Spend enough time in Michael Chorazak's historic home in Northwest Portland, and there's a good chance you'll reek of urinal cakes and strippers.
Guests at the Chorazak home haven't always smelled that way. In the summer of 2007 Chorazak was walking on Northwest 23rd Avenue with his wife and brother-in-law when he smelled something that caught his attention—a woodsy scent, kind of like burning cherry wood. The smell brought back great memories of getting drunk while camping late at night with friends, times when he'd throw all kinds of shit into a campfire. Then a thought struck him—was there a candle out there that smelled like campfires?
He rushed home to look online. When he couldn't find the elusive candle, Chorazak, 30, decided to quit his cushy marketing job at Nike and go into business for himself as a new-millennial chandler, a.k.a. a candlemaker.
"I said either I'm on to something, or this is going to be a colossal failure," he says. "But I told myself I'd take the risk and try it. It's just rare that there's something out there that you've thought of and no one else has."
Chorazak determined his company, Hotwicks, wouldn't feature the kinds of "mountain breeze, lilac morning or heavenly honeysuckle" scents burned by Martha Stewart-loving candle customers. Instead, Hotwicks would bring the sexy and silly back to the relatively bland world of candles. He'd make fun novelty candles celebrating those "unique" smells taken from everyday life, scents like campfire. He'd add coffee, pigskin, hippies (essentially ganja smoke), and freshly mowed grass to the lineup. He'd also offer a candle capturing the sweet, antiseptic aroma of those small, mysterious pink pastries peed on by millions of American men each day—the urinal cake. To top it off, he'd create his now-bestselling candle (and wife Sara's favorite), the stripper candle, replete with a secret mix of cheap-perfume scents and, of course, plenty of glitter. (Having smelled the real thing more than I should admit in print, it's safe to say Chorazak got the recipe right.)
In other words, he'd make man candles.
"If you go to Fred Meyer and walk down the candle aisle, it's all the same damn crap. I wanted something that would not just be a candle, but something you could lay out and people would laugh and talk about," Chorazak says. "[Hotwicks] are more of a decoration and an experience."
In many ways, Chorazak is an unlikely candidate to make and sell $10 candles out of his kitchen. The Buffalo, N.Y., native and Syracuse University grad has worked for Gap Corporate, Yahoo and Nike over the past decade, most signs would have said Chorazak was destined to rise up the corporate ladder.
But Chorazak did what several other young area business people from creative corporate hot spots like Nike, Adidas and Intel have done: He quit. In a way, the giant corps have become training grounds for inspired future entrepreneurs. Tired of sitting in meetings and being responsible for only a small piece of the pie, he figured he could take some lessons gleaned from working at a successful business like Nike and be his own boss.
"At Nike I just did marketing, but here I get to do everything, from writing copy, to R and D," Chorazak says. "Rather than go to grad school, this was my opportunity to do everything that I may have learned in school. I'm applying everything I've learned in my last couple of jobs into this project."
Making candles seemed cool to Chorazak, but in a sense, the nature of the widget was irrelevant. He says starting Hotwicks was almost like an excuse to exercise all of his creative business muscles in his own original project, started from the ground up. Investing about $15,000 in the idea, Chorazak spent months working out all of the details. He designed a website and eye-catching labels. Through a lot of trial-and-error, he taught himself how to make a candle. He tried to develop scents from scratch, but after several mishaps that left his home smelling rancid he decided to use premade scents he buys from three different scent suppliers and hand-mix them to his liking in his kitchen (he's working on establishing scents exclusive to Hotwicks).
And he converted the first floor of his split-colonial house on Northwest Everett Street into a fully operational candle-producing facility. The "marketing and accounting" office and shipping departments are in his dining room, right next to a Tales from the Crypt pinball machine. Spread on his kitchen table are three slow cookers customized and converted to serve as wax burners, each capable of melting 8 pounds of wax at a time.
"I'm always a little worried that one of the neighbors will call the cops and say that I have a meth lab in here," he says.
Since his Thanksgiving 2007 launch, he's sold several hundred of the oddly scented candles directly through his website and Amazon.com's Kitchen and Dining section. Surprisingly, orders have been coming about equally from both men and women. All told, he says he's received about 35,000 hits on his website.
"I don't know why, but the urinal cake candle is really big in Japan and Germany," he says. "It's neat to know that people from all around the world are looking at something that you created."
No matter what part of the globe, Chorazak knows people will see his candles as a novelty gag. But he still thinks most of his candles actually "smell nice." And on top of that, he says, some of the Hotwicks can even serve a practical purpose.
"The hippie candle is great to keep in your car, home or office. If an officer ever asks, you weren't smoking weed, you were just burning a weed-scented candle."
One of Chorazak's favorite features on the website is a section where customers can write in their own suggestions for new scents. He's had at least a dozen different requests for a variety of vagina-scented candles.
Chorazak already has a couple of new scents ones on the way, including beer, pancake and dryer sheet-scented models.
"It's for guys who don't want to do laundry. And who doesn't love the smell of exhaust out of the dryer?" he says.
For now, Chorazak says he's concentrating on building up the business at a controlled pace. He hasn't broken even with Hotwicks yet, but he says he's "getting there." He's also looking to expand to wholesale business and have his candles carried at both local gift and novelty shops and some major outlets.
"My ultimate goal is to ride this as long as I'm happy doing it," he says. "I don't want to be a candlemaker for my whole life, but for now, I can definitely do this better than most people."