How Ingrid Nilsen Pivoted From YouTuber to … Candlemaker?
On June 30, 2020, Ingrid Nilsen told her over three million YouTube subscribers that she was retiring from influencing. The beauty guru began uploading videos on the platform as MissGlamorazzi in 2009 when she was 20. A little more than ten years later, she gave it up just to get a break, with no specific plan for how to move forward. Then she started making candles.
On November 25, Nilsen, who’s from California and now lives in New York City, posted one of the only three Instagram photos she has published since retiring (one encouraged voting, and the other celebrated the results of the presidential election). With it, she announced The New Savant, the “scent studio” she founded with her partner Erica Anderson, previously the Executive Producer of Content and Partnerships at Vox.
“If you know me, then you know I LOVE the art and science behind fragrances,” Nilsen captioned the announcement on The New Savant’s Instagram. “I also LOVE candles. That’s why I’m beyond excited to announce that THE NEW SAVANT is a scent studio and it’s all starting with candles that are completely handmade by me.”
Those who grew up watching Nilsen (myself included) know that she frequently posted hauls of Bath and Body Works candles in the early days of her channel. As a first generation YouTube star alongside people like Tyler Oakley, Fleur de Force, Joey Graceffa, and Tanya Burr (some of whom have similarly stepped back from creator life), Nilsen helped define everything the platform came to be. She created Vlogmas—a challenge in which a YouTuber vlogs every day up until Christmas—now a staple of YouTube culture, and after coming out as gay in the summer of 2015, helped bring queerness and sexuality to the forefront of the beauty community. Her coming-out video remains her most popular, with 18 million views.
Nilsen had taken four months off by the time she made the New Savant announcement, but her followers’ enthusiasm had hardly waned. The first batch of The New Savant’s debut collection sold out, necessitating a previously unplanned restock, and they’re already approaching the next collection, for winter.
The success is a result of not just months of careful planning, but a decade-long career as a creator and businesswoman. Nilsen, Anderson, and I hopped on the phone to chat about the decision to retire from influencer life, and how the skills Nilsen learned online prepared her for the next stage of her career in a totally new industry.
How long was the idea for The New Savant in the works?
Ingrid: This is something that I didn't plan when I retired from YouTube in the summer of last year. I had no idea that six months later I would be making candles. It was not on my radar at all. It was just a huge step in general for me to even entertain the idea of quitting YouTube, because it was something that I never really let myself fully sink into. When it became clear to me that it was time for me to quit, it was terrifying because I had no idea what was next. Should I get a corporate job? Do I want to do consulting? I was pretty much open to anything and everything.
My first priority was taking a break over the summer, because I've never really completely had a break. I got to spend time with myself and see what came up for me. That's where the magic really happened. I was getting rest and allowing my imagination and my curiosity to just run wild. We had been visiting Erica’s dad in Indiana over the summer and we weren't really doing anything since we had been in a bubble together and my days were just kind of spent reading books and enjoying getting to be outside and having more space than in New York City and one day I think I just saw a candle in the house. It wasn't even lit. And I just thought to myself, Oh, I've always loved candles. I wonder how you make a candle. I remembered being in Paris a couple years ago and saying out loud, “I wish I could have my own candles.” I always thought that it would have to be something super complicated where I'd have to get a manufacturing partner. It just seemed like a huge headache. But in this moment it seemed so simple. I just looked it up on the internet, on forums where people have been making candles for a long time and had a lot of experience and advice. I watched YouTube videos and realized that if I wanted to just basically learn how to make a candle, I could just get some simple supplies from a craft store and see what happens.
I made my very first candles in the basement of Erica's dad's house on a ping pong table, and I loved it. I loved the entire process of it. And so it was really just following the breadcrumbs and wondering what would happen if I experimented with different scents and different materials and different containers. And then on the drive back from Indiana, I expressed to Erica that I thought that I could really do something with this, because I really loved it. And the more I spent time with it, the more I started remembering things over the years that I had said, like in Paris where I had just come out of this tea shop and I was smelling all these teas that were so fragrant. And I just kept saying, “Oh, I wish I could have a candle that smelled like that.” And so it didn't feel so far fetched. This has been brewing for a while. I just didn't have space to really sit with it.
