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.
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.