Bertrand Théaud: Hello, so welcome to this new episode of Grown in Asia. We’re very pleased today to have a new host, Thibaut Carminho. So Thibaut. Hi, nice to meet you. I mean “nice to meet you”, we met once before. We’re not best friends, but we have the occasion to meet before.
[00:00:25] So the reason why you were invited on this podcast is not because you’re French. That would have been a good reason because I’m French as well, so we can have a good discussion. And actually we have a glass of wine to share during this podcast.
[00:00:37] But the real reason is because you sell the best tartes in Hong Kong with your company Tartes & Pop. And so before we go further and we know about your experience and we share, you know, your experience, can you please introduce yourself briefly in a few words?
[00:00:55] Thibaut Carminho: Yes, yes, yes. So my name is Thibaut Carminho. I am French. I’ve been in Hong Kong for seven years. I’m 30 years old and I have been an entrepreneur for five years now.
[00:01:08] Bertrand Théaud: Five years ago, so you arrive in Hong Kong and almost immediately you went for entrepreneurship.
[00:01:12] Thibaut Carminho: Yes, I didnt’t work much, I think.
[00:01:14] Bertrand Théaud: Okay.
[00:01:15] So, you say you’re French or you grew up in France?
[00:01:18] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah. Yeah. I was born in Paris and I spent half of my life about 10 years in Paris, and then my family moved to Poitiers, the West of France. And so, yeah, this is where I spent most of my childhood. So yeah, I studied in and grew up in Poitiers.
[00:01:35] Bertrand Théaud: So you did your study as well in Poitiers?
[00:01:37] Thibaut Carminho: Yes.
[00:01:38] Bertrand Théaud: Grown and studied in Poitiers.
[00:01:39] Thibaut Carminho: Yes, but I did not have the chance to really find a job there. I was sent to Hong Kong before that.
[00:01:47] Bertrand Théaud: Okay. What did you study? I mean, there was any passion that when you were young, I mean, anything that will explain why you decided to go for, you know, setting up your company later on.
[00:01:57] Thibaut Carminho: Well my dad is an entrepreneur, so he had a business of anti-theft systems, you know, these little things in the entrance of the shop.
[00:02:10] Bertrand Théaud: Yeah. That’s the one you put in a shop, not in the cars
[00:02:12] Thibaut Carminho: No, no, no. In the shops only, it’s for retail, for clothes especially. So he was selling these tags.
[00:02:17] He had a small business in France, and this small business grew up to become one of the top European business on that market. So he later sold his company. But yeah, I grew up seeing my dad moving from being a staff to being an entrepreneur into a successful businessman. So I had that.
[00:02:39] Bertrand Théaud: Was that inspiring?
[00:02:41] Thibaut Carminho: It’s very inspiring, but it’s very hard to touch. I didn’t expect I would actually reach his level and I didn’t really wanted his life either, because he took me on holidays a lot and I saw him being on the phone constantly.
[00:02:57] I saw him never been off work. When you are, when you own the business, you have to constantly be here and available.
[00:03:06] Bertrand Théaud: You have to be here 24/7, especially when you’re growing the business.
[00:03:09] Thibaut Carminho: So I was enjoying my time on holidays, thanks to his job, but he wasn’t enjoying his time. He was always busy. So I would not say he inspired me.
[00:03:19] I would say it was a lot less difficult because I know it was possible.
[00:03:25] Bertrand Théaud: Okay.
[00:03:26] Thibaut Carminho: I’ve seen it before
[00:03:27] Bertrand Théaud: Because you studied business, right?
[00:03:29] So is there anywhere, some kind of a connection between your father being an entrepreneur and decided that he wanted you to study business or it was like a choice by default?
[00:03:37] Like many kids at the age of 18 you didn’t know what you do, and so why not business?
[00:03:41] Thibaut Carminho: That’s actually what happened. I’m terrible at math and science in general. I’m just bad at it.
[00:03:46] Bertrand Théaud: Welcome to the club.
[00:03:48] Thibaut Carminho: There’s a lot of entrepreneurs. We love numbers, but we’re not really good at handling them. So yeah, so I was terrible at math, so I had a choice between science or literature.
[00:03:58] So I chose literature. I learnt English, French, and I realised there’s not much work in this field. There’s not much to do after that. So I was like: “Okay, now I’m here. What can I do with my English speaking skills if I don’t want to be a teacher? And the only logical thing I could do without entering into the math world, was to move to do business.”
[00:04:21] So I was probably not prepared because I didn’t have the background of some other students. I had to work extra hard to be able to get into the business school. It was a public business school, so it’s cheap. It’s almost free. So it’s a little bit more difficult to get in because it’s free, but at the same time, it’s not a very prestigious school.
[00:04:44] Bertrand Théaud: Once you get in that school, you didn’t have math? Because very often in business school you have some finance majors or things like that, and you still have to deal with math. Right?
[00:04:53] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah. I wasn’t very, very… often into that. I was actually not really going to math class . I was just skipping them most of the time.
[00:05:06] So I had to lie my way through, to explain why I was not in the math class, but yeah. Thanks to the French university systems, you don’t have to be good at everything. You can just be good in other sujects. In fact, you have to be extra good in other fields, but you can be terrible at math and still go through the whole thing.
[00:05:28] Bertrand Théaud: Yeah, as long as on average, you managed to make it.
[00:05:31] Thibaut Carminho: There was only one year with math. The first year was like a common base. So everybody had to do that. And then I moved to marketing and from marketing, I moved to international studies. And so these studies pushed me out of the country. They were like: “Okay, now you need to spend six months overseas.”
[00:05:48] So I had to go to a place. Far away to work. That’s how Hong Kong
[00:05:54] Bertrand Théaud: Oh, that’s how you arrive in Hong Kong. There was initially you arrived here. I mean, in Hong Kong. We are recording this podcast in Hong Kong, through your studies.
[00:06:04] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah. China and Hong Kong were definitely not part of my plans at the very beginning.
[00:06:11] I was a very European born and raised kid and I was planning to work in France and the international side of my studies would be probably Europe, Spain, UK, these kind of countries. I was not ready to go to China or Hong Kong. But because of the world we were in and the prospect of business in China, I was like, I need to spend at least six months there even though I don’t want to do it.
[00:06:38] I need to do it because it will look good on my CV. So I look for a company and I was like, there’s going to be a very difficult six months, but you need to be strong. And I really didn’t know anything about China. I thought I was going to Shanghai and my boss at the time, the guy who gave me the internship said: “We have an opening in Hong Kong. Is that okay?”
[00:07:02] And I was like “Yeah, nevermind. It’s all the same to me.” So I really didn’t know anything about China, and that’s how I ended up in Hong Kong. I thought it was mainland China. The time before I entered the plane, I realised it was actually not exactly mainland China.
[00:07:17] Bertrand Théaud: Okay. So this is how you ended up in Hong Kong?
[00:07:19] Thibaut Carminho: Yes, yes.
[00:07:20] Bertrand Théaud: That was like a six-month internship?
[00:07:22] Thibaut Carminho: That was supposed to be a six-month internship. But it turned out to be longer, they offered me a job at the end of the internship. The internship was very, very special in its own way.
[00:07:35] My boss was trying to expand his business by delegating most of the tasks. So he took me as an intern. And he asked me to manage the rest of the team, which were also interns.
[00:07:49] Bertrand Théaud: So almost the whole business was made of interns?
[00:07:53] Thibaut Carminho: Yes, because they are cheap or free for some of them. But also because Hong Kong was pretty expensive.
[00:07:59] Bertrand Théaud: What kind of business was it?
[00:08:00] Thibaut Carminho: It was a buying office. We were buying things from Mainland China and selling them to Europe. Mostly promotional gifts, like key rings, USB keys, these kind of things. Anything you can put a logo on basically. And so there was a big side of the business that was sourcing.
[00:08:17] So this was done in China, directly by the China team. And all the sales part and the customer service was in Hong Kong. And I was in charge of that part. I was 20-21 at the time. So I was very young
[00:08:32] Bertrand Théaud: Wow, very young!
[00:08:33] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah. It was very young to actually manage people. I had no idea what I was doing.
[00:08:37] Luckily for me, most of the people I was managing were more or less my age, except those in China. They were actually a lot older than me. So I had to pretend to be older. That’s why I grew a beard. So I looked a little bit older and yeah, I had to, I made a lot of mistakes. But because it was an internship and because my staff were actually interns, every three or six months they were going out and I had a new batch of fresh interns coming in, so I could just start over. I could try again.
[00:09:09] So what I tried the first time: I was a very nice boss, very gentle and funny, and it didn’t work out. Nobody was doing anything. And so I was basically doing the work of four people just because they are not doing their job properly.
[00:09:23] So after that I was like: “Okay, now it’s over. I’m going to be the angry, bad boss.” That worked… But I was having my lunch alone every single time, and everybody hated me in the office. The atmosphere was horrible. So that obviously wasn’t who I am. And so I tried again and I tweaked a little bit.
[00:09:42] I was like: “Okay, you need to be hard sometime, but you need to be nice sometimes.” So I had basically a management school for myself. I was paid to try new management ways and then get the work done, so that helped me a lot for the future.
[00:09:58] Bertrand Théaud: Now, you’ve found your own management style, which is in between being too relaxed and too harsh.
