How I Started A $500/Month Nature-Inspired Candles Side Hustle
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello! My name is Lauren Costanza, and I recently started a candle business called Bluminary. I was born and raised in Texas but spent a year in the Netherlands, earning my Master’s degree. While there, I spent my weekends traveling throughout Europe, crossing different locations off my bucket list. I photographed every moment, and it will forever be a favorite time in my life.
I moved to Los Angeles three years ago to be close to the oceans for beach days and the mountains for hiking. I love the outdoors and traveling and going on adventures. A few years ago, for Thanksgiving, I even went on a solo road trip to my favorite locations in California. All that is to say, I haven’t lost my sense of adventure since settling down and working a 9-5 job.
I started my candle a few months ago. The inspiration came from my love of the outdoors, my passion for creating with my hands, and my desire to not stare at a computer all day. Our candles are based on my travels. Each scent is paired with a destination from around the world I’ve been too. I also use my own photography on the labels. Our first three scents were;
- Sage & Lavender- inspired by the lavender fields in Maui
- Eucalyptus - inspired by Blue Mountains of Australia
- Fresh Pine- inspired by the forests in Mammoth California
Bluminary started in early September, and while there have been challenges and hurdles to overcome, I am proud to say we are slowly starting to earn back our initial investment of $3,000. Over the Christmas holidays in December, we generated $1,292.86 in sales. From September 2019 - today, we’ve made $2878.99 in sales.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I was inspired to create Bluminary after dinner with friends. I was surrounded by entrepreneurs, and we were talking about how we wish we knew someone who created candles (all of us were continually burning candles in our home). That’s when I realized that the person could and should be me! It also helped I recently found myself between jobs and was looking for a new hobby to take up some time.
I instantly knew I wanted to create a product connected with my travels and portrayed my sense of adventure. The easier (nothing is easy when starting a company) part was knowing I’d use my photography for the labels and stick with more natural scents.
I spent an entire month joining Facebook groups, watching Youtube videos, and taking notes. I have a 5 page Google Document with everything I learned while gathering data. There was a month of testing wax types, wick sizes, selecting my containers, and fragrance oils to ensure they would align with my brand and attract customers. I created a handful of spreadsheets with columns and rows of numbers to craft a budget and gain an understanding of how much would need to be invested at each stage of the process - from gathering supplies to building a website, and shipping materials.
As I developed my candle making skills, I was very confident in my marketing expertise. I have five years of experience in marketing working in nonprofits and at agencies. While learning how to make candles, I also bucked down on creating marketing materials, building a website, and other collateral. I had the most fun researching competitors and analyzing their websites, product descriptions, and the audiences they attracted. I then used my insights to build my own brand and the image I hoped to achieve with Bluminary.
About my second month into Bluminary, I started my new position at a company. Since then, I’ve been learning the secret of juggling a full-time job and my side-hustle and passion for creating candles. There are many nights I come home from work and craft candles to stop by the post office before work in the morning and mail my most recent creation. It has been a whirlwind adventure, and I look forward to watching it continue to grow.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
So what goes into making a candle? Mostly lots and lots of research and testing. At first, I tested soy vs. soy-blend wax. While I was happy with the candles in both these situations, I decided to move forward with a soy-blend, which allowed for a strong scent throw but still had the benefits of soy wax.
Next came selecting the wicks and wick size. Not many people know this, but there is a science to creating candles. You should achieve a full melt pool in the same number of hours as the diameter of the candle. My tin candles are 4 inches in diameter, so the wick should create a full pool of melted wax in four hours. There were many days during the initial testing phase where candles were burning in all corners of my house to ensure I was achieving a full melt pool, to measure how long the candles would burn for, and to make sure if someone left them burning all day the candle container would not get too hot.
I also had to test how much fragrance oil to add to my candles. Wax can only hold so much fragrance oil, so based on the scent, each candle has anywhere from 9-12% of the oil.
After creating my candles, they also needed a label. I knew the basics around photoshop and knew I wanted to use my photography as the basis. With the help of my supportive boyfriend, we selected designs that let the photos shine through but also included all the information needed on a candle label - weight, scent, brand name, and logo.
This list might make it seem like it was a simple step by step process. The reality is the first two months of testing and developing the product involved a lot of time starting over, throwing unusable products away, and learning to be patient with me during the creation process.
You can find photos and videos of our first day of true production here.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I launched my business in early September. I had three scents I would be starting with (Pine, Eucalyptus, and Sage & Lavender). I knew I wanted to get the word out there about my business, and I needed to start generating an income to increase my funds and continue to develop new products. When it comes to the first three months of budgeting, I had it down to a science.
I knew this would be a self-funded adventure, and I set aside $3,000. During the first three months, I had a detailed spreadsheet where I tracked where the money was going and what was going toward products versus researching and developing new products. I also detailed how much it would cost to create everything and what I would charge. I am a sucker for organization and numbers.
