Looking back on her childhood, Michelle Tu remembers developing her own comic book characters and painting along with Bob Ross on TV. But practical concerns overtook her creative projects as she grew up and pursued a career in science, earning an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering and a doctorate in cell biology.
Tu initially put that science background to work in a skincare company she founded called Cura. She also picked up candlemaking as a hobby to relax and channel her long-lost creativity on the side. Soon enough, that side hustle became her obsession, and Tu founded Modern Theory, a second business that offers chic, eco-friendly candles made with sustainability and social impact in mind. The more she invested in the candle business, the more she realized it was her true passion. So in 2020, Tu decided to close Cura for good and pursue Modern Theory full time.
Q&A with Michelle Tu, Founder of Modern Theory
Hello Alice talked with Tu about finding the courage to move on from a business you no longer love, finding packaging on Alibaba, and leaning on your network for the skills you might not have. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You grew up creative but ended up becoming a scientist. Was there a particular experience that triggered your desire to ultimately pursue the creative route?
Growing up, making and creating art was something that came naturally to me. But my parents immigrated to the U.S. during the Vietnam War, so there was a lot of expectation on me to do well in school and eventually find a stable, good-paying job. They wanted me to pursue the sciences or go to med school, and at first, I didn’t have an issue with that. I actually really loved science! So as I entered grade school and high school, I shifted my attention so that my creative pursuits went to the wayside. I was more focused on getting good grades and trying to make my parents proud. Ultimately, I went on to pursue my Ph.D. in cell biology.
Again, I love being a scientist. I could talk about stoichiometry all day! But there’s still very much a part of me that loves to be creative and interested in natural things. So after I finished my Ph.D., I decided to start my own skincare company called Cura. I knew that I didn’t want to sit at the lab bench for the rest of my life. I also knew that I wanted a physical product. But I quickly found out that the beauty industry just wasn’t for me; it didn’t actually align with a lot of my core values, and that’s okay! I had to find that out for myself. I never felt that I fit in or connected with the industry on a certain level. You should be super passionate about this company you started, but I didn’t feel that way.
I kind of kept trucking along for a while, but I started looking for creative outlets to just help me decompress and relax. I started candlemaking as a hobby, and I loved it. It was something that was so simple, but there was still a little bit of science involved. There is something very calming to me that kept me grounded and gave me an opportunity to be creative. Then I started sharing my candles with family and friends. One day, I decided to create a super-simple website, throw my candles on there, and see what happens. My candles sold out within a weekend. That was when I got the motivation to turn this side hustle into a real, bonafide business.
A lot of entrepreneurs have a similar realization where they start one thing and it’s going okay, but they realize they want to do something else instead. What was that process like for you with the skincare company and saying goodbye to it?
I realized last summer that I don’t know if I can handle trying to run two businesses at the same time against this backdrop of the pandemic. The catalyst was this really great conversation with my mom. We talked about what actually brings us joy and what makes us happy because, again, that’s what’s so important, right? I asked myself: Am I excited to get up and work on Modern Theory and fulfill orders and talk to customers? Do I have that same feeling when it comes to Cura? And I realized that I really didn’t! It was hard for me because I felt like I was letting others down and that I was failing in some way. That was a scary, scary thing for me that prevented me from closing Cura sooner. Ultimately it was the best decision for me, and I received nothing but support from friends and family. The worst-case scenario was only in my head.
It’s so important to let other entrepreneurs know that you’re the one that’s in control, you’re in the driver’s seat, and no one knows your business and what you’re going through better than you. When you’re an entrepreneur, it’s really easy to take stuff personally. Once I got over the whole idea of thinking that I was a failure or disappointing people, I was able to let go of a burden. Now I could really focus on something that I enjoyed, and it doesn’t really feel like work. At the end of the day, it feels like a fun project that I get to work on with friends, meet new people, and also make some money.
I imagine you’re one of the very few candle makers who has an advanced degree. Has your science background helped you work with manufacturers and create a different kind of product?
For me, what’s been really helpful with my science background is my approach to data and critical thinking. There are a lot of folks in the candle business. It’s very important for me to dissect the data and look at the data and see what’s moving the needle and what’s not. This is still a business, and I need to stay afloat. That has helped me source really good vendors and manufacturers as well. Still, it’s mostly been my creative side that has really shined throughout this. Because again, the candle market is very saturated. It’s the story of the product and the small difference that you’re making in your branding that resonates with a lot of customers.
How have you approached your sales and marketing strategy? Do you want to be a direct-to-consumer brand? A fancy boutique brand? Some mix thereof?
When I started Modern Theory, I knew right away that I wanted to take an omnichannel approach, and I wanted to make sure that I made my candles accessible. So I never really focus on one specific channel. I want to be able to say that Modern Theory is in this small boutique or a bigger, well-known department store. I could see Modern Theory in a variety of retail locations but also just being sold through different channels. That accessibility was really important for me.
How did you find your supplier?
I did a lot of Google research to find manufacturers and vendors that I could work with domestically. That was really important to me. On the other hand, my boxes come from a vendor in China. I started using Alibaba in 2012 or 2013 to find stuff like that. It was still very much in early beta mode back then, but I tried to figure it out. I was always up at like 1 or 2 a.m. talking to different vendors because I want to be on their time zone. I think that worked out, but again, I try to mainly work with vendors in the U.S. because it is 100% easier. There are some cost issues, though, so sometimes it does make more sense to work with people overseas.
What does your team look like? Do you have any advice on finding outside help?
Really, I am a team of one, but I’ve been working really closely with some marketing consultants. I also had an intern over the summer, and she’ll be returning for the fall. But again, very small team.
Everyone expects you to have this enormous operation with all these folks working on different things. But when you’re starting out and you’re a small business, you really do have to wear all the hats. Surprisingly, I enjoy that because you understand the pain points, and you have to learn. I am by no means an expert when it comes to digital marketing, but it’s something that I’ve had to really throw myself into and learn the ins and outs of.
Still, I am thankful that I have some help, and I really lean on my network. I have a bunch of friends who are fantastic photographers, so I’ll talk to them and ask if there is any way that I can work with them and barter free product. Whatever I needed, I tried to figure out a way, because a lot of times, you can negotiate with folks. I leaned very heavily on my network to find other people who could help. Networking is super important. You need to sift through your Rolodex of people to get things done, even if you don’t think you can afford to. There is always a way to make it happen.
Many brands these days build their product into a lifestyle where their customers are members of an exclusive community. Is that something you’re interested in?
That’s the goal for most brands because it’s so important to build that community of fans. I want to get better at that, but I don’t know what the magical process is when it comes to creating that feeling. I’ve been slowly trying to create a small community with my repeat customers, and it’s been really great. I have real connections with these people; I try to send very thoughtful, personal emails as if a friend is writing to you. Many times I get responses, and there will be customers who tell me stories about their kids or how this candle reminds them of a summer staying in a cabin with their grandparents. It’s really awesome, and I try to respond to all of those messages. I love learning about people and being able to share my stories and then be able to connect with them through those stories. Hopefully, one day there will be a larger Modern Theory community where we can all share these connections.
Do you see Modern Theory growing beyond a candle company to offer more products?
I think so! It’s always exciting when I think about that because there are so many different avenues that I can see Modern Theory going down. I want people to be able to recognize Modern Theory as a great candle company and a home goods company with high-quality products. There is potential for other lines, like hand soaps or hand creams. What I’ve found is a lot of people love the different scents. So again, how do I recreate the candle experience but in a different form? Expanding the line and growing it into different products is a goal of mine. I want Modern Theory to be sort of an everyday household item that people really admire.