What Chocolate Says About Entrepreneurship

“Once upon a time, there was a quiet, little village in the French countryside whose people believed in tranquilite. If you lived in this village, you understood what was expected of you. You knew your place in the scheme of things. And if you happened to forget, someone would help remind you. In this village, if you saw something you weren’t supposed to see, you learned to look the other way. If by chance your hopes had been disappointed, you learned never to ask for more. So, through good times and bad, famine and feast, the villagers held fast to their traditions. Until one winter day, a sly wind blew in from the north…”

This past week I rented one of the best films of the last decade. It’s not a film I usually would have watched. Despite its awards and nominations, the movie got a mediocre rating on IMDB. And there was nothing I read to make me think I would find it any different. But I remembered some old friends talking about it years ago, about how in the movie they put ground chili pepper in hot chocolate. (Tastes good, by the way.) And then I learned that this was how the Mayans used to make it. And I love chocolate, and I love chilies, and history intrigues me. And I figured, “What the hey?” But I was unaware of what I was getting myself into. This is one of those films you have to watch over and over again, each time gaining some new insight. Most surprising, and most painful, and most inspiring, as I watched the film, I found myself identifying more and more with Vianne, the main character, in a way I never expected.

Vianne is an unshakable, Cool Hand Luke sort of heroine. She knows who she is, and she’s not ashamed of it. The story begins as Vianne opens up a chocolate shop in a tiny, conservative village, across from the local church, just as Lent begins.

I was stymied. I said, “That’s a stupid thing to do. You have to give the people what they want. And if they want prayer and fasting, you don’t try to sell them chocolate.”

But the story of the movie Chocolat is about something greater than catering to the lowest common denominator. It’s about passion and innovation. It’s about being an entrepreneur, about independence and self-actualization. Vianne represents this entrepreneurial spirit, which is why I identified so fully with her character. It’s one of those flukes of story, that occasionally I’ll run across a character who speaks to me as she can speak to no other. Or at least that’s the way I feel.

Vianne’s nemesis is Comte Paul de Reynaud, a confused traditionalist who embodies the opposite qualities: self-denial rather than self-actualization, exclusion rather than inclusion, finding a reason something can’t work rather than a reason to make it work, being a cog in the corporate machine, that life I used to loathe in the Dilbert cube.

For a protagonist, Vianne has surprisingly few lines, fewer than the minor characters with whom she interacts. But among these few lines is profound wisdom.

“It’s not going to be a patisserie… It’s a surprise.”

In Vianne’s first encounter with the Comte de Reynaud, he criticizes her for opening a patisserie just as the Lenten fast is beginning. True, the storefront she rented out used to be a patisserie. But her shop is going to be something different, a chocolaterie, which I guess is even worse. Still, there’s no reason to stir up unnecessary angst? She puts newspaper on the windows and keeps secret what is happening inside, until the day of the grand opening.

It’s fun to talk with friends about my dreams and aspirations. And I’ve never seen much value in secrecy. I won’t make you take an oath of non-disclosure and sign a non-compete agreement before telling you about my earth-shattering idea. Because an idea by itself is nothing. What’s important is how the idea is executed. I figure that if the idea alone is so important to my future that I need to keep it a secret, then I need a better idea.

Still, maybe there’s a place for secrecy. New ideas tend to frighten people. I know I’ve gotten sideways glances when I’ve tried to explain my great idea. Trying to explain an idea is like trying to describe the picture you’re planning to paint. No one’s going to be able to grasp your vision except for you. Perhaps it’s better just to wait until the painting is complete. The picture itself is worth a thousand words describing what it will look like.

“What do you see?”

In the shop, on the counter, spins a disc embossed with Mayan art. Vianne spins the disc, blurring the patterns. Then she asks, “What do you see?” There are no wrong answers. There are no silly answers. Even a non-answer is an answer. Because it tells Vianne about you. Like an ink-blot, it’s not really about what images are in the spinning disc. It’s about what images are within your own psyche. Then Vianne will say something like, “The pepper triangle, that’s for you… Tangy, adventurous.” Or, “Very dark. Bitter chocolate, that’s your favorite.”

