Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Dianna, the founder of TERRA. Inspired by nature and the seasons, I sell eco-friendly candles that are hand-poured by myself in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri.
My candles are made with soy wax, phthalate-free fragrances, 100% cotton wicks, and are packaged in glass jars that can be reused. The candle’s label is a timeless design that fits perfectly in any room of your home.
I started this business by myself with less than $100 and now, only 8 months later, I’ve made a name for myself and my brand in St. Louis, I’ve sold my candles to dream companies like Greetabl and Kinder Beauty, and am celebrating win after win. The most recent being that I had my first month of $5,000 in revenue.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
This is a long one, so bear with me! Back in 2014, I dabbled into the hobby of soapmaking. I was working 2 jobs at the time and would make bath bombs and sugar scrubs for my friends. For the next 3 years, I found myself casually selling these products with no intention of ever being a serious business.
From December 23 to January 22 (my 30 days), I received a total of 9 pre-orders. $180. I did it. I created my business with less than $100 and made it all back within 30 days.
During 2017, I wanted a change in my life –– something drastically different. I sold all my belongings, went through a divorce, and found myself flying solo across the world with no agenda. I had no idea how long I would be gone, where I would go, or what any plans were.
For 2.5 years, I found myself in Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Bali, Philippines, Sweden, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Britain. It was wild, to say the least!
Along the way, I picked up the skill of graphic design to be able to make an income while abroad. Having sold those bath products previously, I latched on to the closest joy I knew, and that was being involved in the process of creating a physical product. So, with the graphic design under my wing, I specialized in product packaging designs.
And while this job was fun in the beginning, that feeling eventually wore off. And eventually, I returned home.
In December 2019, I returned to my home of St. Louis and I was eager to begin something of my own again. Being away for so long helped me uncover what I truly enjoy, which was having a physical craft rather than something digital.
Immediately my mind went to candle making. This was something that I always wanted to get into, but never had the time previously. And now understanding that hands-on creative feeling, I made sure not to make any mistakes this time around and dive right into it.
I didn’t have much money at the time, having spent almost all of it overseas and again as I reacquainted with everyone and everything is back home. But I knew I wanted to start a candle business.
So, instead of waiting for the perfect time or saving money to begin, I just put up what I could. I had $100. I told myself that if I spent $100 to start this candle business and could make $100 back within 30 days, that I could become successful.
I remember tweeting about this little challenge I set for myself and many found it encouraging and inspiring. That tweet eventually made its way around and the first person to ask me where they ordered was a well-known designer, Tobias van Schneider… and that was the beginning of it all.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I will admit, at the time of tweeting about this candle business idea, I was all talk. I purchased my domain and a few candle supplies, but I hadn’t made one single candle yet. Was I scared? Absolutely. Someone just asked me where they can order from my almost non-existent business and I had nothing.
But, that wasn’t going to stop me. If anything, it propelled me to move quickly and strategically –– hell, I wasn’t going to lose my first sale!
Minutes after I was asked where they could order a candle, I immediately signed up for a plan on Shopify and began building my eCommerce website. I didn’t want to spend too much time on this, after all, I needed to reply to the guy! But what could I do? I didn’t have any products to sell right now.
But I had plans. I added two candles, Pink Grapefruit + Spring Basil and Fresh Rain + Rose Petals, and I made them available for pre-order. Having product packaging experience due to my time abroad, I was able to hack together a simple mockup of what my finished candles would look like.
I didn’t spend too much time on the design details because I knew a label could always change. This was the first iteration and I was fine with keeping it all simple. I wanted the focus to be on the candle quality and the bigger aesthetic picture.
I narrowed in on gold details to give the brand a bit of a high-end feel. I wanted to position myself as a mid-range brand by offering a premium candle at an affordable price. I initially priced my candles at $20.
This screenshot is from after launching, but that’s the mockup I had used for pre-order product photos
I explained that my shop would officially launch on January 22 (my 30-day challenge mark) and all pre-orders would ship then. That gave me a solid 4 weeks to figure out how to make a candle and roughly less than $30 left of my $100 budget.
During this time, I used the candle supplies that I already purchased to try and create a great scented candle. And after the first try, I nailed it! Granted, I spent a whole week researching, but my formula and process worked perfectly.
I still remember the moment my mom walked in after being at work all day and she said, “Ooooh! It smells nice in here!”
Describe the process of launching the business.
From December 23 to January 22 (my 30 days), I received a total of 9 pre-orders. $180. I did it. I created my business with less than $100 and made it all back within 30 days.
