Brontie was introduced to me by Katie, from Hurrah from Gin, and our interview was a real meeting of minds, with Brontie and her husband having gone through a journey that is very similar to the one that my husband and I are working through at the moment, simplifying life back to focus on what makes you happy, and giving you more time with your family alongside your career. A trained lawyer, Brontie has moved on from this career and now runs her own raw chocolate business, which I'd actually tried in a local Worthing health cafe, ahead of meeting her in person. I caught up with her to find out more (and ended up spending several hours putting the world to rights together, it was a great interview).
Tell us about what you’re doing now and how you got here..
When I was 22, I was a single mum with a 2 year old and had just got back from travelling round the world. I was at a complete loss, and I was living in my parents loft. My Dad thought I should apply to do law at university and lots of people had said that they thought I'd be good at it. I applied, and my interview date was 12th January and my flight got in on the 11th, so I went to Sussex University straight from Heathrow. I got accepted, I got my child a place on the university campus and we started that September.
It was a three-year degree, one year doing a masters in family law and then two years doing the LPC, the solicitors qualification. I worked all the way through - waitressing, teaching, swimming, and teaching. I finished my LPC, did a 2 year training contract with a large firm in Sussex, and alongside, I taught law at masters level at Sussex and Brighton universities. I even went and taught at a business school in the south of France. I started in 2007 and have literally just finished my last piece of teaching.
That was my career choice, but I realised really quickly that practising law was just the worst possible thing I could do with my personality. I like to make a difference, to make change, and do something slightly different every day. I'm rubbish with authority, and I don't fit the typical solicitor model. It just wasn't for me. I'm quite creative and like to constantly be challenged and I didn't find that opportunity at the level I was at.
I was really upset and sad as I felt like I'd let everybody down. I'd got scholarship money to study law and I felt like I was letting everyone down and that everyone would hold me to account for the choice I was making. But ultimately I took a look at my life and there was no joy in it. We'd go through the motions of going to a Sunday afternoon BBQ and smile, but the core of me was sad. Work is such a big part of your life, especially if you're ambitious and driven and you want that respect at work. If it makes you feel awful you blame it on yourself, and carrying that around is like a bag of rocks on your back.
My husband saw that that was how I was feeling; and he's very understanding and prepared to do whatever it takes for our happiness. We looked at our house, our mortgage, what we were buying, subscriptions, and we decided we didn't need most of it. He said that he could live in a garden shed with me and travel the world on a shoestring and be happier. We decided we had to clear our debt, and clear as much of our mortgage as possible. We'd have a smaller base in the UK, get rid of the cars, get rid of Sky, Netflix and the Hello Fresh subscription. It took a year, and during that time I worked hell for leather, and got as much money as I could and we saved like bat shit crazy. We sold our house, moved into a lovely tiny rental, and stripped all of our equity out of it. That enabled us to pair down everything and put the equity in high yield investments that gave us a small income.
We lived in a lovely tiny rental house, we sold our cars, so my husband drives It was bloody hard, coming out of a huge Victorian house, which was beautiful and everything I wanted, but we left it all behind. At the end of the day it was just 4 walls. We took stock of everything - we sold iPads, computers, and gave things away to charity. It was wonderful, it was freeing and I would do it again tomorrow and I could pare down even further.
My husband was working in Switzerland, sometimes commuting there and spending mid week there. He went on his own journey of initially working from home, then paring that down to 2-3 days a week, and only working till 4, which is what he does now. He loves that. That helped us - because we both wanted to do this and have a balance where 25% of the week is work and the other 75% is kids and travel, we focused on what that looks like. You need that partner in crime to bounce off of and say 'it's going to be alright' - the kids aren't going to starve. They're not going to go to private school or the best tap dancing classes, but that's ok.
We didn't travel that much in the first year, but we're about to go trekking round Italy with the girls via farm stays and using Air bnb. In the winter we're going to other places.
How did the chocolate business come about during all of this?
I can't sit still - I'm a natural researcher and my husband says I have a photographic mind. I started reading everything and was really drawn to nutrition, partly because my dad had just had a diagnosis of coronary heart disease and had a stent fitted. They told him to eat healthily, gave him a table and chart to follow, but that was it.
