P.F. Candle Co. Shares How to Get Your Business Up and Running

P.F. Candle Co. has bootstrapped from the beginning. If you’re curious to learn more about how founder Kristen Pumphrey turned her passion into a well-known and loved brand now sold in Target, West Elm, Urban Outfitters, and more, then read on. This is Part 3 of a 4-part series where Pumphrey shares making money work as a new business, tools that have been invaluable in running P.F. Candle Co., the importance of crafting a story, and more.

View Parts 1 and 2.

Give us more of an idea of your timeline.

Kristen Pumphrey:

  • 2008: Moved to Austin and filed my DBA as Pommes Frites
  • 2008-2011: made a variety of handmade items and sold them on Etsy and locally in Austin
  • 2011: Moved to California and expanded my market
  • 2012: Released our signature amber jar candle line
  • 2013: Got picked up by Terrain and later West Elm, which allowed our business to expand from just me to Tom and me
  • 2014: Used the money from a West Elm Po (about $25K) to fund hiring, purchasing of equipment, and rent costs
  • 2015: Expanded operations to a larger warehouse, got our costs down by negotiating with suppliers

Let’s talk startup costs. Can you provide a breakdown of what costs went into getting P.F. Candle Co. started?

Kristen Pumphrey: It’s hard to say exact start up costs, as when it was just me, my costs were very low and I also made no money. I didn’t say, “I’m starting a business, I need X amount of money”—we bootstrapped our business from what we had. I used savings, Tom’s student loans, and minor income from part-time jobs to keep the business and myself afloat. I didn’t take a salary until 2014, when I started paying other people—my income and the businesses’ income was one in the same.

Did you have investors? If so, how did you work to line them up?

Kristen Pumphrey: No, we have bootstrapped from the beginning

What was the biggest expense in getting your business off the ground? Also, what was more affordable than you’d initially thought it would be?

Kristen Pumphrey: Labor is a huge expense. Additionally, not being able to buy things in bulk is very expensive. What’s more affordable is investing in benefits for our employees—we just started paying for healthcare outright after covering 70%. It’s putting money in our staff’s pocket and while it’s an expense for us, it’s worth it. When we moved into a commercial space, we also saved a ton of money on shipping since we could receive pallets of materials, rather than (residential-rate) boxes.

What resources were the most helpful in getting P.F. Candle Co. started?

Kristen Pumphrey:

  • QuickBooks Online—a lifesaver
  • Squarespace—we use Shopify now but this allowed us to get our website and e-commerce rolling with minimal cost and experience
  • The website Ask a Manager is very helpful when navigating staffing and HR issues
  • We use Planoly to schedule our social media posting and it’s a lifesaver
  • Google Drive and Excel—we have a ton of spreadsheets that help us keep ourselves budgeted and our production and shipping on track
  • #1 Resource? GOOGLE IT. Deep Googling can solve 90% of problems.

When it came time to figure out the packaging and how your products would look on the shelf, what approach did you take? What were your big goals with the packaging?

Kristen Pumphrey: I didn’t have much design experience, so I did what I could—I hand stamped every label when we started out. The look of our candles was inspired by my husband. He worked markets with me over the years and would always point out there was nothing for men at these fairs. I created the candles to be unisex so that I would have a wider audience, and that was the secret to our success.

Your amber glass candles are a signature item. How did you go about sourcing those jars and how/why did you decide on that one?

Kristen Pumphrey: My process for creating our signature look was an evolution. When I first started pouring candles, I used old pizzeria style vessels. My manager at the restaurant I worked at let me take them home when the candles were burned out, instead of tossing them. I quickly realized I needed a more reliable source, and started searching for a vintage, apothecary inspired jar.  We sourced the jars with our handy friend, the internet. Now we work with a distribution company because we order in much larger quantities. At first, I got a friend to design the labels, but I wanted to have more of a hand in the way it looked. Having no design experience, I started hand stamping every label with an interchangeable stamp. Now, we have created our own font based on that stamp. I love the artifacts of the original pressing that is evident in each letter.

Your products are widely available now at places like Urban Outfitters, Madewell, and Target. How did you work to get P.F. Candle Co. at stores like this?

Kristen Pumphrey: We were extremely lucky in that these stores found us, with the exception of Target. We were invited to Target to pitch for a Shop Local project along with hundreds of other brands, and were selected to participate. The other major accounts found us through various ways—local shops, or Instagram—but having our branding and story on point from the beginning allowed us to be seen.

What was your process for creating the Pommes Frites/P.F. Candle Co. brand? What are the elements of a well-crafted brand story?

Kristen Pumphrey: In the beginning, creating my “brand” was subconscious. It was an extension of my own style and interests. I did a lot of in-person shows, and I started creating my brand with the way I presented my goods. Most people pop their wares up on a table—I did too in the beginning. Then I started incorporating real furniture, like bookcases, suitcases, signage, tables that weren’t foldable—more like you’d see in a store, not a weekend pop-up. That started to differentiate me, because the shopping experience was different. Instagram has been a great tool for crafting our brand story. I’m a visual person—I was taking 1 billion photos before the iPhone camera—so it was a natural evolution. We were able to share quick snaps, and the quality of the photo didn’t matter as much. It was all about filling out the story and people behind the brand—what did our space look like? What sort of adventures inspired us? We try to stick to a color scheme now: neutrals (black, white, brown), and green, usually from plants. You want someone to be able to look at a picture and say “that’s a P.F. photo”—color is the quickest way to do that, in my book.