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The Barcode Podcast is presented by Titanium CPG Insurance. Titanium protects forward-thinking consumer brands with a range of commercial insurance products and risk management services designed specifically for natural and organic food and beverage companies. Learn more at titaniumcpg.com

Maggie Louise Confections creates memorable experiences in gift-giving by creating customized, hand-painted chocolate pieces. After spending years as a mergers and acquisitions attorney, CEO and Creative Director Maggie Louise Callahan took her passion for culinary art and her creativity and crafted a custom product that has caught the attention of discriminating gift-givers across the country.

Join us for this conversation where we take a look at what can really happen in your business when Oprah says you’re her “favorite,” the importance of infusing creativity in your business, and how the right combination of hard work, solving a problem for your unique customer and following your passion can create an exceptional product and a thriving business.

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BEN                                             Welcome to The Barcode Podcast. My name is Ben Ponder and I’m excited to have with me in the studio today Maggie Louise Callahan, welcome Maggie.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Hello, thank you.

BEN                                             Awesome to have you. We’re going to talk about all kinds of things chocolate related, Maggie is the founder and CEO of Maggie Louise confections, that is more than chocolate and we’re going to get into what it actually is and the problems that they’re solving for a wide variety of people across the country.

                                                      Before we get started, I do want to mention that the Barcode podcast is presented by Titanium CPG Insurance, and Titanium protects forward-thinking consumer brands with a range of insurance products and risk management services. You can learn more about Titanium at titaniumcpg.com.

                                                      Let’s go ahead and get started. Maggie knows the drill, so we’re going to start off with best meal ever. Go.

MAGGIE LOUISE                All right, so I thought about this pretty intently, because I’ve had a lot of meals in my life in beautiful places with wonderful company. I’ve cooked a lot of meals myself, too. But I do think there was a pivotal one for me, and this was in my mid-30s, I was still practicing law, I had always admired French chefs and assumed what they did was magic.

BEN                                             I still assume that.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yes. They were born with a certain something. And I was always very enamored with Julia Child, and I received her cookbook when we got married and when we came back from our honeymoon, which was in Paris, I endeavored to make something from the cookbook. It was a roast chicken and a chocolate mousse, and I followed the instructions, and they turned out beautifully. And it was a great insight to me that I could do this.

BEN                                             This is possible.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yes, like this is magic, but it’s learned magic. And I don’t know, it opened up a door of mystery and inquiry for me and it was pretty important.

BEN                                             That’s fascinating, and I love that you use the word pivotal about it, because again, for a lot of us that meal or combination of meals, they evoke memories and things like that, but in your case, that meal actually opened up a world of possibilities and ultimately an alternative career path, in some respects for you, too, right? That I can make stuff and it can be that magical quality that I always thought was so elusive.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. I think with Julia Child and her career at that point, I’d read a ton about her, I still read when I can, but looking at her changing her career in her mid-30s, 40s, building into an entirely new way of doing things, she wasn’t a bright young thing, she wasn’t a supermodel, she was just authentic, real, curious and people really gravitated towards that. And I think it gave me a lot of confidence and it really inspired me to start asking questions about what do I want to do? Who could I be and maybe I could do this, because someone has to do it, why not me?

BEN                                             That’s so cool. I think that’s a common response to Julia Child, because it’s not like a stage persona, apparently was really who she was. And that opens up a world of possibility to not just women, but to a wide variety of people who say, yeah, you don’t have to fit into a particular box or whatever the culture tells you. You just have to be really genuinely enthusiastic about the thing that you’re doing, and she’s not faking it.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. At that point in my career I was still practicing law, and I’d been doing that for about eight years at that point, and I felt as though I was waking up every morning and putting on a costume and playing a role. The idea that I could have a career like that, where I was being true to myself and could take my skills and abilities that made me unique and turn that into just who I was. Because playing a role everyday gets tiresome and then you start to forget what’s actually inside. That role becomes who you are, and I just knew I wasn’t like a really boring lawyer who wasn’t interested in her job but did it. I was interested in doing it well, which isn’t the same as having a passion.

BEN                                             But you can get numbed to that if you do it. To be fair, you were not a lawyer for a minute type thing, right? This was a very focused, deliberate career path. Tell us about – A: How you became a lawyer, and B: how you became the next chapter of Maggie, how you made that decision to go down this very creative culinary path?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Sure. My father was a lawyer who loved it, had a great career as a litigator. He’s retired now.

BEN                                             You grew up in Indiana?

MAGGIE LOUISE                In Indianapolis, yeah. And he was also in politics, so for example when I was nine and ten, I spent that time traveling the state with my family because he was running for US senate. I saw the law as part of his career but not the full breadth and scope of what he did. I was always very analytical, I loved writing, I loved debate, I liked winning arguments. I still enjoy that to this day. I was also very creative. My mother’s a painter, I really loved art, more the commercial side in the fine arts.

                                                      But I truly felt more confident in my analytical skills and I didn’t want to be poor. I wanted to travel, I wanted to see things and I felt that pursuing law would give me more access to that. So, I studied political science in college, went to Harvard for law school, I had a lot of opportunities. I ended up working in sort of structure finance and mergers and acquisitions and had a career that was really challenging, intellectually stimulating, but –

BEN                                             You had to bring your A-game every day?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yeah. I really enjoyed that. I grew up profusely. I mean, New York City, 24, petite blonde with the same high-pitched voice you hear today, and I definitely think, I beamed a ton of confidence being thrown into that tough world.

BEN                                             Yeah, in that environment particularly in New York City, particularly in finance, particularly as a young woman, all of those things, you’re either going to wither or you’re going to say, “All right, let’s own this.”

MAGGIE LOUISE                Right. I felt as though I could do that somewhat. But I did have to put on a role every day. I enjoyed connecting with clients and probably would have had more success down the line in bringing in business and working on that side but, you know, it still didn’t feel like me. And I knew that I was just capable of more and could do more. And I felt like I had a lot of talent and I was wasting it.

BEN                                             So, you did that for ten-ish years, right?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Right.

BEN                                             Then how did the culinary thing happen? Was it kind of an overnight, like an epiphany, or was it a gradual dawning?

MAGGIE LOUISE                It was gradual, because the lawyer in me would not have taken a huge, impulsive jump. I spent many years, while I was working, trying to discover more about where my skills were. I worked at museums, as a volunteer, I took classes in interior design, I took classes in cooking, and I kept going back to food because it makes people happy. You bring a lot of joy to the world, you work with your hands, you build things. I love history and I love reading, and there’s just so much tied in with food culturally, that people could connect to. It’s fascinating.

                                                      But it wasn’t until that meal that I described to you, that I started thinking, well, maybe I could do this. It’s not just for other people. I could be the one dreaming up really wonderful things.

BEN                                             Some people might have that moment and say, “Yeah, I can be a really good home cook.” But for you, you actually thought of that as more than that, as, this could actually be a new career trajectory for me?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Right. I mean my career has always been extremely important. I put a lot into it, whatever I do, and so it wasn’t going to be something that I took off at the end of the day and then had a hobby. I love working, I work tremendous hours, we lived in Colorado for four years, and I went skiing once. It’s just who I am. And so, for that reason, I couldn’t imagine having just a hobby, I have to go all-in.

                                                      And there’s times I’m like: “Why do I have to be so crazy? Why can’t I just chill and enjoy doing it a little bit?” That’s just not how I’m wired.

BEN                                             That’s right. Like your husband Kevin is involved in the start-up scene at that point, too, and were you, a little bit, as you’re working in law and that sort of thing, was there an element where again, you had this, you were deeply involved in the entrepreneurial world, and was there a sense where you thought: “Man, I really would rather just jump over the fence and be over here fully in the entrepreneurial scene?”

MAGGIE LOUISE                Oh, absolutely. I had to be patient, though. I was, for a period of time, the main breadwinner. And that was important, we were building a family and living the life and not just building companies. But also, it just had to be the right time for me, internally. The clock had to strike at the right time.

