How I Built a Candle Company from 0-1

How I Built a Candle Company from 0-1

By: Sam

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Over the past year, I experienced some career success and traveled quite a bit. I had plenty of time for introspection about what I truly wanted in life. I had a rent-controlled apartment, the freedom to work remotely wherever and whenever I wished, and I was (and still am) relatively self-sufficient. I was comfortable. While it was nice to be comfortable, I felt a deep intellectual itch that needed scratching. I also experienced a loss of identity because the corporate game had consumed my life for several years, and I no longer felt like playing it.

I was paralyzed by fear before starting anything because I was afraid of failure. I discussed my concerns with my sister, boyfriend, and therapist, all of whom gave me the same advice. My therapist encouraged me to create something for myself and enjoy the process without critiquing the result. My boyfriend and sister both advised me to explore and not worry about the outcome, to see what would stick.

I remained in a state of not having a clear "thing" for a long time, until the summer. It took a lot of relaxation and self-encouragement to even attempt something, anything.


During the summer of 2023, I was in a cafe with my friend Andy and my boyfriend Carlos. We were bouncing ideas back and forth about random startup concepts when, somehow, the topic of candles came up. I mentioned how much I enjoy buying candles from places like Homesense, Winners, and so on. We discussed various candle ideas, including penis-shaped candles, rainbow candles, and even candles with gasoline-like scents – essentially, any candle niche with a relatively large audience. We casually talked about creating a candle with five layers, allowing people to customize each layer.

I was sold on the idea because the profit margins for this kind of project seemed quite promising. After crunching the numbers, I realized that if I sold around 250 candles a month, I could make as much as I was earning at my tech job. How hard could it be? (It turned out to be very challenging, to say the least.)


Off I went to conduct research - and candle testing. I purchased a starter kit from Amazon and crafted some candles for Carlos, practicing extensively. I watched numerous TikToks from other small candle companies and also delved into various YouTube videos. This mostly occupied my time from the summer to the fall.

To succeed in the candle business, one must radically alter the way people engage with candles. For instance, some candle companies hid jewelry inside their candles, revealing a potentially valuable piece once the candle had burned for a certain duration. This concept incorporated the element of surprise, akin to a blind box or gambling, into candles. It's easily replicable, and many candle companies adopted it. Another company specialized in hidden message candles that would reveal a sticker or beads with concealed messages when lit. This too was easily imitated.

I realized that I needed to create candles that were radically different from the norm to establish a defensible position against copycats in the oversaturated market.

I also decided to enroll in a packaging design class at OCAD University, one of Canada's top art schools. Ultimately, the average consumer can't discern the difference between a high-quality and low-quality candle solely based on scent. They can only rely on product features such as a long burn time, clean burn (no soot), chemical-free composition, etc., but these features are nearly impossible to evaluate once the candle is removed from its packaging. There's no standard method to gauge the quality of a scent; thus, branding becomes crucial.

One of the most beneficial exercises in school was a packaging analysis of candle brands ranging from cheap to mid-range to expensive. I noticed that cheaper brands featured more literal scents and colorful images, while the more expensive candles leaned toward minimalist and ambiguous scents. At this juncture, I decided to position myself within the "mid-range" category. Brands like Yankee Candles and Bath and Body Works succeed due to their distribution, while expensive brands like Diptyque often have a long perfumery history. Since I couldn't emulate either of those strategies at the moment, the mid-range category seemed the most suitable choice. Cost-wise, this also made more sense to me, as there was some upfront capital involved, and this approach would allow me to recoup my startup costs more quickly.

Here's a screenshot of some of the other stuff I learned in my packaging design class.

Taking Action:

I realized that dual-layered candles would be my best shot. No other large candle company does this (mostly because of the labor), and the small business that did do this shut down. There’s no one else in the market doing what I planned to do. Moreover, the value proposition of “you get two candles for the cost of one” is very clear to many people's core values, one of them being “getting the best value for your money.”

Feedback Collection

I began with the scents. I had a decently long list of 15-20, which I trimmed down to 5 pairings. I used scent designations that I found during my packaging analysis at OCAD and used ChatGPT to generate more ideas.

During this time, I talked with my friends about how I was thinking about starting a candle company and let them look at the scent list to determine which ones to make. Implicitly, this was me collecting feedback. It also allowed me to compile a soft committed list of folks. I wrote the names of all the folks in Notion who I had ever talked to about candles. You have to talk to everyone about what you’re building.

