Amanda Buhse & Tom Jansen (Coal & Canary)

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David Noël: Welcome to the Manitoba Business Podcast, featuring interviews with business leaders and entrepreneurs based in this great province. I’m David Noël.

Today’s interview features two guests for the price of one. And, while I don’t intend to diminish their hard work in any way, these guys are the closest thing to an actual overnight success story I’ve ever seen. Just over a year ago, they started making candles together as a hobby. Since then, their candles have been handled by some of the world’s biggest celebrities, and they fill orders for several thousand candles a month. In the interview, I do my best to dig into the mechanics of their breakout success.

I hope you enjoy this episode. If you do, please consider adding a review on iTunes. I would also encourage you to spread the word about this podcast—the website is

Without further ado, here are Amanda and Tom:

[to Amanda & Tom] Thanks so much for taking the time, guys.

Amanda: Yeah, thank you!

Tom: Our pleasure.

Amanda: We’re excited!

David: It’s cool to meet you. I guess for the benefit of the people listening, maybe let’s start off by just having you guys give the brief introduction of who you are and what you do.

Tom: Sure. We’re Coal and Canary Candle Company. My name is Tom.

Amanda: My name is Amanda.

Tom: We’re based here in Winnipeg and we do hand-poured, soy-vegetable-blend candles, and our candles feature a wide, crackling, wooden wick.

Amanda: Yeah. So we’ve only been around for about a year or so, but we’ve had some quick success I guess. So it’s been exciting!

David: Yeah. You guys just told me, before I started recording, that you do like thousands of candles a month, which is insane.

Amanda: Yes.

David: So you’ve been in business for a year and you do thousands of candles a month. And you guys do them all by hand, right?

Amanda: We do.

Tom: We do, yeah. We hand pour everything here in our studio in Winnipeg. Yeah, we started a year ago. We were ecstatic when we sold our first 12 candles, and it kind of just took off since then. We’re now in about a hundred retailers across Canada and the US, and yeah, we’re making about 10,000 candles a month for the holiday season…

David: Wild growth.

Tom: …and shipping them all over the country.

Amanda: Yes.

David: Okay, so there’s a lot to unpack there. I guess let’s start with, “What were you guys doing before you were candlemakers?

Tom: I was a registered nurse.

Amanda: And I was a full-time graphic designer.

David: Cool.

Amanda: Yeah.

Tom: So we both quit our full-time jobs about four months ago to pursue this full time, which is great.

Amanda: Yeah, yeah, it was pretty wild. I never though, a year ago, that I would be quitting my full-time career to pour candles for a living!

David: Right. Okay, so then let’s rewind a little bit. When you guys started this company, what was the plan? What was your ambition at that point?

Tom: It was really kind of an excuse to hang out more and both have that kind of creative outlet again.

David: Because you guys are just good friends, right?

Amanda: Yeah.

Tom: Yeah.

David: You guys have been good friends for a long time.

Amanda: Yeah.

Tom: Yeah, we’ve been friends for about 10 years and are both very creative people, but wanted to do something else creative and have that other creative outlet. So we started this as a hobby, to hang out more and to sell some candles to family and friends at Christmastime. We never really expected it to get to this level.

Amanda: Yeah, no. Yeah, it was pretty crazy. We were both working full time and Tom, again, had asked me just as a friend, “Hey, do you want to get together once a week? We can drink some wine and come up with these really fun candle names and ideas.” And I said, “Yeah! Sure! Why not?” So again, it just started totally as a hobby. It wasn’t meant to become this full-time career, where we’re making 10,000 candles a month.

David: So you guys would get together at each other’s houses and make candles.

Amanda: Yes.

Tom: Yeah, we started in a basement actually, Amanda’s. Well, in her kitchen to start, and then upgraded and moved to her basement for some more space. And then we’ve moved four times since then.

David: Wow.

Tom: So we’ve been growing really quickly.

Amanda: Yeah.

David: Okay. So you guys started it kind of as a hobby and you were giving or selling to your friends?

Tom: Well a little bit of both I guess, yeah.

Amanda: A little of both, yeah.

Tom: We got our first retailer maybe about a month after we started the business.

David: Were you looking for that? At that point, did you kind of decide, “Oh, maybe we should pursue this as a little side thing”?

Tom: It was a thought. I guess we didn’t really know the process of doing it at that time. The first retailer actually approached us through Instagram. We made an effort to get some really nice photos taken and get the branding of our company really on point before we approached any retailers. So it came just from posting our first photos on Instagram.

Amanda: Yeah.

David: Interesting. So you have this hobby but you’re like, “Oh, I might as well do an Instagram,” and you’re just posting pictures and a retailer inquired about whether they could sell your candles.

Tom: Yeah. I guess that’s the point that it really started to take off and we knew that it required more serious thought than what we were putting into it, and decided to make a business plan then and take it to the next level.

