“ One important thing I had to learn then was patience. I was going to have to be patient if I wanted to be successful. „
What do you do when you have an idea but no clue on how to implement it? Well, take Uche Nlia’s advice: just start. You’ll figure things out as you go but it is very important that you start. Uche is the founder of Nneka’s Candles, a business that manufactures and distributes scented candles and other fragrance items across Nigeria and beyond. She spoke with The Naira Haus about launching her business with a tweet, being hit by COVID-19, managing production alone, and, at the core, owning a candle brand in Nigeria.
What’s your first ever experience with entrepreneurship?
It was a Shea Butter business I started with a friend in 2018. I learned to make shea butter in 2017 while serving in Kebbi State, and I returned to Lagos with a lot of raw shea butter and an idea to start a business. I spoke with a friend and we did the branding and brainstormed marketing. Unfortunately, the business did not last very long because we couldn’t figure out a sustainable supply source.
Did you start another business right after this?
I got a job in the art industry soon after, worked for about six months, then quit to apply for a master’s degree. I discovered scented candles while working. I was fascinated by them but never really pursued the idea until I came across a DIY video on Instagram showing how to make a scented candle. That was what piqued my interest. It seemed really easy to make but oh boy, it is not what it seems lol.
After that video, I began my research, watched more YouTube videos, read articles, and finally started looking for where to buy supplies in Lagos. That wasn’t easy. All the information I got on Google kept directing me to Ojota market. So, one day, I dressed up and went to check out the market. I found most of what I was looking for and started practicing. Then my Master’s program came through and candle-making had to take a back seat.
But school also gave me an opportunity to try out my candles with coursemates (who were really helpful in my product development). I’d take samples to them and they’d tell me what they thought about it and I’d go back and keep trying. I finished my program in 2019 and started thinking about starting a business but I was not yet confident in myself. So, I reached out to my friends that had started their own businesses, asked for their advice, and they told me something I’ll always give other people that ask me for advice: Just start, you’ll figure things out as you go but it is very important that you start. So, in January 2020 I launched the business with a tweet.
Gift boxes by @Nneka’s Candles
Tell me about that tweet that launched your business.
I did not have any candles in stock when I made that tweet, just pictures of candles I had made a while ago. I tweeted that I had twelve slots available for the candles and asked people to DM me if they were interested. I DMed my friends to retweet it and they did. A lot of people showed interest and I ended up making twenty-five candles instead of twelve. I’m really grateful to my first customers; they trusted me with their money at the time and they were mostly strangers and friends of friends.
When I got the money, I made the candles and delivered them a few days later. I kept in touch with my customers every step of the way, letting them know I wasn’t going to run away with their money lol.
That’s interesting. Did you face any roadblocks handling those first orders?
I didn’t charge enough for deliveries. So, I ended up handling deliveries myself and running at a loss. I had that issue because it was difficult to find a reliable dispatch person who lived close by and would not charge so much for deliveries. Anyway, I got wiser after that experience. I found a reliable dispatch person in September of 2020 and we’ve been working together since then. 2020 was the year of the pandemic and the lockdown started a few months after I launched.
How did you keep your business alive during the lockdown? I mean, at this point you already have customers that need to be in the know about things like new products and all. So, how did you stay present in the mind of existing and potential clients?
I am going to be really honest, I wasn’t present at all lol. I had run out of supplies right as the lockdown was starting and I couldn’t work until it was lifted. I had to take a long break because the lockdown was really difficult for me.
So, instead of worrying about customers, I focused more on research, trying to figure out what I could do to make better products and other things I could make with fragrance. I read a lot during this period about other successful candle businesses; the kind of products they made, how long it took for them to get where they were at the time, etc. I learned so much and that period shaped my life.
One important thing I had to learn then was patience. I was going to have to be patient if I wanted to be successful. Patience is one virtue I have also learned from the process. There is a lot of waiting in the production process and waiting requires patience. So, I fully started building a customer base after the lockdown. I returned from the lockdown with a small rebrand. I changed my vessels and my stickers and approached the business with increased fervor.
Building with patience. I respect that. Why did you choose the name, Nneka’s Candles?
Nneka means Mother is supreme and it is a pet name my mother calls me when she annoys me or when she needs a favor. I love the name. I’m originally named Uche, after my maternal grandmother, so I guess it kind of made sense that my mother also named me Nneka. I decided to use Nneka’s Candle Co instead of Uche’s because I love Nneka more.
“ Sometimes I tell my friends that a candle is like wine. You know when people say “the older the berry, the sweeter the wine”? For candles, it is “the longer the cure time, the nicer the candle. „
Lovely. What’s your process for creating a product?
Lol when people ask me this question, I usually say, “you melt the wax, fix the wick in your container, add fragrance to your wax, and then pour it.” But it is a lot more complicated than that.
You need to consider a lot of things when you are making a candle. My most important factor in candle making is Temperature; the room and jar temperature, the temperature for melting wax, pouring fragrance, pouring wax into the jar, and curing the candles. Temperature can make or break your candle.
Now, my process involves:
- Getting supplies (this usually takes about two to three days, depending on the supplier).
- Preparing my workspace. It is very important to me that my workspace is clean and organized before I start production. If it isn’t, I will be very uncomfortable and that can put a damper on production day.
- Then I prepare my supplies, jars, wicks, wax, color, and fragrance.
- Next, I make the candles and let them sit for about eighteen hours before I clean up spills, smoothen the surface with a heat gun and label the candles.