[00:10:05] Thibaut Carminho: I am very relaxed, but I set the rules at the very beginning. I don’t let things go out of control. When I’m hiring someone, I’m telling them exactly how we operate and what I expect from them and what I will accept and what I will not accept.
[00:10:19] Most of these rules are written either in the contract or or in the management book or something like that. I will make sure it’s written and it’s clear so that if anything happens and it’s not supposed to happen, I will sanction that.
[00:10:34] But at the same time, once the rules are clear and everybody knows them, usually people are just a lot more relaxed and they know what are the boundaries and they will just work within these boundaries.
[00:10:45] And I have a wonderful team now. Everybody is super nice. And so you need to be respected enough in your own company and for that, most of the time you need to know enough about the job.
[00:10:59] There’s nothing worse than not knowing what you’re talking about. And so that’s what I found out. Even though I’m not a pastry chef, I own a cake shop, but I’m not a pastry chef. You need to know enough about your business, you need to be “dangerous” enough in every area of the business, at least for the people that you manage, in order to be taken seriously when you say something. I can’t ask someone to do something in a certain amount of time if I have no idea if it’s actually doable or not.
[00:11:23] Bertrand Théaud: You need to have some kind of the basic knowledge so you are up to speed on what’s going on.
[00:11:27] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah, yeah. So that of course works for yourself too.
[00:11:31] You need to actually, either you do a job first and then you hire someone to replace you, or you hire someone and you train yourself on the side to make sure that you know what you’re talking about.
[00:11:40] Bertrand Théaud: Okay. But when you had this internship, which turned into a job right after six months, and you were managing teams of interns, and you were saying that these interns, they will stay for a couple of months only…
[00:11:54] Thibaut Carminho: Yes.
[00:11:55] Bertrand Théaud: You didn’t grow some kind of frustration because even if you have somebody that you like, and she/he isn’t a good intern, you know, you train that person, it takes energy, it takes time, and then it must be I guess it may be frustrating to have this person out of the door after a couple of months. Because it must be difficult to build a business in the long run.
[00:12:16] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah, it was killing me. I mean, I was very happy to see some of them leave. But at the same time, once you have a team, and I mean, you know, it takes at least three months, when people actually are at the maximum of their knowledge and they are really, really blooming, that’s when you see them go.
[00:12:35] That was very frustrating. And that’s one of the reasons why I left also. The company was growing, so luckily we had some full time staff after that. We were still relying on interns, but we had some full time staff. So when I arrived, the company had around four staff, including interns, and when I left, we were close to 20 so it was a lot more.
[00:12:59] Bertrand Théaud: How long did you stay with this company?
[00:13:01] Thibaut Carminho: Well, I worked from home for a while. The last year, I was actually working on my business. I was setting up my business on the side and all the operation would move to China, so I didn’t want to go China, so I was staying in Hong Kong. I think I was employed for about 3.5 years in total.
[00:13:21] Bertrand Théaud: Okay. So, yeah, that’s pretty good. So from 4 to 20 [employees].
[00:13:25] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah, yeah. 4 to 20 people. Well, that was not only thanks to me, the whole company was working well, but yeah, but that definitely was bigger. The problems are not the same when you have a team of four or a team of 20 so I learned a lot along the way.
[00:13:39] And and so yeah, no, it became a pretty big company. That’s one of the reason why I left, because I realised I would never be able to grow. I mean, the company would grow under me, but not, I will not be able to go higher in the hierarchy. I was stuck just below the big busters, the owners, and he was young enough so he would not, he was not retiring anytime soon.
[00:13:59] So I knew that I would be stuck here with that level of, of responsibility and that level of salary probably.
[00:14:06] Bertrand Théaud: And you realised that after what? One year? Two years? When did you realise that anyway? That there will be a stop in your progression. Was it because after some time you thought: “Okay, I learned what I had to learn with this position so it’s better to move to something else”?
[00:14:21] Thibaut Carminho: The main reason why I left was obviously because I was about to start a business, which we can discuss a bit later on, but mostly it was because of the nature of the business. It’s not a business that you can really build on long term. Every project is a one time thing and you need to start from scratch every time.
[00:14:44] Marketing budgets are not fixed: one year companies will have a big budget, next year they have nothing. When you send gifts to your clients, you don’t want to offer the same gift every year.
[00:14:59] Bertrand Théaud: Sorry to interrupt. Is it the same clients placing orders one year after the other?
[00:15:06] Thibaut Carminho: That’s what we were trying to get. But it’s very difficult because clients want changes.
[00:15:10] Bertrand Théaud: Yeah, they don’t want the same gifts nor goodies.
[00:15:13] Thibaut Carminho: So we were able to source everything. So we had to offer something new non-stop just to make sure the clients think about us. And the competition is very hard. And because you’re not actually making anything, you’re a middle man.
[00:15:26] You’re invoicing them, you’re taking the money and you’re asking someone else to do the job. So, the factory manufacturing the gifts can work with hundreds of agents like you. So, your clients have the choice, they really can go with anyone else. So it’s very very difficult. You get blamed when your factory is in the wrong, but you don’t get praised when they are doing their job. So yeah, the business itself was very frustrating and the margins were not big.
[00:15:54] Bertrand Théaud: That was my next point. It must be driven by price, right?
[00:15:57] Thibaut Carminho: Oh yeah. You need to offer a low price, but you need to offer extra service. It’s difficult in the way it’s built.
[00:16:06] You need to be cheap because people don’t want to spend a lot of money on gifts because it doesn’t bring anything back. It’s just a gift. It’s just something you show on the table. And the perceived value of the gifts are low. If I give you a USB key, you’re not going to thank me five times, for five days or for five years, it’s just a USB key at the end of the day.
[00:16:24] So the impact on the client is not big, and at the same time, someone needs to pay for it. So the cheaper, the better. And most clients don’t even care if their clients are going to use the gift.
[00:16:36] Bertrand Théaud: It’s a gesture, it’s something that you give when you go to an event or your arrange a seminar or something like that.
[00:16:43] Thibaut Carminho: It’s a gamble. When you actually take the money from your client and you’re like: “Okay, I can do, I can give you this price,” and you lower your margin to 5 or 10%. You haven’t produced anything yet. You don’t know if your factory is going to do the job right, or if they are going to mess it up; and if they mess up, obviously you have to pay back.
[00:17:04] So you are constantly gambling on “I hope China’s factory is going to do the job right. And I hope the delivery company is going to deliver on time. And I hope…” There’s so many steps where you can go wrong along the way. And the margins are so little that it’s a very, very stressful industry.
[00:17:24] Bertrand Théaud: Because I guess also you have no inventory in this industry. You wait until you have an order from your clients before you place an order with the factory.
[00:17:31] Thibaut Carminho: Yes, so 45 days or 60 days.
[00:17:32] Bertrand Théaud: Okay? So that can create a lot of stress because you receive the order from your client and just to make sure that you will deliver on time.
[00:17:38] Thibaut Carminho: Exactly, and people don’t understand why you are chasing them in July for Christmas orders.
[00:17:42] So they are not ready. Most of them, they are going to think about Christmas two months before Christmas, not six months before. And so, yeah, it was a very tough industry, so I started to look around for another job.
[00:17:56] Bertrand Théaud: What would you say you learned during this period that is still useful or helpful today with your current business?
[00:18:04] Thibaut Carminho: Pretty much everything I knew when I started my business, I learned it there because I didn’t work much before that. So that was most of the things. But I learned a lot. I learned how to manage a team. I learned how to work on a budget. I have sent emails to clients to apologize for the China factory making a wrong job, and this kind of email I hope I would never have to write them again.
[00:18:28] I had to step in into my staffs’ client emails to apologize for something happening. So all of these things, I basically had to take responsibility. I had to be responsible for what was happening in this. There was a time where for some interns, I asked the money to be given to me so I could pay them myself instead of them being paid by someone else because I realized some people are more respectful when it comes to hierarchy. They tend to respect more the guy who pay them at the end of the month.
[00:19:03] So that’s why I asked that for some of them I would receive their money, and will give them back. I would give them the money in cash.
[00:19:11] Yeah, I would use the money of the company to pay them. Just because I feel like “Okay, they will respect me more if I do that.” I learned a lot of things, I learned how to speak English to start with, which is quite useful.
[00:19:26] I learned a lot about Hong Kong culture. I was living in Hong Kong and working in Hong Kong for four years before I started this business. And yeah, there’s a lot of little cultural things that I learned along the way. I think if I was working for another company, I will have learned them anyway.
[00:19:48] But just being in Hong Kong for four years helped me a lot to understand who are the Hong Kong people
[00:19:53] Bertrand Théaud: Right. I guess you learned a lot because of this position that you had, and then the way the business was structured. You join as an intern and immediately you had a lot of responsibility. You are almost running the business.
[00:20:03] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah. Well, the reason why I gave 100% of myself to this job is because, when my boss at the time he wanted to hire me, he asked me: “Okay, how much do I need to pay you for you to stay?” And I just, I felt like “Okay, that’s my one once in a lifetime moment.” I gave him a crazy number. Of course, he didn’t pay me that, but we bargained and we reached a point where I was paid much more than I thought I was worth.
[00:20:29] So every morning, I was waking up thinking “Wow you’re getting paid too much for what you’re doing.” So, it turns out I was not factoring in the stress. If a job gives you a lot of stress, you need to be paid for that stress.