David: Cool. So what was the next step? You had one retailer. At that point, how many candles were you making for the one retailer?

Tom: Their first order was a dozen!

David: Awesome!

Amanda: We celebrated!

Tom: Yeah, we celebrated.

Amanda: Yeah, we thought we had made it. We went out for drinks. Yeah, we thought, “Wow. We’re in a retailer. This is so cool.”

David: Nice. So you blew the entire, 12-candle budget.

Amanda: Twelve-dollar budget. Yeah.

Tom: Yeah, like the $50 or whatever it was.

Amanda: Yeah, the $50 or whatever it was. Yeah, exactly.

David: Perfect!

Amanda: No, it was pretty exciting and hilarious, now looking back. But yeah, we kind of celebrate every little moment, I guess, as they come.

David: For sure.

Amanda: So yeah, it just multiplied really quickly after that. So once we were in our first one, again, Instagram was our number one selling tool from day one and we both knew that. I had worked in marketing and advertising agencies before, so marketing was always I guess my strong point and my passion. I always loved it, which is why I told him when he and I got together, he had the know-how of how to make the product, and I had the graphic design and marketing background.

So we kind of put our expertises together and then, yeah, created the company. So we did a bunch of market research and figured out who our demographic was going to be. And discovered and said, “Hey, everyone that is our customer is on Instagram. Let’s go after that market.” So it just kind of took off after that.

Tom: Right.

David: So it sounds like it was still just stuff kind of happening to you guys. Was there any point where you guys made a decision that you were going to pursue this as more than a hobby? Or was it just kind of things happening to you the whole time?

Tom: I think things are still just happening to us.

Amanda: Happening, yeah, yeah, it’s weird.

Tom: They happened just so quickly that we needed to quit our full-time jobs to keep up with it. But I’d say about 80% of our retailers approached us from finding us online. We haven’t really put any money into advertising or trying to get new retailers and things like that. Things kind of just seemed to happen. I feel like if you have a really strong product and a really strong brand, things will just fall into place for you, which is kind of what’s been happening for us.

Amanda: Yeah, and we’ve definitely worked really hard too!

David: Oh, for sure, yeah.

Amanda: So it’s kind of a mixture of I guess maybe luck, but then also really hard work.

David: Now, when you say “really hard work,” one of the things you mentioned is that you did some market research about who your demographic was going to be. And I assume, it kind of sounds like, from our conversation and from some stuff that I read beforehand, there was some thought going into how the business was going to proceed and who you wanted to target, how you were going to sell, what your marketing plan was going to be.

Amanda: Mm-hmm.

David: So it sounds like there was definitely some thought behind that. Would you say that you guys spent a lot of time? Or how would you balance the amount of time spent making candles in the early days, versus the amount of time that you thought about making candles? Or thought about how to get people to find out about your candles?

Tom: Well, I think as much as we say “things fell into place,” which they have, every decision we make is calculated.

Amanda: Mm-hmm. Definitely.

Tom: We do everything…

Amanda: For a reason.

Tom: …for a reason.

Amanda: Yeah, totally.

Tom: So now we spend a lot of time making the product, but every decision we make, every photo we post in Instagram, every new candle collection we come out with is very calculated to what is on trend and what our target market wants. So we do spend a lot of time still thinking of new things to do and how to better promote ourselves, and how to get better reach on social media and how to really appeal to our target customer.

David: So one example, a kind of obvious example of something where you guys put some thought into how you wanted to proceed, and then something crazy happened to you guys, is the whole Grammy…

Amanda: Yeah, Oscars.

David: Swag bag thing.

Tom: Yeah.

Amanda: Yeah.

David: So I’ve read a bit about that, but maybe you guys could tell the story about what happened there.

Amanda: Sure. Tom and I had gotten together obviously as our little hobby, to hang out once a week. And we first went into our first retailer we thought, “You know what? This is actually something that apparently people want.” And now that there’s a little bit of money involved, we thought, “You know what? Maybe we should sit down and write a business plan.” So while we had the time, we sat down and…

In the business plan, they had asked, “What are your long-term goals?” So we sat around and talked a lot about it. And I guess before that, we hadn’t really thought at all about what the future looked like, because again, it was more just a hobby. So us being dreamers and big thinkers, we said, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if in five years we did something like the Junos? Or like being in the gift bag for something local and Canadian, that would be so amazing!”

Then we said, “Maybe after that, like in 10 years’ time, we do something even bigger like the Grammys or the Oscars.” Obviously, we kind of laughed and said, “We’re just this small town, Winnipeg-based company making candles in my kitchen! So the likelihood of that happening is very small.” But we said, “You’ve got to dream big,” and so that was our plan.

