Thanks to Rosie O’Neill, entrepreneurship is getting a whole lot sweeter. After working for seven years as the director of marketing for Barbie, the self-professed candy addict co-founded Sugarfina in 2012, alongside her now-husband Josh.
“Josh took me to see Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory on our third date,” O’Neill remembers. “We both loved that movie as little kids, but we said to each other, where did the magic go around candy?”
It was that very conversation that sparked the idea to create a luxury candy boutique for grown-ups, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Recently landing a spot on Fast Company’s 2018 list of “The World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies,” Sugarfina has grown into a booming, multimillion-dollar business. It probably comes as no surprise, then, that O’Neill’s entrepreneurial spirit and gift for creativity started early on.
“I was always that kid who was being super creative without really realizing it. I’d be off making friendship bracelet s or doing all these arts and crafts,” O’Neill says. “I definitely skewed more towards the creative side, but I also really loved the business side. I was always turning these things into little businesses, but for whatever reason, I didn’t connect the dots that it could actually be a career path.”
And what a delightful career path it turned out to be. Sugarfina’s Instagram-worthy products, unique store designs, and innovative marketing techniques have not only made the company a household name, it’s also the fastest growing confections brand in the country.
In this episode of Project Luminary with Kristen Aldridge, find out how O’Neill is disrupting the $200B confections industry, one sweet treat at a time.
You’ve been named to Fast Company’s “100 Most Creative People” list and your luxury candy brand Sugarfina is booming. When did this entrepreneurial spirit and gift for creativity start to show up?
Rosie O’Neill: I think it’s something that as a little kid, I was always that kid who was being super creative without really realizing it. I’d be off making friendship bracelets or doing all these kinds of arts and crafts. I definitely skewed towards the creative side, but I also really loved the business side. So when I started babysitting, I started a babysitting business, and I was kind of always turning these things into little businesses. But for whatever reason, I didn’t connect the dots that it could actually be a career path, and it wasn’t until I met my now husband Josh, that I realized, “Oh my gosh I can totally do this, and this can be an actual career.”
Your company kind of started in this whimsical way. Take us back to the very beginning. How did you come up with the idea to launch a candy boutique for grownups?
Rosie O’Neill: Josh took me to see Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory on our third date. We both loved that movie as little kids, but we said to each other, “Where did the magic go around candy?” It was this idea of a candy store for grown-ups that got us thinking and brainstorming, and for about two years we would travel and discover interesting candies in Europe and Asia, meet with the candy makers, kind of learn the story of where the candies come from. And we were basically doing it for ourselves and our friends, so we amassed this big collection of delicious candies, and then one day we decided to launch the company.
Starting and scaling a business is of course no joke. It takes so much hard work. What were some of your early challenges, and how did you overcome them?
Rosie O’Neill: There were a lot of things neither of us had ever done before. We’ve never been in food, we’ve never been in retail, we’ve never been in e-commerce. We were really making it up every single day. We did everything. Josh would be teaching himself how to write legal documents, and I’d be teaching myself how to put together a website. But that also can be really stressful. You don’t ever have an easy day, you’re always in this constant uphill climb.
When did you two know you hit on something that had the potential for massive success?
Rosie O’Neill: Well, in the beginning we launched online, and every single order that came in we knew exactly who it was. It was like, “Oh, that’s my sister… Oh, that’s your mom.” I remember there was this one day where we had our first order that we had no idea where it came from. Real people were actually buying product from us. And then only a couple days after that, we had someone say, “Oh hey, I just got this gift from your company, and I love it!” And that was the moment where I realized, “Oh, gifting – that’s what we’re about.”
Sugarfina has a very dedicated company culture where it seems your employees always go the extra mile. How do you attract and retain such amazing employees?
Rosie O’Neill: Well, that makes me so happy to hear and one of my favorite moments is when people will tell me, “Hey, I went into your store and I had this great experience!” And they’ll even name our salespeople by name. I think you really have to instill this spirit of entrepreneurship in your team and you have to hire people who want that. There’s a lot of people on our team who aspire to be entrepreneurs one day and they’re kind of practicing while they’re at Sugarfina and we love that. But you also have to make sure that you don’t forget about communication and training. So constantly communicating what’s going on with the company and with new product launches, and then making sure that you provide all the training and support to really do that. You can’t just take a great person and just put them out there and hope they’re going to do well. You really have to give them that coaching and support.
What questions does your team ask during an interview to determine whether someone is the right fit to work for your brand?
