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Starting a business can be intimidating–where do you start? How do you network? How do you know you’ve found your niche? For queer entrepreneurs, these questions can seem even more daunting. How do you “come out” to your demographic? Should you? Do you have a choice? For Pride month, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with three queer entrepreneurs: Charlie Ferrusi and Nick Ursiak of Essentially Charlie Candles and Surrae Shield of the River Road Sprinkle Company, and hear about their experiences, trials, and tribulations.
So tell us all about you
Charlie Ferrusi: My background is in public health. I have a Masters from New York University and work full-time in global health out of UCSF in San Francisco. Two and a half years ago I decided to start a candle company. I wanted to offer something different, like an alternative to soy and an alternative to synthetic fragrance. So I was really looking to create an eco-friendly, healthy candle that was also affordable. I imagine most candle-makers don’t necessarily have a background in public health, so thinking about how I could utilize that strength to really send home that message about the dangers of burning synthetic fragrance in your home and using synthetic fragrances and chemicals, and the toxicity of candles as they are currently in commercial form.
Nick Ursiak: I am from Western Pennsylvania and I moved to NYC in 2015. I started tackling my career towards graphic design and illustration. I went to school at IUP and studied fine arts and immediately after graduating I moved here, got a job at an agency, and have kind of just been hopping around through agencies ever since. Currently, I’m freelancing and found that, that is more of what I enjoy. You get to take control as a freelancer and it’s great when you’re able to focus on your side-hobbies and business. I can focus on the graphic design side of my career but also the illustrative product design aspect of everything and continue to work on my illustrations and promote my work on my Instagram, or my Etsy and sell my personal artwork.
Tell us about the company, what inspired you to start making candles?
Charlie: Because my background is so academic and I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur or creative, and I did so much volunteer work where I wasn’t necessarily getting paid, I thought ‘Maybe I can create something people would actually want to buy.’ Also ‘How I could create something new based on what I know?’I don’t necessarily think of myself as a creative person, but more like an educator. So I use the candles as a way to promote something else beyond the candles. It usually always goes back to me talking about soy as a crop, and how destructive it is, how many pesticides are used, how it contributes to deforestation and corruption, and all these larger ideas. I think people are drawn into that education piece. And I think I was able to intertwine that with just making a product.
During the pandemic, I think, people were burning so much in their homes and staying in with their windows closed. The fumes and any scented fragrance or perfume as an environmental hazard in the house wasn’t being talked about. When I started talking about that, I think a lot of people thought ‘I need to make my house a healthy space.’ So that was kind of the line of thinking.
I started making beeswax and coconut oil candles with essential oils, so I don’t use any synthetic fragrance, and I don’t use any soy or paraffin. I started offering candles on Etsy, and I was surprised to see that they were actually selling, because whenever you start to create your own business, your own product, you never know if it’s going to stick, or who’s going to buy it. Especially since the candle market is supersaturated. So when I started to get more sales and become well-known on Etsy, in my own little niche group, that’s when I started to explore more with vessel sizes and add-ons and more blends and different lines, different label designs, collaborations with people, partnerships and things like that. So that’s been most of the past year and a half.
Nick: For the design elements, Charlie always kind of had his initial logo set up and I was always there in the background watching the business slowly start to flourish. I come from a graphic design background and illustration background, so I just got to the point where I thought I would come in and spruce up the labels, and Charlie and I really collaborated on how to push them forward a bit.
My initial start to all of this was looking at what everyone else was doing. It definitely wasn’t how I wanted to approach it. I saw candle labels were all using the same generic, two-toned colors. Lots of blacks and browns and grays and whites. I’m a very illustrative person and a huge advocate for color, so I wanted to incorporate color from the start. I like to make the labels more simplified, more easy to read, more transparent. We’re always changing them, but right now I think we’ve landed in a really solid space. Trying to explore with how can we make these pop for the viewer and the buyers when they’re searching online.
Especially with the queer collection, that was a huge opportunity to get playful but still stay within that easy-to-read, noticeable, design realm. So we re-worked the queer labels to make them more in-line with the whole Essentially Charlie brand while involving a bit more illustration into the mix. So it’s very explorative but as of right now we’ve finally reached a nice, cohesive mark in our business and we’re really excited to see where the labels go from here on out. It’s been a good learning experience.