Anyway, a couple of weeks after that, I had done a bunch of research online and came across the company who was hired on by the Grammys and Oscars to put the bags together. I just sent them an email, and by then we had taken the time to get professional photographs taken. I had designed the website. We had all these branding materials in place, so we kind of felt confident with the product we had put out there already.

Even though we were so new, I just said, “Hey, this is our product. This is our website, what we do, who we are, where we’re from. What is the process in five years to be considered even, like to apply to be considered in these bags?”

David: Right.

Amanda: Sent the email. Didn’t expect a response. Didn’t get a response for a while. One day, Tom was over at my house and we got an email in our inbox from them, like two or three weeks later. And they said, “We know you didn’t officially apply, but you just happened to send us an email at the right time, when we were going over all of our product submissions.” They receive thousands from all over the world. And they said, “We actually would love to offer you the spot in both the Grammys and the Oscars as the exclusive home decor product and we want it now.” So they said, “Would you be able to do that? We think it’s unique and that the celebrities would really love it. Do you want to do it?”

Tom: Crazy.

Amanda: So we kind of freaked out and said, “Sure!”

David: Okay.

Amanda: So it was pretty crazy, yeah. Since then it’s kind of skyrocketed.

David: No kidding.

Amanda: Yeah.

David: So that was how many months in, you said?

Tom: That was like…

Amanda: Three.

Tom: …two months in.

Amanda: Two or three months.

Tom: Yeah, two or three months in.

Amanda: Yeah, into the business.

David: Okay. And was the Grammy order your biggest order to date?

Amanda: Oh, yeah.

Tom: Yeah, it was something. We produced an exclusive item that we haven’t produced since. We did a boxed set of three votive candles, just exclusive to that event.

David: Cool.

Tom: So that was a lot. We needed about 400 sets, so that was about 1200 candles. We’ve produced orders that have been similar in size but not the same.

Amanda: Yeah. At that time of the business, it was pretty…

Tom: Yeah, it was a lot of work.

Amanda: It was a lot of time. And the way that we were producing the candles at that time was very, I don’t know…

Tom: It was more suitable to smaller companies, I would say.

Amanda: Yeah. Yeah.

Tom: Since then we’ve made some changes to the way…

Amanda: Yeah.

Tom: The amount of candles we can produce in a certain amount of time.

David: Right.

Amanda: Yeah, yeah.

Tom: Now it would be an easier order to fill, but at that time, it was a huge undertaking for us.

Amanda: Definitely.

David: Crazy.

Amanda: Lots and lots of late nights and little sleep!

Tom: Yeah!

David: So what happens when your product is featured in a gift bag at the Grammys? What was the fallout from that? What kind of attention did you receive? How did that affect your orders, etc.?

Tom: You get a really great amount of promotion from them in national media, international media, magazines, the news, things like that. Our product was on Good Morning America. It was in some major magazines, things like that. Celebrity endorsement is complicated, so nothing really directly from the celebrities. But the clout of having done the events got us a lot of business, especially within Canada.

We were featured in the Globe and Mail twice. A lot of retailers had heard about things through different articles that bloggers did and things like that, so we got a lot of new stores from doing those events.

Amanda: Yeah. So pretty much after that, like in the months following, pretty quickly we went from being in two or three locations to over a hundred.

David: Wow.

Amanda: And now we sell in countries outside of Canada, like we’re in the USA. We’re in Hong Kong, with interest in other possible countries as well, besides that.

David: Wow. So sorry, you just said it, but my brain didn’t work properly. How many retail locations are you in now?

Tom: About a hundred now.

Amanda: About a hundred.

David: Wow.

Tom: Mainly across Canada. We’re in a handful in the States and in Hong Kong as well. But the majority of our business is within Canada.

Amanda: Mm-hmm.

David: Wow. So a hundred retail locations. And the orders, I imagine, are bigger than 12 for the most part these days?

Amanda: Yes!

Tom: Yeah, we have since then put a minimum order in place. But yeah, they all vary, but we sell out in most of our locations really quickly.

David: Wow.

Amanda: Yeah, we’re always just trying to keep up because people just sell out so quickly. It’s just crazy. And we get retailers, all the time, emailing us, saying like, “I’ve never seen a product sell out this fast.” People are just obsessed with them and they can’t figure it out. They’re like, “It’s just bizarre.”

David: Cool!

Amanda: But we’ll take it!

David: Yeah. No kidding! Do you do direct, online sales as well?

Amanda: Yes.

Tom: We do, yeah. We have an e-commerce site as well. We ship internationally. So we do get orders from across the world through that as well.

David: Cool.

Amanda: Yeah. And then we also do some private label candles as well on the side, just for specific, larger corporations and businesses.

David: Oh, interesting!

Amanda: Yeah!

