Life in a chocolate factory versus life in a startup

Elaine Wherry took a break from working in San Francisco high-tech startups to work at Dandelion Chocolate, the chocolate maker/cafe that her husband co-founded. She calls her tenure at the chocolate factory her life as "an oompa loompa," and in a fascinating post, she writes about the differences and similarities between working in data-driven startups and in physical, retail-based hard-goods business. It's a wonderful study in contrasts.

For loops are a veritable miracle — At the chocolate factory, something breaks every single flippin’ day. Each morning I gave my evil eye to the roasters, melangers, temperers, wrapping machine, dishwasher, or anything with a screw, fuse, gear, glue, belt, or oil level and asked, “Okay, which one of you little buggers is going today?”

In comparison, code brings tears to my eyes. If that for loop worked yesterday, then barring catastrophic hardware failures or someone checking in code they shouldn’t, it’ll likely work today. That type of, “if you don’t touch it, it’ll keep working” certainty seems divine. I’ve always loved the Web but I have renewed appreciation for redundancy, unit testing, and monitoring now.

what i learned as an oompa loompa (via O'Reilly Radar)


  1. I’m doing something similar, and “the plan” is simple:

    1) Make stuff
    2) Sell stuff
    3) Keep the money

    That’s a very scalable business model, and once you cover fixed costs like rent, the money adds up.

    Elaine touches on the clusterfuck that is recruiting these days, and that’s probably led a lot the employees to the chocolate factory.

    It’s not just the email that is a black hole for time, it’s that many of those emails are circulating rumors that are destructive.  So the follow up consists of trying to extinguish rumors.  This is a huge loss of time.  High tech startups are like a bad horror movie when you realize the call is coming form inside the house – the sabotage is internal.

    You realize how much of the small business “conventional wisdom” is just people regurgitating strategies that are simply predictable rookie mistakes or obfuscating bullshit.

    The one piece of good advice I got from a “Top 30 Young Entrepreneurs” article was start selling something as soon as possible.  Your “vision” is great and some people will “get it.” But if 95% of the customers need to have the product explained to them, or 25% of the customers are confused and angry, the vision needs to change dramatically.

    In a nonmanfacturing operation, it’s easy to just make up numbers and reports. It’s also common to sabotage other people’s work, politically or physically.  Conversely, in retail, people will steal from the register.  If you’re open weekends, you can’t just trust someone to mind the store.

    Your business model may not be compatible with Google Adwords.  If a portal for health insurance brings in a customer, that customer may spend thousands of dollars, so the company can pay 20 or 40 dollars a click.  If you are selling chocolate for $20 with a  40% profit margin and have a 2% conversion rate,  at $1 a click you are losing $42 dollars a sale.

  2. As a PhD/MBA with lots of start-up experience, I’m accustomed to having my opinions ignored or ridiculed, so I’m just going to go box up some orders to drop off this evening.

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