Hello I am Robert Bowden, owner of Viveré Chocolate, and I specialize in all of your custom gifting needs.
Can you briefly walk me through your journey and how you got to this moment in the present?
I was not in the chocolate industry until about seven years ago. Prior to that I was a professional horse trainer, and I did that for fifteenish years or so, and it was about time for a change. I started to look around at my options and I came to the realization that I was a niche business kind of guy, and I didn’t really want to do something open market. One of my close contacts was a chocolatier, and I was helping him with his business stuff. I asked him to teach me about chocolate and the art of making chocolate. I started there and I tweaked things as they came along and I realized that I knew exactly who I wanted to serve as a professional, and it launched. When it took off, it took off really quickly; I wasn’t prepared for it but I am thankful for it.
Can you elaborate a little bit more about what you do with Viveré Chocolate? What does your daily work day look like?
I would love to say that I spend my day making chocolate - I do not. I have what I call my “ramp-up” periods and then we have production. We are not your neighborhood chocolate - we don’t just make chocolate and hope someone buys it. We specifically deal with B2B - companies that are looking to thank their customers, employees, hold an event or special occasion, closing gifts, and other things of this nature. I work directly with them to create something brand specific so it says them. In the run of my day I draft ideas, models, and all of those things that I think would fit well to them. I typically get contacted with businesses saying, “can you do these things, yes or no” and then I pitch to them. Once that is done my team will get together and I will say “this is what needs to be done, here is our deliverable date, this is the volume, get to it.” At this point it is hands in with chocolate flying.
People always ask “is this hard” and I respond “I’m used to being out in the elements, I’m used to riding 20 to 30 horses a day. I am used to the physicality and repetitiveness of that.” What I like about my current career is that in opposition to horse training it is relatively easier, and the days are so nuanced. I don’t have a typical day; I have a typical process I go through with each client; my Mondays are different each week and I am perfectly fine with that.
What do you wish you knew before you first started your business?
I am an adaptive person, that’s how you go from training horses to making chocolate. I think what I wish I knew before was to be okay saying no to new business. I think when people start companies, they are so wanting success that they don’t remember that it is not just the sale, it is selling to the right customer. If you are trying to satisfy someone who is not in your core demographic it can take you both away from your ideal client and cause you to make decisions that are probably not the best for the long game of your business. Starting out I had to learn to get comfortable saying no. One of my most difficult customers was someone who i really shouldn’t have done business with to begin with, but it sounded like a great pairing (she was a florist). I realized that her target and my target were very very different; she was very displeased, almost insultingly so, with my product she was paying the least, and I was not making near the profit I normally make. The experience itself was not pleasant, and I had someone question the quality of what I do when the very same day I am closing orders for 6 and 7 times what I am dealing with this person. You learn that it is okay to say no - just get comfortable with it.
It can be a very difficult thing when you are new; I think regardless of your profession you are hoping someone is interested in your business. The one thing that I stress when talking to new business owners is do your due diligence before you ever launch, before you ever pitch your product. You need to know who is buying your product, who is your customer, who is going to benefit the most from what you do. If you can answer with critical detail who that person is, it can shape all the decisions that you make afterwards. I think if we focused on those things that would allow us to say no to the wrong person and say yes to the right work, it makes developing your product a lot easier. It answers a multitude of questions with a simple “who is actually buying it.”
What do you think has been the key to your success this far?
Flexibility; being willing to bend instead of breaking. Especially with a new venture, you are going to have to bend. When I started I thought I had a crystal clear understanding of who my customer was going to be and what I was going to sell to them. I made it through my first year of business and did not do any of that. I was successful, but it was not with my target market at all. I had to decide if I should change and try and target the client that I thought I wanted or if I should better service the person that is coming in and keeping me in business this first year. I had to be willing to go, “I had this idea, but this is really what my business looks like.” I think adaptability and flexibility are the key. I think a great number of the businesses that are out dealing with the pandemic and other issues were simply not able to sustain themselves in their structure.
Capitalize what you can capitalize on today so you can capitalize on tomorrow when it gets here.
How have you capitalized on this pandemic? How have you maintained your flexibility throughout?
I was really surprised at the increase in revenue and increase in sales that occurred for me during the pandemic when my competitors are going out of business. That took a minute because I was hoping just to survive the crunch, and we were dealing with personal things that were happening, so for me when I realized that we were doing okay and there are a lot of people who are not business-wise, I had to look at what allowed us to be okay and determine how I can continue this trend.
My first thing is that I am a B2B model, I didn’t have to navigate things like social distancing with the public because I don’t have a front-facing store (we have a commercial kitchen which produces and delivers directly to our client - this saved us). That was a lot of navigational stress that I didn’t have to maneuver. I think going forward I am inclined to keep it that way; I am not looking to create some new inneractive space because of both the climate of business and health, it doesn't look like a good idea. But there are a lot of people who just invested in huge spaces so that their customers can come in and do all of these great things (especially chocolate, a very tangible item that involves all of your senses). So for me I think I will continue servicing my particular niche which is businesses and professionals looking to give thanks to their clients.
