Candles have been around since the dawn of time, but it feels like in the last five years they've really picked up steam again — or at least for me. For the birthday's between 6th and 8th grade I can remember giving and receiving candles alongside a heavily fragranced Calgon body product like clockwork. Not until recently did I re-discover the magic of candles. They're calming, elegant and make your space smell nicer than it did before you lit it. Sonia Chhinji and her partner Fouad Farraj created Woodlot together; a lifestyle brand born of clean-burning coconut wax candles and olive oil based soaps from passed down family recipes. I caught up with Sonia at the Woodlot headquarters, a bright studio space on a quiet industrial street between Main and Cambie in Mount Pleasant on a sunny day at the end of February.
"Previous to starting Woodlot, my career path has been more a corporate jungle gym, than a corporate ladder; I’ve always swung to something new. I worked in hotels for 4-5 years, starting out in operations and reception and then moving my way up into sales and marketing. From there, I made some life changes and decided that I no longer wanted to work in that industry and wanted to try something new. I took some time off to figure out what I wanted to do next and landed in tech. I had no real experience working in that industry, so I met with a few people who had startups that were working in that space and applied for internships. I’ve always loved working for startups because you get to be yourself. I could go to work however I liked, I didn’t have to worry about having to take out my nose ring or dressing a certain way. That was one thing I didn’t like about the hotel industry, as you were made to fit into a box. Back then I had to wear a suit everyday and my makeup had to be a certain way and I never felt like myself. Working in startups also gave me perspective, specifically that people were really there to get the job done. It was less about how you looked and more about coming in and getting things done, being a hacker really, as you’re not given too many resources. You’re given a problem and then told to go and solve it.
After a short internship, I was offered a job at Bootup Entrepreneurial Society. I was there for just under two years and I was responsible for many different things, as you are in a startup environment, but primarily I worked in the community events and brand space. Through Bootup, I was introduced to a lot of amazing entrepreneurs as we put on over 150 events to bring together the community. At some point, I went to go work at a growing start up in the gaming space called A Thinking Ape, and I spent about four years there. I think I was employee ten, I was really brought in at a time where they were looking to grow, expand and build their brand presence. My focus in that position was targeting university engineer students to co-op during their studies and then potentially work with us after. When I left, I think there were about ninety employees, so it was an exciting place to be in the company at the time.
While working at A Thinking Ape, I formed great friendships with a lot of people, including the company’s three founders. Outside of my 9-5, Fouad, my partner and I, started working on what is now Woodlot. Fouad had already been making his own products (mainly soap), and when I first met him, he hadn’t bought a soap bar in years. One holiday season, almost 3 years ago, we were doing long distance and were spending a lot of our money just to see each other. When the holiday’s came around, we wanted to gift our loved ones but didn’t necessarily want to have to break the bank. So instead of buying gifts, we made our friends candles and soap bars, some nice things they could enjoy at home. Friends then also bought them to gift to their friends. It was really fun! We started working with a friend who is a designer and went through all these different series of exercises of brainstorming on names, and talking about if this was a company what would it be? What would it look like?
Ready, Set, GO!
In May of 2014, we did our first summer pop-up and Kinfolk dinner. I reached out to the organizers of the Kinfolk dinner that was happening at Matchstick Coffee and was like, ‘Hey, I noticed that Kinfolk is working with you to put on this dinner and a lot of your contributors and providers are local. We’re new and we’d love to introduce our product to this community.’ We ended up providing candles for the event, and people loved how simple and minimal they were. Shortly after, a friend of mine said, ‘Hey, I think you should consider having your product in Le Marché St George. They do this amazing pop-up twice a year and they’re doing their summer pop-up right now. It could be a really great fit.’ Janaki, the owner and I were emailing to set things up but it was Fouad who brought them some candles, and that's not really his area of expertise…that’s actually his area of awkwardness (laughs), but that ended up being our first store! From there we started getting emails from stores both locally and across Canada. It’s really fun but there’s been a lot of learning curves, there were things we had no idea about.
