When Vulcan Post last chatted with Julie Yim, the co-founder of Lilin+Co, it was 2018 and the sheer idea of a pandemic was not exactly on our minds. As challenging as COVID-19 has been, the candlemakers seem to have grown through it.
Lilin+Co was already a recognisable candle brand in Malaysia before the pandemic, but the lockdowns helped accelerate their growth in an unexpected way. With everyone homebound during the pandemic, interest in products such as candles grew. There has been an increase of about 500% in sales since pre-pandemic days, said Julie.
“It enabled us to jump to this level where we expanded our space,” Julie said. “This space that we moved into is three times the size of our previous space.”
The candle makers moved into a new space dubbed the Ol-Factory (Get it? Because olfactory refers to the sense of smell?) last November. Their previous spot at Old Klang Road was getting too small to keep up with the scale of their business.
With all the investment going into the space and renovations, Julie realised it was time to give Lilin+Co her full attention. She left her day job as an editor in 2021 to focus on the company and the new space.
The Ol-Factory 1.0 by Lilin+Co is located in Petaling Jaya in the Zon Perindustrian PJCT. Being in the light industrial zone means the lifts can handle heavy pallets of materials, which is important since the place houses both production and retail spaces.
In-person experiences just smell different
An “experiential experience” is what Julie wants to provide at the Ol-Factory.
“The nature of our products is very much something you have to experience for yourself,” she said. “Shopping online is just not the same.”
Plus, there has always been a demand for a physical store. Julie recalls one Christmas in particular when a long queue formed outside of their old store. Christmas is always the busiest season for them.
The company worked with interior designers to create the Ol-Factory. It was intentionally designed so customers can see through some shelves to get glimpses of the back, like an open concept kitchen.
“If you can see people making your food, why not see people making your candles?” Julie quipped. She wanted to show that the candles are made by Malaysians, right here in Malaysia.
Made in Malaysia, with ingredients from beyond
While the candles’ assembly is done locally, many of the ingredients are actually from abroad.
From the candle holders and labels to the wooden wicks and soy wax, Lilin+Co imports most materials. The team has experimented with local suppliers before, but the quality wasn’t up to par for them.
“We work with our manufacturing suppliers, which is a fragrance manufacturer to come up with a particular scent that we want release next into the market,” Julie explains. She said some of their products take months, if not a whole year, to be finalised.
Speaking of ingredients, Julie went into this business with the intention of not working with scents such as rose and lavender, as she believes they are overused in the industry already.
From the start, she wanted to introduce unique features to Malaysians such as soy wax and unique scents. According to her as well, Lilin+Co was the first in Malaysia to offer wooden wicks, which sound like a crackly fireplace when lit.
All the above likely set Lilin+Co apart from existing candle brands early on.
Growing through pandemic pains
The company’s research process already takes a long time, but the pandemic has worsened it due to delays in the supply chain.
But it’s not all bad. As mentioned, candles have become quite the popular item during the MCOs.
“Every time there’s a lockdown—oh my God,” Julie expressed. “People are staying at home, so they instantly turn to candles to buy for themselves or even for friends.”
When packing the candles, Julie comes across notes people write for their friends. She said it’s endearing to know that the candles are used as a source of comfort.
Furthermore, the pandemic also amplified the small maker movement at large.
“The world has gone [through] rapid industrialisation, and now the smaller players are coming back and putting their heart and souls into their products,” Julie marvelled.
Appropriately, the candle-making community in Malaysia has grown a lot too. When Lilin+Co first started, Julie noted a lack of soy candles in the market. Today, a simple Google search will show you numerous companies selling them.
Although there are more competitors in the market now, Julie appreciates that consumers are much more educated now about candles and soy wax specifically.
“It’s good that people have found something to do during the pandemic,” she said. “We’re just going to keep doing what we do. I think whether the other candle makers survive long-term or not is a different story. Because I think everyone can start a business but not everyone can sustain a business as well.”
Hand-poured candles are at the core of the Lilin+Co story. Knowing there’s a human touch to the product makes it feel more special, but to cope with growing demands, the company may be bringing in machines to help with the production.
“But it’s not like we are losing the essence of hand-pouring at all, because the machines are still operated by humans,” Julie explained. “They also help to bring consistency and a better product to the consumer at the end of the day.”
For the record, hand-pouring candles is not an easy feat. The team pours up to 800 candles per day, and by the end of it, their hands might be shaking from lethargy.
As co-founder Marcus Khoo put it, candle-making is easy to learn, but hard to master. Marcus himself was completely new to the craft when he started Lilin+Co with Julie in 2016, but we can attest that he’s now able to skilfully pour a batch of candles with a steady and cool demeanour.
Lillin+Co + more
The company has had numerous brand partnerships under its belt from Guinness to The Ruma Hotel. Julie revealed that it’s typically the other parties that approach them with an invitation to collaborate.
“Usually, things happen really organically,” Julie said about collaborations. “We’re definitely open to working with people who share the same passion and appreciation for our products as well.”
The last time we spoke to Julie, her five-year plan involved cementing the brand as an “established candle producing brand in Asia on par with international candle brands.” When asked about that, Julie said it’s still a work in progress.
“Even in Malaysia, I think as much as much as we think that a lot of people know us, I still come across people who have never heard of us,” Julie shared. “I take that as a challenge to make sure everyone knows. I want to be number one in Malaysia.”
Well, the five-year mark hasn’t arrived yet, and expansion is definitely en route. On top of expanding the team, the machinery, and the product range, Lilin+Co may be looking to expand into other countries too.
The company is constantly looking for new ideas. For example, Julie mentioned the possibility of special releases with funky packaging such as jars and containers crafted by local makers. It’s clear that Lilin+Co is not done fanning the flame yet.