.
Along the way, as The Soap Shed built its customer base, Karen traveled the Art & Craft Show circuit, maintained booths at central-checkout emporiums in multiple cities and towns, and pursued rack card distribution, print advertising in regional magazines, and collaborative marketing strategies among fellow rural business owners. The rural small business owner must be creative to drive customer traffic quite literally up our backroads, and to our doors.
Before The Soap Shed, Karen was an academic researcher, grant writer, corporate trainer and business consultant to traditional industries for twenty years. She holds Bachelor of Arts, Master of Education and Doctor of Education degrees, with a focus on how people learn on-the-job, and in different work environments.
In the ‘80s her work focused on mergers, acquisitions and plant closings of ALCOA and Hospital Corporation of America, and in the ‘90s employee involvement processes like ‘quality circles’ and ‘ISO 9000’ for companies like Fieldcrest Cannon, Henredon Furniture and Ethan Allen. When her clients in the textile and furniture industries in North Carolina began closing their doors, Karen and her husband had to make the decision to either leave the mountains to follow their careers or do something different so they could stay. Creating The Soap Shed was their choice.
The Soap Shed is located in one of the most economically depressed counties of rural Appalachia, where five large furniture and three textile operations closed in one 18 month period during the mid 1990s. Applying traditional business school theories to small business in this setting did not work, and required Karen to develop new theories and marketing strategies to bridge the gap between classic small business models and the reality of rural small business and microbusinesses (1-5 employees).
Combining conventional business education and experience with non-traditional small business structure and strategies has given Karen a very different perspective on how to develop a product-based business in America today, what work-life balance is really like for a ‘mom & pop’ business, and different ways to define ‘success’ in today’s world.
Karen’s challenges and successes are the basis for Backroads Business, where she explores issues relevant to rural small business owners.