Start-Up Spotlight: How LOHN co-founders went from chemical engineering to candle creation
As much of the world continues to be confined to their homes, it’s easy to get bored with your surroundings. LOHN helps take you on a journey, without ever having to leave the house.
Founded in 2018 by Katerina Juskey and Victoria Mierzwa, LOHN (pronounced “lawn”) is the culmination of the co-founders’ passion for perfumery and product creation.
Both Juskey and Mierzwa were studying chemical engineering at Queen’s University, when they decided to pursue paths that were slightly non-traditional for their field of study: Juskey in perfumery and Mierzwa in the production of hotel amenities. After building knowledge and insight from their respective industries, they decided to work together to pursue their own venture: candles.
LOHN candles are inspired by journeys of the past and Mierzwa hopes the scents take customers on their own journey, “That’s really what we wanted to create: scents that take you to a time or place that you might have in your memory, but you don’t know exactly where that might be.”
In just two years, LOHN has grown a strong online community and dedicated fanbase. What started as pouring wax in their kitchens has grown into a 2100 sq. ft. warehouse that produces over 15 different scents and includes a custom scent design studio making.
“Given that we had the experience with suppliers and raw materials and developing a product from the ground up, we knew in our hearts that we could develop something that was super high quality and well designed,” said Juskey. “We knew that people would love our story behind the brand and the backgrounds that we have in the industry. I think there’s a lot of candle brands out there, but not a lot of people have the backgrounds that we do.”
With their backgrounds, creativity and passion, Juskey and Mierzwa are set to continue their mission to scent people’s journey with clean-burning candles. For this week’s Start-Up Spotlight, Bay Street Bull spoke with Katerina Juskey and Victoria Mierzwa, Co-Founders of LOHN, about their journey from chemical engineering to candle making and how they plan to continue to scent people’s everyday life.
You both studied chemical engineering before creating LOHN and venturing into candle making. How did that transition happen?
Katerina: We both studied chemical engineering at Queens and we actually went to the same high school, but we are two years apart. After getting our chemical engineering degrees, we set off on careers in cosmetics and fragrance. We didn’t feel like we belonged in the typical chemical engineering route of oil and gas and moving up to Calgary [laughs], and we wanted to do something a little bit different and really work in an area that we were passionate about. So, I went to France and studied perfumery and cosmetics, where I did my master’s in science and then a master’s in business management. I also worked at Estee Lauder in quality assurance and research and development. So, I worked in their innovation lab and was working on formulas for lipsticks and foundations.
Victoria: Just by luck, after graduating, I met someone who was looking for someone to start working at a company that produces hotel amenities. They did the full start to finish production of the little shampoos and conditioners you find in hotels. When I started, we were doing a lot of co-branded projects. So, I got exposed to the entire process from start to finish of how to design a product, how to source packaging, how to fill it, what happens on the production line, and everything in between. I was hooked immediately. Apart from being like a regular cosmetic and candle user, I just loved learning about the inside out. Then, I worked for L’Oreal in sales and when I was there, I learned the other side of the industry. So that was really, really cool. Then, Kat and I reconnected.
We’d both been huge candle purchasers—we still are to this day—and we realized that we have such a great amount of background, expertise and connections in the industry, so we were like, “Let’s start working on this.” We were still working full time when we started brainstorming the brand name and what types of products we’d want to launch. So, we worked on it for about two years before we launched in December 2018.
I’ve read that the paths you were on before starting LOHN were basically your original “dream jobs.” What was going through your heads when you decided, “Okay, we’re going to leave our dream career paths to explore something else that we are even more excited about!”?
Katerina: Both of our fathers have their own small business. I always knew I didn’t want to work for someone else for the rest of my life and I think Kat felt the same way. Given that we had the experience with suppliers and raw materials and developing a product from the ground up, we knew in our hearts that we could develop something that was super high quality and well designed. We knew that people would love our story behind the brand and the backgrounds that we have in the industry. I think there’s a lot of candle brands out there, but not a lot of people have the backgrounds that we do.
That’s kind of where our conversation started with each other back in 2014. We were like, “Okay, we have this experience, we’re still young, we’re still new in the industry, but we think we can do something that’s really, really amazing.” It’s been super important to tell that story, especially now with COVID-19. People are spending more time on their phones and people really connect with a brand through the founders, not just through a product image. So, we’ve really tried to focus on talking to our customers and creating that community, especially in the last eight months, so that people can really see where we come from.