[00:20:42] So at the end, I didn’t feel I was overpaid, but at the time I felt like I was massively overpaid for what I was offering. I was fresh out of school. I had no knowledge of anything in the industry, no management skills. So I had to learn. And so I read a lot of articles on LinkedIn, I read a lot of books.
[00:20:59] I was really trying to better myself in order to match the team and keep my boss away from the working space because that was where he wanted to be. He wanted to be out of the office and he wanted me to handle the team. So it was not an easy task. But yeah, I learned a lot along the way. I failed a lot too but that’s how you learn.
[00:21:17] Bertrand Théaud: Yeah, exactly. And so after a while, you realised that anyway you will not be spending your next five years in this company and how did you know you wanted to set up a business in the food industry – I don’t know if this how you call pastries – or did you explore different opportunities?
[00:21:40] Thibaut Carminho: I was really not willing to start a business. I didn’t quit because I wanted to start a business. I was thinking of quitting way before I started to think about opening a company here. I actually got a lot of job interviews in different areas like luxury, retail, newspaper magazine, sales magazines.
[00:22:07] I try to change and to learn more things. So I was looking around. Obviously the salary I was offered was lower than what I had. So it was difficult for me to switch. I was, at the time, I was really mastering my job, so it was not too difficult for me to go to work because I knew what I was doing.
[00:22:23] So, yeah, I was a bit skeptical about moving to a new industry, learning everything from scratch, being paid less. So I was not really rushing anything. I was taking my time looking for job offers and everything.
[00:22:37] Bertrand Théaud: But you knew that you would stay in Hong Kong? At that time, there was a transition and you could have thought “I’ll go back to Europe.”
[00:22:44] Thibaut Carminho: No, no, no, no, no. It was out of question. I was either staying in my company or find something else in Hong Kong. And so, my best friend at the time, a French guy who arrived in Hong Kong pretty much at the same time as me, we met at the French Chamber of Commerce meeting.
[00:23:06] I’ve never been to this kind of place. It was the first time and the only time I ever went to a Chamber of Commerce gathering, meetup. And so I met Lou there. Lou is a pastry chef, and so he was my friend. He became my best friend. We played, we partied, we drank, we sung, we everything.
[00:23:25] We did everything together, and where we were living we were almost neighbors. So we were spending a lot of time together. We both had our jobs, but yeah, he was really my best friend and he was always talking about how before he turns 30 years old, he would have his own business set up.
[00:23:43] Bertrand Théaud: And what was his job at that time?
[00:23:46] Thibaut Carminho: He was a pastry trainer. So he was working for a chocolate company, a French chocolate company, and he was training pastry chefs on how to use chocolate.
[00:23:57] Bertrand Théaud: Okay, so he’s the one who had the connection with your current business?
[00:24:01] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah, yeah, definitely. Yeah. He’s the one who came up with the root, the base of the concept.
[00:24:07] He talked to me, he said he had an idea. I listened to him. He wanted to do a tartes shop, so he wanted to do a pastry, a pastry shop focused on tartes in Hong Kong.
[00:24:23] Bertrand Théaud: Any reason why pastries and not chocolate croissants or lemon tartes? I mean lemon tartes are still tartes but I don’t know, whatever other cheesecake.
[00:24:33] Thibaut Carminho: First of all, he is a pastry chef so anything that is linked to bakery he is not an expert. So he was really focusing on pastry. And there’s a lot of cake shop already on the market, but when you go to these cake shops, even the most expensive one, you will find a lot of good things, but tartes are usually not the best for a simple reason.
[00:24:58] It takes a lot of money, in machinery and everything, to make your own base. The base of the tartes, the crispy part, the biscuit. And biscuit – this is not really technical, but this is about the product itself – the biscuit, the crunchy, it counts for 50% of the experience.
[00:25:19] If you buy a tarte, if it’s not crispy, if it’s soggy and soft, you won’t enjoy it. And the problem is most cake shop, because they are just having one or two tartes in their whole range of products, they are not going to invest in the kitchen just for tartes.
[00:25:35] So they are buying the base frozen and the base when they are frozen, especially with the humidity in Hong Kong, it’s soft and soggy and it’s usually not amazing. But it’s fast. You just buy the frozen base, you put cream, you put fruits, you have a tarte, you can sell it.
[00:25:49] Bertrand Théaud: You bake it and done!
[00:25:49] Thibaut Carminho: No, you don’t have to bake it. It’s delivered to you already baked.
[00:25:52] Bertrand Théaud: Oh really?
[00:25:53]Thibaut Carminho: Yeah. So you don’t have to do anything.
[00:25:55] Bertrand Théaud: Ok so the quality might not be that good.
[00:25:57] Thibaut Carminho: It’s not amazing but it does the job. For most of these places, it saves a lot of time. It saves a lot of space. So hotels and a lot of places use that because it’s fast and efficient, but it doesn’t taste amazing. And Hong Kong people love crunchy and crispy things. I had no idea about that, he told me about it.
[00:26:21] Because he traveled around Asia Pacific doing different cakes and the one that are the most popular ones are always the one with some crunch on it. So he felt like. I’m confident that there’s a a good market fit for it. And worst case scenario, people don’t know what is a tarte, they would just think it’s a cake and it’s not a problem.
[00:26:38] We are a cake shop. We just do good cakes. So I told him, I said “Wow, that’s a cool idea! Great. Now what’s your marketing? What’s your special selling point? What makes you special? What’s the name of the company? Just tell me more about the rest, like you have the cakes, what’s around it?
[00:26:54] Bertrand Théaud: What is around the product?
[00:26:56] Thibaut Carminho: Yes, because there’s a lot of examples in many, many different markets of a poor product or low quality product, very well packaged in Hong Kong and very successful. So having a good product is great, but having a bad product well-packaged works as well. So you need to really work on your packaging.
[00:27:16] And so I told him, I say “What’s the plan?” He said “Oh, I don’t know.” So I gave him a few tips and told me “you need to find someone that can help you. You need to find a partner.” Obviously, I wasn’t thinking of myself. I know he’s my friend. And there’s one thing I know, or I thought I knew, is to never build a business with your friends.
[00:27:33] My dad told me that, everybody knows that. You can take any business entrepreneur book. They all say that, don’t do business with family or friends if you care about them. So I was not ready to start a business with him at all. And yeah, he kept talking about that business thing and he was talking about the way you would sell the tartes and everything, but he still had no idea of the marketing.
[00:27:56] So one day I said “Okay, let’s sit down and let’s talk about what we could do.” I was working for a company that was selling marketing gifts, a promotional gifts. So I was in touch with marketing directors all day long, so I was like “Okay. This is what I think I would do if I were starting a tartes business.”
[00:28:16] So I gave him a few ideas. I told him how would I try to promote it, how would I package it… These kind of things. And not all of my ideas were good, but some of them were not bad, and he was like “Okay, why don’t you just do it with me?” And so, I started to think “Well, no, no, that’s not for me. You’re my friend. I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
[00:28:41] And he said “Oh, don’t rush it. Just take time. Think about it.”
[00:28:45] It took me a day or two. I called my mom, called my dad. They both say “You should”. My dad said you should not start a business with your friend, but if the business is good, then why not give it a try? My mom said “Oh, if you’re happy with it, just go for it.”
[00:28:58] And deep inside I knew I would not accept the idea that he’s going to do it without me because of my ideas. I mean, I had already spent time thinking about the concepts. So if he found someone who just steps in and does it with him, and they are successful, I would feel…
[00:29:11] Bertrand Théaud: Yes, you were already part of the story already.
[00:29:14] Thibaut Carminho: Right?
[00:29:14] Yeah, and he was my best friend, so I knew that somehow I wanted him to succeed. Watching him fail was not a happy ending for me. So I was like “Okay, I’m not 100% confident of my skills” because I’m not a marketing director, I’m not a business owner, I’m not an entrepreneur. I’m none of this.
[00:29:35] But I knew that he could do great cakes. I knew it because I trusted him and I think he had the same feeling about me. He was like “I’m not so sure all of my cakes are going to be a bestseller. But I’m sure that he can package it in a way that they would sell”. Obviously, we never talked about that at the time.
[00:29:53] We were just saying “Oh, I can do it”. And he was saying “I can do it”. So both of us were very proud and working on it. And we started working hard on building the logo and everything. I care a lot about the logo because, for me, that was the starting point of everything else.
[00:30:09] Once you have your logo and your colours, then your packaging is easy to design, your shop is easy to design.
[00:30:15] Bertrand Théaud: So you designed the logo? Or you found somebody to design for you?
[00:30:18] Thibaut Carminho: I tried to do it in myself, and then I paid someone to do it. Someone cheap, like a freelancer. And we did not agree… We were 90% okay with the logo, but there was something to change but we didn’t know why or what or where we were. I tried. We played around with the logo in many ways. It just wasn’t working and something was not good. So one day we, we sat down and we were arguing very hard about that logo. And he said “How about we just accept that this is not the right logo and we just start from scratch again?”
[00:30:52] And I said “Okay, yeah, let’s do it.” So we hired an illustrator, someone that is a lot more expensive, a lot more skilled, and we told him, this is what we don’t like. This is what we like. We sent him the whole thing.
[00:31:07] And he came up with three logos, that was part of the contract, three things. All of them were good. But again, not perfect. Nothing like “That’s the one.”
