by Sharon Wee
Up until now, most of you would have read or heard about how I arrived where I am today in the cake world through my online profiles… I’m no pastry chef and I kind of fell into the whole cake decorating thing by accident. I am about to go on tour with The Business of Baking and I think that before attending, you might like to know a little more about my background. Or even if you were ever interested in the more detailed and long winded story… here it is 🙂
For as long as I can remember I’ve always wanted to own my own business. The idea of being my own boss, not having to sit in an office and the freedom that comes with it was just so enticing.
One of my earliest memory was putting out a box of toys in my living room with a sign and a money box that said something along the lines of ‘25 cents to play’. This of course was just intended for my grandma who was looking after my baby bother while I went to school. Everyday for a week I was so excited coming home from school. I’d check the money box only to be disappointed to find it was empty. I was eight.
It then dawned on me that perhaps they were still taking and playing with the toys while I was gone and just not paying my fee! I mean, why should they? Those toys were previously free to play with, no one was there to enforce it and there were plenty of other toys in the house for my brother to pay with. Little did I know I was learning an important lesson about economics and business right there and then.
That same year, or perhaps the year after, my parents had a garage sale. A women was bargaining with my mum over one of my Barbie dolls. She claimed it was too expensive for what it was, since it was old. Before my mum could say anything I turned around and agreed with the women, ‘yeah, mum, it’s too expensive!’ Until today, my dad continues to bring up this story. They will never let me forget it, especially since I now run my own business. A lesson on sales and marketing was learnt that day.
In high school one year, we had a business class project where we had to create a business plan to sell a product to the students in school. What does a fifteen year old sell to the rest of the school that was affordable enough? I decided to sell flowers with message cards. I can’t remember if it was Valentines Day but somehow we had lots of students buying and sending flowers to each other. It helped that I had my pushy best friend (aka the sales person) in my group. She had no shame whatsoever going up to guys and pestering them to buy roses for all the girls in their class. My other friend knew somewhere to get the flowers cheap too (aka the logistics person), so together we made a pretty great team. We walked away with about $80 profit each after that exercise. Not bad for a couple of high school kids in the 90s.
The next thing we did was sell sports uniforms to the sports team. The school was not going to pay for one for us so my friend (the one with the connections) had an uncle who owned a textile company and who could make us the uniforms. So we designed them, got the teams to customize their names and numbers and got them produced. We even got them partly sponsored by one of the our friend’s dad’s business. I can’t remember what we made from that exercise, but we profited from it too. Of course being in an international school with affluent kids helped.
In college I was still looking for that Something. That Something that would be the start of being my own boss. I searched high and low for it… including:
- Hand sewing custom hand bags – which did not last very long since I didn’t know how to use a sewing machine or even owned one, creating each one by hand was way too time consuming.
- Creating custom clothes for teddy bears – again another fail. Since I could not find a suppler for teddy bears and again, I could not sew.
- Inventing interchanging bell-bottom fabric for jeans – this was when the bell bottom jeans with the split fabric was in fashion. I thought it would be cool to have jeans where you could change the design of the fabric piece so it would match what you were wearing and so you did not have to buy so many different pairs of jeans. I even emailed my idea to a leading casual clothing company and I got back… Nothing.
- Printing my own t-shirts – This was fun, but in no capacity was I able to compete with what you find in the stores. Since I was still hand cutting all my stencils.
- Publishing my own online magazine – I took the photos, thought of articles, thought of a name … and that’s where it pretty much ended. I realised after trying to put together the first issue that it took way too much time to do all that and I really could not do it all by myself. And plus, none of my friends wanted to model for me!
I remember I met a girl in my last year of college and after finding out she was two years younger than me and also owned her own business creating promotional goods for businesses. I was in awe and if I am being honest, so jealous too. How come she managed to be her own boss? With business cards too!
As I was having a conversation with my mom about this a while after, she said something that until today I still repeat when I am having an off day. ‘It’s not hard to start a business. Anyone can have one. Whether you make money is a different story’.
Suddenly I was not so jealous anymore and in that moment I realised how wise my mother was.
When I graduated and started my first job, my boss was terrible. She blamed me for her mistakes, could not use a computer to save her life and gave us a work load for a team of ten when there was only two of us under her.
I wondered if this was what life was about. I was slowly getting depressed. I was desperate to find my escape.
I considered starting a business where I planned and organised gifts for people – corporate gift baskets, experiences, restaurant dates…etc This of course didn’t work. I didn’t have the computer smarts to build the sophisticated website I needed or the thick skin to cold call businesses to negotiate deals.
I then considered being a free-lance graphic designer. I had some basic knowledge with using the programs, I could do it right? I thought so until I did some digging and realised that there were people half way across the world who could fulfil what I was planning to do for peanuts. And who was quicker and faster than me.
So then what? My job was still crap and I was still miserable.
I decided I needed a hobby. So I went searching through my local community college catalogue and came across… cake decorating. Sounds fun. I like cake and decorating it sounds even better, so I signed up.
And the start of something I was missing all along blossomed. I discovered passion and drive. Elements that were missing with all my other ‘business ventures’.
Suddenly, I didn’t care about being my own boss, the freedom, the money or how long it took me to do make a cake. Because I absolutely loved it. So much that I would stay up until morning, research till no end and forget to eat. I was addicted and I wanted more. Making it a business never crossed my mind. Not until someone said to me ‘hey, you could sell these’. Suddenly the seed was planted and slowly the idea began to grow. Something I love doing? As a business? Someone was going to pay me to do something I would have done for free anyway? Wow. That was more than I could ever ask for.
Unfortunately, this is not where I went off happily every after into the sunset with my magic overnight successful business. Because I was extremely emotionally attached to what I was doing, I had a hit another wall. Everyday business decisions like pricing, selling myself and receiving feedback became so much harder because, suddenly it all felt like a personal attack on myself.
Learning to separate the business from myself and treat what I was selling as a product was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. In fact, some days I still struggle with it. I am a realistic and honest person. I don’t believe in embellishing and telling big fake stories to sell my product so it was a struggle to find a middle ground when I marketed myself.
Running this business has thought me that a business has to be more than awesome cakes. Of course you must have a good product, but that is just the outer layer. There is so much more on the inside that determines success – pricing, planning, marketing, branding, customer service, procedures and much, much more.
Michelle from the Business of Baking Blog(a very good resource by the way) and I are actually going on tour this year to help people get what they want out of their business. We will be holding a two day seminar with a 10 week email follow up. Class sizes are very small which mean we will get to work with you very closely. Both of us are passionate about helping others in this industry because we have both been there. We both started from home but at two very different places right now. Michelle (a trained pastry chef) now owns and runs a physical shop and teaches while I am still working from home and teaching locally and internationally. I didn’t got to art or pastry school but instead I have an undergrad degree in Media and Communications and a masters in Business and Marketing.
We conducted our first free webinar last Monday and if you missed it you can watch it below.
We received so much positive feedback from that one that we have decided to do another one this coming Monday on the 31st of April at 10am Sydney Australia time. The topic of this one will be social media. We will present you with some tips and discussions and you will also get a chance at the end to ask some questions. So book it into your diaries and we’ll see you there! Click here for the link.