Lily-Flame Candles

Within two years, and with the sales experience of his mentor, Lily-Flame Candles had grown from a retail market stall to an almost entirely contract based wholesale operation.

Lily-Flame has now achieved incredible commercial success and distributes their range of candles and other home scenting products to John Lewis, Waitrose and Debenhams plus over a thousand independent outlets across the UK, Europe and Australia.

Lucas Nicholls, founder of Lily-Flame Candles, says: "I enjoyed school and left with a couple of ‘O’ levels but my main interest was music. I played in bands rather than doing my homework. I set up a club night and concerts locally, taking care of promotion and DJ-ing.

"When I was 19, I moved to London and worked a number of jobs such as an accounts clerk, pipe fitter’s mate and finally as a van driver. At this time I met my future wife Jo. I had been unemployed for 14 months, having been made redundant. Our motivation to start the business was that we were living hand to mouth and had very little chance of making a good living by working for other people. Our dream was to move out of London and buy a house. We had to make our own opportunities.

"A friend of ours was creating ceramic wall decorations and turning over £400 a day selling at street markets. We decided to replicate his success and visited the ‘Candle Maker Suppliers’ shop in Olympia to buy materials. I found the scent and atmosphere of the Candle Shop strangely intoxicating and bought some moulds and materials. We tried selling at markets and car boot sales with limited success.

This all changed when we got a £2,000 loan from The Prince’s Trust in May 1997, along with a business mentor, who was hugely helpful. He helped us with so much of the practicalities of running a business including, crucially, understanding accounting and profit margins from the word go.

"He also made us aware of a stand at a craft market that The Trust had negotiated at a subsidised rate. On the first day we took a very pleasing £124. We signed up to sell at the craft fair every week and then began selling at craft fairs every weekend around the country.

"The big shows were a great boost to cash flow. For example, we had an old ex-Royal Mail van that was crucial to our business. The engine failed and repairs came to £1,200. But luckily the weekend after we’d paid the money we showed up at a Prince’s Trust craft show in Henley and made more than enough to cover the repair bill.

"While selling directly to the public at craft shows, we were also trying to sell to retailers. Every time The Trust had a trade show we’d go along. It’d only cost £30 for a stand instead of £600-£800. We failed miserably for the first three years. The product just wasn’t right. But the low costs involved allowed us to make mistakes.

"We were becoming very tired of travelling. Sales started to slump due to increased competition. And I knew that the income from craft shows and markets would always be labour intensive and the income limited. So we made the decision in January 1999 to concentrate all our time and energy on wholesale. Income took a dive and trade was pretty slow initially but we managed to get contracts with the Metropolitan Hotel in London, which provided us with a weekly income.

The big turning point for us came when we developed a new range of scented candles in a tin, which were an immediate hit. Suddenly we had a product that was really popular. Lakeland made an order for 5,000 candles and we had to meet demand in the kitchen of our tiny London flat.

"We moved production into an industrial unit in north London but had to keep expanding. We realised that the costs of renting were more than repayments on a substantial mortgage so we moved to Somerset and rented a converted cowshed. Over the years, as the business expanded, we recruited more and more of the surrounding outbuildings into workshops and offices and are now operating in a purpose built unit.

Our largest customer is John Lewis Partnership, which stocks our candles in all of their branches. We have been working with John Lewis, and its sister company, Waitrose, as a ‘key supplier’ for 15 years now. Their constant custom has really allowed us to expand and re-invest in new ranges. We now employ a team of 24 and we’ve extended the range to include reed diffusers, room mists and wax melts.

"Lily-Flame has grown to be the most easily recognisable British-made home scent brand, and certainly the best loved! Sometimes It’s hard to believe it all started in a tiny kitchen in a cramped West London flat!"

If you've received start-up support from us over the last 10 years, put yourself forward for our Tomorrow's Business Awards for the chance to win £3,000 and a series of one-to-work mentoring sessions and business-boosting workshops with industry gurus.