[00:31:18] So we were desperate. We were like “This is never going to work.” And we paid a pretty big amount of money for three logos, for three ideas. And none of the three ideas were talking to us. They were all good in their own way, but…
[00:31:29] Bertrand Théaud: Nothing made you clicked right?
[00:31:31] Thibaut Carminho: And we were kind of giving up, we didn’t have time to write him an email, so we let it go for a weekend. And we were in Macau playing, like partying. And we received an email from the designer saying “Oh, I just got a fourth idea. I won’t charge you for that. Just, that’s my idea.”
[00:31:49] And when we saw it, we were both in our hotel room and we were like “That’s it. That’s this one. It’s not perfect, the colours need to be changed but that’s the logo we want”. And yeah, we were really, really lucky that this designer came up with a fourth idea when we paid him for three. And that’s the logo we’re using today and we never regretted this logo.
[00:32:09] I know a lot of people who actually don’t like the orange color or don’t like the logo itself, but I’m in love with it.
[00:32:15] Bertrand Théaud: It’s very nice. You know, it’s really your brand identity.
[00:32:18] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah, it works for us. So, I don’t think we will change it. We may change a lot of things in the future, but not that. This we keep.
[00:32:25] Bertrand Théaud: And so if we take the story chronologically, you had the logo, that was even before you started the business, before you set up the company, because you started with this idea “Okay, we will basically bake and sell tartes for the Hong Kong market.” And then you wanted to build the whole concept around this and then the businessmap. Did you have a lot of discussion about the budget, to whom do we want to want to sell, what are the channels?
[00:32:55] Then the distribution channel that we will be using, and all that?
[00:32:59] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah. Before we even have the logo, we had to talk about the name. And before we could talk about the name, we had to understand what we wanted these names to convey, to show to the world.
[00:33:09] First of all, I told him I’m not a pastry chef, I’m not a shop clerk. I have never been on the front side of a shop. I’ve never talked to a client like this, giving change or taking change. So I say if we do that, we do it in a way that we can scale.
[00:33:28] So we think our brand not like a small shop made by two friends. We don’t put our names out there. We don’t put our face out there. We just make a brand that eventually we can just copy and paste in different countries.
[00:33:40] Bertrand Théaud: Okay. So you had this idea from the beginning.
[00:33:42] Thibaut Carminho: From the beginning that was the plan. I told him “I trust you to make good cakes. Trust me on that. We need to make it big. We need to think it as something big.”
[00:33:50] We still have one shop. So right now we are not anywhere close to be where we want to be. But there’s still a lot of time. But yeah the concept was to do something scalable.
[00:34:04] The cakes are good, they are five-star hotel quality. So I told him, I said, this is great, but there’s only two ways we can market that: either luxury
[00:34:17] Bertrand Théaud: Because of what? Because of the price?
[00:34:19] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah, because of the production price and because of the quality. If we go for luxury, there’s a lot of things you can’t do in marketing.
[00:34:27] If you are a luxury brand, I won’t name any, but if you really are a luxury brand, you’re stuck in your marketing. You can’t do street promotion. You’ll never Hermès doing street promotion. You can’t do a buy one, get one free. You’re never going to see Louis Vuitton or this kind of company doing this.
[00:34:42] So there’s a lot of things you can’t do if your business doesn’t go as well as you expected. So you’re stuck in your marketing if you go for luxury market. Plus, luxury is not fun and luxury already exists, especially in the cake industry in Hong Kong. 99% of the cake shops look expensive in their design.
[00:35:01] It’s marble everywhere. Clean colors. Very detailed bags and things like this. The only problem is the service, but this is the only problem with any luxury company in Hong Kong. The service is not up to standard.
[00:35:16] Bertrand Théaud: They’re terrible.
[00:35:17] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah. It’s not great, isn’t it? It’s not up to what you expect when you see the look of the shop.
[00:35:23] So I told him, I said, I don’t want luxury.
[00:35:27] First of all, I’m not comfortable working in an environment that is cold and too luxurious. I don’t like it. I’m not a luxury consumer, and I’m not willing to spend 8 hours or 10 hours every day in a shop that just don’t relate to me.
[00:35:42] So I said, okay, if we go for something fun. Cool. Fun is cheap, fun is usually not expensive. So we were stuck too. So we had to associate the product with something high end, but not luxury. And that’s how we came up with the pop art idea. Art is expensive. I mean, it doesn’t have to be, but art is valuable.
[00:36:11] And so pop art and tartes are a good match. So Lou came up with pop tartes. The problem with pop tarts is it belongs to Kellogg’s, and I didn’t want to have the lawyers of Kellogg’s suing me.
[00:36:23] Bertrand Théaud: Oh yeah, you’re right! My kids, they have pop tarts. I never realised that.
[00:36:27] Thibaut Carminho: Pop tarts is a registered brand.
[00:36:28] Bertrand Théaud: They’re very, very bad. You put them in a microwave for two seconds and that’s bad.
[00:36:33] Thibaut Carminho: I’ve actually never tried one. But I know that they are an existing registered trademark, and I know that they have an army of lawyers ready to go after me if I’m infringing the mark.
[00:36:42] Bertrand Théaud: Don’t even think about it.
[00:36:43] Thibaut Carminho: So pop tartes was definitely not an idea. The problem is ‘pop’ was exactly what we wanted to do because pop, if you take pop music, for example, Michael Jackson, the King of pop. His music, if you ask any musician out there, they are all going to tell you the same thing.
[00:36:58] Michael Jackson was a musical God. He was a genius so it is quality. The music quality was high, it’s a high quality production. High quality music. Well, if you look at who is actually listening to him, but it’s pretty much everybody, poor people, rich people, women, men, whatever.
[00:37:17] So this is the true essence of pop. It doesn’t have to be bad or good quality. It has to be popular among all people. And so everybody agrees on the same thing. People would appreciate it in a different way, but they all agree that it’s good. And so that’s why we wanted to achieve, that’s why we decided to call the the company Tartes & Pop.
[00:37:36] Tartes, we write it the French way because that’s what we do, French tartes. And pop because of the pop art.
[00:37:42] Bertrand Théaud: Yeah, because everybody also understands the pop culture, the pop concept.
[00:37:47] Thibaut Carminho: But yeah. So the pop concept was actually a bit difficult to convey. That’s why we had to come up with a new idea to boost it.
[00:37:55] I had pop music in my head from the beginning, but the design of the shop was pop art, so it was pop art and tartes. That was the retail shop. And I had hundreds of clients coming and telling me “Okay, where are the pops?” Because we were selling tartes and so obviously people were asking “Where is the pop?” At first, I was explaining it.
[00:38:18] I was wasting my time trying to really explain it, but I realised that if I have to explain it to every client, that means it’s not obvious enough. So I realised that “Okay. It’s pointless to try to explain it. It should be clear. So if pop art is not a thing or if pop art isn’t obvious enough, then let’s go for pop music.”
[00:38:38] So we approached a few production companies in Hong Kong, companies that handle the tour, the world tour of artists, pop artists but also other artists. And right after we opened the shop, a few weeks after, we had a band called Imagine Dragons who actually ordered cakes for the backstage of their show.
[00:39:06] So they were the first pop stars eating our cakes, and they loved it. So they recommended us to the company and the company put us on the Maroon 5 show several months after. So two months, one month and a half after we opened the shop, we had Imagine Dragons and Maroon 5 eating the cakes. So we were like, wow,
[00:39:26] Bertrand Théaud: That’s a huge exposure, I guess!
[00:39:27] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah. Well not that big actually, because they don’t tweet about it, one of them signed the box. So I have in my shop a wall full of boxes signed by artists. Now we have more than 40 of them. We have a lot of artists now, but at the time we only had two.
[00:39:45] So we were like “Okay, this seems to be a better way to push the pop thing” because people understand that Marron 5 is pop, Britney Spears is pop and so that was our exit. Like the way we re-routed our marketing toward pop music instead of pop art, because art is not obvious enough.
[00:40:02] Bertrand Théaud: Okay. So you built a concept and at some point, I guess you set up the company, you mentioned before that if you want to bake tartes, you need some special equipment that’s pretty pricey. So, I know maybe it’s confidential, but how did you finance the first retail location, the kitchen and all that?
[00:40:29] Thibaut Carminho: It’s not confidential at all. The truth is I had pretty much, no money. I mean, no saving. The whole company costed us close to HKD500,000 at the very beginning.
[00:40:51] Bertrand Théaud: To secure the first location and the kitchen equipment?
[00:40:58] Thibaut Carminho: No, if you factor in all the costs, including logo and everything, we are close to 100,000 Euro, a million Hong Kong dollar roughly. So, obviously I didn’t have anywhere near that amount. And we really wanted to keep 50/50. We really wanted to keep the control. So what we did is we saved as much as we could.
[00:41:25] Bertrand Théaud: So no more parties
[00:41:27] Thibaut Carminho: No more parties. I was working and I was paid by commission. I work as hard as I could to get as much commission as I could and I was saving them all. Second step, we lived together. We were both single at the time. We both don’t have kids, so we were like “Okay, we are paying two rents and we are spending literally 90% of our time together. Well, how about we just move to the same flat, that’ll be cheaper”.
[00:41:50] So we moved to a flat. But the flat we found was a little bit bigger than we expected, so we sub rented one of the room. So we ended up living together plus one person, so we were trying to really keep our costs low.
