Justine Shaw, co-founder of Literati & Light


Photo of Justine Shaw

Literati & Light are purveyors of scented stories – that is to say, they create eco-friendly home fragrances inspired by great works of literature. The company was started by Justine Shaw who acts as the Creative Director and Head of Operations, her husband (Designer and Photographer Phil Hardman), and her twin sister Charlie, who heads up sales.
From a young age, Justine has always been obsessed with stories and storytelling which she attributes to growing up surrounded by the many and varied books on her parents shelves and tales from her Irish ancestors. After finishing her A-levels, she went to work for a natural cosmetic company where she saw what went into the manufacture of creative, eco-friendly cosmetics. From there, she worked in retail management selling natural skincare products before moving into production for a luxury candle firm, all whilst completing her BA and MA in English Literature. At the end of her MA, she decided to take the plunge and return to study for a PhD full time thanks to a scholarship from the AHRC.

Two years into her doctorate, she found her creative urge itching and decided she wanted to do something creative with her hands to counterbalance the hours that she was spending reading and researching modernist literature and phenomenology. She loved her studies but found she needed something to take her out of head and stretch her creativity. Inspiration struck one day on a memorable car journey from London to Brighton.

On the way she was musing to her husband about wanting to get back into candle making and that she was inclined to start her own company to generate some side income but that she wanted to do something to make her candles stand out. Scouting for inspiration in the car, her eye fell on the Virginia Woolf novel that was peeking out of her tote bag and she was struck by the realisation that literature was full of scented stories. She understood that – so often when thinking about literature, we consider the other senses – what the characters saw, what they heard, what they touched, what they tasted – but we much less frequently consider what it is that they smelt and yet fragrance is all around us all of the time – we need only tune in to notice it. Thinking about the story of the book she was looking at – To The Lighthouse – Justine tried to capture what the scent of the story would be. She imagined herself standing in Mrs Ramsay’s vibrant garden, surrounded by the scents of the sea and the shoreline flowers and the first fragrance was born. By the time the car got to Brighton another 5 scented stories had joined the first and they were on their way to creating a collection of candles that captured the fragrances of great modernist works of literature.
Today, the company still sells those six fragrances, but the product line has extended to include fragrances inspired by classic literature and by tales of magical lands. They now also create diffusers alongside their candles and are stocked in a range of boutiques, independent bookshops, and museum shops including the British Library Shop. They also retail their products at events, including the glorious Hay Literary Festival. Something they are most proud of is their collaborations with Penguin Classics UK, Penguin Audio, and the Wellcome Collection which have allowed them to create bespoke limited editions products for brands and ventures they really admire.

As well as working with her husband to design all of the products and to generate networks for the business, Justine works part-time as the Operations Manager for TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities) where she manages the TORCH events, communications, and international teams and runs the TORCH office. For the past six months, she has also worked as the Acting Humanities Cultural Programme Senior Coordinator at TORCH.

What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
Literati & Light Logo

Looking back, I guess everything that I had done in the past professionally led me to start my own company. From my time at the cosmetics company where I saw not only how a production line for handmade products operated but also learnt that you can create truly eco-friendly products and still be successful – to my time in retail which gave me the financial and stock management training that has proven vital – to my time in the candle company which taught me the basic techniques for artisan candle production which I have adapted to create our own unique blends and processes – all of my professional career has been tending toward the creation of the company. However, it was my academic research that fuelled the creative aspects of our products and is the thing that most satisfies me – I like nothing more than riffling through a book highlighter in hand, picking out the different fragrance notes and then creating and recreating combinations of fragrances until I have the one that I think most perfectly sums up a moment in the story or the feeling of the work in general. I take my inspiration seriously and try to be as faithful as I can to the incredible writers that inspire me.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
For me, it’s about forging your own path, doing something unique – creatively being your own master. Actually, I think the word ‘entrepreneurship’ is too individualist – I think all entrepreneurs are parts of broad networks of people all striving towards individual goals which sometimes overlap and sometimes diverge and it is these relationships that enable individuals to move towards the achievement of their own goals, whatever they may be.

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
I think, because it took such a short amount of time for the first products to formulate themselves in my head, that I had an inkling from the beginning that the concept might work. From when I had the idea in August 2016, it took us three months to get the business up and running and the first line of products ready to sell and that Christmas we were accepted as retailers on the maker-creator marketplace Not On the High Street. Being accepted onto the marketplace is quite competitive so that was a giant boost of confidence for us early on and they continue to be a great partner for us. Since then, we’ve been lucky enough to build up a base of committed customers and a network of loyal stockists, including a range of independent bookshops, which means the world to me particularly as so much of my time has been spent perusing the shelves of indie bookshops looking for my next literary adventure.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
I would say flexibility, problem-solving, and networking.
Flexibility because, as an entrepreneur, you need to be able to see opportunities and move quickly to meet and maximise those opportunities. Problem-solving because, especially in the early days, it really is you that is fixing everything. With Literati & Light especially, since we are involved in the whole process, from designing to production to marketing and retailing, we have had a whole host of different issues that we have encountered and overcome along the way. Finally, I think networking is crucial. It’s really important to be able to make connections with other people, especially other women entrepreneurs. Our strongest collaborations have grown out of conversations with other women in business and we are fortunate to have worked with some wonderfully inspiring and creative women.

