Thank you, very helpful words !This is an excellent thread and thank you so much for starting it @Jorah
I have to say I agree with @Zany_in_CO. I started making soap as an idle hobby, but then I found an unfilled market, a need and an opportunity, and decided to go for it.
Unlike @Zany_in_CO I find business building a thrilling prospect, almost as fun as making the product itself.
When I decided to shift from hobby to business, my anal-retentive side wanted to get the business side of business buttoned up first, then play with soap... but I quickly realized I was putting the cart before the horse, as Zany said.
What I really needed was a brand that solved a problem elegantly, and a customer base that believes in my brand and story, and values my product. I've spent the last four months working on that and made the conscious decision that the business side will figure itself out in time. I'm sure I'll regret some decisions, but what road doesn't have a few potholes?
I decided, both for market research and my sanity (as I already have a very full-time job), to go wholesale first. I've got my products retailing in several locations that work for my brand story, and it's giving me valuable feedback on what items are selling where, what is hot, what is not, what kinds of questions people have, and what people and merchants want. I get all this feedback without having to show up at farmers markets, etc., which are already saturated with very fine products.
It's not the most lucrative way to start, especially I make sure my merchants have 100% markup to keep it enticing, which keeps my margins extremely thin because I'm not a bulk producer yet. But it gives my brand clout as I'm already in some pretty well-known places. When I introduce myself to strangers, they say "oh, you're so and so.... I've heard of you! I bought your [product] at [place]." I can also advertise my line being found in notable places, and that really seems to drive interest. All the while, I can fine-tune my line and offerings based on what is selling. AND I don't have the burden of managing online sales and packing and shipping product.
I also give a lot of product away to non-profits that align with my values and brand story, and that helps promote my brand -- and frankly just feels good.
So my advice to you would be to think about WHAT you are going to sell, WHERE and to WHOM. Start there.
There are also numerous online courses for new soapmakers to get a foothold, I would look at what is out there and maybe pick one that fits your learning style and goals.