A new small-business series, Trading Places will take a look at entrepreneurs who have successfully transitioned from working in the corporate world to founding their own business. If you have such a story you'd like to share, please email me.
Eric Nelson had always led a very conservative lifestyle: he did everything society and his family expected of him. From high school, he went on to college and then grad school, where he received a master's degree in economics; he then began working for the Telecom Industry Association. There he served as the vice president of international affairs, a position in which he handled quite a bit of responsibility, traveled the world and each month secured a comfortable income.
But by 45, Nelson had reached a turning point. "I began to feel like time was marching on and I wasn't really doing what I was meant to be doing," he says. At that point, Nelson decided he could either continue along the path he was going or he could take the jump and dive into pursuing a career as an artist, something he had always been passionate about.
Finally, he went for the latter.
"It was a challenging decision to make, but I decided that you only live once and I needed to do this just so I wouldn't have any regrets later in life."
In July 2006, Nelson, now 51, combined his love of painting with something most people love -- chocolate -- and opened up
Artfully Chocolate, a sweets shop which also serves as a venue for his artwork, in Alexandria, Va. Sure, the chocolates have been a hit, but in the time the store's been open, Nelson has also sold more than 50 of his paintings.
: Vice president of international affairs for a telecommunications firm
: Founder and owner of Artfully Chocolate
: "It was scary," Nelson says. "Becoming an entrepreneur was like jumping off a cliff -- I didn't know what to expect and I didn't know how it would work out, but you know what? It's wonderful being my own boss. Even if I'm not making close to the amount of money I used to make before, it's just a really great experience. Taking risks makes life more interesting and worthwhile. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say."
: The initial costs for Artfully Chocolate, Nelson says, were around $30,000. In the next couple of months, the entrepreneur plans on opening two more stores to display his paintings: Artfully Paper, a stationary store, and Artfully Chocolate, featuring Kingsbury Confections, a cocoa bar he's opening with Rob Kingsbury, one of his local chocolate suppliers.
For Artfully Paper he's invested $80,000, but for the cocoa bar, Nelson says costs have not been as dramatic since he has a partner. However, "it was a financial struggle and it still is," he adds. "I had a lot of savings and I've been going through it all, particularly with opening the two new stores."
His company's edge
: The fact that it's very unusual, Nelson says. "If you were to come into the store, you would see it's unlike almost any other store." Not only is it bold, bright, colorful and cheerful from the paintings and gold and red walls, it smells like chocolate. "It's just an incredible, positive experience right from when you walk in the door," he says. "All your senses are stimulated in a positive way."
What he wishes he knew before
: "The cyclical nature of the chocolate business," Nelson laughs. "I had never known anybody in 51 years who actually gave up things for Lent. For a month between Mardi Gras and Easter, it was dead in here. It took me a while to understand what was going on. Well, it turns out people were giving up chocolate for Lent. I thought everyone would want chocolates all the time."
: "People who are looking for fine chocolate," Nelson says. "Chocolate that is healthier than what you might get from
or something like that.
My customers tend to look for dark chocolate, organic chocolate, chocolate without preservatives."
Some product favorites
: "We have chocolate with pomegranate, chocolate with chipotle cinnamon," Nelson says. "One of the most popular flavors is fleur de sel caramel, which is chocolate with sea salt and caramel." The peanut butter and jelly truffles, brie truffles and cognac truffles are other popular items, Nelson says.
In terms of his artwork, which sells in the range of $600 and $1,000, he's sold a number of floral-themed pieces.
: "Follow your passion and open a business that reflects your passion," Nelson says. "Have the product and the service reflect your personality, and it makes it so much easier to sell."