s o n i a c h h i n j i - w o o d l o t
Nestled in a little neighborhood called Mt. Pleasant, Sonia Chhinji and her partner Fouad (who throws a few words of wisdom in!) are a refreshing duo who have made home base a studio filled with some of the purest products for your body that you could ever imagine. They have heart. Beyond smelling good, you can tell that the candles and soaps made of natural waxes, traditional practices, and weekend walks through the Pacific Northwest that inspired the scents for their products. They're full of good ideas and bring in each of their distinct career backgrounds to completely redefine what it means to be a 'maker' in today's society: they eat chips and salsa, they make products for people that are accessible, they bring a sense of fun and lightheartedness to their craft.
Tell me about your day so far!
Because there are so many moving parts in terms of our product and by that I mean curing times, waiting for things to settle, etc., we like to have a pretty scheduled work week where Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday is when we do production. Production can shift by a day or so depending on how many orders we have. And we like to keep our ship out dates towards Thursday or Friday and that can be dependent on the week and how things have been going for us. It helps keep us going and organized. There’s three of us now and we have a bunch of stores that we sell to and if we have a scheduled work week and can communicate that with all of our store, then it’s easy to stay on the same page.
We just got back from New York though so today was a little bit different for us. Danica (our production assistant) had been here on Tuesday and Wednesday and today we met up with her for breakfast and did a bit of a debrief to get an understanding of how things were in the studio, what she’s working on, what we’re working on, give her an update on our trip, and just include her on everything. We like to have a lot of transparency on projects and people that we’re chatting with so that she also has a really clear idea of where we’re at as a company.
This is probably the broadest question you could ask for you business, but why candles? What brought you to this place?
We actually started off as a soap company. Fouad has been making soap for about eight or nine years now and he learned the practice back in Lebanon where he was born. It’s an olive oil based soap bar with other nourishing oils as well. But we decided to launch with candles first because soap has a fair number of steps in terms of its production process and its curing process. We like to cure our soap bars for six weeks which can make things a bit challenging when you’re trying to manage inventory and get in touch with stores. We didn’t want to get it off the ground and get everyone really hyped on our soap and then have them wait six weeks before they could receive it. Candles were something that we both were purchasing all the time. I grew up making tea lights and candles for holidays, and overall as just a big part of my culture. We started to look into the ingredients that were in the candles that we were purchasing and we were blown away by the fact that we prided ourselves in being pretty conscious of what we put into and onto our body (we had been making our own products for a while now) and then discover that the candles we were purchasing were made with petroleum or lead wicks. It felt like it was against everything else that we were doing. So we started to make our own candles and we started with soy candles and then discovered coconut wax and other plant based waxes - there’s olive oil wax, apricot wax. We played around with the coconut wax which is not very easy to work with. It took about nine months to really learn how to work with the material and raw ingredients. We had developed a few of the scents already though because when we were originally working with soy wax, we would gift them to friends and from gifting them to friends, we received a lot of feedback like scent distribution and how long they burned for. We launched with coconut wax candles first because the curing time for candles is about 24 hours. You can enjoy it the next day. That made it a lot easier to manage when talking to customers and to stores.
We learned a lot through the holidays about what our capacity is and what our capabilities are, and what scents people just loved. Through this year, we were able to get our soap off the ground in addition to a bunch of other body products. A lot of people associate us, yes, as a candle company, but our goal is to continue to develop very minimal ingredient body care and home products. Our thinking is along the lines of “If you care about what you put into your body then there’s probably a likelihood that you care about what you put onto your body as well as what you’re enjoying in your home".
People seem like they just LOVE Woodlot! What do you think it is about your brand that’s created such a craze?
I guess there’s two parts. It’s interesting because when you actually look at the packaging of our product it’s quite simple, which is what we were going for to begin with. We wanted our design to convey that our product is clean burning, very simple. On top of that, we’ve been fairly active with the community. We have a lot of friends who are makers and we’ve just been pretty active in getting ourselves out there and participating in local pop ups. I would say that we are really lucky to have gotten into some really amazing stores locally. Our idea was to be a Vancouver company, to be made in Canada, and work with some amazing Canadian brands. Even in the beginning, we participated in a Kinfolk Dinner where we had our candles and we were part of the Le Marche St. George Pop Up and they are an anchor in the area they’re in - a lot of people go to Le Marche St. George to have coffee or have their time with family and friends there on the weekend. We’re not as closed off as some other makers or brands are. We have people come into our studio all the time and we’re not afraid that someone’s going to steal our idea. We’re fairly transparent and we welcome to our studio. We did an earth day campaign where we ended up giving over 300 candles away to encourage people to turn their lights down low and burn candles instead. There were 300 people in our studio that day! By participating in those sorts of initiatives and being able to give back when we can shows that we’re not just a company that wants to be socially responsible, but that’s actually what we want to be doing and what Fouad and I care about. We believe in philanthropic efforts and through our business we’ve been able to get our feet wet in that because it’s definitely not an area that we’re overly familiar with.
