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Inspired by travel #2: Montezuma’s

How a trip to South America inspired a couple of high-flying lawyers to ditch the day jobs in favour of starting a luxury handmade chocolate brand...

Company: Montezuma’s
Founders: Helen and Simon Pattinson
Started in: 2000

From pen pushers to free-spirited travellers – when the dull tedium of city life grew too much to bear for husband-and-wife team Simon and Helen Pattinson, the pair decided to discard their briefcases and pack up their suitcases, embarking on a year-long adventure around South America.

The Pattinsons may have left lucrative careers as lawyers behind, but while exploring the sights of a small town in Argentina, the couple soon discovered the key ingredient to both success and self-fulfilment: chocolate.

Their chocolate brand Montezuma's has since grown into independent stores and a popular online shop, while thousands of independent shops and retail giants including John Lewis and Waitrose have also bought into the sweet taste of the South American paradise, distributing the couple's range of more than 200 delicious treats nationwide.

Here's how travel inspired Helen and Simon's delicious start-up:

Where were you when you got the idea?

Simon and I were working as lawyers in London and desperately wanted to escape the monotony.  We had become glorified paper pushers, we were paid well but had no time to enjoy it and spent most of our weekends trying to escape to go sailing or mountain biking.

We couldn't see the point of it any longer so we decided to sell our house and resign. We packed rucksacks and a tent and went travelling for a year around South America.

Why were you so inspired?

A few months into our trip Simon was struck down with food poisoning so we escaped our tent for a couple of nights and booked ourselves into a hotel in the small Argentinian lake district town of Bariloche.

I didn't want to go far on my own so I explored the town and discovered chocolate retailing like I'd never seen it before. The town was full of amazing little chocolate shops, all selling great quality chocolate in fun packaging, some making chocolate in store and others focussing on store design.

But what really struck me was how all these shops could make a living in a small Argentinian town while chocolate retailing in the UK was still very basic. When Simon recovered, I dragged him out to the stores and he was as inspired as I was.

A couple of months later, we were in Venezuela and stumbled upon a cocoa plantation, seeing how the farmers were drying the cocoa beans on the basic tarmac track made us realise what an incredible product chocolate is. When Simon slipped a disc in his back a few days later, we were rushed back to the UK for emergency treatment but I had one thing on my mind – chocolate!

Were you actively looking for a start-up idea or did it just seem too good to pass up?

We knew we had to find something to do on our return and were really keen to run our own business, having hated being part of such a large organisation before, so we kept notes of business ideas when we were away.

How easy was it to start the business on your return?

We spent the following year researching the British chocolate industry and writing a business plan to become the UK's most innovative and exciting chocolate retailer.

What research did you have to carry out to learn more about the sector and the market opportunity?

We had no plans to manufacture our own products; that only came about by accident when the supplier we had found to make most of our chocolates went bust just a few weeks before we were due to open the store we had secured in Brighton.

We decided overnight to make it ourselves, creating another business with it. It was a steep learning curve and incredibly frustrating but we learnt how to make chocolate and managed to open our store a few weeks later with a small range of products.

Almost to our surprise, people came and paid for our creations on the day we opened. And then they came back for more. We were sure we had created something that people wanted so our challenge was to make sure we could make money from it.

How did you replicate what you'd seen overseas or use your experience there? Did you modify the idea for the UK market?

We didn't really set out to replicate what we had seen in Argentina as this really just provided the inspiration. It was important to research the British industry carefully to ensure the idea would appeal to customers here. But we still remember those days in Argentina very fondly and try to recall what inspired us to make sure we are doing the same for our customers.

How much did you invest in getting started?

We had sold our house in London when we left and had travelled on a tight budget so we still had some capital to put into our business. We also raised some finance from family.  Over the years, we have also used the banks to help finance some of the growth.

How quickly after starting did you experience what you'd describe as ‘success'?

We broke even in our first year of trading in our Brighton store. At this point, we weren't in it for the money and were more interested in creating a store that our customers loved to visit but it was reassuring to know that we had managed not to make an awful loss while we were doing it!

Where did you go for advice?

One thing being a lawyer trains you for is research so we did know how to find the information we were looking for. We were probably reluctant to ask for advice from anyone as we were very sure of our ideas and didn't want to give anybody the opportunity to question them.

What advice would you give to others who travel looking for start-up ideas?

It sounds counter-intuitive but don't look too hard! We had many ideas when we were travelling and they were inspired by everything we saw and experienced while we were away. We had the luxury of time however and didn't feel pressured into finding something which probably helps the creative process.

What are your future plans?

We are creating a family business with a long future. We are growing at a huge rate at the moment but we are adamant that this must be sustainable and build strong foundations for the business.   We are always creating new products, mostly as a result of customer feedback and our wonderful team experimenting in the chocolate kitchens. What could be more fun than that!