Сhocolate has become one of the elements of such brand as Lviv. It is taken as an irreplacable souvenir from the city of Lviv to Kiev, Odessa, New York or Sydney. “But everything started with the production of sweets on a small kitchen of a regular Lviv apartment,” says Nataliya Dubova, the co-founder of the Lviv Handmade Chocolate. Love for qualitative and delicious chocolate gave a boost to the business idea that was unusual for Ukraine at that time and which is now scaled up far beyond the country borders. About chocolate as passion and quality as the greatest value, you can read in an interview with Nataliya Dubova for Strategic Business Review.
Nataliya, how did you start your business?
Once a partner of my father-in-law brought us a chocolate from the Netherlands and my husband Volodya liked it very much. I always quote his phrase: “It looks like we have been deceived all that time and what we ate was not a chocolate.” Then I was looking for gifts for relatives on holidays and came across sites where packages with chocolate, wine and toys were very beautifully decorated. It was an ideal gift for relatives or friends for any occasion. And we decided to see how they make it all. Volodya went to the Netherlands – to that very store from which chocolate was brought for us and returned with a strong impression. After that, we went there together and visited their master class. We immediately took a closer look at the equipment and decor. I have no education in this direction, but I am a creative person, I love to do something creative. For half a year I have been reading a lot and exploring chocolate, learning about its creation, and ordered myself the first book entitled “Belgian Chocolate”. For me it was like a Bible about chocolate. Owing to this book, I learned how to make the first chocolates. These attempts have lasted for several months: the tempering of chocolate, the creation of a proper crystal – to make it crisp, look glossy … It all took place at home.
When we realized that the product would be delicious, my husband has already got acquainted with two guys – Andriy Khudo and Dima Gerasimov, the third one he did not know very good – it was Yurko Nazaruk (the founders of the FEST! Holding of Emotions, the Ukrainian chain of conceptual restaurants – aut.). My husband suggested: “They are very creative, cool, let’s tell them – and suppose something will come out.” Especially taking into the account that neither Volodya nor I had any experience in launching the establishment in sphere of restaurants. And this project we saw not just as a production or a store, we wanted more.
Meeting with the boys at their establisment – in the “Masoch”, we immediately asked them not to begin implementing this idea without us, if they liked it. They liked the idea. Our cooperation started. The guys asked us to make the first chocolates. I remember that it was the first time that Festival of Chocolate was celebrated in Lviv on March 8th and Yura Nazaruk told me: “We are exhibiting there in two weeks.” I had a shock. I started to work for 16 hours at home, in a two-room apartment. I sent my child to our parents. Everything was in chocolate, sweets were everywhere. I came up with ideas how they would look. And last night we gave the first names to our sweets: “Franz and Joseph”, “Bernardines”, “White Veil”. Thematically we went to this Lviv reality, to the local curiosities. Our business started when we first put up our products for sale at the cafe “Near Diana” (one of the cult coffee shops in Lviv on Rynok Square, – aut.). It was both snowing and raining. We had several employees from the FEST!Holding of Emotions. That day we realized: people like our chocolates and this is the product that can conquer the hearts of the people of Lviv. Then we did not even think about tourists, that our chocolate could become a product for the whole of Ukraine …
When was it?
It was year 2009. Then, it was in August, we opened the first shop on Serbska street, where there is now “Lviv Handmade Chocolate”. Then there were several tables with coffee and a large showcase. We were gradually developing. It was mostly me who was engaged in production. We started creating new products. It sometimes happened that on Easter everyone was already going with baskets to the church, but me and my husband were still pouring in the chocolate chicks, chocolate eggs, made sets of chocolates …
What was the most difficult for you then?
The most difficult? Nothing! I liked everything very much! I still do not understand where I draw inspiration and strength from to be able to work for 16 hours. Sometimes we failed with some sweets, we had to throw away the whole set, to do it again … Recently I read one phrase: “There are no lazy people, there are goals that do not inspire.” It was just timely – this goal, this desire. It greatly increased my energy. And that is why I would not change anything in this matter. Each step, even unsuccessful, provides opportunities for development.
