Brittany Cone had never made toffee - or any candy for that matter - before, but when she heard about a call for vendors at Frozen Dead Guy Days in Nederland, she had the distinct feeling that she should make some. And sell it. Today, she’s the owner of the Pine Mountain Toffee Company in Pagosa Springs.
While this wasn’t the first business idea that ever popped into her head, it was the first that she pursued. We sat down with Brittany recently to hear how she pivoted from a science career in nanoparticle technology to confectionary. Here’s what she had to say.
Startup Colorado: You’ve had ideas for projects and businesses before, but never acted upon them. What made your idea to start a toffee company different?
Brittany Cone: The idea to start the toffee company was different because I had a supportive partner who didn't immediately have a negative comment about it. Bouncing the idea off of him and getting positive feedback was something I'd rarely experienced before. In the past, my business ideas got negative responses from one person or another and that was discouraging enough to not move forward.
SUCO: How did having a group of supportive peers, who embraced your idea, help you get started?
BC: I’m a firm believer that you’re the product of the 5 people you hang around with the most. The people around me wanted me to succeed. How can you not get started when you have such incredible backing? They provided great ideas for toffee flavors, taste-tested, helped me develop a website. My partner has been incredibly supportive—from giving advice to being a shoulder to cry on. It's been multi-faceted support from several people.
SUCO: You were new to both entrepreneurship and confectionery. How did you educate yourself?
BC: I researched both online. There's a ton of information on candy and entrepreneurship. I found recipes and tried them. When they failed, I found how to troubleshoot and tried again until I got it right. I read enough on entrepreneurship to get started and I’ve recently become involved with the SBDC since they have fantastic educational opportunities for entrepreneurship that are low cost or free.
SUCO: What was harder – making candy or learning how to run a business?
BC: Candy making is much easier. I was trained as a scientist, and science training typically means no business training. I didn't know what to do or what it meant at first to run a business. I am still learning how to run a business. It doesn't happen overnight and I am better at some things than others. I get additional instruction for things that have a steeper learning curve.
SUCO: As a cottage business, how have you approached building a customer base?
BC: So far we've relied on social media, events such as farmer's markets and holiday craft/gift shows, and word-of-mouth. My daughter has been instrumental in teaching me about Instagram. Lately, I have been attending webinars on marketing and how to attract more customers.
SUCO: Pine Mountain Toffee Company is still your side gig. How do you balance growing this business with your full-time job?
BC: We don't watch TV so that creates a lot of time. Larger chunks of time in the evenings and on weekends are typically candy making or learning time. Sometimes I take a few minutes to just do one thing, like a small bit of accounting work. It's good to appreciate the impact of spending just 5 minutes on your business and repeating that over a larger time frame.
SUCO: What do you wish you’d known about starting a food business that you didn’t before?
BC: I wish I'd had a better understanding of inventory management and space requirements for said inventory. This is probably more specific for cottage businesses, but at one point, I had packaging materials in almost every room of the house. We created dedicated space, and I now have a better idea of supplier lead times and what I really need on hand.
SUCO: Two questions: what was your biggest challenge and biggest win?
BC: Biggest challenge: letting go of perfect and accepting the difference between a 'defect' and 'defective'.
Biggest win: having repeat customers who look forward to new products.