David: Is it very heavily weighted toward the business coming from the retailers? Or does the website actually have a pretty big chunk as well?

Tom: The majority of our business comes from wholesale. We are working on increasing our e-commerce as well. But yeah, I would say about 80% comes from wholesale.

Amanda: Yeah.

David: Cool.

Amanda: And then, at this time of year, obviously, it increases for the holidays.

Tom: Yeah.

David: Right.

Amanda: But we do have an okay amount of business that comes through our e-commerce site. But yeah, no, I would definitely say most of it is from wholesale.

David: Crazy!

Amanda: Mm-hmm.

David: So you started your hobby, a few months later you’re the Grammy gift bags. Has it kind of been a steady growth since then? Or do you feel like it’s kind of plateauing? Or are you still on the beginning?

Tom: I think it’s been pretty exponential. We get more and more business every day and it seems to grow faster and faster.

Amanda: Yeah.

Tom: Which is exciting. That’s what any business wants. So we’re just really trying to keep up and doing our best. We’re growing so quickly that you need to learn how to grow quickly and you don’t want to not be able to deliver, so it’s been really trying to figure out the best way to proceed and the smartest way to proceed to keep growing quickly.

David: Interesting. Have there been any other kind of watershed moments like that? I mean, obviously the Grammy one seems like a pretty important moment in the life of the business. Have there been other moments like that? Where you’re like, “Whoa! This is moving faster than we anticipated!”

Amanda: This month, this week actually. It’s really interesting timing.

Tom: Yeah!

Amanda: Just yesterday we were featured in Cameron Diaz’ Holiday Gift Guide, our website.

David: Oh, wow!

Amanda: Called, “The Body Book.” And then today, we were one of the few products featured in WestJet Magazine.

David: Oh, cool!

Amanda: With their Holiday Gift Guide, so it’s going to be in all the WestJet airplanes that fly all over the world. And then we have a special thing coming up this Thursday that’s on national TV that we can’t announce just yet.

David: Oh, wow!

Tom: Yeah.

David: Wow, cool! Good for you guys!

Amanda: Yeah, so I mean, that, and it all just kind of happened very, very suddenly, and it all happened within a very small, like, couple of days. So yeah, things are just kind of skyrocketing I guess, pretty quickly.

David: Now with the Grammy example, you sent off an email, Amanda, and you maybe thought it was a long shot, but you were still taking some action there. With these others, like the events that are happening this week for example, or the exposure that you guys got this week, are you putting work into that? Are you still sending out feelers regularly? Or is this something that came to you guys because of word of mouth? How does that work?

Tom: Yeah, it’s funny. All three of those opportunities came to us.

Amanda: Came to us.

Tom: We didn’t inquire about any of them. We just got an email saying, “We would love to feature you in this gift guide. We think your product is great.”

David: Wow!

Amanda: Yeah.

Tom: Yeah, so it’s amazing what social media can do and the reach that you can get from it.

David: So forgive me, but what is different about your product? Why is it something that isn’t a commodity candle that you can buy at Walmart?

Amanda: Right. Right.

Tom: Yeah. Our whole goal, when producing this product, was to not have a candle that you can go to Kmart and pick up off the shelf.

Amanda: Right.

Tom: We want to have a story behind it. We always want to maintain the face of the brand as well, so that when you buy a Coal and Canary candle, you know where it came from. You know who poured it. You know the story behind it. You’ve kind of got the behind-the-scenes picture to it, and you can really connect to it.

When you buy a candle off the shelf, you go and they’re all relatively generic. You buy a vanilla candle. You buy a sandalwood candle. We wanted to do something that’s different, that really targets our demographic, keeps it young and keeps it fresh and fun. So we really like to do fun, interesting, and cheeky names for the candles, that are kind of off the wall and you wouldn’t really expect from a candle company.

David: Yeah.

Tom: So that has been a huge selling feature for us too.

Amanda: Yeah, and then to add to that, I would say definitely that our whole motto has been that we want our candles to be an attainable luxury, mostly for our generation. Because a lot of people aren’t making the kind of money that their parents are, but we tend to have expensive tastes and want a lot.

David: Sure.

Amanda: And Tom and I are kind of in that boat and we said, “Just because we are young and like the better things in life doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to buy something that’s like that.” So our candles all, even though we have fun, cheeky names, and we like to appeal to a younger demographic, they are made with the highest quality ingredients. And we definitely put so much care into each and every candle that we make.

Our quality control is very high. We make sure we go over absolutely every single candle before it goes into the box for shipping and make sure it’s perfect. We use a high quality soy-vegetable blend wax, so it’s a really creamy wax that fills your entire room up with a fragrance, without being perfumey or overpowering. They won’t give you a headache like some cheaper candles will.

And we chose to use the wide, wooden wick for all of our candles. It was something that is really popular in Australia with some candle companies, but there’s not as many candle companies doing it here in Canada.

