Growing up in a small town in South Africa, it had always been obvious to those around her that Lee Ann Smith’s future was going to be in business. When she was just 13 a teacher told her “you will be an entrepreneur".
Those words have followed her ever since that moment, shaping her plans as a business enthusiast. From a young age she combined her skill at chocolate making and her eye for opportunity and has been moving from strength to strength since.
Her first foray into the chocolate and business world was during her school years when she spent her spare time making chocolates to sell to her classmates.
Lee Ann has been shortlisted for the 'Food & Drink Entrepreneur of the Year' award at the Entrepreneur Wales Awards. I caught up with her to find out more about her fascinating business.
"I was one of the first girls to be accepted to an all-boys school at the age of 12 and I spent 5 years there," Lee Ann said.
"I was also part of the group who created the 'girls' uniforms as we didn’t have them when we first arrived. This was the same school my father went to (when it was a boys only school). It is also the school where I started my first business — making and selling chocolates!"
Tell us about the business…
"We print anything from single colour logos or images through to full colour photographs onto chocolate. We print with a tiny amount of edible ink. We offer a range of sizes from a small square up to an iPad size bar. The quality is mind blowing, with 99% of people thinking it’s printed onto paper, even after we have explained it is printed onto the chocolate.
"We work from home in Whitland [in West Wales]. We converted our garage into a small, but comfy, chocolate factory.
"We hand make all of our chocolates for each order. We have sourced a lovely creamy Belgium chocolate, which arrives to us in “chips”. We then melt these down and mould the chocolates.
"Once the chocolates are made, they go through our 'Top Secret' printing process. Again, this is managed by us, and we load, print, unpack and package each chocolate individually."
When and how did you start the company?
"I started a small chocolate business in 2013, but doing the same as all other chocolatiers, making truffles and bars. I wanted to do something different — to offer chocolates that would create a “wow!” whenever people saw them.
"I saw some chocolates which had been printed and nagged my husband for a printer — a week later I had a smaller, very cheap printer and started offering printed chocolates. I am very blessed to have a husband who is a graphic designer, which means I have someone who understands technology, can design, and is keen to help me.
"Very quickly the demand outgrew my kitchen and printer, so we decided to convert the garage. In March 2014 Printed Chocolates was born. With the help of some lovely local organisations, a fantastic network group, and acquaintances, we started producing and printing the chocolates. It has not been an easy ride, but we have loved every minute."
Had you always wanted to run your own business?
"Yes, ever since I started my business at the age of 12 in school, I’ve always known I would be a chocolatier and I’ve pretty much been self-employed all my working life. It’s not easy, but I wouldn’t change it."
What (or who) inspired you to start the business? And what (or who) inspires you to keep going?
"My mother. She started my fascination with chocolate when I was a child. She has always believed in me, and has always encouraged me.
"My husband and my little boy are my inspiration to keep going. Even though Darian is only four, he’s always happy to help clean up (and by clean up I mean lick the spoons!) and he would help make the chocolates if he could — but I would end up with no chocolate.
"My husband is my hero; he helps with everything, so for him, I want to make a success of this business."
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs in Wales?
"Find someone (or it can be more than one person) who will pick you up when you are down and lean on that person or team to pick you up through the hard times. Business is not easy, but if it’s what you want to do, do it. And if you don’t succeed — lean on your “someone” and carry on with life."
Why did you enter the Entrepreneur Wales Awards?
"I strive for achievement and this is such a prestigious award, I had to enter it. Being shortlisted is just the beginning for me and a real honour already!"
You can find out more about the Entrepreneur Wales Awards here.