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Flashback to 2004: Catching up with Helen Miller

Wed, 23 January 2013

In 2004 Helen Miller and Stewart McKechnie of the Oban Chocolate Company were in the Shell LiveWIRE Scottish National Final and bagged a prize for their business plan.
​​We caught up with Helen to find out how business is going. 
What can you remember about your involvement with Shell LiveWIRE?
I can still vividly remember being interviewed by a panel when we entered the competition and also the awards ceremony that was held in Edinburgh. We won the prize for best business plan which was a super boost in those early stages. And we can honestly say that most of what we planned did happen!

How have things changed for you since you won your Shell LiveWIRE award?
Our business has grown a lot since we entered the awards. We have gone from a very basic two-person business in a tiny shop premise up a sidestreet to having a staff of 15 and a large, seafront position where we have a fabulous cafe, shop and factory. We originally started just making chocolates to sell in the shop and now make several thousand chocolates by hand every week, and have about 25 wholesale customers, a solid wedding cake business, we run kids workshops and have gained a fantastic reputation in Scotland.
Oban Chocolate Company in the Scottish Sunday Herald
How have you had to adapt as an entrepreneur over the years?
When we first started out there was hardly anyone making handmade chocolates and barely a decent cafe in Oban, whereas now there are chocolatiers all over Scotland! This coupled with the advances in social networking has made it increasingly difficult to maintain originality as everyone has instant access to new developments, and copying, although apparently the highest form of flattery, is rife!

What has been the biggest obstacle you have overcome in business?
We've had several challenging times with our business - moving to considerably larger premises with really very little experience in managing people has been tricky but we are now really good at it! We've also done well by maintaining the quality and handmade nature of our chocolates without taking any shortcuts, despite the growing demand. We have had to, at various points, decide whether to compromise on production techniques for volume orders but unlike some of our competitors, this is not a route we have chosen - we have two full time chocolatiers and three tempering machines. There is a limit to how much we can make and that is how we intend to keep it! The final obstacle came in the last few years when we started a family - we now have a one year old and a three year old and that can be very tricky to juggle with running a busy business, particularly when self employed mothers don't get nine months of paid maternity leave and someone to do their job while they're off!

What are your top 3 tips for a young entrepreneur about to set up in business?
1. Do your research, and do it well.
2. Be willing to adapt as your business evolves, right from the beginning.
3. Listen to advice but go with your gut feeling.

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