David: Okay.

Amanda: So we thought, “That’s kind of different, unique, and let’s jump on the bandwagon.” It’s definitely been, I would say, one of the bigger selling features of our product. People just love it. It adds that extra auditory sense that other candles don’t have.

David: Right.

Amanda: So that’s also been part of it too.

David: Now even in sort of the premium candle niche, I expect that there are other companies that are interested in using premium ingredients, etc. So at that point, would you say that what is setting you apart is basically your brand? Have you put any thought into the way you guys are positioned relative to the rest of the market? Is that something that affects your strategy? Or do you not worry about it?

Tom: There are another few candle companies in Canada that are doing really, really cool things. But our standpoint has always been like, “Brand first.” We want to be a lifestyle company. We want to have our brand speak volumes and connect with our customer. And it’s more than just the candles, right?

Amanda: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Tom: So when people buy a Coal and Canary Candle, they get access to the Coal and Canary lifestyle. They know the behind the scenes. They know where it came from. They know the story. So it’s an extra special touch I think that goes into the product too. It’s knowing about it and being able to connect with the product too.

David: Sure.

Amanda: Yeah. Brand has always been, I would say, very top of mind in every decision that we make and everything that we do. Every little thing that we choose to do with our company, like I believe brand is absolutely everything, everything you touch. It’s not even just your logo. It’s your work environment. It’s everything. So we definitely try to make a really strong effort to make sure that everything is cohesive and I think that’s been part of the success too. We’ve had a lot of people say that. And I think that also just furthers the high quality and yeah, just the brand, and elevates it in general.

And I would definitely say that it has been part of our success also. Because we’ve had people come to craft shows and we’ve run out of a certain scent that they really like. They will just say, “I’ll take anything. Just give me whatever you have, because I need to have it in my home.” That to me was almost like a “We made it” moment, only because the brand is selling the candle. The candle isn’t selling itself.

David: Right. Right. So it’s not like they come and it’s like, “Oh, you don’t have the candle that I want. Well, I’ll just get a different alternative.”

Tom: Yeah.

Amanda: Yeah. Especially because candles are typically…

Tom: Sold based on scents.

Amanda: …sold based on the scent and the fragrance of it.

David: Right.

Amanda: That’s typically what the candle is. So to have someone say — and we’ve had multiple people just say — “I don’t care. I’ll just take whichever you have, just because I need it in my house, just for my friends to see, or whatever.” That to me was kind of mind-boggling.

David: Do you still spend a lot of time selling face to face with people?

Amanda: Yes.

Tom: We do. We do a lot of the shows ourselves. We always like to represent the product with the two of us there, as we want to maintain the face of the company too. So we do a lot of markets and things like that. This summer, we did a Western Canada trip, so we drove from Winnipeg to Vancouver and did a bunch of cold-calling to new retailers, and met our existing stockists, and kind of put a face to the name and sold our product. We got about 25 new stores from going across the country. We stopped in every little town on the way for two weeks, so that was really exciting as well.

Amanda: Yeah.

Tom: And we love doing that face-to-face connection. It really sells the product and we feel like we can represent Coal and Canary really well.

Amanda: And I feel like nowadays that that is something that I think our generation is guilty of, with technology being so prevalent and everything is done online. You don’t really need to leave your house ever to do anything.

David: Right.

Amanda: And we wanted to try to avoid that. Obviously we do sell online and in other retailers, but we always try our hardest to establish the relationship with all of our clients and all of our customers. And I think our whole strategy also has been that we want to be best friends with everyone that we know, like that is kind of our standpoint. We like to have fun. We like to not take ourselves too seriously. Even though we take our product seriously, our whole mandate has been just to have fun and to try and get that personal connection with absolutely everyone that we come in contact with.

David: Right. I’ve spoken to some other business founders who have experienced breakout success in consumer niches. And actually, what you guys are saying kind of parallels what they said in the sense that there is a lot of value in having that face-to-face connection with your customers.

Amanda: Mm-hmm.

David: Now, one of the factors that I’ve heard from others is that a piece of that value is that you get direct feedback from your customers and you can learn things really quickly. Has that been something that you guys have experienced? Has there been sort of you learn what people like, what people don’t like? Have you made any changes to the product, based on your relationships with customers?

Tom: Oh, for sure. Like doing these shows is really the only time that we can connect face to face with our customers and hear their opinions and hear their thoughts. When we sell online or when people buy from one of our retailers, we don’t get to see that experience. We don’t get to see them pick up a candle and smell it and really love it, or smell it and think that there could be some changes made to it. So we definitely take every piece of advice we get from our customers and learn from it and make changes. But I would say, generally, almost all of the response has been extremely positive.

Amanda: Positive, yeah.