Obviously, over the past 10 years there have been difficulties and crises. How do you overcome them?
Any crisis – it is opportunities, especially for small businesses and startups. Because it is a chance to break through. Unlike big companies, which face difficulties, because there are many relationships and commitments, the small ones can do something creative. Our company has many cool young people who want to create something, are ready to work with us, if necessary, even at night. By the way, this also happened to us. Once we organized an action together with “Auchan” all over Ukraine. We were given some requirements, it was necessary to do everything till 4: 00-5: 00 in the morning, glue something, pack sweets. When such a moment comes, there is always, in addition to exhaustion, creation of something new, a step beyond the usual limits.
Can you say that you have the same enthusiasm that was in the beginning? After all, on the way from the startup to the system company there is a risk of losing it …
It is clear to myself that I enjoy doing this business. There are people who love startups: to create something new, light it up and let someone do it further. And for me it is not the first year that I like to develop “Chocolate”.
Of course, there are moments when you want to relax and think. This is normal, because each business has an ascending curve and a descending one. Perhaps we are not so actively growing in Ukraine, but there are new goals, new ambitions. We have a plan to move into the world, especially looking at such companies as Starbucks, Lindt, which are present with their products in almost every city, cool people in whose eyes you can see desire to create something. I want the “Chocolate” to have the same story and its chocolate get-together.
Someone dreams of coffee, someone – of a car, and I was dreaming of chocolate. I love sweets very much. I eat chololates every day, can’t live without them. Once we went to Mexico and did not eat chocolate for two days. I think I had a “withdrawal”. I even took out one of the chocolates that we brought as a present and ate it.
Do you eat only your own chocolate?
No, not only it. Strangely enough, very ofter there may be no my chocolate in our home. There are companies whose chocolate I love. In general, I like different chocolate, I taste it a lot in different countries. It is a necessity. And though it may look ridiculous from outside, but I first sniff it, it’s a habit … I’m interested in the smell, in how chocolate is made.
When I bite a candy, some pictures appear in my head – what it can be made from. I love such experiments. Just really love this product.
Many people say that chocolate is not a daily product, which is not important in life. Maybe so, but not for me. If the product of my husband was coffee and he knew everything about it, then I try to become an expert on chocolate.
What are your goals for the next 5-10 years? Does the company have such a strategy?
There is no plan on how and where we are going in the next 10 years. In Ukraine, it’s hard to get so far ahead. But for 5 years there is one. During this time I want to bring our brand beyond Ukraine, to strengthen it.
In your opinion, when it was easier to start business – 10 years ago or now?
It depends solely on the type of activity. If we talk about chocolate, it was probably easier then, because this niche was not filled. However, if you come up with some kind of innovation, there is no difference when to start.
What features are important for a true leader?
The most necessary one is humanity. The desire to improve the environment around you, to give people something better – a product or service … When a leader is open, sincere, wants the others to grow – he is respected and people want to do business with you.
You graduated from the Key Executive MBA Lviv Business School of UCU (LvBS). What prompted you to apply for business education?
There are different moments in life. I had a very painful experience when I lost my husband. Then, I faced two options: either to give up or try to stand on my own. I have three children and I decided not to give up. By that time, I had two children, the third one was born in a month after these events … Probably it was a trigger. After all, Volodya loved to study very much, he strongly influenced my personality, my views of life. He was like a star. And he has always been an example for me. There are not so many people who are an example for me in my life, who I would look up to, who I would come to ask for advice. He was one of them.
Volodya graduated from kmbs, and afterwords he attended a LvBS workshop. He was so enthusiastic about how many people were there with new ideas, creative people who discuss a lot … I remembered this, took his notes from Lviv Business School of UCU, reviewed them. And I decided that, because I want to become someone, not just a woman, not just the one who makes chocolate, then I have to try myself in a bigger business. So I decided that I needed training, new contacts, people from another environment. And, most importantly – I had to get out of my comfort zone. After all, when you have a family and your husband protects you – you are in the comfort zone. And it’s not so important what is around. With me it was like that. I got out of the comfort zone. And I’m happy that I got to Lviv Business School of UCU. Honestly, I worried a lot about whether I would be taken. I remember how I came for an interview to Yarka (Yaryna Boychuk, CEO LvBs, aut.), It was very exciting. And she took me …
How did your training affect the company, business strategy, decision-making?
