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Main man behind ManCans

Hart Main, founder of ManCans. Photos Ben French
Hart Main, founder of ManCans. Photos Ben French
"Right now, I'm supposed to be mowing the lawn," admits Hart Main when a reporter phones him for one of two interviews on Main's schedule that day.

It's summer, after all, and Main is 13 -- with a 13-year-old's responsibilities.

Except that when he's not cutting grass, delivering papers or playing on his rec league baseball team, Main has some very adult duties running his own business: ManCans, a candle company that has grown from a handful of items shown at a school craft bazaar to thousands of candles lining shelves of stores across the country.

Launched last November, ManCans sprang from Main's observation that most of the candles being sold around the world were made to appeal to women. How many men, he reasoned, would, uncoerced, fire up a candle that smelled like vanilla, mocha or gingerbread?

"I thought it would be cool to make man-scented candles, and nobody was really doing that," he explains. "And my parents encouraged me to do it because they thought it would be a good learning experience."

Since then, Main's hunch that there was a market for scents like Grandpa's Pipe, Campfire and the latest -- Dirt -- has proven a winner. Sold online and in shops from Washington State to North Carolina, ManCans has sold more than 7,000 candles priced at just under $10 a pop.

So many that ManCans are no longer made around the kitchen table but jobbed out to a candle maker in Westerville.

"For a month, every flat spot in our house had either empty cans or cans that were cooling or full cans waiting to be shipped," laughs his father, Craig. "It got pretty hairy for awhile because every time you wanted to sit down and eat or do anything else it was staring you in the face."

The sudden growth was unexpected.

"The initial idea behind this, and my wife (Amy) and I supported it, was to teach him how to run a business," Craig says. "And we thought he'd do this between Thanksgiving and Christmas and after it died down, maybe he'd make a few and try to sell them in a craft fair, or at a farmer's market during the summer. And we got past Christmas, and next thing you know know he's got them in four or five stores and we're trying to generate 30 or 40 of these a month."

ManCans' first taste of success came, appropriately, at a school event.

"A friend of ours took him to a craft bazaar that one of the local schools was having," Craig Main says. "And one of the ladies there that he knew through baseball. . . said 'we're starting a business downtown, and we'd love to sell his candles through the business.'"

Encouraged, the Mains drove 45 minutes to Columbus, where Hart made his sales pitch to shops dotting the city's eclectic Short North.

"I said 'you tell me which of these stores you think these would sell in,'" Craig Main says. "We walked in the front door and he walked up and set them on the counter and said 'can I speak to the manager,' and gave his spiel, and that's basically what he's done for the first four or five stores he was in. And after that, it's been basically people requesting him, saying 'can I sell your candles in my store?"

Hart Main says the first three scents ManCans marketed were "scents we're carrying now: fresh cut grass, campfire and new mitt. Originally, one day a week, on Sunday, we would make about 50 candles and that normally lasted us about three weeks. Now we are filling 200 to 250 orders each week. And each order has about three or four candles in it. And we're getting more orders than we're filling -- we're very backlogged."

Good ideas don't always translate to a solid business, and like many entrepreneurs, Hart Main has sought help.

"Most of the advice came from people I originally sold candles to for their stores," he says.

People like Joe Ewing, who owns two Worth Repeating Consignment shops in Marysville.

"December 6 was when he brought the first candle in," Ewing remembers. "As soon as he walked in, I saw he knew what he was doing. He was on a mission. We've carried his candles ever since, and we've probably sold over 150 for him."

Ewing, who Craig Main says "has a way of talking with Hart," gave him some valuable business education.

"When he first came in, his idea was to sell (the candles) to me," Ewing says. "And I explained that I have a consignment shop and that I really don't buy things, I just put things in on consignment. So he kind of looked at me and I explained to him what consignment was about, and one thing led to another and we just kind of continued to dialog, and he ended up putting the candles in here, and we worked out a deal. And there have been some discussion around sales tax, how do you manage that?"

But Ewing also has helped ManCans with its philanthropic activities by coordinating a drive for used soup cans.

Every candle that ManCans makes comes in an empty soup can surrounded by a label. To assure a steady supply of cans -- and to help the hungry -- ManCan buys soup at the clip of about 1,000 cans at a time, donates the soup to local food pantries, and asks the pantries to return the clean, empty cans to the company, Hart Main says.

"There's a lot of need for food out there and if we're going to use the cans, it's just wrong to dump it down the drain," Hart Main explains.

While Craig and Amy Main are key parts of the drivetrain that keeps ManCans going, Craig says Hart makes all of the final decisions in how the company will be run. Because he is too young to sign any legal document, the Mains have set up a trust -- which owns the business on behalf of their son.

Hart says most of the money he's making is being invested back into the company. He's not sure about the future of ManCans, but says he'd like to keep it intact as he works his way through high school and college (his first choice is the Naval Academy -- his father's not sold).

But that is years away. For now, there is a summer of yard work, paper routes and baseball games on a team ManCans sponsors.

"When he made his first $250, he said 'I could sponsor my own (local recreational league) baseball team,'" Craig Mains explains. "That's the cost of sponsoring a team for a year. And we laughed about it, and he mentioned it a day later. And I'm thinking 'please don't tell me you're going to sell 1,000 candles because you're sponsoring your own baseball team.

"And he goes, 'well I don't think I'll sell a lot of candles. I just think it would be really neat to be on the team I sponsor.'"

Hart Main turns 14 next month. Stay tuned.
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