Earlier this month, Michael Ausiello interviewed Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of Gilmore Girls. After six years of doing nothing but Gilmore Girls, Amy and her husband Dan Palladino left the show they loved. In this recent interview, she says, “The fact that there was no sit-down ever, no face-to-face with the studio or network to try and hash out what we needed and what we were asking for… That will always piss me off…” Did you catch that? After six years of burning themselves out for the sake of this project, Gilmore Girls, all for the passion they had for the project, when their contract came up for renewal, the studio and network execs never even bothered to ask what they wanted. It was just: Here’s the deal, take it or leave it.

The execs probably assumed it was about money. At least that’s what Amy Sherman-Palladino implies. But it wasn’t about money. The execs potentially could have retained the talented, proven, impassioned producers they had. Instead, they told them to get lost. Any we sit back and tsk-tsk-tsk, and we think how stupid that is. And then we go off and do the same thing. We assume that everyone else is just like us, that we know what the other person wants. And we’re usually wrong. Life is about selling. And the first step in any sale is ask, “What do you see? What’s on your mind? What do you want?”

“I have a knack for guessing people’s favorites. These are your favorites. Am I right? On the house.”

Don’t you believe it! It’s not just knack. It’s a skill, refined through generations. Vianne learned it from her mother, who learned it from her mother, who learned it from… And so on.

And once Vianne knows what you like, she knows what you are most likely to buy. And once you taste her intoxicating confections, you can’t help but come back for more. Vianne never extols the virtues of chocolate, much less her own chocolate. She never pushes herself on anyone. Her passion is not about herself. It’s about how she can make others happy. The very purpose for which she is cursed to live a nomadic existence, like Mary Poppins, is to bring love and life to those in need. So, Vianne makes the townsfolk happy. And then neither logic nor conscience nor guilt can keep them from coming back for more, again and again.

Once you find the right prospect, turning them into a customer can be easy. Give them a taste. You have what they desire. Don’t be a high-pressure salesman. Rather, just give them a taste. Then ask them if they’d like to buy some.

“And these are for your husband, unrefined coco nips from Guatemala, to awaken the passions.”

The woman scoffed. “Ha! You’ve obviously never met my husband.”

Vianne replied, “You’ve obviously never tried these.”

This offer was not a blind shot in the dark. Something the woman had said clued Vianne into thinking that the romance could use a little coco. Those nips became a staple for that couple. They were even seen shopping in the chocolaterie arm-in-arm. I often wonder where Vianne got her supply.

Never underestimate the value of the cross-sell. Again, it’s not about you. Pushy salesmanship will get you nowhere. It’s just that it’s way easier to do even more for an existing customer than to get a new first-time customer. It’s way easier to find out what other needs your existing customers have that could you help with. It’s way easier for them to buy from you, since they’ve already bought from you before. It’s way easier to get them to trust you, since they’ve already trusted you before.

“Whatever you say.”

Oh how it bothered Vianne when little Luc reported the nasty things the comte had been saying about her! She probably felt cheated that Luc would shun her. But you wouldn’t know it from how she treated Luc. After all, Luc was not the villain. And arguing with him would accomplish nothing. She didn’t even force the issue, unlike the comte, who does force the issue, which is why Vianne is unavailable to help him before he— Well, let’s just say that she’s too busy befriending the people he is intentionally alienating.

Not everybody is going to like you. Not everybody is going to be a prospect for what you have to sell. But as Dale Carnegie said in How to Win Friends and Influence People, “The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.” The only way to keep the lines of communication open is to be nice, even when rejected. This is why high-pressure sales tactics don’t work. If someone isn’t a suitable customer, badgering them won’t turn them into one.

“To be your friend.”

What do you think was the question to which this was a response? The woman might have said, “Why did you track me down just to deliver to me a free box of chocolate? You know, I’m a kleptomaniac, right? You must have heard. People talk.” Instead, it was simply:

“What do you want?”

“To be your friend.”

It was no lie. Vianne’s raison d’etre is not just chocolate, it is life. And this woman desperately needed it. The fact that the comte would hate this friendship, that was just a bonus.