Tell us about what Pride month is like for your business.
Charlie: For us, Pride month is a great way to form some partnerships with local LGBTQ organizations that we end up donating money towards. Last year we donated a portion of our proceeds to the Audre Lorde Project and also to two Brooklyn-based venues that laid off a lot of staff during the pandemic. We were able to support their staff when they weren’t working. This year, we’re collaborating with an organization based out in Philly called Familia TQLM. It’s a Trans Queer Liberation Movement. We’re always really focused on small, grass-roots organizations that we can amplify while we’re selling a product. As two white, cis, gay men, we really want to make sure that we’re intentional, and uplifting women and queer people of color and trans folks.
We donate 25 percent of our proceeds. Typically we see a lot of companies donating 10 or 5 percent and we try to make sure we’re really uplifting someone or something in the process of selling a product so it’s not just us selling stuff and making money. Especially because, for us, it really is a side hobby and it’s a lot of fun.
Nick: So for our six queer candles, essentially, we focus on six main scents that can be a very fun culmination of the queer community. We have our signature Pride candle which is the overall candle, but then we start tapping into other things. Then we have Queen, which focuses on the fun of drag, and then we have ones such as Femme and Masc. We want it to appeal to everybody within the queer community, while also trying to make it make sense with the scents. With Queen, you may have more of a floral scent. With Masc, you may have more of a musky scent. We really try to individualize each one, which is something that a lot of candle companies don’t necessarily do. We try to really hit the nail on the head.
The design aspect is where we really start to have fun with the label. For Queen, while we’re incorporating the Essentially Charlie branding, this is a fun opportunity where we can still stay simple with the design, but start incorporating that illustration aspect. So, instead of using the Essentially Charlie logo in the center, we just swap that out with the little drag queen illustration.
We want it to stand out to the buyer as quickly as possible. And we want it to be really pretty in everyone’s homes so it will always have a place. And sometimes we go really far out with our collaborations. We do collaborate with people in the queer community. Our one friend Junior Mintt, a trans activist, likes to incorporate a lot of candy and minty accents into their candles, so we add that into the design. It’s a really great opportunity to showcase our work, and showcase the collaborator’s work as well.
Do you think being ‘Out’ as a queer entrepreneur has impacted your business?
Charlie: I personally, on my Etsy, have suppressed my queerness a little bit, for the purpose of staying true to the candles. At the beginning, I was trying to navigate who my customers were and whether they were queer-friendly. We had a Daddy candle, and it’s a funny word, it’s a queer word, and you don’t know how it’ll hit with other people. So for a while, I didn’t include that candle on my Etsy page. Nick has an Etsy page where he sells his art and the queer candles primarily. I would sell the more generic, pedestrian candles that were making us money and had a lot of sales. I had a hard time not wanting to lose that and not being quite sure who’s buying the candles and how much of myself I can really bring to the table.
With Etsy, it’s not about you. No one knows anything about you. No one knows my story unless I write it there—which I didn’t until recently. That’s what’s interesting about selling on Etsy. There’s no forward-facing part of it. So they’re supporting queer artists without knowing it. When we go to flea markets, they obviously know who we are. But I do think it’s more difficult for queer people to be themselves and be successful. I also think there’s that internalized idea of ‘How much of myself can I bring to the table, and will that distract people or make them not want to buy a candle or product?’ Whether or not that’s true doesn’t really matter because it messes with the creator’s mind and how they’re going to show up and do their work.
I hate to sacrifice the company’s business, but I also hate to not be myself. So it’s a fine line. I’m guessing that people don’t care, but we sell all across the world. It’s a little hard to always know how far you’re willing to push people. And people always think you’re trying to drive down an agenda or push something down other people’s throats. But it’s just Pride month and we’re selling queer lines of candles. The rest of the year I’m promoting winter scents and signature scents, so it’s really not a thing to be afraid of. But It’s definitely something that I’ve thought about.
Nick: I definitely agree. It’s kind of like the best of both worlds because you do have your main business that you’re trying to please everybody with, but also as a queer person, there’s a side of you that knows, if you want to go all out or embrace the community, you can. So I think there is this 50/50 that we experience in terms of markets or selling in person. We can sell at a normal HomeGoods market or we can sell at a queer market where it’s a completely different realm. We have these two separate homes that we can mesh together to the best of our ability.
