While Katie with Big White Yeti enjoyed working corporate jobs, something was missing. She started making candles in 2012 and it clicked. The process was fun and rewarding, and starting her own business allowed her to be truly creative. That feeling is reflected in the intriguing scent blends, colorful labels, and unique candle names. Get to know Katie below!
How long have you been making candles, and how did you get started? How long have you been selling your products?
I’ve been making candles for 9 years.
I started in December of 2012 while on a staycation from my corporate job - I had PTO I needed to use up by the end of the year, but didn’t take a real vacation. I found myself bored and stumbled across a recipe on Pinterest for making soy candles in mason jars. I figured, “I like candles. I can figure this out. I can make a candle.” And after making a few mason jar soy candles on our apartment’s gas stove, I fell down the rabbit hole of researching ingredients, finding better ingredients than what I could find at my local craft store, and working on making my candles better and better.
After a few months, our apartment was full of candles. And our friends and family suddenly had more candles than they knew what to do with. So our little Etsy shop opened in February 2013 selling a few scents such as Lavender Patch, Yeti’s Breath, and Kitten Toots, under the name Big White Yeti.
Now we’ve been in business for almost nine years. We sell online, at local events and markets, and wholesale to over 50 small businesses around the country. We also use our soy candle expertise to private label and do custom work for many other small businesses.
What do you love most about making bath and body products?
I love making consumable products. Something that someone loves, they welcome it into their home, they enjoy it until it’s gone, and then it gets recycled out and gives space for something new.
I’m a minimalist in many parts of my life, so I really enjoy using things like the fragrances and music to change the mood of different rooms in our home. And my hope is that through Big White Yeti, our customers can find not only a signature scent for their space, but change up the vibe and feel of that space whether it’s seasonally, or time of day, or depending on their mood through burning our candles.
And I love crafting the story around our brand and our candles. For example, a blend of strawberry, vanilla, and bergamot could be labeled exactly as its notes are defined by the supplier. But I think it’s a lot more fun to tell a story in the product copy about our two cats and how we wished they smelled as good as this candle, and how it’s an “aspirational” scent for cat owners and that’s why we called it “Kitten Toots.” Being able to be witty and insightful and a little cheeky with our product names and their descriptions is a wildly satisfying part of the business for me.
What inspires you to create?
I love the process of taking a creative idea and working it through the full development process. Taking a scent name idea or a fragrance sample from just a little vial of oil or a funny candle name from the early conversions that often start with; “wouldn’t it be funny if we made a candle called _____,” to tinkering with fragrance blends to moving into testing and then production and label creation is so rewarding to me.
Before Big White Yeti, I was an instructional designer and corporate trainer. And while I loved my jobs - I often found myself unsatisfied professionally because I was either facilitating content that was created by someone else or I was creating content that was generally formal and at times kinda stuffy. Big White Yeti scratches a creative itch for me. Candles can be stuffy and formal, but they don't have to be. They can be literal bits of light and brightness in your day and in your home. And there’s so much joy in having a brand that is built around this mythical bumbly creature - the Yeti. He’s just lighthearted and fun. And our candles are seriously high quality and good smelling - but they aren’t serious. My desire for my workdays to be lighthearted and fun is what inspires me to create.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to get started?
I have a couple pieces of advice here. First, everyone is going to have an opinion about you starting a business. And a lot of folks are going to be skeptical and critical because starting a business is scary - it’s more unknowns than knowns. But ultimately - the most important voice is the one inside you that knows the answer to why you want to start and why you want to do this.
A long time ago, I heard the expression, “there’s a lid for every pot.” I think it was actually in reference to dating. As in, “there’s someone for everyone.” But I think that expression is especially true for micro and small businesses. If you want to make bath bombs that have names and colors alluding to 70s rock songs, cool! Do it! There’s a niche for that.
There’s a group of people who want exactly that product to exist. If you want to make lip balms that smell like national parks - go make them! Niche down, get really specific. I think that’s where small businesses excel in a way that larger companies cannot. When it’s just one person running a business, especially at the beginning, you don’t have to do focus groups or answer to five different corporate departments before launching a product. You can go rogue. If you have a rad idea and you think it’s cool - make a great product, package it well, and get it in front of people - whether that’s in an online shop, or at local markets, or finding local consignment shops in your town. We all can pivot and respond to trends and customer feedback so quickly and without the messaging getting diluted by too many meetings or emails.
Find your tribe. Find other folks who are doing cool things and inspire you. Our group of small business friends are a constant source of motivation for me. I want to surround myself with other people who get what we’re doing and understand the unique challenges of small business life. These are going to be the people who fill your creative bucket when you need a little push or pick-me-up.
Candles from the Boozy collection
How did you get started selling your candles at markets/fairs? Any tips for business owners who want to try that route?
Getting involved with our community has been one of the most effective ways we’ve grown Big White Yeti.
I feel very fortunate that I live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a city with a vibrant small business, maker, and artist community. When I started making candles in 2012, I knew nothing about selling at local markets. But I saw that a new market was going to start taking place in our neighborhood that summer, so I applied. I had no idea what I was getting into, but we’ve now been participating in Milwaukee Makers Markets for nine seasons. Through the MMMs, we got to know other makers and small businesses, and found out about events in our city we should be vending at - street festivals, pop-up events, etc. The landscape of markets has evolved so much even in the 9 years we’ve been selling at events; I think it’s important to think beyond just looking for farmers markets and craft fairs. Art walks, neighborhood street festivals, pop-ups in brick and mortar stores. Even if you are in a small town, I bet there are places where you can set up your products and talk to potential customers.
