How Awfully Chocolate's founder went from connoisseur to entrepreneur

Lyn Lee tells the BBC's Peter Day how she left a career in the law behind to go into the chocolate business

After failing to find the ultimate chocolate cake, lawyer Lyn Lee decided to leave her profession behind to open up her own cake shop, Awfully Chocolate, in Singapore.

"Most cakes that I grew up with - the more colourful they were, the fancier they were, the more dolls and butterflies and whatever on it - would signal to you that it was a great cake."

"More often than not, I was disappointed because there wasn't really any very good chocolate taste. It'd be chocolate flavouring or some synthetic tasting thing," recalls Lyn.

Lyn's disappointment with the cakes on offer and her own dissatisfaction with her job inspired her to try something new.

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Awfully Chocolate

• Turnover: Not disclosed

• Number of employees: 115

• HQ location: Singapore

• Year founded: 1998

• Ownership: Privately held

"I said I have to create something I'm looking for and - having lived my whole life here in this very cosmopolitan city - I can't believe that I can't find a simple dark chocolate cake that I can just eat whenever I want to and not feel sick."

Trial and error

She soon found that she wasn't the only one excited by entrepreneurship and keen to avoid the 9-5 treadmill.

"We had a small group of really good friends…We would sit down on weekends and we would yak about our bosses and our jobs and what we liked and we didn't like, and we always had crazy ideas on what we would do if we did our own business," she remembers.

"There were a few ideas that got tossed out the window… So chocolate it was because I said I don't know anything about business guys, but I eat a lot of chocolate."

It proved to be the start of a collaborative, if not particularly structured, adventure. "I think we didn't do any market research," Lyn muses.

Her foray into cake-making was especially experimental. "We mucked around in the kitchen every weekend for a year until we produced this thing…our methods were trial and error. Nothing scientific…We just tried different techniques, we tried different ingredients and we produced what we thought was a pretty yummy chocolate cake."

Growth

When Lyn finally opened her first cake shop in 1998, it was tucked away in a little back street with just one type of chocolate cake on offer.

Lyn Lee with her chocolate cakes Awfully Chocolate's products include cakes, ice creams and truffles

Despite her family's support many believed it was a futile venture. "Doomed to fail, that's what everyone said. They gave us three months and they said you'll be finished," she recalls.

But after three months Lyn was ordering vast quantities of cake boxes. She says, "My supplier was about to faint on the floor because she told me I'd ordered way too much. She said I'd still have stock over after ten years."

Despite the rapid demand, Lyn remained cautious.

"We expanded very slowly and very carefully because in our other jobs we had some experience studying other industries, like the dot com industry, which seemed to just sort of appear…and then it just exploded," she explains.

"We basically put into it what we could afford and we were prepared that if it didn't work out we weren't going to be on the streets."

In 2004 she opened her second store using the profits from her first shop. Awfully Chocolate now has 17 franchises across Asia, including in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Lyn is adamant that a flagship store should never act as a restrictive blueprint for a company's expansion.

"The interesting thing about doing a franchise is that you learn so much about the different cities, and then you have that interaction with the franchisee," she describes.

"Awfully Chocolate grew in a very unusual way in Singapore, and every city has got its own bit of character, bit of personality, its own quirks, so if you want it to work there you've got to figure out what the local quirks are and see if you can still make the concept fit."

Barriers
The interior of an Awfully Chocolate shop in Singapore Awfully Chocolate now has shops in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei and Jakarta among other cities

Lyn says that nurturing entrepreneurship and creativity can be difficult in Singapore. She believes the space needed to start up and the expenses involved can still be insurmountable obstructions.

"When I meet young people and I talk to them I say don't do it blindly because if you fail in this country it is still very, very difficult to pick yourself up again."

She explains: "The land is so small…The rents are tremendously high. I've heard of entrepreneurs, started a business, didn't really work out and slam bam, the next day they get things plastered on their door and they're hauled to court."

'Enjoy it'

Lyn is keen to help her young staff grow as entrepreneurs in their own right. They helped her to develop Awfully Chocolate's first restaurant, Everything with Fries.

She says of the venture: "They really need to take this on, and they really need to feel that this is their baby and then I want them to fly with it." She sees her role within the business now as equally being a guide to them.

The key advice she gives to her staff and young entrepreneurs is: "No matter what you do, from what I can see, it's really long hours…You might as well enjoy it."

She adds, "It's fun to talk about it that it's luck but I actually don't believe in luck…I don't know anyone who got anywhere without hard work."

Yet Lyn is reluctant to describe herself as an entrepreneur. She describes how she was once called 'naive' by someone who told her that business is about expansion and selling products that sell, not just what you like.

She remarks, "That's when I realised that business is not always about making money…. I only did it because I enjoyed it, I love it."

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