Tom: People love our candles. They love the scents. They think it’s a really cool and unique product, so it’s really nice to be able to see them in person and see their reaction to the product.

Amanda: Yeah, and it’s good too, because whenever Tom and I are coming out with a new collection, or we’re brainstorming new ideas, I think in the back of our mind, we think of all those people that we had met, and we think, “What would they want? What does that person want?” It just really helps you to identify your target market and that information is priceless, so it’s so important and we definitely try and think of that whenever we’re working on new stuff.

David: Now Tom, you mentioned earlier a bit about that in the beginning you were kind of hobbyists and that your process wasn’t really suited to larger production runs. How has the process changed since then?

Tom: We’ve gotten a commercial wax melter, which has been life-saving.

Amanda: Mm-hmm!

Tom: Before we were melting the wax in three-pound blocks in a little pot on a double boiler. It took us about an hour to pour seven candles, so when we got an order of 1200 for the Grammys and Oscars, you can imagine how much time that took!

David: No kidding!

Tom: But now we can melt large amounts of wax. The process is still the same. We still hand pour every candle the same way we did. We still mix all the scents ourselves, and things like that, but we can actually melt the wax faster and in larger quantities so we can pour candles faster.

Amanda: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s also just challenging, like Tom was saying. It’s that constant, learning-as-you-go process. And obviously, as quantities go up, it kind of effects every part of the business. The overhead costs get higher. We had to move four times to make sure we can accommodate the amount of candles that we need to produce.

You’re constantly ordering more supplies and just trying to play the guessing game of, “Okay. How much wax are we going to need next month?” And it’s always substantially more than what we had done the previous month, so just trying to stay up on top of that. And again, learning as you go is part of the challenge, but it’s also kind of exciting.

David: In general, what have been some of the biggest lessons in the past year?

Tom: I think knowing that we can’t do everything ourselves, that we can’t be jack of all trades. We’re really good at what we’re good at, but being able to let go and let other people do what they’re good at to help you out has been insane.

Amanda: Mm-hmm! Definitely!

Tom: So yeah, like little things from helping us with all the legal aspects of business, or the bookkeeping, or the human resources, that kind of stuff, is let people who are good at what they do help you out. And don’t be ashamed to ask for help.

Amanda: Yeah, I would agree with that. And again, even everything down to our social media, Tom and I love to do it all. And so that’s, I think, and we’re control freaks, so it’s hard at first to kind of let go of that control. But again, like our social media, we love doing it, but we have an amazing intern who is doing it for us until December.

David: Cool.

Amanda: And we hope to continue that relationship with her and hire her on as a member of our team. But she’s been valuable, so valuable. And again, she is an expert at what she does. It’s just, again, telling yourself, let the experts be your expert.

Tom: Yeah.

David: Right. So I guess that leads naturally to another question I was going to ask. Obviously at the beginning it was just the two of you. Now you mentioned you have an intern. Is there anyone else who is part of the Coal and Canary family?

Amanda: Yeah.

Tom: We do, yeah. We have a full-time employee who is phenomenal. We love her. She is a huge benefit to us.

Amanda: Mm-hmm. Yeah!

Tom: We have also had part-time employees that have worked with us in the past. Yeah, and we have our social media expert. There’s lots of people that are in the Coal and Canary team. That’s for sure, from doing photography, to doing videos, to, yeah, all aspects.

Amanda: There are so many different aspects.

Tom: We have a lot of friends that…

Amanda: And family!

Tom: …that are part of the Coal and Canary team. Yeah.

David: Cool!

Amanda: Family is great!

David: Yep, for sure.

Amanda: But we are looking to hire, and again, just to continue expanding in the new year. We have some, I guess, exciting goals that we still want to achieve and that are ever-changing. And we hope to continue expanding and to hire and grow our family as well.

David: So I’m almost afraid to ask this, because the gift bag was a 5- or even 10-year goal and it happened in 3 months.

Tom: Yeah!

David: But what’s the next 5- or 10-year goal?

Tom: I think really expanding on an international level as well. We sell a lot in Canada and a lot of the Canadian market knows our product and knows who we are. There’s obviously still room to expand in Canada, but we would love to touch some markets around the world — the Australian market, more in the United States, in Europe as well. So doing that is a huge goal of ours. We want to travel across the country this year as well and do more of the trade shows and the markets, and really represent our product around the country.

Amanda: Yeah, we love to be known as one of the best known Canadian candle companies on the market in Canada for sure.

Tom: Yeah.

Amanda: And right now it’s interesting, like when you ask someone, “What’s the most well-known candle company right now in Canada?” A lot of people don’t know what to say. They don’t have an answer. They’re like, “I don’t know.” It’s interesting. And if you go to the States, it’s easier. People say, “Oh, Yankee Candle,” or whatever. The other countries seem to have that company. And Canada, we have amazing companies and brands, candle companies, but there’s not really one that just stands out. We want to be that brand. We want to be… Or at least one of those brands for sure. So I would say that’s also part of the goal.

