Ask your customer’s opinion/feedback. Frequently! You can guess all you want about how your customers view your business or think about your product. Why don’t you stop wasting your time guessing, and just ask them?
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Roering. Katie Roering is the Co-Founder and CEO at Fontana Candle Company.
Katie is a career entrepreneur, having been self-employed since graduating college with a degree in Business Management in 2011. She has partnered in and helped found four companies in the last decade.
Most notable, at the age of 24, she helped found The Complete Canine Center. The 5,500 sq ft dog daycare, grooming, and training center located in Lancaster, PA quickly became a success. The Mobile Grooming unit they operated was completely booked at all times. In less than a year and a half in business, the company was named Best Groomer and Runner Up Kennel in a very competitive industry. The company repeated the awards the following year, beating out dog facilities that have been in business for decades. From Katie’s leadership at The Complete Canine Center, she was named Lancaster County’s Young Female Entrepreneur of the Year in 2016.
Katie learned invaluable lessons from operating her canine center. Most importantly, she learned to run your business like a marathon, and not a sprint. After three years of a grueling schedule, and a physically demanding job, she experienced extreme burnout and illness and had to walk away from her beloved canine center.
She never thought she would own a candle company, but Fontana Candle Co. was born in 2018. Created by Katie and her husband, Eric, Fontana was founded to provide the market with a non-toxic candle made from only all-natural ingredients: “It’s not just about candles. It’s about creating a happy, healthy lifestyle.” Their mission became to educate consumers on the toxins in everyday products and how to choose quality natural products. The company is known for its transparency and education; a rare combination in the Candle Industry. The company works with wellness ambassadors around the United States including licensed naturopathic doctors, hormone practitioners, and certified nutritionists to spread the word.
Fontana was named an Emerging Business of the Year for 2019 by the Central Penn Business Journal and sales have been increasing exponentially every month. Fontana is no longer just a candle business in a crowded industry, but now an industry leader in the all-natural candle space.
Although Katie enjoys all aspects of running her business, Marketing and Branding is her greatest passion. After attending many Maker’s Markets for Fontana, she noticed that many of the artisans needed help with their marketing. Brand Builder Marketing & Consulting was born as a result. Katie has helped various small business owners hit their marketing goals. She specializes in designing websites, social media management, and digital marketing campaigns.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I have extremely fond memories of my childhood. I am an only child and was blessed with a loving and supportive family. From a very young age, I was extremely quiet and introverted. I preferred spending my time with my parents and grandparents. My hobbies included reading, writing, and art. I seemed to have an extraordinary connection with animals. Especially dogs and horses. My parents tried to send me to a summer camp one year and I HATED It. I remember being forced to play capture the flag and that was my last straw. I demanded to come home and ended up back at my grandparent’s house for the rest of the summer. I couldn’t have been happier. I’m not as shy as I used to be, but I would classify myself as an extroverted introvert!
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah-ha” moment with us?
My husband and I always knew we wanted to own a business together, but we didn’t know what that business was going to be. We had an idea it could be the candles when we began giving them as gifts to family and friends who loved them so much that they asked to buy them. We decided to participate in a local Maker’s Market one weekend and our stand was one of the most popular at the market. There was so much excitement about our candles and the sales greatly exceeded our expectations. That really solidified to us that we had a viable business and gave us the confidence to invest our savings into starting Fontana.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
When my now-husband and I were dating, we bonded over our common love of entrepreneurship. He was a partner in a startup beverage company and I owned my canine center. We began dreaming of owning multiple businesses together and building a business empire. We just never dreamed we would own a candle company. His background is in finance and accounting and mine is in management and marketing. Our expertise meshes together perfectly.
