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Reality Bites: Amber Spiegel from SweetAmbs

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I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for the cookie community – the patience! Those perfect lines! All that itty bitty detail work!  Whereas with cake I’m used to seeing things which look nothing at all like cake, I’m still an over excited puppy when it comes to seeing the incredible work being done with cookies. A few weeks ago I interviewed Rebecca (The Cookie Architect) and today I’m so excited to share with you the work of Amber Spiegel from SweetAmbs. Amber, I have a total fangirl crush on you, so thanks so much for being featured on the blog! You can also find Amber on Facebook.

M: Most of us cake makers started the same way – we saw a TV show or picked up a book, decided to give it a try and then (almost overnight) we found ourselves creating things for family and friends..and then whammo, we’re in business. Can you share with us your story, how did SweetAmbs come to be?

A: I’ve always enjoyed baking and cake decorating ever since I was little. It wasn’t until my 3rd year of studying business administration at Ithaca College that I decided that I wanted to bake for a living. After graduation, I enrolled in the baking and pastry arts program at The Culinary Institute of America. At that point, I thought that I’d have my own bakery one day with cakes, cupcakes, and lots of different kinds of sweets. Halfway through the program, however, I realized that production baking was not for me! I really just wanted to decorate cakes, but it was difficult to find a job where I could focus solely on that. Once I graduated from The CIA, I traveled around and had a few different bakery jobs. It was around that time that I started decorating cookies on the side. I found that it was easier for me to experiment with icing techniques on cookies rather than on cakes since I could make a large batch of cookies and have dozens of blank canvases to practice on! I also liked that I could wrap them up and ship them to friends and family all over the country. After I discovered the world of cookie decorating, I was very fortunate to get a job working in the Wilton decorating room outside of Chicago. That’s where they decorate all of the cakes and cookies for their product packaging and publications. I spent almost two years there. It was a great job, but I wasn’t able to be as creative as I would have liked and I became restless. I decided I needed to work for myself. With the support of my parents, I moved back to New York to start my cookie business, SweetAmbs. I was selling cookies online for a couple of years and after receiving lots of questions about how I made my cookie designs, I began posting tutorials on my blog and YouTube channel. These days I no longer take orders and I spend all of my time teaching cookie decorating classes and producing online tutorials. My business has evolved into something completely different than what I’d imagined it would be!
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M: One of the things we all struggle with is pricing – it can be a challenge to teach consumers why the things we do are the price they are. I imagine that for cookie artists, that education process is even harder because cookies (until recently) were even more of a luxury item than cake is. Can you share with us a few of the business challenges you and your colleagues face?
A: Pricing is always a challenge since consumers don’t expect to be paying upwards of $4 for one cookie if they’re not already aware of time that goes into making each one. When I was selling cookies, I charged anywhere from $4 to $18 a piece depending on the design. One great thing about cookies is that they can be shipped anywhere. Having an online shop allowed me to reach customers all over the world, so I was not relying solely on one location for customers. Of course, one problem with that is that in most states, you need a commercial kitchen in order to be able to sell online, which I was fortunate enough to have. As cookies become more popular, I hope it will become easier for cookie decorators to get a fair price for their edible art.
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M: Cookie decorating as a medium is growing rapidly in popularity, and along with that popularity comes more competition, more people entering the industry, more people teaching and so on. What advice have you got for anyone who is new to the industry? Any words of wisdom for those just starting out with cookies in general?
A: Cookie decorating takes practice and lots of patience. If you’re just starting out, don’t get frustrated if your designs don’t look like the pictures that you see online. I have a post on my blog with photos of how much my work improved after a few years of practice (http://www.sweetambs.com/uncategorized/i-was-a-beginner-once-and-im-still-learning/)
Also, I think it’s important to develop your own decorating style. It’s really neat when I can look at a cookie on Facebook or Pinterest and know right away who made it without even having to look at the name! Of course if you’re a beginner, it’s okay to use other decorators’ designs for practicing your skills. But, if you are selling cookies or if you begin teaching classes, I think it’s better (and more fun) to use those skills to create new designs that are all your own.
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M: Your style of decorating is just stunning – personally I love it when you take a basic shape (a circle, square and so on) and just take it so far beyond the boundaries of that basic shape. As an example, one of my favourites of yours is the twin babies in the basinette – major swoon worthy cookie design for me! So while I know your style overall has that gorgeous romantic, soft quality about it – do you have a favourite style, theme or shape to work with? What’s your secret cookie art superpower?
A: I love decorating on round, square and plaque cookies because I find that cookies that are shaped like actual objects give me designers’ block. My mind has so many more places to go if it’s not confined to a particular shape. I’m also really drawn to lacy fabrics, jewelry and vintage tea cups, and a lot of patterns inspired by those kinds of things can be done on a simple shape and still have a stunning effect.
Another reason I enjoy using simple shapes is that I can cut out a few dozen, freeze them raw, and then bake them when I want to create a new design. If I only used cookies that were shaped like objects, I’d have to cut out new ones each time.
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M: You are doing so many exciting things – your Craftsy classes, live teaching, and all your generous YouTube tutorials (which secretly I watch and am insanely in awe of.) I’ve heard that you’ve got a book coming out too! What’s next for Sweet Ambs? On a bigger scale, what do you think is coming up for the industry?
A: Writing a cookie decorating book is a dream come true! I’m really happy in my career, so I hope to continue on this path (but maybe with the help of an assistant in the near future!). I’m not sure what’s coming next since I never really had a concrete plan for my business. I just always did what felt right!
I don’t know what the future has in store for the industry in general, but I hope that it continues to grow so that more and more people will be inspired to decorate cookies.
M: Amber, you’re a total cookie goddess and I adore you and your work – thanks so much! 

