Ask the Alchemist #61

What is your opinion on trade secrets? I am surprised by your willingness to share what you know. Why don’t you write a book?

Warning, Ranting/Rambling Alchemist ahead.

I am always amused when questions like this come up. And more so after the Chocolate Fest event this last weekend. While wandering around, I heard more than once that hushed conspiratorially toned conversation. “what did you use?” “how did you do that?” “how did you roast that?” “What did they do to get that flavor?” and without an exception the answer was some variation “I can’t tell you, it’s a trade secret” or “wouldn’t you like to know”.

Um, yeah, that’s why they are asking.

I can’t quite wrap my head around these answers. Sure, I know it’s not uncommon. It’s just that it isn’t how I deal in chocolate or much of anything. Information is to be shared. Maybe it is so many years in the scientific community. Maybe it is how I am wired. Whatever the case, I know I am not alone. Chocolate Alchemy would not be where it is if not for the selfless giving and sharing of knowledge of Fredrick Shilling, fellow founding Alchemist of Dagoba Chocolate.

We had many a long conversation about just this subject and how at the end of the day, there were both very few rules in chocolate making (we agreed you can’t add sugar in a liquid form and still get a classic temper) and how all this secrecy doesn’t do anything but hurt the industry and harbor ill feelings. And 90% of the time, the secrecy had nothing at all to do with trying to protect your product, livelihood, intellectual property or anything of those common excuses.

They had everything to do with ignorance and fear and not being willing to admit when you don’t know something. It’s often said in the belief that the speaker will come across as more knowledgeable and somehow that desire for their knowledge will transfer to their product.

Right!

I’ll admit I’m guessing here. I’m making up reasons why someone would not share a roasting profile or a fermentation time or even the proportions in a recipe. I go to great lengths to give that kind of information. I can’t even count the number of words I’ve written and spoken trying to describe the exact way I roast, what to look for to modify the roast and how to change it to suit your own tastes. And most of the times I can’t do it. It and so much of this process is so out of our control (growing conditions, weather, bean age, etc) that it’s just pompous (or ignorant) to think your one little link in the chain from bean to bar makes THE difference.

I brew ale, mead and sake. Cook a wide variety of foods. Make, build and invent things. And as you might have heard, make chocolate. Over the course of my life I’ve heard all these things before. And over the course of my life I have tried to teach people how to do what I do when they ask. And without an exception, I can’t do it. Nor have I met anyone else that can either. The best I (or anyone) can do is show them what I do and why I do it. The result is a passing of knowledge…of a sort. More than once I’ve entered into a friendly competition to make something. We all use the same ingredients, the same recipe, the same basic equipment…and the result is a multitude of different end products. Each is flavored by our own perceptions of what we see, smell, hear and think and that makes each product unique.

If I am actively and earnestly trying to show someone how I have created something, and it does not work perfectly, how is it anyone has anything to fear about trying to share how they created what they made?

And further, if what they did is so simple that it can be explained in a couple minutes, someone else is going to work it out in short order. At least that is my take.

Somehow, I think people get caught into the thought process that you can only succeed if other people fail, and whatever you do (not sharing) to not help them succeed will increase your own potential to succeed. Like success is a limited commodity. At some point, sure, there is a point where the market will only bear so much, but in the microcosm of sharing information, I don’t see how that applies.

Ok, before I end, I do want to say I understand there are indeed times and places to keep secrets. Real trade secrets. Complex, unique processes. Unique pieces of code. Truly new ideas. And being bound by a NDA (non-disclosure agreement). That’s what patents are for. I’m bound by a few myself. I get that.

But whether it’s is a 5 or 6 day ferment, at 125 or 130 F, or a 17 minute roast profile to 325 F or 21 minutes to 332.6 F, or you use 6% cocoa butter vs 4%, please recognize those aren’t secrets. And what do you gain by keeping them to yourself? Or better yet, what do you lose by sharing?

Nothing I’ve ever found.

I’m sorry, if your entire product line is basic on that one, little piece of knowledge, you are on shaky ground to start with and there is a good possibility your business model is as sturdy as a house of cards. And if you are not even in business there is no reason at all not to share all you know.

Personally, what I have found is that if you share openly, honestly and with passion, people will appreciate it, and share back….if they recognize (and most do) that you are helping them succeed, and that by doing so, they are not giving up their own ability to succeed.

So, the next time someone asks you for information, take a moment and think about where you got that knowledge (did someone share it or the kernels of knowledge with you?) and if what you can tell them actually is anything you even have the ability to share (sometimes it’s beyond words) and if you can share it, will it REALLY diminish or take away from what you have created or are you simply sharing the wealth? As they say, what goes around comes around, if you need more of a reason to share what you know.

And finally, it’s ok you don’t know why something came out as it did. Sometimes ignorance is not a sin. Sometimes (often) something wonderful is just a culmination of years of hard work that can’t be distilled over in a few minutes. Say that. Don’t hide behind “it’s a trade secret”. Knowledge is limitless. Share the wealth.

Oh, and no, I currently don’t plan on writing a book. Just not enough time.

—– Submit your Questions to the Alchemist: question(youknowtoremovethisright?)@chocolatealchemy.com —–

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