Since we already had the experience and knowledge, our catalyst was when we determined our WHY for Fontana. Once you are passionate about your mission, you become unstoppable.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
I’m more of a realist, having turned three passions of mine into multiple businesses. Crossing over from hobby to business is not a decision to take lightly. It is extremely HARD work. When you own a business, especially in the start-up phase, it has the tendency to completely consume your life. You run the risk of losing the joy of your hobby, as burnout sets in. It becomes something you don’t choose to do, but HAVE to do. Make sure you are able to work past this phase.
Make sure your hobby or pastime can sustain you financially. Is your business plan financially sound? Can you sustain yourself financially for a few years until your company is able to turn a profit? If you are already reluctant, you probably shouldn’t do it.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
I couldn’t agree with this more. I experienced this first hand with my canine center. After three years of an absolutely grueling schedule, I completely burned out. I got to the point where I could barely stand, let alone walk and train dogs twelve hours a day, six or seven days a week. My once unwavering passion for dogs was completely gone.
The problem was that we had employees, but we did not utilize them effectively. The day to day operations relied too much on me, for far too long. I was killing myself running both the daily operations of walking and training the dogs and then cramming in time to work on the marketing, finances, etc. You must have a plan to phase out working IN your business every waking moment, and instead work ON your business. I read the E Myth by Michael Gerber far too late. I had two partners at the time, and they did not agree with my view of phasing us out into Management and giving the employees more responsibilities of daily operations. I made the difficult decision to sell my shares to my partners and walk away from the business that had become my identity. It was a very difficult time for me; it felt like I was mourning a death in my family.
I learned a very important lesson that I utilized from the very beginning with Fontana. We have a plan in place to delegate out tasks as we grow. It reassures me that we have a plan to not have this business burn me out. After an extremely busy holiday season, we realized it was time to delegate order fulfillment. We just turned it over to a local fulfillment center, and it was the best decision we could have made. Instead of spending my time packing boxes; I am using my talents to market the business. The first month after this change, our sales increased by 389%!
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
I will do anything to not work for someone else! I could not imagine sitting in a cubicle every day from 9 to 5. I truly am in charge of my day and love having a flexible schedule. Working with my husband and my mom is a plus! I have so much pride in our product and our mission. My husband and I are not having children, so our business is like our life project together. We are as proud of our business as if it would be a child!
Finding a work-life balance when you own a business with your family is tough. The work never ends, and it would be easy for us to talk about it all the time. I didn’t want to work 9 to 5, so I work 6 to 7 instead! Sometimes we just have to put it aside for our sanity and mental health.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
We thought about it as being a business from very early on, so I had a pretty good grasp of what tasks and daily operations would entail. However, with having owned a physically demanding service business with the canine center, I am loving the difference of owning an e-commerce based product business! I don’t have to feed the candles, walk the candles, and make sure they are cared for on Thanksgiving and Christmas!
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
I have never received a paycheck from Fontana. That is really tough. It has worn on my self-esteem at times. I’m doing the amount of work to warrant a 6 figure salary and I make absolutely nothing. But my belief in what the company can grow into keeps me going. I do not receive a paycheck, because investing in the growth of my company is much more important to me. As entrepreneurs do, I came up with a solution to my paycheck problem. I founded Brand Builder Marketing & Consulting, helping other small businesses and “Makers” with their branding, social media marketing, and website design in my “free” time. I would much rather own multiple businesses to try to scrape together a paycheck, than work for someone else!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we first started formulating our essential oil candles, we knew they were flammable. However, we didn’t realize how much more flammable! When we started test burning them, the entire top of the candle caught on fire. We had to go back to the drawing board and experiment with the formulas!
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
My grandfather on my mom’s side was an extremely gruff and sometimes difficult man. I remember wanting to earn his respect from a very early age. Having owned a successful dairy business and ice cream shop, he later pivoted into a large spring water business; he valued hard work. I set to work and spent my summer days mucking horse stalls in his barn, weeding his garden, and learning how to trim trees and cut grass on his property. He taught me how to work hard, work fast, and to take pride in my work.
