Talking with Rosie O’Neill about the past five years of her life feels slightly like a trip down Alice’s rabbit-hole: There’s champagne gummy bears and stark white ribbons and plenty of California sunshine—plus 100-hour work weeks, leaps of faith, and all sorts of blurred lines.
In that time, the 35-year-old marketing whiz founded booming luxury candy company Sugarfina with business partner Josh Resnick, 48. The two also fell in love and got engaged.
“I have a job that makes other people smile,” she says, adding that she works from the time she wakes up until midnight every day. “That’s the first few years of starting a business for a lot of people.”
You have to wonder if Rosie and Josh, who left their day jobs to found the candy boutique for adults, are risk takers, modern-day Willy Wonkas, or, as sales and store openings indicate, simply saw an opening others failed to see.
Rosie O’Neill was born a natural-born leader in Kansas City as the oldest of six kids. The family moved to California when she was just a baby, following her cameraman father’s dreams. Thoroughly indoctrinated into the lifestyle of sun and sand, O’Neill never left. “I almost went to a school in Chicago but I happened to visit when it was not even that cold and I thought I was going to die.”
She didn’t always know she wanted to start her own business, but there were breadcrumbs leading that way.
“I would have a babysitting business or a friendship bracelet making business … these little things that I would start and rope my friends into and get my friends to be my little sales associates and things like that,” she says. “But I never really connected that that could be a career path.”
O’Neill wound up attending UCLA for her undergraduate degree in Communications Studies and began working in PR. She went back to UCLA a few years later for her MBA, after honing in on a creative and marketing passion she says she was lucky to discover at such an early age.
It was in between her first and second years of business school that she seemed to find her calling at toymaker Mattel, starting as an intern and then coming on full-time as a marketing associate for the beloved (and controversial) company linchpin, Barbie.
“Barbie had this whole time period where Bratz came in and took a whole bunch of market share and the brand was really struggling,” O’Neill says. “I came on kind of right around that time and was able to work with the teams that went back to the heritage of what Barbie stood for. We had a massive turnaround.”
Over the next four years at Mattel, a 23-year-old O’Neill unremittingly worked her way from entry-level associate to director of marketing, posting several digit sales increases for four straight years. She’d stay on as director of marketing for three years.
“I loved what I was doing, I had a great job, an amazing team, a great salary, the whole nine,” she says.
And then she met Josh Resnick.
A Match.com Made in Heaven
There’s probably no stronger indication that Rosie and Josh would end up in the candy business than the fact that while Rosie toiled away at a toy company, Josh worked as a developer for video games like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Together, they’ve hit the trifecta of kid-turned-adult indulgences: toys, games, and candy.
Resnick had, prior to meeting O’Neill, founded and grown a game development company named Pandemic Studios into a global innovator. He sold it to video game giant Electronic Arts in 2008 for a hefty sum (think nine-figure realm hefty).
The duo met on Match.com in 2010 and fell for one another almost instantly. It was on their third date that the idea for Sugarfina (a combination of the word “sugar” and the Italian word for “fine”) was hatched, after a screening of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” turned into a brainstorming session (the two happily identify as “type-A workaholics.”).
Asked what enabled her to leave her seemingly perfect position at Mattel to pursue the idea, O’Neill is quick to cite a need to feel challenged. And, of course, Josh.
“This is going to sound really cheesy, but I think the experience of meeting the love of my life really made me realize that you only get one life,” O’Neill reflects. “Why not go out and have that feeling of being absolutely in love with everything you do … not just in your romantic life, but in your work life too.”
They began to draw up a business plan and each put forth a $30,000 initial investment in the new company. Rosie made adjustments—downsizing into a studio apartment, trading in her luxury car for a less expensive model, and allowing herself a $100-per-week budget. They worked on Sugarfina on their downtime and traveled when they could, sourcing candies everywhere they went.
The pair quickly realized how complementary their strengths and weaknesses were. Rosie, the marketing whiz, was happy to take responsibility for creative branding elements like packaging and web design, while Resnick assumed a role in operations and finance.
For his part, Resnick admits to having some reservations in those early days.
“When we were first starting out, I have to admit I was nervous about it because we had such a great thing going as a couple,” he says. “But really quickly my concerns were eased in that it just felt natural. We spend 24 hours together both from a personal standpoint and a work standpoint, and we love it.”
O’Neill and Resnick began working on Sugarfina full-time in May of 2012, after gathering a stock collection of roughly 125 candy varieties. The website came a few months later, as did quick partnerships with Facebook (they reached out about their vertical’s “gifting” program) and Drybar, a salon chain. A year later, a store in Beverly Hills opened, and corporate clients like Virgin Atlantic, Ferrari, and Tiffany & Co. signed on.
While the idea for a gourmet, adult-friendly candy store may seem counterintuitive, it’s actually more of an extension of the curated, luxury dessert experience that’s magnified over the last decade (think cupcakes or macaroons). The Los Angeles Times recently wrote about the “luxury sweets” craze, dubbing Sugarfina a retailer for “grown-ups with a taste for luxury and bank accounts to match.”
“We see ourselves as being radically different [from other candy stores],” Resnick says. “Our mission is to create a really small selection of interesting, fine, and unique candies from around the world. And we get to tell these amazing stories through our candy.”
With no real competitors on the scene (yet), O’Neill and Resnick zeroed in on a market that hadn’t yet been tapped, and almost instantly reaped the rewards.
Today, the company offers treats like “Tahitian Vanilla and Honey Caramels,” “Single Malt Scotch Cordials,” and “Bubbly Bears.”
The company sells their products online and out of their five brick-and-mortar stores.
Named to Fast Company’s “Most Creative People in Business” list, Rosie and Josh plan to open another five to seven U.S. stores by Christmas, following an online-to-retail path followed by other startups like Bonobos and Warby Parker. They are specifically homing in on the New York City market, and plan to reach close to 120 employees by year’s end.
“We get a tremendous amount of interest from people who want to open Sugarfina stores internationally,” O’Neill adds. “We’re not quite ready for that yet, but I think in a few years, we will be. I could see us having beautiful little boutiques everywhere from Mexico City to Hong Kong to Dubai. There’s a lot of potential.”
For now, the two are slowly scaling back and trying to return their personal lives to a sense of normalcy with semi-normal hours, actual date nights (they set aside Wednesday night and come prepared with topics to discuss, like time travel, to force themselves from discussing work), and spending more time with Resnick’s three children from a previous marriage. They’ve been engaged for two years.
Ask Rosie when the wedding will be, and it’s clear this perfectionist and visual guru is not rushing into anything.
“That’s everyone’s question! Being totally honest, I think it’ll be at least a few more years. We love being in the details, so I actually really want to plan the wedding … and have the time to do it right.”
Rosie O’Neill is the co-founder of the Beverly Hills-based Sugarfina luxury candy boutique chain. To learn more, visit the Sugarfina website.