The American Dream, for many would-be merchants, is to work at home, own a business, watch after their kids, and enjoy it all. Kara English does all of that. She is the co-founder of Candlesandsuch.com, a site that sells candles and accessories for “life events,” such as weddings, bridal showers, baptisms and communions. She taught herself the ecommerce business, launched a website, and prospered, all from her home. She joined us recently to talk about it.
Practical eCommerce: Can you describe a typical day at your business?
Kara English: “I work from home so my typical days starts about 6:00 to 6:30 in the morning. I get up and try to check emails, go through any voice mails that might have come in through the night and try to take care of those before I get my kids up and get them ready for school. I have 8-year-old twins, a boy and girl.
“After I drop them off at school, I come straight home to my office and I try to work straight through from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. It’s the only time that my house is quiet, so I try to use that time as much as I can to get as much done as I possibly can, processing orders, doing customer service, replying to emails, working with suppliers, maybe adding new products, writing blog posts, doing a little SEO, and email marketing. I sort of wear all the hats. So, it does make for a complicated day when I realize how much I’m trying to accomplish in such a short period of time.
“I’ve learned over the years that I need to stop working when I pick my kids up from school. Sometimes my business does not allow for that, but over the last year, I’ve sort of forced myself to shut the door to the office at 3:00 p.m. and be a mom to my kids for that time period. They need that, and it was obvious when I wasn’t doing that how badly they needed it, and it’s a good break for me as well.
“So, if the business doesn’t scream for my attention, I try to do other things on the back burner until after dinner. Then about 7:00 p.m., I start my day again, and typically work sometimes until after midnight checking up everything so that I can kind of put the business to bed and then start again the next day.”
PeC: Can you tell us a little bit about your background. When did you launch your business, and what did you do before you were in the ecommerce business?
English: “I worked a lot of retail when I was younger. I dabbled a little bit in the dental field for a while before having my kids. When my kids were born, I knew I wanted to stay home for as long as I could. So, I really was just a mom for the first couple of years, but my business partner sold homemade candles at local craft shows and I started helping her out a little bit. What we realized was how fast her candles were selling out. They were very popular and she had a great following.
“People started asking for her to make candles for wedding favors and baby shower favors, and that sparked an idea in my head, and I thought, ‘Well, if this little local group of people want these, maybe more people do and the best thing to do is build a website.’
So, between naptime with my kids, I would sit at the computer and I just taught myself everything I could about ecommerce. I attended so many webinars I can’t even count how many, took many notes, and kind of dove headfirst into this unknown territory. And, doing a little market research, I realized we didn’t want to sell just our candles or wedding favors, but many other items, and I was able to source many other products. Now, we have over 5,000 different products besides our own personal candles that we started with. So, I sort of stumbled into that.”
PeC: Do you have a business background?
English: “No, I do not. In fact, I didn’t finish college. The only business background I have is working in retail as a store manager and things like that. I definitely wanted to own my business, but it’s funny how this one came to be, because it certainly wasn’t planned to become what it is.”
PeC: When did you purchase the domain Candlesandsuch.com and put your first store up?
English: “That was in 2005. I designed the site myself, and we had our first sale about two months later. It took a little while to get on the search engines. After that, it just continued to grow and grow. In 2006, we went on to the Yahoo! store platform and that was one of the best decisions we made. It works great for what we need. And then in 2007, we hired a firm to do our first professional design.”
PeC: How many orders do you process on a typical day?
English: “It varies between 80 and 100. We process all the orders ourselves. We like having that personal touch with our business and our customers, and for that reason we haven’t gone into the automation part (as much as that would make our job easier). The customer is really more important to us than that what they receive is perfect, and their experience with us is exceptional.”
PeC: Have you ever thought about getting an office outside of your home?
English: “I have, and sometimes I daydream about that when the kids are everywhere and life seems crazy and I can’t get a quiet moment. When we started out, there were times I had to take a phone call in the closet or in the garage just to get away from the screaming 2-year-olds. Learning to balance both has been difficult, but there are a lot of days where I’m working at my desk to get something done and one of the kids comes down to draw a picture for me to put on my desk, and I realize that this is truly a blessing to be here for them. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
PeC: Where does your partner work?
English: “She lives in a different town and works in her own home office as well. We try to share the workload 50/50.”
PeC: Where do you keep all your products?
English: “We drop ship a lot of our products and I keep an inventory here in my home. I have a special closet set up just for inventory that we ship here ourselves, and my partner has a room in her house that’s the candle-making area. She creates the candles and packs and ships them from her home.”
PeC: And you are pleased with the Yahoo! store platform?
English: “Yes, we are. We have a newly-designed site that was just launched in September and it’s great that we can have it so customized to whatever we want. Yahoo! is a good platform for that.
“It was also great when we began that it was easy enough for me (who didn’t know anything) to design the site myself, and it actually worked. It’s very user-friendly. You don’t need to know all that code and everything to get some simple things done. The technical support has been fantastic. All around, we’re very happy with the Yahoo! store platform.”
PeC: Do you use order management software?
English: “Actually, we don’t. We do that all in-house as well.”
PeC: What accounting package do you use?
English: “We use QuickBooks and that seems to work out really well for us.”
PeC: What is your advice for aspiring ecommerce merchants who would like to replicate what you’ve done?
English: “I think the big thing is that you should never give up. It is hard, and there are going to be a lot of hills that you have to climb to get where you want to be. There’s no such thing as overnight success. If you just know what you want to do and you focus on where you want to be, then I think that anybody can do it.
“We started with a candle and a domain name and we never thought we’d be here, but I think it’s proof that just anybody can do it as long as you don’t give up and don’t throw in the towel.
“There are lots of resources for anybody out there to teach themselves everything they need to know about ecommerce. Any free education that you can give yourself that’s out there on the Internet, you just need to find it.
“I certainly put in more hours in this business than I have at any job I’ve ever had. Combine that with being an involved parent, and it’s overwhelming. There’s a lot of times that, I’ll be honest, I’m exhausted. You have to be willing to make those sacrifices of yourself in order for your business to grow. If you’re not willing to work, then it’s not going to happen.”