KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 7 — Forrest Gump might have you believe that life is like a box of chocolates, but try telling that to any small business trying to survive in an unpredictable economy.
For Michael Woo and his wife Lee See Pin, the founders of Cocoraw, a Malaysian purveyor of nama style chocolates, that particular quote is not unlike delving blind into the box of chocolates without knowing what one would get.
The duo had conventional professional careers when they started Cocoraw in mid-2016. Woo recalls, “See Pin was looking for an escape from corporate life with the long hours and generally stressful working conditions.
"She experimented with chocolates and decided to focus on nama style chocolates. From there, we did a few flea markets to validate our gut feeling that there will be a demand for quality chocolate confectionery at accessible prices.”
Today, customers gush over truly Malaysian flavours such as The Teh Tarik and The Local Kakao. The latter is made in collaboration with Seniman Kakao, a Malaysian bean-to-bar chocolate maker, with beans sourced from small Malaysian farms. Other popular flavours include The Salted Gula Melaka, The Gin and Limau Nipis, and The Vegan (dairy-free, made with extra virgin coconut oil and nut-based milk).
“We were very fortunate to have had vocal customers who were not afraid to speak their minds. One of our customers buy our chocolates to introduce them to her group of friends, both local and overseas. We like to call her our Ambassador and it is this genuine action that keeps us grinding through the ups and downs of the retail business,” says Woo.
While other start-ups rush to scale their operations, Cocoraw has benefited from staying small and growing organically. Without pressure to keep generating a wide range of products, the team is able to take their time in tweaking their recipes. New flavours are released on a trial basis to test their viability and acceptance by the consumers.
Woo adds, “One of the methods that we use to experiment with new ingredients and flavours is our seasonal variants that we release every two months or so. Out of the 10 seasonal flavours that we have released so far, two are now permanently on our menu so customer feedback is an integral part of our business.”
As the duo are not professionally trained, their research was initially by trial and error. For their seasonal flavour released during the last Hari Raya, the team wanted a chocolate truffle with a savoury element, evoking the spices in a traditional Aidilfitri spread. Curry leaves and powder made the cut but finding the right sweetness level and chocolate base proved a challenge.
Woo explains, “Too much sweetness will overpower subtler ingredients and too much cocoa intensity may clash with stronger flavours. We paired the curry with a semi-dark chocolate base as we did not want it to be too sweet and milky or too bitter and overpowering. We also decided to replicate the rich coconut flavour that Malaysian curries tend to have with extra virgin coconut oil.”
The first few batches, the duo admit, were not very good: “While we had controlled all the other elements, we did not expect the curry powder blend we had used to be so spicy. That masked all the flavours. A few tweaks later with new curry blends, volume of ingredients and texture modifications, and we had ourselves a potential flavour for Raya.”
Analysis was a key driver of business. Many start-ups fail in that they aren’t able to track their revenue streams accurately and squander unnecessary resources, guided only by instincts. As most entrepreneurs would tell you, instincts aren’t always reliable and having precise and measurable metrics is far more valuable.
The Cocoraw duo has learned this first-hand, all the way from the beginning when they only had a bare-bone Excel sheet and a Facebook page. Woo shares, “It worked well for the first few months when were validating the initial product, but we needed a more systematic way to record orders and cater for deliveries so next came the e-commerce cart.”
In 2017, around a year into operations, they realised that their sales from bazaars were exceeding what came from their online space. Customers were following them from one bazaar to the next. Now was an opportunity to test out the retail market, to validate their belief that their prospective customers were not the type to buy chocolates online.
“We chanced upon a location in CzipLee Bangsar where we could do a pop-up,” says Woo, “and that location is now our home base. A year or so later, we were also given the opportunity to set up two other mini kiosks. It is important for us to now take a step back to optimise our resources, build a stronger team with the right culture and strengthen our sales by returning the focus to our existing customers.”
What started as an online brand three years ago with only three variants of nama style chocolate truffles has transformed into an agile, lean business with legs. Cocoraw now has eight regular flavours and a seasonal variant at any time. Lee, who used to be their sole permanent kitchen crew, is now joined by two new full-time hires. Their main distribution channel is via retail kiosks, with a smaller percentage of revenue coming from their online store.
For Cocoraw, life is truly like a box of chocolates, but so is business — best savoured slowly, with an intense appreciation of every delicious moment.
Cocodash by Cocoraw
1, Jalan Telawi 3, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur
Open Sun-Thu (Tue closed) 12pm-8pm, Fri-Sat 10am-8pm
For other locations and online orders, visit www.cocoraw.me