Upon my launch, I had friends and family support, and by my candles, even people I hadn’t talked to in some time. I was very proud of my first day of sales. I generated about $735. I do feel like I missed the opportunity of turning some of these supporters into repeat customers. Give the chance to launch again. I do think there are some improvements I could have made, mainly having my email strategy more in place to capture this first round of customers. I wish I had a pop-up to capture emails - even if I wasn’t offering a discount yet. Also, having a more robust welcome flow, abandoned cart emails, and post-purchase cross-sells emails 90 days later to remind them to purchase additional products from me.
But overall I was making sales and getting my products out there. That evening alone, I learned a lot about shipping and setting shipping costs. Originally I had Squarespace deciding the expenses, but I quickly realized I needed to calculate the cost by weight and take into consideration the cost of shipping supplies. That was something I learned quickly and needed instant attention after launching. I do wish I had screenshots of the original website, but I’ve since transitioned to Shopify. I am happier with the current product page, but I feel like there will always be room for improvement.
I am still working toward feeling like I have a lot of customers. I am pleased with the customers I have and have strategies in the works to grow my current customers beyond friends and family.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Since launching Bluminary, attracting, and retaining customers has been an exciting challenge. Since we are still in our first 6-months of business, the majority of customers have been friends and family and individuals at vendor events. But this does not deter me, because it is my friends and family that will spread the word about my fantastic product and share their experience with others. My goal this year is to see an increase in returning customers and attract customers beyond my friends and family.
To help achieve this goal, I recently launched a store on Etsy. Since many customers already go there for handmade products, I want to increase the chance of them finding my products, and that allows me to convert them as customers on my site the next time they go shopping for candles.
While in the first few months, I did host a giveaway with my friend who also has her own business, I want it to be known this does not create long term customers. I know I have a higher Instagram following, but most of those individuals only followed me for the giveaway and to win a free product. After the giveaway ended, there was a dip in my engagement, and none of those followers converted to customers.
I am still looking for the magic formula to attract new customers and retain current customers. There are a few steps I’ve taken that I’ve found successful. One of those is the website pop-up for a free tea light candle set. I know it is difficult for customers to select a candle they can’t smell. To help combat that hurdle, I created small tea light candles at a low cost for my business that I do not have a problem mailing them to customers so that they can select their favorite. This helps grow my email list and hopefully creates repeat customers who become loyal to my brand and their new favorite scent. This pop-up has seen a 7.84% submission rate, and my goal is to maintain that as our website visitors grow.
I did try Facebook ads in the beginning, and the biggest lesson I learned was that there is a lot of misinformation when it comes to creating and testing ads on Facebook. The ads may have helped with brand awareness, but I did not have the knowledge or budget to convert users to customers with my ads. I’ve since learned it takes 2-weeks of testing for Facebook to determine who the right people are to show your ad to receive results. I was initially under the understanding that it only took 3-4 days. I also didn’t have the budget necessary to sell candles using Facebook ads during the holidays. I kept my spending to about $50 every two weeks, but to see results you need, I feel that you need to be spending anywhere from $100- $1,000 a week.
Facebook makes it easy to create a business page, an ad account, and start pushing content in exchange for money, but unless you understand the platform, you won’t achieve much. You can see in the screenshot I spent about $!00 between August 1 - October 31, and while my ads were clicked and had a pretty low cost-per-click, there were no conversions, because at the time I kept changing the creative and selecting the ‘winning content’ after a few days rather than waiting for those two weeks.
Overall I do realize there are plenty of steps for me to take to work on growing my customer list. I know I am headed in the right direction with the pop-up, attending vendor events, and opening an Etsy store. To expand on these efforts, I would like to tighten up my emails, create a cross-sell email to remind customers to come back 90-days after their initial purchase and find more opportunities for PR moving forward. I am only at the beginning of my journey.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
As of today, I still have a lot of room for growth, but I am more confident in ever in my product and the direction I am moving in. There was a slow start in the New Year, but I am back at it again with new goals. While I am still working on making back my initial investment, I have a product I am proud of that has survived the testing phase. I’ve also realized that for selling candles our biggest areas of profit will be during vendor events in the winter and eventually finding wholesale opportunities - which is my biggest goal for 2020.
Since switching to Shopify in September 2019 we’ve generated $2,062.6 with a 1.26% online conversion rate. Out of that revenue, $1,611.50 was from vendor events and markets. The majority of sales are from direct traffic with social media in a close second. Our average order value is $25.01. While Shopify shows most of the customers as first-time I do know there have been a few returning customers from our days on Squarespace. I am hoping to see that number grow in the new year. Since September we’ve had about 662 users on our website with 3 pages per session and an average duration of 2 minutes.
According to Klaviyo, our email platform since January we’ve generated 15% of our income from Klaviyo with 9% from flows (welcome email and abandoned cart) and 6% from campaigns. Moving forward I’d like to be more consistent with our email campaigns and improve upon the current designs. We currently have a very healthy open rate of 56% and a click-through rate of 13% and while our list is still small (30 users) I feel confident in knowing our subscribers are interested in our content. On Facebook, we have 57-page followers with posts reaching about 89 people. On Instagram, we have 339 followers.
