The Chocolate Life

Discover Chocolate and Live La Vida Cocoa!

If anyone that is currently in business would be so kind as to answer
these questions, your answers would be so helpful to those of us
starting out! No dollar amounts are needed unless you are comfortable
sharing, as they can be so helpful!

1. How did you get into chocolate and when did you actually start your business?
2. What was your original strategy?
3. How did that change and why?
4. What did you think would happen vs what really happened?
5. What is your vision?
6. Who is your target market?
7. How did you figure out how much money you needed to start?
8. Was it enough?
9. How long did you think it would carry you? Did it? If not, why?
10. How long before you were in the black?
11. What was the best advice you received regarding your business?
12. What are the most important lessons you learned about the business side?
13. How big a price did you have to pay to learn that?
14. Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
15. What do you like the most and the least about your job/business? Was that a surprise?

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If you'd like to learn a little more, here's a good video and links to others about my business. The video is at the bottom of the article, and starts after a 24 second commercial.
1. For me, it all began with the bees. My husband and I decided to become beekeepers. I ran into a problem feeding the bees. Standard operating procedure is to feed them sugar water. Problem is if bees aren't careful, they will drown. I started experimenting with making a solid honey and sugar based candy I could insert into the hive. I made hard candy. And while the bees couldn't benefit from it, it tasted good. I handed out pieces to people, just to get rid of it. My brother stated, "This is really good, it needs a stick." Thus I began to make honey lollipops and selling them at the local farmer's market. After a few weeks, I got the comment, "You know, if you were selling chocolate, I'd buy it." Thus, my fate was sealed. LOL I began experimenting with truffles and found out I love making candy. I still make the lollies as well as my chocolates. I've added pralines and caramels. There is more in the works. I made an official business out of it 2 years ago. Fortunately, I can, in my neck of the woods, do this from my home. I also am unusual in that I am supported by my husband while I make a go of this.

2. My original strategy was to sell at the farmer's market and local craft fairs. The response has been positive, but it's certainly not enough to make a living at it.

3. I am finding that selling that way is not enough. I am currently looking into what it would take to do the business online as well. The funding required for a brick and mortar retail location is beyond my budget. Since my initial investment, I am strictly a bootstrap operation.

4. Other than the dearth of craft shows for 6 months out of the year, things have gone pretty much as expected. I have, during the time when I have no external venue available, taken to going "door to door" at local businesses with my brochure and order forms. I am providing a service. They order candy for the holiday (Valentine's, Easter, Mother's Day). I make it and deliver it to their place of employment. It saves them time and I get sales. This works particularly well for Valentine's Day because then they can bring something special home for their significant other without having to go out and shop.

5. My vision is a sweet shop on Main Street, 2 doors down from the theater. It would take pages to describe the whole thing. I'll just leave it at a basic level for here.

6. My target market is, right now, the locals. Tho' as mentioned, I'd like to expand beyond my local area. I have regular customers who want certain items that I sell. They don't want to try anything new, they just want their coffee truffles, or their honey lollipops, or their chocolate caramels.

7. Here is where I failed Business 101. I didn't figure, I guessed.

8. No, it wasn't enough, but again, that was my fault because I guessed.

9. While it was a bit slim, with chocolate arriving only 2 days before a craft show, and having to share booth space at craft shows, I managed. Since I only guessed, it's not really surprising.

10. I'm not in the black because I can't support myself with the business yet. On paper, I'm in the black because more money is coming in than going out. But, that doesn't tell the whole story.

11. Don't give your product away. Really, even to family and friends. They'll steal you blind. They come to expect that you will provide them with your product and then you'll find yourself doing them a favor and providing truffles for 200 wedding guests at their best friends wedding, free of charge. Don't do it. The only person who gets my candy without charge is my husband. Everyone wants to be taste tester. What they really want is free candy. As Robert posted, you have to please yourself, not the masses.

12. See the above post. I ignored it to my detriment. I lost a lot of money letting people taste before buying.

13. Fortunately, I figured this out fairly quickly and only lost a few hundred dollars worth of product rather than thousands.

