Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in artisan treats but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Ellen Daehnick, founder of Helliemae's Caramels, located in Denver, CO.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
Helliemae's Caramels are artisan treats with a retro flair - they taste like your childhood, even if you've never tried them before. We make every batch with the best ingredients, in small amounts by hand, so that every caramel is as close to perfect as it can be.
Then we wrap our treats on vintage equipment - it's cranky, it's French, it's 70 years old - and package each box and bag by hand, finishing with colorful labels and hangtags inspired by WWII-era milk paint on a barn wall. We think that if Helliemae were a person, she'd be Rosie the Riveter's best friend - a sassy mid-century dame who can work a shift at the munitions factory and then come home and can produce from her Victory Garden. Our customers love the flavor, the artistry and just the whole energy of Helliemae's.
Whether as a treat for themselves or as a gift for family, friends, customers - even business prospects - they love sharing our caramels so that other people can experience them.
Tell us about yourself
I started Helliemae's Caramels when I couldn't find caramels I craved. Salted caramel was everywhere all of a sudden, but not the caramel of dreams: complex and creamy. I made my own, and what began as a hobby grew into a business. While I was motivated to start Helliemae's because of the product, the aspects I love the most aren't culinary, and they could be found in many types of businesses. First, I love recruiting and developing a great team. Whether temporary or permanent, part time or full time, employees at Helliemae's leave with more skills than they arrived with.
Second, I enjoy the operational challenges that come with small manufacturing. How can we make our processes better and tighter, while still preserving the artisan, handcrafted approach that we take to everything we do? Every day gives a chance to tackle that and improve a little bit a time. And finally, I get so much satisfaction from helping and coaching newer food businesses, especially on how to use pricing and costing to set their businesses up for profitable growth from the start.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
At Helliemae's Caramels, I'm proudest of the employees we have developed and then turned loose to make their marks in the world. Every employee at Helliemae's gets a 30 day review with concrete feedback, including development needs. For many workers here, that's the first real performance review they've ever received. Everyone who works here acquires skills in manufacturing, of course, but many of them also want to further their careers.
We've had employees who wanted to go from nannying to working in tech, from tech to working in sales, new grads entering marketing and communications, and more. For each of them, I've worked with them to improve their resumes, access networks, and where possible, to get concrete wins on the board during their time here, so that they are even more valuable than before. This development requires a good deal of time and attention from me, and it is worth it. I'm so proud.
What's one of the hardest things that come with being a business owner?
The hardest thing about owning a small manufacturing business is making sure everything is moving forward all the time, and not allow myself to get sidetracked or bogged down in details. The way I address that is to have processes in place and documented - I don't mean in a big binder, we use mostly Loom videos - so that when I hand off a task, the employee I had it to can do an excellent job and has the tools to move forward.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
My top three tips for anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today are:
1. Keep your options open. You may start as a freelancer or solopreneur, but you don't know that you always want to be on your own. Every time you make a decision early on, don't just think about the immediate effect - also consider whether your decision will allow you more or less latitude in the future to hire employees, outsource, or go after new markets.
2. Trust but verify. (To borrow a phrase from President Reagan.) Everyone will tell you: figure out what you're not good at and outsource it. Yes, that's good advice, but it's incomplete. The important second part: get enough knowledge to check the work of the people you outsource to, and then set up a cadence of review. Don't put yourself in a position of handing off, say, bookkeeping, and then just hoping it's done right because you hate it and are intimidated by it. Learn enough to check your financial statements and then review them, regularly.
3. Accept that regulatory compliance is just part of doing business. I know a lot of food makers who complain about the health department, the sales tax rules, etc - yes, they are time consuming to comply with, the guidance is often unclear, and the penalties for doing it wrong can be scary, but we are all subject to the regulations. Assess risk, figure out how much you can do and what experts you can access, and then do the best you can.
Anything else you'd like to share?
For folks who run or want to start maker businesses, like food, jewelry or other handmade items, I am launching a consulting business called Makernomics. I teach makers how to understand their true costs and set their prices so that they are set up for profitable growth, with lots of options for the future. Get in touch and I'll get you on the calendar.
Where can people find you and your business?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solopreneur that you'd like to share, then email email@example.com; we'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
Feel inspired to start, run or grow your own subscription business? Check out subkit.com and learn how you can turn "one day" into day one.