Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price was in for a treat when she met up with the founders of Noteworthy Chocolates.
Michael Sauvageau, Chief Executive Officer and Jennifer Sauvageau, Chief Creative Officer had owned an entertainment company prior to launching Noteworthy Chocolates. They gained a lot from that experience and shared some lessons learned, why they connected with Connecticut startup resources, and how they’re moving forward with their new business venture.
NAN PRICE: Laser engraving is very innovative. Your feature on Better Connecticut notes you’re the only ones who are doing it.
JENNIFER SAUVAGEAU: That’s true.
NAN: How did you come up with the idea? And when did you launch the company?
MICHAEL SAUVAGEAU: We spent three months researching it and trying it before we actually started in February 2016.
NAN: You started out at the Danbury Hackerspace. Can you talk a little about that experience?
JENNIFER: Sure. We were looking to start our next business. Since we had some experience with entertainment and events, Michael went to an expo to get some ideas. He didn’t find anything—except he noticed everyone gave away chocolate. At the same time, we were interested in lasers. It just came together. He returned home from the expo and said: I have this crazy idea. Do you think we could laser engrave chocolate? I remember saying: I don’t know, but it sounds cool!
At that time, the Danbury Hackerspace had just recently gotten a laser ago. So, we bought some chocolate bars, went over, and asked if we could use their laser to engrave chocolate. They said, “Sure!”
That’s how it all began. The Danbury Hackerspace was wonderful. We couldn’t have done it without them.
MICHAEL: Not only did they help us learn how to use the laser, they also helped us develop the business. Because it’s a hackerspace but it’s also a business incubator for local entrepreneurs. They’re really trying to help get startups get going. We were one of the first people to show that as a successful model for them.
JENNIFER: They definitely got a lot of chocolate!
MICHAEL: Right! For the first three months, legally we couldn’t sell any chocolate we were making because we weren’t FDA approved—but we could give it away. Also, there were a lot of mistakes, as we are learning.
NAN: It’s great that you knew connect with that startup resource. Did you work with any others?
JENNIFER: Yes, we worked with Nelson Merchan at the Connecticut Small Business Development Center (CTSBDC), who is a great business advisor. He’s been very helpful. And we recently got funding through the Community Economic Development Fund (CEDF).
JENNIFER: We got an email from them telling us we may be interested in the program. I remember thinking: This sounds like exactly what we need right about now. We had figured out the business concept, we had our processes in place, and we had the business running, but we needed to take that next step. We needed some business advice and we needed to learn some very specific things—that’s what reSET does.
NAN: What have you gained the most from the program?
MICHAEL: The ability to convey our story. If nothing else, we can now legitimately talk about our business and use the things we learned about how to tell our story—why do we have such a cool thing.
Also, we learned about getting data. We now have this whole iterative process of data analysis. Having been entrepreneurial but not gone to business school, there are a lot of things you sort of innately understand, but the learning part enables you to really dial in. It’s very concrete.
JENNIFER: We learned some tools you can place in an actual framework. Going from, “This is what I thought” to “Does it fit with how people do things?” We could recognize we were on the right track—and then learn new things.
NAN: Aside from funding, what has been your biggest startup challenge?
MICHAEL: It’s hard to get people to act. Even if you have a great idea, it can still be hard to get people to put you at the top of their mind, make a decision, and act on that.
JENNIFER: Especially for a new thing. Because there is nowhere else you can get custom engraved chocolate. It takes a while for people to incorporate the idea into one of the possibilities to consider. That actually ties back into what we learned at reSET, which is how to tell our story better, depending on what audience you’re talking to.
NAN: How are you marketing and getting the messaging out?
JENNIFER: We started funding with a Kickstarter campaign and had an awesome core community of people who helped us succeed with that. We also grew a pretty good Facebook following. Michael does a lot of networking because we really have a marketing budget of…
JENNIFER: Word-of-mouth has been great because we’ve been able to see how people experience the chocolate and we’ve been able to adjust along the way. And, now that we’ve felt these things out and figured out what people respond to, we can go to the next step, which is to start doing some digital marketing and building our mailing list.
NAN: What resources do you need most to move the company forward?
MICHAEL: We need better marketing materials, things to physically give people or digitally show them what we do. We also need to get our internal processes down for our custom orders.
JENNIFER: There are some infrastructure things, too. We need to hire some people. So, for that we need some funds.
NAN: What’s the best startup advice you’ve given or received?
MICHAEL: The advice I would offer is to learn to look at things sideways. Because you don’t get a good view of things if you’re looking from any one direction. You have to look at things from different angles and perspectives. You get a better picture of what the problem is, and it allows you to be more creative solution provider.
JENNIFER: I would say just start. Don’t try for perfect. Just do what you can when you can. Keep learning along the way and building on what you learn.
MICHAEL: As for advice received: Focus on what you do best and what makes you or your company special. Really identify what that is and nail that first. That’s the most important thing you can do. Everything else kind of follows from that.
NAN: Let’s talk about your partnership. You had a prior business, so you must work well together.
JENNIFER: We fit well together. I do all the writing, visuals, and website stuff and Michael does the numbers and finance and he makes the chocolate. I don’t worry about what he’s doing and he doesn’t worry about what I’m doing, because we’re both doing what we should be doing. I’m not trying to do what he’s good at and vice versa.
MICHAEL: Also, we recognize that the other person is in charge of their area. So, when we don’t agree on things, that person has the final say, whether the other person agrees or not. We’re not always going to be on same page, so I have to accept that, okay, this is her decision. I have to go with it and then be supportive of it because that’s the decision the company is taking. That can be humbling and challenging when you’re in a partnership with someone—let alone when you are married to someone.
We do particularly well because we are really good communicators. We can talk about things we don’t agree on without taking it personally.
JENNIFER: I agree!
NAN: Anything you’ve learned along the way in this venture? Any major pivots?
MICHAEL: I think when you’re starting something new you must be adaptable to what you think is going to happen and the reality of what happens. You can’t just think: If you build it they will come.
JENNIFER: I don’t think that happens.
MICHAEL: No. We originally thought people were going to flock to us to send chocolate birthday cards once they had the ability—the reason they weren’t doing it before was because they didn’t have the ability. Well, we were offering that ability and they’re weren’t flocking. So, if that’s not the case, what is working? We found it’s our favor line—people asked us for them. We didn’t even have favors when we launched. But that’s a huge part of our business now.
We had to recognize that people don’t necessarily care about making birthday cards as much as we thought they would. But we do a lot of Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day cards. We started paying attention to these things. We found enough brides who really like what we’re doing for wedding favors. And we realized what an appeal we have to other business owners, because we can provide a really good targeted gift that’s not too expensive and you don’t need to order a ton.
NAN: And it’s not a gadget!
JENNIFER: Right! That’s another thing that’s good about what we’re doing. It’s not just another thing that’s going to end up in a landfill or a drawer. The quality and sustainability have been a driving core value for us. The packaging for our gift boxes is 99% biodegradable. The gourmet chocolate is made by Guittard. It’s fair trade certified and allergen-free. We love chocolate and we want everyone to be able to enjoy it as much as we do.