I tried some things along the way before I made the real leap into culinary. Different businesses on the side, but again, I needed to kind of tell the world that I was changing, and that I was going in a different direction. And I did that by leaving the law, but also enrolling in culinary school, so that the world would start to look at me differently from a professional standpoint, but also so I was giving myself the structure to really put myself in that new career.

BEN                                             So you did two things that signaled to everyone in your world, like, this is not just a thing I’m going to dabble in, I’m going all-in. Then you had the added benefit for you of providing that structure so that you could, again, as an attorney, you live in the world of billable hours and there’s a lot of structure.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Billable minutes, yes.

BEN                                             Microseconds, right. Having that form of structure as you being to make this leap to the next thing ended up being really helpful to you?

MAGGIE LOUISE                It did. Also, at that point I had an eight-month-old daughter, so it would have been easy for me-

BEN                                             That’s a very unstructured existence.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. But I could have heard myself saying: “Well, I could just do this while she’s at home, we can save money on childcare and I could change my career,” and that’s not how it works. By going into school where you’re paying to attend, I had to set up childcare and create a professional working life for myself, and I did.

BEN                                             Yeah. You treated school like a job.

MAGGIE LOUISE                I did. After school I did tons of work on my own, developing my own skills and just learning a lot. And it was in school I discovered chocolate, which I know as a consumer like everyone, but I didn’t know it was a sculptural medium. That you truly can shape color, do so many amazing things with. I looked at the market and everything was simple, it was being sold purely on taste, which I think can taste amazing but be fun, not so serious. And it was all brown with red ribbons on it. And I like pink, you know? I wanted to make stuff I thought was cool, and I did, and people just responded and there you go.

BEN                                             So, you’re in culinary school, again a lot of people go to culinary school thinking they’re going to be a chef or something like that. As you’re in there you discover that there’s actually this one sub-section of the culinary arts that’s really intriguing, and having that entrepreneurial mindset you said, “Oh, I think there’s actually a unique opportunity that’s underserved, in some way, “ again the artistic side of chocolate, not simply just the flavor. Because again, we’re all accustomed to the very kind of low-level commodity Hershey, and then you work your way up. Maybe it’s a fair-trade cocoa or something along those lines, or a more indulgent, luxury chocolate that’s just simply kind of higher sourcing standards and some more craftsmanship.

                                                      But you said, “No, we’re actually still missing the boat here, and it doesn’t all have to look the same.” Tell us a little bit about how that process, where you went from chocolate that must come in a bar or a block or something like that into chocolate is your Italian marble in some way, and it’s not just molds and bunnies for Easter. It’s what if we actually painted these things and made them gloriously beautiful?

MAGGIE LOUISE                At a fine restaurant you’re going to have a wonderful meal, but it’s also about the way it’s designed, the décor, the service. I wanted to bring all that to the world of chocolate, and part of it was my background in law where service reigns. It’s not just what you’re selling but how you’re selling it, and how you’re treating your clients and building a company that was designed around client service, but also understanding that a lot of chocolate was being sold to people for consumption. The fact is, is that people had previously bought boxed chocolate to give to other people.

BEN                                             Right, your Russell Stovers or your Whitman’s.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yes, and in that case, when you’re giving it to someone, you’re not really concerned about their calorie count.

BEN                                             True.

MAGGIE LOUISE                You’re concerned about buying something that is going to make you look great, and that’s going to make them very happy.

BEN                                             Yeah and make them feel special.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. So that’s not just about consumption, it’s about the experience, the opening, the visual, the idea that you could buy chocolates that remind you of someone, but not in an overly personal way. So, a work colleague who loves football, you’re not going to go out and buy them a football jersey for Christmas, that feels very personal. But a box of chocolate shaped like footballs and helmets and team colors is on point without being too much.

                                                      I just thought, well, there’s infinite possibilities with the way that this is designed, we just need to do it. And then people who might not even be thinking of buying chocolate as gifts, all of a sudden, they might be interested. They might not be interested in chocolate yet, but they like fashion, they like art, they like design, they like buying things that are new and discovering things. So that was sort of how that door got opened.

BEN                                             That’s great. So really, you’re bridging not just chocolate but really the world of flower bouquets, the world of greeting cards, the way we would get somebody a fairly generic box of chocolates and then you personalize it with a card or something like that. You’re saying, “No, what if you actually personalized the chocolates that you gave to this person?” How much did you get into the psychology of that, either formally or informally, as you thought about creating this experience for people and kind of like inhabiting the mindset of that giver and the receiver of those things?

MAGGIE LOUISE                I didn’t get into the psychology beyond really thinking about myself, you know, as ultimately kind of representing our target market, and what I found appealing, and what I didn’t find appealing.

BEN                                             And by the way, that’s perfectly fine and super common, again when you’re a startup and you don’t necessarily have a budget to run thousands of dollars’ worth of focus groups and do all this other data, you have to tap into that target market, and it’s really helpful if you are part of your target market.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. And if all your friends and family are. That’s beneficial and that’s where your network really kicks in. I had a great network from all my different life experiences leading up to this, where they were the right type of clients who also would give me honest feedback. Or at least I assumed it was honest.

BEN                                             Hopefully so, yeah. So really you kind of put yourself in the shoes of that prospective customer and said, “What would delight me if I received this in the mail?” Or what if I’m giving a special gift, how can I make that experience as seamless and enjoyable and satisfying as possible?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. And I also felt that a lot of the world of culinary, they were creating for other chefs. And I wanted to create for my clients.

BEN                                             Yeah, you’re impressing your peers?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Right. That means, my client might not necessarily be wowed by a flavor combination that’s never been heard of or seen before, so my mindset was different. I wasn’t also looking for, I would say, confirmation from that group, whereas a lot of time somebody might be.

BEN                                             Yeah, that’s the validation. You see this, this is very common, a lot of restaurants that get a lot of press and have all these accolades, and then sometimes just doesn’t make it, because maybe it’s not a super good business, or it’s not connecting.

MAGGIE LOUISE                It’s not bringing people in. It might not feel warm and welcoming. So even the fact that, when we went after press, after I started, we didn’t really go to your typical food outlets. Instead we positioned it in the world of fashion.

BEN                                             That’s super interesting. Was that a deliberate move?

MAGGIE LOUISE                It was deliberate, and it worked. It was successful. We had a half-page in Vogue magazine, which, they don’t even feature food, necessarily. But it was mixing these two very valuable things. Experience and visual appeal, and storytelling.

BEN                                             Doing that in a creative way with chocolate that the Vogue reader is instantly intrigued by.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. We made chocolate lipsticks, which for a French chef is like sacrilegious.

BEN                                             Absolutely.

MAGGIE LOUISE                But I liked it, and my clients liked it. And you know what? Magazines loved it. People loved discovering it. To this day, it remains our most popular item because it’s just so fun.

BEN                                             Absolutely.

MAGGIE LOUISE                And I just thought making it fun and feminine, like why not? Because that’s the market.

BEN                                             Yeah. I love it. So, tell us, what was your very first kind of more creative chocolate that you ever made?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Well, there were a lot of attempts along the way that weren’t necessarily beautiful.

BEN                                             A lot of misshapen blobs.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. And I used to make things in our kitchen at home and I’d take them to my husband’s office, and people couldn’t even believe it was a square. So, we started really simple, which is great. But it was the beauty pieces, for me though, that really just changed people’s perspective. It was splatter painted gemstones. Our first Easter we did shiny black bunnies, they were painted with like a black lacquer cocoa butter, I called them rock and roll bunnies, and some people call them S&M bunnies.

BEN                                             That’s right. Black latex.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yes, exactly. They got picked up in so many places because they just looked so different. They’re sitting in a nest of hot pink and white spotted eggs and just, wow, what a fun Easter. So just kind of playing around with taking something traditional, both traditional chocolate but also moment, Easter, bunnies, eggs, and just saying, “How can we make this look brand new, fresh, exciting, engaging?”

