Crafting A Company

Karla Barnett’s journey to becoming a maker began one evening during a dinner at her home.

“We had a friend over to see if I might be able to get a job selling insurance with her,” Karla explains. “I’m a stay-at-home mom, and I’ve been home-schooling my son since the first grade, so I was trying to find something to earn a little extra income.”

Although the dinner didn’t lead to the job she was after, it set her on an unexpected path that would ultimately deliver her to success as an entrepreneur.

“She mentioned she’d always wanted to learn to make soy candles,” Karla recalls. “I said, ‘That would be fun.’ To which she replied, ‘Well I’ve got the stuff, and I haven’t used it. If I give it to you, will you learn how to do it and teach me?’ I said, ‘Sure! I wouldn’t mind learning.’”

And learn she did.

“I watched YouTube videos and read everything I could find,” she shares. “Pretty soon, I was pouring my first candle and was like, ‘Oh my gosh. This is awesome. I love this!’”

After seeing what a hit the candles were with friends, she transformed her experiment into a business.

“They were like ‘Make me some candles.’ and ‘I want this scent,’” she recalls. “That allowed me to see what was the most popular and build from there.”

She wasn’t alone on her journey from hobbyist to professional.

“I started Little Oak with my husband, Cole. He’s a lawyer for a private firm, but he’s also my managing partner,” she shares. ”He’s helped in every aspect—from the logo design and naming the company, attending festivals with me and helping sell candles, to just being there to discuss ideas and concerns.”

Karla started whipping up her candles in her kitchen at her home in Ocala, but she recently upgraded to a fully equipped candle workshop when the family relocated to Gainesville. This allowed her to grow the operation and continue to home-school her 10-year-old son, C.R., who she strives to keep academically challenged. But the true bosses in the house, rescue-dog Donut and rescue-cat Rey, aren’t even on the payroll.

How did the Barnetts know how to create a brand?

“I don’t have a business degree,” Karla admits. “All I had were my own experiences to go by. When I bought candles at the store, I would wind up with that black film around the top of the container. When I started my research, I found out that many candles have paraffin in them. Paraffin is a petroleum product. I thought, ‘I don’t want to put that in my candles.’ Soy wax comes from soybeans, so they are eco-friendly and 100 percent renewable.”

But that wasn’t the only thing they decided to leave out of the mix.

“We are all used to a candle being a certain color and associating that color with a particular scent,” she offers. “But that is just an added dye and has nothing to do with the scent. So we don’t use them. Our candles are paraffin-free [and] phthalate-free, and our wicks are lead- and zinc-free,” Karla explains. “Many commercial candles will put lead or zinc in the wick. Ours is 100 percent cotton with a wax coating.”

What was equally as important was where the materials for their candles come from.

“Everything we use is sourced and manufactured here in the United States,” says Karla.

Then it was time to put the candles to the test.

“I applied to the Ocala Downtown Market and got right in. It was fall, and people were looking for Christmas gifts, so I hit at the right season.” she recalls. “Everyone was very receptive and liked that there was this person in their town making candles. That first day, I really wasn’t expecting to sell anything. But we sold 25 or 30 candles. The Ocala community was fantastic. Soon after, Laura from Florida Local Exchange found me and said, ‘Hey, I am opening this store. It’s only for local vendors.’ The fact that her store has hours every day, not just Saturday mornings, is fantastic.” she continues. “Then we got into Earth Fare. That was super exciting. It’s a fantastic store, and I am so happy our candles are available for their customers.”

But the candles have also simultaneously brought out something new in Karla and something nostalgic to her customers.

“I’m naturally an introvert, but interacting with customers feeds me,” she shares. “I love when someone smells a candle and says something like, ‘Gosh, this reminds me of my grandmother’s garden.’ It makes me genuinely happy to spark a memory in someone.”

She also made good on that bargain.

“I did teach my friend how to make candles, and now she has her own little candle company as well.” she explains. “I also now teach candle-making classes for all ages. It’s super fun because it makes people happy, and why wouldn’t you want to make someone happy?”

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