"Things can get pretty busy and everyone obviously has their own roadmap and business to work on but I feel like there is an underlying sense of camaraderie. "
Describe the Vancouver maker community that you’ve made yourself a part of.
Sonia: Community and collaboration is huge for us so it’s really easy for us to know who else is actually open to that versus just saying they’re open to that. Keep in mind that when I say makers, I mean creatives in general - photographers, designers, people like Sara from Vitruvi or Chrystal from Harlow. All these people are doing something that they’re passionate about. It shines through their work. The Juice Truck and Rocanini, Lululemon, and Kit and Ace are all brands that we love and have worked with in this city. If any of them are doing a community event that makes sense for us then we will always be on board for that. Things can get pretty busy and everyone obviously has their own roadmap and business to work on but I feel like there is an underlying sense of camaraderie. People definitely want to help one another out. For example, I can text Sara and say “Hey, what is it like working with this store?”. Because we’re friends we have honest feedback for each other. We share printers with people, we share shipping options just to help other brands and makers continue to propel forward.
Foud: We don’t really believe in competition.
Sonia: We believe in competition, obviously, but not in an unhealthy way. There are trade secrets and it’s important to understand what those are but for us, we don’t believe in keeping things a secret that actually aren’t secrets. Like, people will email us asking where we buy our coconut wax from and really, what harm does it do to give them the contact info? At the end of the day, they’re still going to have to go through the same hurdles that we went through. We’re very honest and tell them “Hey, this wax is not easy to work with, but it’s beautiful if you find the time to learn to work with it”. And with printing, why would we ever hold that tight to our chest? We obviously know the things we can share information about because there always needs to be a sense of wonder and excitement too. We want people to say “What are they working on next” and that’s more of just what we’ve learned from watching other larger brands like Native Shoes and Herschel. You want to keep an element of surprise when you’re becoming loyal to a brand.
Speaking of surprises, what’s been the happiest accident that you guys have encountered in creating Woodlot?
Sonia: I’ll say first that candles and soaps were not happy accidents - those were two products that we wanted to have off the ground years ago. Longer for Fouad, but we’ve only been together for four years so I’m going to say four years!
Fouad: I would say that how we stumbled upon Palo Santo and that agreement was a happy accident.
Sonia: The word Woodlot is a piece of forest that can be mined for secondary resources We’ve done obsessive research in terms of ingredients and other products. I’ve known about Palo Santo for a while now, I’ve been gifted it many times, but we came across this farm in Ecuador that is basically a woodlot. They don’t chop down any trees. They basically fumigate and harvest the branches that have fallen off the tree naturally and that’s what they chop into this incense. As we continue to grow, we want to go towards becoming a B Corp and working directly with farms to do fair trade.
Coming up with the mist was also a happy accident. Any time you create a product that you yourself are going to use every day and then get it in people’s hands who start messaging you that they need it and won’t travel without it, is pretty exciting. And it makes everything worth it because we have long days when we’re on our feet, doing labor intensive work and we just loving getting those messages.
A lot of people associate ‘startups’ with the tech scene. How is it different being so tangibly tied to your product?
I would say that we definitely are a tech-backed startup. I used to work in tech before I jumped into this. What I was missing working in technology was that tangible piece but what I think tech startups do really well is that iteration, the idea of staying lean, and the idea of launching before something is perfect. Fouad and I both had worked in startups and by startups I mean new businesses getting off the ground. Yes, technology is the buzzword and that’s the first thing people think when you say “I work at a startup”. They’ve hijacked that word! Having that experience of working in a community where there’s a lot of support is amazing because in my experience, the maker community is very closed off because people are very protective of their ideas. The technology industry is a little bit less afraid of sharing their ideas because they have this mindset of “Ok, it’s an idea. An idea is an idea unless you’re actually working on it”. And I completely believe in that mindset as well. I think that when I first entered the maker scene, I probably came across as being too open or too excited to meet with people. I wasn’t trying to steal ideas, I just wanted to say hi and get to know everyone because...we’re in the same space, we’re going to be going to the same events, we’re going to the same markets. It’s better for us to be friends than stare at each other from across the room and not say hi. That’s just my own way of living and being.