Social Media 101 for Bakers and Decorators

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Social media is one of those things us bakers and decorators love to do, because it’s fun, you get immediate feedback, and you can pretend to yourself that what you’re doing on there is real work.  While it is definitely fun, most of us don’t fully appreciate how powerful of a tool social media is and how to best use it for maximum marketing effect. In a nutshell, here’s what’s boring but important to know about it: posting on social media should be part of your overall marketing plan – meaning it needs to have a defined purpose, follow a plan (at least a little bit!), be consistently done and it has to be measurable.  Wow, way to take the fun out of it, right?! I promise you that social media can be both fun AND effective – and I’ll post more about this in future. For today I’m going to cover the 5 most frequently asked questions I get about social media.

“Social media” just means posting on Facebook, right?

Nope. “Social media” as a whole really refers to all of those online platforms where people are creating and sharing content – in other words, think of it like the different digital places you might hang out with your friends. There are lots of social media platforms but they include places like: Facebook, Google+, twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, reddit, YouTube, ello, Cakes Decor …and so on (there are WAY more, but you get the idea…did you know there is one called Cucumbertown?!)

Do I need to have my business on all of those platforms? That seems like a lot of work!

No, you don’t. You really should only be on those platforms that a) your clients are likely to use and b) you enjoy using. It IS a lot of work being across all of those places so here’s my advice on how to control it all:

  1. Reserve your company name/place on every social media site you can even if you don’t intend to use that platform (to protect you from others getting it.)
  2. Pick 2-3 platforms that you know your clients are likely to use. This is based on who they are – for example, you hardly find teenagers under 18 on FB these days but you DO find mothers of small children. Also make sure those platforms are ones you enjoy posting to or are good at using (for example, I suck at twitter and my customers aren’t there, so that’s not one I’d pick right now.)
  3. Set up a plan to consistently create and share high-quality content on those platforms. Seriously. KILL IT on there for a set period of time, I usually recommend 1-3 months for real results and that’s ongoing, good quality content (more on that coming soon.)
  4. Once you’re up and running on those platforms – and they are consistently doing well for you (the numbers are going up, potential clients talk about your pages and so on) then think about adding in another platform.

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Should I pay for ads? Why should I have to? Facebook is KILLING small business with this whole “pay to be seen” stuff. It’s not fair!

