Voilà – Change, Choices, and Chocolate

New York City entrepreneur turns passion for chocolate into retail entertainment concept where adults and children learn about the art of chocolatiering .

How do you transition from the world of banking and commerce into producing happiness?  Through chocolate, of course!  At least, that was the plan for Peter Moustakerski, who went from the world of consulting and finance to launching one of the most unique businesses in New York City, Voilà Chocolat.  I entered the shop to the enticing aroma of what may be the best chocolate in New York City.  While waiting to meet with him, I had a delicious cup of coffee, and could see the machines which temper the chocolate.  Adults and children come to Voilà to make unique gifts, from bars to chocolate pops to animals, and can personalize their creations with unique toppings.  This makes Voilà a great gathering place for groups, from birthday parties to team building activities. I’m always on the search for entrepreneurs who have interesting personal journeys and backstories.  Peter Moustakerski is one of those entrepreneurs. I sat down to discuss what went into Peter’s decision making process during this radical career change from corporate world to being an entrepreneur.

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Peter Moustakerski, founder of Voilà Chocolat in New York City.

Tell me about your backstory and background.

Peter:  I was born and raised in Bulgaria.  My parents were engineers, and my high school afforded me the opportunity to get exposed to the rest of the world.  I studied computer science and had the opportunity to be part of one of the early exchange programs between Bulgaria and China almost 30 years ago.  I ended up spending the next 13 years of my life in China, at a time when the business environment in China was like the Wild West, a cowboy in an uncharted territory with rules I had to learn as I went forward.  I made many connections and learned the ropes of how to start up a business in China by opening a candy factory producing for the Chinese consumer.  I realized that there was a void, a need in China that I hoped to fill.  I learned to network, wine and dine the right people to get the permits needed, built up the manufacturing and the marketing from the ground up.  We made a lot of mistakes during that time, and also had many successes. Eventually, I moved on from that to work at the USDA.

How did candy manufacturing in China lead to a job with the USDA?

Peter:  It was the late 1990s, and US growers and manufacturers were looking for opportunities to enter and distribute in the Chinese market.  It was a visionary concept to view the people in China as consumers. I had the connections to make that happen in the Chinese food distribution world, so even though I was a third-country national, the USDA hired me.  It was while I was doing this that I met my wife, who was an editor for The Economist writing about the opening China market.  We moved to the US in 2001, and I enrolled at Columbia Business School.  Having my crazy background led to some interesting opportunities.  I became the interpreter for the President of Bulgaria as he traveled around China and Hong Kong.  From there, I got involved in the consulting crowd for Booz Allen.  I later ran a strategic initiatives group for UBS, where I learned how to be effective in large business environments. After that, I began working for Bridgewater with its founder, Ray Dalio, who recruited me to help build his family office.  

What did you learn from working with Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater?

Peter:  Ray Dalio is a very smart and intellectually intense person.  But he also pushed you to your limits.  A few years earlier, he had begun thinking about and writing what was behind his success.  He wrote down his values and principles, which became the nucleus for the culture of Bridgewater.  The published vision was followed at Bridgewater almost at a cult level.  His process of self-analysis was a great opportunity to learn who you are, what you want, and how you are going to go about getting it.  After this job, I realized that something was missing in my world, and in the world in general: having more hands-on, creative fun together with other people. So I wanted to fill that void.  I realized that whatever activity we do as people, we are only going to enjoy it if we do things we believe in.  

How did working at the world’s largest hedge fund lead to the idea of Voilà Chocolat?

Peter:  I knew I wanted to work with chocolate.  I combined my passions for chocolate and business, and observed how much fun people were having when they were working with chocolate, as I used them as willing guinea pigs  along my journey of learning the chocolate craft.  I realized I could create a retail entertainment concept, that did not exist in the world, where people could interact and learn about the art of chocolatiering .  Then came the journey of taking that concept, and making it a real business. Thankfully, I had the background to create a business plan that would work, raise the capital needed for this venture, and connections that helped me build a network of people that would stand behind this seemingly crazy concept, and finally recruiting people who shared this vision.  After spending over 2 years launching the business and running the first store for over a year, we now have plans to expand, and aim to have 50 retail stores in key markets around the country.  Our vision of a larger concept gives us the flexibility so we can change and modify quickly to evolve.

What is one mantra that has helped throughout this journey?

Peter:  Creating a business is a very personal journey.  Corporations were designed to be impersonal, to shield away the people.  A business works well when it reflects your personality and values. We have a simple values-based vision at Voilà:  Create unexpected happiness. Succeeding in this goal becomes a powerful multiplying effect.  So, the people you hire should share your vision, your energy, your promise.

What other advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs?

Peter: You have to be patient to get from A to Z, as the path is not always straight.  Keep to your values as a compass to guide you along the path to arrive at the best decisions.  Things are not going to turn out exactly the way you expected.  You have to have the passion to elevate you up.  You have to have the forward drive to say: if it didn’t happen today, it will happen tomorrow. Like a marathoner, think about the next step, not the long journey ahead. You have to be agile, and have sideways flexibility when you come against a wall.  You need to create an agile evolutionary process to succeed.

About Andria Younger

Andria Younger is a personal brand strategist and marketing consultant in New York City and ranked in LinkedIn’s Top 25 for personal branding. Follow Andria on Twitter or check out Andria’s personal branding blog at andriayounger.com.


