Saturday, February 20, 2016

An Awfully Chocolate Success Story & A Dream Come True

Here’s a story that will warm the cockles of your chocolate-loving heart and have you lunging for that bar you were saving for the moment when everybody else has gone to bed so you wouldn’t have to share it.

Lyn Lee was a lawyer living in Singapore in the late 1990s, stuck in a 9-5 treadmill of a job that brought a salary in and kept her safe in many ways but didn’t suit her temperament or her lust for life. Cue in a big percentage of the human race here, lawyer or not “Hey, that’s just like me.” And don’t forget all the people who slave at jobs that don’t pay enough to keep them safe, who are also caught in the same dilemma. And who don’t know how to get out of it. From personal experience I know that when you feel trapped it’s easy to believe that if you can’t do something to immediately change your circumstances you might as well do nothing at all.

Here’s where Lyn and a group of like-minded friends did something different. They got together regularly to bounce ideas around of something else they could do with their lives. They didn’t come up with anything but they didn’t stop. So what was the point? The point was, they left the door open.

At the same time this was going on, Lyn was kind of obsessed with finding a dark chocolate cake that had no synthetic flavor and that she could consume without feeling sick afterwards. She trawled Singapore looking for one with no success. She couldn’t believe it. Such a cosmopolitan city and not one single perfect dark chocolate cake?

Hey, why not make one and sell it! It was just a joke at first. When you hear people talk these days about going into business, it’s all about business plans and market research and facts and figures—dry, dead serious. Dead boring. Lyn wasn’t interested in any of that. She and her friends started playing around with recipes, making cake after cake—and eating it! They weren’t even really that serious. From successful but disgruntled lawyer to baker and purveyor of one type of chocolate cake? Ridiculous!

But they kept at it, and messed around in the kitchen for a year, making up recipes. Nothing too scientific, just having fun. Eventually they got it right. The dark chocolate cake that sent them to heaven and didn’t make them feel sick afterwards.

It was still a dumb idea. How can you open a cake shop with only one cake? What if nobody wants it and you’ve got nothing else to offer them? There was nothing sensible about the idea.

Lyn did it anyway. Full of enthusiasm and determination—and  passion for her perfect cake—she opened a shop in 1998 and called it Awfully Chocolate. Her family supported her but nobody expected her to succeed. Yeah, we all know that kind of support. Setting up shop in Singapore was hard; rents were high, competition fierce, businesses came and went at an alarming rate. Lyn was told she was na├»ve, that she couldn’t just sell what she wanted, it would never work. She had to figure out what other people wanted because that’s what business is about.

Yada yada. Her whole approach was un-businesslike. Everybody believed she was doomed to failure. Three months max they gave her.

They were wrong. For a start Lyn didn’t have any competition at all! And it seems she hadn’t been the only one looking for that perfect dark chocolate cake. Within three months business was booming. And that first shop was just a very unglamorous box. Lyn didn’t advertise, either. In 2004 she opened her second shop. Awfully Chocolate is still thriving and now has franchises in Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing, Gangzhou, Hangzhou, Nantong and Wuhan. With two products. Chocolate cake and Chocolate ice-cream.

It also has two offshoots now: Nine Thirty by Awfully Chocolate, a restaurant and dessert bar, and Everything With Fries, a cafe.

Lyn Lee broke all the rules, not out of mindless rebellion or stubbornness, but because they didn’t appeal to her and they didn’t make sense. She had a decent career but she needed something more in her life and she listened to her heart. She took it seriously enough to get together with friends and talk about it. Then she had fun with an idea.

Then she did the difficult thing. She flew in the face of everybody’s sensible opinions, established wisdom and well-documented tenets of how to establish a new business. Yet Awfully Chocolate succeeded where high profile, heavily funded shops with sophisticated marketing sometimes fail. Encouraging stuff. But perhaps the most inspiring part of all of this for me is that money and greed were never Lyn’s primary focus and they still aren’t.

“Our philosophy is simple & unique. The focus is not variety but quality. Our product line is deliberately limited—even today. We don't advertise (if we have to pay to say we're good, we're not that good). And we don't hard sell. We let you discover Awfully Chocolate your own way.”