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Ex-Googlers Want to Change the Candle Industry with Keap

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Candles, by their nature, can seem like an ephemeral obsession. But when ex-Google employees and former New York roommates Harry Doull and Stephen Tracy realized last fall that they both had spent hours discussing scents, wicks and wax, it began to dawn on them that there might be something more solid worth pursuing. As they quickly discovered, the candle industry is pretty expansive, generating more than $2 billion in sales every year. That left plenty of space for a startup to rethink how the product is made and sold. A year later, the duo is hand-pouring custom candles in a rented warehouse space in Industry City, Brooklyn, and trying to build their own company, Keap Candles, currently raising funds via Kickstarter. Named after the street where they once lived, their company is predicated on delivering a more useful, eco-friendly product that, as many founders will tell you, is the one they wish they had.

"The honest truth is, it was one of these things that started with a discussion about a product, as well as the core frustrations with that product," says Tracy. "I can't believe I had so much to say about candles. Then, the next day, we started talking about it again."

Considering the two founders's tech pedigrees, it's perhaps not surprising that Keap is modeled after Warby Parker, as opposed to other craft-based companies. The company aims to offer a better price by eliminating the middleman via direct sales, selling candles for $28 that might retail for $60. There's also the value built into the process and materials. The candles are made from all-natural coconut-based wax and poured into high-end glass tumblers meant to be re-used. Set up as a public benefit company, Keap also donates a portion of their proceeds to Solar Aid, a charity that provides solar lamps to developing countries. Doull and Tracy tested out different wicks to find one with the right viscosity that didn't contain harmful additives and artificial colors; it wasn't exactly Thomas Edison sorting through filaments, but they were surprised to discover the scope of the wick industry.

"It's interesting how much complexity simple things can have," says Tracy.

The line debuting on Kickstart comes in four scents, Wood Cabin, Hot Springs, Waves and Green Market, available by themselves, as a set or via a subscription model.

"We don't like the smells to be overpowering," says Tracy. "It's not about creating something that slaps you in the face. You have a lot of brands that go down the road of creating fake smells like pumpkin latte and apple pie; we're staying away from those. It's not about the power of the scent, it's more like a personal fragrance you wear."

Keap is currently bootstrapped and self-funded, but Tracy sees a lot of potential in the multi-billion dollar industry. In a market currently dominated by high-end items often viewed as easy, high-margin additions to an existing product line or brand, he believes there's room for a small candle company that works to establish a relationship with customers while taking its social mission seriously.

"We ended up working together for YouTube, helping brands such as Proctor & Gamble, Unilever and Loreal use the platform and tell their story," says Tracy. "It was all about figuring out how to be authentic, tell a story and create a connection. Since candles mean so much to us, we thought we could do the same thing."

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