[00:42:07] We were eating the cheapest food you can think of.
[00:42:12] Bertrand Théaud: The pop tarts?
[00:42:14] Thibaut Carminho: At the time there was none of this. So it was really, really about keeping our costs low. But that’s not enough, you don’t find a million Hong Kong dollar by just saving a little bit of money on the side and eating cheaper food.
[00:42:27] So, we had to approach banks, because we don’t have any loan. I don’t have a student loan. He doesn’t have a loan. So we were pretty clean in terms of credit score. So we went to HSBC and other banks. Obviously all of them rejected us. They don’t even want to hear about us, about the amount.
[00:42:46] They don’t care. So we went to many banks and at the end we tried Bank of China. And Bank of China was okay to finance us.
[00:42:56] Bertrand Théaud: Okay. good to know.
[00:42:58] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah, they were OK to lend us money. The money, the loan was… I mean, it’s funny because the rate, you know the credit interest rate, the one they actually sell you, the one they show you is relatively low, it’s 0.58 or it appears to be very low.
[00:43:21] But when you realise there’s a lot of extra fees and extra charge and the interest rate are actually not stable. They are not fixed. So when you realise how much money you receive on your bank account and how much you have to repay, it’s close to 30% at the end. So it’s not ideal.
[00:43:39] The monthly repayments are high, so we borrowed money from that bank.
[00:43:45] Bertrand Théaud: So you had a lot of pressure when you started. Just to reimbursed this alone, I guess on a monthly basis or weekly basis. So you had to generate cash very quickly.
[00:43:53] Thibaut Carminho: Exactly, we had to pay ourselves a salary. We had no choice because the rent of our flat, the food, the rent of our shop, the electricity bills and everything.
[00:44:04] Plus the loan. In order to cover it, we had to pay ourselves a salary that was close to HKD20,000 each. That was what we had to pay. This money was just the strict minimum just to survive it.
[00:44:18] So the first month we paid that money with our cash, which what we had in the company fund. The second month, it was a little bit more tricky. The third month, it started to take some time to really… I think it took three months to breakeven for the company, but we were still struggling. We reduced our salary a little bit and we were living off because these HKD20,000 thing was actually just covering for our costs.
[00:44:49] If we wanted to take a taxi, we had to take it from our savings. If I wanted to buy not the cheapest eggs, but the eggs that are more expensive, I had to take it. If I wanted to charge my Octopus card, I had to take it from my savings. So my saving was really, really thinning out.
[00:45:06] Bertrand Théaud: Close to zero?
[00:45:08] Thibaut Carminho: Near to zero. We quickly reached zero and then it was my partner paying for both of us because we were living together.
[00:45:16] Well we had t. So he told me “Okay, you don’t pay the rent anymore, you just save”. And so he covered for me for about two, three months. And until his savings were very close to zero as well.
[00:45:33] And this is where we got extremely lucky. That’s when we got our first, hotel contract, which boosted the company profit and allowed us to starting finally to make money and started to actually being positive.
[00:45:49] It took six to seven months. We didn’t have a staff at the time, so the shop was open seven days a week.
[00:45:57] Bertrand Théaud: So it was you and your partner doing everything.
[00:46:01] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah everything. We were cleaning the kitchen. He was making the cakes. We were cleaning the shop. We were taking the money of the client. We were doing the accounting, cleaning the windows. Yeah.
[00:46:15] And it wasn’t enough. So we started doing things like, we sub rented our shop. There was a person who wanted, there was a Baker who wanted to try new recipes but he couldn’t do it in the company was working for. So he was renting our kitchen before we open the shop. So he was coming around 6:00 AM leaving around 8:30. And we were opening at 9:00.
[00:46:44] And after that, we had a lady making croissant after work. So we were basically taking two extra rents. This was not ideal. You give the keys of your business to other people. It was not the best, but without that we would have probably collapsed.
[00:47:04] And so they were doing this five days a week. So we were sub renting our shop five days a week, and the extra two days we were basically offering people to rent our whole shop for parties. So we were here to offer them the service of making the cakes. It was all you can eat. I would never do that again.
[00:47:24] Bertrand Théaud: So basically you were looking for all possible sources of revenues.
[00:47:28] Thibaut Carminho: Exactly.
[00:47:29] Bertrand Théaud: Just to have money coming in.
[00:47:32] Thibaut Carminho: We had no other source of income. That was the main gamble and we had no savings. None of us. So at the end, the money was not profitable enough and not by little. We really needed to boost the sales, and I realised the retail sales were not going to double overnight.
[00:47:51] You need work and it takes time
[00:47:53] Bertrand Théaud: And is it also because of the location of the store? Because I guess if you don’t have money at the beginning, maybe you didn’t have the best location. And in retail, location is key.
[00:48:02] Thibaut Carminho: The location is really the best for us right now.
[00:48:05] It’s the best we can get with our budget. It was really about having a shop in Central, Sheung Wan, like in the center of Sheung Wan for this price was impossible. Everything we visited before and after was triple the price that we are paying now.
[00:48:23] Bertrand Théaud: So it was a good deal.
[00:48:25] Thibaut Carminho: It was a good deal.
[00:48:26] The problem is the location is not ideal. It’s great for our budget. It is good value for money, but it’s not ideal. It’s not a shopping mall. It’s not central Central. It’s not next to the MTR station, so there’s not many foot traffic, not many pedestrian passing by, and not many people think “Oh, let’s see. Let’s get here.”
[00:48:48] Bertrand Théaud: Let’s go in the store and, and taste the tartes
[00:48:49] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah, so retail was slow and there’s no…
[00:48:54] Bertrand Théaud: But you knew that from the beginning? Because you said before that your idea was to go big and considering, you know, the retail price, and the price of rental in Hong Kong, it’s difficult to grow a company and start building one store after the other.
[00:49:08] So what was your strategy at the beginning? Did you expect to have more people at least coming in that store and to expand from that?
[00:49:15] Thibaut Carminho: The idea, I still have that Excel file that is the projection of sales, the estimates sales. And I remember we were estimating the average spend like the average basket per head, about HKD200 something per person, which is four pieces.
[00:49:33] So we were expecting people on average to buy four pieces and we were expecting 40 of these people per day. Which is not crazy if you think about it in Hong Kong.
[00:49:43] Bertrand Théaud: Yeah, it doesn’t sound completely unreasonable.
[00:49:46] Thibaut Carminho: We never, even up to today, we never achieved that. Never.
[00:49:51] Bertrand Théaud: But why? Not enough people coming to the store? Or people buying much less than what you expected?
[00:49:58] Thibaut Carminho: First of all, people are lazy people.
[00:50:03] Bertrand Théaud: Thank you, we all know that.
[00:50:05] Thibaut Carminho: People do not walk to your shop. People want to order online. I mean, given the option, they will always choose to order online because it saves them time and it sakes them the bad luck. Like “Oh, the one I want is not available anymore.”
[00:50:19] If you order online, there’s no risk.
[00:50:21] Bertrand Théaud: But they don’t like the experience of coming to the store, see the different tartes…
[00:50:25] Thibaut Carminho: Oh they love it. But they love it if it’s on their way. And our shop is on nobody’s way, it’s hidden in a place that nobody passed by.
[00:50:33] So we quickly realised that. The first week we realised that my calculation, and I’m taking the blame because it was really my calculation were wrong. Totally wrong.
[00:50:43] Bertrand Théaud: And then you’re stuck with the store.
[00:50:46] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah. And we already have it, it’s a three year lease. There’s no way to step out.
[00:50:50] You have machines that cost a lot, you have a loan to repay.
[00:50:53] Bertrand Théaud: So you have to be quick at thinking what do you do? What to do next?
[00:50:58] Thibaut Carminho: So, yeah. So we took every possible way to get money now. Not tomorrow. Now. Because at that moment we were not talking about strategy, we’re talking about survival.
[00:51:09] We’re talking about being able to pay our rent, the shop rent, and our own rent. I guess being two people helps. Because first of all, you have two savings, which helps. Second, you don’t want to let the other down. We feel like it’s also your responsibility.
[00:51:28] It was my calculation that put us in this situation. So I needed to find a way, and I think he was also thinking the same. He’s a chef, he’s making cakes that people eat. When nobody come and buy your cakes, you feel like maybe my cakes are not so good. So he also tries his best to do something that people wanted.
[00:51:46] So we both work hard to match what people were expecting from us. So we started to do cakes with matcha, for example, matcha tea. We didn’t have that when we started, so we did a matcha tarte because we expected people would like it.
[00:51:59] So, yeah, we took money everywhere we could. We sub rented the shop. We went to bed at 6:00 AM because we had a party in the shop, starting the next day at 9:00 AM, we worked seven days a week. That was until we finally reached the point where we had enough profit to hire staff.
[00:52:16] Bertrand Théaud: And that was when you signed your first contract with a hotel?
[00:52:19] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah. A month after, when we get the first payment.
[00:52:21] Bertrand Théaud: And how did you manage to get this agreement signed with the hotel?
[00:52:24] Thibaut Carminho: Oh, there’s no agreement. There’s never been any agreement.
[00:52:27] Bertrand Théaud: I mean to have this business, this commercial relationship.
[00:52:30] Thibaut Carminho: That’s Lou actually. Lou has a lot of connection because he was working for a chocolate company.
