Jodie Neilson was sitting on a rooftop in France, sipping wine and enjoying a chocolat, when she had an epiphany.
“I had spent the past month eating so much chocolate and confectionery in France, and I realised elegant, grown-up confectionery didn’t really exist in Australia,” the founder and director of New Farm Confectionery recalls.
“I also really wanted to give working for myself a go, so I hit the ground running when I came back to Brisbane.”
In 2013 the trained chef began handcrafting her own confectionery in the family kitchen, selling chocolates from a tabletop at local markets. The business has since grown into a bricks-and-mortar shop and warehouse in Newstead, with 29 staff. Jodie now sells her confectionery to retail, wholesale and online customers, and licenses the products and creates corporate gifts.
What is your role in the business?
As a director [Jodie’s husband is the other company director], I’m on board every day - for more hours than I probably should be! On any given day, I could be making chocolate and confectionery, strategically planning where the business is going, talking to wholesale or online customers, or troubleshooting anything that comes our way. Right now, I’m busy setting up our eBay online store.
What is your professional background?
Before I turned 30, I was a personal assistant and part-time bookkeeper in the corporate world. I did a chef apprenticeship at 30 and worked in some great restaurants. I also did some event planning at the same time and started a catering company.
Looking back, it all led to what I’m doing now. I’ve had many different hats in my life, and they’ve all culminated in helping to run this business. If I had become a chef straight out of school, I definitely wouldn’t have had the skills to run a business.
Had you run your own business before?
I ran a catering company called Cocina Kitchen before I had my daughter. The company was a meal service similar to Hello Fresh, where I delivered all the ingredients people needed for their meals. I had 50 customers who ordered through my website, but then I fell pregnant, so my focus changed.
How did you raise capital to finance your venture?
We self-financed for the first four years. In the beginning, the business was all about doing things by hand — I literally started in my kitchen at home, using my own pots and pans. Then we bought a table and tablecloth to go to the markets. When the business started making enough money to buy the equipment we needed, the business began to finance itself. My husband and I financed the opening of our first shop in New Farm, and we have recently reached out for more investment.
What value do you place in business plans?
For the first four years, I never had a business plan. I was just making things up as I went along, but it reached the point where I needed a plan.
My husband and I sat down and wrote a business plan which really firmed up in our minds what we wanted to do and what we had achieved so far. The plan was great, as it allowed us to start applying for grants, but the moment we finished the plan, it was out of date because we already had new ideas and things had changed.
Putting a plan in place was very important because it was useful to have that kind of guide, though.
Where is your business located and why?
Our flagship store and warehouse are on Waterloo Street in Newstead. We were previously in New Farm — I’m a New Farm local — but we outgrew that space.
We also have pop-up stores. We currently have one in Indooroopilly, and we have regular pop-ups in Chermside and Carindale. We will open a store in Brisbane Airport in November 2019.
What are some unexpected benefits of owning a small business?
The community support has been amazing. I didn’t realise I would be in so much contact with the community — our repeat customers love our products and come back all the time.
We also have great support from the business community, particularly the local businesses that buy our products wholesale.
What is the biggest challenge in running this type of business?
I think, with every business, it’s about remaining relevant and making sure what we’re putting out is what customers want. I also think it’s important we conduct our business with integrity and stay true to the New Farm Confectionery brand — not make products because we think they are “Instagrammable”.
How do you market your business?
For the first five years, our marketing was all organic, just word of mouth and opening pop-ups at shopping centres. During that time, we did not spend a cent on marketing, and that meant we missed out on opportunities.
We’re rectifying that now and recently hired a small marketing team. Our online sales have grown ridiculous amounts in the small amount of time our marketing team has been working for us. We have such potential to grow now that we know how much marketing we can do, and I’m so excited to see what can happen.
What has been the best financial investment you’ve made in your business?
Apart from investing significantly in marketing, we’ve also purchased new equipment that allows us to keep up with new trends and demand. However, the most significant investment has probably been relocating from a very small shop front and kitchen in New Farm to our Newstead shop and warehouse where we can mass produce.
How do you stay up to date with the latest business information?
I eat a lot of chocolate and look at what everyone else creates to make sure we’re staying up to date with what consumers want. I think it’s important that we keep up with the latest fashions but not be too fashionable. I scroll through lots of websites for inspiration and sample local chocolate whenever I travel. I also train a lot to keep up with the latest skills, and make sure I stay connected with my mentors. I also attend events such as Brisbane Innovate to keep up to date with other local businesses.
How do you manage risk?
The two types of risk we focus on are our strategic risks and our operational risks.
We try to mitigate our strategic risks by making sure we understand what our customers want. We continually question ourselves about whether how we do things is working for our customers or not to make sure our strategy is going the right way.
On the operational side of things, we always think about more efficient ways to operate the business and keep on top of our food safety and handling obligations.
Who do you seek advice from for your business?
I usually seek advice from my key business mentors and take advantage of business mentoring programs.
Discussing issues with other local small businesses is also helpful because they have similar issues and you can help each other grow.
What three things should someone consider before starting a business?
The first thing you should ask is “Do I have the time?”. New Farm Confectionery completely takes up all my time.
Secondly, “Am I passionate, dedicated and committed to this?” If you’re not all three of these things, there’s no point.
Lastly, “Is there a need for what I want to do?”
Where do you see your business in five years’ time?
I want to be selling wholesale internationally. I also want to be in a larger wholesale production facility with more equipment. We need to be able to innovate and work on the efficiency of our packaging — this is one thing we are really struggling with and are working on.
What is the greatest lesson you have learned in business?
I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but the greatest lesson I’ve learned is “work on your business, not in your business”. I still haven’t learned that lesson completely, because I still struggle to work on the business rather than working in it. I have even set up a home office to take myself away from the shop, so I don’t get distracted making chocolates.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
I would have asked for help earlier by reaching out to business mentoring programs or other small businesses. I also would have focussed more on marketing. I should have created a customer database and marketed directly to them six years ago instead of six months ago. We’re scrambling to do that now, so my advice to others would be to get that happening very early.