Megan Hile is the creative, talented and hard-working owner of Madison Chocolate Company in Madison, WI.
Even through life’s inevitable hardships, Megan has managed to come out on top. Due, in large part, to the great relationships and connections she’s cultivated (Megan has an outgoing personality people are drawn to). And, she’s a big believer in paying it forward, as she looks at her relationship with her employees as a mentorship – she is there to teach them everything she knows, and learns.
In 2003, at the age of 28, Megan was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
In 2010, when her kids were 9 & 13, she had a really bad attack that prevented her from walking – and kept her in the hospital for a month(!). (Fortunately, she recovered.)
In the trauma unit, friends and family brought her food so she never had to eat a single hospital meal. And it was that generosity that made Megan realize there was more to food than simply sustenance.
With this new appreciation, that summer (the summer of 2010) Megan started a blog, Foodalution, focused on anti-inflammatory food. (She even won an award for her Tres Chiles Chocolate Cake with Hibiscus Habanero Caramel.) But after writing a couple blog posts, she become bored with the narrow subject matter and started looking to other cookbooks for inspiration. And that’s when serendipity struck. Megan came across a cookbook by Sheila Linderman, “The Moosewood of France,” and made her chocolat praliné with her sister. Megan fell in love simply because it tasted SO GOOD!
And then things started to click.
Megan started making the chocolat pralinés for family…friends…small events.
By 2012, she was loving life & herself again.
Megan doesn’t necessarily want to say her attack in 2010 was a life-changing moment. But it’s what led her to other things. And if the attack wouldn’t have happened, she doesn’t believe she would be where she is today.
Starting Madison Chocolate Company:
In August 2012, Megan started selling seasonal “chocolate shares” (similar in concept to a CSA). She offered five shares annually: Fall, Winter/Holiday, Valentine’s Day, Spring, and Summer (which was hard to do given that, well, chocolate melts 😉 ).
From 2012 – 2014, Megan ran the business 100% solo, making everything by hand with no equipment (she was using a heat pad for tempering the chocolate!), and renting space at RP’s Pasta, a local, fresh-pasta manufacturer. From order to delivery, each share was a 5-day production process, and this doesn’t even account for all the pre-planning that had to go into it, too. And, mind you, Megan was still working her day job in education at this point:
- Thursday night – after work
- Friday night – after work
- Saturday – all day
- Sunday – package the chocolates
- Monday – deliver the chocolates
Around the end of 2014/beginning of 2015, the business was progressing to a point where Megan needed help. Again, serendipity struck. Enter Bridgette, the intern, who worked for the first 6 months paid only in chocolate. And knowledge. A generous leader, Megan has taught Bridgette everything she knows. And it was this successful apprenticeship that gave Megan a reason, and the confidence, to take the next step: Opening her own retail shop.
Megan started Madison Chocolate Company with 25 “chocolate share” deliveries in 2012, and ended with ~125 deliveries in 2017 (she stopped offering the shares once she opened her retail location).
Opening the Retail Location:
To open a retail location, Megan was looking for, and found, an investor. But, days before signing the lease on her current location, the investor backed out! (Although an incredibly horrible situation at the time, looking back on it, she’s very happy it fell through.)
Having to quickly get creative with financing, Megan was able to secure a $100k SBA loan, as well as a smaller loan from her Dad. Being a carpenter by trade, her life partner provided the labor for construction, in exchange for a percentage of the business (so Megan just had to pay for the materials, ~$30k). And Bridgette agreed to provide 3-4 months of “sweat equity” (i.e. working for no pay) in exchange for a percentage of the business.
During this time, Megan was living off her savings/retirement, paying herself $1500-$2k/month.
The good news, is that with Megan acting as the general contractor, and her partner doing the carpentry work, she was able to save some money, and keep the process moving!
Madison Chocolate Company officially opened its doors May 20, 2017!
Listening to your Customers:
When Megan first envisioned Madison Chocolate Company, she had no intention of offering anything other than chocolate and coffee. But in the year-and-a-half that the retail location has been open, it’s already turned into more of a café, with baked goods and a couple of savory items. Customers dictate business evolutions, and her customers, and the neighborhood, requested more baked goods and breakfast items. Admirably, Megan didn’t let her ego get in the way, and instead gave her customers what they wanted (you don’t want to miss her waffle weekends!).
Double bonus: As a result of her MS, Megan eats gluten free. So, by default, their entire facility is gluten free, which opened up an unintentional, but very welcome, audience of celiac and gluten-intolerant customers.
What has been the most rewarding? Serving everyone that walks through the door something delicious. Making customers feel special. Cultivating relationships. You can make anything taste good when you have happiness.
What has been the most surprising? The amount of money. How much money is needed to start a business. How much money is needed to run a business. You need money to make money. If you don’t have cash flow, it’s really limiting. You may grow, but expenses grow, too!
(This lesson really hit home for Megan: As soon as the doors opened on her retail location, she realized she needed another $50k for unaccounted incidentals.)
What has been the most challenging? Learning how to cope with the intense work hours & stress. The owner carries the weight of making sales. The owner has to keep all the balls in the air.
How much do you work ON the business vs IN the business? It’s about a 50/50 or 60/40 split.
What is your schedule? During the holidays (October to the end of December), it’s 10-15hrs/day non-stop in the kitchen. It’s very labor intensive! (A lot of bills & invoices fall by the wayside during this time. 😉 ) The rest of the year, it's about 8-10 hours/day. But it’s more flexible when those hours are put in.
What prepared you for this role? NOTHING! It feels like a third child. I feel responsible for it…worry about it. And, like the third child, it’s spoiled. The business gets ALL the attention.
What advice would you give to people looking to get into this industry:
- Have at least 3 years of money in the bank to pay yourself.
- IF you take on an investor, make sure they are a “working member” in the business and that they invest financially (vs. sweat equity / soft capital). You want someone that will share that worry with you (e.g. I had to give a personal guarantee for the bank loan, i.e. put my house up as collateral. I always carry that underlying stress with me.)
- That said, everyone warned me NOT to get an investor. If you do take one on, you don’t want one that has a say in the business. You need a clear leader and decision-maker. And, ideally, it’s you, the owner of the business.
- Find good people you can work with. People who have passion. But even with that said, nobody else has any financial buy-in, so they are never going to care/worry/stress as much as you. (And, of course, having employees doesn’t come without its frustrations. I sometimes have to put on my “mom” hat, which can get awkward.)
Do you pay yourself? Yes! Have been from the beginning!
Are you profitable? Yes & no. Bridgette and I are paying ourselves out of an Owner’s Draw, so it looks like we’re taking a slight loss, but it all balances out… (e.g. we’re currently paying ourselves a higher amount so we can self-pay health insurance. But we might be able to start officially offering it as part of compensation in the near future.)
A huge(!) “thank you” to Megan for how open and honest and transparent she was in sharing her experiences. And a huge “congrats,” as this year, her Ghost Pepper Caramels won the respected Good Food Award. Whoo-hoo!
A very nice interview. Think anyone considering starting their own business from the ground up should take this interview to heart. Megan's observations on starting an maintaining a small business are very similar to Sarah's observations about starting and managing Treat bake shop. Unless you have been in the shoes of a startup business it is impossible to understand the worry, stress time commitment and joy of operating your own business.
Sarah Marx Feldner
Thank you, Dad! 💕