interviewsLife & Business

Interview + Studio Tour: Tanwi of Hi Wildflower

by Grace Bonney

Creative collaborations are a great way to grow a business and a fun way for customers and clients to discover a business they may not have before. I first discovered Hi Wildflower, a fantastic Brooklyn-based perfumery, through their candle series where up-and-coming authors (and their books) were paired with scents. I was so intrigued by that idea (and loved that a portion of those proceeds went toward earthquake relief in Nepal), that I decided to look deeper into the company.

Hi Wildflower is run by perfumer, and novelist, Tanwi Nandini Islam. With interests in botany, science, traditional apothecary skills and literature, Tanwi brings a fascinating and deeply creative background to her company. I love the way in which she weaves storytelling and travel into each product. From candles inspired by the cliffs of Mt. Tamalpais to scents inspired by travel in India and Hawaii, Tanwi’s creations always have a great story behind them, and today I’m excited to hear more about the story behind her business. xo, grace

Photography by Mia Fermindoza

Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?

I started Hi Wildflower right after I finished revisions on my novel BRIGHT LINES. I felt that I’d finally said goodbye to this story that had taken up my imagination for a decade. As eclectic as my professional career has been — between community organizing, being a teaching artist and brand manager — I knew that after I completed the book it was time to strike out on my own. I’m a fiercely independent thinker. I’m constantly creating and scheming, but I’d never found a workplace that understood me. It was time to create that work for myself.

Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and how you knew it was what you wanted to do?

While researching the main apothecary character in my novel, I’d started to become drawn to perfumery and botany throughout history, both in the U.S. and in Bangladesh, where my family’s from. My father’s a chemist, so I grew up doing science experiments at a young age, so this really brought me back to that place. The natural perfumery classes I’d taken were a window into the gorgeous botanical materials we’ve been able to distill throughout history, and I started collecting oils as if I were building a library. I’ve always been drawn to scent, as a writer. Each Hi Wildflower product has a story, of a place or ritual that evokes my travels in places like India, Hawaii, Kenya, Mexico. I wanted to lace my interests deeply into my brand.

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

My partner (in love, not business) is a software engineer and very business-oriented. In his sensitive and encouraging way, he asked me, “Do you really just want this to be an Etsy shop?” Because that’s all I had pictured at first, an Etsy shop side-hustle situation. From the very beginning, I learned that to propel your business into something bigger and sustainable, you have to believe and treat it as such.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

Before I was able to hire a studio manager, I made each and every piece myself. When I’d get an order for a few hundred candles, I’d literally be making them on my stovetop, trying to get everything done with the most basic, unscalable setup — but that’s how I started, because that’s what I could afford. Money is always a factor — when it comes to fine-tuning and cultivating your brand, the packaging, the vision — and I had to start very small, purchase small amounts at a higher price until I could start moving in a bigger direction.

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

Organization does not come easy for me, as I’m a writer to the core and that means my truest version of a good day is that I got up, had a cup of coffee, decided to get dressed and wrote for five hours. Messiness and disorganization are things I struggle with, and it’s so important to work with a team you trust to help you actualize and organize your vision.

Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?

There’s been a few moments that I could name as a failure, which were hard even though they were different types of failure. With customers, if someone’s unhappy with a product, that inevitably feels personal, and I try to be as objective and as customer-centric as possible. But I’ve dropped the ball on a couple occasions from feeling overwhelmed, and have had to let it go as best as I can. When my novel was published this August, a friend passed away, I was in the middle of a large order, and I know my level of communication wasn’t where it could be. I misread a large order and hired people to make a ridiculous surplus of product that cost triple what I should have spent. I know now that this is because I wasn’t giving myself the rest and time and patience I need. I wasn’t clarifying because I didn’t want to sound stupid — but sometimes you just need to admit you don’t understand or know something.

If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?

Meditation or yoga for one hour. A Spanish class and an extra hour of sleep would be incredible.

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?

Time for writing fiction. Time for more healthy, physical activity and a social life. I miss events that always seem magical under the rose-colored lens of social media and definitely a FOMO strikes me from time to time.

Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?

I think of how one year ago, Renegade Craft Fair was my first foray into selling goods to customers. Now Hi Wildflower is available in 40 stores, in Canada and Australia. Some of my candles are available at Urban Outfitters and that just blows my mind, because those were handpoured by a crew of amazing artists in Brooklyn.

What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

I’ll never be able to split myself into either the founder of Hi Wildflower or a novelist — so the books that inspire me the most to create are usually books on writing and creating art. They’re books that tell me that perfection is a myth that isn’t even desirable. My top 3:

The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander, is about creating and building living environments (vs. dead ones) and how patterns of human life create social spaces that are beautiful and alive.
Bird by Bird by Annie Lamott has fantastic tools and ideas that have been fundamental in how I tackle running a business, as well as my methodology as a fiction.
101 Things to Learn in Art School begins with the question, “What is the first thing to learn in art school?” The answer: “Art can be anything.” That’s basically my philosophy of life.

Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.

When I lived in New Delhi for a nonprofit volunteer fellowship, I got convinced that I needed to create a clothing line. The stunning textiles of India are enough to give you designer envy for days, and I wasted a lot of time and money — pulling in my parents as investors — and then never doing anything with the clothes. I even hired a seamstress when I got back to the States to help me edit and tailor some of the looks, and then I never heard from her again — and she had my best pieces. So, while I think getting obsessed with an idea is good for a while, becoming blinded by that is not good. I knew deep down something was not right; that in some ways being a fashion designer was not my thing. I love clothes and vintage — it’s enough to keep it at that.

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

1. Are you creating something that has your own brave imprint on it that no one else can do as wonderfully as you? Believe that.

2. Are you seeing your work alongside other creators whom you admire? Dialogues between likeminded brands is a beautiful thing, but imitation and mimicry is not.

3. Do you have people in your life to support you emotionally and invest in your business?

What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?

Instagram is probably the one that makes me happiest, since all it requires is looking at the pretty, curated lives we want the world to see. It’s a gallery of aspirations. It’s a good way to start the morning.

What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?

There’s this seductive mythology that entrepreneurs make themselves out of nothing. Yes, these are my ideas, they’re original, but as I seek to scale my business, I realize that eventually I will need more help. Investment — whether crowdfunded or from a wealthy patron or your family and friends — really lets you take it to another level. In my case, my mother, a language interpreter who speaks all day to people who are in a lot of pain — has invested her hard-earned money into Hi Wildflower because she knew this was something that could grow and thrive. Asking for help is never easy — and it feels like a weakness. But my mother’s response has always been, “It makes me feel good to be able to make so many people happy through this.”

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  • I love this interview and I’ve really enjoyed and admired seeing what Tawni has built and how she’s built it!

  • I got to meet Tanwi at that first Renegade festival last year – I was drawn to the booth because it smelled SO GOOD. It’s been amazing to see it grow so quickly and to find them in boutiques around the city and even at Urban now! Congrats!

  • such a great interview! feeling inspired and motivated after reading. thank you