It was hard to do that [create a community] when we still worked full time. I started working on the brand full-time in the summer of 2019, and Vic started in February of this year, and once we both put in 110 percent, that’s when things really took off.
Kind of taking a step back here, as women in STEM who pursued a non-typical career in the industry, do you have any words of advice to those in STEM who may be interested in pursuing a career path like yours?
Victoria: With engineering, you think that there’s just one typical career path, but there are so many, and ones that you never hear about. To learn about these opportunities, it’s really important to network; especially when you are in your first or second year. Getting a job for a company like L’Oreal or Estee Lauder can be very difficult because there are so few positions for people starting out. However, there are so many start-up indie beauty brands and candle brands. I think people should network and get to know those brands. You can reach out and say, “Hey, I’d like to work with you this summer.” Start to build up your resume from the get-go, whether that’s an intern position or long term networking.
That’s where Kat and I were really lucky: when we were working for those companies, we had all those industry connections. And that’s really what it’s all about. If you can start building that resume up sooner, it’s going to be a lot easier for people to find a position after they graduate.
Katerina: One of my first jobs right out of university was a free internship at a cosmetic distributor. I had to tell my parents that I had an engineering degree and I was working for free. My parents were like, “What are you doing? You have a degree. You could work as an engineer. You could make a great salary coming out.” But I just really listened to myself and listened to my heart, knowing that every step, no matter what the job is, will lead you in the right direction—that job led me to Estee Lauder.
Also, do a lot of research. When it came down to my master’s program, there weren’t really any programs that existed in Canada, when it came to cosmetics and fragrance. So I did tons of research, looked at all the schools that were offering this type of program, and sure enough, that led me to Europe. I took out a student loan and went for it. Going to Paris taught me so much about perfumery. The school was started by Guerlain, so, having that experience and the connections with the people that I met, whether it was my professors or fellow students, was incredible.
Tell me a little bit about the journey of creating the first LOHN candles. What went on behind the scenes?
Victoria: It was pretty hilarious, I’m not gonna lie. We felt like mad scientists mixing things on the stovetop, thinking it was a little more complicated than it actually is, but we’re so careful and so meticulous since we have engineering backgrounds. We bought a ton of different materials from lots of different suppliers and made sure to take notes on everything that we were testing at the time. We gave out samples to friends and family to burn. We had candles burning 24/7 to see if the wax and wick combination was right and if the scent carried throughout the room, and we still do that all the time.
So yeah, we had a lot of candles everywhere. Every single cupboard in my condo was filled with glasses and wax. When my partner moved in, he was like, “You gotta do something about this” because we would pour them on my kitchen table and it was covered with wax. So, we actually moved the candle making into my parents’ basement, and that’s where we were able to start producing a lot more. Thank gosh we had the help of both of our parents to support us and our partners as well because starting a business on your own can be very hard.
You talk about this on your website, but in your own words, what inspires LOHN’s scents?
Victoria: We looked at our backgrounds, which are very similar having gone to the same high school and university. Then we looked at our actual ethnic backgrounds: I’m Polish and Katerina is Lithuanian and Estonian. So, we looked into that European background to figure out a way to tie the two of us together and to create a scent story.
What we found was an ancient road called the Amber Road. It was used to carry Amber, which is the fossilized resin from the Baltic sea down through to the rest of Europe. It was a form of currency. And we decided to create candle collections based on those ancient journeys. So, we started doing research on what else was out there. There’s the Tea Horse road, which was how tea from China was traded with horses from Tibet. And then we found the Spice Road, which was how silk and spices moved from China across India to Sri Lanka. We were like, “These are such great sources of inspiration.”
We’ve never traveled any of these roads. So we’re completely imagining what the scents would be like along these journeys. That’s really what we wanted to create: scents that take you to a time or place that you might have in your memory, but you don’t know exactly where that might be. Our whole mission with LOHN is to scent your journey. We want to create scents that you can carry along with you as you go through life.
That’s awesome. Have you guys had any big lessons or learning curves since starting LOHN?
Katerina: We’re a small business, we’re starting out and we’re completely self-funded…. and Victoria and I tend to say yes to everything [laughs]. So, I think we’ve really learned to set boundaries. We might want to work with a certain client for 500 custom candles or on a new project, but at the end of the day, we have to make sure we are not over-promising and under-delivering. I think naturally as like women too, we tend to be caregivers. We want to say yes, we want to take care of everyone and do everything. So that’s been a lesson of mine for sure.
