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Life & Work with D’Shawn Russell

Today we’d like to introduce you to D’Shawn Russell.

Hi D’Shawn, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
I am the founder and CEO of Southern Elegance Candle Company. I started the company five years ago with two pots in my kitchen as a side hustle to make some extra money on the weekends and to get me out of the house. But it quickly grew to much more than I expected.

Southern Elegance Candle Company is all about loving and living in the South. We created home fragrance products that all have a southern theme to them and all of our fragrances are based on Southern agriculture. Apple? Check! Pine? Check! Cotton (or course) Check! Missing the Southern Sunshine? We got a fragrance for you. Our core group of customers are women that live in the South or people that appreciate Southern culture.

Our flagship products at the moment are our candles. We offer three different sizes; travel tin, 8 oz mason jar, 16 oz mason jar, and large tumbler. We also have wax melts, diffusers with reeds, and room spray.

I started the company at our local Farmers Market. We currently sell on both our wholesale and direct-to-consumer e-commerce sites. We are also opening a brick and mortar in around the middle of July and hope to have three more opened over the course of the next 12 months. We were able to branch out from our core Southern states and are currently in stores all over the US.

I started Southern Elegance right after my son was born as a hobby. Initially, I made a bunch of random bath and body products in addition to the candles. When I decided to get serious, I looked at everything and decided to just focus on one product and chose candles because they had the potential to be the most profitable. I chose a niche that I could speak authentically about. My ideal customer was easy to identify because it was basically me. (But, don’t use that a marketing strategy. It just happened to work in this case) I was born and raised in the South. I LOVE living here and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. I created a company around all the things that I love to do.

I was working in education at the time and I absolutely hated it. One day walked into work and quit my job to make candle making a full-time career. I had absolutely no background in sales, manufacturing, marketing or anything business-related. I basically had no clue as to how it was going to work or if this was even a viable plan. Everything was a learning curve, and I spent hours learning a new skill then implementing it.

With very limited resources (basically no money) I went to the school of Google and Youtube. I took some online classes on Branding and Wholesaling. I hired a business coach and I literally hit the streets selling. For the first year, I would sell my candles at any Church function, fair, festival, school bazaar… I did not care. I sold candles outside in the middle of the summer and the dead of winter. I also sold on any and every online platform that would accept me. Etsy, Amazon, Faire, Modalyst, Houzz, etc. All the money I made went back into building the brand, I was lucky to have a husband to pay the bills but it was tight financially. When I finally felt comfortable, I approached stores to carry my products. And we slowly built a base of stores to sustain the company.

I didn’t have a traditional launch. It was more of a slow-rolling out of the business. I quit my job and had to hurry up and figure out if I could make money doing this. So, I started selling at any event that would accept me. I really didn’t have a cohesive plan and had no clue about E-commerce or how it works. I basically was shooting in the dark.

After wasting a lot of time, energy, and money going to events that didn’t include my ideal customer, I narrowed down the types of events that I would attend. That allowed me to at least make some money on the weekends at Farmer’s Markets and local festivals. Hauling candles is hard and heavy and I soon got tired of that. The setup and breakdown is hard on the body and I was tired all the time.

I created my current site and the rest is history.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
My biggest lesson is “Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready”. The company is run as if it is a large-scale operation. When we had to hire and train new employees quickly, we already had systems in place to do it quickly. We had a handbook and SOP.

I must admit that hiring people has been the biggest challenge! I was not ready or equipped to handle the challenges of managing human capital. I’ve hired drug addicts and scammers. I’ve had to fire people that literally threatened to fight me as a result. As a result of an employee’s bad decisions, the company lost almost $20,000 (and I didn’t fire them because of it even though it was their JOB to PREVENT it.) I’ve held on to people entirely too long trying to be compassionate.

I still struggle when it comes to firing, but I am much quicker to the draw now. Terrible employees affect everyone and the bottom line. I learned that lesson the hard way.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know about your work?
I live in a small town (approximately 5000 people) so the manufacturing space wasn’t available. My first space was a small restaurant. We stored fragrance in the former freezers and wax in the former deep fryers. At the end of that lease, we moved into a slightly larger retail space. But, we covered the windows with paper and a coming soon sign because the area wasn’t zoned for manufacturing and we didn’t want anyone to know what we were doing. We had supplies delivered to the back door and prayed no one would check to see what we were doing. After about a year of stress, a real warehouse space became available and we moved into it.

Unfortunately, I had no idea how to set up a real candle business because everything up until this point had been ad-hoc. So I went back to the school of Youtube and watched every video I could find on manufacturing candles. I would stop the video and study them frame by frame. I used this information to set up my current space. We have four zones; An office area, a production area for each product, a shipping and receiving area, and finally an area for storage of supplies.

Are there any important lessons you’ve learned that you can share with us?
Choose your partners carefully and trust your gut. I made very bad decisions by going against what I thought I should do and listening to “experts”. I lost a ton of money by hiring a fancy firm to run my Facebook Ads. Their results were on par with my own except I didn’t lose thousands of dollars per month paying them.

I also lost money by paying a fancy firm out of NYC to do my social media. I do it myself now using Buffer to schedule my free pics and recipes & memes from Pinterest. A custom collab with a celebrity cost me almost $10,000 in time, inventory, and design fees. I still get pissed when I look at those containers… but it is a reminder to trust my gut. If a mistake has to be made, do it early and cheaply. I’m glad I made those mistakes while small and it wasn’t too disastrous.

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