BEN                                             That super interesting. Now, when you’re working with chocolate, and I don’t pretend to be an expert at this at all, but I know this much, chocolate is very finicky and particular and sensitive. And so, this is not really simple. If any of us, as a consumer have chocolate we know if you accidentally leave something in slightly warmer conditions, especially if it were sculptural in nature, it’s going to get deformed really quickly and not have that same experience.

                                                      When you’re first starting out, obviously you know that maybe on an academic level, but how did you navigate the challenges around working with this sculptural chocolate?

MAGGIE LOUISE                It was such a mess. Like I have years of it blocked out in my mind. So, when I started the business, obviously I wasn’t making anything at our house anymore. I found a kitchen space that was available on Cesar Chavez way before there was anything else cool around there, and I would work in that kitchen from 10:00 at night to 2:00 AM, because that was all they had available. And I was hand-tempering, which meant I had no equipment, so I’m doing everything by hand, it can work but it’s simply inefficient.

BEN                                             Right and this is that kind of startup thing, in those early days it’s okay for you to do things that don’t scale, because you’re learning.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Oh yeah. Well, and there’s a way to scale it, like you get equipment.

BEN                                             There’s a path.

MAGGIE LOUISE                There’s a path, yeah. You have to prove it, that the path is worth taking. And so, the problem, though, was that it was a shared kitchen, so somebody else next to me could be making ramen or ribs, with the vents on.

BEN                                             Steamy heat and all the things.

MAGGIE LOUISE                All of which would cause my product to fail. It was an exercise in patience. I kind of consider chocolate to be a lot like a two- or three-year-old, it requires a lot of attention, it needs to stay steady and calm, it can be very temperamental.

BEN                                             That’s right. It’s very demanding.

MAGGIE LOUISE                You have to just embrace the failures and keep moving forward. The failures taste great, but they don’t look so good. So that was, for me, working in those sub-optimal conditions, you get to see what doesn’t work, and knowing that there was equipment in the future, there was the ability to find a temperature-controlled space, like we could solve for those things, just not yet.

BEN                                             Eventually, you’ll get there.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Eventually.

BEN                                             What was the next stage in the evolution of your business where you’re hand-tempering chocolate? At this point you were also, and I’ll ask it as a question: were you focused on E-commerce at that point for distribution? And I can, again, only imagine the complexities of trying to ship this very temperamental chocolate to people all around places.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yes, you just raised like 75 different areas.

BEN                                             Okay. That’s great. Pick one.

MAGGIE LOUISE                I say that because all of those were challenges for us. Shipping. When I started this in Texas you couldn’t ship wine, in the summer people didn’t ship chocolate. I figured if I could eat sushi in Austin in August-

BEN                                             It must me possible.

MAGGIE LOUISE                … there’s got to be a way to get chocolate around without melting. It might be a costing issue, but it’s possible. And this is before we were all ordering groceries and everything like that.

BEN                                             That’s right. Before Blue Apron and HelloFresh and all those people.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. We ended up finding a packaging solution that the bio-medical industry was using to ship blood.

BEN                                             Pretty high stakes stuff.

MAGGIE LOUISE                High stakes, yeah. It had to be kept cool. Chocolate you don’t have to keep it frozen, it just needs to not melt, and it melts at 92 degrees. The good thing is, if it melts, it’s not going to kill you, it just doesn’t look good. So, there’s no risk like say, oysters, it’s a different sort of risk.

BEN                                             That’s true.

MAGGIE LOUISE                We had to solve for that. That’s something to this day we’re continuously optimizing. Because it’s how you price for it. You can always get better rates, better opportunities. I lived in a lot of places, I knew there was a pretty big world out there, and I always knew that this was a gift, and most people need to send their gift to someone, so we need to do that for them. And that’s where E-commerce was the natural fit.

BEN                                             Yeah, it wasn’t just a storefront that you said, “I’m going to make it in the back and sell it in the front and sorry if you don’t live in this neighborhood, this part of Austin, I can’t help you out.”

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. So at that point we had E-commerce and we also had corporate work, which was people would hire us to make chocolate for them to tell their company story, and because we could do that in so many different ways, it wasn’t here’s our box with your logo on it.

For example, we did a project for John Frieda Hair Care and they were trying to tell a story around brunettes being spicy and just as exciting as blondes. So, we created a spicy chocolate and made chocolate letters in the box that said Brilliant Brunette, and it was all about brunettes having spice and telling that through the John Frieda brand. That box went out to a lot of media and press, and it helped them promote their product that simply sending a bottle of shampoo would not do.

BEN                                             That’s right, It’s not the expected. What was the shape of this spicy chocolate? Was it hair? What did it look like?

MAGGIE LOUISE                We don’t do hair in chocolate.

BEN                                             We’re trying to keep hair out.

MAGGIE LOUISE                We did letterpress letters. We had these chocolate letters that were really popular, in fact when we were one of Oprah’s Favorite Things in our first year, it was a 25-piece box of letters spelling out holiday sentiments.

BEN                                             That you could also rearrange?

MAGGIE LOUISE                You could if you wanted, play Scrabble with them. But this is where opportunity doesn’t necessarily align with what’s good for you, because the problem with the letters was that the molds that I bought were about $30 each unless you made them yourself, and at that point I wasn’t making any myself.

BEN                                             For a specific letter?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Well, no. You bought the whole alphabet on the tray. So, to do the Brilliant Brunette project, I needed three Ts, which meant I had to turn a tray three times for one box. Imagine that on a much more epic scale, and what seems okay when you first start and you’re like, “I can just turn this all night, it’s fine”-

BEN                                             You detect the inefficiencies really quickly.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yes. So that was a very popular product we did for a number of years but ultimately, we could not continue with the inefficiency.

BEN                                             You’d have to make your own customized alphabet?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Right. And we looked at that, and you think, okay, what should we do first? Again, Scrabble, whatever has the lowest point value, use the most. But then when you do corporate work the fact is, is that it doesn’t necessarily connect to the language because it’s a business name. So, it wouldn’t have been a good investment at that stage.

BEN                                             No, that makes sense. Now, most people would just fall all over themselves to be listed among Oprah’s Favorite Things in the first year of their business, what was that like?

MAGGIE LOUISE                That was good. I’ve never been like a big celebrator of exciting things, so to me it just happened. The main challenge with something like that is that you can fail.

BEN                                             Now the spotlight is turned on you?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yeah, and the business is great but if you can’t fulfill your orders, what have you done? At that point I was doing an all-nighter every night essentially. I had two other people helping me in the kitchen, and then I would work at night in the kitchen and then all day build the business, and I would drink like 75 shots of espresso during the day. But we got it done, but at a tremendous cost, so again trying to prove that there’s something here isn’t the same as “this is the business we want.” For me, at a certain point too, my ability to just make all the products and stay up all night, my output you know –

BEN                                             That’s right. Even the most efficient person is only one person.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. So, it was pretty limiting.

BEN                                             How did you make that next level leap up, in terms of not just production capacity but even your approach to the business? Like building out the organization, building out the team, what did that look like for you?

MAGGIE LOUISE                My husband at that point did join me. I was about year-and-a-half, two years in and he joined the team and he took over, not on the operations or production side, but kind of the bigger picture of order tracking through the system, our E-commerce platform feeds into orders that get shipped and we have to track everything and he was building that side out.

BEN                                             And Kevin, your husband, is a technologist?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Right.

BEN                                             Right, so he’s pretty handy to have around for some of these projects?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yeah. We were really early into the E-commerce side, so we got to get into that pretty quickly. At that point, Facebook ads were free, basically.

BEN                                             No longer.

