I was introduced to Laura by Kate Burton, founder of The Cocoa Den, and our very first interviewee on this site. Laura is right at the start of her journey, having left her full-time job as a project manager in media to launch her own business, By Laura - http://www.bylauralondon.com/ - a candle making business focused on producing beautiful, natural candles, but at a more accessible price than some of the super aspirational, yet incredibly expensive, brands on the market. We caught up with her to find out how the business came about and how she's driving the business forward.
Tell us about a bit more about your new venture and your journey to date?
I studied advertising and marketing at Bournemouth University. I had a great time, and enjoyed the course. When I left I got a job at Publicis, working in account management initially. It didn't really work for me so after six months I transferred to project management in production. I loved it. We were producing print, press ads and outdoor campaigns.
I then moved to M&C Saatchi where I was working in project management, and on and offline production, which again I really enjoyed, and felt like I achieved a lot.
However, I've always liked making stuff, and usually had some kind of random craft activity on the go. I was starting to develop a bit of an obsession with candles. My husband (boyfriend at the time) was advised by someone to buy me a candle for a gift, and he was like 'why would I buy her a candle?' They told him that it wasn't just any old candle, it was a Jo Malone candle - and that I would love it. He still didn't get it, but got the candle, and when he gave it to me I was like 'oh my god, I love it so much'! He still didn't get it.
He said to me that I should try and make them myself, because the candles were so expensive to buy. I did a load of research online, taught myself about the ingredients and approach, made some for myself and a few extra ones to go to friends. They liked them, wanted to pay me for them, and even asked if they could get some for friends. Then more of my friends and their friends of friends wanted them and it escalated from there.
Then I got engaged and decided that I wanted to make candles as wedding favours for all my guests and as a main feature for the wedding. I had Rosemary in my bouquet, so wanted to use that scent in the candle as well. Since then a lot of my guests have mentioned that they still have the candle at home and it reminds them of our wedding day. Rosemary is one of my main memories of the whole day, and it made me realise how evocative scent can be.
Since then I've had friends who wanted to do a similar thing for their wedding, a friend got married in the Gherkin and we managed to fill the top floor of the Gherkin with scent. About 6 months ago I started selling the candles at markets, having been inspired by Kate (The Cocoa Den) and her success. The first one was at Oval, they have a tiny market in a church garden there, and people who I didn't know bought them! It was quite nerve racking because with candles customers go home and test if the candle lights, and burns well. I always explain to people that I've done a lot of work getting them to the quality they are now, but if there are any issues to come back to me.
I expanded to others markets, one a month, as well as making them for friends of friends and for wedding favours. I remember coming back from work one day after a really busy day, and I still had all of these candles to make that evening, and my husband said 'why don't you just do it, why don't you leave and just do the candles - give it till Christmas, freelance around it, but give it a go'. I'd got to the point where I was ready to move on in terms of my job.
So, the next day I gave in my notice! I think I was waiting for my husband to give me that permission in some way. I knew I wanted to do it, the fall back of freelance was reassuring, and I was ready to make the jump. I remember absolutely beaming as I handed my notice in. My boss said 'I can't really do anything to persuade you can I? You seem to have made your mind up, but is there any way we can offer to make it work to allow you to do it'. I was really firm that I needed to give it a try.
It was really exciting. In the last few weeks I was working evenings and weekends to get the plan in place, get the website live and working out the logistics of when I was going to do the making of the candles, what markets I'd be at, the marketing and what was going to happen in January.
The markets have all gone really well and they've been really rewarding in terms of the feedback I've had from them. And the feedback I've had from friends has been amazing. So that brings us to here I guess.
What ultimately made you take the leap to do things differently?
I guess I suddenly got to the point where it was clear that it was more than just a hobby. My confidence had grown through meeting other people and I had a couple of realisations where I thought 'hold on, I can do this - I don't need to be working for a big company. It is a bit scary, but if I have a product that I really believe in it is something I can do.'
How long did it take you to feel like you’d made progress in your new venture?
To be honest, as soon as I was selling to people I didn't know, and was getting good feedback from people who weren't friends who felt like they should be saying nice things! It made me realise that I was being seen seriously as a brand.
What makes your company different in what is quite a competitive market?
When I initially started it was to create the natural quality of product that you get from a Jo Malone product, but for an affordable price. I was really interested to understand if you were buying the branding when you buy those products. I'm not critiquing their model, but I had so many friends, including me, who were buying those kinds of products and spending so much money on them. I've always believed it should feel like you can have more than one candle in your home and not be scared to light them, and the expense can make that difficult.
I wanted to produce nice, natural candles with simple scents. The majority of my candles are only two ingredients, for example lavendar & orange, green tea & spearmint. I like simplifying it and adding enough of a scent to see what the outcome is without over-complicating the product. I think it's really important that I'm using natural soy wax. I think the trend is going in that direction. I'm also interested in the aromatherapy angle and getting more involved in that.
How often have you felt like the business wasn’t going to work?
I've had a couple of quiet markets, which has often just been when there haven't been many people at the market overall, where you question what you're doing. I also feel like it's still very new, so I'm just trying to feel like I'm 'in it' and giving things a go. I know that I can do it, I know that it's going to be tricky and it's a busy market, but I'm tying down what my USP is and I'm going to run with it. I'll get there!
Have you been doing freelance at the same time?
