An entrepreneurial spirit and a creative passion set Michelle and Jonathan Simmons on the road to opening Slow North, an artisan candle making business and lifestyle store. We talk to Michelle to find out how their store, in Austin, Texas, and their flourishing online business took shape.
Hi Michelle! How would you sum up your business, Slow North?
Slow North is a naturally-inclined lifestyle brand that offers home goods and body care products, all with a focus on sustainability and intentional ingredients. Our retail store hosts creative workshops and stocks handcrafted and independently designed goods from women around the world.
Who are the people behind your business?
I’m 100 per cent focused on the day-to-day operations, and my husband and co-founder of Slow North, Jon, still works full-time for another company, so his time dedicated to Slow North is more limited, but he helps out a lot with strategy, design, web development, and all things ‘tech support’. Besides the two of us, we have an amazing team of 11 people who help keep things running behind the scenes!
What inspired you to set up Slow North, and how did you develop it?
I was home on maternity leave for three months with my first son and wanted to start a side hustle. I’ve always been entrepreneurial and love trying out different business ideas. We came up with the idea of essential oil soy candles because we were having trouble finding a clean-burning candle we felt good about using in our home. We started working directly with candle manufacturers around the country to develop our collection, but quickly discovered we could make them better ourselves. What started as a hands-off business idea evolved into making candles from scratch in our kitchen and our garage!
When did you set up the business, and what did you do previously?
I started selling our candles in the fall of 2015 at local pop-up markets on the weekends. I was still working as a territory sales manager for a kitchen cabinet company. I studied business management with a concentration in small business and entrepreneurship in college, but there is no education as valuable as learning as you go! After college, I worked a variety of outside sales jobs, mostly in the new construction industry selling kitchen cabinets to builders, so owning Slow North has been a big pivot for me. Jon is a user experience designer, and his eye for design is so valuable as we design new products.
Where does the name come from?
Our name is centred around the ‘slow living’ ethos – our products are made by hand using natural ingredients. The ‘north’ portion of the name refers to wayfinding our way through life, using ‘north’ as a directionally positive guide.
Do you have any creative pastimes, hobbies or other passions?
I’ve been a photographer for over 15 years, and have dabbled with other things like jewellery making and weaving. Right now, we have two little boys under the age of five, so they take up most of any free time we have!
How did you create your space?
Our Slow North shop came about on a whim. I taught a candle making workshop on location in another local shop’s space and it started me thinking about having our own space to host workshops and sell our goods, since candles are a pretty tough sell online where you can’t actually smell them. We were also outgrowing our backyard candle studio at this point, and I decided to drive around looking for retail spaces. Originally, we agreed to just sublet the front portion of this larger commercial space so we’d have the windows. Slowly, the other tenants moved out and after a few landlord mishaps we ended up taking over the entire unit.
My goal for the aesthetic of the shop has always been a mix of natural wood, green/plants and white. We have amazing natural lighting from the wall of windows up front, so our pothos growing on the wall loves it! It took a little imagination to visualise where we are today, because when we signed the lease it had neon orange and charcoal coloured walls!
How are your candles made?
They are all made in-house, in our open kitchen-style storefront. We melt soy wax flakes, add a little coconut oil and carefully stir our custom essential oil blends into the pitchers. Once they have cooled we hand-pour the wax into six candle vessels. Our candles are made in small batches to ensure the quality of every one.
How do you source products to sit alongside Slow North’s?
I know about 50 per cent of the vendors we carry in the shop personally, from working alongside them at various artisan markets around the country. I love having that personal connection with the artists and fellow business-owners. The other vendors have either contacted us directly or we have found them online somehow. I’m the buyer for our shop, so I think that helps keep the aesthetic of goods we source from other makers similar to our own house brand products.
When did you discover your passion for what you do?
I first discovered there might be a bigger future for Slow North when we were accepted as a vendor at our first Renegade Craft Fair. It’s a well-recognised, highly-curated artisan fair that travels around the world, and I felt so validated after we were accepted through the jury process back in 2016. When you’re participating in artisan markets of that calibre, it’s impossible not to feel inspired and driven to be a bigger part of that community. It was the turning point for us, and at that point I made the decision to resign from my full-time sales job and focus wholly on Slow North.
