After ten years in the banking industry, Sciences Po alumnus Samuel Maruta aspired to do something simpler, more fulfilling and more creative. In 2011, he co-founded Marou Chocolate, a trendy artisanal chocolate brand made in Vietnam and distributed all over the world. Interview.
In 2011, you co-founded Marou Chocolate, a trendy artisanal chocolate brand made in Vietnam and distributed all over the world. How did you come to start a chocolate-making business? Can you tell us broadly about your career path after Sciences Po?
Making chocolate was a radical change in direction. I graduated from Sciences Po in 1996 and after studying for a few more years (first in the UK for an MA in International Relations, then at a French business school) I found myself working for a large French banking group. I spent ten years with that group doing a variety of jobs in many different countries (Japan, France, UK, Singapore, Hong Kong and eventually Vietnam). In 2010, after ten years of this life, I felt it was more than enough and I hardly saw myself free wheeling all the way to retirement. My family and I had enjoyed living in Vietnam, so as my expat contract there was drawing to an end and the bank’s headquarters were filling up with retiring expats in the aftermath of the 2008 banking crisis, I thought that it made sense to take a year off and stay in Vietnam to look for new opportunities.
I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do then but at the same time it was pretty clear in my head that I was not after another corporate job. I think I really aspired to do something that would be simpler, more fulfilling and more creative. Something good enough to put my name on.
I read on Marou Chocolate’s website that “any successful endeavour is the result of x% inspiration + y% perspiration.”. Who and where does your inspiration come from at the moment for developing Marou Chocolate?
During my early years in Vietnam, before quitting my banking job, the people that I had watched with the most envy amongst expat circles were the ones working in the coffee trading industry: they were dealing with a real product, working with farmers, going around some of the more remote areas of the country… It seemed like a lot more fun than I was having! When my business partner Vincent Mourou and I found out about cacao in Vietnam we thought it could be even better: not just trading cacao but making chocolate with it and help put Vietnamese cacao on the map.
2011 was also a year when many of what we call the ‘bean-to-bar’ chocolate makers came of age. There had been pioneers, they were obscure (they still are for the most part, unless you’re a chocolate fanatic) but if you were looking for them, or if you just came upon them by chance, you could see these people taking on the established industrial chocolate makers with home-made contraptions and selling their wares to whomever was ready to make a big, bold statement about caring where their chocolate came from.
At the time, I remember reading a lot of books about entrepreneurs like Brewing Up a Business by Sam Calagione (about stubbornly and successfully starting a craft brewery in the USA) or Guy Kawasaki’s Reality Check, which was written as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur guide by a man who has a distinct track record of surviving in the Valley for 30 years and never quite making the decision that could have made him Silicon Valley-rich. Inspiration also came from marketing guru Seth Godin, whose ideas talked to me in a way that none of the marketing stuff I’d been through in business school ever managed.
I enjoy reading broadly; fiction rarely produces the kind of direct inspiration that can directly translate into a business, but I think there is something playful and highbrow in Marou Chocolate that the bookish types can relate to.
And about the “y% perspiration”, what part of running Marou Chocolate do you find most demanding?
I think there is a relentlessness about creating a business. The job is never over. It’s like a video game with a never-ending series of levels, you smash turtles up and triumphantly zap mushrooms only to find out the Princess has been abducted again…
Still, I guess that makes entrepreneurship addictive. There’s also the tremendous pride that comes with building something tangible. Growing a business is the opposite of an abstraction, it’s like building a house. But unlike a normal house, which is a rather straightforward project, there are slightly fantastical aspects to this. At first you build with your own hands, then you start recruiting people to help you with the work, and somehow, if you’re running the business successfully, you find yourself with the resources to add more wings to your house, or to level it and make it bigger and better. In the end I think we might end up with something out of Peeters and Schuiten’s Obscure Cities...
Did you have support from investors when you created your brand in 2011? If so, why did investors trust in your startup and support it?
We did gather a little round of investment in the beginning from the famous F&F: friends and family. I am happy to report there were no fools. The people who supported us did so because they trusted our vision, our capacity and our integrity. I suppose the fact that Vincent and I both had successful careers before starting up was reassuring.
Since that initial investment round more than five years ago we have preferred organic growth, although many tempting offers have been made to fund our growth through capital injections. I think that as founders of the business we have chosen to maintain control over maximising the valuation of the business. I guess we’re playing a long game.
In September 2015, Sciences Po launched the Sciences Po School of Management & Innovation. From your perspective, which knowledge and skills should future entrepreneurs acquire at university to be successful in business?
I think you need the basics: accounting skills to understand how and when a business is going to be profitable. Marketing skills because whatever you’re making you’ll have to sell. Interpersonal skills because chances are you won’t make it all the way on your own. There are many other qualities you need as can entrepreneur, like curiosity, empathy, trust, but also knowing when to say no, when to cut your losses or when to bet the farm... and those I don’t think you can teach in a classroom, they’re either in your character or you learn them through experience, usually in a painful way. I think that as an entrepreneur you learn to see business in a different way, you should understand and question how things work and why. You’re no longer a passenger on the bus, you’re in the driver’s seat and chances are you’re the mechanic too, because if something breaks down you’re on your own.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs who want to start their business in South-East Asia?
South-East Asia is vast and made up of many different countries. My experience in Vietnam might not be relevant if you want to start something in Singapore or Yangon, so I’ll narrow the question down to starting a business in Vietnam.
Having lived in Vietnam for ten years, and having known the country for twenty years, the pace of change in the country never ceases to amaze me. I think that what’s really interesting here is the fact that you have a relatively large country (90M people), that provides a safe environment for business and has by and large done a great job getting most of its population out of poverty in the past thirty years. Right now, it is also enjoying a quasi optimal age structure. I am even cautiously optimistic about the evolution of the regime towards greater plurality, as the younger generation are having their voice heard in a positive way on themes like environmental protection for example. In the big cities—and that’s possibly an unlikely gift from a complicated history—the country feels cosmopolitan in a way that many Asian countries are not: the Vietnamese have no fear or contempt of foreigners. In two short generations they’ve overcome incredible hardship and so they just radiate faith in the future. All of these factors make Vietnam a very attractive place to start a business.