Credit: Danilo Rizzuti,
Credit: Danilo Rizzuti,

When I co-founded NutraBella to create Bellybar chewable prenatal vitamins, I leaned on other entrepreneurs to show me the way. I loved hearing their stories and learning about their challenges — they inspired me to keep on my journey.

I recently met Wendy Lieu, Chief Chocolatier and Owner at Socola Chocolatier, when she was honored with the “Breakthrough Business of the Year” award from the San Francisco chapter of NAWBO (National Association of Women Business Owners).

When you think breakthrough, what comes to mind? I traditionally think “brand new.” After learning more about Wendy and her entrepreneurial journey, I found that in order to to create a breakthrough business, your business doesn’t have to be new. After all, Wendy has been building her “breakthrough business” for more than 10 years.

While studying managerial economics at UC Davis in 2001, Wendy found that she had a yearning to be more creative. That summer, she spent time helping her parents at their nail salon. On her way to work each day, she would walk past the See’s Candies shop. Slowly, she became fascinated with the perfect shapes of the chocolate in the window. She wanted to know how they did it. With a passion for cooking herself, Wendy decided to take to the kitchen and investigate. She found a candy supply store as well as a recipe in Gourmet Magazine and began to experiment. Her younger sister, Susan, joined in.

The sisters focused on mocha truffles and perfected a hand rolled, French-style ganache truffle. They gave them to friends and neighbors as gifts. One of those neighbors ran the marketing portion at a local radio station that had a program about young entrepreneurs. Soon enough, Wendy and Susan were invited to be on the show. Socola Chocolatier was born.

“Socola” means chocolate in Vietnamese. Proud of their culture and craving a connection to their roots, the young women experimented with Vietnamese flavors. Instead of mocha, they added Vietnamese coffee. Instead of raspberry, they used guava. They took their truffles to farmers’ markets and sold them from 2001 to 2004.

While Wendy and Susan were committed to Socola Chocolatier, they were not at a point at which the business was self-sustaining. So in 2005, Susan decided to go to college to earn her degree while Wendy chose to partake in a new opportunity with Accenture.

In 2008, Susan traveled to Vietnam and saw that cacao was being produced there. A key ingredient in truffles, Susan quickly felt an even stronger connection to Socola Chocolatier. She returned enthused and committed that the business should be revived. Wendy, however, was skeptical — she had a good job and wanted to keep it. So, they worked on Socola on the side.

Wholesale seemed like an obvious first step. Whole Foods loved them and several local stores signed them on. They also started shipping nationally through the web. But then, the trouble began. With a three-week shelf life, it was nearly impossible to make a profit. Just when the product hit the shelf, it was near expiration. Shipping nationally also posed problems; chocolate is highly perishable in even mild weather conditions.

Wendy knew one thing — making chocolate was in her blood. When she mixes the chocolate, she finds it meditative and relaxing. It didn’t feel like work. She wanted to do this full-time, but her current business model wasn’t working. She knew she needed help, so she signed up for an entrepreneurship class at the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center.

There, she quickly realized that wholesale was not the way to go. She shifted her focus to corporate accounts and her online business to grow her cash reserves. She also realized that in addition to making the chocolate, she loved watching how her customers experienced her products. She missed the interaction with her customer in her current model. Then the ideal next step came to her — it was time to open up her own shop!

After doing some research, she figured out how to manage her finances and lock in a retail location. She opened Socola Chocolatier + Barista, a retail café and shop in San Francisco, on February 11, 2014. With her new retail location, Wendy fulfilled her dream of connecting personally with her customers. She recently added coffee and chocolate drinks (with handmade chocolate marshmallows) to level out the seasonality of her chocolate items. The change has made for better margins.

And hence, her breakthrough! Although Socola Chocolatier was born in 2001, the true breakthrough came when Wendy tapped into her passion for customer relations. By interacting with her customers, she has expanded her product line and perfected her craft.

Entrepreneurs tell me all the time that they are stuck and can’t figure out how to break through. Wendy is inspiration for all of us that breaking through isn’t about your first few years in business; it’s about connecting with what really matters to you and using that to drive your business.

Now, go forth!