14. I'd have started this years ago. Making candy is so much fun. I realize it's not about art, it's about business, but I just have fun making the stuff. I also enjoy selling the candy.

15. What I like the most, is, as I said, actually making the product. The house smells of caramel or chocolate or honey. I have a smile on my face and life is good. The least favorite part is keeping track of everything. And I mean everything. The bookkeeping is a chore. It's not just money in and money out. It's figuring out how much it costs to make a given batch of candy, ingredients, time, utilities. Then there is figuring taxes and as a business collecting sales tax for the state. All this has to be figured out. I always prided myself on being good with math. But, I find the whole thing tedious. And yes, that was a surprise.
"Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods." Albert Einstein

Perhaps much depends on what one considers "a satisfying and enjoyable life". And, of course, if making lots of money is the focus, why, there really are many ways of doing that...

"If A is a success in life, then A equals x plus y plus z. Work is x; y is play; and z is keeping your mouth shut." Albert Einstein
1. I grew up baking and experimenting, and I studied to be a pastry chef in the early 80s. But a couple of traumatic runs in hotel kitchens made me realize I didn't quite have the fortitude to pursue this as a career. But after 20 years of "corporate" work and amateur candy-making, I realized that making sweets was the thing I truly loved doing. So I hived away large chunks of salary for a couple of years, took some refresher courses, and then quit my day job. That was about 5 years ago.

2, 4, 5. I wanted to become what I called a "socialist chocolatier." I wanted to make really good confections and make them affordable to people who otherwise wouldn't be eating this stuff. My plan was to start out in farmer's markets (largely because I really like them), and make adjustments accordingly. Eventually, my goal was to create a neighborhood candy store that sold slightly less conventional products. As for the socialist part, I did and continue to have a sliding price scale. I just don't advertise it openly.

3 & 4. Due to family complications, I ended up having to relocate a few times, which pushed back my progress quite a bit.
My first attempt at a chocolate shop transmuted into a coffee shop. I won't go into the details other than to say that I let myself be talked into something I really didn't want to do. I also got sucked into the game of trying to please customers. I think Robert is right about this: Be true to yourself. If you try to please the masses, either you end up making things that stray from your vision, or you end up putting out crap. Or both. I'm pretty confident I didn't do the latter (despite a couple of less-than-stellar reviews). But I definitely lost focus. So last year I got the opportunity to regroup and am in the process of doing so.

6. My customer is anyone who likes my products. Seriously. I'm nice about it, but in the last year or so, when someone would make a negative comment about something I made -- and you'd be surprised how many people feel just oh so comfortable doing that -- I would just smile and suggest that they might be happier elsewhere. Other than that, my product line is mostly organic, preservative-free, blah blah blah, so I tend to attract people for whom that's a concern. It's not a marketing strategy; it's how I eat. And I try to avoid selling anything I wouldn't eat (weird food issues aside).

7-9. I've been self-employed off and on over the decades, and my rule of them has always been to start with enough money to survive the year, assuming that I don't make a single sale. It was always enough.

10. My chocolate/coffee biz became self-sustaining after the first year, but I didn't draw a salary until the 3rd year. Sadly, any extra money went to extra staff; but then I got some free time. So it's a trade-off. I expect the new biz to be in the black, and paying me a decent wage, within the first year. The new location sees about 200 times more foot traffic. (The old location was really, really bad. But cheap.)

11. "Figure out what you want to do, then do it to the best of your abilities. That way if you fail, at least you've failed honestly." That wasn't given specifically as business advice, but I think it holds true. I just need to follow it more. :-)

12. I have to agree with Robert on this one. If you love the creative stuff, find someone to complement you. I hate the business side. I hate accounting, I hate marketing, shmoozing, shilling, and I'm really bad at most of them. But so far I haven't been able to find a suitable business partner. I've had offers, but they've always been from the sort of people who say things like, "I bet I could get you into Costco." Yeah, that's my dream.....

