Young Entrepreneurs - Louis Barnett
Shropshire teenager Louis Barnett, like many successful people, struggled at school. At the age of 11 he was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia in combination with a high IQ, and withdrawn from the traditional education system, which simply could not meet his needs.
While being tutored at home, Louis came across a book about cake decorating. One thing lead to another, and Louis started learning how to work with chocolate. He became very interested in the chocolate tempering process.
"I've always been a very foody person and conscious of where my food comes from," says Louis. "I've been doing bits of baking and making cakes with my mum since I was about four or five and really it was just one of my passions."
The passion gave birth to a delicious array of handmade chocolates, and by Christmas 2005, demand from family and friends was making young Louis think seriously about chocolate as a business.
To sell his chocolates commercially, Louis would need proper packaging. To his horror, he discovered that good quality boxes were almost as expensive as the contents!
And then it came to him.
Why not make the box out of chocolate, too?
Thus was born the business called Chokolit. (The name is Louis' own attempt at spelling the word, and an indication that he takes himself and his limitations lightly!)
The business grew in leaps and bounds, and by age 15, Louis had a tiger by the tail. He had to move production from the family home to a factory in nearby Bridgnorth to service contracts to supply Sainsbury's and Waitrose.
"We'd never imagined we'd get Chokolit into supermarkets in our first year," says Louis. "We thought we could sustain ourselves with the independents, which is fine if you're just making some jam to sell on the side, but a lot of these businesses only buy local produce. The nature of chocolate is that it can be mass-produced to good quality, so it makes sense to also supply to supermarkets."
Louis' father, Phil,l quit his job to work with Louis and the 16-year-old's former home tutor Jan is also employed at the confectionery firm.
Mother,Mary Barnett, explains "Louis has been like this right from day one, he is a hard worker and is very enthusiastic about his product."
Aren't they worried about putting all the family's eggs in one basket?
"It's a huge risk," says Mary. "Phil has given up his job and we've put a lot of money in, but we believe that he'll do it."
In 2007, Louis Barnett was nominated for the Young Entrepreneur of the Year award.
On his website, Louis says:
Well I'm 16, I have my own Company called chokolit, we make hand made Belgian chocolates in a box made out of chocolate, im the youngest ever suplyer of both saisburys and waitrose ive now suplyed both for 3 seasons. im also now in contact with co op, Tesco, Harrods, and fortnam and mayson. I started out at 12 and now im 16 my last academic qualification was my sats in yr 6 and i have still created an incredibly successful business from passion, confidence and 100% commitment "you can acchive no matter what" "nobody makes mistakes we only learn lessons"
Managing the rapid growth of the business has been a major headache. Importers from other countries have expressed interest in the products, but Louis is not ready to gear up to the next level just yet.
"A PR company in New York wanted to write a story on us, but we had to refuse," he says. "We're not ready to cope with the possible demand and we don't want to turn clients down. Most companies have problems finding customers but we're fighting to keep them away. It's frustrating, but we don't have the infrastructure."
Louis has had to contend with the usual challenges faced by young entrepreneurs - being taken seriously is an uphill battle sometimes.
"People think I'm some sort of mascot that my parents shoved in front of the company to give it some PR appeal," he explains. "That's not fair, because I started the business. I'm the one who's here until 3 or 4 in the morning producing all the chocolates, moulds and everything. Journalists say things like 'You're obviously not in the production room'."