Frostbeard 5-Year Recap
Frostbeard is five years old! Looking back, as usually happens, it feels both a longer and shorter amount of time in the making.
In the blink of an eye, I went from brewing candles in my mom's kitchen to having a successful small business with a permanent location and three employees. While at the same time, seemingly countless hours were spent in the details - wrapping my head around government websites and registering for a business, calculating postage and budgets, doing taxes, product development, shopping for materials, trial and error of hand making goods, customer service, etc. I swear I've spent half my life stickering wicks, but alas, it's only been a few years!
It's truly been an adventure, especially since I'm sharing it with Tom (my husband). Without his creative support and design skills, candlemaking would likely still be just a hobby for me. When we met 2009, we were both freelance artists leaning on our parents for financial support (probably longer than we should have been). My mom is a professional quilter and encouraged me to continue to pursue creative endeavors.
At the time (2007 - 2011) my goal was to become a professional potter. I was taking classes and selling pottery in local gift shops and at craft fairs. I even helped start a volunteer-run craft & farmers market (Uptown Market - long since gone, but a good experience working with the neighborhood association).
In 2011, as crowdfunding websites became popular, it suddenly became a real possibility to get a kiln and wheel without going into debt. Tom suggested I do a Kickstarter campaign for mugs, so I made a simple video and reached my goal of $5K. With taxes, fees and Kickstarter's cut, I ended up with around $3,500 and a promise to make 100+ mugs for my pledgers.
After many IKEA trips I began setting up a studio in my mom's spare bedroom, waiting several long weeks for the kiln to arrive. After hundreds of hours spent making the mugs I finally completed the project (on time). It felt great.
I continued to sell at local craft fairs and stocked my Etsy shop, but was struggling to support myself. It took forever to make wheel-thrown mugs with hand-carved, detailed designs.
Pricing was super tough. I wasn't charging nearly enough for my pottery because I wanted things to sell. Without some sort of plan, it was going to be very difficult to make a living as an artist.
2012 - A hobby turns into a business
One day in early 2012, Tom and I sat down to brainstorm how we might actually support ourselves through starting a business. At this point, Tom was working full-time as an animator. Together we came up with a business name and logo.
If you've ever wondered, Frostbeard is named after a friend of ours who bikes year-round (in Minnesota!) and gets a gnarly ice-covered beard. After doing our research and reading an awesome book called The Handmade Marketplace, we officially applied for a business name. Frostbeard Studio was born!
It was my mom's idea to add candles to my Etsy shop (thanks, Mom!). We've been making candles together since I was a teenager and she figured I might as well try to sell them. Shortly after starting Frostbeard, I added candles to the lineup.
We made them on her stove top, poured them into mason jars and added a handwritten label. As fate would have it, creating a library-scented candle would lead to an entire niche for bookish candles. My path was carved out for me and I've spent the last five years trying to catch up.
The question everyone asks is, "How did you come up with the idea? Why book candles?" Frankly, it was because I am a nerd and wanted a candle that smelled like a library. I couldn't find one. Anywhere. I pride myself in my internet shopping skills and the closest thing I found was a paper-scented perfume.
So... I did what any DIYer would do, and made one. Oxford Library was the first in what would become our Book Lovers' Candle line. I thought about the delicious smells a library would have (wood, leather, dust) and searched until I found fragrance oils that seemed fitting. Just like that. If you would have told me then that a candle would shape my future, I wouldn't have believed you.
2013 - Making candles at home
Over the next year, I continued to make pottery and candles. Tom and I got married (!) and then in early 2013, in what turned out to be an unpredictably amazing turn of events, he got laid off. It was a tough time for animators (I remember it was right when Life of Pi won all those visual effects awards but the company still went bankrupt. Lots of animation studios were going through a similar situation).
I hired him that same day. We had a goal that we would eventually run an art studio together, but it simply happened sooner than we planned. He jumped in and became the candlemaker while I focused on ceramics.
Within a month, Tom had redesigned our candle labels and jar design. He took amazing product photos and edited the listing descriptions on Etsy. We worked very well together from the start - my attitude of "get things done" along with Tom's attention to detail were key in transforming Frostbeard into what it is today.
Unfortunately, neither of us had any business education. Why business classes aren't required for art degrees, I'm not sure, but it definitely would have been helpful. We had to learn through trial and error, simply doing it and moving on to the next challenge.
What was our mission statement? Was sending heavy, breakable objects in the mail better with bubble wrap? Or in cardboard tubes? What kind of boxes and dividers and tissue wrap do we use? How do we save money on shipping? Were we collecting the proper amount of sales tax? These are the kind of things that ran through my head as I was trying to fall asleep.
With two of us working, we soon outgrew my mom's house (we never really fit to begin with). She is a saint for letting us take over her house with our shelves and supplies. We had a fun summer working on the garden and meeting neighbor cats, but we needed a bigger space and more equipment if we really wanted to grow our business.
So we did another Kickstarter project! This one was silly ambitious and we offered wayyy too many choices of rewards. Normal candles. Candles in ceramics. Striped candles. Candles with ceramic items in them. It was a crazy time-consuming project.