I also recently opened an Etsy shop in the last month to help grow brand awareness and our customer base. While I am still researching how to improve the page in the week we’ve been open there have been 9 views and 4 visitors to our shop.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
In starting my own business, I realized the importance of having a partner (business partner, friend, or significant other) to bounce ideas off of. I’ll have what I consider to be clear moments of brilliance only to realize my passion for the project blinded me. In the same sense, it has also been a constant learning opportunity to realize that the first answer is not always the right answer, and it is better to learn from those moments rather than be so stubborn and ignore them. I’ve transitioned websites, canceled candle scents, switching candle containers, and have spent the majority of my funds on testing and development. I even tried my hand at social media ads and quickly realized that I need to learn a lot more and increase my budget before those become successful. It often feels like this money was wasted, but if I am honest with myself, the truth is this money is teaching and preparing me for the future.
I’ve also learned I can’t do everything. My background is in marketing at a small business where I did have to do everything - website updates, email marketing, social media, and even event planning. Starting my own business, I was confident I could continue to wear all these hats, but the truth is that it is not possible. Over the last few months, I’ve had to learn my weaknesses and lean on others to help make me successful. Examples of this include product photography and even being consistent enough to create captions and post on social media. These are not my strongest skills, and I’ve had to accept while that is true, they are still essential skills to have while starting a business.
Specific to the candle business, I learned how difficult it is to sell something that people spend all day at the store testing and sniffing. Even my own family was slow to buy candles from me because they didn’t know what scents to purchase. It is because of this I worked on developing a free tea light sample pack for email subscribers. This allows me to collect customer data and reach out to them in the future, and customers can test my candles in their homes to pick their favorite. Another hurdle that is about to come is the fact most people buy and burn candles in winter. I had a very successful holiday season, but as summer approaches, I will need to consider new products and new ways to market candles during the warmer months.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I’ve tried a few different tools and software as I grow my candle business. Originally I started with Squarespace and Mailchimp, but I transitioned away as I found gaps in the software and what I was trying to create. Squarespace had limited abilities when it came to designing the product pages and gathering customer data. While using the free version of Mailchimp, I felt limited in conversion analytics and the ability to set up flows.
After two months I switched over to Shopify and Klaviyo. I am super happy with Shopify and all the classes the company offers for learning how to grow your shop and push sales. Klaviyo has a free version that allows for analytic data and to build and set-up advanced email flows quickly (Welcome, Abandoned Cart, and Browse Abandonment). The two apps also integrate seamlessly.
On Shopify, I limited the apps I have installed, because they can slow down the website loading times, but there are two I strongly believe in. I use the Give & Growapp to donate money to the ACLU. I have a specific candle that, when purchased, I can select a certain percentage or dollar amount of funds to go to the ACLU. It also allows customers to round-up their purchase and make a donation.
I also use Pirate Ship. This app/website has the most fantastic customer support and simplified the shipping process. When I started selling my candles, I had limited knowledge of how shipping works, but after talking to the Pirate Ship support team, they walked me through all my options, and we found the best way to ship candles moving forward.
Other apps I use are PageFly to build custom page designs in Shopify and to better place the images. I also use Stamped.io for reviews, although I am still on the lookout for a better platform. As a small business, I am always looking for ways to improve my website, customer experience, and streamline processes.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Honestly, the most important information for more has come from Facebook groups. There are so many people out there trying to do what you are doing or something similar. While this might intimidate some people, think about how many brands of jeans or even candles exist. It is your responsibility to find your niche and advertise toward those people. No matter how many candle companies there are, I know I’m trying to capture an audience interested in natural scents and nature, so I’ll take all the advice I can from other candle makers.
To help keep me cool, calm, and collected as I juggle working full-time and building my candle business, I listen to a podcast called Before Breakfast. It’s a short 2-5 minute podcast that introduces small ways to organize your day better, improve time management, and overall how to get the most out of your life. These small actions items and affirmations help keep me level headed when things get overwhelming.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Make a plan - but don’t be afraid to veer away when things don’t work out. Do your research and take notes, but don’t get too deep into research that you forget to get started!
Once you know you are confident, you have a great product, the most important step in marketing and branding. Select a color scheme, a font, and take go-to product shots so that everything you produce is aligned.
Don’t get down on yourself when you aren’t making sales right away. Remember, your first customers will always be friends and family. Get them to fall in love with your product first. Then they will share it with those around them. Even though things seem slow, remember it takes 4-7 times of people hearing/interacting with your brand before they consider making a purchase. None of this should hold you back though, keep texting your mom and best friend to share your products with those they love.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
While we are not currently in a situation to hire for paid work, I am working to improve lifestyle photography at Bluminary. While it is challenging to sell candles, people cannot smell over the internet. I know one way to help improve the customer journey is with high-quality photography.
If anyone around the world has experience with lifestyle photography, I am more than happy to mail them a candle or two to take photos of them in a nature-inspired setting. This would be an unpaid position, but I am always on the lookout for someone with a critical eye for photography.
Where can we go to learn more?
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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