I Started a Small Business During a Pandemic
How my poor timing ended up being the catalyst that would make everything in my life start to fall in place...
In late February of 2020, I quit the full-time marketing job that was slowly sucking the life out of me. Saying this sentence now makes me shudder, but I was twenty-three years old and I had this perpetual optimism about me that said "it's okay if you don't have a plan--you'll figure it out, you always do." On the drive home after I informed my boss that I couldn't work there any more, I mused about what it was that I wanted to do. I always wanted to be a singer/songwriter as a kid, but I didn't have any resources to further that pipe dream, so I started to scale back.
My mother, as any good one would, immediately suggested giving community college another go--a third go if we're keeping score. I recoiled at the thought. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love school, but the last time I was in community college, I had to work three different bartending jobs to make ends meet in addition to a full course load. I was so run down by the middle of the second semester that I became physically ill and had to get a steroid shot in my rear end as well as IV fluids and a whole host of other stuff I won't get into. My psychology professor pulled me aside after class one day to ask how I was--apparently it was written all over my face. I dropped out shortly after.
That period of my life was still fresh, so I put college on the back burner. I knew, however, that I didn't want to be "stuck" in entry-level, soul-sucking positions for the rest of my life. I didn't want to be forty and still clipping coupons and living paycheck to paycheck. I needed some sort of certifiable skill that made me more valuable than the typical high school graduate. I live in Orange County, CA, and I had heard a lot of people make pretty good money doing hair, especially if they're certified in extensions. It would only take me a year of cosmetology school to get enough credit hours to take the board, and I'd only have to be in school eight hours a day, three days a week. I could manage that and a steady bartending gig for a year, piece of cake--so I began making calls and touring schools, finally landing on Toni & Guy. That was around March 1st.
Just over two weeks later the entire world was turned on its axis...
All the bars I was applying to began to shut down, Toni & Guy was off the table indefinitely, and I was not a candidate for unemployment insurance because I had quit my job before the shutdown began. My stimulus check was gone before I could even blink due to a pile-up of bills, and I was relying on my mom and my boyfriend to eat and keep a roof over my head. I was at a low-point mentally. How did I let this happen? I was working in healthcare--one of the only fields offering any semblance of job security--and I'd heard about COVID-19, I just figured at that time that it was another "election year plague." In perhaps my biggest god complex moment yet, I thought "oh my God, did this pandemic happen just to teach me a lesson?"
Once I realized that I'm not nearly that special and I needed to get a grip, I immediately went into survival mode. I began thinking of everything I could to scrape together a few dimes (although I've yet to make my debut on OnlyFans, that was pretty much the only stone I left unturned). I even tried to do a video interview for an online tutoring website which was inadvertently ruined by my roommate walking through the front door yelling "what's up bitches?" on my last available take for the last question in the interview. I was applying to tutor elementary schoolers. I clicked out of the browser and just started crying. I had never been so scared that I wasn't going to make it. That optimism I was talking about earlier? Completely gone. Not a drop left. My cup was not only empty, it was on the floor shattered into a million pieces that were too small to even practice kintsugi on. I was ready to accept my fate of "homeless and methed out on the streets of Orange County at twenty-three." Shame. She had so much potential.
Though my parents live in Virginia (about 2300 miles away from me), we stay pretty close via phone calls, FaceTime, and text messages, so they knew I was having a rough go of it. They knew I was trying as hard as I could to find work, and they also knew that with 40 million Americans unemployed, my chances of getting a job were fairly slim. I told them how I felt trapped--I had no money, no job, and I was locked in an 650 sq ft apartment with nothing to do except ruminate over how bad my timing was. I also told them how selfish I felt for even complaining because I knew how many Americans had it much worse, and that only made me feel more depressed. My dad told me to find a hobby, and he would fund the supplies. I picked crochet, and it helped immensely. Suddenly, I had something to do with my hands and my brain, and I was creating something. I am a maker through-and-through, and I believe that if you're not creating something, you're probably destroying something.
I began thinking about all the ways I could use my new skill, and after being cooped up in my little apartment for a few weeks, I realized how much it needed a face lift. I decided I could try and start a few DIY projects around my house that worked for my ever-shrinking budget and kill two birds with one stone. When my boyfriend got home from work that day, I told him about my plan, and he was relieved to see a spark back in my eyes for the first time in almost a month. I started talking about little projects I could do here and there, and I mentioned making a few scented candles for the house. Then he said something that would change our lives: "I want a candle that smells like a cup of coffee and a fresh shave."
