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Alumni Engagement

Graphic Design grad’s star burns bright

October 19, 2016

Accidental entrepreneur Amanda Buhse found herself burning the candle at both ends after co-founding one of Winnipeg’s hottest startups two years ago.

When the 2006 Graphic Design – Advanced grad and her best friend Tom Jansen created their Coal and Canary Candle Company brand, they expected to sell a few hand-poured soy-and-vegetable wax candles to friends and family. A few months later, they were scrambling to fill Oscar and Grammy Awards swag bags and meet demand from their first retail clients.

“Coal and Canary kind of started as a hobby, just as an extra creative outlet and an excuse to hang out with my best friend Tom,” says Buhse.

“He had gotten into candle-making a couple of years prior and got really good at it and asked me if I wanted to join up, because I had the marketing and the graphic design backgrounds, so I could do the branding and the website and packaging and all that.”

Buhse, 31, was working full-time as senior web designer for fashion retailer Ricki’s and Jansen, 26, was in nursing school when they started making candles in Buhse’s kitchen. Before long, they were moonlighting in a rented 150-square-foot studio where they could make 24 candles each night. Next thing they knew, the business had taken on a life of its own. 

“There were times when we would basically work all day at our full-time jobs and then drive right to the candle studio, meet there and work until four in the morning and do it every single day, so it got to the point where it wasn’t … healthy.

“There were days when I was answering more Coal and Canary emails than my full-time job emails and I thought, ‘This is kind of a sign and things are getting a little crazy right now in my life,’ so we just had to make the decision and so we both left and jumped and took the risk — and it’s been the best thing ever,” she says.

Amanda Buhse, Coal and Canary Candle Company“I was very happy in my job. I wasn’t looking for a job change, but sometimes life surprises you, and in this case it was a good surprise so we kind of went with it. We never knew how big it was going to become or what opportunities were going to be coming down the pipe. We just took it day by day.”

Buhse sings the praises of Red River College when she talks about the roots of the company’s meteoric success.

Her high-school guidance counsellor at Vincent Massey Collegiate suggested she explore graphic design at RRC after graduation, and while she found the program “surprisingly hard,” she’s eternally grateful for the advice.

“I did it, and I’m so thrilled that I did,” she says. “So many amazing things have happened. I think the biggest thing I’ve kind of taken from having our own business is that you can create your opportunities, and I just feel like so many lessons we were taught [have in turn] taught me and helped me with my business.”

After graduating, Buhse began her career as a production designer at Designtype. Before landing at Ricki’s, she worked as art director at Picante Advertising, senior graphic designer at Nygard International, and as a freelancer under her own Urban Candy Studios banner.

When she and Jansen, whom she met more than 10 years ago as singers in the Prairie Voices choir, started up Coal and Canary, Buhse applied a key lesson from RRC to creating a unique brand.

“One of our instructors told me, and I’ll never forget it, that you can be the smallest fish in the sea but if you have great branding you can look like the largest fish in the ocean,” she says.

“I truly believe that that is the heart of our company and from Day 1, I set out to make a brand instead of just a logo.

“We said this has to be a lifestyle company — this has to be a brand that people can relate to and that people want to be a part of.”

Coal and Canary candlesWithin a month, the pair started posting professionally shot photos on Instagram, where they attracted the attention of retailers who wanted to stock their candles.

They developed a business plan with a five-year goal to have their candles included in gift bags at the JUNO Awards, and since they’re go-big-or-go-home types, Buhse shot an email to a company that stocks gift bags for the Academy Awards and Grammy Awards. The candles were such a hit in 2015 that they were invited to attend the Grammy Awards as audience members in 2016.

Alas, with a swelling client list that now includes 150 retailers and online sales driven by glowing reviews in WestJet Magazine and on actor Cameron Diaz’s blog, they were too busy to accept the invitation. However, they do plan to attend in 2017.

Having moved five times in two years, Buhse and Jansen have settled into a Sanford Street production facility, where they can produce 500 candles per day, with four full-time and two part-time employees.

“It’s been really rewarding, and now that we have staff and we have a proper-size production facility and office manager — all those support systems underneath us — it’s really allowed us to focus more on the business and to have more balance.”

They work with a business consultant who visits every two weeks, but Buhse says she and Jansen still make decisions based on gut feelings about what’s best for their brand. Right now one of their greatest challenges is making sure they don’t grow too fast.

“We’ve had to turn down some really cool opportunities because we were fearing that it would grow the business too quickly and out of our control,” she says.

“It’s just been the most amazing experience. We don’t want it to end anytime soon.”

— Profile by Pat St. Germain (Creative Communications, 1989)