How I Started A $20K/Month Southern Inspired Candle Business

Published: January 16th, 2020
DShawn Russell
Southern Elegance...
from Raeford, North Carolina, USA
started January 2016
Discover what tools DShawn recommends to grow your business!

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hello! My name is D’Shawn Russell and I am the founder and CEO of Southern Elegance Candle Company. I started the company 4 years ago as a side hustle to make some extra money on the weekends and to get me out of the house. But it quickly grew to much more than I expected.

Southern Elegance Candle Company is all about loving and living in the South. We created home fragrance products that all have a southern theme to them and all of our fragrances are based on Southern agriculture. Apple? Check! Pine? Check! Cotton (or course) Check! Missing the Southern Sunshine? We got a fragrance for you. Our core group of customers are women that live in the South or people that appreciate Southern culture.

Our flagship products at the moment are our candles. We offer three different sizes; travel tin, mason jar and large tumbler. We also have wax melts and room spray. But, we will be slowly rolling out new products over the next year to include an apparel line.

I started the company at our local Farmers Market making about $200 per weekend. We now average about $20,000 a month in sales through our retail site, wholesale site and Faire. Most of our income comes from our wholesale accounts. We were able to branch out from our core Southern states and are currently in stores all over the US.

You can check out our brand story video here: Southern Elegance: Candles Crafted In The South


What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I started Southern Elegance right after my son was born as a hobby. Initially, I made a bunch of random bath and body products in addition to the candles. When I decided to get serious, I looked at everything and decided to just focus on one product and chose candles because they had the potential to be the most profitable. I chose a niche that I could speak authentically about. My ideal customer was easy to identify because it was basically me. (But, don't use that a marketing strategy. It just happened to work in this case) I was born and raised in the South. I LOVE living here and couldn't imagine living anywhere else. I created a company around all the things that I love to do.

Choose your partners carefully and trust your gut. I made very bad decisions by going against what I thought I should do and listening to “experts” and lost a ton of money.

I was working in education at the time and I absolutely hated it. One day walked into work and quit my job to make candle making a full-time career. I had absolutely no background in sales, manufacturing, marketing or anything business-related. I basically had no clue as to how it was going to work or if this was even a viable plan. Everything was a learning curve, and I spent hours learning a new skill then implementing it.

With very limited resources, (basically no money) I went to the school of Google and Youtube. I took some online classes on Branding and Wholesaling. I hired a business coach and I literally hit the streets selling. For the first year, I would sell my candles at any Church function, fair, festival, school bazaar… I did not care. I sold candles outside in the middle of the summer and the dead of winter. I also sold on any and every online platform that would accept me. Etsy, Amazon, Faire, Modalyst, Houzz, etc. All the money I made went back into building the brand, I was lucky to have a husband to pay the bills but it was tight financially. When I finally felt comfortable I approached stores to carry my products. And we slowly built a base of stores to sustain the company.

Eventually, I moved my retail site to Shopify and settled with Faire for wholesale.

Interview with Candle Science about the beginning of Southern Elegance Candle Company!

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

Making candles isn't that difficult, melt some wax, add fragrance and color, pour in a jar and let harden. But, my first candles were terrible! I had to use local items. So I had wax and fragrance from Hobby Lobby and jars from Walmart. I quickly realized this wouldn’t work because (1) the quality was horrible and (2) you can’t scale a company buying supplies from local retail stores. So, I researched local candle supply companies. CandleScience became my main supplier. They were local and carried professional-grade products. I was also able to buy very small quantities in the beginning and now I order pallets. I am not able to buy direct from glass and wax suppliers so CandleScience serves as the middle man as my company grows.

When I first started in my home, all I had was two pots and my stove. After a few months, I bought my first large wax melter and moved into the garage. Two months after that I bought another melter and started looking for my first space outside of my garage.

My Garage

I live in a small town (approximately 5000 people) so the manufacturing space wasn't available. My first space was a small restaurant. We stored fragrance in the former freezers and wax in the former deep fryers. At the end of that lease, we moved into a slightly larger retail space. But, we covered the windows with paper and a coming soon sign because the area wasn’t zoned for manufacturing and we didn't want anyone to know what we were doing. We had supplies delivered to the back door and prayed no one would check to see what we were doing. After about a year of stress, a real warehouse space became available and we moved into it.