That was a shock to me. He was living with me at the time (before we pared down), so I tried really hard to understand what it was to be healthy. My dad was a chocoholic - and I thought, you could do this better if you focused on no sugar, or a different version of sugar, and no wheat, dairy or gluten. I started to experiment with chocolate and I immediately clicked with it. Tempering chocolate is like meditating and I loved it.
I got a bit of training and watched hours of YouTube videos. I tested loads of different varieties of chocolate, sweetener, and cacao. I tried recipes, gave them to people to try, and did a farmers market. People liked it, it's healthy (85%) and doesn't use sugars that aren't nutritious.
The business has been going a year. I've kept it to small batch production, and I don't over commit myself. I hand pick my stockists, and choose the markets where people are lovely and it's worthwhile. I only work mornings. My daughter goes to pre school, and Nanny and Granddad have her a day a week. I use those mornings to make chocolate and do deliveries. I try not to work weekends, so I can spend it with the girls.
The business is growing. It's a niche market and people recognise the strength of the product and the brand. I love it and most days I feel like I've achieved something and made a difference, and I'm at peace with myself. I meet wonderful people regularly, I read widely and I'm my own boss. Most of the time I pick and choose my own hours.
I believe you can do your kids a huge favour by giving them a blended life of working and being with them. They see me being ambitious and striving to work hard and that's important. Everyone has to make their own choice, but mine is a blended lifestyle between a stay at home mum and a working mum.
How long did it take you to feel like you’d made progress in your new venture?
My first farmers market was really amazing. It was the first time I'd left my tiny kitchen, put my product out there on mass and asked directly for feedback. It was amazing that people actually wanted to buy my stuff. I'd always say to someone to try farmers markets. You get immediate feedback and you are buoyed up by it, but you can also refine your product based on feedback. People are keen to see you succeed.
How often did you feel like ‘it’ wasn’t going to work?
Everything 5th minute of every hour of every single day, but that's fear and worry driving it. Any time you let fear sit in the front seat with you and start changing gear you're in trouble. It should be in the back of the car in the boot with the luggage. There's a book - 'Women who run with the wolves' and they talk about that inner voice being the 'predator'. That voice has a worth, but when you're in a creative lifestyle you need to tightly bind it up.
What do you find difficult about managing the multiple parts of the business?
I think you have to be all things to all people all the time, and you need bucket loads of patience and kindness - with your children, your suppliers, your distributors, your marketer, your husband, and yourself. You have to find the energy to refine the product, and the logo and that's hard. When you are a salaried employee you can shut your laptop at the end of the day. Being an entrepreneur isn't like that, and neither is a mum for that matter. That's why mums are such good entrepreneurs - you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about what you have to do the next day. You have to find that extra ounce of patience, kindness and integrity to give to your business or to your children.
What or who do you find intimidating?
The future and the risk of failure. I'm an A star girl and have been my whole life - the high achiever, the girl who aced exams and I haven't exposed myself to many failures. I tend to choose arguments and pursuits I can win, but I don't know if I can win this, or what winning looks like. I combat that by trying to define success in a way that is achievable week to week.
What makes you feel good / powerful?
I feel good when I'm at peace with a large proportion of my life. When things are running smoothly, and I've put the time in to oil the wheels. I know that when things go bad its because I'm ill prepared or informed.
One of my aims in my home life was to cook a meal each night from scratch. I just couldn't do it. It was happening once or twice a week and the other times it was beans on toast, which is fine but I wanted to cook a risotto or a healthy veggie lasagne. I was really angry with myself all the time. I took a step back and got a Monday to Sunday planner and put in 3 weeks worth of seven simple home made healthy meals. It's been amazing and we've been on it for months and months now. I'm organised because I put the time in to achieve it.
Don't get me wrong, the ironing and hoovering doesn't get done, but the cooking I've focused on and it works! The last year of my life has been learning to let shit go. When you're that A star girl, you hold on to everything and feel you have to succeed all the time, at everything, it's hard to say, I don't care that I fail at that each day.
What’s the best compliment you’ve been given?
I have a customer called Kate, who has been through the most horrendous journey with cancer. She approached me and said she was going to a therapy centre in Bristol and wanted to take my chocolate as she believed in it 100% and thought the other patients would love it. She did a speech about me and I've gained customers from that who order every month. They believe in me and the product, it makes them feel better, and they trust that it's healthy enough even when they have cancer.
