Max Scotford is founder of Bullion, an award winning bean to bar chocolate company.
What kind of kid were you?
I think I was always up for giving things a go. I wasn’t the best at sports and I wasn’t the most academic kid, but I always tried my best in everything that I did, and I was always willing to learn as well. One thing that stuck with me when I was a kid was my passion for food which then led me on to train to become a chef, which is what I pursued at college when I finished school.
What did you do before Bullion?
When I started down the road of becoming a chef, I soon realised that the professional kitchen environment was not suited for me. I had the passion for food, but I was young and I think a lot of chef’s will agree – you’ve got to be the right person for that sort of role and at the time when I was sixteen, I decided that wasn’t for me.
I decided to further my education at university. Although food and drink is a huge passion, on the completion of my degree I decided to work in sales and marketing for a web development agency. This allowed me to immerse myself in new challenges and gain vital experience in how to sell a product. I do really think the combination of the background in food, with the sales and business experience were key aspects of helping me shape the vision for Bullion and how I was going to pursue it.
Did you always want to run your own business?
100% – I look at things and if I see an opportunity, I think of how I can develop it. A good example of this was when I was twelve. At the time we lived down the road from a Golf Club and I noticed that there wasn’t that much going off with food on the course. So, I had this idea of creating a business called SandWedge and actually selling sandwiches on the golf course. I think that was one of my earliest entrepreneurial ideas.
My next idea, when I was seventeen I actually bought a trademark called ProYo, which was protected in the dairy and fitness industry. At the time there was this big hype around frozen yoghurt and also the fitness movement was starting to grow. So, I had this idea of combining protein with yoghurt to produce a protein fix, for these people that were training and needed protein in their diet. So ProYo was born.
We’ll come back to ProYo a bit later on because it helped me grow Bullion in the end.
So, what inspired you to start a chocolate business?
During my time at catering college, I developed a real interest in chocolate, and over the years I further educated myself on chocolate – researching how it was made, the incredible history and the distinct flavour notes derived from each single origin.
As I was doing my research into chocolate I noticed this growing ‘bean-to-bar’ movement in America. What these people were actually doing were importing cocoa beans from smallholder farmers, then taking them through a series of complex steps to produce a finished bar of chocolate.
It’s grown massively over there, following in the footsteps of the craft beer industry and the craft coffee market. Because there were only a handful of people In the UK crafting bean to bar, my alarm bells started ringing and decided to take steps and turn my passion into a dream business.
I was trying to think of a way that would capture how I wanted to craft chocolate and put my spin on it. I had this idea of treating chocolate like wine. You’ve got to try it to understand where I’m coming from here – but each bean origin has such varying flavour profiles. It’s incredible, and it’s so comparable to the wine industry in terms of where the grapes are grown and the variety. It all has a huge bearing on the finished taste and its exactly the same with chocolate.
I’ve always seen this cloud over chocolate. You can just get a bar of chocolate from a shelf and it tastes like chocolate. Chocolate tastes bitter or it’s just a sweet fix. My vision was to keep it really pure and to speak for that origin and really showcase the flavour profiles of that particular region and that particular estate that’s grown the beans.
A bar of bullion is a pure bar of something precious or a precious metal and I believe chocolate should be considered that way too. The lengths these farmers go to, to produce the quality of these beans, there’s no reason why it can’t be considered precious or of value. They’re producing some of the best beans in the world, and it’s our job to do them justice.
So I decided to go for it and start creating the business. I started working on the branding and bought the domain name so I could build the site. I actually went to look at the trademark too to see if it was available and to my surprise it was owned by a company called United Biscuit Group, they own a lot of the big biscuit brands in the UK. I believe they had the mark for the last thirty years. When I looked at that trademark, it was actually due for renewal in the next two months.
Luckily and after thirty years, it just ran out and it came up available. So, I snapped it up and I managed to secure the Bullion mark in the confectionary industry. It just solidified that this is meant to be.
How did you validate the idea?
So, I actually started off with an Indian Spice Grinder. It does around 2KG at a time, it is basically a miniature stone grinder and I started making it at home. I started making the chocolate and people were trying it and saying, “Do you know what? This is different! This is special! I’ve never tried chocolate like this!”
