Some of you might remember Dianna Allen from July 2019, when she was on the Indie Hackers Podcast sharing Budget Meal Planner, which she'd grown to thousands of subscribers. Since then, Dianna has launched a DTC candle brand, Terra, where she hand makes each and every product. In October 2020, Dianna made the leap to working full-time on her candle business, leaving behind her life of freelancing.
I loved this conversation because it's not your usual indie hacker software story, and I think there is a lot to learn from the ups and downs of running a physical product business, such as not having recurring revenue and much slimmer profit margins, whilst having to manage inventory and shipping.
James, why e-commerce and not SaaS?
What I've really enjoyed seeing over the past few years, and definitely as I've been more involved with indie hackers more recently, is the diverse range of side-projects people are working on. Initially, it seemed the majority were technical folk working on SaaS products.
While I do still think a big chunk of indie hackers are building software products (after all, that high-margin MRR is mighty attractive), there have been more and more people working on tools built with no-code, people creating info products, courses, communities and newsletters. The scope of being an indie hacker is broadening and it's really fun to see the creative ways people are earning a living online.
So, with this in mind, Dianna caught my eye when she posted on Twitter that she was about to take the plunge and go full-time with her handmade candle business.
It made me realise that being an indie hacker, bootstrapper or entrepreneur gives you the opportunity to make a life for yourself that can truly be fulfilling. You can earn your keep by building your software product, writing a book or selling candles on the internet.
The goal for Indie Bites is to help inspire as many people as possible to make profitable side-projects, that can, one day, turn into their full-time income. I don't want to put off those who aren't technical, or aren't sure if their idea can turn into a reality. When I hear stories like Dianna's, I get inspired, so I hope you do too.
So, what is it like running a hand made candle business?
As expected, it comes with it's pros and cons. I kicked off my conversation with Dianna talking about the wider benefits of creating a physical product with your hands. As someone who discovered leather working this year as a way to escape my worryingly high screen time, I've found the benefits of going from raw materials to a finished product go way beyond having something to sell online. Dianna thinks (as do I) that indie hackers should try making something with their hands at least once. That could be a wallet, a candle, ceramics, woodwork, clothing - the possibilities are endless.
I personally think everyone should at least try it at least once to just make something physical with their hands, for me, it's almost therapeutic.
When you're working with physical products you have to manage inventory while having cashflow to pay for materials to avoid running out of stock:
For example, early on in March, I had my biggest order for 1,500 candles. And with that order I needed to order 1,500 candle jars, all this wax, all this fragrance, all these supplies to fulfil this order that I did not have on hand at that moment. And I think I spent $3,000 - $4,000. Just to make sure that this order could happen. And in return, of course, I made that money back and then some, but it's you definitely need to have something in the bank if you want to grow.
What about that sweet sweet MRR?
Unfortunately, in a physical product e-commerce store, MRR is hard to come by.
I can only share my actual revenue because it's unpredictable, one month it could be $1k and the next month could be $5k the month after could be $3k.
Dianna has started a candle club to try and bring in some more predictable monthly revenue, but she feels confident enough with a baseline amount of revenue that comes in from candle sales because of the size of the brand that's she's built.
I really wasn't concerned whether it doubled month over month or anything, but since going full time, definitely watching the revenue is very important.
I feel like I'm a bit established at the moment, otherwise, why would I have gone full time? It is consistent enough, enough is coming in month over month. I don't know how to explain it, I just feel comfortable where it's at.
Shop small, shop local
Dianna attributes a lot of her growth from doubling down on being the best place to get candles in St. Louis. In fact, if you check her Twitter bio, Dianna is 'the candle dealer' (of St. Louis) ?
Seriously though, a lot of small businesses wouldn't be where they are today without the support of their community, and people who actively support small businesses, instead of the likes of Amazon.
For my leather crafting business, Whitstable Craft Co (IREADTHEBLOG for 25% off ?), I opted to be as involved in the local community as possible, even linking the brand identity and name to the community it serves.
I know a lot of indie hackers do an amazing job of supporting other indie hackers, and it would mean a lot if you extend this to the small physical businesses that are local to you. If you're about to purchase something from Amazon, do a quick search to see if a smaller business is selling the same thing.
This was such a fun conversation with Dianna - she's a bundle of energy which left me inspired after both of the conversations with her. If you want to find out more about TERRA, you can read Dianna's article on going from $100 to $52,000 in a year with the business.