With a serial entrepreneur as a father, it’s no surprise that Angus Thirlwell, 46, went into business. Unfortunately, his early ideas weren’t great. “I was always trying to invent gadgets,” says the founder of specialist chocolate-maker Hotel Chocolat. “One, when I was quite young, was to suck up the water from the bath and then pump it back over you to have a shower. Of course, my dad [Edwin, founder of Mr Whippy and Prontaprint] pointed out it wouldn’t work because in two seconds it would be cold again.”
A university dropout, Thirlwell spent several years selling software for firms in France and England before hitting on his first big idea in 1987: corporate mints. “Corporate pens were the big thing at the time. But we thought that it would be easier to fully replicate corporate colours on mints. And because they’re refreshing, crisp and clean, they were business-like as well.” He and a friend, Peter Harris, each contributed £5,000 and started the Mint Marketing Company from an office at Thirwell’s Suffolk cottage.
It didn’t go down too well at home. “My wife warned us that every time she came back in the evening, every trace of the office had to be hidden.” So most of their time was spent in Cambridge library with scissors and glue. They used the library’s colour photocopier to print logos off companies’ literature. These were then shrunk and wrapped around packs of mints. They hand-mailed these to 25 companies at a time, and followed up with phone calls. “We looked to companies such as Sony, Ford and AA, which had strong, simple logos that would look good on mints. And we were pretty evangelical about it. It was difficult to say no.”
A company in Holland was employed to make the mints. By 1990, the Mint Marketing Company had hit £1m in annual sales and had landed contracts with British Airways and various hotels. “But we hadn’t cracked the consumer market. At Christmas, we didn’t get any busier than any other months. But that’s when chocolate companies go ballistic.”
That triggered another idea, this time for chocograms – boxes of chocolates delivered by post with a personalised message card. To tie in with the new product launch in 1993, the company changed its name to ‘Chocexpress’. They started with a reader offer in the Evening Standard, paid for by offering the paper 6% of sales. A chocolate tasting club was set up to develop recipes and ideas. A website came along in 1998, and by 2000 sales had hit £6m.
Then in 2003 the company became Hotel Chocolat, opening its first high-street store. “Buying chocolate over the internet is very premeditated, as you have to wait from one to three days for delivery. We wanted people to come in and see our product.” Customers took to the shop in Watford immediately. More followed – the company now has sales of £50m across 45 stores in Britain and two in America. It’s a success story that would make Thirlwell’s father proud. “A lot of people in business think you can build something that is fantastic, resilient and enduring within a couple of years. That’s complete rubbish. It takes a long time to build something which is going to last and a brand that people trust.”