List of candle scents draft

Here is the original list and shortlist of candle scents. 

How I Incorporated Art into my Business

I have a passion for art, and I wanted to push myself to produce and find a medium. As Rick Owens said, “Learn how to make clothes - don’t do sketches and collages, that’s nonsense. You have to learn how to make clothes. You have to shut up, work, and work all the time, and produce, produce, produce, and the more you produce, your identity will emerge. As long as you work and work and work and have enough to work from, your identity will emerge. Making 100 pieces of art every month, on top of a candle company, would help my own identity emerge.

If you're interested in hearing it from Rick, here's the interview where he talks about work:

Next, defensibility. To be honest, I’ve always found free extras such as stickers to be somewhat ineffective for small businesses. They’re expensive at approximately $1 per sticker, and they don’t significantly increase conversion rates. However, unique pieces of free art would create FOMO each month, target another segment, and my gut feeling is that it would convert customers again. Frankly, the margins on candles are fairly large, so it wouldn't have a substantial impact on eating into my profits if it meant that the same customers would convert again. This assumption regarding increasing conversion still needs to be tested. Perhaps people could copy the candles, but they couldn’t copy the art.

Creating my Vision Statement

First, I needed a compelling story. I took my discomfort from earlier this year and turned it into my vision statement. I needed a story that people could connect with, which is why all of my candles are centered around the human condition. Everyone experiences positive and negative feelings, making my story relatable to everyone, even if they don't like candles. I believe that a lack of product-market fit often stems from people not understanding your vision. At the end of the day, I’m just selling candles. But if I can convey this vision along with a product that allows people to get the best value for their money, it would be perceived as more than just candles.

I included several other values in my vision statement, such as my commitment to sustainability. Sustainability isn’t just great for the environment; it's also good for business. I also worked for a social enterprise in university for about 3 years, where I learned a lot about end-to-end sustainability, from production to shipping. If you’ve ordered Humankind candles, you’ll notice that your products fit exactly into the shipping box. This means reduced carbon emissions during shipping because I can send more candles on one truck. This becomes cost-optimized for the customer and for me.

Here is a sample picture of what our packaging looks like! 

The name "Humankind" emerged in a dream of mine. I also thought it was funny, cheeky, and weird because I could sign off as “Sam, founder of Humankind” or “Thank you from Humankind”. I am a little superstitious, so I took it as a sign that it was meant to be.

Getting Pre-Pre Orders

Next, I created the early bird list via a Google form. I populated it with all the important questions: name, email, scents people wanted, etc. In one of my previous jobs, I learned how to maximize conversions on forms. The first trick is to ask one question at a time. By the fourth question on a survey, people tend to have a sunk cost fallacy, and the completion rate levels off at around 55%. I also learned from my psychology degree that if you get someone to say “yes” to you twice already, they are more likely to say yes to you again. I asked people to subscribe to my email list during the fourth question in my survey, and 98.7% of people said yes, which equated to 59 out of 60 people who filled out the form.

I've learned that people still like NFTs. I thought they would also like my art because it was accessible, and keeping it a surprise felt like minting. Plus, you could pay with crypto, which is the number one feature people complain about not having in other products. That helped me shape my strategy for launching.

When social networks initially started on Facebook and LinkedIn, algorithms prioritized virality based on the number of likes, comments, and reposts within the first hour. Being a frequent Farcaster user, I recognized that many other trending casts followed this pattern. I reached out to every person via Telegram on Farcaster to like and recast my initial launch cast and early bird list as soon as I posted it, so I could land on the trending page. The user base is small enough that I'm pretty sure Dan and Varun have not implemented anything to stop blatant cast manipulation, which is exactly what I did (in the words of Sam Altman - “be a little naughty”). Sorry, Farcaster team! By doing this, I ended up on trending for almost 2 days, with 30 recasts, 67 likes, and 1.3k views. Thank you, Farcaster team.

I posted this early bird list almost every day or every other day on Farcaster and my personal Instagram page for two weeks.

The early bird list provided me with crucial information: how many people were interested and the quantity and ratio of supplies that I needed to purchase. For example, the "ebb and flow" scent pairing was the most popular, so I knew I had to order more fragrance oil compared to "non-binary," which was the least popular scent pairing. Thanks to all my previous research throughout the summer, I knew exactly which suppliers to buy from. I also timed my order with Black Friday to get the best deal on supplies. I placed my first order and ordered around 50 different fragrance oils to test and smell for this small batch of 5 scent pairings.

