Julie wrote her book about chocolate in 2005 and opened her chocolate shop in Littleton, CO in 2008.
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Welcome, Julie to Gaebler.com. Could you tell me about your current business.
The Chocolate Therapist makes handcrafted, all-natural chocolate with nuts, berries, spices and organic flavoring oils. I'm also an author—I wrote a book called "The Chocolate Therapist: A User's Guide to the Extraordinary Health Benefits of Chocolate." In addition to that, I travel internationally as a guest lecturer on cruise ships teaching people about chocolate, speak up to 20 times a month about the health benefits of chocolate and teach chocolate & wine and chocolate & tea pairing classes.
What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?
I owned a corporate apparel company (screen print & embroidery) and prior to that I worked for a wholesale sporting goods manufacturer.
How did you come up with your business idea?
I wanted to write a book my entire life. In my late 30's I assessed what I was doing and decided I needed a complete overhaul. I sold my small company to write my book—a cross between chocolate, health and nutrition and psychology--the intersection of my passions in life. I'd spent my life studying nutrition, my father was a nutritionist, I'd read every diet book that existed and I studied nutrition in college. My degree was in psychology, and I'd always loved chocolate. When the news broke about chocolate being healthy, I knew my "chocolate ship" had come in. I didn't know anyone in the industry, but I decided not to let that "minor" detail stand in my way (I suppose that is the entrepreneur in me!).
It took 18 months to write the book which I called "The Chocolate Therapist: A User's Guide to the Extraordinary Health Benefits of Chocolate." I started speaking about chocolate & health to help get the word out and sell books. That led to developing a line of chocolate which I had produced by a local company. Two years later I bought the company to create my own brand of high quality, health-focused chocolate to support the concepts in my book and the presentations.
Did you operate your business from your home? What were the challenges and benefits to this strategy?
While I was an author I primarily worked out of my home, but now that I have the shop I split the day between the home office and working at the shop. I work like this because I can't get anything done once I'm at the shop except chocolate-focused work. So I do ordering, scheduling, marketing, etc from the house and go to the shop to make chocolate.
Working out of the home is great if you don't have a lot of working capitol because it keeps expenses very low. I highly recommend this—don't rent space and hire employees until it's absolutely necessary. But hire people to do the things you don't excel at—for me that was a well-priced website designer and a good accountant. The disadvantage from working at home is that I was always at work—there was never a break. I worked non-stop all the time because my office was right in my house. There are pros and cons, but the main objective is to keep your business profitable while it gets going, and working from home at the beginning is a good way to accomplish that. So do as much as possible from home, then expand.
For women entrepreneurs, what specific advice would you have for young women who would like to become an entrepreneur? Are there specific advantages, disadvantages to being a women business owner?
The answer to this question depends on the nature of the business a woman is going in to. If it's male-dominated, of course it may be more challenging. However to succeed, I believe entrepreneurs should create their business around whatever they're passionate about. Regardless of your gender, you'll find your "herd" out there as soon as you start heading in their direction. It can be very daunting because you might feel like there's no one out there to help. But as soon as you start moving, people come from everywhere.
I didn't know a single person in the chocolate industry when I started, but I was connected with the most amazing people within weeks of starting. I could hardly believe my good fortune at the time, but I had to take the leap of faith before I could see them. I've met both men and women in my business, all very successful. It doesn't seem to matter that I'm the newer kid on the block or a woman.
The most important element is to be very good at what you do. Then you'll gain the respect of your peers. I also believe that a woman who believes she's going to have challenges going in to a male-dominated field will have them because we always get what we look for. So if a person can get their own limiting belief systems out of the way and just charge ahead with what is right for them, everything else takes care of itself.
What have you done that has been very effective in helping to grow the business?
Whatever your business, there's a way to reach people who want to do what you're doing. The most helpful thing I do is go out in to the community and tell people about what we're doing, and I really emphasize that we're DIFFERENT and healthier. I teach classes, travel on cruise ships, host corporate and private events, help with charity events, appear on TV and the radio as often as possible. We also focus on health, and this is a major trend right now because the nation is in such a state of health crisis.
Also, position yourself as an expert and you'll be called on by the media—it's publicity you can't pay for. And take the time to create a very solid base and expand. If you try to expand from shaky ground, massive publicity will only multiply the problems that exist on the micro level.
How has your experience in running the business been different from what you expected?
The costs of owning a new business have been much higher than I expected. I bought an operating business, but I restructured everything and I thought it would go much quicker. Because we were in operation we had to phase things out and phase other things in. This meant dragging out the necessary changes and stalling the profitability. In hindsight, I wish I would have closed the shop for three months, overhauled everything and then reopened with a brand new shop focused on what has taken 16 months to finally get in place. The main lesson learned here is to be COMPLETELY ready before launching the business. Major change takes so much time while you're operating, but while you're preparing you can deal with it quickly and efficiently.
What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?
Plan to spend a considerable amount of time at the business yourself and don't count on other people to do it, at least not at the beginning. Have at least 6-8 months of income on reserve while you get started, preferably 12 months. Make sure to pay yourself monthly from this reserve. This keeps you from resenting the business while you get started because it feels like you're not making anything!
Wow, who knew that the love of chocolate could make for such a great business! Sounds delicious. Thank you so much for your time and excellent business advice, Julie!