My name is Lissa D’Aquanni. Nine years ago, I created the Chocolate Gecko in my basement. I wasn’t sure where I was headed with it — all I knew was that I was disappointed with the quality of chocolate that was available for purchase in the Capital Region and I needed an outlet for my creativity. Growing up, my Aunt had a chocolate store in Westchester. I remember it being a magical place — who could be miserable in a candy store? I think there was a part of me that wanted to recreate that magic at the Gecko. The gecko name — well, that was just frivolity. I liked geckos and a chocolate one seemed doubly attractive.
I began the business in the Winter of 1998. That season — Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter — was fairly busy for a new business. So I decided to make a go of it. As soon as I decided that, business dropped off. The phone didn’t ring all summer. “OK, I thought, “it was fun while it lasted.” Then in September, the phone began to ring again. That was my first experience with a seasonal business — who knew? (Just about everyone who had ever run a business — but that wasn’t me.)
The business continued to grow. We had a unique, fresh product and our customers were our best advertisers. In 2002 I decided to expand the business from my basement. I purchased an abandoned building in my neighborhood, renovated it and re-introduced the Chocolate Gecko. That’s the short version. The long version included piecing together a financial package that included private investors, an SBA loan via my credit union (SEFCU), a loan from the city via the Chamber, and assistance from the Capital District Community Loan Fund. It included coordinating neighborhood volunteers and friends who selflessly gave up their weekends to help gut and rebuild this diamond in the rough. It included negotiating the often confusing and frustrating maze of contractors, subcontractors and the city’s building department. It included recruiting two other start-up businesses that helped make the project complete.
The business continued to grow. And as it grew, I became aware that it was no longer a little niche business. It had the potential to be national — our product was good enough to compete. But I didn’t have the knowledge to get us there and after 9 years of exhausting holidays, I wasn’t sure that I had the energy. I decided to sell the business. Do you remember the game show “The Weakest Link” — well, I felt like the weakest link. I’m not putting myself down — it’s good to recognize what we are good at and when we need to hand off. Recognizing that it’s time to step aside is just as important as stepping up.
When I sold the business in 2007, it was with the intention that the new owners would be able to infuse the energy, time and capital necessary to take the business to the next level. I’m pleased to report that they are doing just that.
Over the course of this blog, I’ll be reporting on some of the challenges and joys that made owning the Chocolate Gecko an incredible experience. Staffing, marketing and advertising, financing, vendors, community and networking are just a few of the topics I’ll discuss.
As for now, I’m an adjunct Professor at the University at Albany and the College of Pharmacy. I teach public relations and communication. I love teaching and the students are energizing. I also started another business: Out On A Limb Consulting. I provide public relations, marketing, program and campaign assistance to micro-entrepreneurs and nonprofits. Why Out On A Limb? It’s all about perspective. When I owned the Gecko, Entrepreneur magazine wrote an article about creative financing and featured the Gecko. The article was called “Out On A Limb: when the money tree looks dry, sometimes you just have to create your own branch.” There were many times when I felt that my back was up against the wall and I was out on a limb (i.e. no options). But when I got over my fear of heights (excuse the metaphor) and looked around, I realized that there were options I had never seen before — they were creative, entrepreneurial options. Like I said, it’s all about perspective.
Over the next few posts, I’ll be introducing the other bloggers at EbizNY and as a blog team, we’ll spotlight other entrepreneurs in the Capital Region and some of the issues they face. If you have comments or have something that you would like us to address, please let us know. If there is something you are struggling with in your business, email us. We’re here as a resource and support for you.