It was sort of like breaking open a piñata. Keith Hoelzeman and Jamie Walden took a swing at starting a business and candy fell out. The founders of Treatsie, the online, artisan sweets business based in Little Rock, recently cleared the two-year anniversary of the Kickstarter campaign that birthed their Little Rock-based enterprise and the company shows no signs of slowing.
"We market ourselves as a technology company that happens to sell a physical product and finds new ways to sell retail products,” Hoelzeman says.
Each month Treatsie ships its online subscribers specialty boxes of unique, gourmet candies and confections from some of the best chefs in the nation you’ve never heard of. The idea was born when Hoelzeman was researching fancy sweets online for a gift to give his wife Amanda who (full disclosure) serves as Little Rock Soirée’s editor when not caring for the couple’s newborn son Miles. Hoelzeman was so overwhelmed by the quantity of interesting treats his search turned up that he ended up not buying anything. “There were tons of these independent shops doing great work,” says Hoelzeman, noting there was no search filter by which to winnow the “eight million” candy options he saw.
Further inspired by his wife’s makeup shipment from Birchbox.com, Hoelzeman hit on the idea of setting up an Internet-based conduit — a candy clearinghouse if you will — that connects talented, independent sweets makers to a previously untapped customer base. Treatsie continues to evolve, but the primary function is still to locate and obtain interesting and tasty confections exclusively from smaller, independent vendors, package them in an eye pleasing way and ship them to customers in all 50 states and the Virgin Islands. Treatsie offers a monthly subscription box containing an assortment of high-end selections from an ever-changing lineup of artisans, usually with three to four vendors represented in each box.
Customers can also order directly and Treatsie has additional assortments of specialty boxes that include a vegan choice, holiday boxes, corporate gifts and customer favorites.
For those with a sweet tooth, anything goes. Treatsie items include cookies and candies of all kinds, spreads, syrups, jams, doughs, tarts, fruit baskets and more.
“It’s actually more of a discovery mechanism for a product that has never done well online,” Walden said. “We saw there were tons of amazing sweets out there that no one would ever find.”
There is still a lot of physical work to be done when it comes time to ship, especially during the peak stretch from Christmas to Valentine’s Day.
Treatsie’s small staff — normally seven plus occasional part-timers — packs, stacks and ships out of a crowded jumble of rooms in a strip mall on west Markham Street. The furniture is mainly boxes — the cardboard kind — and folding tables stacked high with Treatsie’s signature candy boxes.
The company first operated out of homes, then out of Fellowship Bible Church, but needed around the clock access and settled at its current, spartan, headquarters. Treatsie’s business model intentionally avoids the overhead of a traditional brick and mortar company — the money goes into the candy and the customers and not receptionists, potted palms or recessed lighting.
“Technology moves so much faster than brick and mortar does,” Walden says.
Technology, Hoelzeman points out, can accurately measure what products are succeeding as opposed to what products people might say they want, which hopefully keeps Treatsie from becoming outdated.
“It takes nine years for a brick and mortar business to realize it’s failing,” Hoelzeman says.
A former Arkansas Business Publishing Group employee, Walden knew Hoelzeman through Keith’s wife Amanda, and at dinner parties and other social occasions the two men realized a shared passion for good edibles.
Hoelzeman, 31, was unhappy in his previous job in logistics and technology sales while Walden, 29, was happy handling web design and marketing at American Data Network and had to wrestle with the decision to go in on Treatsie. Once the decision was made, however, momentum and business picked up quickly.
Thanks to its successful, one-month Kickstarter campaign, Treatsie incorporated in February 2013 and shipped its first box April 15 of that year.
“The nature of a startup, at least from our experience, is no two days are the same,” Hoelzeman says.
Hoelzemann handles the product traffic, paperwork, payroll and logistics while Walden focuses on “the fun stuff” — marketing and building an audience. A team member is assigned to locate promising vendors while Hoelzeman and Walden also attend trade shows.
Samples are taste-tested, a fair price is set and orders are then placed and shipped.
“Sampling the sweets is definitely the most fun part of the process,” Hoelzeman says.
Also sweetening the deal has been the warm reception Treatsie has received from other entrepreneurs in what is becoming a thriving, local startup scene.
“The entrepreneurial community for Arkansas as a whole is a lot of people tend to want you to succeed,” Hoelzeman says. “We have been fortunate to seek and receive advice from some of the best business leaders in Arkansas. And people from Arkansas want to see Arkansans succeed.”
To learn more about Treatsie, click here.