Two seemingly discordant things: work stress that contributed to a debilitating back injury, and a beautiful new home with an awe-inspiring water view, illuminated the way for Brenda Hunter to take a leap of faith — out of bed as it were — and create Connecticut River Candles.
What began purely for fun five years ago as one candle poured into a mason jar, labeled with a photo of the view outside her living room window, is now a thriving cottage industry selling 100 percent natural, handmade soy candles.
Hunter now offers more than 60 scents in three jar styles that she cooks up in her garage "laboratory" and labels with pictures of the river at different angles and seasons. She also sells soy melts, tarts, and candle tools. To date, Hunter has 65 wholesale and 38 retail accounts and has sold thousands of candles.
Hunter and her husband Alan moved into their new home in Haddam in the spring of 2007.
"We still can't believe we're here," she said. "We were looking for something on the water, and were so glad the house was so dilapidated that we could afford it! We did a huge renovation."
Meanwhile, Hunter was out on leave from her job as assistant director of technical support at UCONN Health Center. Recuperating from fusion surgery, all she could do was lie in bed, and use her computer for limited periods of time.
"I started researching making candles for myself," she said. "I'd always been into crafts — baskets, painting needlework. I always liked to work with my hands."
Hunter did lots of research both online and in books and then bought starter kits and began testing different types of candles. She made a prototype and immediately thought of Connecticut River Candles as the name of a business before the idea of starting a business had even occurred to her.
She decided to use soy for her candles, as all the research she came up with indicated that it was a better choice than paraffin: cleaner and slower burning and biodegradable. And soybeans—unlike paraffin, which is petroleum-based—is a renewable source.
At her husband's urging, after almost a year of making candles for herself, friends, and family, Hunter held her feet to the fire and took candle making to the next level as a full-fledged business. Her first retail account was her husband's store—Hunter's Pool Center in Wallingford—and the business quickly grew from there.
"Alan was really supportive and (pointed out) that I was in a good place to do this, with no overhead," Hunter says. "I could have eventually gone back to work full-time in Farmington. I made really good money. But sitting (for hours) in an office wasn't good for my back, and until I left my job, I didn't realize how much stress I was under."
As much as she enjoys being an entrepreneur and creating something with her own hands, Hunter admits there were challenges in getting the company off the ground.
"As an IT person, I was dealing with people from the perspective of technical support and problems—troubleshooting," she explains. The (product) testing and learning ... was similar to what I did in IT, but I hadn't ever done sales, marketing, purchasing. You have to sell not only your product, but yourself. That was really weird."
Besides her 27-year-old daughter, who lives nearby, helping her out in the busy seasons, Hunter is, for the most part, a one-woman show. "This was the first year I was thinking I needed part-time help," she says. "But I'm kind of a control freak…"
Hunter reminds herself that the original intent was to do something she actually enjoys.
"I was determined that this was going to be fun, not turn into something I dreaded doing."
And she has no doubts that the benefits of her new vocation outweigh any downsides.
"I love that the candles portray boating, living on the river, and that it says Connecticut on it," she stresses. "People love the logo with a ship's wheel—it's more than a candle in a jar. It's very personal to me. Everything I do, I put a lot of thought into."
She could have gone with a cheaper jar lid, for example, but liked how the heavier lid looked. And when requested, she offers customized products like un-dyed candles.
She even worries that people will leave the house with a candle burning or not burn the candles properly, and thus includes a detailed candle care and safety tab on her website.
Despite her decision to leave a computer-centric job, Hunter says she really enjoys the social media part of what she does; designing her website and using Twitter and Facebook.
"And I love the flexibility of working out of my home," she says. "If it's crappy weather, I don't have to travel. I can schedule my own time. It can be what you want it to be."
Interacting with customers is another bonus of being a sole proprietor. She personally delivers her candles to local accounts and likes how it connects her to her community.
Above all, "I love the finished product," she says. "It's a tangible thing that I created from beginning to end."
You can purchase CT River Candles at CONNfetti on Golden Street in downtown New London. For more locations and information, visit ctrivercandles.com and facebook.com/ctrivercandles.