We got into a conversation about how nostalgic we were for certain experiences that we couldn't partake in due to the nationwide lockdown. We talked about everything from going to bars and clubs, to driving down PCH with the windows down and the radio up, concerts, skiing, going to the salon, bonfires with friends, having enough toilet paper--everything we were taking massively for granted just a month ago. I took out my iPad and began feverishly scrawling down every memory/scene we thought of and what scents might compose them. We must have had like thirty ideas on that Notability note--we managed to narrow it down to six. That's when we realized we had inadvertently started a candle company in the midst of the worst pandemic in a hundred years.
Shortly after we had this impromptu business meeting, my boyfriend was furloughed by his company. I was a couple days deep into research at this point, and I determined we needed around $1000 to start up the way we wanted to--with inventory, nice packaging, custom scents, premium ingredients, and a website. Jordan and I agreed that we wanted to look professional from day one. After all, the landscape is so saturated already, we needed to look like we'd been in the game for awhile and knew what we were doing. Spoiler alert: we totally didn't. Under his furlough, he was going to have to wait awhile before getting paid again, and I was beginning to feel my dreams slip away as soon as they came.
We shelved the plan once again, and I went back into a full-on depressive episode. Thank god for Jordan's patience because I don't know if I could have managed had the roles been reversed. After about a week of wallowing, we began to really look at our finances and decided to make heavy cuts to our personal budget so that we could save to start our business. We started buying everything in small chunks, and it took around 3-4 weeks until we finally had enough supplies to actually make a candle. Everyone's processing time was backed up 1-2 weeks, we had some trouble with a few of our packages, and we were living on ramen and cheap coffee.
After much persistence, we finally had all our supplies in-house. We had these giant black glass jars with wooden lids, large Kraft-brown labels, coco-soy candle wax, and crackling wooden wicks. I don't know why but the labels give me Corner Bakery vibes--let me know if I'm insane for that. Each jar held 9.5 oz of wax and they were huge and kind of clunky. It cost us a ton to make and a ton to ship and we had no choice but to price them at $32 to make a reasonable profit. We were able to scrape together enough money to make 24 candles, and the plan was to start posting on Instagram and Facebook and build up some hype for a week in order to create some buzz before we unveiled our site and opened up preordering. Our hope was that we'd amass enough preorders to buy more inventory and just kind of scale our company up as it grew organically. We were so cute back then.
In reality, we gained about 70 followers before we were penalized on Instagram for "bot-like" behavior (Jordan and I both have really quick thumbs and we were basically blasting every photo we saw with a like and a comment). Absolutely no one--not a single soul--preordered a candle, and they sat on the shelves for a few weeks until a couple of our friends started pity-buying. The hilarious thing though: once they received them, they were all obsessed with how they smelled. We knew we had an incredible product, but we had no real way to put it in front of peoples' faces--which is kind of important when you're in the fragrance business. All retail stores were still closed, farmers markets were cancelled indefinitely, and we didn't have a lot of extra money to boost our posts or create ads. To compound our problems, the black jars we were using went out of stock and the restock date was 45 days off. With only two or three candles left, we ghosted our Instagram, and went back to the drawing board once again.
After a few moments of awkward silence not wanting to offend each other, Jordan and I came clean: we hated the way our candles looked. It wasn't "us." It felt super impersonal, kind of bulky, and for sure not worth the expensive price tag. Plus: since looks were the only thing 99% of our potential customers had to go on, they were of paramount importance. Our candles had to look so cool, people would forget for a moment that we were a big, bad business trying to sell them something while they scrolled through memes. I thought about some companies that had done that for me before--I looked at every. single. sponsored. post. that came up on my feed and scrutinized every detail. How many likes did the photo have? Were there a lot of comments underneath it? If so, were they mostly positive, or were people trolling them? What did the caption say? Did they use hashtags? What did the actual post look like? Was it just a picture, or did it have text on it? I started to compile a list of things that seemed to be working for similar businesses, and I started to think about what kind of results might be attainable to us with the *extremely* limited resources we had available.