What drives you, your legacy, or enjoying the moment?
I think when you've created a human being, and you're nurturing them, it's always legacy. You look at them and say 'I need to be great for them', to show them that women are strong, and wonderful and flawed. There needs to be something there at the end of it all, whether it's my business or something else.
It's hard, as you should live in the moment and enjoy every minute, but when you're a mum you have a responsibility of creating the next generation.
How do you define success now?
I had to step back from profit and loss accounts and do this for the love of it and the peace it brings me, creating and building a brand. Success is not the bottom line, that is the last way I'm going to define it. My personal view of success is do my children and my husband and have a really good quality of life. Low stress levels, enjoying each others company and the company of family, travel often, find peace and enjoyment in our work places, and feel that I am making a difference. It's important to define it by a range of measures. You'll always need more money, because you'll always buy more shit - so stop buying more shit!
Where would you like the business to get to?
I will hopefully always keep the business small batch - small and petite can be beautiful and successful. The aim is to take on some staff and take on a unit and expand the range, perhaps beyond chocolate. I already do a hot chocolate, so I'd love a range of that; and cocoa tea. I've got loads of ideas, even if I take 5% forward that would satisfy me long term.
I'd love to have an understanding and kind creative workplace, where I invite people to work in with me rather than employ people. I have this dream in my head where we have this amazing tiny workspace where everyone feels really valued.
How do you start your day?
My day generally starts about 7am with my youngest child, who is 3. My eldest is self sufficient, and gets herself to school. We have a healthy breakfast, read books, play for a bit, do a bit of gardening or craft. I never set up appointments pre 10. We go to pre-school if she has that, then I come home and I make chocolate, which takes 2-3 days a batch - tempering, melting cocoa butter, saucing. I make 3 times a week and 2 times a week I source ingredients and deal with stockists or marketing. My husband does the accounts and invoicing.
I pick up my daughter form pre school and then every afternoon is different, depending on the weather - we might visit family, go to the beach, do some cooking or I might need to do some household chores or prep for dinner. My husband comes home at 4.30 / 5, my eldest comes home from school, my dad is often round with his wife, and we eat at 5.30 and wind down for the evening. We don't watch TV. We listen to the radio, read books or sit out in the garden. When my daughter goes to bed I might do work again from 7-10.30 - but that's quite rare now.
How do you organise yourself?
I cannot live without Wunderlist. It's an interactive list-making app that both my husband and I use. We have lists for the business, a list for the children, and one for house renovations.
Biggest thing that your new way of working has changed about your life?
My cortisol level. I feel at peace with my working life and don't feel like I'm taking too much on. I pick and choose how much I am prepared to do in a day and if I've over committed in a day it compromises the business and something won't get done. IT was a hard journey for me to go through, to stop over committing. My pace now is slow and steady and I say no a lot.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be an Olympic swimmer. I used to swim 4 times a week for my local swim club. I love swimming to this day. I sea swim and have swum part of the Thames. When I was growing up, swimming was my life, but then I went into my teenage years and realised at 16 that I wasn't very fast or the right build, but I still swim as much as I can.
What would you tell your kids about working out what they want to do in life?
I have an older daughter who is a teenager, looking at colleges, and in her GCSE year. What I tell her is controversial, and I'm probably berated for it behind closed doors. I tell her that school is a joke, and you're near the punch line (a quote from Humans by Matt Haig). So carry on, walk out, flick your hair over your shoulder and thank them for the ride.
School is just one part of your life, and most is just left in the school halls. I tell her to put the hard work in and she'll be fine whatever she wants to do. School doesn't define you, and nobody has the right to tell you what you should go and be. You should try a variety of things, travel widely, work for free, volunteer and then do absolutely nothing at one point and just read loads of books and blogs, recalibrate and then find your way.
What's the single best piece of advice you’ve been given along your journey?
My best friend Nikkisaid to me - when thinking about big choices and making big leaps of faith "Just jump. Jump and the net will appear, but you'll piss your pants in panic and say your final goodbyes before it appears. But it will appear. So jump." That's useful to think like that. You'll have your ups and downs, but you're always moving forward and always striving, so you never smash into something.