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
I love being able to follow my own creative nose and idea. Of course, not every idea works – sometimes the scents we have created along the way have been things you emphatically would not want your house to smell of… but the process of figuring the fragrance out and finding that perfect aroma is deeply satisfying.
The most rewarding thing for me is definitely speaking to a customer and hearing them say something like “that’s my favourite book, and your candle smells exactly how I imagine it”. It’s always such a pleasure to hear that my imagination and someone else’s imagination have arrived at the same scent and I also love hearing people talk about what they would want to see next in the collection too.

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
A company I find really inspiration is AVM Curiosities. It’s run by an amazing food historian called Tasha Marks, who creates the most astoundingly creative and unique installations and experiences in partnership with cultural institutions. Her work is deeply steeped in research so it has a true richness and depth that elevates it above making and transcends it into art. I find her approach really inspiring and I’m always keen to see what she does next.

We were lucky enough to collaborate with Tasha for a product for the Wellcome Collection which was inspired by her incredible sculpture 5318008. The sculpture is inspired by breastmilk (the original superfood) and the Bifidobacteria that passes from mother to child through the milk. The statue emits a painstakingly researched fragrance that evokes the comforting scent of breastmilk. We were fortunate to work with Tasha to transform that fragrance into candles which we wrapped in an image from the Wellcome Collection’s archives. It was truly thrilling to work on such a unique and creative project and to produce projects that, through their profits, contribute towards the mission of an institution we admire so much.

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
Tasha has been really supportive and generous to us as well as a source of inspiration and we are very grateful for that fact. If I could ask her one thing, I think I would ask her what is the thing that she would most like to produce – if money and markets were no object and creativity was the sole driver, what would she most like to create?

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
I think the biggest lesson I have learnt is that, no matter how much you think you might know at the outset, there will be things you will struggle with and it might be in areas you already think you are strong. For instance, from my previous professional experience, I thought I was fairly financially literate but managing the finances of a start-up business and juggling the cash flow was still quite a steep learning curve so I would recommend that individuals wishing to start their own businesses take some preparatory courses and include the things you think you know as well as the things you know you don’t know.

How have you funded your ideas?
When we first got started, we received a small business loan as part of a government scheme. We used that to buy our wax melter, our first fragrance, and our first set of supplies. Aside from that, we have built our business slowly from the ground up and, since paying off our loan, we are completely debt free and operate without investors. Whilst different financial models will work better for other businesses, for us, being reliant for growth on our own success has allowed us to learn to walk before we run and to sustainably ‘build our snowball’. It also allows us the freedom to follow our own instincts without needing to align with others’ intentions.

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
Not as of yet, no but we are open to them!

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
One great thing about working in the city is that you can meet so many other interesting people. At Oxford, you’re essentially completely surrounded by creative, intellectually curious people. So it’s not difficult at all to find someone you can connect with and share ideas and inspiration is never very hard to come by in this beautiful city. In fact, our Magical Lands Collection includes fragrances inspired by Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Lord of the Rings and is our homage to literary Oxford.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
I would give two main pieces of advice: look for mentorship and bolster your skillset through training.
Look for people who are interested in doing the same things that you’re broadly interested in and learn their story – it can be very motivating to hear about another person’s progress and to learn from the obstacles they have overcome along the way. The more honest the accounts you can find, the better! And be honest with yourself about the training you need and then seek out, and continue to seek out, that training.

Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I’ve been very lucky to have collaborated mainly with women with regards to my company, so I think in terms of challenges, I haven’t experienced as much as others might have. However, I do find it interesting that if I use my title for any reason I quite often get replies addressed ‘Dear Justin’, which I never seem to get if I don’t use my title…

What resources would you recommend for other women?
I found watching or listening to interviews with other entrepreneurs, especially women entrepreneurs, really helpful. You can find inspiration in many different places from the radio, to the television, to books, and speaker events – there is a wealth of successful people out there sharing their stories so I would recommend tuning in and being inspired. As I have already said, I would also recommend finding a mentor. The city is full of people doing amazing work in any number of fields – approach those that interest you – you might be surprised at how eager people are to help.

How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
I think the University does a great job but I think it could more broadly advertise the resources it has available to a wider community – I’m not a researcher or affiliated to a department, so I’m not sure whether I am aware of all the resources that are available. I think the University in general attracts skilled, independent, and engaged students and workers so I encourage it to widely advertise its resources to students, researchers, and to staff – you never know what the reception might be up to in their spare time!

Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
I would tell them to do it! Don’t be put off or held back from following an idea because of fear or the belief that you won’t succeed. Imposter syndrome is rife and I think it’s important to just shut that voice down when it starts to speak. There are so many people you can turn to for support – you can look up the local network of female business leaders in your area or find inspiring role models and reach out to them and it’s amazing how warm and generous a community you can build to help buoy you along when the going gets tough.

I would also say don’t let the fact that you’re a woman hold you back – lean into it and make it part of your brand. We are fortunate to live in a time when women are building on the work of our incredible ancestors to carve new paths all of the time. Women are often necessarily good communicators and problem-solvers – use those characteristics to your advantage and forge your own way.

Any last words of advice?
Be creative, be bold, be yourself. Fortune favours the brave!