Jennifer Earle, with her enticingly named Chocolate Ecstasy Tours, founded her business back in 2005 by doing the things she loved best; learning, discovering London, meeting new people and tasting delicious food, especially chocolate! We caught up with Jennifer, a recent graduate of the Innovating for Growth programme, to find out how her business started and to learn about an exciting new development that is underway.
What was your background before starting Chocolate Ecstasy Tours?
I ran the tour's business alongside full-time work, including a role as a Food Buyer at Marks & Spencer and a Food Developer at McDonaldâs. I was already writing about food part-time and from 2006 I started to get invited to speak on the radio and TV, as well as judge food awards and speak at events.
I finally began working fulltime on Chocolate Ecstasy Tours in 2013 and added more tours, more dates and more workshops and events â including teaching chocolate workshops in schools and running food innovation days for companies. The tours gradually became premium as the experience and knowledge of my guiding team increased and we reduced the maximum number of guests on a tour reduced to eight.
This commitment to quality was always going to restrict how large I could grow the tour's business. I really wanted to make something that could reach more people and promote more of the amazing food businesses we have in London, but in a way that still hit the core values of quality, discovery, effortlessness and fun. Iâd been mulling over the options for years but the idea for Taste Tripper didnât all click into place until one evening in 2015. I shared the idea with my husband who was so enthusiastic about it he wanted to get involved.
What makes Taste Tripper unique?
Taste Tripper is â as far as I know â the worldâs first self-guided tasting tour business. Our Explorer Packs are a really effortless and a flexible way to discover part of Londonâs amazing food scene. The partner locations in the Taste Tripper Explorer Packs all offer something delicious for you, just for turning up! And, like a VIP, you get a special deal on any extra purchases, too.
What we hope will keep us unique is our commitment to quality. We will only ever send people to places that we believe are fabulous.
What challenges has the business faced along the way?
Being a new concept meant that we had to convince businesses to work with us. Mostly in principle, this has been easy but, as we mostly work with small businesses that have a lot on their plate, it can take time to get them to send us the information we need and approve things.
We had some dire printing errors which were quite expensive and I donât think we could have done anything differently to have avoided them. We also had our trademark challenged by a big company which meant thousands on lawyer fees before weâd even made a hundred sales. There were tough decisions to make but we are proud that we stood our ground and won!
Through the British Library Innovating for Growth programme we had fantastic, honest feedback and we called our first customers for more of the same. Itâs been so enlightening and inspiring and made us go back to the drawing board on quite a few significant things. Itâs been quite frustrating that it has taken us some months to get the changes ready, but we hope to be bringing these big improvements to market in and finally start promoting the business again!
What advice would you give to any small business owners thinking of developing a new product?
The most valuable thing for us was contacting customers and asking them to speak with us and give us feedback. The sooner you can do this, the better. Trying to sell as soon as possible will show you thereâs a market. But then you need to ask those people who parted with money if they are happy and how they could be happier.
We probably would have benefited from discussing our ideas with more people and listening harder for their suggestions. But people will tell you different things so try to focus only on the things that keep being mentioned. Itâs important to have the courage of your convictions over the smaller stuff, especially if you think you know your market well.
I would also advise anyone that good products donât happen quickly. Whatever time span you had planned for launch or growth: double it. And maybe double it again.
You grew the business with the help of our Innovating for Growth programme. What specifically did the programme help you achieve?
The honest feedback from experienced people was invaluable. It forced us to really look at what was working, what wasnât and what was important. We got clearer on what we wanted the business to stand for, how we could communicate that and what changes we needed to make. The technical advice for ensuring we have a watertight business was also brilliant and so useful.
During the three months we decided to change the redemption from tear-off paper strips on the cards to online redemption, whilst still keeping the attractive giftable Explorer Pack (it all seems so obvious now!) and we also decided to add a map to the homepage so customers could create their own London Explorer Pack. Weâll eventually offer neighbourhood Explorer Packs, too. It really feels like we have a much more solid business with real potential for growth. Iâm so excited!
Are you an ambitious business owner looking to scale up, like Jennifer? If so, Innovating for Growth is a free three-month programme to help you turn your growth idea into a reality. Find out more and apply now.