Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in food and beverage but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Mike Pollard, Founder of Honokaa Chocolate, Co., located in Honokaa, HI, USA.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
Honokaa Chocolate Company creates internationally award-winning, fine chocolate using the highest quality ingredients from Hawai’i and other organic, fair-trade farmers around the world for individual, retail, and corporate customers. “Fine chocolate” represents less than 5% of the total chocolate market and is defined by unique, complex flavors, smooth and creamy texture, limited processing, few ingredients, high cocoa and low sugar content, and a commitment to farmers and ethical sourcing practices.
Tell us about yourself
The reason Honokaa Chocolate Company has won 26 international awards in three years is that I approach the art of chocolate making as the scientist I was trained to be. Before we sold our first bar, I filled a stack of scientific notebooks with experiments and data on the chocolate I made. I continue this practice today with every new HCC bar. By the time a customer tastes one of our bars, it has reams of data guaranteeing its excellence.
I learned this meticulous, scientific approach to problem-solving and innovation in college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where I studied science and engineering. I worked in the aerospace and defense industries for twenty years before moving to Hawai’i Island and working for the W. M. Keck Observatory. The move to Hawai’i not only allowed my wife Rhonda and me to enjoy living in paradise, but it also allowed me to get back to my roots as a farmer. We purchased our five-acre farm in 2013, and Rhonda soon after brought home our first cacao pod from a series of cacao and chocolate-making seminars she attended at the Big Island Chocolate Festival.
That pod was the start of my fascination with cacao, fine chocolate, and my experiments in chocolate making. In 2017, we started Honoka’a Chocolate Company, and I became a full-time grower and chocolate maker. Our goals have always been to create award-winning fine chocolate, to build a local business that honors our Hawaiian locale, to support small, organic farmers, and to be a positive force in our community. Pursuing these goals and working with the great people who have become part of Honoka’a Chocolate Company motivates and brings me joy every day.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
Our biggest accomplishment is building a business that reflects the four goals we initially identified: a business that produces award-winning products that honor Hawaii supports small, organic farmers, and contributes to our local community. Every day an entrepreneur is faced with a trade-off decision: The price of cacao is going up. Should we buy from farms with less ethical farming practices? Labor in Hawaii is expensive. Should we move production to a less expensive place?
Being clear on our entire vision and staying committed to our goals has been the most satisfying part of the business. It turns out that this strategy has also produced the best products and made us one of the most award-winning Hawaii chocolate makers in a very short time from competitions that include the Chocolate Alliance Awards, the International Chocolate Awards, the Academy of Chocolate, and the Good Food Awards.
What's one of the hardest things that come with being a business owner?
One of the most valuable lessons that I've learned as a small business owner is that I cannot do everything myself. Success is measured by revenue, and meeting the four goals we defined for the company requires many people with big brains and good hands. Building a good team is paramount to success. I began by asking three friends who are all experts in different areas of business, including legal, marketing, and sales, to work with me as an “executive team” to develop and help implement high-level strategies in exchange for free chocolate and a small ownership stake in the company.
We then asked a handful of close associates to become investors to provide us with the capital to expand from a one-person company to a strong small business. I have now added employees to the production facility and the retail shop. Each employee that is added is chosen not only because they love chocolate and are skilled in a specific job but also because they fully support our overall company goals.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
- Understand what your distinctive competitive advantage is: What can you do in your chosen industry that would be difficult for your competition to replicate? For Honoka’a Chocolate Company, ours is a great product backed up by extensive research and development. Few chocolate makers go to the lengths we do to ensure we are producing the highest quality and most unique fine chocolate. The awards we won have proven this. As an example, our most award-winning bar is our Goat Milk Chocolate bar. It took me three years to develop this product to where I felt it was good enough to be an HCC bar. Another example is our alcohol-infused bars. Many chocolate companies sell bars flavored with alcohol. We are different in that we soak our cacao nibs in barrels filled with different high-quality spirits, such as bourbon, rum, and grappa, for at least three months. This produces a bar that has unique, exquisite, and complex flavors, which is exactly what fine chocolate should have. This process also took me years and a small stack of scientific notebooks filled with data to perfect.
- Develop annual and 5-year strategic plans and use them. Even before you begin making a product, talking to your first customer, or hiring any employees, have these documents completed and reality checked by friends who have a business, finance, and legal experience. Business plans are like war plans, “The first casualty of any plan of attack is the plan.” The same is true for business plans. But that initial plan is still useful. It gives you a baseline from which you can make and measure changes. It provides you the discipline to track your changes and to make thoughtful decisions based on the plan.
- Build a great team. Employees are the engine of your business. They are also the costliest part of your operation. Therefore, you want to hire well and do all you can to retain good employees. Establish clear processes that will allow you to hire carefully, train for success, empower for innovation, and reward generously.
Where can people find you and your business?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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