The origins of Portland Bee Balm and Cascadia Candles came out of necessity – Brad Swift’s wife Anika ran out of lip balm.
That simple need started him down an entrepreneurial journey that has led to the creation of a successful consumer brand that has traction in retail outlets throughout the United States and Japan. But as with many founders, there is a constant pull to keep evolving and pushing to do something new and unique.
The building of a consumer product brand
As hobbyist beekeepers, the Swifts had accumulated plenty of beeswax. Brad started to make lip balm for Anika and their friends. While the simplicity of plain beeswax offered many of the benefits people want from a lip balm, Brad experimented with a plethora of different recipes until he finally hit on what would become the Portland Bee Balm product line.
Using the resources and skills he had on hand, Brad set out to get his product to market. but as anyone who has launched a new consumer product can attest – gaining initial market traction is a slog.
But rather than be too daunted to move, they took the creative approach to get the bee balm on the shelves, all while Brad was still working full time at an elementary school.
“An artist friend and I spent an evening drawing up a label that included the city skyline, Mt. Hood and a giant honey bee. We had this shrunk down and printed on kraft brown stickers. Once the brand was designed, I got creative with display case building. Using a bundle of cedar shingles and hours of work in the basement of the shared house we lived in, I would build many different designs and offer them to stores for free. I would also offer to take measurements and custom build a display for any space in their store. People were very generous with their time and knowledge. They were the experts in this area and I would say, “You know your store best and I am good woodworker. I’ll build you anything you want to fit any location in your store for free; do you have any ideas?”
This personal outreach and engagement provided the initial market traction for Portland Bee Balm, but the true value was discovered through the conversations he had with store owners and buyers, as the display experiments and conversations with them would prove invaluable as Brad learned how the world of retail operated.
“My market research was mostly conversations with store owners and body care buyers. I tried not to do too much talking, I asked a ton of questions about how the industry works, how their department worked, what sold well, why did they think it sold well, what was the most valuable real estate in the store, and on and on. I would listen for as long as they were willing to talk – eventually they would have to get back to work. A little honesty went a long way – I told them I was new at this and had no idea what I was doing. Any advice they could give me would be greatly appreciated.”
But even with such an outward approach, there was the lack of confidence and knowledge so often felt by first time founders.
“I was rightly afraid that I was coming across as someone who had no idea what they were doing. I felt like people were doing me a huge favor every time they bought my product. It took me a long time to gain the confidence that I was providing something of significant value and they needed me as much as I needed them.”
In addition to the sense of fear of the unknown, there were production issues that created their own challenges and opportunities for knowledge gathering.
“We also had many production issues; a label that didn’t stay on the tubes and displays that did not function correctly. Luckily I was able to encounter and solve these problems while Portland Bee Balm was still very small because when you are forced to recall all your product because your labels are coming off, it’s nice to only be in three stores. “
Brad started to hone in on an initial sales strategy as these early issues were ironed out. He’d would get on Google Maps and walk the street view guy down Alberta, Hawthorne, Mississippi, NW 21st avenue, and NW 23rd avenue. From the look of the storefront, he’d decide who might consider selling Portland Bee Balm and then drop them a cold call with the very soft ask of “Can I stop by and give them some free samples of the lip balm I make?”. As with anything new, it was pretty intimidating the first few times, but like anything it got easier and he got better.
As the number of stores started to grow, the product sourcing started to become a focus of the business. Brad started out using the beeswax from his own hives, but quickly surpassed what he could harvest from those sources. But as a beekeeper himself and the fact that the word ‘Bee’ was right on the label, it was important to have an authentic connection.
“To start with, most balms don’t want to use much beeswax because it’s such an expensive ingredient. But I wanted the recipe to have as much beeswax as possible and to this day, every tube of balm is over one third beeswax.”
In addition to the amount of beeswax in each tube of balm, there also was the fact that their tag line when they started was ‘supporting local bees and their keepers.’ By placing bees first in the tag line, it was a clever way to put the focus on them. A focus that Brad knew had to be more than just keeping his own hives and buying wax from other local beekeepers, because if that was the extent of that belief, it would feel more like marketing as opposed to the truth.
But the truth won out, and started a program they hope to grow as the company does.
“We started giving away hives each spring. We partnered with Bee Thinking to buy the hives, then we get beekeeping equipment and a package of honeybees with a queen. We give these hives away to people in the community that want to be beekeepers, but can’t afford the significant startup cost. We gave away 4 hives this last spring, our most ever. We don’t do a great job of publicizing and getting press about the giveaways, but it makes us feel good and we know we are not BS’ing anyone when we tell them we support local bees and their keepers. “
Scaling up production and retailers
As the number of retailers grew, there was a conscious effort to not jump up too many rungs on the ladder too soon.
The independent gift shops prepared Brad for the Co-Ops, and the Co-Ops prepared him for New Seasons. He realized there was so much to learn; from lingo, jargon and acronyms to expectations regarding terms, legal, insurance and labeling requirements.
“If you jump too far, it will show and they will probably not want to work with you as it will be clear to them that you are out of your depth and holding your hand through everything will be a huge time sink. The co-ops and New Seasons were great, they helped me through a lot of things, but it had to be clear that I had a base level of knowledge and experience before they brought me onto their shelves.”