And I think, as we’ve progressed, we’ve learned to find that balance. For the most part, we’re pretty authentic to ourselves. There’s very little that we keep away from our main audiences, but it is fun to know that if we really want to push the limits and go outside the box, I can rely on this different world of the queer community to have my back and accept what I want to experiment with. It always comes back with positive results. And if you can’t do that, you always have your other side of the business that’s just as supportive and usually always along for the ride. But it is nice to know that you can lean on one or the other if you need to.
Do you have any advice for other queer business owners or entrepreneurs just starting out?
Charlie: Don’t give up if you try something the first time and it doesn’t click. I started out making soap and it just didn’t stick. I made something for a while and no one bought it. And I tried to figure out what the candle market didn’t already have. I think that’s what everyone can do as an entrepreneur. Figure out what is not already being made, and how you can make it different in some aspect. Whether it be a cheaper, more accessible version, or creating something entirely new. What we were doing was something that not many others were doing—it’s still a candle, but what goes into the candle is where we went any direction we wanted. And we wouldn’t have had any sales if we went any other way.
Try to find something that no one else is doing. Or do it a different way if you’re doing something someone else is doing. And obviously don’t give up the first time you try. Then I think you can tap into another creative edge and try a different product or a different business. Perhaps you’ll be successful the other time around.
Nick: Some advice, especially for queer entrepreneurs, is we’ve really invested a lot in the community. I think as queer people, we are in such a tight-knit community, so don’t be afraid to share your work with others around you. Like we’ve said, we’ve turned it into a collaborative process. A lot of queer people are very creative and have a lot of energy and excitement and passion and drive. Don’t be afraid to reach out. A lot of the time, they will love what you’re doing and they might want to collaborate with you. Then it just becomes an event.
You start selling together, shooting ideas off of one another. Don’t be afraid to invest with other people. Charlie is very good at walking up to people and saying ‘Hey, we love what you’re doing, this is what we’re doing. If you’re ever interested, reach out to us!’ And a lot of the time, they go ‘Absolutely, we would love to!’ Before you know it, they’re selling at one of your events or you’re selling at one of their events, or you’re collaborating on a new project. Don’t forget that everyone is also itching to create magic. You should all pull from each other in the end, and then, you’ll come up with something fantastic.
Charlie: Queer folks will support you. So if you’re an entrepreneur and you’re just starting out, I think people will be really willing to support you and your brand, and to get you more followers and sales. We rely on a lot of our collaborators. Friends have amplified our brand to a point that I never could have imagined. Out of all communities, I think queer people will support up-and-coming entrepreneurs and uplift them. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when starting a business. It’s really hard to ask your friends to share your posts and promote your brand. It can feel shameless, but people want to do that for you.
Tell us a little about you and the company
Surrae Shield: I grew up outside of Pittsburgh, and have lived in New Orleans for the last four years, but we were back home during the pandemic. Rachel is from Dallas, and I met them on a layover. It was Hurricane Barry and I got off my plane and stayed in Dallas.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we couldn’t keep moving back and forth, so we moved to Pennsylvania. During that time, I think everyone was just trying to figure out what to do with their lives. My background is in cake design. So cakes you see in grocery stores, there is always somebody in some office thinking ‘What if we put two balloons on it instead?’ That’s what I do. So I was kind of already in the world of sprinkles, and most of them are pretty ugly unless you pay an absolute fortune for them. Which, you know, I can’t do that. I can’t afford super high-end sprinkles. So we started making our own and it just exploded in the last couple of months.
We dye sprinkles, we don’t make them from scratch. They come in white and we get to create rainbows! We make really beautiful, colorful things. It’s just the two of us, we both work other jobs full-time, so we balance. And I have a virtual assistant. We work out of a common-area kitchen. Where we can’t afford a full kitchen in New Orleans, you find a way. There are always places out there. It allows us to meet other small bakers and private caterers, and it’s honestly great to make those connections. We do custom orders to our website, and we launched our pride line, with all proceeds going to the House of Tulip, and we work with a lot of shops dotted around the country.
There is always a holiday for sprinkles. Right now we’re going into the 4th of July and are very excited.
What made you want to start your own business?