MAGGIE LOUISE                No longer the case. So yeah, he joined me, we hired more for the teams, but the question really came down to where do we want this to go, and based on that, what do we want to put into it, and I’ve always been kind of hesitant about commitments, not like my marriage, but in things like this. We didn’t open up our own space until we were a year-and-a-half in. I didn’t want to have a storefront until I had a book of business. I also didn’t want the storefront to have to support the business, because you live and die based on whether it rains on a Saturday and you can’t control that, that’s very stressful.

                                                      We finally decided to open our own kitchen, and that gave us 750 square feet of production space.

BEN                                             How many square feet were you in, in that shared kitchen before?

MAGGIE LOUISE                20.

BEN                                             You think of it as cubic feet more.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yeah. For that kitchen, I started out from 10:00 PM to 2:00 AM, and eventually as people left, I was able to rent half the space in that kitchen 24 hours a day. We didn’t have the ability to have great equipment, but we had some space. It was small.

BEN                                             Which is something. I think it’s always interesting for people even to understand how you can build this kind of pilot scale or sometimes even bigger businesses in really constrained spaced. You just have to be really scrappy.

MAGGIE LOUISE                You do. Also, you’ve got to maximize 24 hours a day. You can’t just add more people, there’s no space, so I did night shift and the other team did the day shift, and it was a lot. And I don’t think people realized that I’m also mopping the floor, it’s not glamorous. People romanticize food sometimes but it’s messy and it’s a lot of cleaning and standards and all that.

BEN                                             And again, I think that takes grit, it takes humility. You’re this Harvard-trained lawyer and you’re mopping floors in a kitchen.

MAGGIE LOUISE                At 4:00 AM.

BEN                                             At 4:00 AM.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Wearing trash clothes.

BEN                                             And you’re like, “What have I done with my life?” On a bad night, but then a lot of days it’s also really crazy but fun.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yeah. Really crazy but fun but also, even on the bad nights, it wasn’t, “What have I gotten myself into?” It was, “Okay, this is really hard. How do I make it, so this isn’t forever?” And that meant we need to either scale the company or decide that, that was just what we were doing, and I was going to mop the floor at 4:00 AM every night.

BEN                                             Right. For the next 20 years.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. Which was not my life at all. So, it became we’ve got to grow in order to get where we need to be. We needed to open more channels, increase our business, drive revenue, and to do that we needed more space. We moved into our kitchen in East Austin. 700 square feet, it felt gigantic, and then very quickly it felt way too small.

                                                      We grew wholesale. We started wholesale two, three years ago, we took a very different path from typical CPG. Even the wholesale we started was new to market.

BEN                                             You weren’t trying to be everywhere; you were trying to really pick your spots?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yeah, because long-term that matters. That’s how you build your brand, that’s how people perceive you. But also, I didn’t want to fail, and I signed up for projects before that were too big. I knew that we couldn’t take on too much too fast.

BEN                                             Well there’s the too big, in terms of scale of distribution, but there’s also the tremendous kind of downward pricing pressure that you have once you’re available everywhere, too, right? So, you made a very deliberate decision to say we’re going to go after more premium, when we go into retail, we’re going to be very choosy about being in the right kind of premium outlets.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. That commands a high price point, because our product is premium. And also, you do lose some control and I wanted it presented in the way that I felt great about and I thought that those partners could get us there. But you know, it also comes down to volume and how much we could produce, because we’re talking about hand-painted chocolate. You don’t just turn the machine on faster, it’s a human machine and it takes a lot of planning and a lot of development and failure, training, so you have to be very nuanced in how you adopt and grow.

BEN                                             Yeah, so let’s talk about that a second. Hand-painted chocolates.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Why would someone do that?

BEN                                             Why? Well I mean, it sounds really romantic, like I love the idea. How do you scale hand-painted chocolates?

MAGGIE LOUISE                That’s a great question, that’s something we’ve been answering for six years now. And you scale it by, first of all, really defining what makes you different, and for us it’s that hand-painted design. And then you strip away everything that doesn’t make it different. Hand-tempering, for example, does not make us different, so we don’t do it.

BEN                                             Okay. You’re kind of picking your spots.

MAGGIE LOUISE                You pick your spot, and then you automate what doesn’t matter, what doesn’t make your product better and what isn’t helpful. And you also learn a ton of lessons along the way. When I was the only painter, everything looked exactly how I wanted it to. But when you add more people, you’re never going to get the same thing, so we create a lot of our own molds now that basically have outlines for tracing.

BEN                                             It’s closer to like a paint-by-numbers sort of scenario?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yes, exactly. It takes a lot of skill, but you can develop it with muscle memory, versus free-hand painting, that’s just different. So, the other scaling part is failure. You scale too fast, we’ve suffered from tremendous demand, that we met, going back to client service, we met all the orders, we made people happy. But it came at tremendous cost, because at that point, when you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of pieces of chocolate, it’s not me in the kitchen all night that will even move the needle, you know?

BEN                                             That’s right. You can’t do it.

MAGGIE LOUISE                It’s been a lot of SKU rationalization.

BEN                                             That’s right, because you could have had so many. I don’t know how many SKUs you have right now, but again, if you’re doing this custom, this bespoke chocolate you could theoretically have millions of different varieties.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Infinite possibilities. And when I started if somebody said to me, “I love that box, but can it be all pink and all milk chocolate?” I’d say, “Of course it can.”

BEN                                             That’s right, yeah.

MAGGIE LOUISE                I’ll deliver it directly to you. But that mentality, that hustle that gets you that traction and gets you that initial client base, that doesn’t work when you grow bigger, I had to let that go and that was hard.

BEN                                             Yeah, especially because you want to be that strong customer service organization.

MAGGIE LOUISE                I’ll do anything. And I always picture my mother at the other end of the line and what would she want, you know? Like, she’d want me to hand-deliver it to her. But when you grow, you ultimately realize that if you want to make more people happy it means you might do less.

BEN                                             Yeah. You have to be focused.

MAGGIE LOUISE                You sacrifice those few orders where you would have done it before. Of course, I’ll do that order totally different from how it should be because all the other people would lose out because you’re focused on that one. So the pie gets bigger.

BEN                                             You mentioned that you had this unique channel strategy where you’re going, certainly there’s the E-commerce part of the business, there’s the premium retail kind of department store side of the business, was there anything else that you learned along the way? Also, there’s the corporate gifting which, again, I think was a really savvy move early on. What did you learn about, for your particular business, maybe even some of those missteps along the way where you said, “I’m devoting all of my time, energy, attention to this thing, but I should probably be devoting all of my attention over here?”

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yeah, being distracted by being in the business is a reality for any founder, especially when you’re a manufacturer, and I was the initial manufacturer. My initial instinct would be to get in there-

BEN                                             And solve it yourself.

MAGGIE LOUISE                … and help it, solve it, make it go faster. And that’s not the way it works because you miss all the other things happening. And so, the downside of having those four channels is that we have built four sales organizations, so it’s amazing. We’re diversified. But as they say, cost of acquisition of E-commerce rises. We have other channels that we already have established and built with clients. But I run our sales teams and I manage four different areas that have very different needs, different marketing.

BEN                                             Right, completely different set of relationships.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Different pricing. But at this stage we’re able to look at our margins for each channel individually, and we couldn’t do that early on, so you don’t know if you are pursuing the right areas. You can see what’s becoming most popular and your instinct is often to just do that, that’s what everyone wants, let’s do it. But if you don’t know whether that’s really your most long-term successful area, it can be very distracting. So, we had tremendous E-commerce success, but it was more expensive to us.

BEN                                             Right. That’s a common thing, and I’ve talked to some other guest about this, and you alluded to this earlier, that Facebook ads were relatively cheap to free back in the day and as the world has evolved and as Google and Facebook and Amazon have kind of controlled more and more of that, that online kind of discovery ecosystem, the costs have gone up pretty dramatically. What used to be known as, oh, the cheapest way to scale your business is to do direct to consumer, sometimes that might be the right path for you, but it’s not dirt cheap anymore like it used to be.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Right. And for us, we were natural in that area because our product is so visual, especially on Instagram. People would post it all the time because it photographed really well, it looked great, we didn’t pay for anything and we had all this organic traction and brand recognition. But the world changes, and if you’re planning your life around things that were changing, well, you know, it’s just not reality.