Rosie O’Neill: I always love to ask, “What are you passionate about?” And I love when people tell me things that have nothing to do with work. Like, “Oh I’m an artist or I’ve been studying violin since I was a little kid!” Usually you can tell when people have a really strong passion for something, they tend to be people who throw themselves into their work and really get passionate. So that’s one of my favorite questions to ask. You also want to make sure that you have people that really connect with the brand and really love the brand. And ideally, they’ve been customers in the past too.
I love Sugarfina’s five core values: spread sweetness, cultivate innovation, lead with integrity, act as entrepreneurs, and deliver luxury. It’s one thing to have them on the wall inside your headquarters, but how do you actually activate them within your company culture?
Rosie O’Neill: Well, it starts from the top. Josh and I have to be living and breathing these every single day, and even on days where you come in and you’re stressed and not really feeling like it, you still have to put that forward. That’s what our company is and that’s what we as people stand for. Then you have to hire people who are just those kinds of people naturally. If someone isn’t high integrity, you can start to see pretty quickly how that can have a big impact on the culture. And if someone has a negative outlook on life and isn’t a sweet person who goes around spreading sweetness, that too really just kind of infiltrates and brings everyone down. So we make sure that when we’re interviewing, that the candidates show signs of being able to uphold those values and then we keep an eye out. The first 30 days are critical. If someone isn’t upholding the company’s core values, we’ll make a decision to maybe transition them to being a customer and not an employee.
When you look back at your incredibly successful career thus far, what’s been the most rewarding personally?
Rosie O’Neill: Building a team has been incredibly rewarding. As an entrepreneur, you are going to be the one who cares about it the most and the weight of the business really sits on your shoulders. But what has blown me away is that I’ve brought people onto the team who are so passionate and so incredible and I believe they care about the business as much as I do, which I didn’t even think was possible! I’m obsessed, and I don’t expect everyone around me to be as well, but they really are and they pour their heart into it. You can tell from the quality of work and all their great ideas how invested they are. And that just makes me happy. I feel so lucky every day to have such a great team.
For anyone out there who wants to be an entrepreneur and run a successful company like you, what advice would you tell them?
Rosie O’Neill: In the very early days, what a lot of people do is they’ll come up with something and they’ll just show it to their friends and family. And their friends and family will be like, “It’s awesome! You’re gonna be great!” But that’s not a real world interpretation of what it means to get your product out there. I always say to get that really tough feedback right away. Show it to people who don’t know you. Get their anonymous feedback and listen to what they say. If your friends and family are saying it’s great and the people you don’t know are saying, “Eh, I probably wouldn’t buy that,” figure out how to make some adjustments and get it to a place where it will actually sell in the real world.
You have an incredibly innovative approach when it comes to Sugarfina’s branding, store design, and overall customer experience, so what is your best advice for any company that’s striving to be a disruptor, rather than be disrupted?
Rosie O’Neill: Well, first you have to ask yourself the question every day, “What is everyone else doing, and how can you do that very differently?” So with candy, most people go into a candy store and they expect the pick ‘n mix…you’re scooping with a shovel into a plastic bag, and kids are sneezing and putting their hands in it, and it’s just gross. So we wanted to do something that was the complete opposite of that. You really have to break all the rules and do things that people haven’t done before. And also, think about who your end customer is, and what is going to make them want to get out of bed in the morning and come to your store or go to your website. As an example, last year on April Fool’s, we “fake launched” green juice gummy bears, and people just went crazy for it and they were calling us and coming to the store, “How do I buy this?” And we’re like, “We’re so sorry, but it’s not real.” But at the moment, the lightbulb went off. We reach out to Pressed Juicery, which is one of the biggest juice brands. They loved the idea, and it sold out within about two days.
Innovation requires asking questions and challenging sacred cows. Why do you think so many organizations struggle with this?
Rosie O’Neill: I think a lot of people are really just coming from a place of either complacency or being a little bit fearful about it. It takes a lot of guts to say, “Well, let’s do this differently.” You really are taking a big risk, and I think you have to have a company culture where if you try something and it fails miserably, that that’s OK and that’s part of the process. And that’s really the culture we have. We try a lot of things, and a lot of them work really well, and a lot of them fail miserably. And you just pick yourself up, and you learn, and you move on. People always ask, “Well what do you wish you could go back and change about your life?” I really wouldn’t change anything, because even the things that were really challenging, they make you who you are today, and I wouldn’t want to change that.