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How a stay-at-home mom turned a hobby into a business

Open for business sign hangs on door

Editor’s Note: When Aubry Panek's youngest son started kindergarten, she thought about returning to work. While she wanted to financially contribute to her household, Aubry still wanted to be there for her children.

After all, she was a room mom and a regular school volunteer for all three of her kids. She wondered: What can I do that will still allow me to get the kids to the bus and be there when they're home from school?

From this thought, a candle-making side hustle was born at her kitchen table. Less than eight years later, Witty Wicks Candles is now a thriving retail brand.

Aubry shares her story below:

I'll never forget the first night after I decided to make and sell candles. I had gone to the craft store that day and bought a candle-making kit.

Once my kids were in bed, I started melting wax. Within 10 minutes, my eyes were burning, I had a headache and my stomach hurt. I threw everything out and went to bed.

The morning after that initial failure, I put my kids on the bus and researched various methods for making candles. I discovered:

1. There are many different types of candles.

2. There are also several kinds of wax.

3. Paraffin wax is toxic.

That last one explained my headache and led to my first business lesson, which I'll get to soon. Since then, I've moved operations from my kitchen table to my basement and later, two different workshop and storefront locations. I've also hired 13 part-time employees.

Many other parents, especially moms, are also hustling right now to grow their side gigs into full-fledged businesses. I hope to help them by sharing my own business milestones, as well as the lessons I've learned along the way.

Creating a signature product

You'd better believe that I never worked with paraffin wax again after that first night. Instead, I researched and tested different options.

Now I only make and sell soy wax candles for an eco-friendly, clean burn. We also ensure that all our cotton wicks are lead-free, and we never add dyes or chemicals to our candles.

This attention to quality — along with our emphasis on excellent customer service — is part of the reason our customers come back for more and become regulars.

Business tip No. 1: Do your homework to make a quality product.

Hiring employees

When I first started my business, I didn't even think of it as a business. I thought I'd make enough money for gas and groceries and definitely never saw myself as a businesswoman.

Happily, it has exceeded all my expectations. But that growth in sales meant my operational capacity had to grow. I simply had too much business to do it all myself.

Even in the early days, when I was making candles at my kitchen table and only selling them once a week at the regional Saturday market, I would call friends or family members for help. As more business came in, I knew I needed regular help and hired two part-time employees. Had I not taken that step, there's no way Witty Wicks would be as successful as it is today.

Hiring employees not only meant that we could accept and fulfill orders, which increased our sales numbers, but it also meant that I needed to get small business insurance to protect my business and my employees.

We make all our candles at the store's workshop. We work with hot wax, oils and heavy glassware. I wanted to ensure that if for any reason someone gets hurt, they will be taken care of. Everyone on my staff is like family to me, and I want to take care of them to the best of my ability.

Business tip No. 2: You can't grow without expanding your capacity. This often means hiring your first employees.

Business tip No. 3: Legitimize and protect your business and your employees with small business insurance.

New types of sales 

Witty Wicks has always had a website. I felt it legitimized us and ensured that people could find our business, but we didn't do online sales at first. That said, we've always been very active on social media.

During my Saturday market sales days, I'd post pictures of a specialty container or announce a new scent and would then receive messages from people who couldn't make it to the market that week. They asked if they could place an order instead.

The ability to take and fulfill orders snowballed into teacher gifts and wedding favors. People then asked if we could do fundraisers. Later, wholesale. We learned as we went. I never said no to anyone.

Even if I didn't have the experience yet, I'd say, "Yep, sure!" Then we'd figure it out. This openness to respond to customer requests grew my business in ways I wouldn't have foreseen or planned myself.

Business tip No. 4: Pay attention to your customers' needs and be willing to expand how you do business to better serve them.

Opening a storefront

This was a big move for us. Up until this point, I didn't have too much overhead. To be honest, I wasn't all that confident about opening a store, especially that first location. It wasn't in a high-traffic area, and there weren't many other businesses open nearby.

We moved there mainly so that customers wouldn't have to keep coming to my house to discuss and pick up their orders. When we first opened, we had limited hours, but as we've grown, we've hired more staff and expanded our hours.

Moving from our first, smaller location to a larger one allowed us to evolve into more of a lifestyle brand that supports other local small businesses. In our gift shop, we now carry handcrafted items from other women-owned businesses and companies that give back to their communities.

Business tip No. 5: Don't be afraid to take a big leap in expanding your business, as long as it fits in with your mission and your brand.

When business lessons become life lessons

My family has reaped many rewards from growing this stay-at-home-mom hobby into a full-fledged business. We are, of course, more financially comfortable, but we also value the lessons this has taught my three sons.

I'm grateful to have provided a strong example of smart women in business. My oldest has now joined the Army, but when he was a preteen he used to help me make candles.

Let me tell you, he wasn't always happy about it. But he recently told me that he's incredibly proud of what I've built. So am I.

I love to go to work every day because I love the people I work with and what we do. I love making gifting fun and easy, especially for busy moms.

When a frazzled mom comes in with three kids hanging off her and she needs 10 teacher gifts, and in just five minutes we put together individually wrapped-items specific to each teacher or child, she looks visibly less stressed. And when she walks out the door and says, "I can't thank you enough!" it feels great.

We've all been that frazzled mom, so it's rewarding to know that we helped check at least one thing off her list.

This article was developed in partnership with The Hartford. Check out their blog, Small Biz Ahead, a destination where you can discover insights and advice to help you manage and grow your small business.

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