Maggie Callahan has found fortune as a newcomer to an industry whose biggest players boast storied histories.
The founder of Maggie Louise Confections turned what seemed like a liability into an asset, using her rookie status to shake things up by crafting chocolates in unusual shapes and colors — everything from lipsticks and footballs to martini glasses and pizza slices — and appealing to trendsetters on photo-centric Instagram. Her Austin-based venture also ships chocolates to sweet-toothed customers across the United States, in addition to selling them from a brick-and-mortar location.
It didn’t come easy. When Callahan first launched in 2013, she was a new mother building her business by day and perfecting recipes by night — from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. every night, to be exact, in a shared commercial kitchen space. “It was physically tough, and I still had a baby at home.”
But it was worth the effort. Her eye-catching candies were a hit on which she has built a business with 32 employees. Together, they whip up chocolates for both individual customers and corporate clients like Jimmy Choo, Sephora and Saks Fifth Avenue. In 2016, the company pulled in over $1 million in revenue, and Callahan says it is on track to exceed $3 million in 2017.
Prior to starting Maggie Louise Confections, Callahan joked that she had always adored chocolate “as a consumer.” But now, she’s disrupting her old favorites with customizable, mailable delights and living her dream of selling “something special, meaningful and delicious.”
From Court to Cocoa
Callahan, an Indiana native, earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Virginia Tech in 2000 and law degree from Harvard University in 2003. After graduating, she moved to New York City, then to Washington, D.C., thriving for years as a lawyer in those high-energy environments.
But in 2009, she began to crave a professional shift. “I thought that, perhaps instead of a big-firm environment, I could work in a different type” of setting. So she took on a managerial role at a smaller law firm in San Francisco, as well as her first leap into entrepreneurship with Bluebird Candy Dish Co., a small online venture that sold new and antique glass candy dishes.
But she remained restless. In 2011, she sold Bluebird Candy Dish and moved to Austin with her husband, Kevin, who wanted to take advantage of the city’s booming tech sector to grow his own startup. That’s when she decided it was “really time for me to find out what I was born to do.” Her new city was “really creative and high-energy,” she says, and featured a lot of “outside-of-the-box things — I wanted to be a part of that.”
Callahan says she had always enjoyed cooking, but had often pushed that interest to the side in favor of professional pursuits. But in the fall of 2012, she decided to enroll in Austin’s Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, where she learned chocolate work. “This class was the first time I was exposed to the way chocolate could be shaped and molded — an artistic medium whose results were delicious and indulgent.”
Indeed, the shape and color possibilities excited her — and she didn’t see anyone in the marketplace taking advantage of them. So once she finished cooking school, she launched Maggie Louise Confections to seize that opportunity, using her newcomer status in the chocolate world to market herself as an innovator.
While her biggest competitors in an industry steeped in history trumpeted rich pasts, she described her company as “the future of the chocolate industry.” Her marketing emphasized customization and widespread availability, thanks to a newfangled shipping method.
The pitch, in addition to intriguing customers, won Maggie Louise Confections coverage in O Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and many other publications.
Personalization and Adaptation
From the get-go, Callahan knew that the differences between her company and others represented both selling points and additional hurdles.
To realize her candy-maker vision, she had to find partners. Today, she works with Austin software company ShipStation to manage orders, as well as one vendor in Buffalo, N.Y., that makes custom molds that accommodate the various shapes her chocolates take, another in California that does silk screening and artwork for custom pieces, and a third in Montreal that supplies tailored packaging.
And to find a large market for a niche product, she would need to be able to ship to clients well beyond Austin. So she developed a mailing system that ensures safe delivery of non-melted goodies using careful shipping schedules, as well as temperature-controlled insulation and ice packs.
That innovation meant she could serve people placing orders through a variety of digital channels — most importantly, Instagram, which helped her land some of her first large clients. Maggie Louise Confections “happened to have a product that looked really good on Instagram,” Callahan says, so she posted photos of her edible works and capitalized on the free advertising opportunity.
It worked. Brands and public relations teams scouring the social media app for the next great thing found Maggie Louise Confections there. On Instagram, where she now shares photos of her edible work with almost 31,000 followers, it “helped that we were young and new and fresh,” inverting what once seemed a hindrance. Fashion and media outfits were especially responsive, Callahan adds, because they “want to be discovering something. That had a lot of weight and allure to them.”
Telling a Delicious Tale
In the beginning, Maggie Louise Confections did its best to establish itself by not spending money, Callahan says. For example, her husband — who is the CTO of the company — constructed the company’s website himself. Then, about 4 months into the venture, he sold his venture, MapMyFitness, to Under Armour for $150 million, and the couple was able to invest much more money into Callahan’s confections company.
Now, the chocolatier is turning a profit and creating a buzz of its own. Callahan recently inked a wholesale partnership with Neiman Marcus, and has a plan to go after high-end hotels, airlines and other big corporate clients. “The future is very big,” she says.
Beyond building a thriving business, she says she’s pursuing an even larger vision to make people rethink what chocolate looks like and the role it plays in our lives — to turn chocolate into “much more of an experience than just a box on a shelf in a store.”