Ethique is not my first business...
I learnt an awful lot from Tub, (mostly what not to do), but it taught me a lot about building a brand and a product people love.
Today is international chocolate day! (Okay, it was a few days ago, but never mind.)
I thought about writing about how the cocoa industry is murky and filled with forced labour, child trafficking and deforestation. But I wrote about that last year. If you are interested, you can find it here.
Instead, I am going to talk about my second ever ‘real’ business, Tub.
Tub was a confectionary company, born in 2011 in Christchurch, whilst I was at University and still trying to avoid having to work for someone else.
I was the self-proclaimed dessert queen. I liked cooking, but found the savory stuff boring, so I enjoyed the more creative aspects of conjuring up new cheesecakes, or mousses or dipping stuff in chocolate and laying it out on a board to look pretty.
The story goes that I was late for a dinner party one night (pretty standard) and I hadn’t had time to make anything. So, I headed to a supermarket to see if I could grab something I could put a spin on for a delicious but quick dessert.
I found an instant mousse which, when made up, tasted just a mouthful short of what I imagined molten plastic would taste like. Embarrassing to say the least.
I wanted to create something better.
I wanted it to be both a finished product as well as something you could use for lots of applications like drizzle over ice cream, or a spread. I wanted it to be stable, so it didn’t need refrigerating or preserving. I wanted something creative and outrageous, so people could have fun with it.
So, Tub was born.
Like most things, it took a long time to get the recipe right. Following recipes is not my forte, so I made things up on the fly as I went along and learned a bit of culinary chemistry. There was a lot of mess and taste testing did eventually become more of a chore than you might imagine.
But eventually, I came up with a deliciously creamy, spoonable fudge recipe as a base for the all the creations that would come next. (To this day, I remember the recipe off hand.)
Almost 50% chocolate with the remainder sugar, cream and butter. How could that not be delicious?!
Brainstorming name ideas with my family ended well, with my Dad coming up with the simple moniker, ‘Tub’ so the next step was a logo, branding, a website and a suite of flavours.
This was my favourite bit. I love the creative aspect to a business. I loved concocting lavish flavours and putting equally creative names alongside them.
Flavours like Peanutta (chocolate, peanuts and a caramel swirl), Limon (white chocolate & lemon), Frusion (berries and mascarpone) and Mintasy (Ethique fans might recognize the name for the mint-chocolate crowd favourite.)
The other aspect I was wedded to, was a compostable packaging line (surprise!) I spent a lot of time working with a local packaging supplier who shared an interest in environmentally friendly packaging and looked into lots of options for me. Eventually we landed on the below. As we were soooo tiny, we couldn’t afford the minimums to have it custom printed, so we had to stay with a leaf design, but it looked okay.
Manufacturing was the next challenge to tackle, as of course to manufacture food in NZ I needed a certified commercial kitchen (and frankly my flat kitchen was not a candidate for certification.) This continued to be a challenge throughout Tub’s existence actually, as we moved from kitchen to kitchen, trying to work around other manufacturers as we had to hire facilities by the hour.
My Mum and I would spend hours and hours in a stifling hot kitchen every day, boiling large batches of fudge, turning them out on slabs of marble, working them into the thick and creamy texture, before potting them and starting on the next batch. My mum is incredibly hard working and tough, yet neither of us remember those times fondly.
So, with the help of both of my parents, Tub officially debuted online and in local markets.
I despise working markets, mainly because it is an early morning thing, and I am the furthest from a morning person you can get. But it was a great way to get started because it is instantaneous customer feedback, new ideas for flavours and of course, cash.
Tub was my first foray really into social media marketing and building word of mouth online. Learning about websites, the basics of SEO and how to bring traffic to it. Social media was a completely different place then with far fewer businesses using it and nowhere near the level of ads as now. Relationships with customers was more conversational, less ‘buy my stuff’ than Facebook is now.
And really, we grew from there. Eventually I started working alongside a good friend, who put in place processes and financial management plans, which made a difference to how we worked. Understanding how we could forecast demand and therefore what we needed, working with suppliers to negotiate wholesale pricing (we literally bought everything at retail price for a good few months) and stretching every dollar helped.
But we struggled with so many things. Nowhere near enough cashflow, far too much demand, not enough hours available for hire in a commercial kitchen and not enough people to help. The successes were there; we had ten thousand dollar days, we launched in several supermarkets and we had some great retailers around the country.
But in the end, it was too hard. I didn’t have the money that it needed to keep up, so I sold it to a wonderful couple who had the passion for it that I had lost.
And money and struggles aside, the reason I lost interest and didn’t fight harder for it, was because there wasn’t a purpose behind Tub, beyond selling spoonable fudge.
I have become so bored of so many things (so very quickly), because they didn’t fufill my passion for protecting the environment and creating a more equitable world for everyone. Ethique does that in spades.
I learnt an awful lot from Tub, (mostly what not to do), but it taught me a lot about building a brand and a product people love. It also taught me what is important to me, and when to say enough is enough.
I learnt that people love feeling involved, like they are part of a club, so competitions to invent new flavours and asking people what they wanted worked incredibly well to build relationships. Having such a close contact with my customers was enormously important.
I learnt how important newness was; new flavours, new colours, new names — whatever it was, new was exciting.
I learnt how useful loyalty systems with tiers and subscriptions were — before the enormous amount of research that exists behind them now was readily available.
I learnt the power of language and how it can be used evocatively, to bring out emotion and need in people.
I learnt that people want a face behind a brand, and that people love to buy from people, not faceless corporations.
All of this has served me well in building Ethique alongside my team.
I had forgotten about all of this until I stumbled on my old WordPress site, with all the blogs, the recipes, the random notes and a few photos. It was such a cool stroll down memory lane.
A final note to all starting a business; take photos! You forget the struggles, the big moments, the old packaging, the new office in the excitement of growth. I really wish I had more photos of the early days of all my businesses, but of course, smart phones were not commonplace back then so taking photos as incessantly as we do now was just not a thing we did.