Lee Rhodes knows her company is breaking a lot of business axioms by focusing on one pricey, handmade product, but she's following the instincts that have taken Glassybaby this far.

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When Lee Rhodes went looking for funding in 2001 to help launch her company to make and sell handmade glass votives, she found prospective backers less than enthusiastic.

Rhodes had been taken with the small glass votives her husband brought home from a glassblowing class years earlier. Lit from the inside, they shone with a warm, graceful luminosity. Rhodes was transfixed — and inspired. With the help of local glassblowers, she began producing the votives herself, then selling them to friends.

But when Rhodes presented to investors the idea of opening a shop, “they laughed,” she recalled.

They are not laughing anymore. Glassybaby’s translucent, gently curved votives now come in more than 400 colors, and last year the company’s sales jumped by half to $3.8 million.

Martha Stewart is a fan, and local celebrities, including Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, have stopped into one of Glassybaby’s three Seattle-area locations to offer encouragement and admiration. Bezos was so impressed that he purchased a stake in the company.

So far this year, sales have been up more than 35 percent, and the company expects to top $6 million in 2011. To meet the continued demand, Glassybaby recently added two ovens to its Madrona hot shop, doubling potential output.

For all that, Rhodes is still slightly self-deprecating about Glassybaby’s success. “Most entrepreneurs are super smart,” she said recently over breakfast at Madrona’s Hi-Spot Cafe. “They know what they’re going to do and they have it written down in a business plan. For me it was just entirely different.”

Accidental entrepreneur

Lee Rhodes, a woman with short brown hair, an athletic frame and a smile that seems to cover half her face, did not set out to become the maven of glass-blown votives. The former University of Washington rower said she hadn’t been looking for a role other than housewife.

“Which I was totally happy being,” she said. “And I still am. It’s probably the best job. But when Glassybaby was born, there was no way to stop how I felt about it. So it wasn’t a conscious thing. It wasn’t, ‘I’m going to take this big and buy a new car and get what I’ve always wanted.’ It was really something that wouldn’t go away.”

It took cancer to combine Rhodes’ nurturing spirit with entrepreneurial instincts she didn’t know she had. In 1995, during a routine physical, Rhodes’ doctor spotted a mark on her chest X-ray. Make an appointment for a CT scan, the doctor said. Rhodes showed up with her three toddlers in tow. The children sat against a wall, occupied with crayons and paper.

The scan took 45 seconds, and the technician who glanced at the X-rays as Rhodes came out of the tube couldn’t even look her in the face afterward, Rhodes remembered later.

The diagnosis was bronchial carcinoma, a cancer that fills the bronchial tubes in the lungs. She was 32 years old.

There were several rounds of chemo and radiation. Rhodes’ recollections of the time evoke scenes of war — cancer is a “battle,” with “skirmishes big and small,” and patients in need of “armies” of doctors, family, friends, support.

One of the things she learned in battle was that not everyone gets lots of support.

“The people that suffer most,” she said, “are the people who don’t have huge armies to fight with them.”

While undergoing treatment, she met a woman who couldn’t afford to miss work to take care of an infection in her leg. Others who couldn’t afford child care, or bus fare to the treatment center.

It was during this period that her husband at the time brought home one of the little glass votives he’d made in a glassblowing class. Rhodes lit a tealight inside the votive. In the midst of her own battle, its beauty soothed her soul and stirred her spirit.

“It really took an experience for me with cancer to get to the point where my appreciation for something that was tender and kind and powerful was far more important than anything else,” Rhodes said. “And that’s what Glassybaby is.”

Breaks retail rules

As a company, Glassybaby breaks many of the rules of retail. For several years, it had only one product — the 4-inch-tall glass votives that Rhodes helped design, packed with a tealight. The company has since added a set of shorter, more rounded drinking glasses.

Each Glassybaby, as the votives are called, is handblown by local artisans and retails for $40 apiece.

Forty dollars for a votive?

“You’re absolutely right,” Rhodes said. “Forty bucks is a lot of money for a candle. … Handmade things, are they really valuable? Isn’t the world going away from all that?”

Maybe so, but Rhodes’ story seems to have imbued Glassybaby with special significance. Customers often buy them to commemorate life events: births, deaths, struggles, separations and triumphs.

The company recently received a phone order from a California woman dying of a brain tumor. She wanted 120 votives in different colors, one for every guest at her funeral. In future years, she hoped, friends and family would look at them and remember her.

Rhodes recognized early on that the product would be far better if she hired local glassblowers. Fortunately, Seattle is something of a haven for glassblowers, attracted by the renowned Pilchuck School founded 40 years ago by Dale Chihuly.

“It was the smart thing to do to get people who know what they’re doing to make it. And to keep them focused on how it should be done,” said glassblower Anthony Biancaniello.

A portion of the sales from every Glassybaby benefits charitable organizations. In 2010, Glassybaby gave more than $175,000 to various organizations that help people fight illnesses, and contributed $75,000 in in-kind donations and free rental of its party space in the Madrona store for charity events. The company’s goal is to eventually give away 10 percent of sales.

Peter Seligmann, to whom Rhodes is now married, said she is “a passionate and giving soul” with a determination that “probably comes from when you have been diagnosed with an illness that can take you away from the people you love.”

Success has not come without struggles.

In March, Glassybaby sued two companies it alleged were marketing cheap imitations; one, the online retailer Red Envelope, recently settled and agreed not to sell the items in question, said a Glassybaby spokeswoman. But the manufacturer of the competing votives won a quick victory when U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman ruled Sept. 30 that Glassybaby could not claim exclusive rights to the design because it is “generic.”

New York venture

In addition, the company’s New York City store has not attracted as many shoppers as anticipated. The reason might be the West Village location does not get as much foot traffic as expected, though online orders from the New York region have jumped since Glassybaby opened in the city. Rhodes is considering changing the store site but is committed to a New York presence.

The company recently hired Greg Huey, former director of investment group Alliance of Angels, as its president and chief operating officer, to help steer future plans.

Despite Glassybaby’s growth, there are still people who believe the concept can’t possibly work. Rhodes said she gets occasional phone calls from business experts who tell her it’s not a good idea to carry only one type of product or that the product could be made more cheaply if it weren’t done by hand.

“There are people just kind of trying to save me from the explosion. I don’t blame them,” Rhodes said.

She’s happy Glassybaby keeps plugging along. “I go, wow, got through another day, doing well,” she said. “I’m really happy when we all just get along and we have a team of people who continues to put value where I do. We’re in a really great place.”

Blythe Lawrence: blythe.lawrence@gmail.com.