Amina Ahmad is the owner of Handmade Habitat. She makes all-natural soy candles and beauty products. She started her business as a vendor at local markets and now has a studio at Off the Beaten Track Warehouse in Northeast D.C. You can find her at handmadehabitat.co or on Instagram @handmadehabitat.
Your business has grown over eight years. Can you tell me about that growth process?
When I was first doing markets I was selling mostly clothing and bags. It was under a different name.
What was the name?
It was Cats and Crafts by Amina. It was horrible. I had this blog called “Of Cats and Crafts.” And it was me sewing in my house. My cats would do wild things like walk through the sewing machine while I was sewing. I started the blog first and I was like, “Well, I should start doing markets.” I couldn’t come up with a name so I just transitioned that name to the business. It became Handmade Habitat in 2011 or 2012. Everything that I made at that point was an experiment. I experimented with candles back then, and they started selling really well at markets. I always thought of the business at that point as: “Let’s see what this can do. Can it sustain my crafting hobby? Can it sustain paying a little bit of my rent?” The candles were doing really well and from a business model perspective moving in that direction made a lot of sense.
What is your philosophy around why you make your candles the way you do?
When I first started making candles I was an environmental science major in college. There was a lot of new research at the time about the toxicity of a lot of traditionally made candles. My candles are all made from soy wax, which is a renewable resource, and it’s made in the U.S. It’s also very clean burning.
What does that mean?
It doesn’t release carcinogens and harmful additives into your home air quality. A lot of other waxes have those types of additives in them. There are a lot of petroleum-based candles. People don’t realize that a paraffin-based candle is really made from a petroleum byproduct. My candles are made with a soy wax, which is a lot cleaner burning and burns longer just naturally than traditional candles. My candles are all scented with essential oils and all-natural botanical fragrance oils—no synthetics added and they are phthalate-free. The wicks are made with cotton and recycled paper. So they burn cleanly, too. Because a lot of candle wicks will have lead in them.
Oh, I had no idea!
Yeah, which is actually only illegal in California. It’s legal everywhere else. If you ever have a candle wick that’s like very pointy—or if you pull it down and you see a little metal piece in it—it’s lead.
One thing you have been able to do as an entrepreneur is to get your products into other stores.
A lot of it is based on relationships, which is one thing that I really love about D.C. There are a lot of people in D.C. who have stores now that I’ve known from the market circuit for years. It’s been really great to see them get spaces. And it’s been really great to see them pull in other makers that they know from their community. So it’s really about finding these good relationships with people. Because in business, that’s really—it’s really all you have, your ability to keep consistent relationships with people.
You have popped around a bit. You worked out of your house. You were at the Arts Walk at Monroe Street Market. Now you are at Off the Beaten Track. Why you have moved around and what that has meant for your business?
I was working out of my house until 2015. At that point we were planning on downsizing apartments because our rent was getting out of hand, as things do in this area. We moved into an apartment that was significantly smaller and it was really not possible to run the business out of there anymore. It was the point when I was like, “I need to grow and I need space to grow.” I really wanted a studio space. I looked around everywhere in D.C. I interviewed for a space at the Arts Walk, but I didn’t get it. Instead they were like, “Maybe if you do this pop-up something will open up by the time you leave.” Which didn’t happen. So I did a pop-up there. I was subletting space for a few months. Then I shared space with a different artist on the Arts Walk. Then in May 2016 a space opened up here.
Your journey to get here has been really amazing. You did it in this natural way that makes sense for your own process.
As an entrepreneur you are always so busy that you don’t always stop to appreciate it. But I’m totally self-funded. Like the only thing—my mom bought me my first tent when I did my first craft show ever. We went to Kmart and she bought me a tent and two tables because I was 20 years old and had no money. But with the business, this has been completely self-funded the whole time. And it probably would have been easier if I had money to be like, “Oh, I need this, this, and this.” But it really takes time to figure out what direction you are going in and then you don’t really waste money that way.
D.C. is really supportive of its makers. I feel like other cities are starting to copy the model because they’ve seen that the makers really like it and everybody just—it makes your city cooler when you’re really into your local scene. I feel like I serve a population that’s overstressed and overworked.