MAGGIE LOUISE                E-commerce also has a host of other headaches that might not come to other areas. It is very seasonal, but also, the month of December is insane, which is amazing, but you don’t have the ability necessarily to forecast like you do in other areas, because you want to hit product but you also need to project and build inventory.

BEN                                             Right. And you can get an Oprah mention or some other thing that has a virality to it, and all of a sudden orders go through the roof, which sounds really exciting but then you say, “Oh, my December is now monopolized by this.”

MAGGIE LOUISE                Right. Like it can be very volatile. And so, as you grow the stakes are higher because the amount of money you’re investing is higher. If you have extra snowmen at the end of December, it’s okay. If you have extra snowmen at the end of March, well that’s just trash.

BEN                                             That’s right. If you have 100 extra snowmen that’s one thing, if you have 100,000 extra snowmen, different problem, right?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. So, when you’re small as well, you can get it done while building on demand from the beginning. For example, right now we’re making about 60,000 pieces a week, we have to be able to just do that every week, we can’t double that to 120K next week.

BEN                                             That’s right. Because you have to order in all of your ingredients and supplies and that stuff.

MAGGIE LOUISE                It’s people. Yeah.

BEN                                             You have to schedule who’s going to show up and work that day. And again, sometimes your customers don’t necessarily know that either, right, so if you have a channel partner that, “Yeah, we’ll just order triple this week and then we’ll order nothing for the next following couple of weeks.” That actually makes your life as a manufacturer very challenging, right?

MAGGIE LOUISE                It does. But then it does make it very interesting. And I do like a challenge and I like the intellectual side of that, and that’s where we’ve been able to bring on some of the great partners. My area of expertise is in operations, so it’s finding a complement in that space. And we’ve been able to do that, but it’s been a long road. I’ve worked with people that we just weren’t the right fit. So, getting to a point where you have that kind of knowledge built out, it takes a long time but it’s worth the journey.

 

 

BEN                                             Right. And you alluded to this earlier, the kind of maximum of not working in the business but on the business, as you begin to, not necessarily take a step back because I feel like that’s misleading, but you’re abstracting yourself out of the business a bit so that you can begin to see how all the pieces fit together, and you don’t presume that you’re going to hand-deliver every one of 60,000 pieces, because it’s just not physically possible.

                                                      As you scale that up, do you feel like you’ve gotten to a point where you’re able to focus your time and attention on some of the creative things that you wanted, that kind of got you excited about this business in the first place?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yes and no. As we’ve grown, I’m more CEO, I wear many hats. But that means that a lot of my time is spent going over P&L and modeling and working on those areas, and without those areas I can’t do anything creatively.

BEN                                             That’s right. And meeting with your sales team and making sure that they have what they need.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. Building out all of those areas and being the founder of the company, I’m the most impactful. And so, it’s many hats and sometimes you wear one a lot longer than others, but for me it’s been nice to balance it because I still have that intellectual interest in solving problems. And I can solve it, too, on the creative side because as we mentioned earlier with SKU rationalization, the sky is not the limit, and I need to pick five. That’s a challenge and that’s interesting, and that can be really fun.

BEN                                             Just for our listeners who may be less familiar with industry jargon, so SKU rationalization is that, let’s say you had 100 products or variations of products out there, but you have to just kind of take a nice hard look and say of those 100 products, really these ten are the ones that are moving the needle, so we need to maybe make some hard calls about getting rid of the bottom 80, or at least some that don’t make sense for us to make anymore.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Right. Just because you can do it, it doesn’t mean that you should. And as a creative the first instinct is to make things that are just amazing and beautiful. But I find it more interesting to approach it from problem solving. Where we’re at, at this moment, let’s talk about our client. What are they interested in, how do we develop that into a product, and then how do we turn that into a successful, profitable endeavor?

                                                      Long-term, I love the creative side, but I’m not just in a room dreaming up things. That might be a wonderful way of looking at it, but I’m running a business at the same time, and I have always been very good at compartmentalizing and jumping very easily between totally different things. So, if my day goes in 100 different directions, I find that very stimulating and I think that all of the solving business issues and questions in that vein and working as our outside face of the brand gives me energy to do the creative work.

BEN                                             Yeah, that’s cool. Are you able to balance the proactive versus reactive nature of the business? Do you find, that for a lot of startups and a lot of entrepreneurs, the world feels like it’s happening at them really fast, and we have all these wildfires and I’m reacting, reacting, reacting, and you can sometimes not be in a position where you feel like, okay, I’m going to make some proactive decisions. How do you navigate that as the CEO?

MAGGIE LOUISE                I think because of our business, we are in an interesting space where we have to look forward, because our wholesale clients, for example, they’ve already given us their Valentine’s orders. Our clock moves forward. Our product development starts in April for the holidays.

BEN                                             Yeah, your mind is not on Christmas right now, your mind is already advanced into 2020.

MAGGIE LOUISE                My poor children. Yes. I’m like, why decorate? Christmas is over. But it’s true, we have to look forward, and that can be tough because it’ll be the middle of July and you’re trying to get in the spirit. That’s where movies and music and other forms of inspiration can come in. But that has given us a clock, and that’s been very helpful because I love working up to the last minute, I love it, I can always think of something even better.

BEN                                             There’s a mental discipline here.

MAGGIE LOUISE                There is. And it’s something that I’ve struggled with, because especially on the creative side that you’re never done, you can always make it better. But at a certain point, and others have helped me realize this, you’re making it. It’s like the law of germination. Like it’s getting better but in such a small way that no one even cares, so let’s move onto the next thing.

BEN                                             Right. It’s kind of like your example of if we hand-temper our chocolate, is that really making a big difference?

MAGGIE LOUISE                That’s doesn’t add anything. No.

BEN                                             So now in the world of chocolate, so you’re this artist, an artist businesswoman, and typically an artist is, or we think of the paradigmatic artist as they have a medium and maybe it’s oil paints or sculpture, whatever the thing is, in your case you are an artist and there’s a three-dimensional form that you’re creating, which again is kind of sculptural. There is this decorative aspect of that three-dimensional form where it’s hand painted with these edible colors and things like that, so it’s like you’re a painter and then there is the taste aspect of it where you’re actually putting the thing in your mouth and chewing it up and swallowing it, so you’re a chef there.

                                                      How do you, as a creative who’s working in the medium of chocolate, find balance? Like you mentioned before, there’s infinite options so you can have inclusions, you can have different colors here, you can have all these different shapes, how do you decide, when you’re creating a new thing, how to prioritize, oh, I should do a spicy thing over there, I should a kind of crispy, crunchy thing happening over here. How do you do that?

MAGGIE LOUISE                When the sky’s the limit, you have to set your own boundaries. You have to draw your sandbox, essentially, otherwise it’s totally overwhelming as a creator you’re paralyzed by infinite options. But I also think clients get paralyzed, too. If I go to a restaurant that has a 30-page menu, I will just order a roast chicken, I won’t even look at the menu, because it’s too much, I won’t be able to handle it.

BEN                                             The Cheesecake Factory kind of menu that’s like a book.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. So, part of our job is to help our clients make their decisions by only presenting them with a narrow amount of options that we believe the most in.

BEN                                             Which is actually a gift to them because it’s relaxing.

MAGGIE LOUISE                It’s relaxing. And I like that. I love going to yoga or spin class where someone for 45 minutes tells me exactly what to do. And I mindlessly just do it.

BEN                                             Yeah. Because for the rest of your day, you’re the boss lady and you’ve got to tell everybody else what to do, and it’s kind of comforting to not have to worry about it for just a little moment.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. Same for most of us when you go home and you tell your kids, your pets, it just doesn’t end. So, I set some rules early on, and they were somewhat selfish because I wanted to make product from a taste perspective that I wanted. And what that meant was going back to making product for clients not for chefs. I wanted to draw on memories and nostalgia. I’m a very nostalgic-driven person, I’m a huge fan of antiques, they remind me of my grandmother’s house, I love it.