First, stop whining. Facebook is a business. Businesses are there to make money. Mark Zuckerberg and his college buddies have absolutely ZERO interest in spending millions on running a business just so you can have a free and easy way to talk to your clients.  Like ALL forms of advertising and media, if you want to be seen – you’ll need to pay a bit extra for that service. Want a bigger ad in the local paper, a colourful and glossy business card, a TV ad on prime time? You’re going to pay more for it. EXACTLY like we expect clients to pay a bit more in order to get a bit more quality, social media platforms are no different. If you want it for free or cheap, you’re going to get what they offer at the free or cheap end and often what you get isn’t all that fabulous. (Do I need to say it? Good cake isn’t cheap…)

Do I think you HAVE to pay for ads on social media? No. I think if you’ve got a budget for advertising, then YES some of it should probably be spent there – but you’re not going to want to just boost some random post and hope for the best. You’re going to need to get a bit of education about how those ads work so that you’re investing your money wisely.  Do I think you need a budget for marketing and advertising in the first place? Of course I do – but you knew that.

Should I allow customers to communicate with me through FB messages or Instagram messages? What about things like What’s App or BBM?

Personally, I don’t think you should allow this – but I do know that in some Asian countries, it’s very normal to conduct business via Whats App and BBM. I’m still not a huge fan of it, because to me there is nothing about FB Messenger which says, “good customer service,” to me. I can’t imagine a high-end car company or luxury handbag company conducting transactions through Facebook. Also, I’ve noticed that people tend to forget about those messages really quickly and easily. They miss the notification that you replied or it goes into their “others” folder and so on … and the conversation just sorta dies. I recommend turning that function off entirely and making sure that it’s VERY obvious on your page how people can find you. Your profile on ALL platforms should have a web address and a phone number, plus email if it fits.

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Why do I need a website? I get all my orders from Facebook anyway, isn’t that good enough? Web pages seem like an unnecessary expense and also, I’m not that great at technology so honestly it just seems really daunting to do it.

I can’t stress this one enough: YOU NEED A WEBSITE because YOU DO NOT OWN FACEBOOK. Someone else owns it, someone else controls it, someone else makes the rules, someone else can TURN IT OFF and delete everything you’ve got on there right this very second if they feel like it. Do you really want to have your entire business platform in the hands of someone else? All that work and effort …and you have no say in what happens to it (ask any of the people whose pages recently got deleted what this feels like). Me, I want control over my own business online and while I love and adore social media, there’s no way I’d put all my eggs in that one basket. As for websites being expensive and hard to do (etc etc) – you can either do it yourself with very user friendly platforms like Wix, or you can be a grown up and outsource this to someone else. A website is a legitimate business expense and should be included as part of your start up costs. You can get a pretty decent website these days for under $1000. The key is to GET ONE started and not worry too much about it being sparkly and perfect. Lastly, the last time you went and shopped for something, I’m guessing you started your search at Google  – not at Facebook. So unless someone remembers you and types in your exact business name, they aren’t going to find you easily. If however they go to Google and put in “wedding cakes Pittsburgh” – you’ll come up because you’ve got a website all about the amazing wedding cakes you’re making in Pittsburgh.  If that in itself isn’t a good enough reason to have a website of some kind, I don’t know what is.

I’m going to chat more about social media in more detail in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, please comment on this post and tell me what you love (or hate!) about social media. I’d love to hear about your experiences.

 

 

How to Make Friends

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When you consider how we all talk about how crowded this industry is, isn’t it a bit funny how lonely of a place it can be, too?  Sometimes it feels like those endless Facebook groups are only filled with keyboard warriors, that everyone only wants to complain, and that when you’re stuck in the middle of a bad moment (either emotional or the “oh shit it’s 3am and my cake is raw!” type) there is nobody to turn to other than your partner who could care less if that pink flower is more fuchsia or magenta. Here’s a business skill I think is essential to success: building a tribe. A wolf pack. Your cake peeps. Your sisters in arms, your buttercream babes, your crisis management team. The thing is, if you’re sitting home all day making cake and reading stuff online, how the heck do you find NICE people to hang out with in real life?! Never fear, Michelle the friendship fairy is here to help with some fabulous ways to meet fabulous people IN REAL LIFE. Note – there is a small amount of bravery required here, but then I never promised this would be easy, but I can promise it will be worth it.