Unfortunately, I had no idea how to set up a real candle business because everything up until this point had been ad-hoc. So I went back to the school of Youtube and watched every video I could find on manufacturing candles. I would stop the video and study them frame by frame. I used this information to set up my current space. We have 4 zones; An office area, a production area for each product, shipping and receiving area and finally an area for storage of supplies.


You can watch the process of how we make the candles here: Behind the scenes

Describe the process of launching the business.

I didn't have a traditional launch. It was more of a slow-rolling out of the business. I quit my job and had to hurry up and figure out if I could make money doing this. So, I started selling at any event that would accept me. I really didn't have a cohesive plan and had no clue about E-commerce or how it works. I basically was shooting in the dark.

After wasting a lot of time, energy and money going to events that didn't include my ideal customer, I narrowed down the types of events that I would attend. That allowed me to at least make some money on the weekends at Farmer’s Markets and local festivals. Hauling candles is hard and heavy and I soon got tired of that. The setup and breakdown is hard on the body and I was tired all the time.

I decided to build a website and set it up using Big Cartel. Back then, they had a free plan if you had under 10 items. I created a basic site that I could send people to buy stuff when I wasn't on the road. It had ZERO personality but it worked.

After about a year I moved to Woo-Commerce to have a more serious presence on the web. I chose Bluehost with Woo, again because it was cheap and I wasn't making that much money from online sales. I was doing my own photography (which sucked), printing my own labels and designing my own website (which was very basic). The website was hard to manage with all the Apps that I needed and security was a constant issue. It was constantly crashing so I eventually moved to Shopify.

I still didn't understand how to drive people to the site and really made sales through the website. I was bootstrapping everything and was still broke. I had to make some changes. I chose the fanciest FREE theme from Shopify. I started having boxes and labels printed professionally. I found a Facebook group that had photographers that would exchange products for photos. I went to Upwork and hired a copywriter to review what I had written. And finally, I took an online class for FB ads.

If a mistake has to be made, do it early and cheaply. I’m glad I made mistakes while small and it wasn’t too disastrous.

Then I began to see the turnaround. Then another class on Email marketing and google ads really rounded out what I need to start seeing sales. It was trial and error and I wasted money learning but eventually saw results.

As online sales grew, I stopped doing the festivals and now totally depend on my online sales.

As far as my wholesale side, I did several trade shows and have worked with Reps and really feel like they are pretty old school. It costs a ton of money (around $10,000 per show) and requires a lot of time and energy. (plus commissions) For the same price, I could run some paid ads and take my chances with my retail site for about the same return. (And never leave my couch) It’s just easier to go straight to the consumer now with social media. In addition, we do almost $100,000 in sales with Faire, so it doesn't make financial sense for us to continue to do trade shows. So, moving forward we are going to focus on growing our followers by creating engaging content. If new accounts approach us, we have the margins and systems in place to accommodate but it will not be our primary focus.

Before and after

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Below are all the things I WISH I had done when I first started. I am only recently able to see how all this fits together.

  1. Social Media Use your social media platforms to drive traffic to your website. Make your posts engaging and relevant to your community. BUILD YOUR COMMUNITY through social media. Facebook groups, Facebook business pages, Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn. Make sure people know what you do and what you SELL. Don't be afraid to sell… don't beat people over the head with constantly trying to sell them stuff, that gets old… but provide information and entertainment and then ask for the sale. Always eventually ask for a sale. Remind people of what you are selling and give them a reason to buy it. If you don't have time to post every day, use a scheduler like Buffer.

  2. Capture emails: Once you engage your customers, capture an email so that you have a direct link to them. My one regret is that I didn't get emails at the festivals. Literally, thousands of people slipped through my fingers. Have some type of pop-up. I used to spin the wheel for almost a year and now we recently changed back to a regular pop-up. Run contests and giveaways… always engage in some type of activity that is capturing emails. We are currently using Privy, but used Justuno also.

  3. Email Marketing; Once you get those emails… send out emails. My first emails were terrible. I eventually got better. And now I have someone that designs and sends them weekly. Stay in contact with your people and continue to provide relevant content. We used Mailchimp but recently switched to Klaviyo.

  4. Paid ads (google, FB, Instagram): This is the hardest part. I took classes and I know I will never be as good as a professional. I know the basics and can run a decent campaign. Yes, I lost money in the beginning. But, I learned what worked and who to target based off the losses. I've hired firms that lost just as much of my money as I did, so I don't feel bad. Ads are hit or miss. But, I know enough now to know if a campaign is being profitable and I know the right questions to ask any firm that may be running my ads.

