When you meet Louis Barnett, it’s hard to believe he’s 20 years old. In the flesh he actually looks much younger, with a fresh face that seems somewhat out of place in the jagged-edged world of modern business. It’s hard to imagine how this rosy-cheeked cherub can fend off the big beasts of the corporate jungle, with their ruthless attitude and eons of experience.
But Barnett is living proof that, even in business, age is no barrier to success. Having started his own confectionery business, Chokolit, at the tender age of 12, Barnett is now trading in 22 countries. David Cameron has said he “has the makings of becoming one of the significant entrepreneurs of the next decade” and one publication even described him as “the Justin Bieber of chocolate”. However, unlike the Canadian pop idol, Barnett is unlikely to fade into obscurity any time soon.
Barnett says he didn’t need any persuading to start his own business so young. “It was a necessity. I left school at 11 with dyslexia and dyspraxia, and I knew that I wasn’t ever going to go down a traditional academic route, so I had to go away and reconsider.”
Chocolate had always been a key part of Barnett’s life; he remembers making a chocolate cake for his aunt’s birthday as a child, and subsequently being inundated with requests from family, friends and even local restaurateurs. Having received such a flood of demand, Barnett knew his chocolate was good; so, while his peers battled with homework and puberty, he decided to start his own business, with a name inspired by his own struggle to spell the world ‘chocolate’.
But if making the decision to start a business was easy, convincing others of its merits was far trickier. Barnett remembers making his first big retailer pitch, to Waitrose in Bracknell, at the age of 13:
“I’ll never forget the moment I walked in, a little 13-year old kid with my mum and dad. They shook the guy’s hand, and then walked out. The guy asked me ‘have they gone to get something from the car?’ ’Nope, it’s my company,’ I said. They were quite taken aback.”
But eventually Barnett won them over, emerging with an order for 165 chocolate boxes – making him Waitrose’s youngest-ever supplier. A few months later he notched up an even more impressive achievement, achieving a perfect score in a pitch to Sainsbury’s.
Barnett takes up the story: “After the Waitrose order I got an email inviting me to a big show at the International Food Exhibition, and a girl asked me to do a presentation to the whole board of Sainsbury’s while I was there. I went upstairs with about five minutes to prepare, so I quickly racked my brains, and went in and did it.
“They asked me to leave the room, called me back in and said ‘right, we’ve got two pieces of news. One: you’ve just become our youngest-ever supplier, and two: we mark every presentation that Sainsbury’s ever receives, and you’ve just received our highest-ever recorded score.’ I still hold that today, which is quite nice!”
One might imagine there is some magical secret, some special sauce to Barnett’s presentations; how else could he achieve such incredible success at such a young age? In fact the man himself believes simplicity, and versatility, are the keys to pitching.
“We had no flipchart, no laptop, no leaflet – it was all about passion for the product. At the end of the day if you’re not passionate about the product, or you haven’t got energy to sell, it doesn’t come through. There are many things I’ve learned about sales, but it all comes back to being personable, not too regimented or structured.”
Expansion and ethics
After securing that first order from Waitrose, Barnett had to take his product from kitchen hobby to national business in just six weeks. The transition was smoothed by a £5,000 loan from his grandparents, with the same amount provided by the local authority, and a small contribution from the Mustard seed programme. But the process still required huge sacrifices.
“We had to stay up until 7 or 8 o’clock in the morning every day for weeks, and we had to move the operation into the garage, move the car out, food-grade the whole thing, and put a 15kg chocolate machine in. My dad started to take an active role in the business, and my mum quit her job to help me produce. In the end we got there – by the skin of my neck.”
With contracts in place with Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and retail giant Selfridges, Barnett opened a full production site in Bridgenorth, Shropshire, with two 100kg chocolate machines and 10 local staff. Many young entrepreneurs might feel shy or awkward when managing much older people, but Barnett sees his age as an advantage. “Because our employees are abreast of what I’ve done at my age, as soon as they get involved in the business and see what we’ve accomplished, they’re very keen to go along with it.”
Having trained at the prestigious Callebaut Academy between the ages of 14 and 16, Barnett still takes a hands-on role in the Bridgenorth operation, and designs all of Chokolit’s products himself. His strategy is driven by a clear goal: to produce more new products than anyone else has ever done in his industry. Since launching Chokolit he has created chocolate handbags, chocolate champagne flutes, even chocolate furniture, in a bid to cement his reputation as the chocolate industry’s greatest innovator.
Similarly, Barnett has never been afraid to throw exotic ingredients such as lime, chilli and pepper into his chocolate mix, and all the products are made by hand. While these qualities themselves aren’t unique, what really makes Chokolit stand out is its ethical credentials. Right from the start Barnett made a conscious decision to avoid palm oil, and his commitment to the environment continues to this day – for instance, Chokolit is about to agree a deal with a co-operative in the Caribbean, run completely by solar power.
In fact, Barnett believes this ethical stance is one of the company’s key advantages: “It was hard to get all the major retailers [on board]; it took me a good couple of years. But what we’ve got as a product, and the ethical background, helped get the big retailers behind us. It fitted all of their boxes.”
Barnett says he never originally intended to export his product, but his hand was forced by a period of poor sales, which led Chokolit to the brink of bankruptcy. In search of a solution, Barnett began working with agents and distributors in a bid to branch out beyond the UK.
Today Chokolit is active across Europe and South America, as well as 14 US states. Barnett says his company makes just 5% of its money in the UK these days, and he spends a huge chunk of his time exploring new frontiers – earlier this year, for example, he spent five months in Mexico, talking to local retailers in a bid to make Chokolit the country’s premier confectionery brand.
Having established an international business before most of his peers have even landed their first proper job, Barnett is showing no signs of slowing down. Although currently locked in a protracted legal dispute with a venture capital firm which invested in Chokolit three years ago, he is keen to source fresh external funding, and is currently looking for angel investment. Furthermore, he believes there is scope for even more international expansion, “particularly in Asia and Latin America, where there is a huge gap in the market”.
Away from Chokolit, Barnett has been a mentor in 32 different industries, and is about to become an official consultant for UK Trade and Investment. Although chocolate still takes up “70 to 80%” of his time, he owns two other businesses and is about to launch a brand-new venture, which he describes as “a one-stop business shop for global champions who have achieved amazing things”.
Long-term, Barnett says he is thinking about getting involved in politics. Given that start-up enterprise and international trade are currently top of the government’s business agenda, he could certainly teach Cameron and his mates a thing or two.