What went into your decision to retire from YouTube? Did something specific happen?
Ingrid: It really wasn't in the works for very long before it happened—I want to say a month and a half before I posted my video. It was really an unremarkable moment. I was walking down the street on the sidewalk and I just had this question drop into my head. I asked myself, “What would you do if you stopped?” And it just opened up the door to all of this possibility. It was this moment of just saying yes to ideas that I had never let myself entertain before. So I remember coming home and telling Erica. “I'm gonna quit.” And Erica was like, “What?”
Erica: I want to say it was under the surface for a while, even since I met you. It was clearly the final chapter of your career as an influencer, even though you hadn't articulated it so clearly until that day in May or June. Whenever you were called an influencer, like out and about or introduced that way, you embraced it, obviously, and enjoyed it, but you really got into the space a decade ago to be a maker. And this is not to say there aren't really creative makers on the internet right now who are influencers. But that first generation of really wacky, creative, interesting kids who wanted a creative outlet...that's not what it was in 2020.
Ingrid: I had said to my friend years ago, “I don't know definitely what my path looks like, but I do know that I don't want to be making content into my 30s.” I really started to plant that seed years ago and it came right on time—31, and it just came to me.
Erica, how did you get involved with the project?
Erica: [We were] driving from Indiana to New York City and Ingrid was telling me about this vision and it just became really clear that I could complement her with my skills—building products and businesses inside of big tech companies. The throughline of my career has been entrepreneurship. It just seemed really exciting and tangible and different and possible, a fun thing to do together. So I offered to help her on the business side. And I think you said yes right away—or maybe you said you would think about it. [Both laugh]
Going into business with your partner is also just, like, take it slow. We talked about it many times and thought about it and then worked with a lawyer to think through how things will be structured and really just took our time making sure that it felt right for both of us, and ultimately it did.
Is this your full time job now, Erica?
Erica: I left my job at Vox Media in December. So I did leave my day job and I'm working primarily on New Savant with some creative, independent writing projects that I'm passionate about. My dad had a small business growing up. He sold insurance in Indiana—my dad is big part of this story—but growing up I always thought to myself it'd be really fun to have my own business. And after college, [where] I studied journalism and [then going] into media and technology and working for these big companies, it just felt impossible. What would a new company be, and how could that dream be realized? And so it was pretty unexpected when Ingrid had the idea and it became clear that we could do this together. So similarly, I feel like I've been prepared for this moment through a lot of different experiences in my life.
Logistically, Ingrid, how did you make the transition from YouTuber to business owner?
Ingrid: There was a lot of preparation and I had to think through everything. There were a lot of phone calls. A lot of advice I got from people. But I am in a position where I have a lot of privilege, and one aspect of that privilege is I made a lot of money over the last decade and I saved a lot of it. It allowed me to quit and use that money to continue living where I didn't have to work over the summer and I was able to have that rest. That was definitely not my situation 10 years ago. It was a huge part of why I even landed on this next step, because I wasn't worried about my financial position. But at the same time, something that I've learned over the years is no matter how much money you have, a key part of financial health is budgeting. And so I did cut back on my expenses because I wasn't bringing in money. I didn't want to be digging into my savings more than I had to.
Then there's the whole aspect of, you know, closing down a business. There's a lot of aspects around that and I'm still in the process of doing that. I had to end professional relationships, which was really hard. I took it slowly and I think that I have been guided in the right direction and ultimately I feel a lot more empowered around my finances because I have full control of it. I know exactly where my money is being spent, where I want to spend it. And even with starting this new company, there was a budget for how much I would be investing in it. It wasn't just this never-ending amount. Money has always been difficult for me, and I feel like this last year has been one of my biggest lessons. Especially when I started making YouTube videos—I was over $30,000 in debt. Now I'm in a different position. I think about that a lot. A lot of where I am now is comforting that scared 20-year-old inside of me.
Did you get any help from investors?
Ingrid: It's been completely self-funded. We put about $10,000 in total to start the business. I put in the majority of that and that's everything from the legal costs for setting up the LLC, which was about $5,000, and the rest going into buying all of the supplies, research, and development.
