Candle sales in the U.S. are estimated at roughly $2.3 billion. So it’s not a bad business to be in. Travel and lifestyle expert Teri Johnson found this out when she founded the Harlem Candle Company in September 2014.
This world traveler was inspired by the fragrances she’s experienced in the 66 countries she visited, and transferred them to her candle collection, which actually she handmade in her kitchen before officially launching the Harlem Candle Company as a global brand.
Her scents are not only tantalizing, they have exciting names and memories attached to them. Take her Holiday candle, inspired by Billie Holiday, who grew up in Harlem. The candle has a pine note, paying plays homage to Holiday’s song “If The Moon Turns Green.”
TNJ: What prompted you to start the company?
Teri Johnson: I’ve been a huge consumer of luxury candles for a long time. I am also slightly obsessed with fragrance and used to experiment by making my own perfumes when I was a child. In 2010, I met an actual perfumer / chemist who has served as my mentor and who gave me fragrance oils to make my first few batches of candles. In 2012, I made about 50 candles and branded it, “La Maison de Bougie de Teri” (translation: Teri’s House of Candles) and gifted them to friends and family. They loved them and encouraged me to start a business, but to change the name because most people don’t understand French.
One day while making candles and listening to jazz in my Harlem home, I got the idea to call it Harlem Candle Company. I did some research and saw the name was available and began selling my Harlem inspired candles at artisan markets and pop up shops. I quickly realized my new niche brand was a hit and customers responded well to the Harlem brand. I did more research and discovered that the home fragrance market has experienced significant growth over the past 5 years and the luxury segment of this market has grown even faster and stronger. Candles are an affordable luxury; they make great gifts and can have high margins if done well. These were compelling enough factors for me to consider before fully committing to this business.
A year into building the brand and selling candles, I was blessed enough to get a fragrance agent who helped give me access to some of the world’s best perfumers who work on brands like Jo Malone, Givenchy and Estee Lauder. These perfumers are the noses behind my best selling Ellington (Duke), Josephine (Baker), and Holiday (Billie) candles in the collection.
TNJ: Why Harlem?
Teri Johnson: I fell in love with Harlem when I moved here over a decade ago. I noticed a new renaissance happening and I wanted to actively participate in it. I knew that I had the ability, passion, and creativity to create a Harlem brand that celebrates and honors Harlem legacy and it’s rich cultural history. I didn’t want this to be just another company using the Harlem name without paying homage to the significance of the art, music and literary contributions that were born here. As a filmmaker and travel and lifestyle expert, I knew I had the ability to tell compelling stories of this era through fragrance and design.
TNJ: How did you fund the startup?
Teri Johnson: I bootstrapped the Harlem Candle Company with money I made as travel / lifestyle expert and spokesperson.
TNJ: What were some startup challenges?
Teri Johnson: One of my biggest challenges was entering into a consumer products business with no experience. I’ve never worked in retail or product development so my learning curve was high but exciting. I started this business alone and wore all of the hats including production, packaging, fulfillment, inventory management, web design and management, sales, marketing and social media. Needless to say, it was overwhelming doing it alone. I now have a very small team and we are working hard to grow the business. Another challenge has been capital. I am now at the point where I am ready to make the Harlem Candle Company into a global brand. A huge percentage of our online customers are repeat and their order volume continues to increase. Until now, we have never optimized our online presence with SEO, Google Ad Words, etc. The brand has grown organically and we are doing a great job keeping up with the demand. Once we raise capital, it will be so exciting to reach and engage more people online, begin our candle subscription program and expand into the global marketplace.
TNJ: What type of work were you doing prior?
Teri: Johnson: I worked in marketing, as a management consultant and have produced and directed feature films. I am also and the founder of the Travelista ™ brand and work as a video storyteller by creating inspirational and aspirational travel video on destinations around the world.
TNJ: Is this now your full-time venture?
Teri: Johnson: Yes, however my current work as a fragrance designer and world traveler under the name “Travelista Teri” supports and drives my audience to the Harlem Candle Company brand. My next level of expansion will be doing home fragrance inspired by my favorite travel destinations.
TNJ: Do you plan on expanding, or do you want to remain niche?
Teri: Johnson: We absolutely plan on expanding. Harlem is rich with stories, inspiration, and art and there is a demand for it. Both new and old Harlem residents love the brand and love fragrancing and branding their homes with our Harlem inspired collection. Our new “Harlem Nights” Room and Pillow Mist launches on Feb. 1, 2017. It is one of the most magical smells you can ever experience before bed.
TNJ: How do you market the company?
Teri: Johnson: We use social media, newsletter marketing, corporate gifting, and event sponsorship.
TNJ: Goals for 2017?
Teri: Johnson: Our goals for 2017 include expanding our product line, launching our Amazon store (Feb. 1, 2017), using more video to drive sales, introducing our candle subscription service and selling in at least one major luxury retail store.