I did a month's freelance back in November, and I'm doing some more now. It's actually quite nice having something to fall back on. Candles can be quite seasonal, so it's good to have something to balance it out. Recently I've actually taken on a four day a week role with an agency, and they're really flexible, so that's enabled me to structure my time and have a day to focus on the candles, and drive the business forward.
How do you manage having multiple jobs?
I book working slots in my diary in the same way as I would if I was going to have coffee with someone. I book in time around when I'm working at agencies, and book things in socially when I've got time. I'd love to be able to do it without leaving my social life and going into a hole! It could potentially be quite lonely making candles all day, doing changes to the website the next. At the moment I'm not feeling it as it's all quite exciting, but I'm trying to segment time and ensure I still see friends.
What do you do to spur yourself on when you get the fear?
I had someone come to one of my stalls at the weekend - a man and his wife who really knew their candles and bought them a lot. I explained what I was trying to do in terms of quality at a certain price and they were really interested. The man then sent me an email last night and I almost cried when I read it. He basically said that they enjoyed meeting me, that they had my candle lit as they were emailing, and they wouldn't be buying Jo Malone candles anymore! I was really tired after having been at the markets all day. That email is going to be the thing that really keeps me going now.
My husband is also incredible. He's come to help me set up and unload at markets, and a few times I've sent him messages saying 'there is no-one here!'. He always replies telling me that my candles are great, people love them, and it's just that particular day. He really believes in the business and keeps telling me how proud he is of me. He's always wanted to start his own business, and I think one day he probably will, but he's well and truly involved in this and that's great. My friends are also a great support.
What or who do you find intimidating?
Other candles brands that are a bit further along than me. It's intimidating, but also motivates me. In fact, thinking about it, that was another thing that made me hand in my notice. That day a friend of a friend had sent me this article for inspiration about a candle brand that had recently started. Their website looked really good, and the business looked great. She was basically a year on from where I am now, but I was so envious and intimidated by it. That's when my husband pushed me to take the step myself.
Was it intimidating when you first started to do the markets?
Yes - I didn't know what to expect. I'd gone in thinking that if I could just break even, that would be fine. I ended up selling about 25 candles and I was in complete disbelief! It's actually not as bad as you think, the people who go to markets on a Saturday often want a bit of a chat, so it makes them go quite quickly.
One thing I do find quite intimidating is talking to supplier companies about the materials I need. I have to remember that I'm a company and that I have a right to talk about making deals with them. They're established, large brands and you have to develop the confidence to negotiate, and that's quite scary.
What drives you, your legacy, or enjoying the moment?
That's quite tricky! The enjoyment I get from the business every day, particularly that all of the decisions that are made are now mine is what's important now. But I also love the idea that I'm building a brand that people will grow to know.
How do you define success now?
Online sales is where I'm going to make the most money, through repeat purchases from people who perhaps have bought them through markets, but then explore new scents online, before having smelt them. That's what I'm trying to build at the moment.
Although money is important, reading the Style List in Stylist magazine and seeing my candle in there because someone sees it as a really good product would make me happy!
Where would you like the business to get to?
My plan was always to do the Christmas markets and then review the business at the start of 2016 in terms of what's working and what's not. At the moment I'm exploring lots of new concepts with friends and people they know in terms of what they'd want to buy, or be part of and then really work out the different strands of the business. From there I can make a proper plan with goals. I'm working through the different opportunities now.
I've been having conversations with different suppliers for weddings and events and getting my name out there and sending them samples. I want to get as many people knowing the name of the brand in that space as possible in 2016.
I also want to do workshops, teaching others how to make candles. There's a move to those kind of craft events at weekends, and I'm talking to a company who runs workshops to understand how it works, and get a feel for whether it's something I want to do with them or to run myself.
The other angle I'm exploring is candle parties, in the same way that jewellery parties have really taken off. I think selling candles in an environment with friends would work really well. There are lots of layers to the business and there is one idea that is potentially a very new approach in candles, so I'd love to talk to you about it a little down the line, but I'm keeping it under my belt for now!
What's the biggest thing that your new way of working has changed about your life?
I really like being around during the daytime, which sounds really strange, but there's something very relaxing about wandering around when everyone else is at work! It feels like my working day is more on my terms. Sometimes you have to remind yourself to get up and treat it like a working day as well though, especially so that I can carve time out to have an evening.
How do you come up with new ideas?
Pinterest and Instagram are really good for inspiration. Friends and strangers all have different ideas about what I could do next with the business too. Sometimes just a random candle search in Google helps me find interesting new ways that candles are being created, as well as reading articles about the craft movement in general.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
A hairdresser - which looking back now is very random! I always liked making things, and I love that now I run my own company.
What would you tell your kids about working out what they want to do in life?
To take their time and not rush things, to not worry about what they want to do at that time, if they want to change, they can, it's genuinely not too late. I think if you have a passion for something, you might have to do something else for a few years to get the finance to do it, but you should keep finding ways to try and do it.
How do you treat yourself?
A glass of champagne! I still associate it with when something has gone really well. My husband keeps all of the champagne corks we've had, with what I've written on them about what we were celebrating, which is really nice. It reminds me of the importance of remembering the important moments.
Single best piece of advice you’ve been given along your journey?
The number of people who told me to 'just do it' - the build up of that means something, particularly when it's people who already have their own companies.
To find out more about Laura's business, check out her website at http://www.bylauralondon.com/ or follow her on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/bylauralondon/ or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ByLauraLondon/