Mentoring a Vegan Chocolate Startup


A million breakdowns, a BIG event and an online store launch. The story of a (an eventually successful) Vegan Chocolate startup.
I’ve been working with Manuela in a coaching role for six months. Up until a few weeks ago we’d never actually met in person. Initially we’d met in a customer/supplier role. The company needed help in setting up Asana, I was delighted to help. Somehow, it all changed. Now I’m doing something entirely different.


At some point along the way I happened to mention that I mentor startups. That’s when things started to change. Along the way Dulceria changed name, lost a business partner, completely rebranded and launched a whole new range of products. Not to mention business grants, lawyers and whole string of issues that typically affect startups. Manuela had them all. There were tears, understandably. I was the shoulder to cry on. I used to say “OK, that’s fine, lets just have all the issues early on, so we can get them out of the way”. Then we can concentrate on a successful business with them all behind us.


So when making plans for my summer vacation in Czech, there was nothing more delightful than to add a detour to Vienna. Vienna’s about an hour and a half from Brno where we’d met up with friends the day before. As luck would have it, Dulceria’s new shop was literally a few streets away from our hotel in central Vienna. There’s nothing like finally meeting the real person.

We chatted for hours, ate vegan chocolates (I’m not a vegan, and they are just nice chocolates). My partner, a vegetarian, ate a lot. We made plans, learned the details about chocolate making, discussed everything, had coffee (with more chocolates) and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. This was definitely a good idea.


So then we went onto making plans. There’s a massive Vegan event in Vienna at the end of August lasting 3 days. This was to be the in-person launch. This would be followed by the online launch directly after the event.. Then we start to think:

how many chocolates are we expected to sell ?

So, many calculations later we come up with a stretch goal. That’s thousands of chocolates, all hand made.


So the stall is set up and it looks fab, Manuella describes the 2 million breakdowns that happened along the way, but here she is having leaned on family and friends to help, worked a few 3am nights and generally pulled out all the stops. The first day goes well, the first customer is Siegfried Kröpfl one of Austria’s most famous chefs. He buys a box and promises to be back…..result !! It’s only Friday, the weekend will be much busier.

Down to earth with a bang. Saturday morning does not go well. Add another breakdown. Someone stole 400 chocolates overnight.

Unperturbed, family are despatched back to the kitchen, and production starts again to make up for the losses. In parallel weekend visitors arrive and sales skyrocket, double yesterday’s numbers.

I’m sat in our cottage in Czech building the final pieces of the ecommerce store, I’ve gone well beyond mentor and I’ve become the tech team. Payment gateway, delivery integration and now onto ‘build a box’ where you can choose your own flavours for the box. In between calls and messages – “can you check this, what do you think to that ?” – I’m normally a WordPress/Woocommerce store person, I’m suddenly learning Shopify.

The final day arrives. The store is fully stocked, but not for long. Sales do as well as yesterday and there’s really not much left. Our estimates were pretty damn good. But there’s more….
Manuella and I find ten minutes for a quick call. Manuela uses her charm and two reps from one of Europe’s largest supermarkets learn how hand-made chocolates are created, production questions follow and eventually they conclude they’re looking for new products and these vegan chocolates fit the profile perfectly. It doesn’t come much better than this.


OK, so now as the adrenaline starts to die down, let’s pump it up again with the website and store launch. So at 8pm European time on Sunday we go live.
Immediately there were orders, we knew some customers were queued up. 5…6…7…8…9 orders. Then we spot an error on the product pages. I frantically go through the back-end and hide the offending items (thank you Google, Shopify so needs a “do not display” button on its products) and the orders continue to come in. Success number two !!


This is of course the happy ending, but it’s not a fairy-tale. It’s the startup world, the highs are high but the lows can be really low. Lower when you’re on your own. Not everyone has Manuela’s tenacity. The more tough stuff that happened, the more determined she became to make the business a success. They call it ‘The Hunger” and not everyone has it.

Yesterday I delivered this story to the new Cohort of startups at Startup Factory. We were studying the startup lifecycle, the “Trough of Sorrow” that startups go through when it’s really hard. So many don’t get through this part, it’s easier to give up sometimes. But… if you can just keep going… there is opportunity on the other side.

You can find out more about Dulceria Chocolates here:

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vegan startup mentoring

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