When Carol Han Pyle launched Nette in December 2020, she wanted to create a clean-burning and sustainable—but still chic—candle that could light the way to a new standard for the multibillion-dollar global industry.
Nette uses a nontoxic, coconut-soy wax blend, and the scents feature essential oils and isolates with zero synthetic ingredients in the fragrances. The wick is crafted from 100% certified organic cotton (touted by the company to be the first of its kind), and the vessels are handmade and meant to be reused after the candle is fully burned. Candles are also packaged in materials made from recycled shoeboxes, with seaweed-ink printing for boxes and labels.
In the past year and a half, Nette has garnered the attention of major retailers, including Credo and Nordstrom, and partnered with Tata Harper and Barbie on collaborations that proceeded to sell out. Most recently, the brand added a new ingredient to the mix: raw honey, harvested in New York City.
Han Pyle recently shared more with Fortune about what it’s really like trying to build a sustainable brand.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Can you share a bit about your professional background prior to launching Nette?
I started off in fashion editorial, working at Elle in the fashion closet and then ELLE.com as a fashion and beauty market editor. I then started a digital agency developing content and strategy for some of the biggest luxury brands in the world. I fell in love with all things brand during that experience and really came to believe that brands have the capability of fostering super engaged and passionate communities and influencing the world for the better. It inspired me to start thinking about launching a brand of my own.
What inspired you to launch Nette?
I have always loved candles and fragrance. My mom was a candlemaker when I was growing up. She had a gorgeous little candle store on the water in Sausalito [Calif.] where she would hand dip and carve these fun, colorful pillars. It always smelled so amazing in there, and some of my best childhood memories come from spending time there with her.
When I moved to New York City after college, candles became really important to me again—splurging on a Diptyque candle to cozy up my tiny Greenwich Village studio apartment was such a simple pleasure that made all the difference. I’ve always surrounded myself with candles in every living situation since then. But when the clean beauty movement started taking off, I was deep in a research rabbit hole on ingredients and formulations, and I started cleaning out my beauty cabinet and replacing everything with better and safer options.
I could not, for the life of me, find anything that appealed to me in the candle space. None of my beloved luxury candle brands were addressing anything about sustainability, clean formulas, or ingredient transparency, and I was so disappointed. I also figured out that a lot of the brands I had always purchased from were actually using ingredients that are pretty harmful.
Courtesy of Nette
What makes Nette stand apart from other candles on the market? What was your research and development process like for producing more sustainable candles?
Every single element of a Nette candle is thoughtfully developed to be as beautiful, sustainable, and clean as possible. For example, one pain point for me was that almost every luxury candle brand was using the exact same, very cheap glass vessels spray-painted in various colors and claiming the vessels were reusable. I thought that was so silly because you can’t use those vessels for drinking, and there are only so many “scrunchie holders” a person could need.
I wanted to figure out how to create a vessel that was food safe, microwave safe, and dishwasher safe so they could be used as cute drinking cups or coffee mugs after the candle was done. Our vessels are so expensive because they are all handmade and food safe, but for me, that’s the only way for a vessel to truly be sustainable.
We work with the best perfumers in the world to develop our fragrances using a ludicrously high amount of naturals and upcycled ingredients and publish all of the sustainability data on every single one as we receive it. We know, for example, that our Sunday Chess fragrance is 99.4% biodegradable, 99.3% made using green chemistry, 73.5% naturally derived ingredients, and 100% vegan. We also use 100% recycled (and recyclable) packaging for our candle boxes and print using vegetable ink.
Candles are a multibillion-dollar industry, and bad economy or not, many consumers enjoy candles as a simple pleasure, similar to the lipstick effect. But record-breaking inflation and supply-chain issues simultaneously have thrown many of the assumed rules of the trade out the window. How has your business fared through this economic climate, and—as candles are a popular gift—what are your expectations for the coming holiday season?
Nette was launched in December of 2020, so we have never known the business without supply-chain issues, crazy freight prices, delays galore, and everything else that comes from starting in a pandemic. Our business has grown mostly organically through it all and with impressive year-over-year growth so far.
Year to date in 2022, our average year-over-year growth is 143%. Last year’s holiday season was super strong, and we’re expecting this year to be even stronger. We are also launching a very exciting limited edition holiday candle with a partner that I can’t wait to share more about.
Courtesy of Nette
How is the company funded? Is it self-funded or have you reached out to investors? What has the financing process been like?
Nette is fully self-funded, and we have not yet reached out to investors, although raising money is definitely top of mind at the moment. We are gearing up for a huge retailer and new category launch during the first quarter of 2023 that will likely require us to do a raise.
Looking forward over the next five years, how do you want to grow Nette?
The most important thing to me is to grow Nette consciously and with intention. I want to take my time and make sure that every step is carefully considered, whether that’s a retailer partnership or a new product launch. Everything needs to tie back to our mission of helping our community “Take Good Care” by offering products and tools that they can really relax into, knowing that they were created with the highest standards in mind.
This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.