In 2015, Stephen Tracy and Harry Doull left their jobs at Google to launch Keap, a startup that produces hand-poured candles out of a warehouse space in Brooklyn. Unlike most ex-Googlers you hear about breaking out on their own, Tracy and Doull aren't engineers or designers. They were data scientists working on the business side of the tech behemoth—where they developed the skills that are helping them carve out a niche in the $2.3 billion candle industry.
When the pair met in 2014, Tracy was working as a data strategist for YouTube, which is owned by Google, while Doull was working in global brand revenue, using data to increase Google's business from big-brand advertisers like L'Oreal and Unilever. Their work overlapped when Google's "brand" clients had a large YouTube presence, and soon Tracy and Doull found they had a common interest in candles. True strategists, the two began discussing frustrations that came with buying candles—namely, that there were the cheap, generic candles or the high-end, high-priced "luxury" candles, and nothing in between. A year later they left their jobs in strategy to found Keap, which sells handmade, high-end candles at a reasonable price.
The pair's frustration with the industry led them to follow the familiar e-commerce, cut-out-the-middleman model popularized by Warby Parker. Keap works directly with a perfumer to develop scents, then makes the candles themselves with the help of three part-time employees out of a maker's space in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Their art director Dan Abary designs the stylish packaging in-house, and the team ships it from their workshop directly to consumers. Without farming out any of the work, they keep costs low: right now a large, homemade candle costs $35 with free shipping. Comparable companies are Diptyque ($60/candle) and Cire Trudo ($55/candle).
There are other parts of their business you may recognize from their e-commerce startup forbearers: for one, Keap is a public benefit corporation, donating a portion of the sale of each candle to SolarAid, the charity that donates solar lights to impoverished communities in Africa. Keap offers a subscription model, sending a candle a month of either a consistent or rotating fragrance. And starting this week, the company also send a sample packet for free so that consumers can try before the buy.
It's a business model that has been refined over the course of the past year, mostly based on consumer feedback. That's something that Tracy says they learned from Google; you didn't need to be an engineer to understood the importance of user-centered design.
"It's coming at a problem from understanding your users and not just 'I have a great idea for a product,'" says Tracy. "[Google] taught us that problem solving is only useful once you understand the real frustrations and problems at hand. That informed early stage of our research—even if we wanted to start making things and selling them right away, we needed to put in our research."
The other big takeaway from Google was the importance of design at every level of the company. Design can be found in the scents themselves, which are meant to evoke an escapist quality for weary urban dwellers. Right now they have four, including Waves, Hot Springs, Green Market and Wood Cabin—and are planning to expand this winter. And design can be found in the packaging, which includes boxes with stylishly printed interiors, a set of matches with every candle, and a dust cover that doubles as a coaster.
And for a small candle startup that does nearly everything in-house, design thinking also comes in to play in the importance Keap places on knowing its consumer, and being flexible enough to tweak and change based on feedback. "Design is for us at the heart of everything we do," says Tracy. "We think about it not just in terms of physical design and graphic design, but as a way of empathy and making something the best it can be."