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All fired up, set to melt

Entrepreneur brings Hotwicks candles to masculine market
by:  JIM CLARK, Fed up with sissy scents like vanilla and peach blossom, Michael Chorazak decided to make a line of candles for men that evoked everything from urinal cakes to campfires. Turns out most of his customers are women, often buying for their husbands or boyfriends.

Michael Chorazak was sniffing around for a new business opportunity when he smelled smoke. He was walking with his family on Northwest 23rd Avenue on a cold day when the air was filled with the scent of burning wood. As they passed trendy housewares stores, Chorazak and his brother-in-law wondered aloud, “Why is it that candles don’t smell like things men like to smell, such as campfires, instead of honeysuckle or French vanilla?” A light went on in his head. That night he and his wife, Sara, brainstormed concepts for scented candles that would be funny and appeal to men, things like money and burning tires. Chorazak’s “normal job” at the time was doing online marketing at Nike Inc. He’d taken the job when he and Sara had moved to Portland from the Bay Area in 2006 to be near her sister and family. “I’d had a bunch of good ideas before, and I just never followed through on them,” he says. “One day my wife just kind of told me, ‘Get off the pot or stop talking about all your ideas and just do your normal job.’ A lot of people have great ideas and think it would be great to do something, but they never follow through with it.” He began moonlighting — converting their kitchen into a laboratory — and became proficient at making the 8-ounce scented candles. The dining room was repurposed as a shipping area. By last October Chorazak was ready to launch his own company, Hotwicks, for which he is founder, chief executive officer and the one-man work force. Seven signature scents initially were offered: Stripper, Campfire, Urinal Cake, Hippie, Grass, Pigskin and Coffee. He poured wax, designed labels and affixed them until his thumb went numb. He did the marketing, public relations and sales calls. His Web site design would be crucial to the success of the company (www.hotwicks.com). The copy had to be funny so that people would share it with others. “It’s a candle and an alibi all in one!” reads the description for the best-selling Stripper Candle. “You don’t smell like a stripper, you just smell like a candle.” For the Urinal Cake candle: “We’re often asked if the Urinal Cake candle smells like pee. It doesn’t. It’s a cinnamony floral smell that’s modeled after a urinal cake our founder once relieved himself on at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.” The Campfire candle will “make you want to wipe with leaves.” The site has had more than 43,000 hits since it was launched Nov. 22. Candles, which burn from 40 to 50 hours, retail for $9.99 on the Hotwicks Web site or on Amazon.com for $12.95. “Put it out on your counter or mantel and people are going to laugh and talk about the Stripper candle and brainstorm other candles,” Chorazak says. “It’s not just a candle, it’s an experience.” Though males were the target market, Chorazak quickly discovered it is women who buy the candles, often for their boyfriends or husbands. The Beer candle is the next one out of the chute. Know opportunity, market A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Chorazak has been on a fast track since graduating from Syracuse University. He started working for Gap in a rotational program that taught him what it takes to get from an idea to a stack of clothing in stores. “It starts with understanding there is an opportunity to do something,” he says. “What got Gap into a lot of trouble is they overestimated certain market segments for products. When you’re buying hundreds of thousands of units of gold-dusted jeans and they don’t sell, then you put yourself into this continuous cycle of having to mark stuff down to clear it out. The new stuff is stuck on the boat, you’ve got to mark all that down to clear it out. “I got to see all of that. I learned a valuable lesson about knowing who your market is and knowing if there’s an opportunity there and then putting your bets on those opportunities, versus trying to be everything to everybody.” He moved to an online division of the company, then decided he was tired of clothes and accepted an online marketing position with Yahoo personals in the Silicon Valley for three years. “As soon as we would get someone to the site, our job was to get them to post a profile and take a deeper engagement in the site,” the 29-year-old says. “So I learned a lot about how to get people deeper into your product.” In 2005 Chorazak discovered he had a lung tumor. His driving goal had been to have his own business by the time he was 30. It was time to leave Yahoo and try something new. Bump in road’s a launchpad “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says of the tumor — which was benign. “It set everything into motion that is now, just totally not being afraid. Anytime you’re faced with the potential of death and you’ve haven’t done everything you wanted to do, it kind of forces you to step up.” A year and four months after starting with Nike, Chorazak quit to focus on Hotwicks. His days are filled with everything from testing scents for the new candles to dropping off orders at the post office and making sales calls on gift shops he hopes will carry the candles. “The nice thing about warehousing everything here is that there is no lag time between me making it in the kitchen and me shipping it to my warehouse facility in the living room,” he jests. There is a place on the Hotwicks Web site to suggest a scent, and Chorazak receives dozens of suggestions, things like Wet Sidewalk After It Rains candle, the New Shoes candle, the Play-Doh candle. He credits the tumor for getting him moving, but he admits Portland provided the right atmosphere for his invention. “I probably wouldn’t have done it if I were in the Bay Area,” he says. “I can’t put my finger on it, what it was, but this probably wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been right here, right now. Something about being here caused me to take that chance. I think Portland just allows you to think a little freer. Here anything goes. “When we first moved here we thought it was hilarious some of the things that people would walk out of their door wearing,” he says. “We actually looked around to see if there was a costume party or something. And there wasn’t. They were just being themselves. “And that’s very liberating, when everybody is a little off. It’s OK to then say, ‘Hey, I’m going to leave a great job and go start a company that sells Stripper candles.’ It’s not that weird.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.