Tom: Yeah, I think too, doing more high profile events. We would love to somehow get involved again with some gift bags, or doing celebrity events, and actually traveling to promote our products at these events is a huge goal of ours too.

Amanda: Mm-hmm. Yeah, definitely. And also I would say continue with our philanthropic efforts. We’re also very much into helping charities. We’ve teamed up with two charities in the past, which is important to us as well. With all the success, you know, we also want to make sure we give back to our community. It’s important to us.

David: For sure.

Amanda: So that’s something that we would like to continue doing in some way as well.

David: Very cool. What kind of charity stuff have you guys done? How does that work?

Tom: We recently did a custom candle for Cystic Fibrosis Canada.

David: Oh, neat!

Tom: So we created them their own private label candle, where $10 from every sale goes directly to the charity. So we sell that online in our e-commerce store, and Cystic Fibrosis Canada sells that across Canada, throughout their offices. So it’s a really great initiative that we started with them.

David: Awesome.

Tom: It’s had a lot of success so far. We started it just a few months ago, but hoping that it takes off a lot this next year.

Amanda: Yeah, definitely, definitely.

David: Very cool. Good for you guys!

Amanda: Thank you!

David: Circling back to what you were saying before about expanding internationally… And if you guys want to keep this closer to the chest, that’s fine. But what does the strategy look like for that? Is it purely you guys flying over to Australia or wherever? And pounding the pavement?

Amanda: Sure!

Tom: Hah! That would be great. Maybe one day!

Amanda: Maybe. Maybe.

Tom: I just think there is a lot that you can do online, with targeting your sales towards different markets. Even from the times of day that you post your photos on Instagram, things like that, you can target different markets.

David: Oh, interesting.

Tom: Yeah! So you can definitely break into other markets from our own front yard.

Amanda: Yeah. And even though a lot of the opportunities that we received in the last year have come to us, we definitely do outreach as well. We definitely send emails, do cold-calling, how we went across Canada. We definitely make a big effort as well to try and garner new business that we really want to have, which has also provided some opportunities as well. But yeah, like potentially maybe working with distributors in other countries, we’re kind of open to different ideas. We’re tossing around some options and ideas at the moment as well.

David: Very cool.

Amanda: Yeah!

David: Just circling back to this too, in terms of the cold-calling, and the emails and stuff, how are you… I mean, obviously there’s a ton of retailers you could potentially be in. And you mentioned before that you researched your demographic and stuff like that. But how are you narrowing down the list of the people that are worth calling, the people that you guys consider the high value targets?

Tom: I think we really target our sales to brands that are similar to us, that understand our product, that have our same target demographic. Those companies are really easy to find on Instagram.

Amanda: Yeah.

Tom: So our target client is young, is fresh, loves to use social media, and the stores that they shop at also love to use social media.

Amanda: Yeah, it’s pretty interesting. Actually, I think it’s mind-blowing. I never quite realized the power of Instagram in particular for a product-based business until we started Coal and Canary. It’s fascinating how much free information is on there, that is there for you to utilize if you put the time in.

It’s so easy, like we can easily click on any of our followers that are customers of ours. And if you just scroll through their Instagram, they post photos all the time of the photos of the outfits that they’re wearing and where they bought it from. Or they will be tagging their favorite stores in their photos, and we’ll just easily click on those stores and just start liking their photos and start messaging back and forth. It just kind of happens naturally too sometimes that way. Or vice versa, they will do the same and find us.

Tom: Yeah, for retailers that are looking for a specific product, if you do #candles, or whatever, you can easily find our product online. And it’s for people who are looking to buy, they can easily have access to our product, which is very cool as well.

Amanda: I would also say, like different websites like Yelp, or even Google, is such a great resources. Again, all those free resources. It’s just I think being creative in how to find them and thinking kind of outside the box a little bit, and not being too literal. And yeah, Tom and I will talk all the time about different ways we think we can try and find a certain niche market. Or how do we get in to talk to that person? And we’ll somehow find a way to get there. It’s been really interesting and fun.

David: What does that look like? I mean, I do that sometimes too, specifically targeting someone you want to talk to and then working your way in. Can you think of any — not necessarily specific examples — but maybe strategies that you guys have used to make your way in?

Tom: I think once we find stores… Like again, Instagram is our most powerful selling tool. You have access to beautiful photos of our product, that are all cohesive, that all fit with our brand, that all evoke the lifestyle we’re trying to evoke, so if a retailer clicks on our page, they have access to all this information that is beautifully presented to them, in a way that we couldn’t present to them necessarily by email, or by phone call, or even in person.

