Today, like many days, is spent finishing up last minute things, in an attempt to ready my first brick and mortar store for its opening.
In the lead up to the launch, my days are crammed with paperwork: putting together our company employment strategy, overseeing the construction and design of our new store and charming my landlord.
These are all minor obstacles compared to the challenges I faced on the road to opening Harlem Chocolate Factory back in 2016. Growing up in Harlem, New York, I thought I was doing everything right when I went to college, but with an English degree and no direction, I ended up sleeping on an air mattress in my mother’s house with my two children.
I needed to go back to go forward. My love for sweets started as a child. Growing up, my mom was a health nut. We weren’t allowed to have any refined sugar in the house. To solve this, I made a deal with my mom - if I made the sweets myself, I could eat them. That’s how the journey into business started for me.
I always knew I wanted to start my own business, but without funding and little to no guidance I didn’t know how to get started. When I first learned about Accion, a non-profit lending company, I was working as a graphic designer to make money. I reached out to Accion about getting a loan. My loan officer said I was an ideal candidate for the Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream program - a philanthropic program created by Samuel Adams’ founder and brewer, Jim Koch, to help support entrepreneurs in the food and beverage industry. And the rest is history so to speak.
Now, my company has grown from just me to a team of four with more on the way. I’m crafting the employee handbook, putting together the training program and developing the way we will convey our company culture. We have a solid base of followers and it seems like our opportunities are endless. Our demand is so high that we have people disappointed when they can’t buy our chocolate.
I always knew I wanted to start my own business, but without funding and little to no guidance I didn’t know how to get started.
While my business is in a great place, the path here wasn’t easy. Here are a few key lessons I learned along the way that played an important role in taking me from a chocolatier to successful business owner.
1. Focus on one thing and make it great
My mind has always worked in a million different directions. I’ve had hundreds of great ideas and it was difficult for me to focus on one idea and follow it through. After I graduated from college, I started looking into all these different industries, but I couldn’t find anything suited for me. My passion for making chocolate never wavered, but I didn’t think I could make enough money as a full-time chocolatier to support my family. Once I took the chance and committed to making Harlem Chocolate Factory a viable business, everything else fell into place.
2. Your business should be part of you
While creating the chocolate satisfied my adolescent sweet tooth, it wasn’t enough to start a business. I wanted to stand out. I wanted to speak to my history. I wanted to sell what I know. My resilience comes from growing up in Harlem, a predominantly black community that has been here for years and is rich in history.
Where I’m opening my store is in an area that once didn’t allow any African Americans to buy of the homes. Being able to move history forward in this way is empowering.
For me, the idea of this being my home and my culture is the foundation of Harlem Chocolate Factory. It’s about sharing the culture and experiences that I was raised on and the experiences that make Harlem more than a trend, but a community. I pull from that inspiration every day when creating chocolate. Everything from the recipes to packaging is a piece of Harlem’s culture. I embed as much of Harlem into my business, and into myself, as I can.
Jessica Spaulding gives us career envy
3. You don’t know what you don’t know
No one can predict the future, but you can arm yourself with knowledge. I took business classes, weeded out my ideas and learned to be nimble. I had problems focusing because I was always thinking of new ideas. Now I know that I don’t have time or money to waste. I’ve shifted my way of thinking to focus on what drives me. I do my best to prepare for whatever lies ahead.
4. Be resourceful
Before I officially started the business, I knew the first thing I was going to need was money. I found Accion and the Brewing the American Dream program through Sam Adams to help me launch. You should look for opportunities in your own community. If one option doesn’t work, explore another and do your research. Never take no for an answer.
When I participated in Sam Adams’ Pitch Room Competition in New York, I was able to pitch my business in front of successful entrepreneurs including Jim Koch, Chef David Burke and food magazine editors. It was a dream come true to have these influential entrepreneurs and writers taste my chocolate. What’s more, they gave me advice on how to structure my business and how to convey my story. This experience changed everything.
As a woman, I felt like I needed to take everyone’s advice. Some of it is discouraging and you can end up tearing yourself down every day. If you have advice for me, it should come with a plan
While I didn’t win the competition, I did receive a $2,800 Brewing the American Dream loan. With the loan, I purchased the materials I needed to get my business off the ground to start making the money I needed to steadily grow Harlem Chocolate Factory.
5. Use your mind not your money
Once I got the loan, I still had to be selective with how I spent the money. I knew I had to make my dollar stretch more than anyone else’s. I used my mind instead of throwing money at a problem. I have learned to adjust to challenges and think everything through before spending.
6. Convey the numbers
The best advice Jim Koch gave me was when he told me, “your story is beautiful, but you have to be able to convey the numbers.” His advice has stayed with me and will stay with me forever because building your business is you pitching it to people to get anything from funding to awareness, and you have to remember the numbers. It’s more than just having a great story. You have to prove that you understand the numbers and you’ve thought out how you’re going to take your business to the next level.
7. Advice without a plan is actually criticism
As a woman, I felt like I needed to take everyone’s advice. Some of it is discouraging and you can end up tearing yourself down every day. If you have advice for me, it should come with a plan. For example, if you tell me the door to my shop isn’t opening in the best way, and you think I should move the door so it can open it in a better way, that’s advice. Criticism is you just saying “I don’t like your door.” When you’re building a business, you’re on edge and one piece of criticism can knock you off your rocker. You need to learn to decipher advice from criticism. There were many times when I thought I was receiving advice, but it was criticism and not beneficial to my business or my journey. Being able to identify when you hear a piece of advice that will add value is key to moving forward. You also need to learn that it’s okay to tell people you’re not interested in their advice. Take what’s of value and execute.