[00:52:35] He was spending most of his weekdays in the kitchens of the big hotels. So he knows a lot of people on the market in Hong Kong, but also in Asia Pacific. So, yeah. So one day…We did not approach them actually, it’s one of them who came to us one day and said “Oh, since you’re doing tartes, is there a way you could do tartes for us?”
[00:52:57] And yeah, we said yes to everything at the time. That’s also one thing I learned afterward. You need to set some rules and you cannot say yes. But anyway, at the time we were saying yes to everything. So the guy said, you want to, yes. We started making tartes tomorrow. Yeah. So that’s how it worked out.
[00:53:15] And this helped us a lot. And now it’s about 30% of our business now, the hotels. We do cakes for hotels. This is really a big part of our business. And now we have the retail, the shop retail, which is not amazing. It’s not bad but it’s not amazing. Online sales are booming.
[00:53:34] And we have the outsourcing, the hotel thing.
[00:53:38] Bertrand Théaud: But would you say that what saved you at some point is that you didn’t compromise on the quality of the product? Because a lot, I mean, we know the story. You have new products coming on the market, they’re good and then over time, the quality decreases so you increase your profit for a while, but then you lose your customers. So you were not tempted to do it.
[00:54:02] Thibaut Carminho: Long term. That’s what you do. And we had, even now, even today, we have proof of that.
[00:54:08] I don’t recommend that strategy at all. I think people in Hong Kong or elsewhere, people are not stupid. If they have tried something good once, there’s a high chance – and that’s actually what you should expect as a business owner – there’s a high chance that they come back, bringing someone with them, recommending you to someone.
[00:54:25] If you disappoint them at that moment, the second time, when they are actually showing off your product to someone else, you lose them forever. You lose both of them, not only you lose them, they are going to go onto social media.
[00:54:35] Bertrand Théaud: Yeah, they will give you bad reputation.
[00:54:37] Thibaut Carminho: It’s difficult to get good reviews especially when you are expensive. We are not the cheapest.
[00:54:41] So it’s very difficult to get good reviews because at the end of the day,
[00:54:44] Bertrand Théaud: Yes, you said it before people have higher expectations.
[00:54:47] Thibaut Carminho: When you pay a high price, you expect a high quality thing. So exceeding this is difficult. So we really worked hard to get people to write reviews. But people who are unhappy, especially those people who were happy and then disappointed, they had no problem going online and just killing your business right away.
[00:55:05] And when you are new to the industry, you don’t have many reviews. And as I said, it’s difficult to get good reviews so you don’t have many of them. You only need two bad or three bad [reviews] and you can see already a drop in your business.
[00:55:15] Bertrand Théaud: You didn’t ask all your friends to give you good reviews?
[00:55:17] Thibaut Carminho: I started with myself. I wrote good reviews of myself.
[00:55:19] On Facebook, there’s still reviews written by me with my own name on it, saying I’m the owner. But you got to love yourself. So yeah, you put reviews, asked my friends to put reviews. But, but yeah, it’s not enough. We have 10 reviews, 10 good reviews. All in English or in French.
[00:55:35] If you have one bad reviews in Chinese, people are going to trust the bad review. And people trust the bad reviews, but I do the same. You want, if you’re about to travel, you want to know what’s bad.
[00:55:43] Bertrand Théaud: Yeah, you check the reviews of the hotels
[00:55:45] Thibaut Carminho: If nothing is bad, then it’s good. And if the bad is not too bad, then you’re like, okay, if people are complaining over the colour of the blanket, then I don’t mind.
[00:55:51] If they are complaining that there was a rat under the bed, then there’s a problem. So that’s actually, yeah, people trust the bad reviews more than the good ones. And so, yeah that’s why we’ve never compromised on the quality. It’s exactly the opposite. When we started making profit, we started using more expensive ingredients.
[00:56:08] Most of, actually all of our ingredients are imported from France. Except the matcha, which we buy from Japan. All the rest of the chocolate, the cream, the butter, the flour, everything is French. So it has a cost but in Hong Kong with the no tax policy, it’s not as bad. It’s actually a good place to be for a food business.
[00:56:27] But yeah, even amongst the good quality brands there is different levels, you have an excellent quality and good quality.
[00:56:35] And so we started using the ultimate quality thing. And I’m not saying people would notice the difference but, first of all, I feel good about it.
[00:56:43] I feel good telling my clients that I have the best quality they can find. And second, you don’t want to start selling people things that people can do at home. If you are doing something cheap that people could actually make better by themself, then why would they pay you to do it? So, having access to these ingredients, you need to be a professional.
[00:57:03] You need to have a kitchen to be able to even buy these types of chocolate. So we have access to the best quality ingredients, the best cream, the best chocolate, the best everything. We use the best. And there’s still room for profit. People who tell you that there’s no profit to be made it’s really because they want to make huge profits. But there’s good profit to be made using good quality ingredients.
[00:57:24] And long term, I believe in that. But it’s a lot easier to say now that it’s working than when we were actually struggling and people were like “Oh, you should consider making lunch, or you should consider making savory tarts, or sandwich or whatever”. You seriously consider it. You start to consider it because you’re like “I’m losing money now with my tartes, and my strategy was to go for the tartes, but I’ve been wrong before. I could be wrong on that as well. Maybe I should seriously start to do savoury things. Lunch, sandwich. I don’t know.”
[00:57:57] Luckily enough, we believe that the second you start diluting your concept or you start making your concept blurred to clients, you lose your identity.
[00:58:08] And so because we were building the identity, it was not a good time to start to experiment. We wanted to make sure people understand that Tartes & Pop is doing tartes only and good tartes only. That’s it.
[00:58:21] Bertrand Théaud: And back then, so you had this first business relationship with one hotel and that was successful.
[00:58:30] And that gives you the idea to approach other hotesl in Hong Kong, and this is how you initially basically made the business successful?
[00:58:39] Or you went from one hotel to five to 10, and so on. And it’s still the case today? You’re still working with a lot of hotel?
[00:58:45] Thibaut Carminho: We’re still working with them, yeah, but it took time.
[00:58:48] The reason it takes time is because obviously when you work with the hotels, the quantities are huge and the profits are lower. So you need more hands, you need more staff. So every time we sign a new hotel, we usually make drastic changes in the kitchen. We hire more staff, we buy more machines.
[00:59:03] We need to spend more money. So we had one hotel, we let it run, see if it’s actually stable or not. Once we realised it was stable, we hired another staff. And we signed with another hotel we had. We knew the other hotel wanted us, so we discussed the price with them. We got the agreement, we had a second staff and then a third.
[00:59:27] And now we’re are working with four different hotels. There’s more. We’ve talked to many hotels and there’s a lot of them that we could work with. The issue we have now is we are in a situation where we can’t take everybody without compromising the quality.
[00:59:43] Bertrand Théaud: And also maybe you don’t want to have the same tartes to be everywhere in Hong Kong, in all the different hotels.
[00:59:50] Because I guess the hotels they come to you because your tartes are kind of unique.
[00:59:54] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah, and again, the size of the kitchen is big, but it’s not the biggest. So if we add one more hotel, I’ll have two options. Either I remove one of the other hotels. I think, okay, I’ll replace this hotel with another one.
[01:00:10] Or I decide to put a limit on my retail sales. I’m like “Okay, after this level of sales, we don’t take any orders. We block the orders, and so this way we can focus on hotel delivery.
[01:00:26] But long term, I don’t believe in this. I believe in retail. I believe in the brand growing up and being more and more important. So retail sales are more profitable and they are more long term. So right now, we want to keep 20 to 30% of production capacity for retail. I mean, for the retail to grow. So our staff are not crazy busy, but if tomorrow we have big orders or we have an increase in sales of 10, 15, 20%, we can handle. We’re growing at a rate of 60 to 70% per year right now.
[01:00:57] Bertrand Théaud: That’s huge.
[01:00:58] Thibaut Carminho: So yeah, it’s big and mostly it’s thanks to retail. So I don’t want to kill my team with hotels, I don’t want to stop retail, I need to do retail to keep growing.
[01:01:09] Bertrand Théaud: Then when you speak about retail, and considering that there’s not so many people, you know, opening, pushing the door to enter a new store, it’s more online?
[01:01:19] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah. The best decision we’ve ever taken, and really this is considering everything we’ve done, was to decide to have our online shop. People want to order online. They don’t want to come to your shop and they want to have a delivery. And these two things, you can work with Food Panda, Deliveroo, or these kind of companies to take care of that for you.
[01:01:47] The problem is, they take a big part of the profit. Second, they are the middlemen, which means they are going to blame you when something goes wrong. They are not going to tell their clients “Oh sorry, we messed up.” They are going to say “Sorry, let’s check with the restaurant what happened.”
[01:02:03] So, I’m not against that. It makes sense. So we work with them for a while and then I realised that the people who order from them are actually my clients. So it was basically our clients going to their platform to order from them because there was no other choice to order online.
[01:02:21] So they were taking my profit to use my clients.
[01:02:25] Bertrand Théaud: You were giving up your profit and client base.
[01:02:27] Thibaut Carminho: So I was like “Okay, there’s something to be done here. If we had our own delivery service and our own online ordering platform, would people still order from us, or would they just stick to Food Panda and Deliveroo and Uber eats and all that?”