So, I thought, okay, what do I enjoy the most? It’s things that remind me of something that was happy, and from a chocolate perspective, a Reese’s Peanut butter Cup, from Halloween growing up, was the best. Let’s do that but make it elevated for our tastes now, which require more nuanced flavor, less sugar, more balance with salt. Just our flavor palettes develop as adults. It requires also more because we drink so much coffee and everything. But take those favorites and make them better, just elevate the classics.

                                                      And the one reason for that, and limiting that menu, nostalgic classics elevated but limited, so that you have all of this variety in the way it looks. But then you don’t have the same infinite issue with what’s inside.

BEN                                             That’s right. You don’t have to come up with a new huckleberry ganache or something in everything.

MAGGIE LOUISE                No, you don’t. So that has helped limit it, it was okay, let’s immediately not have as many flavors as others might, and then on the design side, you’re thinking, first of all, you want it to be new and interesting for the client, so you can do anything, but what’s the world talking about right now? Okay, are they talking about brunch? Is it Galentine’s Day? Avocado toast? What are people just interested in at the moment? That can help narrow it because that’s going to get their attention. That will also get the press’s attention, it will fit more seamlessly into a story.

BEN                                             And how do you think about that? Are you guys looking at hashtags on social media and stuff like that? Or is it just you get a whiteboard and you just start spit balling ideas about things you’re hearing the kids are talking about these days?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Both. There’s less data science involved in it, because the benefit of this stuff is that everyone on the team can be a data point. We’re not talking about something so nuanced that no one has any insight. So, we have a pretty diverse team as far as age and background and interest go. And so just looking at that and just starting with concepts and storytelling.

MAGGIE LOUISE                And then also creating boundaries again. Okay, we’re going to have three boxes that have nine pieces of chocolate. Not four, not five, three.

BEN                                             Right. There’s a consistency to it.

MAGGIE LOUISE                We’re going to have a set that’s just for Texas. Like you create some rules and that helps manage that overwhelming, well it could be anything. But it can’t be anything, it’s got to fit the rules.

BEN                                             Yeah. You’re setting your own boundaries, and that actually brings you comfort as a leader, and ultimately actually serves your clients because you’re providing them with a curated gifting experience.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Well, and one thing we do that’s kind of different is we don’t have branded boxes. We have two styles that are branded, those are our lipstick trio, our most popular. But we have five boxes for the entire company that serve every channel. They’re white, we print artwork on them, but we have to project the volume for five boxes, which is the absolute best way to go. Because even though in a year we might have 400 styles, we could only be under or over stocked on five different SKUs. It helps to manage the risk of buying too much of one thing, or not buying enough.

BEN                                             That’s right, so you have this underlying limited selection that allows you to build on top of it, and give people the customization that they’re looking for without the SKU rationalization thing. You don’t have 1000 different permutations. Well, you may actually have permutations of it, but you don’t have 1000 different bases of the product.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Right. Like we’ll personalize and customize it only when it’s ordered, so it’s not a risk. And that helps, too. Five different sizes of boxes, the sky’s not the limit, it’s got to fit in the five. And then something else that really drove early on a lot, because now we just know so much more, but will it stand up to shipping? Because the first round of lipsticks I did were destroyed. I had to figure out how to package things.

BEN                                             Yeah, the UPS and FedEx drivers are not gentle with their packaging.

MAGGIE LOUISE                No, they’re working hard.

BEN                                             That’s right. They’re moving fast.

MAGGIE LOUISE                They’ve got to get it out the door and everyone wants everything right away. So, one thing that I saw when I started in this industry was that all of these sample boxes had a plastic tray inside. It might be gold, it might be clear, whatever. And it had cavities, which meant all your chocolates had to fit in these cavities. But I wanted to do boxes that had a variety of sizes, so like the lipsticks, robots, we do like a cellphone, they’re not your standard sized bon-bon.

                                                      I had to create a way where we could manipulate boxes, still having five styles, but they could fit all sorts of sizes of pieces and I wasn’t beholden to that traditional industry look of a single size. So, I found boxes that had heavy card stock inserts that create a grid, and I started cutting them up, and that’s what we still do to this day.

BEN                                             Interesting. Which again has an earthier feel to it than that just molded plastic. It has a little bit of an elevated experience even when you’re looking inside that box.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yeah. And then as we see things that have really proven themselves, they earn their own box.

BEN                                             That’s right. Absolutely right. You’ve worked really hard.

MAGGIE LOUISE                You get it, yeah. So, like our lipstick trio, which is our most popular item, that’s $20 retail. It has three chocolate lipsticks inside, it has a totally, fully printed custom box. And we’ve sold 100,000 units, so it warrants it.

BEN                                             It earned it.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yeah.

BEN                                             I love it. So, do you have a favorite chocolate?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Taste or visual?

BEN                                             Either.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Well, from a taste perspective, let’s see, I love our peanut butter candy, and we pair it with a strawberry crisp so it’s like a PB & J and it’s delicious. But I also love everything because if I don’t, we don’t do it.

BEN                                             That’s right. That’s true, it has to meet that bar.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yeah. It has to meet the bar; it has to fit in those themes I talked about.

BEN                                             You need to be proud of it.

MAGGIE LOUISE                We need to be proud of it. It needs to taste really good, and it also needs to surprise people with how good it tastes, because the assumption often is, with really beautiful food, is that it tastes not great.

BEN                                             Right. This looks healthy, or whatever that thing is, right?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. So, I love that. And then we do new shapes all the time. We do have one coming up soon that I really like. It’s a bourbon bottle, but I always have my favorite because it’s a tried and true, I can always stand by it. And then I have a favorite because it’s new and interesting.

BEN                                             Of the season or whatever it is.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yeah.

BEN                                             You’ve been doing this now for a few years, how has the chocolate business changed or how do you see it evolving? Maybe a little bit more of the macro level. You’ve obviously got the big players of the M&M, Mars, and all those people that are doing the commodity chocolates, then you’ve got your old guard of the Russell Stovers, Whitman’s, Sees.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Godiva, yeah.

BEN                                             That sort of thing. And then I think the Godiva’s and the Ghirardelli as this kind of elevated, almost commodity thing but like a nice, a better experience, certainly strong European players and all of that stuff. What’s happening with chocolate, and do you ever try to think about where Maggie Louise Confections fits into that broader constellation of chocolate that’s happening around the world?

MAGGIE LOUISE                No, absolutely. I mean you have to think about where you fit because you’re working towards something. And so chocolate, one thing I love about it, is it’s an accessible luxury, so it withstands changes in the world.

BEN                                             Recessions.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Recessions.

BEN                                             You may not be able to go on vacation, but you can bury your sorrows in a nice box of chocolates if you have to.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. I always kind of compare it to a Chanel lipstick, which is a luxury, it feels great, it’s amazing, it looks wonderful, but it’s not the same as a handbag.

BEN                                             It’s not thousands of dollars.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. So, I think that the boxed chocolate industry in the US is a little outdated, and one reason we’ve had so much opportunity and growth was that we looked kind of modern and fresh and interesting in a very traditional industry.

BEN                                             Like that boxed chocolate thing, my dad is a pharmacist and so I grew up in this world, but it just evokes corner drugstore to me.

MAGGIE LOUISE                It does.

BEN                                             From the ’50s or ’60s, and it kind of hasn’t changed from that point.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Well I think the themes from generation to generation, they’re the same. It’s moments, showing people how much, you care. It’s giving things that will make people happy. It’s treating yourself because life can be tough, and you deserve it. So those don’t change but maybe the way we want to experience them is different. So obviously in the industry we’ve seen tremendous growth and evolution when it comes to sustainability, responsibility. For a company like ours, and our premium level, of course everything is sustainably sourced.