- Then I let them cure for about seven to ten days. This is a very important step because cure time influences the cold and hot throw of the candle. The cold throw is the scent experience you get when you first open a candle jar (i.e how the candle smells without being lit). And the hot throw is how it smells when it’s been lit. Sometimes your candle may have a very good cold throw but a weak hot throw. This is where the cure time comes in. Sometimes I tell my friends that a candle is like wine. You know when people say “the older the berry, the sweeter the wine”? For candles, it is “the longer the cure time, the nicer the candle”.
- Finally, I announce on social media that I have restocked candles.
Respect. Meaning it could take over a week to make multiple product batches. That’s quite some work. Do you currently have a team?
Oh no, I don’t have a production team. I have people to help me with delivery, product photography, and social media (sometimes) but I do production myself. It might seem overwhelming but I pace myself. I have a system where I make the candles in batches of thirty to forty (it takes at most a month to sell out a batch of 30 candles). So, I have a production week once a month. I also do custom orders sometimes (usually bulk orders), but I let my clients know how much time it would take to get their orders ready and delivered, and they are usually okay with that.
There are two things I noticed and completely love about your products: you make multi-scented candles and your products are named after people. How did making multi-scented candles come to life? And did you always set out with the vision of naming your products after people?
Oh lmao, there’s an entire back story to the multi-scented candle and it’s the only one named after someone. For the other candles named after people, I did that for product promotion. I noticed people liked customizing candles with the names of their friends and lovers, and I got the idea to offer bulk custom candles. So, if people wanted to gift their friends or coworkers candles with their names inscribed, they knew they had that option.
About the multi-scented Sayo candle, I used to have this system where I put all the leftover wax from making different sets of candles in one jar for my own use. So one day I tweeted about my candle getting to the layer that smelled like bubble gum and my friend Sayo replied to the tweet. We had this whole conversation about making a candle that had different layers with different scents and selling it. So I did it and tweeted it and it got a lot of interactions on Twitter (still my most viral tweet to date lol). I decided to name it after the friend that inspired me to sell a multi-scented candle. The Sayo candle remains my best seller to date.
Brilliant. Have you ever turned down a client?
Yes, I have. I had worked with this client before and they came back several times to get several invoices but never ended up buying. One time, they asked for a discount after I had already given a discount. It wasn’t bad that they asked for a discount but they then mentioned they knew someone that was offering an even lower price than I was. So I told them it would help us both if they went to the person that was offering the lower price. A few months later, they came back to ask for an invoice and I told them I did not think I could work with them. I honestly wasn’t ready to do the usual back and forth with them.
Sayo by Nneka’s Candles
Let’s talk about money for a bit. Where did you get the initial capital?
My initial capital came from my first customers. But after I made a loss, I had to dip into my savings to recover from that experience. Subsequently, I had to rely on the bank of mum and dad (lol) for a while before things became more stable.
Haha (@ bank of mum and dad). How have you managed your finances since then?
I did another big rebrand in 2021. This time I changed my vessel size and packaging and had a proper system. I also increased my price. And that made things a lot better. Also, I was working with my dad and earning a little salary. So, the money from that was going into my little fragrance experiments lol.
I also recently got a financial advisor and my finances are less of a mess than they’ve been. Managing my business finances has been a big struggle for me since I started, I had to learn the hard way.
As a business owner, especially in Nigeria, I’m sure you’ve faced some challenges. What are some major challenges you’ve faced in business?
Ugh, yes I have. My biggest challenge is getting supplies. I’ve been playing safe with my supplies, buying from retailers, and having limited options. If I had ventured into importing my own supplies, I would have more options. But the one time I tried to import my supplies, I paid double the cost of supplies on import duties. Lol, I cried hot tears. Sometimes I run out of supplies and the retailers also run out and I have to wait until the retailers restock before I can continue with production. It’s all so frustrating.
Another problem I face is marketing. A lot of people do not know what scented candles are, so I have to work twice as hard to educate people about scented candles and how beneficial they are. And the economy is not letting people think scented candles are a necessity and trust me, with the stress we all go through in this country, they are very necessary.
Are there any government regulations and startup costs that create a barrier to entry in your field?
I’m not aware of any government regulations that pose a barrier at the moment. But startup costs might pose a barrier for some people that want to start candle businesses in Nigeria. Candle-making supplies can be really expensive sometimes.
And if you could get a gift that would change your business for the better, what would it be?
An electric wax melter! Lmao. I would really like an electric wax melter. I won’t have a problem using it because we almost always have light where I live. It would make my production process a lot easier and a lot more precise (temperature-wise).
“ I strongly believe in luck. But luck is pointless without money and hard work. „
Haha, tools definitely make business better. What’s one tool that has helped you a great deal in business?
Getting a Flutterwave store and a WordPress blog has helped me so much. The Flutterwave store helps me keep inventory and client records. So, when clients ask me what I have available, I send them a link to my store and they have the option to shop directly in the store or continue the conversation over DM. The store also contributes to people trusting my business. I’m not sure how to explain it but the business kind of has some credibility because it’s on Flutterwave.
I started blogging about candle-making in 2021. I mostly write about my process, challenges, and new product launches. Writing has helped me connect with candle makers and candle lovers around the world.
What’s something absolutely interesting about your brand that people don’t know?
Most people don’t know I do most of it alone. I’ve had people assume that I have a production team lol.
You could be doing a thousand other things right now. Why Nneka’s Candles?
Because I love nice fragrances. Always have, always will. And with Nneka’s Candle Co, I can love it, create it and influence people to like fragrances. I also get to make money doing what I love.
Love that. Which would you say makes a successful business: Luck, money, or hard work?
I think all three are important but I strongly believe in luck. I was lucky to experience scented candles when I did and to meet the friends and several other people that have supported my business to this point, but luck is pointless without money and hard work. That’s why I think a successful business needs all three.