But more than just getting on the shelves, Portland Bee Balm became one of the top sellers in the health and beauty category within the stores it was featured. Safe to say Brad and Anika were very surprised.
“I just had my head down and was focused on getting a little bit better with each iteration of displays or labels or production processes. When I looked up we had something that was working pretty well and people were responding to.”
The heads down approach to building a product proved to be the right model for growth, but in terms of personal growth, reaching out to the Portland area entrepreneur and maker world for feedback, support, and advice was critical, and that community was helpful in a myriad of ways.
The community provided a consistent push to keep evolving, evaluating, iterating, exploring and taking risks, which has helped keep Brad moving forward onto the next challenge – challenges that include more than just product refinement and scaling.
“The emotional support has been helpful as well. I’m a solo founder so there is no one at Portland Bee Balm with whom I can share large scale hopes and fears. A group of other founders can fill that role, as there are so many similarities across companies and industries.
The community’s most valuable contribution has been the expansion of perceived possibility. Everything looks impossible until you see someone else do it – like breaking the 4 minute mile. I did not come from a world where people started, owned, bought and sold companies. Successful company founders were generous with their time and advice. I was able to see that there was almost infinite room for growth and increased positive impact. Bringing these large aspirational goals into the realm of possibility has been the greatest gift from this community.”
The development of Cascadia Candles
As Portland bee Balm continued to grow, there was the constant noise around expanding the product line, and the never ending product ideas from outside voices. But much of Brad’s success with Portland bee Balm can be attributed to the ability to resist taking on too much advice, and concentrating on trying to continually improve on what they do best.
Creative energies, however, do need an outlet. With the need to tweak the design and product slowing down, Brad got restless, and the restless mind led to the latest product line.
“Candles are an obvious choice; we are surrounded by towers of beeswax in this office, as it’s a main ingredient in our balms. However I could never find myself inspired to make beeswax pillars, tapers, votives or tealights – there are already many great companies doing this very well.“
The restless creative energy continued to burn within Brad and at some point he began to think that maybe the shape of the candle could convey the identity of the brand. He thought about releasing a Portland Bee Balm candle, which led to ideas like a raindrop, a tall boy beer can and Big Pink. And while those ideas would have no doubt created some noise and traction on shelves, his mind eventually settled on a more iconic representation of the brand and the Pacific NW.
“Eventually I thought about Mount Tabor and it’s reservoirs. I thought the reservoirs could be in blue wax and it would look striking. As I started thinking about creating a 3D model of Mount Tabor, it became clear that Mount Hood would be a much more recognizable choice. Once I started going down that route I was overwhelmed with the possibilities of modeling and printing 3D geographic features. I felt this new company would be limited if it was under Portland Bee Balm and it needed to be its own entity – Cascadia Candles.”
Once the direction was set, Brad set out to do what he does best: do simple things really well.
He dived into learning about every aspect of candle making, including elements most people take for granted when lighting candles and navigating the intricacies of 3D modeling and printing. What seemed like a simple idea quickly became something that consumed his creative energy and led him to not just simply create a candle, but actually learn how to make a unique product.
“You have no idea how many different wick materials exist out there; each with their own burn properties, and how many different sizes they all come in. We tested wicks for days and days. For the candles themselves there are a lot of steps and each one is an opportunity to make mistakes. The topographical data gets transformed into a surface – that surfaces get transformed into a 3D digital model – that 3D model gets edited and sent to the 3D printer. Once the model in printed and exists in the real world, it has be carefully prepared and then cast in silicone. You have no idea how many different types of silicone exist out there! The silicone mold is then removed, and prepared to receive the beeswax. Don’t forget to adjust for the pour temperature and shrinkage of the beeswax as it cools. How do you get the wick in there? These were all great problems and I was able to come up with creative solutions that I am proud of. There will be way more problems to tackle going forward; they never end, but this is what makes the work interesting.”
With the candle design dialed in and production ready to begin, Brad is turning to Kickstarter for support of the project, instead of reaching out to the network of retailers he has built up through Portland Bee Balm.
Kickstarter offered the best platform to not only share this new product with a large and diverse audience, but it also allows him to gauge if there is truly enough interest in the concept to take the next steps.
Backers generously agree to wait months for their rewards. This will allow us to build out our production capacity to be roughly in line with demand. These candles also feel much more at home on the internet than lip balm. People are online looking for a new, unique gift or object that speaks to them.”
And if the candles do speak to a large customer base, Brad knows that will come with new challenges and opportunities for both brands.
“I think the biggest challenges will involve people. Making sure everyone is communicating, on the same page and feeling supported is happening right now in our 4 person Portland Bee Balm team. If things grow very quickly and we need to add more than a few people I think the biggest challenge will be to maintain the culture we have created. It’s a flat hierarchy with open books and no secrets. Everyone knows everything that is going on with the company and we are all in it together.”
Being transparent and open are the core values that Brad has built Portland Bee Balm on, and will continue to do so as Cascadia Candles comes into the brand fold.
And what would he say if he could go back and give his former self some advice?
“Quit your job sooner, it’s going to work out. Try to relax. Don’t compare yourself to other people that founded a better, faster, cooler, sexier, bigger company. Your instincts are good, Brad’s Bomb Balm would have been a dumb name.”