Of candles, coconut, and clay: Empowered and empowering through adversity
Home-based businesses that feature artisanal products have been greatly impacted by the pandemic. For most of these entrepreneurs, logistics alone became an almost impossibly steep mountain to climb, not to mention the added pressure of following health guidelines, covering overheads, and ensuring that they stay in business.
Candle House Ceylon Founder Bhagya Iddamalgoda and The Earth Shop Founder Randima Balasooriya are creative entrepreneurs operating out of their homes, providing feel-good and sustainable products to their customers against the odds. This is their story of overcoming adversity.
How were you inspired to start your business?
Bhagya: I started in December 2016 with a pop-up at WTC (World Trade Centre). It was the Christmas season and candles were a good product to start with. People were interested, word of mouth was positive, and I started creating brand awareness through my social media. I wanted to do something artisanal and the variety of candles I had seen in London while studying fuelled my inspiration. There was significant trial and error, and it took me almost six months to get my first quality product done.
Randima: My initial business idea was to offer eco-friendly alternatives for single-use plastics. My main point was that while we have green products, we import them and that doesn’t translate as being sustainable. Another is the inability to find all the green products we need at one place. I wanted to address these. The Earth Shop was founded as part of a project for me and my friend, for our Master’s at the Postgraduate Institute of Management.
What were your challenges like before Covid?
Bhagya: I have a lot of new ideas all the time and materialising them was tough because of the lack of resources. I had to import certain things which added to overheads, and that meant that these costs would ultimately affect the consumer’s costs.
Randima: I wanted to give customers the ability to customise products. However, all my products are directly sourced from artisans in rural areas, and most of them don’t have phones, so I had to call their neighbour to get through to them, in addition to other logistical issues. I had to juggle time between my studies, Ranbath, and The Earth Shop.
What are the challenges you faced since the pandemic and lockdowns hit us in 2020?
Bhagya: I had to prioritise timely matters. For instance, ensuring the safety of my team was number one. Sourcing items from suppliers amid time restrictions and ensuring that they got delivered with minimal exposure, and adapting no-contact methods was another. I had a good relationship with my suppliers, which helped. I must add that I focused on building my website and social media during the initial lockdown, and this was a prudent decision which helped my business greatly.
Randima: Right after we had the first batch of products delivered, the lockdown happened. I initially set up a very small physical store, but when the pandemic happened, I decided to develop my online shop. However, I did not anticipate the influx of orders I started to receive as soon as the online store went up. Initially, I could not meet the demand. Artisans needed more time to make the products and we had to reject orders. We have recovered now despite the fact that this lockdown has put us under pressure again.
Your products do not qualify as ‘essential goods’. How has this impacted your business at a time where consumers are focused on saving money?
Bhagya: While I agree that it is non-essential, from my experience, because we are working from home now, people are invested in curating the perfect workspaces, self-care, mental health, and overall well being. My demographic is mostly urban and between 16-40 years. So, I feel like they continue to invest in my products. I am thankful for that.
Randima: I think that because people are at home, they notice plastic products that they can replace with an environmentally friendly alternative. That has really helped my business to keep growing. We have built a base of very loyal customers. Whenever I upload an image of a new product, I get a lot of orders, for which I am grateful. I also appreciate the positive feedback I get from them.
What contingencies did you implement to face this uncertain situation?
Randima: In anticipation of another lockdown, I took a risk. Apart from customised products, I got extra stocks of products from artisans and I paid them in cash, because these people need to get the benefit of the hard work they put in. Even then, we continue to experience logistic challenges. The current weather is unfavourable for clay and palmyrah products, as the drying process takes longer and in some cases, may not even be possible.
What is the competition like in the market right now?
Bhagya: When I started in 2016, there were only mass manufacturers. But now, there are a lot of newcomers, which is a positive indicator that this is a healthy industry with healthy competition. I’m very authentic to my brand and I have friends who are also candlemakers. The competition keeps me on my toes, and helps me be innovative and current. Yes, there are “copycats” too, but it’s not something that requires you to invest your energy in.
What does your product range consist of?
Bhagya: I have mini candles and different sizes of glass candles, two types of tin candles, ceramic, and terra cotta candles as well. I offer customised products too. We specialise in container candles, and these containers can be reused. To complement our candles, we offer 12-14 essential oils.
Randima: I have products that are made of coconut, clay, bamboo, wood, palmyrah, kithul, and glass. I did not want to do glass products but because customers wanted to replace plastics with glass, I started offering these. A lot of our products are made for the kitchen and sometimes, customers ask for customised products such as stationery holders. Currently, we do not have cane and coir products. The general theme for our products is that they are locally sourced, produced, and eco-friendly. Our packaging is polythene-free.
How many team members do you have?
Bhagya: I started on my own and now employ three women. We share a friendly workspace and inspire each other. I have conducted workshops on basic candle-making and entrepreneurial skills, mostly in underserved areas. People want to feel empowered, but they may not have access to resources. Being able to support them is incredibly fulfilling.
How have your customer relationships helped your business thrive?
Bhagya: Service needs to continue even after delivery. You need to build a personal relationship with your customer base. Getting their feedback, ensuring that they are happy with the products, and making sure that their needs are met are essential. My customers even send me new ideas. Having that close relationship will help you grow and thrive as a business in times like these. But that relationship needs to be genuine.
What is your advice for upcoming small businesses?
Bhagya: Stay current and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Work on your connectivity, networking, and stay open to new ideas. If you come across an opportunity for your business, go for it. Persevere and work hard.
Randima: Customers will continuously ask you for prices, so mention the dimensions and prices as much as possible on each product. Stay flexible. Dynamic approaches will help you grow your business and your customer base.
The future may seem unpredictable, but it has always been that way. Putting our plans for growth on hold in the face of adversity restricts us from achieving our goals and making the most of opportunities that are unique to the current climate. Pushing forward amid adversity, these entrepreneurs set an example for the indomitable human spirit. Empowered and empowering, their resilience has supported livelihoods, created positive lockdown experiences, and made their dreams come true.