"I think that when I first entered the maker scene, I probably came across as being too open or too excited to meet with people. I wasn’t trying to steal ideas, I just wanted to say hi and get to know everyone."
Our business is very tangible and made up of things that you use every day but Fouad and I applied everything we had learned working at other startup businesses to this one. We launched with no real packaging, for example. We launched with a cotton muslin bag, but that was ok because when you’re a maker and you’re first launching, that’s what people love. They love that you hand stamped the bag and they liked that you touched it. I knew all these things and knew that I didn’t have to have this beautifully polished prime box to walk into the store with because a) makers are on the rise and b) stores appreciate the sense of honest and grassroots looking product that their customers can connect with.
On the flip side, we’re very technologically advanced as a company. We’re on Shopify and we have so many other tools that we use to keep us extremely organized that maybe other makers don’t use. We’ve spent a lot of time looking into how we can streamline our external processes, meaning how do we eliminate the steps it takes for someone to order wholesale. We leverage technology to solve a lot of those very admin-heavy tasks. I would say that we’re not technical, but a lot of technical DNA is rooted into our backbone.
And how do you guys work together?
Luckily, Fouad and I come from very different backgrounds. My background is more brand and culture and communication. When you’re in a startup you obviously wear multiple hats so I’ve taken the creative hat. Fouad is the operations guy, the logistics guy. He understands profit and loss and helped us get off the ground and not lose money. By the way, that’s another thing that we pride ourselves in. We just got back from New York and met with a bunch of luxury buyers and they said to us “You could charge $50 for that” but we don’t have to charge $50 because we’ve figured out a way to charge a price that works really well and is in our comfort zone - and that our consumer feels comfortable purchasing. And it’s something that we want people to use and enjoy everyday versus this really expensive candle that would just sit on their nightstand and never be enjoyed.
It definitely makes the product more accessible.
Exactly. That was our hope - to make it more accessible. I think having those two varying backgrounds have helped us but overarchingly, our mandate is to make things people love. We want to give our products the space to grow but we also have metrics that we use to go back and see what products are working and what aren’t. So we have numbers and data to show what’s working for us and our products. Our connection outside of our individual skill sets is that we want to continue to make really quality products. For that, we won’t compromise. We’re quite perfectionists and it’s not like we’re trying to point fingers at each other or put each other down but collectively as a team, we hold ourselves and each other accountable to make sure that our product looks good when it’s being shipped out. We’re not cutting corners and we are spending extra time to make sure there aren’t finger prints on anything. We both definitely have our own focus though. We check in with each other always and see how we can help each other out.
"We’re always on our bikes or out for a walk. Maybe having not so good food for you, like tortilla chips and salsa and ice cream and beer."
So, where would we find you when you’re not in this studio?
Sonia: We love bike riding. Possibly at a brewery.
Fouad: On the couch!
Sonia: In the winter yes. But in the summer we don’t like to be at home on the couch because summer is such a precious few months. We’re always on our bikes or out for a walk. Maybe having not so good food for you, like tortilla chips and salsa and ice cream and beer.
Fouad: We’re in our kitchen a lot too. We love to cook.
Sonia: We love cooking and we love entertaining. We’re the couple in the group that will say “oh, the two of us are just going to have dinner” and then we’ll make a dish that is family style and know our friends love. So then we’ll send out a text, maybe another text, and all of a sudden we have a whole group on our rooftop or in our living room. Fouad is Lebanese and I’m East Indian so we like to cook a lot of that food at home.
Fouad: Think lots of spices from her and lots of garlic from me.
Sonia: There’s a lot of flavor going on. But we also love reading, we like to go to parks. I’m trying to find more time in my day to write because it’s something that I love doing but haven’t had time to sit down and actually spend energy on.
Do you have any daily rituals?
Sonia: Every morning I have a glass of water with lemon and apple cider vinegar. And we tend to have some sort of warm beverage at home every morning, whether that’s mate or ginger tea or coffee.
Fouad: We’re honestly not that organized and regimented. We’re a little bit more of free spirits than the people who say “I go to the gym at 6am until 7am and then I eat the exact same thing for breakfast”.
Sonia: We’re very go with the flow! Some mornings I’ll make a juice. I guess we just do something every morning. We also like to have breakfast together because Fouad has a food truck with a friend that he is working on as well. We like to have breakfast together because we don’t know if we’re going to have lunch or dinner together.
