How a First Date Led to Multimillion-Dollar Confection Company Sugarfina
In the Women Entrepreneur series My First Moves, we talk to founders about that pivotal moment when they decided to turn their business idea into a reality—and the first steps they took to make it happen.
It’s almost too perfect that the origin story of Sugarfina -- the luxury candy retailer known for its champagne-flavored gummies and fashion-forward packaging -- is as sugary sweet as the company’s beloved products. A charming first date would inspire the multimillion-dollar brand, which was carefully and slowly nurtured during the co-founders’ courtship. Rosie O'Neill, who built the company with her now-fiancé, tells us how the business unfolded, step by step.
1. Fall in love.
On a first date with Josh Resnick, a screening of the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory sparked a playful conversation -- and a million-dollar idea. “We started talking about, Why isn’t there a candy store for grown-ups?” O’Neill says. Over the next two years, as her relationship with Resnick grew, so did the idea. “It kind of became a back-burner hobby project that we’d talk about during dates -- it’s all wound up in our love story,” she says. And while it wasn’t their full-time focus -- O’Neill was working as the director of marketing for Barbie at Mattell -- they did take it seriously. “We’d travel for leisure, go to small towns and explore local candymakers,” O’Neill recalls. “We took a trip to Italy for my birthday and took a two-day side tour to track down the makers of these beautiful candies. It was a lot of on-the-ground, tiny village research.”
2. Protect your vision.
Though the couple slowly developed their side hustle -- “It felt like we were working on an arts-and-crafts project,” O’Neill recalls -- they instantly knew when they found the right name. “Fina means very fine quality in Italian, and it just hit me one day when we were at lunch at an Italian restaurant,” she says. “I told him ‘Sugarfina,’ and Josh was just like, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’ And right there at the table I pulled out my phone and bought the domain.”
3. Set yourself apart.
By the time O’Neill and Resnick felt ready to walk away from their full-time gigs, they had laid a pretty sweet foundation. They knew they wanted to import and contract manufacture European candies, and had an index of flavors they’d collected and catalogued over the past two years. And they knew that success would come down to presentation. “We wanted to balance luxury and fun,” O’Neill says. “When you think of other luxury players in the confection space, they’re mostly chocolate, and mostly very serious.” Sugarfina’s signature look had to be fun, customizable and ever changing. “We wanted the ability to constantly refresh and add newness and fun to our collections,” she says. “We think of ourselves as a fashion brand almost more than a confections brand.”
4. Test your own limits.
Because the founders were bootstrapping the business, they kept it just the two of them for as long as possible, even after they launched -- which meant they had to stretch their own skill sets. “I was teaching myself how to build a website, shooting all the photography, writing all the copy and Josh was handling all the legal stuff,” she says. “And we were both packing the candy and getting e-commerce shipments ready to launch. It was very scrappy.”
5. Call in some favors.
When a bit of organic press landed Sugarfina on shopping website Daily Candy, it snowballed into success O’Neill and Resnick weren’t ready for. “The Daily Candy coverage got us contacted by Facebook, who was doing this gifting program,” O’Neill says. “And we didn’t know what to expect, we were a tiny fish in a big pond. But they launched it, highlighting just three brands: Apple, Starbucks and Sugarfina.” The orders flooded in. “We weren’t prepared to keep up,” she says. “We were calling friends and family for help on a daily basis. My parents probably worked 20 hours a week with us; Josh’s whole family was helping us pack and ship orders. It was a get-it-done mentality.”
6. Make a (good) hire.
After that, the couple knew they couldn’t build the brand alone anymore and made a strategic hire just 11 months after they officially launched. “She ended up staying with us for five years,” O’Neill says. “She worked her way up to head of quality control and left only when she had a baby and wanted to be a stay-at-home mom.” Their second hire, she adds proudly, is still with the company today.