From Online To Brick-and-Mortar: The Story Behind Those Celebrity Prayer Candles You’ve Seen All Over Instagram
Refinery29 is proud to partner with PayPal Zettle — a complete point of sale solution designed to help simplify your workday — to celebrate the stories behind creative small business owners. Ahead, hear one maker dish on her journey to entrepreneurial success and what she’s learned along the way.
You won’t find traditional devotional imagery in candle boutique, Mose Mary and Me. Instead, expect Bad Bunny cradling a lamb, Barbra Streisand haloed in a wreath, Zendaya gently touching a sacred heart — and many other clever tongue-in-cheek twists on the classic devotional candle. The New Orleans-based company, founded by Stephanie Kauffman, taps pop culture moments and figures to create timely (and timeless) tapers — and they've grown so popular, even John Legend keeps a Mose Mary and Me candle on his EGOT shrine. Moreover, on top of the A-list celebrity offerings, Kauffman also offers bespoke options. “One time, I had a couple custom order a candle featuring a gorgeous woman and a Billy goat,” she says.
Despite Kauffman's overwhelming success, the journey has certainly not been easy. In fact, like with most business risks, it's been rife with setbacks, frustrations, and teachable moments. But lucky for us, she has plenty of wise insights in the realm of entrepreneurialism to share. That's why we sat down with the innovative self-starter for some much-needed advice when it comes to pursuing creative enterprises, managing money, and moving a business from online to IRL. Ahead, find some key takeaways from her ever-advancing trajectory.
Trust your creative (and personal) instincts
In December 2017, Kauffman recalls being so broke, she was "donating plasma to afford ramen and relish." So for the holidays, she made custom, satirical devotional candles for friends. Days later, one friend posted a photo of her candle to Facebook, and within a week, she had 20 people requesting orders. Within two weeks, she'd built a full online shop. “I vividly remember saving up $13 to buy a paper cutter. I was so excited," she says. "It was my first big win."
Soon after, Kauffman admits to having a “complete mental breakdown” amid her rising popularity. She wasn't used to producing candles at the rate required to meet her incoming orders. And as a one-person team, she was handling everything all on her own — including sales, shipping, and production.
But rather than discourage her, that breakdown illuminated just how much she cared about the work she was doing, regardless of how difficult it got or how much she still had to learn. “It wasn’t until my breakdown that I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do, how I wanted to live, and who I wanted to be,” she says. That sentiment has guided her ever since.
Play the financial long game
In order to help fund her business — and to save money at the same time — Kauffman decided to move in with her father after her first month as a retailer. She got a job at a local restaurant while continuing to fulfill candle orders. After six months, business was steady enough for her to move back out on her own. “I kept working in hospitality for the next three years while orders slowly increased,” she says. “It seemed like the more I grew my business, the more my overall mental and spiritual health grew, too.”
As sales continued to grow and her processes became more streamlined, Kauffman was finally able to hire a full-time operations manager. With a larger team in place and an ever-growing roster of customers, she thought about taking the business from a digital enterprise to a physical one. "There's such a warmth and community to a real brick-and-mortar shop and I knew I wanted that," she explains. "But it meant waiting until I was making consistent enough income from my online community of buyers to really take the financial plunge. I had to play the long game if I was really going to make this work."
Don't go IRL until you're ready
In 2021, Kauffman finally had the opportunity to debut her first brick-and-mortar store. Of course, opening a physical retail location, even as a thriving online business, is hardly an easy feat. "I knew it would be a long and difficult process but I certainly didn't know how difficult and how long," she says.
Between selecting paint colors, curating music, staging products, hiring staff members, and dealing with renovations, the transition was no small undertaking. Fortunately, she had a trustworthy staff and a solid picture of her financial affairs. "I've been using PayPal since the day I started my business, back when I was just making candles as gifts for friends," she says. "And now that I've got a fully operational storefront, it's still integral to my day-to-day business. Keeping that system in place definitely helped smooth the transition."
With brand new payment services like PayPal Zettle becoming more widely available, Kauffman thinks the shift to IRL retail will become that much easier for online entrepreneurs across the country. The one-stop shop, point-of-sale solution — which allows small business owners to manage in-store sales, online orders, and advanced inventory management from one account — can help others like Kauffman cut back on tedious admin time and get back to the more fulfilling, creative endeavors on their to-do lists (like creating the next viral Beyoncé candle).
Pay attention to the in-store details
Kauffman lit her Oprah candle on opening night to channel the mogul’s business savvy as she opened her doors to the public.“Mose Mary and Me was founded on the idea that the world is a little better when there’s more light, laughter, and levity in it,” Kauffman explains. “I believe all our success stems from that.”
Following the spot's initial opening, Kauffman has stayed true to that very ethos. Beyond paying her employees fair wages, she also makes sure to inject as much joy and empowerment into the workspace as possible. “At the store, we value intersectional feminism, common humanity, dance parties, and the belief that mental health is health,” she says. Case in point: She closed up shop for two weeks at the end of August 2021 to give her staff time to reset before the holiday push.
Moreover, she's made a point to make her customers' shopping experience as stress-free as possible for her customers, too. Thanks to PayPal, she can accept debit and credit cards, Venmo, and just about every contactless payment app under the sun — both IRL and online. "I want to be able meet people where they are. I want everyone to enjoy their time in the store," Kauffman says.
That sense of earnest altruism extends beyond the realm of the experiential as well: During lockdown, she created what she coined the Survival Candle, which reads “This is a 2021 revival prayer candle” in bold blocky letters. The company continues to donate $5 for every sale to Feed the Second Line, a fund set up to preserve and fortify the “cultural creators” of New Orleans through stipends and grocery deliveries.
Trust your trajectory, no matter how non-traditional
In retrospect, it’s clear to Kauffman that the adversity she has faced has all been part of the beautiful, patchwork process of cultivating a business. “My breakdown was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says. “You couldn’t have told me that at the time, but from there, I was able to rebuild myself from the ground up with a new foundation. Sometimes the fear has to come to fruition; the terrible thing has to happen so you realize you can survive.”