Stackable concrete holders and natural wax pillar candles

February 04, 2020
Alex Sommer & Laura Keller
Concrete & Wax
candle holders
modular design
Revenue: $3000 / month
People working: 2

Tell us about yourself. What business did you start?

Hi! We are married design duo Alex Sommer and Laura Keller. We are both mid forties and live in a sixteenth century cottage with our 6 year-old Marley and slipper-snapper puppy Vesper in the Suffolk countryside. Alex is originally from Switzerland and Laura from the UK.

A collection of modular and stackable concrete holders and natural wax pillar candles

A collection of modular and stackable concrete holders and natural wax pillar candles

We worked for over two decades in the fashion industry, the last 15 of which through our creative consultancy 2Som Studio, designing and providing trend forecasts to many global casual and sportswear apparel brands.

In 2018 we decided to combine our creativity with a new focus and, after many months of development, launched CONCRETE & WAX, a collection of modular and stackable concrete holders and natural wax pillar candles. All are hand poured in our Suffolk workshop.

Our motivation was absolutely not to bring another candle company into an already saturated marketplace, but instead to deliver interesting and unique products that are built to last. The fact that all the holders are designed to fit any standard tealight as well as our candles is not just a design detail, it’s because we fully appreciate the fact that the concrete will always outlast the candle and, rather than our customers being tied to us to buy replacement candles, we wanted them to be able to pop in any standard tealight for all eternity. We also have minimal waste, source as locally as possible and keep our footprint as small as we can.

A collection of modular and stackable concrete holders and natural wax pillar candles

A collection of modular and stackable concrete holders and natural wax pillar candles

In the beginning we continued doing freelance consultancy, but have recently concentrated the majority of our time on CONCRETE & WAX in order to get our product to market and to build our customer base. We currently sell through our website and are stocked in a few menswear fashion retailers around the UK. We have a sales agent and so are also in discussions with quite a few more retailers, so it’s actually a very exciting time.

How did you come up with this idea? What’s your background story?

After our daughter was born, we knew that we needed a shift in career so that we travelled less. We batted around a few ideas over the years but never both felt equally passionate about one idea in particular. A close family illness at the start of 2018 meant Laura was away for long periods of time and in the evenings Alex distracted himself by tinkering with concrete in the garage - pouring interesting concrete creations into anything and everything - from recycled butter and fruit containers to mixing bowls (borrowed from the kitchen, but never-to-be returned). The results inspired Laura, when at home, to experiment with wax, believing that the two contrasting materials would work beautifully together.

After pouring a combination of concrete and wax for the first time into Pringles and Twiglet containers, it was like a ‘POW’ moment for us – we knew this was what we wanted to do. Of course these early creations didn’t work all that well in terms of candle functionality or product aesthetic, but we were inspired to develop the idea further and try and perfect our new-found crafts. Alex suddenly became Mr Concrete and Laura became Mrs Wax!

Alex’s love for modular, intelligent design in clothing transferred easily into the stackable, interchangeable collection of holders and candles that we have today. We love to think that our customers can put together their candle arrangement depending on their mood, in the same way they might pull together an outfit from their wardrobe.

Casting camouflage concrete

Camouflage concrete casting

Our hand poured camouflage concrete is something we are very proud of – and again it came about after a crazy "what if" conversation between us, which was followed by an awful lot of trial and error. Of course we had no idea when we started if people would actually buy our product, but we knew no-one else was doing anything quite like it in the market and the reaction we have had has been amazing.

How do you design and make your product?

It was only after we had the idea of creating CONCRETE & WAX that the hard work really began in terms of researching materials and manufacturing methods both for the concrete holders and the candles.

Concrete & Wax workshop in Suffolk

Concrete & Wax workshop in Suffolk

When the modular collection was designed on paper we searched out local craftsmen to make the prototypes for us, from which we could cast the moulds. Originally, a local carpenter formed both the concrete and candle prototypes from layered plywood. These horizontal layers transferred into the moulds (which we also hand pour in our workshop). We loved the texture the layers gave to the surface of the wax, but not the surface of the concrete. So we thought some more and then commissioned a local engineer to turn the prototypes from aluminium instead. The result was very smooth moulds which creates a smooth and luxurious concrete surface.