Being both romantic and business partners who live together is probably a new experience. What has that been like?
Ingrid: There was actually a moment with the last group of shipments that we were doing for the holiday collection. I want to say it was definitely past 9:00 p.m. at night. We were still packing up orders. And I remember saying to Erica, you know, let's stop at this time. I think it was like 10 o'clock. Erica was ready to pull an all nighter into the early hours. And I said to her, “No, I think it's better if we just stop now and finish the rest in the morning, because otherwise we're not going to have any time to relax together and decompress from all of this.” And Erica’s face, I remember, was a mix of disbelief that she could stop, but also relief.
Erica: Everything boils down to communication and talking to each other about that experience and then the harder stuff, like what do we want the company to be?
Ingrid: And there have also been moments, too, where a conversation can easily just kind of fall into talking about work. And one of us will say, “I don't really want to talk about work right now.” And so I think it's respecting those boundaries too. We don't want [work] to be the core of our relationship.
Being self-employed and setting boundaries is probably something you learned as a YouTuber. In what ways did that experience prepare you for this?
Ingrid: I had a lot of freedom and autonomy being a YouTube creator, but I think as you grow, no matter what industry you happen to be in, more people start coming in. I was really craving something that I could really dig into on my own and not have a ton of people looking at me and depending on me and wanting a piece of me, basically. I really wanted to put my energy into something that was just mine. And I learned so much about that over the last decade. And so that's why with The New Savant, I didn't want to take money from people because I knew that if I did, it would mean that in some capacity I would be beholden to somebody.
I have also learned a lot in terms of my creativity and how to protect it and also when I should be listening to suggestions and letting those things in. The list just goes on and on. The more that I step into The New Savant, I see how my YouTube career prepared me for this moment. I wouldn't be in this position without it. It prepared me financially, it prepared me emotionally and creatively, and it prepared me professionally. I am so grateful for that chapter in my life because it made me a really savvy business person.
How did you go about deciding what scents and types of candles to sell?
Ingrid: First of all, I have made some pretty gross scents. I just gotta say that's part of it. But my inspiration is really feelings, so things that I've felt before in my life, like with this winter collection. The inspiration for me is that feeling of a really cold winter day and you’re freezing and then all of a sudden the clouds open up and you step into a spot of sunlight and it just feels so good. It's almost like [there are] these stories living in my imagination and I want to bring them to life through scent, because scent is one of our senses that we don't really pay attention to.
What are your plans for The New Savant in 2021?
Ingrid: Right now I don't have a core collection yet. This is really all just one big experiment. I am launching these collections so we can learn more about our customers and connect with them and we can have some time to plan on the logistical side. We had to figure out a whole system for packing orders and making candles and keeping track of inventory. And that's very much a work in progress. But through these collections, what I'm hoping to do is discover my core collection, take my favorites from these seasonal collections and build a core collection that can always be available.
For 2021, there are lots of things that we want to do. We've talked about wholesale and in-person vendors where people would be able to go and actually smell the products.
Erica: Really just figuring out the right way to grow and how to make sure that as we do grow, the quality of the candle remains the same. Having come from an industry that's so focused on scale, you inevitably lose something when you do grow too quickly. I imagine by the end of the year we'll have launched four or five collections, from that we'll have four or five core candles that we know will be something that we make available consistently. And then in the years to come, maybe other products. It originally was started as the idea of a scent studio, with candles being the first product. We'll introduce other products when the time is right.
When you announced The New Savant, what was it like seeing your followers’ reactions?
Ingrid: It was a burst of excitement, and honestly, thinking about it, it makes me cry a little bit. I received so many messages and emails from people who were so supportive and excited. Part of the creative process is having that little piece of insecurity where you're just thinking, Oh my God, what am I doing? You just want to be seen and understood, and to have people reaching out to me who had followed my career for a decade and telling me what my work had meant to them and how they see how this makes sense for me, that felt like, Oh my gosh, I am being seen. I was so incredibly touched by it. I love seeing those messages from people saying, ‘“I remember the Bath and Body Works days! I had one of those candles too!’” It feels really good to know that so many of us have grown up together.