BEN                                             It’s assumed.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Right. Whereas for a lower tier, like that’s been a transition that they’ve had to deal with.

BEN                                             Right, because they’re operating at sometimes maybe razor-thin margins at various points in the supply chain, and they’re trying to figure out how to do this responsibly without jacking their prices up.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. And we’ve all seen in CPG and in food in general, this trend toward wellness. I’ve never tried to position our product as better for you than something else, because for me it is and always will be an indulgence, it’s special, and that’s why we treat it as such.

BEN                                             You’re not recommending three meals a day of chocolate.

MAGGIE LOUISE                No, and we’re not trying to say that it’s full of antioxidants, which it could be, but that’s not why you’re buying it. This buying experience, this gifting experience, is your chance not to think about that. Because everything else you’re enjoying all day you’re thinking: “how many calories are in this?” One a day, one piece, that’s all you need. So, enjoy it, get the best bang for your buck with that.

BEN                                             That’s right. Make it a special moment and not just a throw-away moment.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. Feel free to eat it in your car on the way home from work, that’s your prerogative. But in general, it’s to be shared, savored, enjoyed. And so I see with us, in the industry, there’s no reason why we can’t be the premium, premier boxed chocolate company, that’s meeting the desires, demands, interests of a young, middle, older audience, all the audiences, because of our ability to create what they would enjoy and like. And so that’s what we’ve been driving towards. It takes more than one year, it takes a little bit longer, but the opportunity’s there, the market’s there. It’s a huge market, a multi-billion-dollar market.

BEN                                             People love their chocolate.

MAGGIE LOUISE                They do, and it’s a fascinating product. The way it’s made. There aren’t as many comparable stories. Maybe wine or spirits, Roquefort cheese, but it just has so much depth. And so that’s one reason I love working in it. I learn so much, it’s rich with knowledge.

BEN                                             Right. And it’s a fascinating thing, I think wine is the closest kind of comparable there, where it cuts across cultures and economic strata and all that kind of stuff, and it’s meaningful to people. It’s a thing where, again, you’re celebrating, there’s chocolate. You’re mourning, there’s chocolate. You’re commemorating something there’s chocolate. It kind of comes alongside some of these really formative moments in our lives, and even the little moments, too. And so, it takes on such significance.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yeah. And that’s why it has to be respected and treated well. And that’s why sourcing it correctly, responsibly, in the way that encourages people to want to pay for that. And I think the market has moved towards that.

BEN                                             Yeah, absolutely. So, you’re a CEO and founder and you are building this awesome company, and you’re also a mom and a wife and a friend and a daughter and all the other identity aspects of your life. How have you managed, and we were talking about this a little earlier, that particularly for a lot of women there are challenges around pursuing your passion, and pursuing your passion professionally, and doing it in a way that doesn’t feel – you’re not apologetic about it, but you’re also not compromising in some other areas of your life that are really valuable to you. How have you personally kind of navigated some of those decisions?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yeah, it’s a great question. It’s a never-ending question.

BEN                                             You never figure it out.

MAGGIE LOUISE                No, you don’t. Your kids get older. But I figured out some things, I feel, and other things I have not. I’ve certainly made mistakes, as far as doing all those things at once. One example for me is, so we have an eight-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son, and my son was born well into this business and I did not take maternity leave because I owned a business, and I couldn’t, and I thought that was too valuable.

BEN                                             Right. It felt like a luxury.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yes, it felt like a luxury. So, what that means is three years later I’m still trying to lose the rest of the baby weight. It took forever to recover. I should have just taken that time, gotten it done, and moved on. I thought I put the needs of the business first, but I wasn’t able to give my full self to the business because I wasn’t ready. And that was, looking back, a true mistake on my part and something I would encourage any woman or man welcoming a new child to really think about that. Because I was thinking about the immediacy, and not the six months, the year, the two years, like what is the best long-term for everyone.

BEN                                             Yeah. For you, for your child, and for the business.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. And there’s other things I struggle with. I do travel and I do work a lot of hours, which in some ways has improved over the years because I don’t do those all-nighters in the kitchen as much, but when my family goes on vacation I usually don’t go. And my kids are old enough now, well my daughter is, where she doesn’t like that. When they’re babies, whatever. They don’t know, necessarily.

BEN                                             Just give me a Popsicle and I’m fine.

MAGGIE LOUISE                And I know someone that will disagree that they don’t know, but truly it’s very different than an eight-year-old being upset that you’re not there. So, it’s something that I’ve dealt with, but I’m also showing her what she could do, and I think that’s really important. Instead of teaching I’m just showing. So, there’s all those things that come together, and you make mistakes, but you do the best you can. I think the hardest part, for women especially, is whether they think maybe they don’t deserve to do something they’re passionate about, they won’t to put themselves first.

BEN                                             Okay. They’ve been kind of conditioned to take care of everybody else first.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. But to me, if you have a supportive partner at home and you have a vision for yourself, that’s going to make you better at everything you do. It’s not even putting yourself first.

BEN                                             Right. And that doesn’t even necessarily have to be a business passion, it could be an artistic or creative outlet, or you could be into non-profits or other things along those lines, it’s not necessarily about making money, it’s about being the person you were created to be.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Be authentic.

BEN                                             And fulfilling your calling.

MAGGIE LOUISE                And I think challenging yourself. That’s the main thing. I put myself out there every day with this business, and sometimes it’s really hard. Really, really hard. But without putting myself out there and taking on those challenges and failing and getting back up, I wouldn’t be living my truth, you know? And I think for a lot of people, they feel like they shouldn’t do that, like it’s not the right time. But there’s never a good time, to have kids, there’s never a good time for anything.

BEN                                             That’s right, there will never be a convenient time for most things.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. So, I think that’s where a lot of women, especially, or anyone, that you get tripped up by seeing all your responsibilities and thinking, it would be selfish of me to take on more. And I don’t think that’s true. It may be selfish to not share and give your talent and skill to the world.

BEN                                             Right. And it doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, and it doesn’t mean that you’re not going to mess up or make compromises along the way.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yeah, it’s really tough and I think that anyone who says otherwise is maybe a genius, I don’t know.

BEN                                             Or they’re fooling themselves.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Or they are. Or they’re not being honest, because I’ve never been to ACL, I don’t have as much free time as other people. I don’t really travel on family vacation as much, but I find I enjoy my work, and that I share that when I get home. And where I had a career that I didn’t feel joyful in, that has a negative impact.

BEN                                             Absolutely. You bring that home with you, too.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. So again, big picture, working on the business not in the business, that’s the same thing at home. It’s not about that one meal that day that you’re making. It’s about what am I sharing with my family long-term?

BEN                                             What am I modeling for my kids and all of those considerations. That’s really good stuff. When you talk with maybe a younger or early stage entrepreneur, again, maybe it’s a woman, but it could be from any background, and type of product, what are the strains of advice you find yourself gravitating toward as, let’s say you’re having coffee and they’re saying, “Maggie, how did you do it and what advice do you have for me?” Are there are certain themes that you find you come back to again and again in those kinds of conversations?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yes, there are. Everyone has a different experience. So, when you talk to someone it’s kind of understanding what theirs is and what their strengths are. And I think sharing that it’s tough is really important.

BEN                                             It’s not all glitz and glamor?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yeah, and if you’re starting out a business, or starting out any endeavor and you just read magazines where everyone seems to have gotten there really easily and they’re an overnight success, you’re going to have a warped sense of things. And then you’re going to look at all of your hurdles and think, oh, this is happening because I’m not good.

BEN                                             I did something wrong.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. So, when I hear people say things like, “Oh, it was easy,” It’s not fair because it will make other people think it’s not happening that easy for them because they aren’t worth of it, or they’re not good. And that’s not true.

