Once upon a time, I loved baking at home. I’d spend weekends searching for the perfect bread recipe or perfecting my mother’s blueberry muffins. Baking was my therapy and my creative outlet.
Then I started baking for a living, and everything changed.
When I opened Whisked!, a bakery in Washington, DC, I realized that my “fun” hobby was no longer quite so relaxing. Baking professionally is about being fast, efficient, and consistent. You’re executing the same recipes over and over again, week after week. If you accidentally use baking powder instead of baking soda, then you can potentially throw away hundreds of dollars worth of product. We are lugging around 50 pound bags of flour and sugar and making batches of cookies in a giant industrial mixer. It’s hard work, and it can be boring to make the same baked goods over and over again. But the success of my business relies on how well I and my team churn out these recipes.
Baking is no longer a way to decompress after a long week—it’s a job. Thankfully, it’s a job that I love and that I’m good at. Here are a few other things I’ve learned since I turned my hobby into a career.
1. Accept that you’re not good at some things.
Running your own business forces you to do tasks you’ve never dealt with before, especially at the beginning. All of the sudden, you’re the salesperson, creative producer, marketer, bookkeeper and the financial manager. You won’t be good at all of those things.
For example, I’m a creative, big picture person, which is another way of saying that I’m pretty unorganized and not detail-oriented. I’ve gotten better since I started this business. But whenever I have to calculate how many chocolate chip cookies we need to make for the upcoming week, I still inevitably get it wrong.
As a good businessperson, you need to figure out what you’re bad at and balance it out. Hire a bookkeeper to do your reconciling, get a virtual assistant to manage your calendar or hire a salesperson to close those deals. Now, I have my production manager calculate how many cookies we need to make for the week, and we never run out of cookies. I use the time I previously spent on these calculations to develop new recipes and to do live demos at local stores—things I am good at and that make a real difference to the growth of my business.
And whatever you do, hire an accountant to set up your QuickBooks. Trust me on this one.
2. You won’t always be ready.
Sometimes you need to say yes to an opportunity before you feel like you’re ready. When Whisked! first moved into a shared-kitchen incubator, I didn’t think we could take on a lot more clients. I was already working crazy long hours, had hired two kitchen helpers, and felt like I couldn’t fit any more deliveries into our schedule.
Then a big opportunity came my way: A chain of local supermarkets wanted to start carrying our products in three locations. I didn’t feel like we could take on the business, but I didn’t want to pass up on this new client.
So I said yes. Even though I felt like we were at our max, I decided to embrace the opportunity and figure it out. And I did. I added more storage space, hired another person, and changed our delivery schedule.
Sometimes, you won’t feel ready to jump on a big opportunity. But you have to say yes and figure out the details later. Now that grocery chain is one of our biggest clients, and the extra revenue has allowed me to hire more staff, buy equipment and move into a larger kitchen with a bigger oven. If I had waited until I felt “ready” to bring that client on, I would have missed a great opportunity.
3. You can’t have an out.
I’ve seen a lot of people with well-paying jobs who start food businesses on the side. Once they get past the initial excitement of starting their own businesses, they realize how much work is involved and how difficult it is to make money right away. I’ve seen many of these people close up shop and go back to their steady paychecks. They had an out, so they took it.
I don’t blame them. The food industry is really hard. The margins are small. It’s a challenging way to make a living. I’ve had many moments when I’ve been in the kitchen at two o’clock in the morning, baking cookies, and thought, “If I could only go back to my old nine-to-five, I wouldn’t have to be in this kitchen at this hour, work every weekend and wash dishes for hours every day.” If I could have gone back to my office job, I probably would have.
The only reason that I stuck it out through the tough years at the beginning is that I had to. I was miserable as an office worker and an indifferent communications professional. I couldn’t go back to that. So I stuck with it, made it work and eventually got us to where we are today.
4. Good stuff sells—even in a saturated market.
No person with an MBA would ever tell you to start a cookie business. There are so many cookies on the market, from fresh-baked cookies at independent bakeries to mass-produced cookies like Oreos to high-end cookies like Tate’s Bake Shop. The world doesn’t need another cookie.
I thought so too, which is why my bakery first focused on pies, which very few DC bakeries did at the time. We thought pies could be a great niche. Although we also made some cookies, loaf cakes and other baked goods to sell at our farmers’ market stand, they were an afterthought compared to the pies.
Well guess what? People really loved our cookies. When we started selling them in packs of six, people went crazy. We couldn’t bring enough of them to the market.
Today, our packs of cookies are our best-selling item and the biggest driver of our growth. So apparently the world did need another cookie. Or maybe our cookies are just that good.