The founders of A Thinking Ape, my day job still at the time, saw that I was really enjoying this new venture. We often discussed things outside of work and they wanted to know more about what we were creating. They ended up taking us out for dinner one night and were like, ‘Have you ever entertained the idea of taking this on full time?’ And to be honest yes, but I was also scared as I was in this great company that was growing, I worked with awesome people, and financially I was stable. Also, I’m in my 30’s and I had the thought that maybe I should be focusing on getting married and having a baby. It took me a while to be okay with the decision and I didn't know if it was the right thing to do, but then — we just decided to do it. We ended up receiving a small seed investment from them to help us shake off those nerves and they were like, ‘Okay, now go with it, have fun, and grow.’ That first winter was really interesting, a lot of learning, a lot of really quick turn arounds and now we’re in year two and its really exciting.
Food For Thought
I’m really inspired by nature and if I could spend a lot of my time traveling and being in forests or nature, I’d be really happy. The food industry also inspires me, and this is probably due to the fact that Fouad has worked a lot in food and still does... and because I love food. But the reason is, if you look at evolving industries and industries that are changing how people approach what they subject their bodies to, the food industry kind of started that first way of thinking. As a customer, knowing where your food comes from, knowing the farmers, all of that is important. Even the rise of certain health foods like kale and turmeric for example, that have longevity and have even found their way into other industries. I was raised on golden milk, so this recent craze isn't new to me, but turmeric is in my blood, it’s following in my body everyday.
The beauty industry is something that I just fell into as it’s not something I ever thought I’d be in. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the beauty industry stereotypes, and I’m so against the grain when it comes to this industry. But I feel like with being a part of the beauty industry there’s also an opportunity to talk about more than just product. There’s an opportunity to talk about the anthropology of beauty, and beauty ideals and how it impacts our daily lives. I’m also interested in conversations around pro-aging. I’m inspired by women that are interested in taking care of themselves in the process of aging, instead of obsessing about how they look as they age.
One of the things that I’ve recognized as a challenge, but that I’m taking as an opportunity, is to learn more about myself and grow. When you are working for yourself you quickly learn what you are good at what you aren’t — you lose the ego quick (laughs). When you’re working in an environment where you’re surround by some really amazing people and you each have your own responsibilities and what not, it can feel like you’re so good at all these different things. But what you forget is that you have all these resources and tools that exist to help you get your job done, and this includes the people that are around who’s knowledge you can tap into. Now though, I’m not afraid to tell people what I’m not good at. And as we bring more employees on board, we’re looking for others who complement our talents, who’s strengths are different than our own. As entrepreneurs though, we feel so lucky to have a great network of people who have started companies, some who are at a different stage in their businesses, where they’re a bit more comfortable and have a few other systems in place. I think the best piece of advice I was given from the founders of my previous job was to take care of yourself. Exercise, go for a walk, eat well. Yes you can work eighteen hours a day but you’re not going to be your best if you’re not taking care of yourself.
The customer experience is so important to me. Each customer that orders off our website receives a little hand written note, or sample of one of our products. I feel like people are missing that kind of connection. Receiving something from someone who has taken the time to package it up nice and write something for them is special. We get emails from people that are coming back and reordering every month because they love our soap. They’re the ones who are emailing and saying, 'I’ve used so many other soap bars before, both natural and non-natural, and I love what yours has done for my skin.' And that’s awesome, we’re very thankful for our customers. We’ve had big brands and influential people reach out where I’m like, ‘Woah, I can’t believe this person reached out and got in touch with me', and while that is great, I’ve also learned with some of those really big and exciting projects also comes a lot of twists and turns and ups and downs on the roller coaster. So it’s nice when you receive an email from someone that loves your product and you’ve retained them as a customer. We appreciate all our orders, both big and small.
We were just talking the other day that there’s been this influx of amazing people we’ve met while working on Woodlot. Whether it’s our graphic designer, people who want to contribute to our blog or just the amount of people that have shown interest. Because sometimes you doubt yourself, you’re putting yourself out there and you’re like, ‘Oh is anyone going to see this or even like this?’ Recently, we put out a job posting and got about 400 applicants and were like, ‘Woah, okay that’s cool!’ It's been really exciting to be able to talk and connect with some really awesome people along the way, we feel very grateful."
Interviews and photographed by Tianna Grey on 02.23.2016.