When I used to go on job interviews, I’d think of every interview as an opportunity to meet someone new. Even if the job turned out not to be right for me, I thanked the interviewer for taking the time to talk to me. Now, whenever I meet a potential client, I’m more interested in making a friend than in making a sale. And this is what Vianne does, too:

“It’s nice to see you. Would you like to come in for some chocolate?”

Vianne spent hours sitting across the counter from her customers as they drank their hot chocolate. And she listened, and encouraged, and probed, and listened some more.

Business is not just about product and service. It’s about community and friendship.

“Dip the ganache into the white chocolate.”

Vianne not only loves to make chocolate. She loves to teach others to make chocolate. For her, chocolate is independence and life. And this life rubs off onto others. No wonder the comte despises her. And fears her.

There may be a time for secrecy, but there’s also a time for openness. Share your strengths with those who admire them. Entrepreneurship is not about money, it’s about passion and leadership and fulfillment. Don’t fall into the trap of keeping all the knowledge for yourself, thinking it will make you better off. You’ll end up quashing your own chance to make a difference.

“You can if you want, but it won’t make things easier.”

The question was from Vianne’s poor beleaguered daughter Anouk: “Why can’t we go to church?”

Don’t misunderstand. Anouk did not want to find religion. She just wanted to fit in. But Vianne follows her passion, wherever it takes her. She has to. To deny her passion is to deny herself, like the comte denies himself. Of course, the comte believes self-denial will save him. The fact that it only makes him miserable is therefore easy for him also to deny. These conundrums are part of the problem Vianne faces, as well as the solution.

You can do what everyone else is doing, but that’s no answer. Because you can’t deny who you are. If you do, you die. How many people have died inside, because they do what they don’t believe in? Pam Slim talks about all the people she’s met who have died inside. They hate their job. They live their life feeling they “should” be happy, “should” spend more time with their family, “should” do this, “should” do that. They feel trapped in whatever situation they’re in. They feel betrayed by their employer. They long for meaning. She concludes, “The sad fact is that a lot of people really feel crappy for most of their work life.”

It’s not worth it. Besides, being different is the only way to be noticed. You can be the same as everyone else, and blend in, and no one will notice you. Or you can be different, and you can stand out, and you’ll collect fast allies. So don’t hide your uniqueness. It’s part of what makes you strong.

But coming to life is a double-edged sword. It means you are accountable for the consequences. You can’t blame anyone else if you’re miserable or stressed out or if your boss is a schmuck. And on top of that, no one is going to admire you. Rather, they’re going to feel sorry for you. They’re going to pity you. They’re going to feel like they have to do something out of charity to help you. And I can understand why they’d feel that way.

“The whole town’s against me.”

It seems the comte may have won. Even Vianne’s regular customers are shunning her.

You see, the local pere preached a sermon warning of Satan’s helpers, which come in many disguises. Even as “the maker of sweet things, mere trifles, for what could seem more harmless, more innocent, than chocolate?”

You can be sure the comte had written that particular homily.

That’s what happens when you challenge the status quo. That’s what happens when you make friends with the people no one else loves. And sometimes, things can’t get better until after they get worse.

But true entrepreneurship is ingrained in the heart. A true entrepreneur cannot just do what he’s always done. He is always questioning, always re-evaluating, always challenging. He can’t help it. It’s what’s inside him.

Don’t expect this road to be easy. Being different will bring you allies, just as passionate as you are. It will also make you enemies, who feel you are threatening them. And there will be times when you feel you are all alone in your plight.

The simple, immutable fact is, in Vianne’s words, “It’s not easy being different.”

Chocolat is actually a much more complex story than I’ve made out here. I’ve watched it three times, and each time I understand something I didn’t before. There are numerous sub-plots. There’s the conflict of the villain, the Comte de Reynaud, which I barely touched on. And most importantly, throughout the story is a struggle between who Vianne is and who she is becoming. A change occurs within her, and it sets her even more at odds with the comte. And that change is also a part of entrepreneurship.


Check out Chocolat at Amazon.