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“I wish someone had told me that”: Melanice Jacobsen, Cha Cha Chocolate

Melanice Jacobsen had dreamed her whole life of opening a chocolate shop, so she took a chance on a pop-up. Three weeks in, Melanice knew she wouldn’t look back, but even she is surprised by how enthusiastically Cha Cha Chocolate has been embraced – in Bundaberg and beyond.

This is the 9th installment of Prospa’s ‘I wish someone had told me that’ series, where we speak with seasoned small business owners to hear their advice on growing a business and what they wish they were told along the way. Click here to read the rest of the ‘I wish someone had told me that’ series.

I wish someone had told me EOFY is nerve wracking if you aren’t organised

If I had to give a small business owner one tip, it would be to get your company set up correctly from day one and get some expert help. I didn’t get the right advice starting out and it’s made things complicated. For example, I started as a sole trader and have switched over to being a company. That changes a lot of things and there are important tax implications you need to be prepared for. It’s better to get that sorted at the beginning.

For my first two EOFYs, there was no planning, no preparation. This year will be very different. I have a new accountant and she’s getting me much more organised.

EOFY can sometimes be a nerve-wracking time for people who aren’t organised. I’m a really creative person and have never been really interested in the numbers but that’s had to change. You have to be on top of your numbers if you’re a small business owner.

It all started with my father’s chocolate factory

Dad had owned a chocolate factory in Bundaberg for 10 or 15 years when I was born. I left school two weeks into year 11 and worked for the family business.

I eventually left Bundaberg for a while and lived in different parts of Australia and I managed a resort near Port Macquarie.

After several years I moved back to Bundaberg and went and worked for dad again for a while, managing the retail shop.

I noticed there was growing interest in candy buffets at weddings, and I talked to dad about it. He gave me a small loan to buy some glassware and get set up, and I registered Cha Cha Chocolate as an event-based business. I have always been really creative so I started styling beautiful candy buffets for weddings with vintage glassware, beautiful fresh flowers and tablecloths. I did that for about five years then focused more on wedding favours and personalised chocolate bars.

It had always been my dream to open a chocolate shop but while the family owned the chocolate manufacturing business it couldn’t really happen. I kept dreaming about it though. I’d even bought a vintage chandelier years ago to put in my dream shop. At the time, my husband said, “what did you get that for?” but I knew the day would come.

“You want to quit your job, don’t you?”

I’d been working as a practice manager for a physiotherapist in Bundaberg and doing events when I had time. By the end of 2018, Dad had sold the business and I knew this was my chance. I wanted to do a pop-up chocolate shop over the Christmas season – from October through to Christmas Eve. I paid eight weeks’ rent on a shop and within the first week I just had a gut feeling that this was an opportunity I could take further. What I had planned to turn over in eight weeks, I achieved in three.

Dad is my mentor – I rang him up and he knew straight away.

“You want to quit your job, don’t you?” he asked.

He warned me that it wouldn’t be like this all the time, that I shouldn’t get too carried away – once Christmas was over things would get tough. But it was very exciting, and it was something new for Bundaberg.

I was a bit starstruck! And I was living my dream. So I left my job at the physio, signed a two-year lease and set up the chocolate shop with furniture from home and the things I’d collected over the years – including the chandelier.

Dad was right

It was a bit scary. Those first few months of 2019 were pretty hard, and I did sometimes think, “What have I done?”.

But the good thing about confectionery is that it has a lot of seasons – we had Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. So I worked extremely hard and the business thrived – day by day, the shop got more and more popular and it just took off. I gave mum a casual job and hired another person as well.

It’s powerful to look back on the figures from those early days. Some days our takings were even surprising to me and I’d write a note saying “OMG, huge day!” next to it. Now we take double that on a normal day. If we were only making those original figures now, I’d be pretty worried!

The difference between surviving and failing

We got plenty of online orders at seasonal times – mostly from people who lived outside of Bundaberg wanting a lovely Easter gift basket for someone who lived local – but I only had 10-20% of our products on the website. It wasn’t a big part of the business.

When the pandemic hit, that all changed overnight. The streets just died. A functioning website was the difference between the business surviving or not. Only having 10-20% of the products online wasn’t nearly enough. Within 24 hours, I loaded 3,000 new products on the website. I wish I had the website set up properly from day one with everything on it.

We went from having 90% of our business come through the door to 90% of our business ordering online. We nearly tripled our takings that Easter compared to the previous year. We were getting 120 orders a day – it was huge.

Yes, we were lucky. But we also fought and fought to stay in business over that time. And I wish I’d had the website set up properly with everything on it from day one! That would have made it easier.

But we never had to tap into JobKeeper and the business doubled overnight.

Now the customers come through the front door again and we’ve moved into a new space on the main street. It’s 180sqm compared to the old shop which was only 80sqm. It’s amazing what a difference it makes to be on the main road – we catch so many more people. And there’s a lot more tourists around now too.

Website orders have dropped of course. But I know that the website could be a real source of growth for the business. It’s something I have to work on.

Social media is important too – though I can’t say I love it! It’s such a needy little part of the business. But it works. Around special events I set my alarm for 4am and schedule a whole day’s worth of posts – one every hour. I’d love to hand it over to someone else, but it never seems to work as well as when I’m doing it. I’m a chocolate eater and people trust me. I know if I do a post on a new chocolate, I’ll have people through the door within an hour to buy it!

I wish someone had told me that knowledge is power

I’ve changed from reporting quarterly to reporting monthly because I’ve realised that knowledge is power, and the more knowledge you have of your business the better. If you know what’s going on over a shorter time frame, you can adapt more quickly, do some damage control. Because when you’re in small business, you’re either near the cliff, on the edge of the cliff or over the cliff! You have to be prepared to keep away from the edge.

“When you’re in small business, you’re either near the cliff, on the edge of the cliff or over the cliff! You have to be prepared to keep away from the edge.”

If I had my time again, I’d have a much clearer picture of my business goals from the start. I always just wanted an income that paid the bills and rent.

My husband and I used to joke about the day Cha Cha Chocolate would make enough money to support us and our family. Well, he was able to quit his job six months ago and now I employ seven people!

But sometimes I can’t catch my breath. We are taking daily in the new shop what we took weekly in the old shop and a few times I’ve just been in tears with mum, saying “I created a monster!” – with a smile of course. The growth has been so fast, I can’t keep up. It’s a nice problem to have but it’s pretty stressful!

That’s why I’m looking forward to EOFY this year. I’ll have the opportunity to sit down with my new accountant and really set some goals and plan for next financial year. It’s an exciting time.

Do you have the tools you need to keep up with business growth but need access to funds to secure them? Speak with one of our small business lending specialists about how a Prospa Small Business Loan could help you take control of your small business.

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