Walter Blake Knoblock is a grown-up kid in a candy store, his own 21st century version: an online, global, social-media driven start-up he hopes will balloon into other businesses. His model? Monthly subscriptions for treats and snacks delivered to doorsteps everywhere and anywhere.
The first version of his membership-based, online pre-order biz for premium treats is Bocandy.com.
Knoblock started Bocandy nearly five months ago and just over 100 subscribers are signed up. For $9 a month [now $11, with half-sizes available for $8 – Ed.] they receive Bocandy’s candy apple red bubble envelope filled with 7-10 candies from around the world.
Knoblock’s newly formed relationship with candy wholesalers in Chicago and New York, means an unexpected treat – roasted seaweed, anyone? – from another continent will be thrown in. Bocandy.com subscribers come from metro Detroit, but the bulk are from other states and other countries, he says.
Rekindling childhood memories
Some Bocandy customers are looking for a reunion with the candy of their childhood, often products they left behind when they took jobs in other countries. Some subscribers are candy adventurers who want to break away from America’s M&M, Mars, Hershey monopoly to more exotic or unusual confections. Other Bocandy buyers are gift givers looking for that something different.
“Yesterday I got about five orders: Virginia Beach to Miami to El Paso and Utah,” he says. “Some are organic traffic. Some are Facebook ads…One of my goals is I want people to form a relationship with Bocandy.”
Knoblock’s business is small enough to make that happen. He hears personal stories about pining for tartouche from Lebanon or an Aero bar from the U.K.
He uses a low-tech customer service survey that’s an email with a tracking number and a quick, 300-word welcome appeal to tell why they came to Bocandy. “No wasted trees, and people are more apt to reply to an email rather than a survey that I could have sent with the candy.”
“I’ve had three or four people say they remembered from their childhood one particular hard candy from Holland. People talk about the memories the candy brings back,” he says. “What I want is to make this fun. When it comes down to it what I’m not selling is sugar. In my mind, what I’m selling is an experience. Once a month you get this fun present… a red package, easy to see so you know what it is and when you open it up it gives you something you really can’t get anywhere else.”
Bocandy delivers treats and a cultural hello without the travel: Relleritos from Mexico, Pipp Bars from Iceland, Konpeito from Japan, Hitschler Softi from Germany.
“It’s not sitting down and going to a lecture or whatever, but it’ s a little introduction to something from another culture.”
Knoblock runs Bocandy from his Detroit apartment, where he is website designer and operator, e-sales management, inventory control (don’t eat the merchandise), accountant, packager, marketer, and salesperson. It’s a one-man Willy-Wonka-esque operation with the only nearby river being the Detroit, not one made of chocolate.
The candy idea came to him one day, and he started building the website, writing code, etc. the next.
Everyone loves candy
“I figured it was the easiest market to get into and the easiest thing to sell…You can go into a gas station, grocery store, any retail counter and what do you always see? Candy and cigarettes,” he says.
“I’m not going to sell cigarettes. Candy is the logical thing. It gives people immediate satisfaction,” says Knoblock, who has a sweet tooth and also sees himself as an accomplished snacker. (His discovery of trout jerky has him planning to start Bojerky.com by fall.)
He got the business off the ground with a $5,000 grant from Start Garden, an unconventional venture capital fund founded by Rick DeVos and based in Grand Rapids. It invests in more than a hundred ideas a year in small increments. Today, Knoblock goes back with sales to ask a second round of support.
Like one of the world’s most famous candy entrepreneurs, the 25 year-old Knoblock is launching his candy career at a young age. The founder of Hershey’s Chocolate started his candy-making company at age 18.
But lest you think he’s playing catch-up, candy wasn’t the first of Knoblock’s entrepreneurial endeavors.
From comedy to candy
In college he was a standup comedian. He gave that up when he tired of the travel. He then solicited and compiled writings for his Great Lakes Book Project, which was nominated for a Michigan Notable Book in 2013. His foray into publishing gave him the knowledge that bookstores rely on things other than books for sales, and he launched a line of stickers and bookmarks that are sold in 200 stores nationwide.
Early on Knoblock tapped his candy memory bank – trips to Mexico, Canada and backpacking from Amsterdam to Sicily – to gather international products for the mail-order company. The Traverse City native went to school in England and Mexico and then closer to home at Hillsdale College and eventually Eastern Michigan.
“In my mind I had candies I wanted in the first few shipments,” he says. “Now I’ve exhausted the ones of my own experience.”
That sent him on a search for candy importers and new product. He found them in Chicago and New York.
“Now I can buy in quantity, and I’m dealing with people who have been doing it for years and years and are importing all these cool candies,” he says. “Every day I learn something more about how to run this business.”
Research is a big part of Knoblock’s days. It’s put him on international calls to candy shops and factories and in possession of factoid fodder for Facebook posts and Tweets.
Did you know World War II soldiers were given Tootsie Rolls with their rations because they held up over time and in all kinds of weather? Or that Oregon can claim the most searches for gluten-free candy; Alabama the most for candy corn? Knoblock has made it his mission to educate his candy lovin’ customers.
Is there a downside to running a candy business? Depends on your point of view.
“Inevitably,” Knoblock says, “I will have leftovers.”
Few people actually make candy, but here’s a very easy recipe you can make at home.