Victoria: A big learning curve has just been figuring out how to plan and prepare better since we set our own schedules. We could work 24/7—and we definitely have those days when we are working around the clock—so learning when we needed to hire additional support and being okay with bringing new people onto the team was a big learning curve because, for so long, everything was just done by us. We’re both very independent, ready-to-do-it-all kind of people. But, the second we brought on help, we were able to just grow our business exponentially in terms of how much we were producing and how much we were selling.
You have to become okay with sharing what you’ve created with other people and then also learn how to properly manage that. It’s going to be an ongoing journey. Yeah, you can do it all, but you can’t scale that way.
Obviously, you two have known each other for a long time from high school to the same university. How did you know you would make good business partners? What should people consider before deciding to be business partners?
Katerina: One of the things is making sure you have complementary skill sets. Victoria is very creative; she has the vision for the brand. I’m more into the operations, behind the scenes, supply chain and problem-solving sort of things. I think our skill sets have magically molded together somehow, but we didn’t necessarily know that at the beginning because we both come from engineering backgrounds. So, I would say establish what you’re good at and what you’re bad at and then discuss how you can build the brand and company together because it’s very, very important. You don’t want to be stepping on each other’s toes doing similar tasks when your time is so limited as co-founders.
Victoria: Our desks face each other and we talk all the time, but it’s great because there is a solid separation between our relationship at work and our relationship outside of work. When we’re out with friends, we’re not talking about the business all the time, work kind of stays at work, which is great.
What’s next for LOHN? Do you have an ultimate vision for the brand?
Victoria: Definitely. COVID-19 has had an impact on where we see the brand going, especially seeing how important self-care is now more than ever. The fact that people are in their homes much more shifts our vision into more of a home direction in terms of creating scents that you can use in multiple ways, whether that be with room sprays or reed diffusers. We’re not exactly sure yet, but we do have some things in the works for next year. I think making your home a sanctuary is really important right now. Anything that we can do to create a scent that evokes memories of being cozy or warm or comfortable is definitely where we want to take the brand.
Another big thing about LOHN, which we don’t talk about too much, is the fact that we have a huge custom side. We’ve been able to work with some phenomenal companies that wanted to create custom scents with us and that gives us an opportunity to develop products that we wouldn’t normally launch under the brand. So, I think custom products are going to be pretty big for us in the next little while and we’re excited to see where that takes us.
Katerina: We’ve also grown exponentially in Canada. We are now present in over 60 stores in Canada, and we plan to really up that and grow into the U.S. next year as well. So focusing on the wholesale side of the business is one of our goals.
Do either of you have a personal favourite LOHN scent and why?
Victoria: My personal favourite is called LATO. It’s a candle from our Tea Road collection and it smells like the best ice tea you’ve ever had. It’s got lemon and hibiscus and bergamot; it’s so good. It’s a candle that smells good enough to drink [laughs].
Katerina: Mine would be one of our recent launches, JAL. It’s a smoky vanilla. If you love that cozy, kind of fiery scent mixed with sweetness, it’s perfect for you. Great for the season right now and getting cozy indoors.
If you were to give any advice to an aspiring entrepreneur who wants to turn a passion into a full career, what would you say to them?
Katerina: A piece of advice that I received from someone is, “Put in the time.” It doesn’t matter if it’s five minutes a day or 30 minutes a day, just make sure you’re committed to acquiring and achieving that goal. When we were both working full time, there would be some days where we would only fit in five minutes of posting something on social, or we put in two hours. As long as you’re putting in the work, it will guide you to your end result. It will pay off. Just keep going, keep working at it and really set time for creating your dream.
Victoria: My advice would be to stay true to your vision. In this age where you’re inundated with ads on social media and you’re seeing what brands are launching, every millisecond, it can be so overwhelming to be like, “Oh my gosh, my brand’s not good enough to compare to this other brand. I should completely redesign my product so that it looks more like this.” As an entrepreneur, you have to be flexible and you have to be adaptable, but it’s important to stay true to what you want your brand to be so that you don’t get bogged down and stuck and scared of what move to make. Maybe that means writing out what your vision is for your brand, so you can refer back to it from time to time.
In your own words, you know, what sets a LOHN candle apart from what else is on the market?
Victoria: LOHN candles are clean, they’re made with organic coconut and soy wax, and they are made with recyclable packaging. Every product is handcrafted and the scents are designed to take your mind on a journey.