WASHINGTON — When Celena and Patrick Gill's three young sons came to them asking for money to buy nerf guns and video games, knowing they had already spent their allowance, they said what any responsible parent would say: no. But what they said next would ignite an entrepreneurial dream in Collin, Ryan and Austin Gill.
"Mom told us no, and said to get a job or start a business," the oldest Gill brother, Collin, said.
Since labor laws exist and the boys were all under 15 -- Collin is 14, Ryan is 12 and Austin is 9 -- creating their own business was the best path to toy bliss.
"We really wanted to teach them the power of hard work and perseverance," Celena said. "To teach them that anything they want, they can get on their own, because we were providing anything they needed."
Patrick and Celena gave the boys creative control and allowed them to decide what kind of business they would create.
"We first thought about doing bath bombs and soap, but we did some research on what businesses were most successful and it was candles," Ryan said.
Frères Branchiaux Candle Co.-- French for "Gill Brothers" -- launched in October 2017, selling hand-poured 100% soy wax candles made from the Gill house. The early bestsellers included "Vanilla Spice," mixing vanilla with pumpkin spice; "Whiskey Sweet," made from sandalwood, whiskey, cedar and spicy citrus; and "This Woman's Work," as an ode to women, especially moms, with notes of apple, peach, grapefruit, dark musk, vanilla and lilac.
While all the Gills help with the physical candle making, each brother has a specialty. Ryan is the "scentmaster," with a real nose for what scents customers will be drawn to, and is credited with creating the majority of the product scents. His favorite to date is the 1790 candle, named for the year D.C. was founded, combining scent of honeysuckle and jasmine.
"We had a lot of demand to create a candle representing D.C. beyond the cherry blossom scent," Celena said.
Austin wicks the candles and also helps Collin with labeling. Frères Branchiaux expanded to hire two employees -- one of Collin's teammates and his older brother -- who help Collin with the packing and shipping.
Since 2017, the boys have expanded their product line to include room sprays, diffusers, bath salts and fragranced hand sanitizer -- a COVID-era must. Currently, production is still done out of the Gill household, but given that they are now being sold in 60 stores nationwide, in Japan and online at Macy's, they are in the process of finding a warehouse for future productions.
The boys also have their own goals of what they'd like to see for their business over the next year. Collin sees a storefront in their future, to streamline the ordering process, Ryan wants to create a mobile candle truck, similar to a food truck and Austin wants to see that six-figure revenue lead to seven-figure profits.
But the Gills aren't just in the candle-making business for themselves. They donate 10% of all profits to homeless shelters in D.C., and have so far donated more than $25,000.
"The charity component is what I'm most proud of, and it was all the boys' idea," Celena said. "They came up with the give-back initiative, and they wanted to give even more at first. We had to teach them about creating profit."
Now that the Gill brothers have moved past "toy money," they've set their sights on new aspirations -- upgraded modes of transportation. Collin is saving for a Ford F-150 when he gets his license, Ryan is aiming for a new skateboard and Austin is itching for a dirtbike.
Celena acknowledged that she and her husband work hard to maintain a balance between their sons' school time, work time and, equally important, their playtime.
"When we researched family businesses, we found that a lot of the kids broke away from the business as adults, because they felt like they didn't have a proper childhood," Celena said. "We do not want that for our boys. We make sure they go outside every day, and remember that they are kids. They need to have fun."
Celena aims to keep "work time" to a max of three to four hours a day for now.
Though candle-making may not be the end-goal for the Gill brothers, Celena hopes the skills they've learned with their first business foray will guide each of her boys towards their dreams.
"They all have different career goals, but they know this can fuel it," Celena said.
Collin is the family athlete, hoping to one day play professional football or land a job as a sports commentator. Scentmaster Ryan has aspirations of becoming an architect or engineer, and 9-year-old Austin dreams of dusting fossils as a paleontologist.
While Celena expressed gratitude for the increased attention being given to Black-owned businesses in the current climate, she said she hopes it's not a passing trend.
"A lot of Black creators right now are overwhelmed with orders, so we hope you'll have patience with us while we scale up," Celena said. "Having the product isn't a problem -- it's packing and shipping. But with COVID, it's not like we can just hire a team to help us."
She also pointed out that a purchase from a Black business owner has a ripple effect far beyond the Black community.
"Remember, when you buy from Black businesses, you're really helping the entire community," Celena said. "Our vendors are multi-ethnic, but they are all small business owners, so when you help us, you're directing help to several small businesses."