Personal Brand Narratives Matter When Seeking Angel Investors

Shark Tank is a show which can be highly instructive to those seeking angel investors. There are sensible reasons the “Sharks” don’t “bite” on a concept. A product can simply be something they are not interested in. Maybe they can’t get excited about the idea because they don’t feel a personal connection, or the concept founder comes across as too indecisive or arrogant. Guess what? The same thing can happen when seeking angel investors for your great idea.

MARK CUBAN, DAYMOND JOHN, KEVIN O'LEARY, BARBARA CORCORAN, ROBERT HERJAVEC, DEREK PACQUƒ AND ASHTON CHAFFEE (COATCHEX)

As a personal brand strategist who helps founders develop a personal brand strategy and narrative to attract investors, I’m a strong believer that Interest Breeds Authenticity. A founder can instantly build a bond with a prospective investor if they have a compelling story, and have done their homework so they have their best opportunity to connect.

Why is building an emotional connection to the investor important?

Unlike in a Series A or B funding round, in the initial investing stage, there is usually not much for the angel investor to go on…an idea, maybe proof of concept, a pitch deck…what they primarily have is YOU, the founder. It’s often the investor’s emotional connection to the founder, their gut instinct, which can be the deciding factor to “invest” or “not to invest”.

Recently, I attended StartUpOneStop Breakfast with an Angel. I asked Mike Edelhart, an angel investor and lead partner at SocialStart, how much does the investor’s emotional connection or intuition play in deciding to invest? He said, “It’s critical.” He went on to say that investors are watching hundreds of pitches, so founders need to find a way to stand out from the competition to gain an investor’s attention. He also cautioned attendees that it’s not all about the technology. Mike shared how some founders get so focused on creating the perfect pitch deck, they never share anything about themselves nor engage investors by asking questions, which comes across as being self-absorbed and unaware. He brought up that making an emotional connection is crucial, sometimes even more important than the concept itself. Your idea might not be the greatest, but if you make a great impression with investors, they may think of you when another opportunity arises. At the end of the day, Investors Invest in People.

Three Ways Founders Strike Out with Investors

You get one turn at bat to pitch your idea. As a personal brand strategist, it is my job to help my clients tap into their unique perspectives, skills, talents, and expertise to help form a brand narrative that is clear, compelling, and positions them as an expert, and is true to who they are. I find there are three main reason founders swing and miss, and strike out with investors:

  1. Clarity: A founder may be a great technologist or practitioner, but when talking about what they do, they focus on technology or process over content. Many people don’t clearly communicate who they are and their story in a simple, compelling manner which people can understand and relate.

  2. Reluctance: Some people don’t share anything about their personal story because they are not used to exposing their inner-self. People can be too modest or afraid to share their accomplishments, discount or not explain their life experiences. A startup is emotionally, physically, and financially stressful. How well you dealt with failure or overcame adversity is just as important to the investor as proof of success. Sharing personal experiences should tie directly to what you are trying to accomplish with your business.

  3. Chasers: Some people can come across as money grabbing. A hyperfocus on chasing the cash can be perceived as being self-absorbed, self-centered, and lacking the leadership skills necessary. On the other side of the coin, Angels can sense when someone is making fear-based decisions and comes across as being indecisive and lacking confidence. There is a fine line between an effective leader and someone who is asking for investors for the wrong reasons.

Building the Connection

It all starts with having a clear personal brand strategy and narrative focused around who you are, what you do, and what’s your story. As a founder, you must be prepared to pitch anytime and anywhere to anyone who can recommend, refer, or invest in your business. You connect emotionally through shared interests, experiences, or passions. If you stand out from the competition, an investor will listen and take notice of what you are pitching. We all have unique experiences and stories about how we got to where we are today. For example, maybe you are a pilot, a veteran, suffered a traumatic career set-back, or survived a life-threatening accident or illness. Perhaps you come from a family of entrepreneurs, or went to the same university as the investor, overcame a learning disorder, or have family that has personally invested in your idea. These are emotional hooks that make people take time to listen, and want to help or invest in your business.

Do Your Research

Take the time to practice your pitch. Test it out with others. Can someone who has minimal knowledge of your concept get it? Practice with test subjects to see if they make a connection with you during your presentation. Note what increases interest, and when people are tuning out. Listen to the questions others ask about your concept. Odds are, if a test subject has a question, an angel investor will probably have the same question. Watch a little Shark Tank. See how other founders bond with the Sharks, how they stand out in the ocean as prime catches. A little research can help you reel in your angel, and make it big.

Frankly, if you can connect to investors on a very deep emotional level and make the investor get a little teary-eyed…. even better. Remember, an investor is taking a big risk on YOU. Therefore, you need to show proof you have the ability, drive, understanding, and stamina to overcome future adversity and go the distance to see a business succeed.

Questions: Do you get the blank look stare when you pitch your idea, or are investors on the edge of their seats? What is your process in doing research on investors’ backgrounds to find common interests and passions? Share your answers on Twitter or Linkedin.

About Andria Younger

Andria Younger is a personal brand strategist.  Andria provides personal brand consulting services to entrepreneurs, consultants, CEO, and founders on how to monetize their expertise and build their online reputation.  Follow Andria on Twitter.