I attribute a lot of our success to hustling and working a lot of events in the early years of our business. It’s a way for us to directly connect with our customers without the overhead of a brick and mortar storefront. I know it can be intimidating to put yourself out there, but if you love your product and are passionate about it, get in front of people and tell them why what you make is awesome.
This is very specific advice - but as you are designing your booth space, don’t limit yourself to putting your products on a 6 foot folding table with a chair behind it. It’s a literal barrier between you and your customer. And I get it - finding other options that are lightweight, affordable, and portable for events is hard. But it’s not impossible. Making your space at a market look different instantly makes folks want to see what you’re doing. Think about your favorite stores or boutiques, what are they using to display products that catch your eye? How are they interacting with their customers? Whether or not you intentionally do it, there is a customer experience when folks shop with you. So I try really hard to ensure we are crafting the experience in a way that sets our candles apart from the other things you are experiencing at that market. I want to make it an easy and joyful experience for the customer.
Who’s another maker you admire? What do you love about their work?
Danielle of Outlaw Soaps. We started our businesses roughly around the same time and I connected with her through the Indie Business Network. This is a woman who so unapologetically loves the life she has crafted and is intensely passionate about her brand. She’s so open about her experiences growing a brand; the good, the bad, and the weird. And her soaps are awesome - we always have a bar of Fire in the Hole next to our utility sink in the studio.
And Gloria and Mara of Artery Ink. These incredible women are our neighbors and friends, and a constant source of inspiration for us. Yes, they don’t make bath and body products. Rather, they have figured out how to take their love and talent of being artists and turned it into a brand that has a mission to help their customers improve their health and wellness. And they are a perfect example of being able to pivot quickly and adapt - during the pandemic they started focusing their apparel on the healthcare community and they’ve created a unique niche brand built upon the marrying of art and health and wellness.
What plans do you have for your business moving forward?
There was no plan at the beginning. Big White Yeti grew very organically for the first several years. It wasn’t my full-time job and I was most interested in just seeing where this little side hustle would take me. We fell into wholesale, and doing events, and adding scents to our product lines just because we were open to the opportunities presenting themselves. “Say yes and then figure it out” has always been my approach to opportunities and growth with our business.
As we continue to grow, I am starting to take my hands off of some of the day-to-day production work with the hiring of another candle maker. And we have an amazing shop assistant who is my left-hand woman (I’m a lefty); she gets all the things like prep work and shipping done so that I can focus more on the mid- and long-term direction and strategy of the business. So right now, we are starting to change the business a bit by being more self directed and proactive in painting the long-term story of Big White Yeti.
Moving forward, as we continue to grow, we would like to purchase a building here in Milwaukee. A place where we can have a legitimate loading dock for the first time. And a place that’s large enough for not only us, but also a few other local small businesses who have outgrown their homes but aren’t necessarily looking for a traditional brick and mortar storefront. The landscape of small business has changed so much in the last decade or so - I think there's a great opportunity for us to support our local maker community with a dedicated and affordable space.
Katie's top Bramble Berry picks
We’ve been using Bramble Berry products since the very beginning of Big White Yeti. In fact, as soon as I knew there were better quality, more interesting fragrance options out there beyond what I could get at a local craft store, Bramble Berry became one of our favorite suppliers.
- Lingonberry Spice Fragrance Oil - I’m always excited when I’m blending candles that contain Lingonberry Spice. It’s such a complex blend of holiday spice without smelling like every other Christmas candle you’ve ever smelled.
- Spearmint Eucalyptus Fragrance Oil - Similarly, I love when the studio is filled with Bramble Berry’s Spearmint Eucalyptus fragrance. It instantly transports me to an outdoor spa at a luxury hotel overlooking a beautiful sunset dipping into the mountains.
- Sandalwood Vanilla Fragrance Oil - Sandalwood Vanilla smells like hugging a dear friend - I have a diffuser of it in our hallway right now and every time I walk past it, I feel warm and cozy.
- Tobacco and Bay Leaf Fragrance Oil - And finally, Tobacco and Bay Leaf is a blend we use in a couple custom projects and I love it blended with everything. It’s so complex and provides beautiful depth and intrigue to blends.
I know this sounds like an ad, but Bramble Berry has fragrance blends I can’t find anywhere else. They’re one of my favorite fragrance suppliers.
What’s the first Bramble Berry project you tried?
This is going way back, but the Chai Tea Latte Candle Tutorial was the first Bramble Berry tutorial I ever played with. I know not all the ingredients are available anymore, but that just means you can be creative with the fragrance you use (maybe it’s Caffe Latte or Sweet Cardamom Chai or Dark Roast Coffee).
And as the parent to a toddler, I love the Monster-Be-Gone Magic Spray (also timely with Halloween around the corner). In our house, we call our bedtime spray Yeti Protector, since our company is Big White Yeti. But no matter what you call it, this is such a simple project with a lot of room for customization that you can create with your kids.
Find Big White Yeti