What are the joys and the challenges of working as an independent retailer?
It’s the best job I’ve ever had! I love creating a space where we can support our own brand along with the creative works of over 100+ other female artists and makers around the world. The #1 challenge for any business owner just starting up is financial, because you’re usually the last person to get paid. It takes a few years to figure out if what you’re doing is going to work, and in the meantime it can be stressful.
What have been your business highlights so far?
Slow North has partnered with large retail chains like Anthropologie and Soft Surroundings, which is amazing! I’m always shocked that large companies like those would even know we existed! These have been completely organic partnerships where we get a random email one day from their buyer saying she’s interested in our line. Incredible!
What does a working day look like for you?
We take our sons to daycare (usually walking them) in the morning around 8am, then come home and get ready to leave for work. Most days, I go into the shop around 9 or 10, but I’m starting to work from home on Mondays to focus on strategy and higher-level planning undistracted. When I do work at the shop, I’ll spend time at my desk in the stockroom. I will say this about owning your own business: every day is new and different! Sometimes I’m developing new products; sometimes I’m troubleshooting defective candle wicks; sometimes I’m planning photoshoots; sometimes I’m categorising expenses for our bookkeeper. My days usually end at the shop around 4:30 or 5pm, when I leave to pick up the kids, and then I’ll hop on my laptop again in the evening after they are in bed for a bit, to check-in or plan for the next day.
How has your business evolved since you began?
Our business model is so different today from what it was in 2015! Our original plans of working with a candle manufacturer quickly changed, and I decided to make the candles myself. From a studio in our detached garage the business grew, and I was soon hiring a few part-time assistants to help me with production. By 2017, we were subletting a commercial space to open a retail shop/candle studio and hosting workshops – then in 2018, we added a soft goods line to our house brand. We’ve also expanded sewing production and our team into the entire commercial space with, very little room to wiggle!
How do you find juggling an online business with a physical shop?
Our physical shop and the online store work so well in tandem to create brand awareness for us. The only time it gets a little tricky is if an online order comes in during the day for the last item of something we have in stock. We monitor our online orders throughout the day so we don’t accidentally oversell something in-person!
How do you approach marketing and PR?
Our marketing and PR have been extremely organic. We’ve been fortunate enough to be featured by Martha Stewart Living, the Magnolia Journal, Brit + Co and many others, without any formal outreach campaigns. This year, we are working with a consultant to help us evolve our brand’s visual guide, tone and voice – but it honestly hasn’t been one of the focuses for us these past four years.
What are your favourite products, makers or bestsellers?
Our best-selling Slow North product is our Eucalyptus & Lavender candle, followed by our rose quartz facial rollers. One of our best-selling makers is Elizabeth Crandall’s Vibe jewellery line. She creates gorgeous, adjustable silk necklaces adorned with gemstones – each having their own meaning. We restock her necklaces monthly.
Any tips to share with aspiring independent store owners?
I’d recommend having a great deal of cash reserves, because it takes a while to gain traction as a new shop. We are a little different in that we use our space to manufacture the goods we sell through our wholesale channel, as well as sell goods to our retail customers. If we were 100 per cent retail, it would be even more of a struggle to ride out the slower seasons. We’ve definitely had our fair share of $0 days in the first year. I’d also pay more to be in a heavy foot-traffic area because the customers who pop in just walking by have been really beneficial for our business. We are located between a coffee shop and a restaurant, and share a parking lot with a movie theatre!
What does the next 6 months hold for you?
We are weeks away from launching our new linen spray collection! We will be rolling them out in four scents – Sweet Clementine, Wanderlust, Orange & Clove and Lavender & Mint. They will be packaged in cobalt blue bottles with white fine-mist sprayers to match our essential oil diffuser blends. We are so excited about them! After that, we will be launching a small apparel collection screen-printed by our neighbours here in Austin.
2700 W. Anderson Lane , Suite 410, Austin, Texas 78757
Photography by Armin Panjvani & Chelsea Francis