After running a toy company with his wife, Jennifer, for more than a decade, Michael Sauvageau found himself working in management for another organization. He had a realization after six years in the corporate world that sent him looking for new work.
"I recognized that I make a really good boss, but not necessarily a good employee," Michael laughed.
Once he realized he'd rather get back into entrepreneurship, he and Jennifer agreed they'd start looking for new business ideas. Michael decided to attend a conference in search of an idea, and he had high hopes going in – so high, in fact, that he was willing to spend his 45th birthday away from home at the conference.
Unfortunately, the conference didn't spark any inspiration. Without an idea, Michael improvised and tried to find something to tell Jennifer when he got home from the trip. He noticed that many of the vendors at the conference gave out chocolate. A few quick internet searches relating to chocolate showed it was a sizable industry. This, along with his recent conversation with a friend about a new laser engraver, got him thinking.
"I wonder if we could laser-print messages into chocolate," Michael said to Jennifer after the trip.
The idea for Noteworthy Chocolates was born.
Based in Connecticut, the business engraves chocolate with custom messages as long as 522 characters. The chocolates are meant to show appreciation for others and spread positivity through homes or workplaces. Jennifer said that spreading joy with each gift is one of the company's main goals.
It hasn't always been an easy journey for the Sauvageaus to turn their delightful idea into a functional business, but they've laid the following blueprint for entrepreneurs with no prior industry experience to find success.
1. Get ready to research.
Starting a business requires significant research. Starting a business without any knowledge of the industry requires an unbelievable amount of research. The Sauvageaus had their work cut out for them.
"Just one little step at a time," Jennifer said.
The couple worked long hours to learn everything they could about the industry. They took online courses to learn more about lasers. They reached out to experts to learn about the potential health effects of using a laser to write on chocolate. Even the process of finding experts took time. They spent time locating these experts and then reaching out to learn as much as they could. This all helped them understand how to safely and effectively use lasers to engrave high-quality chocolate without damaging the integrity of each piece.
"A lot of it is diving in and doing a ton of research, which I happen to love to do," Jennifer said.
"And she's really good at it," Michael added.
It helps that Jennifer enjoys the research process, but regardless of your level of enjoyment during the research process, it's an important part of starting a business. If you're starting a business without previous industry knowledge, Noteworthy Chocolates is a business worth emulating. Thorough research leads to success and gives your business a better chance to break into an industry.
Jennifer also recommended sifting through your initial research information to find what truly applies to your business. Once you find the most important information from the initial search, take a deeper dive into that valuable information. A few rounds of research can prove beneficial in the long run. Don't stop researching because you found something worth doing. If anything, that's a sign to research more about that topic to develop your understanding.
2. Use lack of knowledge as a strength.
"It's not just the chocolate industry, but we also didn't know anything about lasers," Jennifer said. "We also didn't know anything about food manufacturing, and we also didn't know about appreciation gifting, so we didn't know our market fit either. Really, we knew almost nothing."
The Sauvageaus didn't know anything about their chosen industry, but they were prepared to throw more than 12 hours a day into getting this business off the ground. The duo transformed what seems like a major disadvantage into an exciting challenge, even a benefit. They heard a local hacker space had just gotten a laser, so they decided to go give it a try.
"We started with a couple of store-bought bars," Jennifer said. "If we had known something about lasers, we might never have discovered what we did, which is the very specific way that you can engrave chocolate."
Before trying, the couple was told that, being in both the laser and chocolate industries, there was very little chance this business was possible. Most people cited chocolate melting as the obvious reason for failure. Despite those warnings, the Sauvageaus continued experimenting. One of Michael's original ideas was to create puzzles out of chocolate. These tests first led to failure.
"When you try to cut out chocolate puzzle pieces with a laser, you get chocolate soup on the bottom of your laser bed," Michael laughed. "It doesn't cut chocolate. It's kind of obvious when you think about it."
"It shows how much we did not know about both chocolate and lasers," Jennifer added with a laugh.
The couple viewed these tests as funny trial runs rather than failures. They continued to learn with each attempt and doubled down on research. The initial lack of knowledge increased the need for research and testing, but it also gave the Sauvageaus a chance to think unconventionally about chocolate and lasers. Further tests required them to explore the viability of the idea. What was keeping other businesses from starting this idea?
Research into health effects and viability eventually led Noteworthy Chocolates to the decision to use a laser specifically for engraving chocolate. Testing included shipping in different types of chocolates to see what worked best with the laser.
"Those were rough times, man," Michael joked. "We had chocolate sent from all over the country, all over the world, and we had to try all these chocolates."
Even though the process was often time-consuming and difficult, Jennifer and Michael enjoyed the ups and downs of the journey. They continued their research and didn't quit when people told them they would fail. They found success by turning a lack of knowledge into curiosity.
"If we had listened to industry experts, we might not be here today," Jennifer said.
3. Continue to learn.
Much of Noteworthy Chocolates' success can be attributed to the founders' willingness to learn. Despite not completely following the advice of detractors, Jennifer and Michael were open to constructive criticism. They made sure to not only hear their supporters, but to also give a platform to those sharing ways to improve the business. This continued desire to learn is something all small businesses should strive to attain.
"People might tell you that they love it and it's great, but listen to the people who have concerns or constructive criticism," Jennifer said. "Really take that into account, and don't be afraid to shift your thinking on your market or your customers or how you can reach your customers and then evolving your product to fit what they want."
Just barely three years from its initial crowdfunding launch on April 14, 2016, Noteworthy Chocolates continues to change frequently. Jennifer and Michael initially believed their business would attract customers wanting to write love letters in chocolate. After a year of running the business, it became clear that most customers didn't want to write that much on the chocolate. Instead, shorter personalized messages became popular.
"After the sixth time I heard that, I came home to Jennifer and said, 'Jennifer, we need to start drawing chocolate business cards,'" he said. "As soon as those came out, within a month it was our bestselling item as far as revenue goes."
The founders' willingness to adapt and learn as they go helps Noteworthy Chocolates stay agile. According to Michael, this ability isn't unique to his work. All small businesses can take advantage of a small staff to quickly make decisions and pivot.
"Early on, you're like a Jet Ski as a little company," Michael said. "You're really nimble, and you can kind of move quickly in a bunch of different directions, rather than a big ship that's going to take its time to turn and learn."
The bottom line
Creating a business without knowledge of the industry you're entering requires research, persistence and listening. You won't always feel completely comfortable as an entrepreneur, but building a successful company is about continuing to push through those tough moments and leaning on those around you.
"Bootstrapping any company, if you're not having doubts, I don't think you're being honest," Michael said.