The chocolatier spoke to Business Advice about how she has single-handedly sustained a business since 2007, after leaving her position as a PA to pursue a passion for chocolate.
Amelia Rope’s love for chocolate didn’t initially jump out at her as a money-making endeavour. “I have had businesses before and been self-employed before, but becoming a chocolatier was a bit of an accident,” she admitted. While Rope had always had a sweet tooth, she didn’t really contemplate the prospect of turning it into a business, until a meeting with a leading food journalist led to him crowning her the “next Juliette Binoche”.
Rope had brought him some truffles she’d made, in an attempt to showcase her knowledge and wheedle her way into food journalism. While he flattened that ambition by saying really she ought to get a degree in journalism to pursue that career, he unintentionally inspired another.
“It gave me the confidence in myself to think, this could really be an option,” she said. Rope proceeded to experiment making truffles in her flat, as well as other creative concoctions. Rose petals with chocolate and gold leaf on caught the attention of national press, which then sparked off a range of coverage. Rope was prompted to create an online site, and started taking orders in a time of “pretty good chaos”.
She warned that many looking to move into the food industry don’t realise how expensive it will actually be to keep up a kitchen, and in the early stages she saw the pressing need to establish “an effective product market”. A 2009 commission for 1,000 chocolate bars from the late Pat Reeves, the founder of Sofa.com who also served as a mentor to Rope, essentially kick-started her business and a contract with Selfridges followed in 2010.
The whole process of developing a company was full of new lessons and tough challenges. “I was naive about everything. I didn’t have an MBA, I wasn’t a qualified chocolatier – the only qualifications I had were as a secretary and aromatherapist,” she pointed out. “I didn’t realise how much money I’d need starting up, how quickly it would run out and the time taken to establish a brand for a product. It sucks time out of your life and you’re working 12 to 15-hour days.”
She advises being prepared to double the money you think you’ll need in the early stages, as you don’t always factor in the financial side of “you needing to live as well as growing your business”. Rope was candid in saying she was glad in a way not to know everything about running a business in the beginning. “A friend said to me if I had sat down and plotted out a proper business plan, I’d never have got there in the end.”
The current climate for entrepreneurs and early-stage firms, is she feels, a considerably more welcoming one than a few years back. “There’s a lot more help out there that people should look into and make use of – like crowdfunding on Crowdcube or Kickstarter, and all these government initatives,” she said. “When I started there were no grants, no mentoring and the banks weren’t lending.”
This does of course, mean competition is a big difficulty for new firms on the block. “It’s much harder to grow – will there be another big story in my industry like Green & Black? That’s the question,” said Rope speculatively, though she does think it’s positive that there’s a prevalent consumer desire to support independent shops and small firms.
“A lot of consumers like to buy local and there are lots of small businesses starting up, which is great, though it does then diffuse growth.”
Her own next goal will be on broadening out in exporting her chocolate and Rope has already picked up useful insight here. “The importance of building relationships is crucial – not just getting them to believe in your product, but you as a person.” This extends to customers as well as new potential distributors – every product gets sent off with a handwritten note, and Rope has made good on her personal commitment to go the extra mile in winning over people for her business.
“My foil supplier is in Europe, so I flew out to meet him, and immediately after that we’ve had a better working relationship,” she explained. “I’m very loyal and I try to make sure I always pay on time.”
This can be a way to distinguish yourself from others – “suppliers don’t tend to want to deal with small businesses as you don’t do big orders, so you need to build that relationship”. Rope says a way to do that is by consistently paying on time “because the big boys don’t”.
She repeatedly pressed the importance of good communication, whether it’s clients, retailers or suppliers. “If I can’t communicate with them, I can’t work with them. You need to get the product to them and engage them – as long as you can deliver quality.”
As well as the importance of continuing to innovate, Rope also said a valuable lesson she has learnt since starting is not taking yourself and the day-to-day stresses of the business too seriously. “My friends constantly remind me, and I do admit I lose it sometimes, but you need that sense of humour. You could be turning over millions and things will still go wrong – just look at Cadbury’s salmonella scare,” she added. “Keep reminding yourself why you’re doing this.”
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