[01:02:40] So I just cut them all. I stop working with them and I worked with a company that makes these online things. We started this and the first month, we made enough money to cover for a whole year of that software cost. And it’s an expensive one. So the first month, I knew that that was a good decision.
[01:03:00] Bertrand Théaud: That was a big decision.
[01:03:02] Thibaut Carminho: And because we didn’t have that crazy fee to pay every month, it was a one-time yearly fee. You pay a yearly software and then you use it for the rest of the year. There’s no monthly fee.
[01:03:16] So it’s a fixed fee. Because of that, starting from the first month I paid for that software, second month I had extra profit.
[01:03:23] So I was like, I can start to give discounts to my clients who order online, which I couldn’t do before because if I gave discount plus the fee I lose money. So I started giving a free delivery to some places, giving discounts and yeah. And we have really been booming since we have that online thing.
[01:03:41] Yearly online sales is close to 70%. And comparing the sales before we went online to after, I think it was a three-digit increase in sales.
[01:03:52] Bertrand Théaud: And so what about the future? So okay. Hotel, we understand you are happy to work with a few hotels but not too many.
[01:04:00] Online, you’re good already. You can grow.
[01:04:04] No more stores in Hong Kong. So what is the, what is your strategy for the future growth of the company?
[01:04:11] Thibaut Carminho: No more stores in Hong Kong, we are still discussing…Having another retail store could be a good idea, but at the same time, it’s a very expensive move.
[01:04:20] So we need to consider it. And I don’t think having a second shop is going to double my online sales, and this is where the money is mostly made. So it’s just going to increase my in-shop sales for that shop. So I haven’t put the number down yet, I haven’t really calculated anything.
[01:04:37] So what I really, really, really want is…Because, I know that this concept, the way we packaged the tartes, the way we make the cakes, the recipes, everything seems to be working. Even for a guy like me who never actually had any experience with food and beverage or even pastry, it’s very easy to set up, it’s very easy to run.
[01:05:01] And with the right strategy, the right marketing, it’s very profitable. What I want to do now is to expand it to other countries. I want to do franchising
[01:05:12] Bertrand Théaud: In Asia?
[01:05:13] Thibaut Carminho: We have registered the brand everywhere, including Europe, in US. But yes, I don’t think Hong Kong, Hong Kong people are so different from Singaporians.
[01:05:25] I mean, they have their own specificities, but I think in terms of food and restaurants, there’s a food culture in Asia. People like to try different kinds of food and, and yeah, I really believe that it could work in Singapore. It could work in Malaysia. It could work in Taiwan and also in Korea.
[01:05:43] So, yeah. So I’m not going to do it by myself because I don’t have the connections. I don’t have the network, but I’m very, very, very interested in franchising this concept and supporting whoever is going to be our franchisee. Supporting them, going there, opening the shop with them, helping them with design, everything.
[01:06:00] Bertrand Théaud: So does it mean that your position and your role, I mean, maybe not your position, but your role in the company has started to change? I guess you spend less time in the store, you spend more time thinking about what’s next?
[01:06:12] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah. Yeah, totally. I don’t believe I should be in the store at all to begin with.
[01:06:17] In my mind, there’s a clear distinction between being a president and being a CEO. Being a CEO, a chief executive officer, you’re doing the executive, you’re supposed to take care of the executive work, the actual work, the work of today, tomorrow, next week. Yeah. So whenever there’s a design to approve, you need to approve it.
[01:06:38] Whenever there’s a staff missing or there’s a staff absent or sick, or whatever, you need to take care of that. You’re here to run the business daily. When you are the President, or the founder or whoever, you’re supposed to be thinking of next month, in six months, in two years, in five years, you’re supposed to think about the direction the company is supposed to be taking.
[01:06:59] It’s like driving a bike. If you’re looking at the front wheel, when you’re driving, you don’t know where you’re going, you’re definitely going to see the bike fail.
[01:07:06] Yeah. So that’s why I’m trying to step out as much as possible from being the CEO of the company because I’m not bringing much value. Some people can do it for me.
[01:07:16] I mean at the shop, the staff are well trained. They know what they’re doing and they’re doing it pretty well, so they don’t need me to run the shop. Actually, when the phone is ringing, whether it’s me answering the phone or someone who speaks Cantonese, it’s actually probably better that it’s my staff answering the phone.
[01:07:29] But giving the direction, trying to give the impulse, trying to contact the right person to get the network, this cannot be done by your staff. First of all, because they don’t have the motivation to do it. Second, because there’s no….
[01:07:42] Bertrand Théaud: That’s the future of your business. So you know you want to be in control,
[01:07:46] Thibaut Carminho: Yes, but you need to have a clear mind to do that.
[01:07:49] You’re thinking about your business when you’re running, when you’re taking a shower… You’re not doing it when you are actually working on something for your business. So you need time. You need to step back and really look at where you want to go.
[01:08:03] So that’s what I’m trying to do right now. We worked seven days a week for a while, really doing the staff work. Then we moved to six days a week, then five days a week, and now we are on a three-day schedule. So we work Monday. I work Monday, Wednesday, and Friday because I don’t want to spend too much time out of the shop because I want to know what’s happening.
[01:08:25] I have something to print, I have cheques to sign, things like this. But I try to be away long enough so that I really can think about where I want this company to go and what actions I want to put. And also some time to train myself to really get more skills.
[01:08:44] I really believe that there’s things I can improve to be a better leader. And so, yeah. So I’m really, really, looking forward to be out of the shop four days a week or five days a week because, yeah. I keep control of the finances, the accounting, this, I want to keep control of that because I want to know how the money, how my money is spent, basically how the company money is spent.
[01:09:13] So I need to know, I need to have a look at that.
[01:09:16] Bertrand Théaud: And so are you using this time that you’re no longer spending in the store, so I can understand you you’re thinking of where the company will be going, but are you using this time as well to learn more things, things that may be useful in the company?
[01:09:29] As you said, you’re not bringing that much value or it doesn’t bring that much value for you to be the one picking up the phone at the store. So, you develop new skills?
[01:09:41] Thibaut Carminho: I spend a lot of time and money training myself. Many different things. First of all, I’m not super old and so I never really, I didn’t work much before I was a business owner.
[01:09:58] So there’s many things I didn’t know about money. And you know, passive income, assets, liabilities, these kind of things. I had to learn them when I actually started a business. So I spend a lot of time teaching myself how it works. How the company is working, the accounting system. I used to do my own accounting.
[01:10:20] I think pretty much every young person or new to the business is going to do that. You now have access to a Google drive and an Excel. People know how to use them. So they’re like “Okay, let’s do an Excel sheet with my expenses or my accounting or…” And indeed, it works. It works well, it works when you’re alone.
[01:10:37] If you’re doing your own accounting, like this is fine. If it’s for your own personal finance, it’s fine, but when it’s for your own business, at some point you’re going to be very limited because you’re very..
[01:10:47] Bertrand Théaud: It’s really time consuming.
[01:10:47] Thibaut Carminho: It’s first of all, it’s very time consuming. There’s a lot of room for error and and yes, one day someone is going to tell you “Oh, I’m an investor, or potentially you plan to sell your company, or you need to increase the amount of share, the capital, whatever.”
[01:11:04] You’re going to have to give a document quickly, a trial balance. I don’t know, an accounting document, quickly, not in five weeks.
[01:11:16] And you don’t know how to do it because your Excel file doesn’t show any of this. It shows your daily spending and your daily entries, and you know how much you make that day and you know how much you spent that day. And that’s it.
[01:11:27] So yeah, I still have an accountant, a CPA. I’m not a CPA but I know enough about accounting to use my accounting software so that I can have a clear overview of what’s happening on the bank account of this company, what the cash is being used for, who is using the credit cards, how much money is coming from sales, how much money will come in, etc.
[01:11:51] I have a clear understanding of that. And if I have to issue an accounting document now, I can do it from my phone. So it’s really useful. And I encourage people who start a business or who are about to start a business, to not be too greedy about saving money on accounting nor on making invoices.
[01:12:11] There are very cheap softwares now that can do that. I can name two of them, Xero and QuickBooks. These two are cheap. Monthly fee is very low, and they will save you a lot of time. You can always get assistance from your accountant to set it up. But once it’s up and running, it’s really going to save you a lot of time and a lot of money.
[01:12:32] Having a place where you can track all your invoices, if they have been paid yet, what your expenses are, etc. That is very useful
[01:12:41] Bertrand Théaud: To pilot your business. And so, okay, it’s clear that you want to keep control of the financial matters related to your business. But is it also because, in order to plan future growth, do you anticipate that you may need some financing and you may need investors? And you want to be able, at any time, to have a clear picture of what the business is and where it will be going?
[01:13:08] Thibaut Carminho: I don’t think we will need financing or I don’t expect we will. We are trying to keep the control of the business and keep the shares the way it is. And that’s why our expansion, the way we plan our expansion is on the franchising model. So that it is auto-financed.
[01:13:25] We are in Hong Kong. There’s a lot of business going on here and it’s not impossible that one day we have a random person coming and say, okay, how much is your business? How much is your business? How much do you sell your business for? And it could be a very, very bad move to not look into it.
[01:13:48] I mean, first of all, you need to know how much is your business worth right now. Second, that’s why you need your finances to be up to date. And again, if that person is making you an offer that sounds ridiculously high and you don’t know how much is your business worth. You may actually miss an opportunity to sell your business when it’s growing.