It influenced me very much. I then made a noticeable leap both in my personal development and as a manager. Now I am a leading partner in our business and continue to study on a daily basis. The business school took the barrier of fear off me. I was afraid to do something wrong. In this environment I stopped worrying that I could do something wrong. Before I was afraid of communication, I thought of how I would look if I did not know something, and then I became very talkative. In fact, it’s cool that there is such an environment.
What is your most difficult business decision?
I think I haven’t made it yet. In fact, it’s very difficult to fire people. But sometimes such decisions should be taken. Fortunately, I have good support – the team, so I have who to consult with.
How many people are currently working in your company?
In Ukraine there are about 1000. In Lviv, there are 150 in production, in total in the city – 360-400, depending on the season.
As we’ve already touched upon the topic of staff management, how do you motivate it? Or are you looking for the motivated ones?
At the beginning, we were looking for people who were just excited by a workshop, who wanted to create something. It was one of the stages of our development. But now the strategy has changed, as the company has grown, we have more operational tasks, partners in Ukraine and abroad. And you need to communicate better with them, more often, more qualitatively. They expect something from the company, because we carry positive with our product, therefore, there should be positive in communication too. Therefore, now we are looking for not only enthusiastic people, the young ones, who would like to create something, but first of all people with competencies.
What are the main values of the Lviv Handmade Chocolate as a business?
Honesty, creativity, humanity. Quality. We will never make a compromise with ourselves on quality. For 10 years we have been working with the same chocolate. It happens that because of the leaps in the hryvnia exchange rate, the cost increases, but I never go for a compromise, I do not agree to something other, cheaper. After all, our clients, for example, mothers who, like me, give chocolate to their children, should not doubt its quality. Quality as a value is very important for us
If we talk about scaling, how many establishments have you opened in Ukraine?
47, taking into account the ones in Ukraine and in Baku (Azerbaijan). We are present in practically all regional centers of Ukraine.
Tell us how you control the establishments from a franchise network?
All regions are very different. For example, in Transcarpathia people like dark roasted coffee, there they enjoy drinking bitter coffee. Further east, they drink “lighter” coffee … We have a separate department that works with partners in the franchise networks. Its task is to hear every request, listen to the problems. Of course, we are trying to help them. All products in these establishments come from Lviv and are transported around Ukraine every week. And, of course, because we are a handmade production where people work, the human factor is inevitable. It sometimes happens that someone did something wrong, did not finish, did not communicate it. We solve these problems, because these are our problems. The client is not interested in our relations, he does not care how we do it, he just wants to get a quality product.
You mentioned that at the beginning your business was a local one, focused on the people of Lviv. But now the situation has changed, tourism has developed. How did it affect the company, the product names, for example?
The names have not been affected. We are still looking for some interesting things, old words, and connect them to the product. In general, tourism is very influential for business. In Lviv we have several points and each of them is somehow different from the rest. The establishment on Serbska street is, of course, the heart of the entire “Chocolate” and our tourist Mecca. It allows us to be known a little bit further than Ukraine. When I’m flying somewhere abroad it is extremely pleasant to see people with bags from the Lviv Handmade Chocolate coming out from the plane with me, these are foreigners with our products. Or, when people come to me from the United States or Canada and say: “We were brought chocolate, so it’s yours!”. Tourists help us to develop, bring interesting ideas, because we follow their preferences.
What does success mean to you? Do you think your company is successful?
There is no limit to perfection. We still have something to work on, and, most importantly, there is a desire and a flame. What does success mean to me? When I see the eyes of people who are tasting our chocolate and smiling with satisfaction!
Text: Olena Yankovska