BEN                                             Yeah. It’s not the whole truth, and I think there’s actually a flip side to that, whereas sometimes, I hear entrepreneurs or successful people tell a story or a version of their story that makes it sound like they’re overcame some adversity when maybe they had a few legs up along the way too. I think, again, just be candid about it and say, “Well, I had a few advantages over here, and some disadvantages over there. And I tried to make lemonade out of lemons somewhere in between.”

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. For example, my husband had an exit, and that was financially rewarding for our family. But this whole career transition for me happened way before that. We as a family decided we would rather have less money and that we would rather be happier. If you looked back and didn’t know that, you might think, well, of course you did this, you didn’t have to worry about paying bills. But that wasn’t part of the calculus then.

BEN                                             Right, right. You actually made that call before you didn’t have to worry about those things.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. So, I don’t even know where I was going with any of it.

BEN                                             Let me say the other thing, too, which is I think that people sometimes, if you have an exit and there’s some resources now available, it’s presumed that everything is all just easy street from that point forward, and again, you’ve also made a strategic and deliberate decision to say, “No, we’re not just going to go sit on a beach somewhere, we’re working just as hard, maybe harder than we ever have, and we’re continuing to invest our time and resources and all that stuff into this next new thing.” And so, you’re not just resting, lying around and resting on your laurels and that sort of thing.

                                                      Again, I think sometimes people have perhaps misconceptions about what that means, because at some point, you have that exit, cool, high five, cheers with the champagne. And now what? You’re still the same person, so what are you going to do now?

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yeah. If you’re used to operating at 60 miles an hour, you don’t just turn that off. My parents always told me growing up that I would need to learn to live with myself, and what that meant was, I’m a striver and I have to embrace it, and I’ll have those days where I’m like, why couldn’t I just chill? And I just can’t. And if that’s how you’re wired, you have to embrace it and tailor it. It doesn’t go away.

                                                      But with people trying out, giving advice, one thing I’ve learned is that optimism can be my best friend and my worst enemy. You have to be so optimistic to do anything big like this. It’s got to work out or why are you scraping chocolate off a floor at 4:00 AM, like why are you doing all this stuff?

BEN                                             If you weren’t optimistic you would never get started.

MAGGIE LOUISE                No. You wouldn’t get started, you wouldn’t say, “Let’s try to get into Neiman Marcus.” You would think, oh, that’s too big.

BEN                                             I can’t do that, yeah.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yeah. So, you’ve got to have that optimism. But then on the downside, you have to temper it with reality. And I went into my business thinking that I could make anything happen if I set my mind to it. I could make it work. And that’s one of our values is make it work. I could solve any problem, not because I’m like some arrogant person but just through sheer force of will. And you can’t.

BEN                                             Right. You’re just not going to quit.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Right. I won’t quit, but like no, that’s really also not how it works. Sometimes you do have adversity that you have to face, and you have to deal with and it’s real.

BEN                                             And sometimes you run into a brick wall and you can bang your head against the brick wall a lot of time, but then you might need to take a moment and say, “Perhaps I’m not going in the right direction.”

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. It’s like understanding that, that optimism has a place. But then you need to put on that other hat that feels really uncomfortable, like who wants to be that lawyer that’s like, here are all the bad things that could happen, but you have to do it even though you don’t want to.

BEN                                             Part of the job.

MAGGIE LOUISE                It matters, and I think that’s kind of a key component for people starting out. Now if they only see the bad things ahead, then I don’t think they will be able to get through.

BEN                                             It’s probably not the right path for them.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Because there’s so much hard stuff, you have to be able to get through it by seeing a light. You’ve got to see that light.

BEN                                             Absolutely, absolutely. And I know for you, since both you and your husband are entrepreneurs, there’s definitely an empathy between the two of you. You both get it, right? And you’ve both been there, and you’ve made your own sacrifices at various points along the way to make sure that the other partner is successful. It’s really helpful because entrepreneurship is so hard, and often so lonely, to have another person in your life like that who gets it.

MAGGIE LOUISE                It is important, but it can also be tough. Kevin and I worked together for a long time, and we created some amazing things together, but ultimately it was really hard on us and our family. Because we had no diversification of stress. We were stressed at the same times, about the same things, and so there wasn’t a support there, necessarily.

BEN                                             Interesting. Yeah, ideally when you’re up and somebody else is down you can kind of meet in the middle, but if you’re both down at the same time that can get really hard.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Yeah. It’s tough. And it’s hard logistically, too, if you’re both crazy at the same time there’s no one to pick up the slack and be like, “You do you, I’ve got this, I can take care of these things at home.” We found that it got tough in that vein. And also, his role, he built everything and so then there was nothing left to build, so he was kind of being under-utilized, and looking for more of a challenge, and we couldn’t afford him anymore. Because we didn’t need a builder, you know?

BEN                                             That’s right, that’s right.

MAGGIE LOUISE                And so that’s also part of growing a business is understanding phases.

BEN                                             The different seasons of the business.

MAGGIE LOUISE                That was a phase where it was all me and him putting 150,000% in together as a team, and we’re at a different phase now where the business needs other things.

BEN                                             As you think about that phase now, I know the nature of your business you’re always looking forward, what are you excited about, or what are you looking forward to when it comes to Maggie Louise Confections right now? When you get out of bed in the morning and you think about your company, what’s next, what’s cool, what’s fun?

MAGGIE LOUISE                We have put a lot of time and effort and energy into building other operations so that we can really successfully make a lot of product. And that is not necessarily the exciting part. What’s exciting is that now that we’ve done that, there’s so much more that we can do.

BEN                                             You finally have the infrastructure in place to seize opportunities.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Exactly. And so, going out and being able to visualize our product in more places, increasing our distribution. We also developed a secondary line this year. We did an Advent calendar so in the theme of taking traditional items and modernizing them, it looks fabulous, it looks cool and fun, but it’s an Advent calendar. 25 pieces of chocolate for 25 days of December.

BEN                                             My kids can never make it through. Like two to three days of an Advent calendar, they’re finishing off the Advent calendar.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Are they finishing it off, or are you finishing it off?

BEN                                             That’s a fair accusation. It’s like, “Here’s one or two. I’ll just go ahead and finish it up.”

MAGGIE LOUISE                Why not, it’s all going to happen anyway.

BEN                                             We’re on a roll.

MAGGIE LOUISE                That product is at a different price point than our hand-painted line, and it’s been amazing to see the reaction and response to it. And so creatively, we are doing something similar, not an Advent, but in a similar vein for Valentine’s. And this whole idea of opening up this entire new market for us that’s just as clever, just as fun and interesting and engaging and delicious, but in more places for more people. Because I’ve always been, again, about this being an accessible luxury, and that is very, very exciting with the operations buttoned down, now we can grow and build, and that creatively gets me very thrilled and excited.

BEN                                             That’s super cool! Well, Maggie Callahan, CEO, founder of Maggie Louise Confections, it’s really been a pleasure to chat with you, and I’ve learned a lot and our listeners have as well. Thank you for joining us today.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Thanks for having me.

BEN                                             Remember everybody, you can download and read transcripts of our episodes online at barcodestartup.com/podcast, and everything that we’re doing here at Barcode Media is really focused on equipping emerging consumer brands with all the knowledge and resources that you need in order to be successful. I think that our conversation today with Maggie is aligned with that because we can see, in someone else’s experience, and translate to our own experience some of the lessons learned along the way, even some of the mistakes and misdirection that somebody else walked in their path. And you can begin to reflect on your own path and kind of translate to your world and say, “Oh, I really gained a lot from that.”

                                                      Maggie has given us a lot of deep insight into not just the chocolate business, that’s pretty interesting even if you’re not in the chocolate business, and not just the customized gifting part of this, which is also interesting. But really this broader approach to pursuing your passion and really kind of digging deep and having a highly integrated life and business across all of these different relationships and domains and where you are today and where you want to be in the future. Again, thank you Maggie and it’s been a lot of fun.

MAGGIE LOUISE                Absolutely.

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