It wasn’t easy, but starting Harlem Chocolate Company has been profoundly rewarding. I’ve been able to follow not only my passion for chocolate, but also impact my community and become part of Harlem’s history. This impact ultimately drives me and my business forward.
A woman at work, Spaulding is getting ready to open her first brick and mortar store
"Steal the mesh underwear you get from the hospital," a friend said upon learning I was pregnant with my first daughter.
It was the single best piece of advice I received before giving birth in December 2013. My best friend delivered her daughter eight months previously, and she was the first to pass along this shared code among new moms: you'll need mesh underwear for your at-home postpartum recovery, and you can't find them anywhere for purchase. End result: steal them. And tell your friends.
My delivery and subsequent recovery were not easy. To my unexpected surprise, after almost 24 hours of labor, I had an emergency C-section. Thankfully, my daughter was healthy; however, my recovery was quite a journey. The shock to my system caused my bloated and swollen body to need weeks of recovery time. Luckily, I had trusted my friend and followed her instructions: I had stolen some mesh underwear from the hospital to bring home with me.
Unfortunately, I needed those disposable underwear for much longer than I anticipated and quickly ran out. As I still wasn't quite mobile, my mother went to the store to find more underwear for me. Unfortunately, she couldn't find them anywhere and ended up buying me oversized granny panties. Sure, they were big enough, but I had to cut the waistband for comfort.
I eventually recovered from my C-section, survived those first few sleepless months, and returned to work. At the time, I was working for a Fortune 100 company and happily contributing to the corporate world. But becoming a new mom brought with it an internal struggle and search for something “more" out of my life--a desire to have a bigger impact. A flashback to my friend's golden piece of advice got me thinking: Why aren't mesh underwear readily available for women in recovery? What if I could make the magical mesh underwear available to new moms everywhere? Did I know much about designing, selling, or marketing clothing? Not really. But I also didn't know much about motherhood when I started that journey, either, and that seemed to be working out well. And so, Brief Transitions was born.
My quest began. With my manufacturing and engineering background I naively thought, It's one product. How hard could it be? While it may not have been “hard," it definitely took a lot of work. I slowly started to do some research on the possibilities. What would it take to start a company and bring these underwear to market? How are they made and what type of manufacturer do I need? With each step forward I learned a little more--I spoke with suppliers, researched materials, and experimented with packaging. I started to really believe that I was meant to bring these underwear to other moms in need.
Then I realized that I needed to learn more about the online business and ecommerce world as well. Google was my new best friend. On my one hour commute (each way), I listened to a lot of podcasts to learn about topics I wasn't familiar with--how to setup a website, social media platforms, email marketing, etc. I worked in the evenings and inbetween business trips to plan what I called Execution Phase. In 2016, I had a website with a Shopify cart up and running. I also delivered my second daughter via C-section (and handily also supplied myself with all the mesh underwear I needed).
They say, “If you build it, they will come." But I've learned that the saying should really go more like this: “If you build it, and tell everyone about it, they might come." I had a 3-month-old, an almost 3 year old and my business was up and running. I had an occasional sale; however, my processes were extremely manual and having a day job while trying to ship product out proved to be challenging. I was manually processing and filling orders and then going to the post office on Saturday mornings to ship to customers. I eventually decided to go where the moms shop...hello, Amazon Prime! I started to research what I needed to do to list products with Amazon and the benefits of Amazon fulfillment (hint: they take care of it for you).
Fast forward to 2018...
While I started to build this side business and saw a potential for it to grow way beyond my expectations, my corporate job became more demanding with respect to travel and time away from home. I was on the road 70% of the time during first quarter 2018. My normally “go with the flow" 4-year-old started to cry every time I left for a trip and asked why I wasn't home for bedtime. That was a low point for me and even though bedtime with young kids has its own challenges, I realized I didn't want to miss out on this time in their lives. My desire for more scheduling flexibility and less corporate travel time pushed me to work the nights and weekends needed to build and scale my side hustle to a full-time business. If anyone tries to tell you it's “easy" to build “passive" income, don't believe them. Starting and building a business takes a lot of grit, hustle and hard work. After months of agonizing, changing my mind, and wondering if I should really leave my job (and a steady paycheck!), I ultimately left my corporate job in April 2018 to pursue Brief Transitions full-time.
In building Brief Transitions, I reached out to like-minded women to see if they were experiencing similar challenges to my own--balancing creating and building a business while raising children--and I realized that many women are on the quest for flexible, meaningful work. I realized that we can advance the movement of female entrepreneurs by leveraging community to inspire, empower, and connect these trailblazers. For that reason, I recently launched a new project, The Transitions Collective, a platform for connecting community-driven women entrepreneurs.
As is the case with many entrepreneurs, I find myself working on multiple projects at a time. I am now working on a members-only community for The Transitions Collective that will provide access to experts and resources for women who want to leave corporate and work in their business full-time. Connecting and supporting women in this movement makes us a force in the future of work. At the same time, I had my most profitable sales quarter to date and best of all, I am able to drop my daughter off at school in the morning.
Mesh underwear started me on a journey much bigger than I ever imagined. They sparked an idea, ignited a passion, and drove me to find fulfillment in a different type of work. That stolen underwear was just the beginning.