When you’re getting these sorts of reactions from people you soon realise there is real scope here for something and if done correctly, who knows where it will go. I floated the idea around a few potential stockists in the area. A lot of them have been very supportive from the start which has been fantastic, and said the product was something they’d be interested in stocking.
What were some of the challenges?
Because we’re essentially manufacturing and doing the selling and marketing, there’s a lot of work involved. Making chocolate from bean-to-bar really is a labour of love. You’ve got to love what you do as it really is intense. To begin with it was just me, so it was long hours. Now I’ve got a few people involved in the business which are there for specific roles, so that’s eased it a little bit.
One of our recent challenges was handling a large order. All of our bars are hand wrapped and we had a large subscription box order come in. They wanted a thousand bars in the space of two weeks. It was a big deal for us at the time because we’d only recently started trading, we couldn’t turn the opportunity down. Moulding and wrapping them all in the short time frame was interesting to say the least. I’ve had my eyes on a wrapping machine ever since but unfortunately they’re super expensive. So I think we are just going to have to stick to it and wrap by hand. Like I say it’s a labour of love.
How did you raise money?
It’s not cheap to build a micro chocolate factory or a craft chocolate factory. I’ve invested a fair amount of capital into the business. Most of it is spent on specialist equipment to help us with the chocolate making process. Each piece of equipment that we’ve invested in, it is integral to the process.
You can’t really cut corners in this because you are doing something so pure it all needs to be perfect or it will show in the finished chocolate.
In terms of how i raised the money, it was a combination of different things. The first lot of money goes back to ProYo, the trademark I mentioned earlier. This is where I said all of the opportunities sort of lined up at the right time. So, I had the idea for this business (Bullion) and obviously money is tight for any stat-up. Luckily I was actually approached by one of the largest dairy manufacturers in the UK and they were interested in purchasing the name the ProYo trademark.
So that was sold, helping me fund the business. Around the same time I also sold my house, as I was moving closer to Sheffield. To my surprise I profited from the sale and put the funds towards the business. I needed a little bit of cash for cash flow and I took a small loan. So, it was combination of a few things really. We haven’t required any investment yet but maybe that’s something for down the line if we were ever to scale.
How did you market it and what’s your strategy now?
What we do is a very visual process. Social media played a key part in communicating what we do and why it is different. That is the main channel we are focusing on. This is not your everyday chocolate, it’s been crafted, small batch from bean to bar.
Another way we’ve marketed the product is created strategic partnerships so a lot of the retailers that we work with have a following and the people that go there are interested in speciality coffees and this sort of thing. So the audience that go to these craft shops would definitely fit our target market, so it’s been a case of working with selected retailers who would allow us to communicate our product in that sense.
Over the course of a year, we’ve built up a substantial mailing list, so we want to be able to offer our customers exclusive deals that keep them engaged. We’re thinking of launching a blog as well to communicate what we do and monthly updates as well as pairings, what works well with our chocolate.
We’ve started doing a lot of tasting events, we’ve just done two with The Spirit of Yorkshire, which is Yorkshires first whisky distillery. It’s a great opportunity to show people the process, talking about how we make it and allowing them to try it as well. It’s a very nice way of introducing people to our product.
What’s in the future for Bullion?
We’re at a place now where we’ve got this small factory but it has a cap. We can only produce a certain amount of bars per month and it produces its challenges, because it is quite a small space. So, you can’t really do too many tasks at the same time. It’s not as efficient as it could be. So, we are looking to scale to a larger premises.
As we scale to a larger premises we would love to be able to offer a retail space to our customers, selling our bars and other goods produced with our chocolate.
We’re always looking to grow our retailer network. We got our first international retailer last week, they’re based in the Netherlands, so that’s quite exciting and so maybe a bit more international exploring as well, that would be nice.
It’s still very early days because we are a start-up, but it’s super exciting and something that I’ve always wanted to do. To have a vision and passion for something and for it to start to become a reality is amazing. Really looking forward to watching the business develop and seeing where we can take it.