Seven top tips for starting a chocolate business from home
Have you ever dreamed of starting a food business from home? Are you wondering how to start a chocolate business? Dal Hall did just that; trading a successful but stressful career in the NHS where he managed community-based educational resource centres, for selling chocolate from home. It’s taken him a few years and he’s yet to make his first million, but he’s got a sustainable business in Food of the Gods and he’s a genuinely happy guy. He told me that even when it’s chucking it down on the market and he’s only taken £50, he still knows he’s doing the right thing. That’s why I asked him to share his top tips with you – the stuff he learnt along the way – that have helped make him the happy guy he is today.
Alex, NutriCraft Founder
If you've got an idea the first step is to make sure that it’s a strong one. That means doing your research. You need to see what your potential competitors are offering and how your idea is different. This is called your USP – or “unique selling point.”
All my research showed me that the raw chocolate market was very crowded, but nonetheless I could see a gap. The bottom line was that none of the stuff in health food shops was very good. For me raw chocolate should be an antidote to the commercial mass-produced chocolate – which is really just fat, sugar and substitute flavourings. No disrespect but, for me, the raw chocolate makers out there were muddying the water. They were overcomplicating and confusing the product by adding extra ingredients like matcha powder and spirulina. Sure, these are healthy ingredients but ultimately, they are unnecessary, and they really compromise the taste of the chocolate. If I was going to work from home selling chocolate, I was going to keep it really simple. That meant using as much organic cacao as I could, and some natural sweetener. That was it. With my chocolate making at home I wanted to get back to basics. To be as authentic as possible. That was the opportunity I saw.
I started my research online. There is a wealth of information out there. I looked, in particular, at resources for people actively seeking out alternatives. I found food blogs, and anything related to the vegan movement, really helpful. Reading the discussions, and the questions being asked, enabled me to quickly find out what was important to people, and who (if anyone) had the answers. Doing this work got me really clear that I needed to know where my ingredients came from, and who made them.
I also used social media to ask my own questions – about packaging, pricing, even flavours. I can especially recommend polls for getting people involved. People love clicking on those things!
2. Ask the experts
The internet is great – it’s a huge resource – but there is no substitute for getting out in the field and talking to people with experience first-hand. Farmers’ market stall owners, health food shop owners, suppliers. Talk to them all. I’ve found people to be very up for sharing their experience of starting a food business from home; people who’ve been there and done it are usually very generous with their advice and guidance.
I sell a lot on the markets and I especially love getting the advice of my fellow traders. There’s a real sense of camaraderie. It’s an organic community in itself. We may be individual businesses, but we work as a collective. We want everyone to do well because then the whole market does well. In my experience everyone is always happy to share what they know
3. Don't sell too cheap
You have an idea and people love it. You get that sense of elation – you can make something people actually want! But what will they pay for it? It’s one of the most difficult things to get right. You have to look at it in the cold hard light of day. If you price it too low people may think it’s not good quality. On the other hand, with chocolate there is only so much people are prepared to pay for it. What to do?
My personal choice was to create good quality chocolate, and to make it accessible to all by making it affordable. Given my background in the NHS it was important to me that stressed out people, reaching for something sweet, didn’t have to think twice about making the healthy choice.
4. Seek out the best value suppliers
By best value I don’t mean the cheapest. I mean the best product for the best price. Don't compromise on quality. Buying the cheap option just because it’s cheaper could compromise the quality of your final product – who knows what type of ingredients that super low price is masking?
5. Find reliable suppliers
I also want reliability in a supplier. For example, I’ve been through a lot of date syrup suppliers who’ve been totally unreliable. Their bottles have arrived poorly packaged and smashed in the post. They’ve allowed me to order even when they’re actually out of stock – only emailing me three days later when I’m completely out and need it desperately. Disaster.
You need to find a supplier who goes the extra mile, like Alex and his team at NutriCraft. Someone who won’t let you down and who communicates really well – they usually respond to me within a few hours, sometimes faster. If I need something quickly, whether it’s cacao powder or cacao butter, they get it out to me the same day. Alex genuinely cares about his customers and I feel like, as a fellow small business, he really gets me and what I’m doing, and wants me to succeed.
A good way to find the right suppliers is to read customer testimony. It’s a simple fact – when people have had good service, they leave good feedback.
6. Plough on, making small improvements as you go
No doubt about it. Retail is a difficult market to be in. Look at Debenhams, and even John Lewis. Sales have tanked, business rates are high, rents are high. Parking charges are high. It costs over £8 to park for more than 4 hours in Cornwall’s town car parks. Most places now have out of town retail parks, which sell everything you traditionally find on the high street much cheaper, plus it’s free to park. We’re all guilty of using them, but we have to realise the impact they have on town centres.
But despite these challenges I plough on through, because I believe in my product and I believe in the people who buy it. I can’t afford huge investment costs so I like making small improvements as I go. This year I’m hoping to upgrade my website and improve the look of my packaging. It’s plant-based cellulose and fully compostable so anything I do will need to take account of that. I’ve also set up a project in my local town to deal with compostable packaging, it’s small scale but it’s a start.
7. Be clear on how you measure your wealth
Choosing to leave a well-paid job to start your own business requires a more holistic view of wealth. It’s not just about making money – it’s about making time; time for you, time for family, time for friends. For me it was about being there to pick my daughter up from school. To have time for surfing. Time for being mentally well and physically fit.
My advice is to consider how much money you really need, and to live within your means. My wife and I have always been thrifty but even so I have enjoyed the challenge of becoming more self-reliant. When I had the money and there was a leak, I would call a plumber. Now I watch a YouTube video and fix it myself. It’s rewarding to learn something new and to know I can do it. It gives me a boot up the backside! Its empowering. It’s down to me. I am finally master of my own affairs.
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