Surrae: Well I thought it was just going to be for the holidays, but it became so much more than that. We launched at the beginning of November 2020, and it was just to the Pittsburgh area to locals. We happened to make contact with Keith Recker, who is the editor of Table Magazine in Pittsburgh. He really liked what we did because he works in colors. Like the color of the year, he writes books on those kinds of things. So at that point we realized this was something bigger than just holidays and it’s still going!
What has your experience been as a queer business owner?
Surrae: So I’ve had two very different experiences. One in Pennsylvania, where we were just for six months. While there are a lot of really cute shops, if I were to go in by myself, everything would be totally kosher. But once I showed up with Rachel, I would notice their demeanor totally change. Not that they were any less friendly, that’s not it. But I could see them kind of catch. I think that Rachel and I both really enjoy challenging people’s expectations. Rachel is so much more gentle and kind than I am. Not that I’m unkind, but they’re a very kind, quiet person.
So I think that rural Pennsylvania is just different. And it was during the election, Pennsylvania was a swing state. It was terrifying. We were right outside of Latrobe, where Trump went for his rallies and it was really uncomfortable. But the first store to pick up our sprinkles was in Latrobe, from this really sweet woman. I was shocked. It was like this shining beam of light inside this place where I felt really uncomfortable all the time. She’s still one of our biggest supporters.
On a totally other side is in New Orleans, which is where I spend most of my time. It’s where I was when I came out and it’s a very queer-friendly city. It’s totally different. I feel like being queer is more of a selling point, like ‘Oh, you’re queer? Oh, give me your things, what can I sell? Can I raise money?’ It’s wild. I moved on a whim and being back in Pennsylvania was pretty tough. Then I got back to New Orleans and it was like I could breathe for the first time.
Most of our demographic is straight, middle to upper-middle-class women. A lot of stay-at-home moms. I don’t know of another queer sprinkle company, I don’t think it’s that common. But to show up as a queer couple who are proud of our queerness in a straight space—in a very straight space—I think it’s important. And we’ve gotten so much love and support and I’m happy we exist.
I’ve talked to a lot of small makers, a lot of bakers and shop-owners. They get nervous about voicing their opinions. Everyone wants to be careful politically. You kind of dance around it in a professional space, but, every part of our relationship in our business is political. So for me to stay silent on certain things would be stupid. And not good for me or the people I care about. So being out and showing up as a couple—if you see on our page, when we post pictures, they’re affectionate, they’re real. That was important to us. I wouldn’t change it. It sucks sometimes, but I think the world is changing in a positive way.
When you first started, were you out to your customers, or did you wait?
Surrae: We were out from the start online. But Rachel is more of the business person while I’m the forward-facing person. It took some time for us to show up together in public, but what happened was Rachel was always out as a lesbian to their family, and it was a tough journey, because they did not know that Rachel was non-binary. One day we got a message from Rachel’s mother asking about their pronouns, which was a whole other coming-out thing that I don’t think either of us thought about. It wasn’t on our radar. It was just how we always talked to each other. I was surprised that happened and it was probably the only discomfort that we experienced.
I’m not shy, I suppose. I feel like queer people, cis, femme, lesbians, it’s really important for us to use our voices because it’s so easy to use that straight-passing privilege and keep our mouths shut in those difficult situations. Especially in a place like Pennsylvania—it’s uncomfortable sometimes. For my whole life, people have assumed that I was straight and white. So I have to use my voice, otherwise I’ll just never challenge people.
Any advice for queer business owners or entrepreneurs?
Surrae: I guess, whatever you choose to do, or however you choose to show up, make sure you’re comfortable putting yourself out there. Whether or not—things travel fast. I feel like being a queer business owner is in some ways, so much more vulnerable than when you’re just going about your own private life. And social media is such a big part of selling now. We don’t have much of a choice except to show up in a certain way on social media. So getting that message from Rachel’s mom—luckily we were able to navigate that—but just show up however you’re most comfortable, because people notice. They notice everything.
But, go do it! Do whatever your thing is, make it work. Like I said, we both work full time, and we’re really tired, but it’s motivating and it’s important for queer people to be out there. I feel like there’s a lot of pressure on being out and loud and proud, especially during Pride month. But really, just show up however you are most comfortable. Even if it’s just as an ally, which I think we all did for a couple Prides. But I’m really still trying to figure it all out myself!
Do you have any advice for queer entrepreneurs? Let us know down in the comments.
This article originally published on GREY Journal.