But babe, I wouldn’t say you don’t have any rituals. You like Palo Santo every day. That’s a ritual. A ritual is just something you do everyday, it doesn’t mean just working out. I will say that we’re active in the sense that we walk a lot and are active everyday, we’re just not gym buffs.
"But babe, I wouldn’t say you don’t have any rituals. You like Palo Santo every day. That’s a ritual. A ritual is just something you do everyday, it doesn’t mean just working out."
Is this space that you’re in your ideal? Is it your dream space?
Sonia: I would say not yet. I would like big windows, but I like the character of it, like the ceiling. I would love a space that has a separation of the manufacturing and the front area. It would be amazing to have a showroom and an office. I would of course want the manufacturing to be in people’s eyesight, just not the first thing you see. People think I’m crazy and think this space for a studio is awesome. We just haven’t had any time to put art up or give it some love. But, I feel like when you move into a new home, you don’t just move in and have it looking perfect right away. You want it to grow with you and I want this space to grow with us as well. We’ll continue to beautify it!
Who inspires you?
Fouad: This shouldn’t be a tough one but it is!
Sonia: I’m inspired a lot by our moms, for example, and the fact that they were able to instill this belief in us that if you can buy something then you make it. That can be said for products and also for food. I’m inspired a lot by the culinary world because they understand ingredients and seasonality really well. They understand how to take something like kale and turn it into a phenomenon. It’s not like kale just sprouted up two years ago - it’s been around!
Fouad: Same for me. I draw some inspiration from some people but for me personally, I have the realistic view of “we’re all human and we’re all a little bit fucked up” because if someone really great at one part of their life, there’s probably another part of their life that is just in shambles. Everyone looks up to Steve Jobs for what he’s created but what people may or may not know is that didn’t speak to him because she thought he was a terrible human being. He passed away without her being there for him.
Sonia: We don’t like to idolize people too much.
Fouad: I’m personally inspired by B Corp right now because it’s something that we’ve recently discovered and are striving towards. It’s easy to get behind that because they care about social responsibility and initiatives, they care about the environment. They also care about fiscal and financial responsibility though. As soon as I learned about that, I was just really really inspired.
Sonia: I would also say that I’m really inspired by fellow entrepreneurs. I feel like they are super resilient. I could say “I’m inspired by Jessica Alba”, but I don’t like limiting it to just one character. You need people like her to increase awareness and interest in that type of product. She’s doing a great job for all of us.
She’s doing such amazing stuff.
Fouad: Understatement of the year!
"You can’t be too busy to take care of yourself because when that doesn’t happen, then you’re going to hit a wall and everything else will crumble. It’s not just taking yourself, but it’s taking care of each other."
What are your mantras?
Sonia: We had up here earlier on a board. That reminds me, I have to go pick it because we left it at someone’s house! It was, “Tell a great story. Make a great product. Build and nurture great relationships.” It was built on a chalkboard that we made ourselves. I worked for a Y-Combinator funded company and that “make stuff people love” philosophy was something that I saw every day when I walked into certain rooms of an office. I think you have to just keep on going. It’s hard to get caught up in small stuff.
I used to take things really personally, especially when it came to the things that we created. I didn’t handle any negative feedback well because I was so attached to it. Things that used to bother me a year ago just don’t bother me anymore. In business, you’re going to be disappointed every day and you’re going to be excited everyday. It’s important to manage yourself. And taking care of yourself is really important - in whatever form that is. When we aren’t taking care of ourselves, it’s very clear because you get too riled up in your day to day. You can’t be too busy to take care of yourself because when that doesn’t happen, then you’re going to hit a wall and everything else will crumble. It’s not just taking yourself, but it’s taking care of each other.
And be happy! And have fun!
Fouad: You can’t put all the emphasis on fun though because some people get burnt out too soon saying “This isn’t fun”.
Sonia: Yes! I remember during the holidays we would leave here at 5am, go home and sleep for a few hours, and come back to do it all over again. We would be on these accidental 24 hours fasts. Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do. You have to get shit done.
Another thing that I would say has become my personal mantra and helps me stay sane is “If it makes you feel icky, just don’t do it”. Sometimes you’ll receive an email from somebody and it’s a really exciting opportunity but as a small business, you can’t drop everything to focus on one awesome opportunity. Stay true to your north and know what you want. Knowing what our focus is every day helps us stay in that lane.