13. About $1500. Of that, $500 was for joining one Chamber of Commerce and a couple of networking groups. The rest was donations to causes promoted by the members of these groups. I probably saw $50 in returns from the donations. (But you can write it off as advertising -- woo hoo!)
On a related note: I've concluded that the only reason people want you in these groups is so they can get free chocolate from you. Apparently, free chocolate tastes better than any other chocolate in the world. Unless one is at the Chocolate Salon, in which case most free chocolate is unworthy. But I digress. Over the years, I've severely restricted my donations, giving only to causes I would normally give to, and I never give away product to reviewers. It just saves a lot of grief (and money).

14. a. I'd stay more focused (ie, wouldn't have gone the coffee route).
b. I'd invest more money up front. I was a little cheap when I began. Still am, but I'm being more selective about the cheapness.
c. I'd trust my own instincts more. I tend to second guess myself too much. I know what I like and what I think is good, but my general nature is to be inclusive, so I sometimes listen to people whom I shouldn't. Man oh man are people willing to give (bad) advice, so always consider the source.

15. I like working in the kitchen. The rest is overhead. And no, that wasn't a surprise. What has been a surprise is that I actually can work with the public rather effectively. But it's exhausting. There are far too many lonely people who imprinted on "Chocolat."
1. How did you get into chocolate and when did you actually start your business?
I got into the industry because I was a disgruntled chocolate customer. It seems that every chocolate shop I walked into had their product on display, but didn’t give me the ability to select what I wanted for my purchase. Everybody had the “Henry Ford” mentality when it came to selling: “We’ll sell you any color of car you want, as long as it’s black.”.

When I tried seeking out a chocolate company that would let me buy what I wanted, I then found out that nobody actually “made” the chocolate I thought they made. It was then I decided to make my own.

2. What was your original strategy?
My original strategy was simply home recreation. I found John Nanci’s site, purchased some equipment and beans and for the next several months had fun making chocolate. I had a number of other business ventures on the go at that time, so this was my “life balance” activity.

3. How did that change and why?
A number of things came together. I sold my furniture manufacturing firm. However before I did that, I used my fabrication shop in my furniture company to designed a better “home melangeur” – similar to the one that Mr. Nanci sells on Chocolate Alchemy’s website. I also began making contact with some people very high up in the world chocolate scene. At this point however I was still treating my passion for chocolate as recreation. I have a book called “El Toppo Secreto”, which has recorded in it all of my recipes and versions of each – both for the chocolate my company makes today, and also for the confections I’ve tried. Some were successes while others have big red NFG written over them

4. What did you think would happen vs what really happened?
As a software architect (that was my primary career), I had hoped to design “The Home Chocolate Machine” – an iteration of a Santha lentil grinder – except all computerized with a number of features that are needed to properly conche chocolate. However, it was going to cost me somewhere in the range of $3 million to get the machine finished, CSA and UL approved and into stores. I didn’t want to spend or raise that kind of money, so I looked at other options. I assembled a team of advisors – colleagues with specialties in various areas – and bribed them with all the chocolate they could eat for some candid advice. We sat down over a couple of evenings, drank wine, ate chocolate and I listened to what they had to say.

In the end it was decided by all, that I would shelve the home chocolate machine idea for the time being, and focus on opening a business that had some incredibly unique offerings, unheard of in the chocolate industry.

5. What is your vision?
The vision for Choklat is very simple:
• Use only the finest and freshest ingredients that money can buy.
• Make ALL of our chocolate in house.
• Celebrate the flavour of the cocoa bean, and make a dark eating chocolate from each variety that we import. Let people taste the difference that the cocoa bean plays in the flavour of chocolate.
• Focus on truffles, and make them fresh only when the customer orders them.
• Find out what people want, design recipes that the like, and then give it to them.

6. Who is your target market?
Our target market is an affluent adult clientele. We never offer novelty products, such as molded bunnies, or hearts, or Santas, or anything like that. We focus on two things only: flavour and service. We do offer a very limited selection of truffle toppings for kids, but other than a couple, everything is the best that we can get, and if we can’t get it, we make it in house (such as our graham wafers and marshmallows).

7. How did you figure out how much money you needed to start?
Lots of planning and research – about a year of it, 8 hours per day. Mid Six Figures.