If I had to do it again (or offer advice to artists who are crowdfunding a project), I would definitely keep it much more simple. But we did have fun creating new, limited-run items. We also succeeded in raising the funds to move our candle setup from my mom's house to our apartment and bought a 40qt wax melter (which we named Frodo).
This was also a (now, looking back, hilariously) stressful time. Where most people have a dining room, we had a candle workshop. The cats loved it. Endless piles of boxes to explore and crawl over. Tom and I lived in that small apartment for 5 years and I can only imagine what our neighbors were wondering when they started smelling all the non-traditional book scents.
When the holidays rolled around we were booked solid with craft fairs. This was (and is) the busiest time of year for us and the candles had been steadily picking up popularity. That fall we were featured on a few nerdy websites like Geeky Merch and Book Riot. And then, in one of the most impactful moments of our lives, we were featured on a BuzzFeed gift list, right before Christmas.
Our Old Books candle was considered an "Insanely Clever Gift for Book Lovers" and nerds agreed. They clicked and bought. People who had never heard of us before, or certainly never seen a bookish candle, had found the perfect gift for their bibliophile friend.
We had to close down our shop three days later. I hated to do it, since I was afraid we were losing sales. But Tom did the math and we literally couldn't make any more candles if we wanted to get them sent out in time for Christmas. We ordered our largest order ever of supplies (I think it was something like 650lbs of wax) and a very upset truck driver had to drop off a pallet in our tiny driveway on a busy street.
With the help of Tom's cousin and my mom (again, the woman is a saint) we filled our apartment to the gills with three shipping tables in the living room, jar boxes lined the halls and wax overflowed into the front porch. This was probably the most manic two weeks of my life. I was deliriously happy (new customers! loads of orders!) but also extremely exhausted.
I also had to learn customer service in a matter of days. Previously, I would get a couple emails a week asking if I would make a custom candle or inquiring about shipping costs. Now I was getting dozens and dozens of emails, some from customers who were used to Amazon's Prime shipping, wondering why we weren't as quick. All of our previous customers found us on Etsy and knew each candle was hand poured, and sometimes it took a few days to get things shipped out. I was dealing with an entirely different customer and I wanted everyone to be happy, so I had to quickly learn how to deal with these new challenges.
2014 - Figuring things out
We made it through the Holidays and realized that our apartment was not a long-term solution for a candle production facility. We needed a bigger space! So we moved. Again.
This time into the basement of the Q.arma Building in the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District. After moving out of a home studio, this felt like we really had made it. An actual space in a for-reals art building. We even hired an intern (Erin) to help us ship out orders, who ended up turning into a full-time employee and is still with us today.
The studio space was mostly great (it flooded a few times and we had to lug heavy boxes up and down the stairs). But we had plenty of room and other artists in the building were friendly. Again, there were many trips to IKEA. Sales on Etsy were steady and candlemaking was taking over. We even started selling our candles wholesale at independent bookstores across the country, which was a huge thrill. I wasn't able to make as much pottery since I was focusing on customer service and Tom was doing most of the candlemaking.
Along with cranking up production, we found ourselves getting into seriously business-y tasks. Payroll. Bookkeeping. Organizing shipments and deliveries. Inventory for dozens of different scents and supplies. Budgeting to make sure we weren't going to run out of money. Taxes. Each of these challenges were unique and took months to figure out. We read endless blog posts, signed up for a bunch of different web apps and eventually found out what worked for us.
Thankfully, all our hard work was paying off. We were officially making a living! As artists! Around midway through the year, we realized that our candles were not a flash-in-the-pan success, but could actually be something sustainable. Our new goal was to not screw it up. Thankfully Tom and I were able to continue working as a team, despite the stresses of now spending all our time together, 24/7.
In the fall, a beautiful main floor studio space opened up in our building. It was dangerously pushing our budget, but it meant being able to use the loading dock for shipments and having a higher level of visibility, perhaps some walk-in traffic. And natural sunlight, ivy covered windows and high ceilings. We hoped to move upstairs in October, but it took longer than expected due to remodeling.
We hastily moved up in November during the busy Holiday season. Our inventory was low and things were a little hectic. We hired a few part-time seasonal employees and it was a pretty frantic few months.
We kept running out of things. Shipping supplies, labels, wax. We were obviously still learning how to make candles as fast as we could and prepare for busy times. Both Tom and I were running around like crazy, doing whatever it took to get orders shipped out on time. We were ready to hire help.
2015 - Getting official
Learning from our experience, 2015 was a pretty smooth year, with a few ups and downs. We hosted open studio events and candle-making workshops. Erin had an art show. OwlCrate featured us in one of their YA subscription boxes, which was our largest order ever.
This was also the year we got super official, business-wise. We formed a LLC (with Tom and I as equal partners), trademarked our product names and even hired an accountant so Tom didn't have to do taxes anymore (such a relief). We were finally able to offer benefits to our employee(s)!