Amanda: Yeah.

Tom: So it’s the ultimate resource.

David: I see. So even just using social media to kind of get your foot in the door is often a good first step.

Tom: Yeah. And it’s a matter of liking their page, and going through and liking some of their photos, to kind of get that exchange going. Then they will come to your page, like some of your photos, and then if they want to purchase, they will comment on one of the photos, asking for wholesale information, or getting in contact with us by email. We have our website and our email listed on our Instagram, so it’s really easy to get hold of us.

Amanda: Yeah. And I would say to add on to that too, even other opportunities. We’ve done other things where I would be trying to be creative and reaching them from a third party perspective is looking up bloggers, and style bloggers in particular, that use Instagram and have a huge following, like over 150,000 followers. We will sometimes partner with them or collaborate and send them product or whatever.

They will post about it, and immediately your product is now being shown to over 150,000 people, that you wouldn’t have had access to. A lot of the stores… And that Instagrammer most likely shops at a lot of the aspirational places that our customer would like to shop at, or shops at. And a lot of those stores follow that Instagrammer, so they see our product and think, “Oh, wow! What’s this company? This person endorses them, etc., it must be worth looking in to.” SO there’s ways you can kind of circle back and go, I would say…

Tom: At it from a different angle, yeah.

Amanda: …from a different angle, yeah.

David: Do you often send people like that, kind of social influencers, sample product?

Tom: We did a lot when we started our company. That’s a really great way to initially grow when you don’t have your own following.

Amanda: Yeah.

Tom: To reach your target market, is you send them a product. They do a review. If they love the product, they post about it and then you have access to all of their followers as well. So I think we did a lot of that at the start, just finding influential people, trying to get in contact with them, and then yeah, going from there.

Amanda: And I would say more so what we do now — like our strategy — we still do that every once in a while, not as often. Our strategy has changed a little bit. Now that we have a solid social media following of our own, what we’ve found is we’ve actually been approached now by other companies who have a very similar audience as we do but a totally different product.

They will say, “Hey. Do you want to do a social media trade? I give you my product. You give me yours.” We each talk about it a little bit and we each gain a following, based on each other’s audiences.

David: Interesting.

Amanda: That’s been working really well. And it’s fun too, because we love to promote brands that we personally believe in. We would never promote something that we don’t think is a good fit for our company or for our brand, or that our followers wouldn’t enjoy. So it’s cool, because yeah, we want to promote local Canadian business as well and we think it’s important to shop local. It works out well.

David: For sure. Very cool.

Amanda: Yeah!

David: I actually have no idea what time it is, but I feel like we’re probably running close to time. So I’m going to wrap it up. There’s two questions that I would ask.

Tom: Sure.

David: Kind of together. I ask this to everybody.

Amanda: Okay.

David: Are there any people and/or books or other resources like that, whether they are people that you know or people that you don’t know, but just kind of find aspirational, who have influenced your approach to building Coal and Canary?

Amanda: Mm. That’s a good question!

Tom: Yeah, you know what? I think that we take a lot of inspiration from a lot of different people.

Amanda: Mm-hmm!

Tom: A lot of people we know have helped us out and that are doing cool things that we’ve collaborated with have really inspired us to build our business the way we have. Bigger brands, like something even as huge as Google, their work environment is something that we really strive towards. We believe in really being able to enjoy work, and having fun at work, and creating an environment that people want to work in. So that’s been inspirational for us.

Brands that have really cohesive and strong marketing and branding have also been inspirational. Like you look at someone like…

David: What are some examples?

Tom: Someone like Kate Spade is really inspirational to us. Everything they do is so cohesive. It’s so directed towards their customer.

Amanda: Yeah.

Tom: That really motivates us to do something similar and really reach our customer in a similar way.

Amanda: Yeah. Like you could look at one of their pencils and you know it’s a Kate Spade pencil. It’s just the littlest detail, everything is. It’s just so cohesive and I think that’s, yeah, a really, really strong example. But yeah, I would also say — it sounds maybe cliché — but I would say almost absolutely everyone we ever…

Any brand or any company that we ever come into is educational in the fact that you learn something from it. Whether it’s maybe what not to do. We don’t ever want to be thought of as that. Or what to do, like Google. We would love to have that fun, relaxed work environment, where you have mundane activities, maybe folding boxes for eight hours. But people are lining up at your door because they want to work for you to fold boxes. I think that would be one of the biggest goals for us. But yeah, I would say every company is educational.

Tom: Yeah. I think every person you come in contact with can inspire you in some way.

Amanda: Teach you something.

Tom: For sure.

Amanda: Yeah. Yeah, definitely.

David: Interesting. All right. Well, thanks a lot for your time, guys.

Amanda: Thank you!

Tom: Thank you!

Amanda: Thank you so much!

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