8. Was it enough?
Yes. More than enough.

9. How long did you think it would carry you? Did it? If not, why?
The money carried the business until the day we opened our doors. I actually saved money by planning all my purchases and vendors prior to approaching them. Instead of going back multiple times, I put together equipment lists for each vendor and negotiated discounts from all of them. This approach saved me approximately $30,000.

10. How long before you were in the black?
We had a soft opening on August 8, 2008, and generated profit day one. All equipment and inventory was paid for in cash in advance, so the company carried no debt, other than to me directly.

11. What was the best advice you received regarding your business?
The best advice? LOL, I’ve already been attacked in a very nasty fashion on this forum for giving it. All I can do is reiterate that if you are independently wealthy and don’t care if you sell a single confection, make whatever the heck recipes you want and proudly flog them. However if you NEED to make money and CHOOSE to make chocolate confections to pay the bills, you are at some point going to have to compromise and make something which caters to tastes that differ from yours. If people don’t like what you sell, they won’t pay for it at any price. That’s just the simple, harsh reality of life.

12. What are the most important lessons you learned about the business side?
Lesson 1: Nothing takes the place of sound, pragmatic, planning and research. When planning a business, set your emotions aside and be realistic.
Lesson 2: Business is about making money. Period. The bills HAVE to get paid.
Lesson 3: When it comes to your business, put a dollar value on your time, then closely manage and track that time. For example: When I was working in the software industry, I billed my time at $100 per hour. I needed a fence made, and paid someone $15 per hour to make my fence, while I sat in the house and wrote software. My father thought I was crazy, having someone build my fence while I was at home. I had to explain to him the economies of making $85 per hour while my fence was being built for free. YOUR TIME IS WORTH MONEY. If you don’t think it is, try and find someone to do your job for free.

13. How big a price did you have to pay to learn that?
In 2001 I took an Internet company public on the NASDAQ stock exchange, and because of bad hiring practices, and bad management decisions, I lost everything and had to start over in 2003. My losses were in excess of $15 Million dollars. When I moved back to Calgary, I had $150 in my pocket to start over with. The last 7 years has been a very hard road and a lot of hard work, but I’m back to having fun with life. Some of that fun even makes me money! By this loss, I learned that life is too short to burn the candle at both ends in pursuit of that big pot of gold – the big win. Plan a bunch of small wins, and have fun building on those.

14. Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
I will never give control of any of my companies to anyone, unless it is to sell it to them lock stock and barrel. At that point I’ve got my money, and they can drive it into the toilet for all I care. Until that time however I will always have the final say in all business decisions related to that venture.

15. What do you like the most and the least about your job/business? Was that a surprise?
What I like the most: first of all, I don’t look at my job/business as a business. I take a “whole life” approach. I wake up every morning with the intent to have fun and make the most of the day. I understand however that at some point in time I have to make some money, so I figure out how to have fun and make money at the same time. Case in point: I have fun making chocolate, and make money doing it. I have fun racing motorcycles, and make a modest amount of money doing that too (it pays for itself). I also have fun snowmobiling and skiing, but those don’t make me money. I also have fun with my daughter. In a nutshell, I look at life with the understanding of “balance”. My daily focus is to have fun. Some of my activities pay the bills, and other activities are simply fun.
What I like least: Nothing. If I don’t like something I simply don’t do it.
What a great concept. I just found this stream and have really enjoyed your comments. Great video you posted as well. I am starting to understand your business now. Truffles made per order while the customer waits...with chocolate you made...that is incredibly fresh and you are the first I have seen do this. You need to write a book...or have you?
You know.... I had to chuckle when I read your post Wendy. In the past couple of years I've had a lot of people tell me I should write a book about my career path and how I've arrived at where I am today. I might even do that some day!

Until then, I'll keep playing with my daughter, playing with chocolate, playing on the computer, and playing in the mountains.

Life's too short to "work".

Cheers everyone!
Thank you everyone, for giving your perspectives. It is very helpful and gives me much to think about!
I feel it's important to add that I appreciate the diversity of honest opinions, but that there is absolutely no room on a forum of this nature - or in any community, for that matter - for personal attacks.


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