Lavinia Davolio moved to London aged 21 with the dream of becoming an investment banker. Having started out as an intern and working her way up the corporate ladder, she later became a Director (one of few female Director’s at the firm).
But it wasn’t meant to be and fate had other things in store for the Italian-born banker, who turned up to work one day only to find a redundancy package awaiting her.
The initial shock and upset was soon replaced by a desire to create and Lavinia enrolled in cookery school and trained as a chef. Although becoming a chef wasn’t quite the right fit, it did lead to the launch of Lavolio – a company selling luxury, sugar-coated fruit and nut confectionery made using traditional Italian artisan techniques.
Now, Lavinia’s artfully-crafted sweets are stocked throughout London including within Fortnum & Mason, but can also be found internationally with stockists in Portugal, Kuwait and Hong Kong. Not bad for an investment-banker-turned-confectioner.
You were in an investment banker before launching Lavolio; did that experience help you in launching your own business?
Absolutely, it is a completely different field but there are many skills that are transferable. Going from banking to confectionery may seem like a big leap and it did take a lot of guts to make the first step into reinventing myself from being an employee to learning how to become an entrepreneur.
However I learnt a lot in investment banking and had the privilege to be working with some of the brightest people I know! For example I learnt to be very organised, to communicate well with the team, to be diligent, to pay attention to detail and to take decisions under a lot of pressure. When asked about what experience you need to become an entrepreneur, I feel that there is not a definite answer, as a lot of decisions ultimately are down to intuition, but there are learnable skills that can help on the roller-coaster ride!
What made you want to launch a confectionery brand?
I got a bit bored of eating chocolate and I started looking for something sweet that was not a cheap, mass-produced sugar fix with little nutritional value. I started researching using nuts and pieces of fruit in confectionery rather than just cheap ingredients. My next challenge was to create a really indulgent treat that would surprise you rather than just another nut-bar, I wanted to create something that would be as satisfactory as gourmet chocolate but with carefully picked ingredients.
I love all things sweets, I always have. I’m a keen cook and my speciality is desserts and any kind of sweet concoctions! In particular I love to match different flavours together and always experiment new daring combinations. After my career in finance, the first thing I did was to go to cookery school and to train as a chef. I loved it, but it made me realise that I would prefer to keep my passion for cooking as a hobby rather than as a career. I knew that I wanted to create something in food, so I started researching the different trends in confectionery. I guess I was naturally drawn to confectionery because I love it so much!
What steps did you take to get your business off the ground?
First I did my research, mainly in two ways: by using Google and by reaching out to people.
Both methods are basically free. There is just so much information available online, it really makes a huge difference. Also I was positively surprised about the amount of honest wholehearted support I got from reaching out to experienced professionals in the industry. Knocking on the right doors is making a great difference in the way our business is growing. I researched the competitive landscape but also practical things such as logistics/distribution, how to get the right certificates in place and learning about the value chain from ingredients to packaged goods ready to be bought on the shelves.
Then we started selling our confectionery at food markets and at every other event where we had the opportunity to meet first-hand with our customers and gather the most important thing: their feedback on tasting our treats! We get huge satisfaction from making an emotional connection with our clients and initiating their relationship with the Lavolio brand.
What was your biggest challenge in launching your business?
I had this pretty clear vision of what I wanted Lavolio to be, but then it was quite difficult to make it happen. There are so many unexpected things (or learning opportunities), which I find very exciting, but being a very practical person it can be frustrating and I believe the key is to stay organised.
You also need to be clear about working with people, setting deadlines and following up to ensure that things move forward. My main initial challenge was prioritizing the next urgent thing, as a small business you have to wear a lot of different hats.
One good piece of advice I got early-on is: How do you eat an Elephant? You cut it up in small pieces! This is so true when you are faced with a lot of decisions and need to be constantly deciding which is the next most important thing. I learned that getting a product on the shelves is not easy, but it is hugely satisfactory when it gets done and it’s sitting there, looking back at you from the shelves.
Did you receive any outside funding? If so how much did you receive? Where did you get it from and how did you spend it?
The initial capital investment was out of my savings, and it was spent creating the product – which took about 3 months (and I gained 3 kilos!), and buying the initial packaging supplies.
We had to be a lean-startup because of our limited resources and at the beginning almost everything was done out of my own kitchen table!
I was facing a difficult decision: to give up my banking job and financial stability and to put money into the unknown. I had committed a lot into my career in banking and suddenly had to face redundancy. I decided to consider external funding at a later stage, and I am still not at that stage (which I am happy to admit).
We have been reinvesting everything into the growth of the company and we are so proud of becoming cash-flow positive after less than 12 months of trading.
Did you use an agency to help you develop the brand image and packaging design?
We did not use a big brand agency because quite simply we couldn’t afford it. The look and feel of Lavolio Boutique Confectionery is very personal to me, it had to match my vision of elegance, femininity and sophistication. The process of concept creation and design was done with the help of the best friend of my house mate, who is an extremely talented designer and has helped massively in turning my ideas into real life. I still have a notebook full of sketches that I used to send him using WhatsApp images! I was inspired by my favourite fashion designers, but also by researching other brands’ packaging such as beauty products. The concept of using the metal tins and the paper wrap still feels like a Eureka-moment, coming from someone with very little branding/packaging experience.
How do you promote Lavolio?
Our preferred way to share a new innovative product such as Lavolio is to get more people to taste it. We have such a unique and memorable flavour combination and we love to surprise people’s taste buds.
In this competitive market a lot of bigger brands have substantial advertising budgets to promote their products. I don’t like adverts per-se, I strongly believe that the best promotion is done by our very own products. Getting our customers to try Lavolios and then to share them, maybe by gifting them or by talking about them. This is why we love to get in front of our clients.
What top tips would you give to someone looking to launch their own business?
Before you even think about becoming an entrepreneur find something that you are truly passionate about, then don’t be scared to ask for help. And keep smiling!