[01:14:06] It’s too late when your business has grown already. When the growth is done, there’s nothing to sell. The potential of your business is already done. You’ve already done it. You’re successful. Now you keep your business and you make your money like this.
[01:14:19] But when you reach a point where your business is stable, but there’s a lot of things to be done to really push it to the next level.
[01:14:26] You might have an offer, you might have someone come in and say, well, this potential I could do something with that. I could buy this business.
[01:14:33] Bertrand Théaud: Yeah, I’m interested in it.
[01:14:35] Thibaut Carminho: And so, yeah. So I really wanted to keep a clear view of how much the company’s worth and how much I’m willing to sell it for because you never know.
[01:14:44] If someone is making you an offer that makes you financially stable for the rest of your life, then why not?
[01:14:50] Bertrand Théaud: You can start another business.
[01:14:52] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah. So, so yeah. So that’s, that’s the reason why I want to keep control of that. Because I think it’s important to know, first of all, your net worth. You have shares of a business, you need to know how much they are worth.
[01:15:03] Second, you need to know how much the business is actually worth because you may be interested in selling it. You may be interested in having more people entering the capital and you need to know how much you need to sell your shares for.
[01:15:16] So, yeah. I also think it’s a very, very good way to see what’s happening. I used to see numbers, I hated numbers. I hated math. But I took the time to teach myself, to take a class, to learn accounting or the basics of accounting. And now it doesn’t bother me anymore.
[01:15:36] When I see accounting, I don’t really see numbers anymore. I see a situation. I see the house of the company. Why did we spend that money? Why have we done that? And it doesn’t bother me anymore. It doesn’t. Numbers don’t bother me anymore.
[01:15:52] Bertrand Théaud: Okay. So, it’s been one hour, 15 minutes already. So that was a good discussion.
[01:16:01] Maybe a few last questions. So, how do you typically organise your day? Because you are your own boss. You don’t spend so much time now handling the daily business. Are you disciplined and tell yourself you will do this and that. And then do you have objective that you want to achieve?
[01:16:25] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah. First of all, I have a to do list on my phone that is auto updating. So there’s recurring things that are going to the gym. So a normal day for me is I wake up, I take my breakfast quickly, I usually easily listen to my podcast or my training class or whatever.
[01:16:52] I love video format so I take a lot of video class. So I would usually spend an hour, an hour and a half checking this out. Because that’s, it’s a good moment. You’re waking up, you don’t have anything else to do. And I like to do that. After that, I’ll usually either take my dogs out for a walk. I try to not be near a computer for half an hour just so I can use my brain.
[01:17:19] Bertrand Théaud: So you have some kind of routine to start your day, right?
[01:17:22] Thibaut Carminho: And also because when you learn something, it’s very easy to be like, okay, I’ve done my learning. Chapter finished. You close the work and you go to do something like very, very uncreative like a, I don’t know, accounting, this kind of thing.
[01:17:34] And doing this, it’s just pretty much erasing everything you’ve learned from your brain. It’s here but you’re not going to reflect on it. And so when I spend time learning something, I like to take a bit of time to just think about it. So I, yeah, I would go out and take my dogs with me. I live on an island, so it’s easy for me to just go down and have a lot of greeneries and so I just walk around for half an hour.
[01:17:56] And then I would usually work out, like try to exercise or try to do something to stay healthy. Hong Kong is a very fast paced city. It’s very, very easy to end up eating late or eating in a restaurant. It’s easy to have a very unhealthy routine on the account of trying to build a business or because you’re busy.
[01:18:19] So yeah, I try to stay healthy as much as I can. It’s not always easy. And then usually I would operate my job remotely. It’s very important for me to be able to do my job from anywhere in the world. If tomorrow I decide that I want to live in a place where the cost of living are a lot lower, and so I want to be on the beach and I want to work from my beach, then I need to be able to do so in a very efficient manner.
[01:18:47] So that’s very important for me.
[01:18:49] Bertrand Théaud: You’re trying to develop process.
[01:18:50] Thibaut Carminho: Exactly. As opposed to having the control on everything and being the only one to know how to do this and this and that, I train my staff. I put softwares or systems in place so that I can manage and I can control the company remotely.
[01:19:08] Even when I’m not at the shop, I’m usually working three to four hours, but remotely, so yeah, I’m on the computer and that’s it. I try to stay up to date with news and things like that. Yeah. The class that I take usually take like 60, 70 hours.
[01:19:32] So I try to do half an hour.
[01:19:34] Bertrand Théaud: Per week?
[01:19:35] Thibaut Carminho: No. It’s just the class, the 70-hour class. So you need to complete 70 hours. But I really consume content in a particular way. Once I’m interested in something, I need to spend hours and hours on it right away. I may get bored after a while, but the second one, I start to be interested in something I need to know more.
[01:19:55] So usually when I have a class, I would do it in the morning and a little bit at night. So I’ll do one hour and a half, an hour and a half. So 60 hours, that’s a month. A bit less, 20 days.
[01:20:07] Bertrand Théaud: And so maybe the last question. You grow this business as an entrepreneur, it looks like you’re pretty disciplined and organized.
[01:20:17] Now you mentioned one tool that you recommend to other business owners, that’s Xero and QuickBooks for the accounting. Is there any other? One more tool or two more tools that you are using maybe not daily, but weekly, and that are very or that were very useful to build your business and to make you save you time?
[01:20:37] Thibaut Carminho: Yeah, number one tool: cloud, it doesn’t matter which cloud. It could be the one drive from Microsoft. It could be a Google cloud. It could be anything. Just do yourself a favour. Buy a cloud and put all your files on it so that you will not even…
[01:20:54] Bertrand Théaud: So you can share.
[01:20:55] Thibaut Carminho: But most importantly, if you lose your computer, you can just buy a new computer and take the work where you left it.
[01:21:02] This is very important. You can also work from everywhere. You’re not linked to one computer to work. It can be from your phone, you can check things. So Cloud is very, very important because you’re going to have some very expensive files on your computer and you don’t want to lose them.
[01:21:18] So that’s the first thing, cloud. Second, I will try to avoid paper and manual actions as much as possible. I have softwares for everything. I have a software for my POS system, so it’s linked to my accounting software.
[01:21:35] I have a software for my online orders. So when the orders come, they go directly to the accounting software as well.
[01:21:44] I have a software that I’m using recently. I haven’t really started using it yet. It’s called G-payroll. It’s to pay my staff, it’s to handle all the payrolls, to generate the yearly tax and to handle the sick leaves and annual leaves of the staff.
[01:22:03] It wasn’t really necessarily when we had one staff. Now we have seven people. It’s a bit of a headache because as a business owner, you’re the one approving the staff leaves. So you are the one they are going to turn to and say “Oh, can I take leave on this 3rd of October to the 16th?”
[01:22:20] And if you don’t have a clear view of who is on leave, what kind of holidays there is on that day, it’s a nightmare. I spent quite a lot of time making the cheques and making the payments and making sure everything is fine on the salary sheets and everything.
[01:22:38] Having a software that does that for you for a very cheap cost, it’s a must in my opinion. I should have done it a lot earlier. If I had to start over again, I would put an accounting software from the very beginning, and I will put this kind of software, like a payment software right away.
[01:22:56] Bertrand Théaud: To save time from the very beginning.
[01:22:57] Thibaut Carminho: And because you build your company on that. So basically you build your software to at the same time as you’re building your company. So it doesn’t require you to rethink everything. So whatever your industry is, check online if there’s not an automated tool that can help you to avoid manual input.
[01:23:17] And the last thing, always calculate your hourly wage as a business owner. I need to know, I know exactly how much I cost per hour. And so when I spend one hour on something, I want to make sure that I’m not wasting my money if I help my staff to do a delivery.
[01:23:35] I know how much it costs for me to send a company to deliver the cakes. When I’m doing it, if I cost more than that, then I should not do it. So you’re not free. And that’s the thing, especially when I was working seven days a week at the very beginning, I always used to think I was free to the company. I was not a cost because my time had no value.
[01:23:54] The time, the free time you have, especially if you don’t have a lot of free time, the free time you have is the time where you are going to think of the strategy. And there’s not much of this, so you need to keep it and cherish it. And so don’t exchange this free time against something that you could pay someone to do.
[01:24:10] Take your salary, divide it by the number of hours you’re working, and check how much you cost per hour. And make sure that you don’t do something that is making your company lose money by doing an action that could be done by a software or by someone else.
[01:24:22] That’s what I do.
[01:24:23] Bertrand Théaud: Thank you. So thank you for this recommendation.
[01:24:26] Thibaut Carminho: Thank you for inviting me and thank you for the wine.
[01:24:30] Bertrand Théaud: The wine was good and we learned a lot. I really enjoyed this discussion. And it’s interesting to see how you managed to be a well organised, well disciplined and the value that you allocate to your time. I think that’s something that a lot of other business owners can use to develop their business.
[01:24:49] So thank you again.
[01:24:51] Thibaut Carminho: Thank you for inviting me.
[01:24:52] Bertrand Théaud: And I encourage everybody listening this podcast to, if you live in Hong Kong, to go to Tartes & Pop. Or order online, if you’re too lazy, as it was mentioned before, and get some good tartes and you will see, you won’t be disappointed.
[01:25:14] Thank you Thibaut and up to the next time.
[01:25:22] Thibaut Carminho: Bye.