What a year.
At the start of the year, I wanted to try starting a small business. I decided to choose candlemaking.
I saw candlemaking as a hobby that was different enough from my 9-5 job, and that it provided me an opportunity to work with my hands, and was feasible to somewhat scale, if need be, within a 450 square foot apartment.
Candlescience fragrance reviews
In mid-February, I purchased a domain - thoughtfulcandles.com - and I went to work writing up some content around my newfound hobby. I made a bulk purchase of fragrances from Candlescience, and I thought the first content pieces could be around fragrance oil reviews.
I found picking fragrance oils online to be a pretty backward task. When purchasing, the core sensory component of the product wasn’t made readily available to you, forcing you to rely on other factors. Though there were fragrance oil reviews from other candlemakers, often enough, they weren’t helpful and didn’t always fit my use case.
So I thought there was an opportunity here. I did my best to convey my opinions on fragrance oils with vivid adjectives and colorful phrasing. This went on for three batches; however, I realized that it became harder and harder to come up with differentiating texts for each new fragrance oil. The “black cherry” started to smell a lot like the “pomegranate”; the “black cherry” also started to smell a lot like the “cherry”. I realized that the reviews I were putting out weren’t really receiving any traffic, and weren’t that much more helpful than the reviews already provided on Candlescience’s pages. Plus, the intended experience of navigating to my website, then back to the product page, was a very unintuitive workflow.
Wax and candlemaking experiments
Then came actual candlemaking. I decided that I wanted to work exclusively with soy wax to start, so I scoured the web for information on how best to work with soy wax.
The information I found was all over the place. One site would suggest one thing, then another site would suggest something else. To make matters worse, the insights produced were never really scientific or data-driven.
From this frustrating experience, what I realized was that it would be best to assume that most suggestions had a 50/50 chance that they were bunk. I had to do my own testing to determine whether to believe what was suggested.
This lead to my first popular post (Notes while Working with 464 Soy Wax). In the post, I detailed the findings I came to from composing multiple candles with different cooling temperatures.
I planned the experiment all out. I knew how many candles I needed to make, what stages in the experiment I’d need to take photos, and the fact I needed to take down comprehensive notes.
This experiment was a minor success, and was what I’d deem was my first major step into the candlemaking community.
By now, I had about a closet full of test candles. I had been documenting my expenses, fragrance supply, and formulas for my candles. I had all of this in one big google sheet.
I came to the realization that it was probably time to productize my workflow, and hopefully write something that’d also be helpful for others. I wrote a simple webapp and added it to my blog. I posted it on Reddit, Fragrance oil calculator on mobile and it was a hit (at least to me it was).
The comments I received made me realize that there might be a lack of digital tools available for candlemakers, and this might be a gap that I can work on filling.
So I continued writing updates to the product. However, months after release, I noticed that others were also coming up with similar tools, albeit mine was the only one on web. Theirs were gaining traction while mine started to stagnate.
Initially, I thought the pause in growth was due to the lack of features. So that’s where my focus went — adding new features.
I spent a month writing out a way to allow users to save their calculations, a month cleaning up the UI, then another month changing the UI completely. Some growth was had, but not nearly what I had hoped for.
Now that I had a good grasp on making candles, I wanted to try my hands at selling them.
I set up a small Etsy shop called thoughtfulcandlesnyc. I started off selling brandless candles; candles in labelless amber jars.
And someone bought one. I remember being so ecstatic that I made a sale. I made three extra candles, along with the one I was to ship out, to ensure I was sending out my very best work.
After that first sale, I started thinking about how to refine my process, and how to generate more sales. I thought about packaging, writing, marketing, pricing, photography, pretty much anything related to the sales cycle of a candle. I wrote some scripts to automate collecting metrics from Etsy, and I’d monitor it every day to see how I was performing compared to the week before.
During this period, I focused less on developing candlemaking tools, and more on selling candles.
But in the end, I didn’t sell that many candles (maybe less than 20 total?). I found that it was hard to get users to transact and that I was heavily reliant on Etsy ads. Most of my page views, and conversions, were driven by Etsy ads, and when I turned them off, my store was like a modern-times Blockbuster — empty.
What I had wasn’t scalable. I knew what I had to do to fix the problem, but I didn’t quite have the skills to do so.
I needed better photography. I needed better label designs. I needed to find my brand’s direction. I needed to learn how to build a community.
My designs were minimalistic, but my writing and descriptions were pretentious and choppy. In my opinion, the two were somewhat conflicting. So deeper thought was needed around the identity of my shop.
The one thing I failed at most was community-building and customer service. After the sales cycle, I didn’t follow up with my customers on their experience. I got lazy and went radio silent after the transaction was complete. This was wrong. I should’ve reached out and ask for reviews, solicited feedback, or maybe even sent follow-up products and stickers. It’s known that it’s 10 times easier to have an existing customer re-transact than having to go out and find a new one.
My attempt at trying to sell candles was a failure, but it was also a good learning experience.
More candlemaking tools
I think it was around mid-August when I took stopped updating my Etsy store.
I decided to take a break from all candle-related endeavors, and focus on other interests instead.
Then a few months later, my sister ordered a batch of candles. Through fulfilling that order, I rekindled my interest in candlemaking.
I checked my site’s analytics, and I noticed that visitors to my site didn’t completely drop off. In fact, the site actually received quite a healthy uptick in impressions and clicks.
Okay, maybe I had something here. Maybe my time would be better put in making candlemaking tools than actual candlemaking. Maybe I can build a suite of candlemaking tools, and eventually be the sole candlemaking tools provider. Then I’d have enough of an audience to branch into a candle supplier one day (👀 this still is the dream).
So I started to brainstorm on what I wanted to build.
A tool that’ll spit out fragrance oil combinations (Fragrance composer).
This just didn’t seem to provide a lot of value to candlemakers. Plus, from the usage data I had on the fragrance calculator, most users’ candles were only comprised of one scent. Though simple to build, this didn’t seem like something people wanted.
A tool that’ll help you decide which fragrance oils to use due to their popularity in google search (Fragrance oil SEO tool).
This was a hassle to build out (couldn’t get API access). Plus, I, myself, didn’t find it useful. Of course, the more generic the fragrance, the higher its SEO values would be. Again, this was also a tool that I didn’t see myself using in my own candlemaking process.
A tool that’ll scrape prices from different vendors.
I should’ve done my research. The prices for fragrances, for each vendor, were pretty inelastic. And I guess this makes sense. There’s no real need for price changes per vendor. It’s not like they are selling something where there are thousands of different suppliers. Though this makes me wonder… what if a supplier came in with a pricing model that was indeed very fluid. I don’t know enough about pricing to answer that question. 😛
Though if there’s a single fragrance that you wanted to buy, you could use this tool to compare it across multiple vendors. There is potential in this… it just needs a lot more work. To bring on a vendor, some amount of work is needed. I won’t rule this product completely out, but it’ll need more love/work to get it into a more usable state.
And that basically wraps up my thoughts, my efforts, and my tribulations for 2020. To put it simply, it wasn’t an easy year. A lot of trial and error went into it, and a lot of growth came from it.
As for 2021, I march onward with high hopes and a forward-looking mindset.
- I want to refocus my efforts to express why I got into this hobby in the first place - providing visually appealing candles at an inexpensive price.
- I want to take more risks when it comes to marketing.
- I want to explore and push the creative side of this hobby.
- I want to develop my features with tighter integration with my users.
- Lastly, I want to be more active in the community.
I look forward to 2021. Thanks for reading.