At that time, all we had for creating Instagram content was the furniture/decor in our apartment, our iPhone X, and one of those portable product lightrooms that we bought on Amazon for like thirty bucks. Let me also say that I've never been able to make an iPhone photo look good in any capacity. I have followed countless tutorials and come to the conclusion that Emma Chamberlain is lying and all her Instagram photos were taken on a DSLR. I refuse to believe that I'm that horrible at taking photos. I won't have it. Long story short: our product quality needed to make up for our image quality. We ended up going in a completely different direction than our original packaging, and I'm so glad we did. This time: every last detail would be bespoke and well thought out. As much as possible would be crafted in-house by me and Jordan, and nothing would look extraneous or cumbersome.
We settled on a smaller jar that held about 2/3 of the wax as our old ones for about 1/16 of the price. We had a good amount of fragrance oils and wax left, so we bought what we needed and spent the rest on wicks, jars, and corks. That's when Jordan brought up how naked the jars looked at the top, and my heart almost fell out of my butt. What were we going to do about that? We were so excited to cut the price of our candles nearly in half and start a crazy big (for us) ad campaign now that we finally had a good amount of inventory. After about 36 straight hours of me staring at a screen looking at every company that made leather, ribbon, macrame, twine, and/or hemp products, we found a company that sold leather straps for a decent price and I applied for a new credit card (yikes) in order to purchase some. At that point, we'd already been dark on Instagram for about a month and I was afraid that if we waited too much longer, the world would forget about us. In about a week, we had the leather straps in hand and our threaded-jar hurdle was cleared with flying colors. I felt excited again.
Now we only had two obstacles in our way: a wax seal stamp for corks and a label dilemma that rivaled the Great Leather Debacle of 2020. I had my heart set on Estate No. 9 paper because of the cream color and linen texture. I wanted every aspect of the candle to be perfect, and after spending so much time finding the perfect jars, the perfect lids, the perfect accents, and the perfect outer packaging--it felt criminal to slap a plain white Avery label on there, almost blasphemous. We (mainly I) ended up impulsively buying "textured stickers" instead of labels because they were three times cheaper, and it set us back about $100 and two production weeks because they looked so awful. To add insult to injury, we couldn't even get a refund because they were "technically" what we asked for despite looking like someone had melted beads of frosted plastic together and printed out "Charlesworth Apothecary" on top.
We had a moment of reckoning, and decided to save up to buy the labels we wanted. We realized that whenever we made an impulsive business decision, it always came back to bite us. We saved up, put the money down on the labels, and ended up with the perfect final piece to our packaging puzzle. So now we had the product--we just needed to figure out a marketing campaign. Our friend Gwen graciously lent us her camera (we gave her some candles as a thank you) and we spent three days amassing as much Instagram and website content as we possibly could. Finally, on July 1st, we unveiled our overhauled packaging to our 70 followers and waited for the rest of world to take notice. We began running ad after ad--although Instagram did not seem to like the fact that some of our candle labels had "havana tobacco" on them. Although, seeing as the price was $24, I think they could probably safely assume that we weren't in the Cuban cigar business. Regardless, we had to push ads through several times before they were approved, and the results just managed to pay for themselves.
We made a few more sales to friends and friends-of-friends, and we got a few new followers and link clicks. After a couple weeks of this new strategy, our web traffic app was blowing our phones up with new site visitor notifications. However, people were clicking off seconds after arriving at our shop's landing page. Then, we started gaining a little more traction after persevering, and we got our first order from a person we didn't know. I jumped up and down in our kitchen and Jordan looked at me like I was nuts. I was just so endlessly grateful that someone appreciated our product to the point that they'd spend their hard earned money on it. It felt like we were doing something right. Every time I woke up to a random sale or heard that special "You got an order!" notification sound, I would feel tears of gratitude welling up in my eyes. I knew what I thought of our candles, but it was totally different and surreal for someone else to see that magic too. I'd also managed to get a bartending job once California started reopening the first time, so we had a bigger personal budget to help us run ads and keep up with our online presence.
However, our lives would soon get turned upside down again. A family emergency would bring Jordan and I back and forth to Idaho several times throughout July and August, and after my arm seized up due to working three double-shifts in a row, I got diagnosed with arthritis in my shoulder, meaning I had to drastically scale back my hours at work until I found a treatment that worked for me. Finally, to put the icing on the cake, one of our random customers that I was so excited about (I call them random because I don't know them personally, but I'm sure they're all lovely people) messaged us to say her candle arrived completely melted. I was heartbroken and honestly a little mad--not at the customer at all, but at whoever's up there in the clouds running things down here on Earth. You know that old Chumbawamba song "Tubthumping"? I felt like that but the opposite--I get back up, but get knocked down again.
