Rosie O’Neill, 38, is co-founder and co-chief executive of Sugarfina, the artisan candy company based in El Segundo that she runs with Josh Resnick, 51, the other founder and CEO. From a 2012 start with just $60,000 in savings, the duo has traveled the world looking for unusual and tasty sweets for adult connoisseurs. Sugarfina employs more than 500 people and racked up $40 million in 2017 sales. O’Neill and Resnick were 2018 finalists in Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur Of The Year awards for the Los Angeles area.
Growing up in Southern California, O’Neill was the kid imagining her own brand. “I was always starting these little ad hoc businesses,” O’Neill said, “whether it was making friendship bracelets and selling them to my friends or baking chocolate chip cookies. I would go sell as many Girl Scout cookies as I possibly could.”
With a graduate degree in business from UCLA, O’Neill built a successful career at Mattel Inc. for seven years as director of marketing for Barbie and related products. Wrangling the fashion doll icon was a big job. “You’re dealing with product and packaging, planning and forecasting, consumer research, advertising, marketing, pretty much every aspect of starting and growing a brand,” she said.
On her third date with Resnick in 2010, the couple went to see “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” The film sparked a question, then an idea. “We were thinking, ‘Why are there no candy stores for adults?’” O’Neill said. “The entrepreneurial bug was calling me. Josh and I just finally got to a point where we said, ‘Let's give this a shot, and if it doesn't work we can always go back to what we were doing before.’”
Selling the idea
O’Neill and Resnick each threw in $30,000 in savings to start the company, but that would take them only so far. Along with seeking out interesting and exotic candies, they were also seeking venture capital, eventually bringing in $40 million on the pitch that they could find enough irresistible goodies from around the world. “And not just for grown ups like in the ‘over 18’ sense, more of that sophisticated gourmet experience. There was nothing like that that existed in the U.S.”
“We started working on sourcing this amazing candy collection; candies from about two dozen different countries and candy makers.” Sugarfina launched online in summer 2012 and opened its first retail store in November 2013. Revenue reached $25 million in 2016 and rose to $40 million in 2017, O’Neill said.
Josh and I have the very difficult job of traveling around the world testing candy, but someone has to do it, right?
Rosie O'Neill, Sugarfina co-CEO
There are more than 100 candies available through Sugarfina, many beyond anything a conventional candy shop sells. Rosé gummy bears sold out in two hours when first introduced and had a waiting list thousands of customers long, O’Neill said. “We had fat-free champagne bears from Germany, made with Dom Pérignon,” she said. “We had Corona Light ‘Here for a good lime.’ We had fruity loops and chocolate confetti from Greece.” Some are their own creation. “Now we’re able even to take it to that next level and have things that we invent and bring those to life, like Corona beer bottle gummy bears,” she said.
Bricks and clicks
“Retail’s still definitely a big priority. It's only about half of our business, though. We actually do quite a bit online and wholesale and corporate gifting,” O’Neill said. The company has been opening 10 to 12 stores in each of the past three or four years, bringing the total to 37, she said. In addition, Sugarfina shops operate inside 15 Nordstrom stores.
Sugarfina tries to set itself apart through its packaging, too. Many of the candies are sold in plastic cubes, priced a $7.50 for a small cube and $18 for a large cube, which can be combined in various ways like Japanese bento boxes. O’Neill said the labels are designed for easy removal so the containers don’t end up in a landfill. “We worked on that for a very long time, because I wanted people to keep the boxes and reuse them,” she said. Sugarfina charges as little as $2 for a single pear brandy dark chocolate cordial from France to $195 for a 20-cube trunk that O’Neill described as “kind of like a beautiful over-the-top gift.”
“Josh and I have the very difficult job of traveling around the world testing candy, but someone has to do it, right?” she said. O’Neill says the couple is traveling about 40% of the time.
Friendships don’t always translate into immediate business success, but O’Neill and Resnick figured it out, O’Neill said. “We're co-CEOs, and we split it up. Basically, he’s back office and I'm doing all of the sales channels like the retail stores, e-commerce, wholesale, product development, marketing, design,” she said, “Then Josh does operations, legal, finance, HR.” The two are partners in business and in life. “We've been engaged for six years, and we've been together eight years. The only reason we’re not married is we haven't had time.”
“I'm really good at hiring people who are a lot smarter than me and giving them the room to do a really great job,” O’Neill said. “I try not to be too involved in a way that holds the business back. It's more about being on the ground with the team and being there to support them in doing their best work.”
All that candy requires a certain determination to stay fit, O’Neill said. “Josh and I try to work out as much as we can, because when you run a candy store and you have to eat candy every day, it's important to balance that. Even though we have to travel a ton for work, we always try to tack on one or two extra days where we can just kind of go out and enjoy a new city or a new country.”