When I launched, I sent out all the pre-orders that had been waiting patiently. These went to the East Coast, the West Coast, and a few states in between. It was unreal that people bought my candles. This fueled my desire to truly bring this business to life.
The first two months were slow; I think this is because I was still discovering which marketing methods worked well. I also hadn’t released any new products during this time, so my initial two scents were still the only ones available.
I received maybe only 5 orders total in my shop in January and February, but it was a custom order someone placed that continued my determination. She ordered 24 candles with the request of a custom label to be able to send as gifts to clients –– and I was all about it!
With every order, I continued putting all profits back into the business. With each supply order being a little bit bigger and better than the last. Since I knew I could sell a candle, I began focusing on the candles themselves. I wanted them to sell themselves.
I spent a solid 2 weeks tweaking my label designs. I did one iteration of my initial label, which was highly inspired by a successful candle brand. But I didn’t like that. I wanted a design that was mine, that didn’t remind you of anything other than TERRA. And that was when I came up with my signature label design that I still use today.
Soon came March and I launched my Spring Collection. This set the path of what TERRA would become. A new look, new scents, and even a few new products. I began offering linen sprays and mini-sized candles.
The revenue from my shop alone doubled month over month. March ended around $500, April $1,000, and May hit $2,000! This does not include custom orders or wholesale orders.
That is what changed everything for me. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to be more than a small business in my city. I wanted my candles to be in homes all over the U.S. –– even around the world.
Back in March, I sent a pitch to Greetabl. Not only have I loved this company for years (I wanted to work for them at one point), but they are also based out of St. Louis. I knew I could position that well and it worked! Soon, one of their co-founders happily invited me in to their office to drop by a few samples.
A month later, they put in an order for 750 candles just in time for Mother’s Day. I almost started crying. I did it. That was the moment where I knew TERRA will be bigger than St. Louis.
I think the biggest lesson I learned out of these first few months was to not give up. I was very persistent every day to do 1 thing progressive. I still am. Notice that I say progressive and not productive.
Being productive could be spending my days making 100’s of candles, but is my business progressive if I’m not selling them, marketing them, or growing my exposure? I don’t think so.
I think the best decision I’ve made was pitching to larger companies to carry my products.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I’m not the VC-funded, aesthetic is everything, DTC brand that you come across these days. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t going to try and adapt their strategies. I understood early on that Instagram is the reason many of these up-and-coming brands do so well.
During my first month of launching, I had a goal to “figure out” Instagram. Whatever that meant. I honestly just wanted to grow my following and begin growing engagement on my account.
Every purchase on my shop includes a handwritten note, and I made sure early on to mention that I’d love to see their candles in their new homes and “don’t forget to tag TERRA!” This helped tremendously. People loved sharing their thoughts of the candles with me and soon I would find nearly 60% of my customers posting to their Instagram stories about TERRA and how much they loved their new products.
This started a snowball effect. 1 person shares about TERRA, 3 new people follow me. And with more and more orders, this strategy repeats itself.
I feel very in touch with my target audience, probably because I am the ideal customer. And I make sure to be very personal on Instagram and seek them out through geo-tags of my city and surrounding areas. I also make sure to connect with other local businesses because my city is full of small businesses and we do a great job at spotlighting each other.
As far as running any ads, I have done so in the past, and honestly, they’ve all been failures. Ads just aren’t for me. Maybe one day I’ll sit down and get that all figured out, but for now, spending time on Instagram is working well.
I do have a rewards program that is beneficial to my growth, as well. For every $1 spent on my shop, customers will receive 15 points. These points are eventually redeemable for money off your next purchase or free shipping. They also receive $5 for every referred purchase, in which the new customer receives 20% off their first order. It’s a triple win for everyone!
Early on, I did a lot of cold emailing. I wanted to capitalize on the art of gift-giving. Much like my approach with Greetabl, I did my research and specifically found wedding event planners and general photographers in St. Louis. I knew these were people offering high-ticket services, therefore would have the extra financials to give client gifts.
Client gifting is an extremely personal touch to business and I think it’s not done enough. I would cold email those service providers and let them know my options available for candles and how client gifting is a wonderful opportunity to show people that they care. If they ordered in bulk, I also let them know that we could customize the label to represent their brand.
