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STARTUP

How ‘Willy Wonka’ Inspired This Woman Entrepreneur to Build a Candy Store for Grown-Ups

With ingredients like champagne and green juice, these aren’t your average gummy bears.

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BY Mark Miller - 30 Apr 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Inspired by the classic film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Rosie O'Neill launched luxury candy boutique Sugarfina in 2012 with her boyfriend at the time, Josh Resnick. Since then, their relationship and brand have flourished: The two are now engaged and Sugarfina has expanded to dozens of locations all over the world. We sat down with O'Neill to discuss the sweet rewards of building a modern legacy in the often not-so-sweet global confections industry.

What are the origins of the Sugarfina brand?

My co-founder, Josh Resnick, and I were lucky because the origin of Sugarfina is also the origin of our love story. Josh had this cute idea for our third date to see the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory--one of our favorite movies. Afterward, we found ourselves asking why there isn't a candy store for grown-ups. As kids, that movie was so magical, but candy has kind of lost the magic. It's become junky, commoditized, and overindulgent. We thought, why isn't there something artisan, unique, and special in the world of candy?

We began scouting for amazing artisan candy when we traveled. At first, we were just bringing back enough for our friends and family. But as we developed new contacts and relationships around the world, we realized we were tapping into something special. As a culture, we're getting more health oriented, so when people treat themselves, they want to be delighted. Sugarfina represents a movement from mindless indulgence to mindful indulgence.

What was the turning point when Sugarfina went from a hobby project to a full-time passion?

We officially started working on the brand in May 2012. In the beginning, just like most start-up companies, all of our customers were friends and family. The initial turning point was the day we got our first order from someone we didn't know. That was exciting.

The second turning point came soon after. People started inquiring, "I just received Sugarfina as a gift and I loved it. Can you do this in larger quantities for my wedding or my baby shower or my office?" It was a light-bulb moment for us. We realized it wasn't just about beautiful, high-quality candy. It was also about the act of gifting. Gifting has this viral effect--one happy customer quickly turns into many--and that's a big part of our growth.

What is your long-term ambition for Sugarfina?

Big picture, we have two long-term ambitions.

The first is to be a disrupter in confections, a global industry that generates about $200 billion annually. Everyone in confections has been doing the same thing for a very long time. We want to make sure everything we do is different; to always question the norm.

Our second long-term ambition is spreading sweetness. This covers everything from returning great profits for our team and investors, to having a really charitable component where we take all of the great things that have happened to us and make sure that we're giving back and we're spreading that to others.

Sugarfina is known for wowing customers with its meticulous design and attention to detail. How do you keep the brand culture focused on perpetually delivering that level of care and creativity?

I always tell our team, you eat with your eyes first. The customers who visit our stores have to see our product, think it's beautiful, and be inspired before they'll want to taste it. The customers who order online get a handwritten gift note in every order we ship out. The details are an incredibly important part of each customer experience.

To deliver on that, we hire people who are very aesthetically driven. Whenever we come out with new collections we're always trying to get better and one up ourselves. Whether it's the product, the packaging, or the retail store design, everyone on our team is invested in delivering something special and unique you won't find anywhere else.

What advice would you pass forward to others seeking to build their own modern legacy?

People are absolutely the most critical part of the equation. You can be as smart and strategic as can be, but if you don't have people on your team who can be smarter than you and push you forward, you aren't going to go anywhere. That was one of the earliest lessons we learned: Give people the room and flexibility to run their part of the business as their own. Inspire their entrepreneurial spirit. Maybe it's not in their DNA to start their own company, but they will thrive in a start-up culture. It's up to you as the leader to identify your believers and empower them.

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