If I were to suggest anything else or do anything differently for someone else, I would say “be very aware of your overhead; be very aware of what it costs to run your business.” I don’t think a lot of people factor that until the money becomes short. Think of it like juggling, as long as the balls are in the air you can juggle four or five balls. But, at no point can you actually hold more than two. So as the cash flow stops a lot of things start falling. I try to think that even in the best of times I don’t want a lot of unnecessary things in the air.
What has been the largest obstacle you have had to overcome throughout your journey and how did you go about overcoming it?
As a minority business owner it has been historically prevalent that we don’t have access to startup capital, we don’t have the equal amount of advantages in terms of facility space, infrastructure, those are things I am not necessarily privy to. Some may say it is an obstacle, to me it is a reality; hopefully it changes for businesses in the future, but at least when I started and in the present that is just the reality of creating a minority owned business. So, I choose to look at the resources that I do have, look at where my strengths are, and make the decision that I am going to be successful in spite of it. I can’t look at someone else’s opportunity as a lack on my part. I have to go “that’s there circumstance.” Sure it would be nice to have those things, but if you’re waiting for everyone to have the same opportunity you will never get started.
I had to overcome my first year of business; I knew that if I could get through the first year I would be fine. There is a statistic that over 70% of all businesses fail within the first two years, and I thought that this is at a much greater rate if you are a minority owned business. So my biggest obstacle was making it through this first year. I thought to myself that if I made it through the first year I would have developed the capital that I needed to take the business to where I wanted to go. I needed to build the revenue with what I had; I couldn’t wait for someone, and it would have been lovely if an investor showed up, but I know that the decisions I made would have been different, and I don’t know if the different decisions would have been better. I see a lot of companies that get investment capital have very high burn rates, and that is because they don’t really know and haven’t had to operate without that capital. I think everyone is looking for investors, rounds of funding, and going public, and all these words sound great but I don’t think they quite grasp on the reality that you are giving up on a lot to get that. For investment capital you are giving up a lot of control of your business and you are increasing to a greater level of stress for expectations. If my business failed I would be upset. If someone is giving me a million dollars then they would be a little more than just upset. I think there is a level of freedom for me knowing that I built it from a little of nothing and that is okay, and it’s pure profit at this point (it has been a profitable business for a while).
All the brands that we see are not always as successful as they appear because they are carrying a lot of debt (i.e valuations). Whenever you hear that term “value” or “valuations,” that is how much a business is in debt. I wish people were honest and just said it in these terms. When you have people give you money they have expectations; they want it to grow and they want success, but these are still expectations. I think the thing that you have to understand is that when you start a company you are trying to grow it; I try to not dig any holes I will eventually have to dig out of (which is in essence what is going on when you take on investors).
What has been the best advice you have ever received? Worst advice?
The best advice, and it is not so much advice as it is a statement is “it’s not about how much you make, it’s about how much you keep.” I think it is easy to get caught up in “we did so many hundreds of thousands in sales” but if your expenditures are close to the same amount, what did you actually do? There is a company that I was consulting for, and they were so proud of the several hundreds of thousands of revenue that they were making per year, but when you removed their expenditure and got down to the actual cash flow they were making $45,000 per year. I was like “you can go punch a clock and have 0 stress and make the same money at the end of the day.” No matter how nice the numbers look, you need to look at how much it costs you to operate, and what you actually take home at the end of the day.
I am very mindful of who I let tell me things; the worst piece of kind-of advice would be from a salesguy trying to pitch me on an idea. I quickly realized that as a business owner you better understand who your client is and what kind of marketing works for them because people that are in the business of selling advertising and marketing are in the business of selling you that at all costs; they will say whatever. There was a guy who tried to sell me radio advertising; when I started I was in northwest New Jersey near the end of the New Jersey transit. This guy was trying to convince me to buy a radio spot to get a prime time for people leaving the city and that we should run a valentines promotion so people driving home would hear the advertisement and go into the shop. I said “first of all, I don’t have a shop. Second of all, I live as far west as you can go so if you are in Hoboken coming from Manhattan and hear my spot on the radio trying to convince you to buy chocolates from me for valentines day, are you going to drive across New Jersey to come get chocolate or are you going to pull off at the next stop and buy it from a random a story. So I just paid for how many business from me to New York City to get traffic?” I am very good at knowing and being good at, again, saying no.
Is there any final advice you want to share with an aspiring entrepreneur?
Design the kind of life you want to live first; decide what your day looks like, what type of daily existence and lasting impact you want to have, and build your business backwards from that. Retrofit - reverse construct your life because I think sometimes we don’t know where we are going with it. We always say “I want to start my own business” or “I want to be my own boss,” but what does this mean and look like? There are many ways to be your own boss, and it doesn’t mean getting a brick and mortar and it doesn’t mean getting an ad, there are many ways to be a successful entrepreneur. If you are not mindful on how this is going to affect your day-to-day life then you can achieve comercial success and hate everything about it. For me, looking at the kind of life I wanted to live helped me determine both what kind of business I wanted to start and how I structure it. I believe people need to think about the end game first and then work backwards.
• Listen to the interview in podcast format