👉 Laura explains the process of finding the perfect candle wax and wicks:

In the beginning I really had no idea there were quite so many types of wax and wicks in the world. And I soon learnt that in the case of each and every individual size and fragrance of candle there is a long development process where quite often a lesson learnt in wicking one candle correctly is not a transferable lesson to the next. Needless to say I have massive respect for all successful chandlers out there and I’m not afraid to get on to forums (Candle Shack Community, /r/candlemaking, Candle Science) and ask for advice. It’s a sociable and friendly community, for which I am eternally grateful.

I knew from the outset that I wanted my pillar candles to be as eco as possible and not to drip, so the development process was long. I chose soy wax as my base, which is inherently a very soft wax (hence why it is most often used for container candles), but after experimenting and making literally hundreds of minutely different candles that combined different harder waxes with the soy in varying percentages, I discovered a sprinkling of beeswax was the ideal partner to strengthen the soy. But in order to perfect non-drip candles it’s still important to mention that beeswax sprinkling and wick choice can vary greatly between differently fragranced candles of the same size! Thankfully, however, I am a lover of spreadsheets - and my technical candle spreadsheet is epic!

👉 Alex explains how he found the perfect concrete recipe:

It took me quite a lot of experimentation to come up with the perfect concrete recipe. I tried various types of cements, sands, aggregates, but in the end found that ‘Snocrete’ (white cement) and pre-washed plastering sand gives me the texture and feel that I wanted to achieve after mixing. The smooth warm handle to the final concrete is down to my secret ingredient, which understandably I’m not really prepared to divulge.

After pouring the concrete, it sits in its mould for 2-3 days, before I remove it – which is the best moment because it’s only at this point that I can see the unique characteristics of each piece, due to tiny air bubbles forming during the initial drying process. I like the bubbles and the interest they create in the concrete surface, they give it its unique character.

A batch of concrete holders ready for getting cork feet and a natural protective coating

A batch of concrete holders ready to get cork feet attached and giving them a natural protective coating

My intention was never to mass-produce identical pieces, so this kind of manufacture makes me buzz. The concrete is then left to cure for two weeks before I lightly sand it, wash it, add our branded cork foot to the base and apply a natural waxed oil protective coating. It goes back on the shelf for another week. Then it’s good to go. The camouflage concrete is always the most fun to pour because Mrs Wax helps me with this, as it is a two-person job. As there is no exact science to our pouring technique, no two pieces are ever the same in pattern and we love that fact.

Describe how you launched the business.

We launched our website at the end of 2018, but with no marketing experience and only a rudimentary knowledge of Instagram, let’s just say we were not exactly inundated by sales, other than from a few kind friends and acquaintances.

Since then we have been slowly and surely building momentum, but neither one of us are particularly comfortable with trying to sell, we much prefer designing and making, but we are fully aware that we have to seriously up our game and step out of our comfort zone in order to make this business a success in the long term.

So far we have made baby steps in the right direction – our Instagram following is creeping upwards (and we have some greatly supportive insta-friends), we have received quite a lot of press coverage in the last few months and now have a continuous trickle of websales – and not just from friends anymore, but actually from people who we have never heard of!

Don't be afraid to get out there and show people what you do.

A funny story from the beginning: One Sunday at the beginning of 2019 we walked into a menswear independent store in Ipswich – Alex was actually looking for clothes. We started chatting with the owner (soon establishing that we had much history in common from our days working the fashion trade show circuit) and before long he was asking to see the collection. Two days later (and after two late nights planning out our wholesale pricing strategy) we turned up with some product in tow, gave a small presentation to explain the modular concept of the products and a week later were for sale in his store. He spoke to a couple of the sales agents who sold other brands to him, who no doubt spoke to other people and before long we had 3 agents vying to represent our brand! So I guess the moral of that story is not to be afraid to get out there and show people what you do.

How do you grow your business?

Over the last year we have learnt that no matter how much people love our concept and product, it is not the easiest to sell in a retail environment as the modular, stackable aspect needs to be explained to many to be understood - a lot of people get it from the outset, but not everyone. Obviously on our website it’s different because we have the space and time to explain. But taking this retail feedback on board we therefore are currently working on a very small new line of products (container candles and a diffuser) that complement our existing range and still fit the modular concept, but are an easier pick-up purchase. If all goes to plan they should also be a good introduction to our existing products, allowing add-ons in the future if-and-when the customer wants to experiment more with creating their own unique candleware stacks.

We love developing new, but also recognise that our collection is already pretty substantial and our focus at this stage needs to be on gaining brand recognition and sales. Occasionally we run paid ads on Facebook and Instagram, but they tend to bring followers rather than sales. Of course followers need to trust you before they ever consider buying from you, so these ads are good in terms of bringing new potential customers of the future for us to engage with and build relationships with now.