After throwing about an hour-long pity party, I began to change my mindset, which is the only thing you can do when so many things feel out of your control. I saw this as an opportunity to show off Charlesworth Apothecary's customer service skills, and I wanted to really go the extra mile to give this customer a good impression. My goal is always to send out the perfect candle the first time, but when weather conditions (there was a heatwave where the customer lived) say otherwise, my goal becomes more focused on making things right. I sent out a new candle and stayed in contact with her every step of the way, despite Jordan being out of state dealing with things and having an ice pack permanently slapped on my shoulder and not having any use of my dominant arm because of the radiating arthritis pain. I disclosed none of this to her, but she was still so kind and understanding the whole way through. I knew I had to have an issue with one of our candles eventually, and I'm so grateful it was with a customer like her the first time it happened.
Luckily, I was able to make things right for her in the end, and I had a new sense of confidence because of it. It was now okay for things to break because I knew that with the right attitude, I could fix them. And with Jordan back from Idaho, I was ready to get back on Instagram (again) and really take our business to the next level. Once our lives finally settled, my birthday was right around the corner, and I told my mother the only thing I wanted was a nice Canon camera so that we could take pictures of our candles whenever we wanted and never run into the same issue again. Since September 1st we have done just that, and I've also enrolled myself in a social media marketing course to help me wrap my brain around how to use a hashtag the right way, and what audience I should be targeting in my ad campaigns.
It's been about ten days since we started posting regularly again, and we've got enough photo content and candle inventory to really do it right this time. We're starting to slowly see that engagement boosting back up, and some new followers and orders are starting to trickle back in. I worry constantly about brand trust. I fear that shutting the Instagram light switch on and off so many times has depleted that slightly. I wish I knew how not to feel like that. However, despite all the little anxieties and what-ifs, here are some things I know:
1. I have a phenomenal product, and there's not a thing about our line of candles that I'm not absolutely in love with.
2. I am passionate about this business, and I've always made it my top priority since we started.
3. I have the most incredible business & life partner in Jordan, and I am so glad that he is there to help me navigate through these little storms.
4. This is only just the beginning.
As of today, I just made an order for a ton of fragrance oils so we can start bringing our fall line to life. It's something we've been in research and development on for awhile, and after a lot of time and saving, we are finally able to make it a reality. To me, this next line is going to blow the Maiden Voyage Collection--our first six scents--out of the water. We have learned so much about every aspect of our business since Jordan told me he wanted a "fresh shave and a coffee" candle (now known as Morning Ritual--our bestseller), and I have taken a lot of time to figure out what does and doesn't work for our specific brand--and us as brand owners. I'm in a place where I can really focus on Charlesworth Apothecary, and I feel so fulfilled from the possibilities.
At the beginning of this story, I was a quitter. I was aimlessly stumbling through life trying to make ends meet. This year and this business have made me a fighter. I have gone through so much to make this business thrive, and I have reached what I thought was my breaking point countless times--yet I've pushed past it. I've developed scar tissue. I have risen above and gotten so much stronger for it. I'm still not perfect--there was an incident yesterday that led to some verbal fisticuffs about a lost package containing some wick clips I need really bad (if you're out there wick clips, I love you and I hope you're enjoying Atlanta where you apparently got sent). But I don't feel like stopping at all--in fact, just the opposite. Now every setback is an opportunity to utilize my critical thinking and come up with creative solutions. That's what a good business owner does, and the only way I can truly fail is if I throw in the towel.
I can't wait to follow up on this story a year from now. I have no idea where I'll be, but I know for a fact that Charlesworth Apothecary will be right there with me. Everything this business has fought its way through has only reaffirmed my faith in it and caused me to fight harder to keep it. I have never felt so sure that this is what I'm meant to do. It just so happened to take a global pandemic to figure it out.
If you enjoyed this story and feel so inclined, I will link my website below for you to check out! I am not really sure how Vocal works, I mainly did this to have it on paper to read when I feel like giving up, but if I happen to make any compensation from this, it will all go back to Charlesworth Apothecary. If you've made it this far, I salute you. This was longwinded as hell, and it means the world that it captured your attention. Please feel free to follow @charlesworthapothecary on Instagram and join our little family. We run promotions, do giveaways, share tips on how to ensure the best performance from your candles, and have loads of fun talking about our line of product. I'd love to see you there. And thanks again for reading, from the bottom of my heart.