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Nicole Eckels built a global scented candle empire against all odds

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A delicious butterscotch aroma oozing rich notes of vanilla has the power to delight your senses, sending you on a faraway journey without leaving the comfort of your lounge. Without Sapphire Group’s Co-Founder and CEO Nicole Eckels, the tantalising olfactory experience of a humble scented candle wouldn’t be possible.

"It was not just about starting the business. I also had to build the category; I had to educate the market," she tells The CEO Magazine.

The scented candle pioneer moved from New York City, US, to Australia in 2005 with her then 12-year-old son. A year after discovering a hole in the market for quality scented candles, she launched Glasshouse Fragrances.

"I remember talking to other businesspeople at the time and no-one really understood the concept," Nicole recalls. "In 2006, they didn’t think people would pay much money for a candle, because in their minds scented candles didn’t work. Imagine if I had listened to the people who said it wasn’t going to work."

Tasked with creating a luxurious brand that very few believed in, as well as educating the market and establishing an entire manufacturing warehouse, the passionate entrepreneur paved the way for an addictive industry.

"Imagine if I had listened to the people who said it wasn’t going to work." – Nicole Eckels

"Normally businesses like us focus on the brand and they let a supplier work out the technical part. We had to do it all – and we’re still doing it all," Nicole says. "We’ve become a very, very good candle maker – one of the best in the world."

The very first batch of candles, which were brought to life in Nicole’s kitchen, sold out within two days. The secret? Letting the exquisite aromas do the heavy lifting. "I made sure they were being burned in the stores," she says.

"When someone walked in and smelled it, they would wonder what the smell was, so the fragrances did the work. I just needed to convince stockists to try the product."

Flawless attention to detail and immaculate quality control allowed the company to stride ahead in the now-competitive market, which is predicted to reach about US$13 billion globally by 2023.

"I was always looking for an idea that had legs and what’s so incredibly authentic about my journey and my business is my passion for the fragrance category," she shares. "Scent is one of the most addictive things. People love it and it makes them feel things in ways they can’t describe. It’s very powerful and we make products that appeal to that."

Almost 14 years later, Glasshouse Fragrances can be found in more than 1,200 stores across Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. Having perfected the products, rebranded and launched a new line of personal fragrances, including eau de parfums developed by leading perfumers, Nicole – who also founded Circa Home – plans on expanding internationally outside of existing markets this year.

"Up until two years ago I couldn’t even say that I was happy, because I wanted perfection." – Nicole Eckels

"That’s what I needed to do before we went global because we can’t just be another brand – we want to be a global fragrance brand," she says. "I feel very lucky for the success I’ve had, and I know I’ve worked bloody hard.

"It took time but look at the positive: we were educating the market, creating a category and we were also the first. That’s huge."

Nicole Eckels' 8 business lessons

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Rule #1: Focus on quality

"While there are more scented candle brands than there were when I started, we’ve never been in decline. We’ve managed to hold our own spot despite all the competitors that have come into the market. Our point of difference is the unique perfumers we use. We’re constantly twisting everything and looking at the depth of the fragrance. Up until two years ago I couldn’t even say that I was happy, because I wanted perfection."

Rule #2: Break the rules

"Innovation is about creativity and thinking differently, and we strive to do that. We always have to be pushing the boundaries and trying new things. It’s our responsibility as market leaders in Australia to always bring new fragrance trends to the market."

Rule #3: Value communication

"Good communication and leadership are important. I have the most talented team, but if they don’t know where we’re going or what we’re trying to achieve, it’s worthless. At first, I didn’t know that so I was running around trying to do everything myself, and people would chase after me. Now I understand the leadership role, so my team knows what we’re trying to achieve, and they can all get on board."

Rule #4: Continually learn and evolve

"Candle making has been one of the biggest challenges – I didn’t know how to do it. There were different resources I’d tap into, but I had to teach myself. I knew what I was trying to achieve but getting there has been a journey."

"Listen to your gut and just lean in and do it." – Nicole Eckels

Rule #5: Look at rejection in a new light

"I’m from New York and my background is sales, so I am used to rejection. I don’t mind it – it’s just the way it is. It’s a numbers game. Work out your ratio of yes to no and every time you get rejected, just think about being that much closer to a yes."

Rule #6: Understand your customers

"Our eau de parfum range launched as a travel size so people can see how gorgeous it is, then we will launch the full size. The worst thing you could do is be a candle brand and then suddenly launch a bunch of eau de parfum – your customers won’t keep up. Knowing this was our direction, our past launches were built from fine fragrances, which are now used in the personal fragrances line. Business is a journey."

Rule #7: Listen to your gut

"I’ve learned that if I think something’s super cool, do it. Don’t forget it, listen to your gut and just lean in and do it."

Rule #8: Inspire others

"I had to learn skills I didn’t naturally have. Now I can share that with others. I don’t have a lot of extra time, but I often mentor others. What I love to do is share my experience because it often gives them the ability to get to the level they need to be at, and quicker. Business is tough, but I feel very fortunate and lucky. I feel it’s my responsibility to give back in some ways, and that’s what I do."

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