Here are some ways to gather a posse:

  • Next time you go to a real life cake class or small business class, introduce yourself to someone who looks nice. Start up a conversation with them, even if it’s just to say, “I’m so nervous about this class!” Be vulnerable – chances are the other person is nervous too. The key here is also to GO TO LIVE EVENTS. (This is how I met Faye Cahill – I did a class at her studio and told her I was peeing my pants with nerves. She doesn’t remember that moment, but the next time we met I told her about it so we had an instant point of reference.)
  • If you’re in a local online cake group, and there is someone whose posts always make you laugh or you find yourself nodding along to what they say, send them a PM and say, “Your posts always make me laugh, we should have a coffee sometime,” and then (and this is key!) if they seem even vaguely interested, MAKE A TIME AND DATE and actually make it happen. The follow through is super important and I promise you that you are NOT bothering them if you do it. They’ll be glad you were the brave one.
  • BEFORE you refer a client onto a local cake maker, CALL them up, introduce yourself, and say, “I’ve got a request for an order I can’t fulfill. Is it okay if I pass this person onto you?”  They won’t say no and you’ve got the perfect excuse to start a conversation with them.  Or if someone has referred a bunch of people to you, call and thank them (that’s how I know Rudy from Man Bakes Cake – he shared my stuff and I wrote him a PM to thank him, so when we met in real life it was not awkward.)
  • If another cake person randomly comes into your life for some reason and after bumping into them a couple of times you think you’d like to get to know them better, swallow your shyness for as long as it takes to say, “XYZ shop is having a massive sale on next week, do you want to come with me to check it out? We can make an outing of it!” (This is how I got to know lots of different people on a more personal level.)

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  • If you like someone, chances are you will also like the people they associate with, so take the time to say hello to THEIR friends as well. Friends of friends are wonderful people and worth getting to know, so next time you see someone standing awkwardly next to someone you know, lean over and say hello. I promise they will be grateful and you already have someone in common. (This is how I met Sheryl Bito, who is friends with Sharon Wee.)
  • Reach out online to people but not in a “tell me ALL YOUR DECORATING SECRETS!!” way. Send a PM saying, “I loved that bunny cake you made, it’s really amazing!” Leave a comment on their blog if they write one, send an email introducing yourself and thanking them for whatever beauty they bring into the world (cake or otherwise), send an email asking an intelligent question (not something you can just You Tube or Google yourself please.) Some of my closest friends are not in my local neighbourhood at all but they are only a text or phone call away because I reached out and told them I admired or respected them. (This is how I met Shawna McGreevy…I told her that if I ever met her I’d fan girl all over the place, and I did exactly that.)

 

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  • Be the planner and the do-er – we are ALL BUSY, but what we really are is WASTING a lot of time doing not much. So be the person who plans the monthly local cakers get together, and even if only one other person shows up, it was worth the time and effort.  You need to be the one to MAKE IT HAPPEN because other people are the type who will sit around waiting for it to happen.
  • Make friends with people who are super connectors. A super connector is someone who is really great at making connections between people. She’s your really nice friend who always “knows someone who knows someone,” who just seems to know a lot of people. We all know someone like that – and likely we wonder how she does it so effortlessly – but the beauty of knowing someone like that is that they will either naturally introduce you to more people, or not mind at all if you ask them to introduce you to a specific person they may know. (This is how I know a bunch of cool people through Raewyn Read, because Raewyn is a super connector, as is obvious because she’s in almost every one of these pictures.)

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Of course, this post would not be complete unless I mentioned that sometimes, you’re going to make friends (cake or otherwise) who turn out to not really be great friends to you. Maybe business got in the way, maybe they were not as nice as you were led to believe, maybe a small misunderstanding blew up into a giant mess.  This happens in normal friendships, not just in cake friendships, so please don’t let it stop you from forming new bonds with people. My tip on finding a tribe you’re going to love and cherish is this: you have to share the same core values. What does that mean? It means that at the very heart of it, you share the same belief systems (and I’m not talking religion). As an example, perhaps you really value honesty and education. Perhaps you both believe that you’re in business not just for the love but also to make a shed load of money and neither is ashamed to say it. Perhaps you both come from similar cultural backgrounds. In other words, there has to be things about you which connect on a soul level, not just on a cake level. Cake might be the reason you met, but it won’t be the reason you remain friends.

We’re all in this together, only sometimes, YOU’VE got to be the person who BRINGS US together.

PS I reference plenty of well known cakers in here (and they’re in those photos) but the truth is, famous or not, we’re all just people who need one another to lean on.