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Lighting the Way - Alumna entrepreneur shares her success with customers, employees

By Eric Nelson

Brittany Whitenack, founder and chief visionary officer of Antique Candle Co., believes in second chances.

After graduating from Purdue’s business school in 2012 with a degree in management, the Lafayette, Indiana, native began her career journey as the assistant manager of a Chicago-area Super Target that generated about $62 million in annual revenue and employed more than 70 people.

“I loved their onboarding and training program, and it felt amazing to be in a leadership position at only 22 years old,” Whitenack says. “I was right where I expected to be.”

The job soon became overwhelming, however. “When I opened the store, I had to get there super early. And when I had to close the store, I wouldn’t get home until after 1 a.m.,” she says. “It was exhausting. I had no work-life balance and thought to myself, ‘Is this it? Is this really how life after college is supposed to be?’”

Taking a leap of faith, Whitenack left her position at Target without having another job lined up and returned to Lafayette. “I was burned out and needed a break,” she says. “I filled my time with hobbies like painting and baking bread before buying a $200 candle-making kit online. At first it was just another creative outlet, but after a while I began to think of it as a potential business.”

According to Plan

Drawing on her Purdue education, Whitenack drafted a business plan that she hoped would eventually generate enough revenue for her to earn the same salary she’d had at Target. Working out of her kitchen, she scoured area antique stores and flea markets for Ball jars, coffee tins, teacups, and other vintage items that could be used as candle holders before selling her finished wares online and at craft shows, farmer’s markets and similar small-business venues.

Brittany Whitenack
Founded in 2014 by Purdue alumna Brittany Whitenack, Antique Candle Co. generates nearly $10 million in revenue annually and serves more than 1.4 million customers on its website.

“I made a whopping $16,000 in revenue in my first year,” Whitenack says. “I did about $30,000 the second year, and around $120,000 by the third year. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I was happy and loved the work.”

Whitenack says she entered “full-blown discovery mode” every time a customer approached her candle booth. “I was observing their behavior when they would open up a candle lid and smell carrot cake, for example,” she says. “I learned about product. I learned about demographics and pricing. And that allowed me to gain a lot of traction into who my customers are and what they want.”

Meanwhile, Whitenack continued running her business solo, including production, shipping and marketing. “I realized I needed help, so I moved the company out of my house and hired a part-time candle maker at 20 hours a week,” she says. “That gave me back 20 hours to focus on the customer and growing the business.”

Interestingly, another one of Whitenack’s first full-time hires was a photographer. “We put a lot of effort into our e-commerce site, but if you're selling an online good, you want a beautiful photo so customers can clearly see the product,” she says. “But it’s hard to sell candles when you can’t smell them, so we use strong visual imagery to help them imagine the different scents.”

Brittany Whitenack making a candle
Using only clean-burning, long-lasting soy wax, Brittany Whitenack and her team continue to create new fragrances and develop new products such as multi-wick and wood-wick candles.

Growing Pains

More employees and several moves for the company soon followed, along with new challenges — especially scaling up a small business into a viable company without the aid of outside venture capital.

“There were weeks when I feared we wouldn’t meet payroll or have enough cash on hand to pay for a supply of wax,” Whitenack says. “Those were some stressful, lean times, but I was committed to not quitting my job when things got tough this time. I wanted to see it through.”

Thanks in no small part to Whitenack’s Boilermaker grit and resiliency, the growth continued year after year.

“We hit about a million dollars in revenue by year four or five,” Whitenack says. “I had a team of about a dozen folks, some full-time, some part-time. And I was serving thousands of customers. They were on our website, they were on our email and text list, and I was using organic social media posts and influencer marketing to engage them further.”

An ongoing marketing campaign began when Antique Candle Co. invited its customers to help pick the company’s next new candle. “We call them candle testers,” Whitenack says. “We send four fragrances to their door. They test them in their home, complete a survey, give their honest feedback, and then we give them a coupon code in exchange. It continues to be very successful and popular.”

“There were weeks when I feared we wouldn’t meet payroll or have enough cash on hand to pay for a supply of wax. Those were some stressful, lean times, but I was committed to seeing it through.”

The COVID pandemic brought another surge of “crazy growth,” aided by the introduction of free shipping. “A lot of online shoppers abandon their carts when they’re hit with extra fees trying to check out,” Whitenack says. “We want to make sure they complete their purchase without any surprises.” The company also offers a 100% “happiness guarantee” that refunds customers’ purchases if they don’t like the scent or find anything unfavorable about the product.

Another important differentiator for customers is the company’s open embrace of faith. “We share scripture with our customers on our website and welcome them to submit prayer requests,” Whitenack says. “There’s a genuine care, and people find that very comforting and encouraging.”

Working Right

Whitenack’s mind isn’t always on her customers, however.

“As we continued to grow, I started thinking about what type of employer I wanted to be,” she says. “What can I give to my employees? I wanted to create a place where they can celebrate their fun side but still have the resources to do their jobs. I wanted to give them the power to become decision makers for the business. And I wanted to give them a place where they have permission to be themselves.”

Whitenack and her co-workers, wearing Purdue gear
“Because of our proximity to Purdue, many of our employees are alumni or students. Their individual contributions, talents and determination are a true reflection of the Boilermaker spirit.”

She also wanted a permanent facility with air-conditioning after leasing several buildings without it. “A candle-making factory is already hot, so summers were horrible,” Whitenack says. “We needed a place we could call home that would also improve the wellbeing of our workforce.”

Making the new location run efficiently was another priority, so Whitenack relied on her employees’ input in setting up the production and shipping areas. “They’re the ones doing the work, so it just made sense for them to contribute to the process,” she says. “They had a lot of great ideas to improve our operations and automation.”

Today, a decade after its founding, Antique Candle Co. has revenue approaching $10 million annually, 40 to 70 full- and part-time employees depending on the time of year, and more than 1.4 million shoppers on its website. Its products are also carried in more than 650 brick-and-mortar stores across the U.S. and Canada.

Still, Whitenack says people come before profits. That focus has earned the company three consecutive employee-validated certifications as a Great Place to Work among small manufacturing and production businesses — a point of pride for both Whitenack and her “candle crew.”

“Because of our proximity to Purdue, many of our employees are alumni or students,” she says. “They’re the reason the business is where it’s at today. Their individual contributions, talents and determination are a true reflection of the Boilermaker spirit.”


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