CandleScience founders Dan and Michael Swimm came into the candle business honestly.
June 2, 2016
First Candles, Now Soap. Durham’s CandleScience Expands in DIY Market
One of the biggest online candle supply stores is prepping more growth, this time with SoapScience.
Their father was a chemist at a pair of once prominent global candle companies and taught them the craft and chemical process of making the best quality candles and fragrances.
But they brought something else to the table too—backgrounds in programming from the dotcom era and a deep desire to work together to solve problems in an industry that hadn’t evolved with technology.
Thirteen years later, they’ve built the largest distributor of natural soy wax in the U.S. and a leading ecommerce company in the candle industry. The bootstrapped company employs 30 people in Durham and has more than a 75% compound annual growth rate over the last 11 years.
As they begin their first major expansion in the company’s history—into soap-making—the brothers sat down with me to discuss the company’s past, present and future in Durham.
The Swimms grew up in an entrepreneurial family in Syracuse, NY. One grandfather was a grain farmer and the local gun smith. The other operated a fruit distribution business, and an uncle owned a restaurant. And their father had numerous side businesses related to the candle and scent industry—the brothers spent their days bagging potpourri and producing Pascal candle nails. The men always knew they’d follow in those footsteps and start a company together.
But it wasn’t until 2003 that the idea for an all-natural candle making supply company that leveraged the Internet came to be. It was also only then that they had the skill sets and market timing to make it happen. Though Michael (pictured above, left) went college to become an architect and Dan (right) to get a math degree, both brothers ended up programmers for various companies during the dot com bubble.
A big challenge prior to starting the company was where to settle it—Dan lived in New York and Michael in Hawaii. As they searched for the right locale, they stumbled on the Triangle region and were drawn to its strong startup community and business climate.
Each brother put in $5,000 to start the venture, with their parents contributing $5,000 alongside them. Things were pretty tight as they got up and running.
Michael jokes that in the beginning, he was both the company programmer and the fork lift operator. It took three to four years before the brothers could start paying themselves actual salaries. In fact, Michael’s wife was a graduate student at the time and made more money than him.
The Swimm brothers had confidence from the beginning—their father told them they knew more about the industry than most experts. But traditional candle sales were on the decline, so they knew they’d need a fresh angle.
Still nascent at the time was the consumer interest in natural and organic products and do-it-yourself, but the men saw the start of both trends. As hobbyists and consumers started to care more about the ingredients in the products they used and purchased, they became more willing to make candles themselves. That allowed CandleScience to sell not only to large bricks-and-mortar retailers, but to small businesses and at-home hobbyists too.
Their products include natural soy wax (from American soybeans) and fragrance oils along with all the equipment needed to begin candle-making at home. There are tutorials, guides and kits too.
Moving forward, the company will focus on marketing for the first time. Surprisingly enough, CandleScience recently hired its first full-time employee in that area. According to Noonan, most e-commerce companies spend between 15%-20% of sales on marketing. Only now do the brothers feel ready to spend money to widen their customer base.
It’s that frugality along with a laser focus on creating the best products and serving customers that the Swimms attribute to their company’s success.
They’ve also managed to build a market with built-in demand—candles always need to be replenished. And now, with the addition of SoapScience, they’ll do it all over again.