For Eric Heinbockel, life really is like a box of chocolates. Actually, make that a bar of chocolate. After two years of unsuccessfully searching for a job on Wall Street, Heinbockel took a leap into entrepreneurship with the founding of a customizable chocolate company called Chocomize
With a good business plan, funding from family and friends and a lot of good luck (in the form of some celebrity love), Chocomize realized $400,000 in revenue its first year.
On the Chocomize website, customers can choose either a bar of white, dark or milk chocolate and add up to five of more than 100 toppings to finish their custom creation. Some of the more unique toppings include cayenne pepper, 23-karat gold flakes, rose petals and bacon. Plain bars start at $3.95 and go up from there, with toppings ranging in price from 40 cents to $3.25.
Heinbockel and his co-founders, Nick LaCava and Fabian Kaempfer, graduated from college in 2008 and 2009.
"We graduated in sort of the worst possible time when it comes to finding a job," Heinbockel said. "I spent a year looking for a job as an unpaid intern in a structured finance firm. By the time the other two guys graduated they saw that I wasn’t having any success and they sort of faced the same situation. We had already prepared ourselves for the idea that there may be alternatives that were better than continuing to search for a job. "
So, instead of searching for jobs, the recent graduates decided to try to start their own company . After seeing the successful trend of companies offering customizable products such as Nike ID and made-to-order shirts at Brooks Brothers, they decided to explore the idea of creating a customizable products company.
"The idea of creating your chocolate was something that was in a fledgling stage at a few companies in Europe," said Heinbockel, 25. "We looked at data and found the high-end European chocolate market was growing pretty quickly and, historically, chocolate and candy was something that had weathered if not grown in recessions of the past. Plus, who doesn’t like chocolate?"
Turning the idea into a reality was more of a challenge. In a time of economic uncertainty, Heinbockel, LaCava and Kaempfer found it hard to find startup funding and had to look elsewhere to raise the capital to start their business.
"We initially went to local banks to try to raise the money," Heinbockel said. "We were completely unsuccessful. We were lucky enough that family and friends saw how hard we were working and made personal loans to us. We initially raised about $70,000 for the very early startup capital. We knew we wanted to do this and it was something that could potentially grow pretty quickly. There was never really a stage where we were making anything out of somebody's kitchen."
That money went toward initial costs, including equipment and space needed for manufacturing their customizable chocolates. Leasing a space in Cherry Hill, N.J., gave the nascent company a place to do business, but they needed customers to help get the company off the ground. When O!The Oprah Magazine ran a blurb about Chocomize and celebrities like Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel and rocker Tommy Lee began to speak and tweet about the company's chocolates, their worries were over.
In its first year, Chocomize had sales of $400,000 and their revenue doubled the next year. The company is in the middle of a move to a bigger facility, in Long Island City, N.Y.
Heinbockel and Kaempfer take care of the day-to-day operations while LaCava, still an owner, does not work for the company full time. He is attempting to qualify for the United States National Rowing team in Oklahoma City, Okla.
Expect the unexpected
Heinbockel says the recipe for success comes from looking beyond the obvious. Despite the best planning, unexpected occurrences are always part of starting your own business.
"You have to be willing to learn about a variety of things that may not be of particular interest to you, but are essential to running a business," Heinbockel said.
With half of all businesses failing in their first year, according to U.S. Small Business Administration, taking these unexpected occurrences into account may be the difference between success and failure in the start of a young business.
"One of the things you get used to almost immediately as an entrepreneur, that is not necessarily easy, is the fact that you can listen to and seek advice from experts, but ultimately the decision rests on our shoulders," Heinbockel said. "That is certainly a challenge, but it is also very rewarding knowing that all of our successes is owed to ourselves."