Our plan this year is to also get out on the front line more, selling at niche makers markets throughout the year and potentially also showing at a major trade show in the autumn. Selling through an agent and our website is all well and good, but hearing feedback directly from our customers mouths will prove invaluable.

How do you market your product?

Our mailing list is pretty healthy at this stage in our business – we’ve had quite a lot of organic subscriptions following social media posts and from a pop-up that appears on our home page. At the end of last year we also ran a couple of giveaways with magazines where anyone entering the competition could also opt-in to join our mailing list. So we feel a lot happier nowadays sending out newsletters and marketing to our mailing list knowing that we are talking to quite a lot of potential customers each time, but we don’t inundate our subscribers with emails. There’s nothing worse than marketing email overload from a brand. We only get in contact to tell them about new products, updates from the workshop and occasional special offers.

We try to post at least one story on social media a day, but only if we've got something interesting to share – no repetitive imagery. I mean how many times does someone want to see Laura stirring or pouring wax or Alex mixing concrete? Some days we’ll have more than 10 stories and others none at all. We update the feed when we feel we have good content to share. We should do it more often than we do, but there are only so many hours in the day.

We recently collaborated with an insta influencer (@kateyoungdesign), who in return for product has blogged about us on her award winning website and regularly shares our posts on her social media account, as well as creating her own to showcase our product in her space. We really couldn’t have dreamed of the positive exposure this would generate for us. It’s been and continues to be an invaluable collaboration.

In terms of gaining press coverage and building our database of press contacts the online platform PressLoft has been an absolute godsend. They offer a 2-month free trial which is a brilliant free resource to get your brand noticed as they have thousands of journalists and bloggers on their books. It is quite an expense to use on-going and we still need to see if it will prove cost effective in the long term, but for now we have no complaints having received coverage in more than 20 regional, national and international magazines/newspapers in the last 3 months alone and a load of potential lead up-coming.

When it comes to improving our SEO, this is high on the to-do list, but another steep learning curve to be mastered.

How do you keep your customers happy?

We actively encourage our customers to photograph and share what they've bought from us by including a personalised branded postcard with each order sent. Our customers really seem to enjoy doing this and have posted not only how they have styled and stacked the products they have bought from us, but many have also taken the time to make and post videos of the whole unwrapping process too. We spent a long time developing the way we would wrap and package our products – it takes time to wrap, but is beautiful - and every second of development-time has been thoroughly worth it to receive the wonderful reviews and feedback we have so far.

Aesthetically packaged Concrete & Wax

Beautifully designed Concrete & Wax packaging

As soon as we spot a tag on a post we share it as widely as possible across social media and thank whoever posted. Sometimes it even starts a conversation that leads to an insta-friendship. Obviously this is a great way of spreading the word about our brand, but it’s also incredibly heartwarming to see how others react when receiving our products as well of course as how they choose to style what they have purchased in their own unique ways.

What do you recommend to others who want to start a handcrafting business?

Definitely the advice would be that no matter how good the product you have (or think you have) getting it noticed is not as easy as you think and takes a hell of a lot of time and work (and money). We thought we were prepared, but we weren’t. We thought we’d launch our website and start selling. We didn’t. Building a brand takes time, dedication and – importantly – support. So if in doubt ask questions as there is always someone who can help. Be prepared to make mistakes – and when you do, learn from them and move forward. Don’t under-estimate the cost of shipping to your customers (and the time it takes to research all the different shipping options). Keep all avenues open as lucky opportunities can arise when least expected (just look at our Sunday shopping trip to Ipswich for example).

Know your costs, and we don’t just mean material costs.

Know your costs, and we don’t just mean material costs. It’s critical to be honest with yourself about the labour time involved. Luckily enough, even when faced with suddenly having to create a wholesale business pricing structure overnight, we had enough scope for movement in our margins – not on every item, but overall it’s workable. Every business has a loss-leading product and those ones you just have to take on the chin in order to price your product right for market.

When it comes to social media and trying to build up a following, this can easily become a major stress and frustration – it certainly was in the early days for us. Panicking about posting more and more to get noticed rather than concentrating on engaging content. We’re no experts at this end, but as soon as we stressed less about needing to post and the number of likes we got, we found it a lot easier to come up with interesting content. Also taking the time to chat with followers and build relationships has proven beneficial both in terms of sales, shares and ultimately our sanity.

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