The story I’m about to tell you should be taken as a cautionary tale. When you start a business, you need to think it through, and imagine what you would do if you suddenly became as ridiculously successful as you claim you want to be.
About a decade ago, I was running my online vegan parenting magazine, Vegfamily.com. For the most part, I was just running a magazine, a source of information and connection for the vegan parenting community. But one day, in an effort to increase revenue, I decided to start selling products of interest to my readers. At the time I had 300,000 unique visitors per month coming to the site. A nice big audience.
I happened upon a woman who was making vegan chocolates. This was before the big companies were making vegan chocolates. This woman, whose name escapes me now so let’s call her Barbara, was making peanut butter bon bons. These were like Reeses Peanut Butter cups, but totally vegan.
Barbara had just started her company, so she sent me some chocolates to sample so that I could write a review of her chocolates. She had a basic website up, but no traffic. When I received the chocolates, they were in a box and each one was wrapped individually in foil, but they would slosh around in the box because she didn’t have anything to use as separators. Didn’t really matter, as they were individually wrapped.
I tasted one. Oh. My. God. Best vegan chocolates on the planet. They were like little nuggets of heaven. Peanut butter centers enrobed in sweet milky vegan chocolate. I don’t know how she did it, but boy did she do it!
I contacted her and told her not only would I write a positive review of her chocolates, but that I wanted to sell them to my audience. She was elated!
We discussed price. She wanted $5 per box, and I think there were 20 pieces in a box. Very reasonable wholesale amount. I had planned to sell them for $10 per box.
She sent me a dozen boxes to get me started. I wrote a review, put up a sales page for the chocolates, and within minutes of announcing them, I had orders for 30 boxes. Wow. Okay.
Barbara was beyond happy and sent me more boxes. By the time those boxes got to me, I had pre-sold them all, and there were more orders coming in every day.
I raised the price of the chocolates to $20 a box and still the orders kept coming in. People who had already received their boxes were raving about the chocolates and coming back to place another order. Some people were ordering 5 boxes at a time to give out as gifts.
Barbara was excited, but it was taking her a long time to get the boxes to me because she was making the chocolates in small batches by hand. She told me she was spending all day making chocolate.
The orders continued to come in. They were selling so fast that we had a waiting list for the chocolates going. I eventually raised the price to $30 per box and they STILL sold like hotcakes.
I worked with Barbara to find other ways of packaging them. People wanted more than 20 in a box, so she got a bigger box and put 40 chocolates in them.
Barbara never asked me for more money. She determined that her time and ingredients were worth $5 per box. But I told her she was selling herself short and started paying her $10 per box. She had a hard time accepting that much money.
That’s when I knew we were headed for trouble. She couldn’t understand the value of her chocolates or her time.
Valentine’s Day was rolling around, and we had created a nice little Valentine box shaped like a heart and filled with these delicious bon bons. People reserved their boxes a month in advance because they wanted to be sure they got one.
Barbara worked day and night to make enough chocolates. I suggested she hire an assistant but she said she didn’t want to become an employer. We had orders for more than 100 boxes of Valentine chocolates. That was on top of the regular orders which were still coming in.
We barely got our Valentine orders out the door. That’s when Barbara emailed me and said, “Erin, I can’t do this anymore. I’m done. It’s too much. I’m shutting down the company.”
“Nooooo!” I wrote back. “Nooooo! You can’t. These are the best vegan chocolates on the planet. You’ve got a successful thriving business here, Barbara. You just need some help.”
She replied, “No, Erin, I just can’t do it anymore. I don’t want to be a big business. I don’t know how to run a big business. I don’t know how to manufacture or hire help or anything like that. I just want it to be over.”
I tried to convince her to sell her recipe to someone. We had enough evidence of success that I was sure someone else would have loved to run with it. But Barbara declined that too.
Making the announcement on my website that the Vegan Peanut Butter Bon Bons were no more was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. People were devastated. The era of the bon bons was over. People had to go back to dipping their bitter dark chocolate bars in natural peanut butter to get their fix. It was a sad time for the vegan community.
It taught us all a big lesson though. Barbara had never considered what she would do if her business became a huge success. If she had thought it through, she might have realized that success would mean more orders and the need to hire help. If she didn’t want to be a business owner, she probably shouldn’t have started this particular business. The scale of it could only create more work and burden on her.
Think about YOUR business. If it suddenly exploded with 10 or 100 times the volume you have now, would you be ready for that level of success? Do you have a plan in place to handle an increase in sales or business? Do you know what you would do if Oprah suddenly plugged your business and tons of people wanted what you’re offering?
Just give it some thought.
I doubt Barbara ever made a piece of chocolate again. I think she was extremely traumatized by the experience. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to do more for her, but I didn’t know how to help her at the time.
Eventually other vegan chocolate companies came to market with fantastic products they manufacture en masse. But none of us who had them will ever forget those pioneering vegan peanut butter bon bons and the frenzy with which we had to have them.