How many of us have thought about starting a business and how often did we give up on the idea finding plenty of reasons why it would not work? Either we are not sure to have a stable demand, or to get funding, or we simply don’t know what to begin with and how to build the processes.
While discovering Austin I met Nicole Patel who shared with me her impressive story about how she moved from building career in corporate America to starting her own chocolate business. Nicole is the owner and chocolatier for Delysia Chocolatier, based in Northwest Austin.
Here is our conversation about Nicole’s way towards entrepreneurship and what approach and mindset helped her to succeed and become a top 10 chocolatier in North and South America.
How did you discover your passion for making chocolates?
In 2006 when I was pregnant with our first son my husband needed holiday gifts for the office and I did not have the energy to go shopping at the mall. I was watching a lot of cooking shows and in one of them they were making chocolate truffles. I thought: “That looks simple enough, I can do that.” And I made my first very ugly hand rolled truffles. But my husband took them to the office and everybody loved them! Since then every time there was a get together we would be asked to take chocolates.And over a span of about a year and a half it also became my way to relief stress from my engineering job.
Did you have any fear and doubts when making the first step towards turning your hobby into the business?
We launched Delysia Chocolatier eight years ago with an idea that it was going to be only for weddings, so we never envisioned the space that we have now. At the beginning, it was more of a hobby turned small business – something that I could do during my free time on weekends and evenings. I guess we didn’t really know what we were getting into – which is probably better that way! All seemed like fun, small and manageable. Not a lot of risk or fears.
If I stop and think about it, it is probably scarier and more stressful now than at the time of launching. I have a lot more people relying on me now –customers and employees, I need to make sure that we have enough time to make everything, balance growth vs funds coming for it.
You were very successful in your engineering career. Weren’t you worried about giving it up?
When I got pregnant with my first child I was harassed a lot at work. Just comments, but I ignored it. I went back to work when my son was only four weeks old. And the only reason it did not happen sooner is because it was a holiday time. Unfortunately, I never got to enjoy the time with my newly born baby.
A few years later, when I was five months pregnant with our second son, I was laid off without an explanation. Through some personal trials and tribulations, along with a law suit against my employer in federal court, this time in my life was a turning point for me. I realized I didn’t want to work for anybody else. I loved being an engineer. But I didn’t want to work in corporate America where people were treated unfairly.
This gave me the real push to transition my strategy for Delysia Chocolatier from a small hobby-like business to a full time endeavor. I can control more my destiny here and I want to build a company where others can come and work and be treated properly.
When did you realize that you need to expand the business and invest in your own shop and kitchen?
It’s not that we decided to expand, its more our customers were “forcing” us to. We were in business for a year and a half and it was our second Valentine’s Day. I had a second child of five months old and we thought we had everything under control. Then the orders just kept coming in. For the first time I said NO to a customer and when I hung up the phone my husband said:“Why did you do that?”
“I can’t produce it all. They want a lot of product!”, – I said.
“OK, we can do that”,-he insisted.
So I called back and said we could fulfill the order. During that two weeks I maybe slept two hours a night. After that we understood that we needed our own property. There was obviously a demand.
Where did you get funding?
Everything is personally financed. Our business took off in the worst economic downturn in 2009 and we were growing exponentially. Even still, the big banks would not pay attention to us. Investors could be a good idea. But after my experience in corporate America working for others, I “wanted to be my own boss”. I didn’t want to answer to others. We had money in the bank for retirement and savings for the kids’ college that was not making any interest. And I was still working as an engineer at another company and could use my salary to reinvest in the business. So we decided to invest in ourselves.
You must have been very confident in your success if you decided to risk with all your savings.
I don’t know if I even thought about it!
I always thought I would take a path of being a Vice President of a big corporation. Somewhere along there I decided I wanted to be a manager but not in a corporate America, not in a way it shifted – they were not taking care of each other and their employees, and customer services was not being paid attention to. If I had my own business, I could handle all of that and I would build the company the way I want to, with the values that are important to me and with a focus on customer service.
Did you build all the processes on your own or did you hire professionals to do it?
My background is in Industrial Engineering which is not only about customer service and understanding what customer wants but it is also a lot around factory planning and quality engineering. I used to plan and write processes for a lot of companies I worked for, so I gained a lot of expertise.
My brother designed the space. However, I reorganized it many times until I found the optimum lay out. I try to hire people for marketing, social media, blogging, website development -stuff which I could do but I didn’t really want. I always made sure that if I delegated something, I knew enough about the area to ask the right questions or step in if needed to keep things moving.
Do you still make all the chocolates by yourself?
I strongly feel that if you are buying chocolate from a chocolatier then the chocolate should be made by the executive chocolatier. I don’t think it should be coming off an assembling line – especially if you are an artisan chocolatier.
You have more than 100 different chocolates in your collection. How do you invent new recipes?
I don’t have a culinary education, I taught myself everything through trial and experimentation. My husband is Indian, I am Italian and Ukrainian, so we pull spices and ingredients that I use in recipes I cook at home. I also study what chocolatiers are doing in Europe. I look for ideas in restaurants, food menus, drinks, watching cooking shows, magazines. Many times our best ideas came from customers, they request special products.
Our brand is all about life’s every occasion and we made sure that we have chocolates for every holiday, for every special occasion, and for every day.
What is the most challenging part in managing your business?
People. Finding people who are passionate and willing to put time and effort into help a company be successful is more difficult than I thought.
What are you looking for in people?
To be detail oriented and have the passion and desire to see a small business successful. I actually do not hire culinary students. I want someone who has the drive and passion, the right attitude, because I can’t teach that. With that drive, I can train them on what to do in the kitchen. If they’ve got that skill in place, eye for customer service and quality – then I can work with that.
What is your next business goal?
We have couple of things going on. We have classes to be launched in January. Next big thing is really trying to do push in key location across the country and get our product in front of new people, new markets.
What would be your advice for the people who consider to start their own business?
I think that the entrepreneurial spirit is what made America a great country. We have lost some of this drive over the past decade or so. We need people with guts and desire to take this leap, to take on a risk to handcraft someone.
Don’t worry about what you don’t know; you will figure it out along the way. Ask questions, research, there are great resources to help small businesses.
You need to build something that you have a passion for because at times it can be challenging and if you don’t have passion you won’t necessarily keep going.
One other thing I was going to add to this – what made me not so scared at the beginning is that I had a Plan B. Having income from my engineering career eliminated some of the stress. I was fortunate to have engineer career to start with and I would highly encourage anyone to start with a solid degree or career foundation because then you can switch to anything. A lot of really successful food businesses in Austin were launched by doctors, lawyers, or engineers like me. Get a degree to where you can do something with it and make money and once you have financial basis follow your passion and do what you want. And if the business isn’t successful, but have something else to fall back on.
About the author:
Oxana believes that every person’s life can make an intriguing story for a book which can teach a lot of wisdom. Life in Russia, England, France, Hungary, USA and lots of travelling around the continents introduced her to exceptional personalities. She loves to share stories about people and destinations which bring new ideas and help to find a way to your true self. This is why she started her blog “In search of the genuine”