Sadly, this also when my kiln stopped working. Because candles were now our main source of income, I had to stop doing pottery and focus solely on managing our business. I also injured my back and had to start going to intensive physical therapy, so pottery was put on the back burner.
We opened up our official website, which was very exciting. Tom spent many weeks tweaking the design and finally launched it in August. It was also around this time that I started using Instagram a whole bunch. This turned out to be an awesome way to connect with like-minded book nerds through the Bookstagram community.
Of course, we had a few hiccups throughout the year. The wax melter broke a couple times (naturally, right when Tom & I left for vacation). The beautiful windows were super drafty and caused trouble with our candle wax - we solved this by very professionally covering the window gaps with cardboard. We started getting daily pickups by the post office (why didn't we do this sooner!?) and people kept parking in front of the loading dock, forcing us to do a daily building wide "whose car is that" search.
In November, we were able to hire on another employee (Ethan) to help make candles to keep up with demand during the Holidays. Our team of four worked great together and it was our smoothest busy season yet.
2016 - Looking for a permanent home
A combination of things made us realize we needed to look for another studio space, yet again. Northeast Minneapolis was rapidly filling up with new developments (including lots of awesome breweries) and we were getting pretty cramped. Our business was expanding beyond the size that we could afford in the neighborhood.
Since we're a weird combination of a creative studio and mini factory, we had to find a space that fit our unique needs. Even though we pour everything by hand in small batches, we still require lots of space for production, storage and shipping. Essentially, we needed to find a mini-art-studio-factory-with-a
We saw a lot of buildings, all around Minneapolis. Most of the available art studios were either prohibitively expensive or didn't allow candle-making. After working in a beautiful brick building, surrounded by artists, we really didn't want to move into an all-cement, no-window warehouse on the edge of town. After looking at lots of places to rent, nothing had what we were looking for.
With the square footage we needed (2,000ish), we eventually realized it might be worth looking for something to buy, rather than rent. And if we bought something, we could take out a loan to add a loading lift for deliveries and set up the space for our specific needs. So, we talked with some SBA loan advisers and kept searching.
Again, we found many ill-suited properties. Too big, too run-down, or broken up into too many different rooms. We wanted to stay in Minneapolis. When we finally found our new space, we were immediately hopeful. It was located close to home, right where we started selling at craft fairs years ago. This is where we wanted to belong, in an awesome neighborhood full of artists and community-builders.
The building itself had been vacant for 17 years and was in disrepair. We talked with our advisers and were able to include a renovation budget in our mortgage loan. The financial numbers were extremely scary, but we've learned to trust and invest in our business and wanted to find a permanent home for Frostbeard. So we took the leap!
The sale itself was tough with lots of requirements. SBA loans are quite demanding, it turns out. Many months of paperwork, inspections, surveys, construction budgets and planning. It was a full-time job on top of our normal duties. We honestly didn't even know if the sale was going to go through until our closing date. Thankfully, we had a very supportive team guiding us through the process and by the summer, we had our own studio space! After two months of renovating, we moved in August and started getting settled.
Our first goal was to set up a retail space to be more inviting (since we're on a busy street) and introduce ourselves to our neighbors. We were immediately welcomed by the neighborhood associations and local businesses, which felt great.
Our friend Saman designed a mural for us and, in early October, we spent a hectic 72 hours painting a parade of characters on the south wall of our studio. Our candle pal Audrey helped us pour thousands of mini candles for another OwlCrate order, which was scheduled to ship in February.
The holidays were fast approaching (as they always do) and we started searching for additional help. Doing full-time customer service was starting to take it's toll on me, time-wise. I wanted to start creating art again, to hopefully get back to ceramics. So we decided to hire a customer service representative (Rachel). With an awesome holiday crew we made it through another busy season and we were so well prepared, we didn't even run out of supplies.
2017 - Getting back to art and paying it forward
Somehow, 5 years have passed by! Our small business has gone through many big changes. Now that we have time to settle down and focus, it's a good time for self-reflection. What are our plans going forward?
We have been very fortunate and wouldn't have gotten here without the support of our friends, family and community. We hope to pay it forward. It's taken a while, but we've finally written up a Mission Statement, if you'd like to take a look. Our passion is for art and reading, so we're planning on doing what we can to promote literacy and education. I'm not sure we'd stay in business for very long without teachers, librarians and bibliophiles.
With the help of our awesome employees, Tom and I hope to spend more time making art and less time wrapped up in business managing. We're finally getting help with bookkeeping and marketing, so we don't have to do it all ourselves. We plan to add non-candle items to our shop, like bookish illustrations, mugs and tees.
Lots of books and cats, that's for sure. I'll have to figure out how I want to incorporate pottery into things. For now, I'm simply using the community education studio for personal creations. And of course, we will continue making new, awesome candle scents every month.
Another big goal is to get involved with local leaders and community organizations to help out where we can. Planning some reading events and book drives, reaching out to local libraries and schools. We've already had one youth program candle workshop and hope to do more. This spring we'd like to team up with local garden groups and plant some raised beds in our parking lot.
If you want to reach out or have any suggestions, please send us a message! As always, thanks for the continued support as we continue on this amazing journey.