Lighting candles is Jamie Lovern's favorite form of stress relief.
But when she and her husband noticed soot in their apartment back in 2003, they realized the paraffin wax used to make those candles was the likely culprit.
Not willing to give up her calming habit, Lovern ordered a soy wax kit and started making candles using vintage glass she found at Goodwill. She gave them as gifts. When people asked for more, she saw the spark of a business idea.
Today, her North Port company, Lolablue, not only makes soy candles but also eco-friendly soap, lip balm, deodorant, body scrubs and other natural personal-care products. “Everything's just kind of happened organically,” says Lovern. “I just go with my gut and stay true to who we are.”
The company's been growing 10% to 15% annually for the past several years and is on the brink of even more growth. Originally based out of Lovern's garage, Lolablue has rented a unit at the North Port Park of Commerce for the past five years. It serves as the manufacturing site and warehouse space, but it also includes a retail storefront for local customers. Now, the business has reached the point where it needs a bigger location.
But there's a problem. It's not easy to find suitable space in North Port, where Lovern wants to keep her company. “There really isn't a lot of availability in existing buildings here,” she says. “They're either really huge for millions of dollars, or they're so small or don't have air conditioning. I've had opportunities to move to Venice or Port Charlotte, but it just didn't feel right to me.”
The Sarasota native has found North Port to be a supportive community for small businesses. “Everybody is so helpful to each other, and they truly want to help you grow,” she says. “I'm very connected with the Chamber of Commerce and city officials, and they know all about what we need and are working on rezoning a lot of the land down here. I think it's coming. We're just going to hold out, and eventually something will open up.”
A bigger space would allow the company to hire staff (right now Lovern and her husband, DJ, handle all aspects of the business) and go after larger wholesale accounts. Lolablue products can be found in spas and independent retailers across Southwest Florida and in seven other states. Most of those accounts were landed through word of mouth or social media.
Getting into some larger retailers is a goal, but Lovern says she's not rushing into anything. She's actually been in talks with Whole Foods for a few years but still isn't sure her company can handle that kind of move yet.
“I do want to grow and I do want to be in some larger retailers, but I'm just kind of feeling it out and waiting until I feel like financially the company can take that on,” she says. “I'm just trying to be really careful.”
She and her husband have been burned before. They bought a local real estate magazine just before the housing market tanked, which left them in a precarious financial position. They don't want to go back there. “Even though it's great to land in certain places, sometimes it can put you out of business because they're very demanding on what they want,” says Lovern.
One possibility she's considering is starting out with just one product at a bigger retailer, rather than the company's entire line. Lolablue's newest product, a natural deodorant that's proved especially popular, could be a good candidate. “That would be maybe a little smarter and do a little better than trying to do our soap when there's 20 other brands of natural soap you're competing with,” she says.
Lovern previously worked full time as a graphic designer and is a graduate of Sarasota's Ringling College of Art and Design. Her creative expertise has been instrumental in growing a business where aesthetics play a huge role. “Packaging and branding are everything,” she says. “I couldn't have built the brand as far as I have if I hadn't had my background. I wouldn't have known what to do.”