  5. Retarget: You know how those ads follow you after going to a site? It works. Do it a lot.


How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

In the big scheme of things, we are doing pretty good. The doors are open, taxes and people are paid. We are still in business and not in danger of going out of business. We have a strong wholesale business and a growing retail business. But, I think we are just scratching the surface.

Southern Elegance will develop into a lifestyle brand. Now, before you roll your eyes (which I would have totally done at that statement last year), let me explain. If you create a community of like-minded people and create products they like, they will begin to trust you. And in turn, you can sell anything. Although we sell candles, what we really sell is a community. We sell culture and a sense of belonging, candles just happen to be the product. We are really going to focus on serving our community/customers in the coming years by leveraging social media.

In 2020, we plan on introducing Southern-themed apparel. If that goes well, then bath and body products. Once we build the community, we can sell them anything that supports our mission of celebrating Southern Culture.

The future looks like world domination.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Choose your partners carefully and trust your gut. I made very bad decisions by going against what I thought I should do and listening to “experts”. I lost a ton of money by hiring a fancy firm to run my Facebook Ads. Their results were on par with my own except I didn’t lose thousands of dollars per month paying them.

I also lost money by paying a fancy firm out of NYC to do my social media. I do it myself now using Buffer to schedule, my free pics, and recipes & memes from Pinterest. A custom collab with a celebrity cost me almost $10,000 in time, inventory and design fees. I still get pissed when I look at those containers… but it is a reminder to trust my gut. If a mistake has to be made, do it early and cheaply. I’m glad I made those mistakes while small and it wasn’t too disastrous.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

  • Shopify Easily the best place to have an eCommerce site.
  • Privy Capture emails
  • JustUno Capture Email
  • Klaviyo Run email campaigns
  • Bold (Discount, Loyalty Points, Upsell) A better User experience on the website
  • Order Printer Makes the orders look pretty and less generic
  • Tax Jar Sale tax is a pain!!! This makes it so much easier.
  • Yotpo Collect Reviews and use them on social media and marketing campaigns
  • Affiliatly If you decide to use affiliates. It’s simple to set up and use.
  • The Social Sales Girls Teaches you how to get reliable, predictable income when you build it the right way on eCommerce platforms. (FB ads, contests & give-aways for email, email marketing, etc)
  • Lucky Break Consulting Assists with Smart Business Strategy for makers and designers


What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

All my books are on Audible. I listen in the car and whenever I have downtime.

  • The Purple Cow by Seth Godin Explains why you need to stand out in a crowded market place.
  • Clockwork Mike Michalowicz Helps to teach you how to automate the business processes.
  • Crushing It: Inspirational stories from the experiences of dozens of entrepreneurs
  • Tribes by Seth Godin: It’s our nature. Now the Internet has eliminated the barriers of geography, cost, and time. Find your tribe and make some money.
  • The Blue Ocean Strategy: Blue ocean strategy is the simultaneous pursuit of differentiation and low cost to open up a new market space and create new demand.
  • You are a Badass: Create a life you totally love. And create it NOW, Make some damn money already.
  • Start with Why: it provides a framework upon which organizations can be built, movements can be led, and people can be inspired. And it all starts with WHY.
  • The E-Myth (Highly Recommend) Gerber draws the vital, often overlooked distinction between working on your business and working in your business.
  • Profit First (Highly Recommend) Offers a simple, counterintuitive cash management solution that will help small businesses break out of the doom spiral and achieve instant profitability.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Do it. Start something. Screw it up. Fix it and then make more mistakes. Rinse and repeat. There have been some spectacular mistakes made by myself… and I learned a tremendous amount from them. And I just kept on trucking. Mistakes happen and usually don’t doom a business. Learn as much as you can and do as much as you can for free...BUT don’t be afraid to pay for knowledge. Google and Youtube can only get you so far, then hire a coach. Take a class. Find people that know how to do what you want to do… and PAY them to do it.

Eventually, you have to pass off roles and responsibilities, hurry up and do it as soon as you can afford to. Don't be like me, at the cardiologist wondering what’s going on with your heart. The Doc was like “Stress, it’s gonna kill you.”


Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!