Rosie O’Neill talks very fast — like someone who’s had a bit too much caffeine. Or, in her case, a bit too much sugar. Which would be the perfect right of the woman who co-founded the sweetest little candy biz we know: Sugarfina.
If you’re not familiar with the brand that sells fancy candies for adults (though you’re welcome to feed them to your kids — they're just more pricey than M&Ms), Sugarfina launched online in 2012 and opened its first retail boutique in Beverly Hills in 2013, right off Rodeo Drive. Now there are more than two dozen of the bright blue and white candy stores in the United States, and the brand shows no signs of slowing down.
A disruptor in the confections market, Sugarfina sells artisan treats made by small-batch candy makers around the world. Think: chocolate-covered kumquats from Greece, rainbow-hued Kyoto blossoms from Japan, single-malt scotch cordials from Germany and many more that are as beautiful to look at as they are to taste.
We are thrilled to introduce you to the lady behind the candy. Sugarfina is setting up a dazzling DIY candy bar for our Summit, and Rosie will spend the day with us, sharing all kinds of small biz insight.
In anticipation, we sat down for a chat with Rosie, who came up with the idea for the company with her now fiancé, Josh Resnick, on their third date, after seeing the movie Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. At the time, she was director of Barbie marketing at Mattel. Josh had sold his video game design company a few years earlier. They met on Match.com, and before anyone could say “champagne gummy bears,” they were partners in life and in business. The rest is sweet history.
What was the hardest part about getting Sugarfina off the ground?
The shift in mindset. I came from a really big company with a huge team and a department for every function. When you start a business, you do everything yourself, from figuring out how to set up a FedEx account to signing for your own packages — whatever needs doing. But when we started, it was just the two of us, and we had to figure everything out. But it’s a little bit fun to be a scrappy problem solver. Still, I am always learning something new. I joke that every day at Sugarfina is the hardest day of our lives, but it’s part of what keeps me sharp. When you do the same thing for 10 or 15 years, you get comfortable, and I didn’t ever want to feel that way in my career.
What was the most fun?
Working with Josh makes everything fun! We are best friends! We have really great chemistry and camaraderie. It’s like being at summer camp, and in the industry we are — confections — you can’t help but have fun. This is every kid’s fantasy of what a job could be.
Was the plan all along to launch online first and then move to brick-and-mortar stores?
Yes. We always had a retail store as an end goal. But we wanted to prove out the concept before we opened an actual store. Neither of us had any experience in retail, but we knew we could launch online cheaper and faster. And we knew it would give us a chance to test the product. We got great insight from the year and a half we spent online before opening in Beverly Hills.
When you launched, what did your marketing plan look like?
We launched without a plan, but my background is marketing and branding and PR. I am a big believer in the power of the press, and I would just blindly reach out to people with a great email. We got great early traction with DailyCandy, Food & Wine and Oprah. We also did a lot of social media and influencer outreach before that became a thing. We were on Instagram in 2012 and found that it was a great way to engage customers directly and creatively. We did — and still do — a lot of celebrity weddings and baby showers.
What happened early on that surprised you?
To be honest, we were just surprised at how positive the response was. There wasn’t anything like Sugarfina out there. There was no place that focused on candy that was really fresh and childlike but also done in a grown-up way. What we also didn’t realize was that gift giving was going to be such a big focus for the brand. Gifts now make up two-thirds of our sales.
What didn’t go as well as you expected?
People are the hardest part of any business. We made some great early hires and some bad early hires. The wrong people in your business at an early stage can make a really big impact. We hired a couple of people who brought the culture down. It was a really hard lesson, and now we are much more disciplined about how we hire.
What went even better?
Our growth has been crazy! At this point, Josh and I look at each other and are like, this can’t keep double and tripling. It’s crazy how big the world is and how many opportunities there are — things we hadn’t even thought of.
With such rapid growth, what’s one thing that you try to be careful about?
I think it’s a hard but important lesson to say no as many times as you say yes. We have to be strategic and selective about our opportunities. We get constant requests to take Sugarfina international. I can’t say yes until I can do it well, so we’ve brought on someone to build up internal operations.
What challenges surprised you when you went from online to a physical location?
Online and retail are totally different businesses. There are very few similarities, and the people part is critical. Today’s retail customer is looking for a different experience, so we are always asking, How can we be different? How can we be the opposite of any candy store you’ve ever walked into? We also realize it’s important to form relationships and not just do transactions.
What’s your best advice for someone who wants to launch a business?
Get the painful feedback early on. Get real-world feedback before you get too invested in one particular path. Get feedback from people who don’t know you and already like you. Sell your food at a farmers market or get shelf space in a store. Try to learn early on what changes you need to make.
Once you grow a little bit, focus on having the right people. You have to hire people for three years from now and not for just today. Those people are more experienced and more expensive, but you are making an investment that sets you up for success.
Flea Style Speed Round
Wake-up time: Around 6:30 a.m.
Bedtime: After midnight.
Morning drink: Nonfat latte.
Afternoon pick-me-up: Nonfat latte.
Favorite quote: “Eat a frog for breakfast.” It means do your most gnarly task first thing in the morning.
If you were a Sugarfina candy, what would you be and why? A pink flamingo. I am on the taller side, a little quirky and love the color pink.
What three candies should we not miss!? The peach bellini is my all-time favorite, the champagne bears are what we are most known for, and we just launched the dark chocolate champagne bears.
Photos: Courtesy of Sugarfina