Because of him, I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a business owner. I wanted to emulate his success. When he was on his deathbed in 2016, I wrote him a letter thanking him for shaping my life by giving me my work ethic and tough skin.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
My dad was a huge part of our early days of Fontana. He helped us with everything: making candles, delivering them, working at Makers Markets. He passed away unexpectedly in January 2019 from complications from Lymphoma. My dad was one of my best friends and biggest cheerleaders and I was devastated. We decided to donate a portion of sales at the end of 2019 to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in his honor. We qualified for a matching campaign and $1400 was donated. Because Lymphoma is thought to be cancer caused by toxins, it aligned with our mission on educating consumers about the harmful toxins in their everyday lives. We are continuing this mission and will be donating to the LLS again in 2020. I know my dad is looking down on us and is very proud of what we have accomplished.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Be careful who you partner with. This is crucial. After partnering with a mother and daughter team for my canine center, I would not make that mistake again. Make sure your vision for your business aligns with your partners’ visions, and make sure you agree on financial management.
- Overestimate the amount of working capital you will need. You will always need more than you think you will, so if you overestimate this amount, you might actually be accurate.
- Underestimate the number of sales you will make. We all think we have the best product or service in the world, and we are going to set the world on fire with sales! What do you REALISTICALLY think you will sell? This is what should go into your forecast.
- Ask your customer’s opinion/feedback. Frequently! You can guess all you want about how your customers view your business or think about your product. Why don’t you stop wasting your time guessing, and just ask them?
- Marketing, Marketing, Marketing. Professional branding is MUST if you want your business to be taken seriously. There are thousands of candle businesses that are started every year. Why did Fontana face early success, when others just flounder? We used professional marketing and branding that made us look like a much larger company than we actually were. We clearly articulated our mission and what made us different from all of the other candles on the market. We got so many incredible opportunities as a result. We were too tiny to take advantage of some of the opportunities, but we gained many contacts to use in the future
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
This is what we are doing every day! Much like BeautyCounter is for cosmetics, and BranchBasics is for cleaning products, it is not just about selling candles for us. We are educating and inspiring our customers to create a healthy, happy lifestyle!
To take this a step further, I dream of having the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) repealed. Under this Act, fragrances are considered proprietary blends and their formulas are considered trade secrets. Unless consumers and small candle companies pay for independent lab testing, they literally can not know what chemicals are in a fragrance they are using. Consumers have the right to know what potential carcinogens and respiratory irritants are in the candles they are burning.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Contrary to popular belief, my experience has shown me that the people who are exceptionally good in business aren’t so because of what they know but because of their insatiable need to know more.”—Michael E. Gerber, The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It
A passion for lifelong learning is imperative for an entrepreneur. There is always something new to learn, and I strive to carve time out of each week for reading or attending seminars. Marketing is the area I am most passionate about, so I’m always striving to learn everything I can about new strategies, platforms, you name it! In December, I completed the Digital Marketing: A Strategic Prospectives course from Yale School of Management Executive Education. The course gave me an invaluable insight into creating value through the customer journey. Today I am watching a webinar about how retailers are finding success with Pinterest shoppers. There is always something to learn!
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I don’t watch much TV, but when I do, I love it when it is related to business. The Profit with Marcus Lemonis is one of my guilty pleasures. I think his insight into growth and planning in business across varied industries is mind-boggling! I would love to have his insight into our business!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
About the Author
Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 500 works in print. He has contributed to Entrepreneur, Monster, Thrive Global and is published on all inhabited continents. His first book is a visceral, no-holds-barred look at worker safety, I Know My Shoes Are Untied! Mind Your Own Business. An Iconoclast’s View of Workers’ Safety. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. His third book, Blood In My Pockets Is Blood On Your Hands is expected in March followed by Loving An Addict: Collateral Damage Of the Opioid Epidemic due to be released in June. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke or read his weekly blog www.philladuke.wordpress.com