Product Creation

After that, I focused on creating the packaging. I was already familiar with using Illustrator and Photoshop, and the packaging design class was a good warm-up for this particular moment. Additionally, I had previously worked at a CPG startup. The idea for the Humankind logo actually came to me in a dream, once again. So, it all came together easily, and I completed the packaging in a single day, then placed the order the next day. It was already cost-optimized through my learnings at the CPG startup.

Next, I worked on creating the art. I searched within myself to find inspiration and thought about scalability. Linoleum prints seemed like the perfect medium - I only needed to make one block, and I could stamp it a hundred times, with each piece being unique. I went to my local art store to purchase all the supplies and completed the art-making process in less than two days. Time-wise, it was a very good investment. Considering that I have roughly 30 days in a month to work on candles, spending 2 days on this was insignificant. You can view the art-making process here: It was also very fulfilling.

By this time, the supplies had arrived, and I began testing different formulas, posting updates on Farcaster. The challenging thing about candles is that it's essentially organic chemistry, and I didn’t know much about organic chemistry. However, due to my previous research throughout the summer, I was able to start with a narrower set of assumptions and ratios and systematically test my list of variables and ratios. This enabled me to discover the best formula.

I started making all of the candles every single day. It was tough, of course, involving a lot of physical work, and my kitchen was a mess. I enjoy cooking, but I truly haven't used my kitchen in three weeks because I've kept it sterile for experimentation and candle making. All I've eaten is takeout, microwave food, salads, and soups. My feet were sore, and I got really hungry at times, but what is fulfillment without sacrifice? It was nothing I wasn't familiar with, though - when I was broke and working at a startup, we ate $1 NYC pizza every day for a month. When you're in your flow state, you truly don't feel like doing anything other than building. And for me, this was making candles.


Testing out different formulas. 

After creating the candles, I set up my Shopify store. I enlisted the help of my friend Shivansh Patel, the founder of Leta Wares, to help me build the website. He's the person I partnered with to make the candle holders for this product. The website was up and running in a few days.

Having launched a page on my vision, created the packaging, I already had a clear idea of what the staging would look like for the candles. I visited a flower shop and picked up a bunch of flowers, and had a lightbox delivered. Shiv took all of the photos in one day, and I edited all of them the next day. My friend Niaz helped me wick 204 tealight tins, and my friend Laura helped me run the email campaigns for two separate segments: Farcaster and my IRL friends. With some great help from great friends, I was able to prepare a really great launch. I couldn't have done it in such a short period of time without them.

Shiv from Leta Wares staging the candles in our lightbox. 

The Launch

Launch day was very messy. Shiv and I were 30 min late to launch because we were playing around with a new but necessary tool for the humankind website. We figured it out after 2-3 calls and I was able to make my first two sales that evening.

The ensuing days were also messy. Shopify checkout was down for a few hours, and I had three separate people reach out to me saying that they couldn’t order. I already lost $150, which you know, doesn’t seem like that much money, but it is for a small business. Luckily these customers returned, so I did end up recovering it.

We ended up getting more orders than expected and Shiv had to come over 3-4 times in a week to drop of more candle holders.

One thing I did not anticipate is that my label printer did not come with labels. So I had to get blank labels rushed delivered, and bring it to the post office to print labels for me. Unfortunately Canada Post also put the labels on themselves, and it looked messy. I felt bad for my first five customers, who would be getting their package without a clean label. But I needed to ship, literally. So I shipped those ones.

The other additional mistake I made is not having my friends checkout with the new tool me and Shiv implemented. We had a few customers who were able to checkout with only 2 tealights, instead of 6. Luckily I was able to clarify the ordering process with one of them, but had to take an L on the other one. On that order I lost about $24, but since it was my initial launch, I really needed to prioritize CX. Shiv very kindly offered to split the profits from his holders, which I initially accepted, but then declined later, because the tool breaking was no one’s fault.

One thing I did not anticipate is that despite testing the packaging, most of the tealights sent out ended up severely dented. This plagued me (I even dreamt about dented candles) because I had no idea what to do. So I just sent out an email apologizing, providing a discount code and replacement.

This leads me to now, where I’m about to launch my New Years Candle with new art for January. You can pre-order here:

I made a lot of mistakes, despite trying my best. But overall, it was a good launch, and I can’t express how grateful I am to the people around me for believing in me and taking a chance on me. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading!

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