The return on these cold emails was about 10%, and while that may seem minimal, it’s paying off because they are sending those candles to others, and it’s a snowball effect (again) of exposure for TERRA.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Due to my aforementioned marketing efforts, word of mouth is the biggest growth of TERRA right now. Most days, I wake up and I don’t even need to plan social media content –– but I really should still. But what I mean is that I’m receiving a lot of user-generated content these days. I simply repost stories or retweet the kind words of what people say about my candles to create hype.
I’m profiting more than I could ever imagine, and it helps that my margins are at 86%. This allows for flexibility when running sales to attract new customers. I’m also able to keep my shipping prices low as I include some of the costs of my retail price.
I offer a flat-rate $4.95 shipping fee to anyone in the U.S., and internationally it varies from $9.95 - $13.95.
I continue putting all profits back into supplies and equipment for the business. I’m holding on to my freelance graphic design projects until I simply can’t balance it all anymore, so I’ve only ever paid myself a mere $1,500 in the past 8 months from TERRA. And $750 to my friend who I temp-hired to help with that huge 750 candle order early on. Here we are labeling the final candles on a tree stump outside because of social distancing.
Even in peak Corona times, TERRA has taken off thanks to the power of eCommerce and being able to market my candles through social media. I had plans to do Farmer’s Markets over the summer to grow exposure in my town and even though all have been canceled, I’ve still been able to connect with my city more than I could imagine.
Through local business collaborations and larger nation-wide partnerships, I’m on a mission to become a brand that’s bigger than just my city. What started with two candles being tested in my mom’s little kitchen is now a full-on studio (approximately 350 sq. ft.) that is housed separately in my apartment.
One of my short-term goals is to finish this year with a $10,000 month and I think the holiday season will help me easily achieve that. Further down the road, I see TERRA with its brick-and-mortar shop here in St. Louis –– complete with a warehouse and studio. Having a corporate retail company carry my line of candles is also a goal; think Nordstrom, Crate & Barrel, and Anthropologie.
For now, I’m just focusing on growing every month, introducing new and exciting scents, and staying true to TERRA’s values. I’m on my way to having 6-figures in revenue and if all goes according to plan, that may happen by the end of my second year in business.
Each milestone is worth celebrating, fall in love with them, and take the time to truly acknowledge how far you’ve come. Whether it’s that first $100 or $10,000.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One thing that surprised me the most was being able to become successful and profitable without the in-person events. You would think selling physical products, you need that face-to-face contact… but this pandemic has truly shown that I don’t need that. And while it certainly would help, I am still thriving being solely online at the moment.
I think the best decision I’ve made was pitching to larger companies to carry my products. At first, I thought it was too ambitious and I was trying to do something so out of reach. But now, my candle has been in the hands of celebrities and even one of my favorite hockey players! (Insert obligatory LET’S GO BLUES) Anyways, I think it’s appropriate to say that you should shoot for the stars with your business.
Anything is possible if you just try. Cheesy, but it’s what’s working for me.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
My shop is hosted on Shopify, and while I’ve thought about possibly switching to other platforms, I never have. Shopify has everything I need for TERRA. They offer discounted postage rates and a simple interface. Whether it’s changing my website design, adjusting inventory, running an email campaign, it’s all so easy.
Smile is the rewards plugin that I use in conjunction with Shopify. With them, I’m able to set how many points people receive when they spend on my shop. And I can create custom rewards for customers to redeem. Such as $5 or $10 off your next purchase and free shipping.
Other than those two, I don’t use much else because again, Shopify has everything I need at this stage in my business.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I’m not one to consume media. I don’t listen to podcasts, read many books, or even browse the internet for content. I guess I’m just too busy these days, haha.
However, someone did recommend Shoe Dog, a memoir written by the founder of Nike. And maybe this is brash of me to say, but I read his story as if it was me in another life. It’s very inspiring and raw and goes to show that sometimes you really can just start small.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Please, just start. I would not be where I am today if I had sat around and waited for the perfect moment. Instead, I just let my ambition take over and went straight for it. If you want something, then go and try to achieve it.
Try not to obsess at the bigger picture when beginning or you’ll never appreciate the stages of your business. Each milestone is worth celebrating, fall in love with them, and take the time to truly acknowledge how far you’ve come. Whether it’s that first $100 or $10,000.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Part of me keeps joking saying that I need an intern some days. But, I don’t think I’m ready to hire someone at the moment. After all, I’m still holding on to my freelance graphic design job… so if anyone would be getting hired full-time, it would be me!
Although, at this point, I’m putting probably 60 hours into TERRA weekly, if not more.
Where can we go to learn more?
I’m most vocal about business and TERRA on my Twitter, but feel free to follow along any of these:
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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