I’m So Clever, I Bought It All By Myself

One of the earliest dilemmas home bakers come across is, “Do I make it, or do I buy it?”

Inevitably you’re going to get a client who wants something you’ve never done before – usually a figurine or a sugar flower. Something which requires specialist skills or resources you – as a beginner – just don’t have. Should you even have taken the order in the first place, if you can’t actually deliver what your customer wants?

There are a couple of ways you can deal with this situation. I pride myself on operating my business with integrity and never promising a client something that I cannot deliver. However, if the only barrier to my delivering it is my skill level, that’s not a good enough reason to refuse the work. If the reason I can’t do it is because they’ve asked for the impossible (“Hi, I’d like a 400 foot tall replica of Macchu Picchu and I want it made out of edible fairy wings,”) that’s a different story altogether.

So what do you do when someone wants something you’ve never done before? (Other than panic. Panicking helps nobody.)

As I see it, you’ve got two solutions here:

1) Learn how to do it. Pretty damn quickly.

In some cases you’ve got a bit of time up your sleeve and can acquire education in a short time frame by signing up for a course which runs before the cake is due, or watching endless YouTube or Craftsy videos until you’ve worked out how to do it. Talk to cake friends who might have this skill. Research and practice until you actually get the hang of it. You didn’t realise it at the time because you were panicking about it all, but your client did you a massive favour. They forced you to up level your skills, and in turn made you that much more able to help the next client that comes along. They also forced you to realise just how much time it takes to master hand-made oversized David Austin roses in five colours – so that next time, you’re not undercharging for a cake which has those flowers on it.

I’m extremely grateful to my clients who ask for things I’ve never done before, because there are major benefits do being forced to learn a new skill in a short amount of time. I love the constant challenge, I love that they have faith in me, I love that I will end up with a new (sugar) feather in my cap. The bad part about this method is that you’ve got to have balls of steel in order to do it, and probably need to take some blood pressure medication to handle your elevated stress levels. This is definitely NOT for the wusses among us, especially if you’re working to a short time frame. 

As a human being, being challenged is how we learn. As a cake maker, being challenged is how we EARN.

But.

Let’s be real here. You’re a good cake decorator – but are you good enough to risk this with a paying client? In my case, the answer was always – depends on the client. If it was my Mum, sure. If it was a complete stranger…depends on the personality of the client. Some are completely over the top anal retentive, some will give you some wiggle room. Figure out if YOU can handle it, and if THEY can handle it. At the very least, be honest. “It’s not something I’ve done before, but I’m willing to give it a go!” Worst case, they go to someone else and you breathe easier. Best case, they appreciate your honesty so much they let you do your thing, and you get a client who will grow with you as your business grows. Guess which kind of client I’d rather have?

Solution #2) Buy one. Or several.

For many years I was utterly petrified of making figurines of brides and grooms. I realised my local cake decorating supply shop sold them (and even customised them) so I used to order ALL my figurines from them. Why? I was too scared to learn, so I made every excuse under the sun to not bother. No time (yeah, right.) Nobody would ever order them again anyway because I’m not known for being a wedding cake maker (yeah, right.). Bride and groom figurines are going out of fashion (all together not: YEAH, right!)  I came up with millions of excuses to keep ordering them instead of just learning how to make the damn things. (Yeah. Embarassing. But this blog is all about the truth of running a cake business, right?)

I eventually went and did a course on figurine making. I was pretty proud of the little Bridezilla I made and her adorable but slightly shorter groom. It wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it would be. I left that course thinking I’d just made a brilliant investment in my education and that I was going to be the MOST awesome figurine maker that ever lived.

Guess what? Shortly thereafter, I got another order for a bride and groom figurine.

I ordered it in.

Why? Because I realised a few things. Firstly, although now I had the knowledge and skills, I didn’t really enjoy making them. Second, it cost me LESS to buy them in than it would to make them myself – and that’s even if I included the time to both order them and pick them  up (which had to be included for my costing to be correct). Sure, if I was mass producing these things and had some sort of efficient system going, that wouldn’t be the case. I was only making one every few months and it was taking me the better part of 4 hours to do them (excluding drying time.) In other words, by choosing to do it myself I was losing money on the deal. No client is going to pay for 4 hours worth of my time for 2 figurines.

The exact same scenario played out for me with flowers. I can make roses with the best of them … but I find nothing so mind-numbingly boring as sitting there and making 1,000 rose petals. There are way better ways I can spend my time. I know plenty of cake makers who love the flower making process. Yay for them, but for me it’s just not my thing at all. I enjoy it sometimes. Other times, sticking pins in my eyes is way more interesting.

The world is full of extremely talented sugar flower makers and figurine makers who do beautiful work. Me, I’m capable but hate it. So these days – I tend to do a bit of both. Buy the things from people I trust who I know will do work to my standard, and make the things which interest me and which I’m good at. I see no shame in outsourcing some of my work. That’s just good business.

If your time can be better spent elsewhere, on something you’re actually good at and which will make you money – DO IT. Don’t waste your time doing something you don’t like and aren’t very good at when there are capable people who can do it better, faster, and cheaper. 

This rule applies to everything about your cake business – it’s why there are companies which make everything from undecorated cakes to coloured fondant.

So – is there any shame in buying a few bits in? Are you cheating your clients by not personally making every single item on that cake?

Nope.

I’m pretty sure Dolce and Gabanna themselves do not actually hand sew the fabric which is used to make their gorgeous clothing. And Hermes does not breed the cows which makes the leather for their Birkin bags.

Repeat after me: there is no shame in outsourcing.

However…. (oh you knew that was coming, didn’t you?)…you can’t entirely rely on it, either.

This wouldn’t be a post by me if it didn’t include an embarrassing story about how choosing to buy it in blew up in my face.

A client ordered a cake with a figurine of Sophie the giraffe on top (a very expensive, well known baby chew toy. So it wasn’t just any old giraffe. She has a name, for god’s sake. Posh and Beck’s kids had one!) At that point, I knew how to make PEOPLE, not animals! So I ordered it in. I made the cake. Late the night before the client picked up her cake, I opened the box with the figurine in it, and …well… Sophie wasn’t so much a giraffe as she was some unidentifiable animal with a very strange angle to her neck. She looked AWFUL. Literally just nothing like Sophie at all. Who am I kidding, it hardly looked like ANY giraffe, let alone one well loved by the Hollywood glitterati. I felt sick. Really, truly sick (and I know you all know that feeling, right? Same feeling as when a cake falls over.) I had no time to learn to make one, and my attempt at buying one in was an epic fail.

I’d never made this client a cake before, so I didn’t really know her well enough to know if she would rip me to shreds or laugh it off.

There was nothing for it. I had to suck it up. I called the client and I was honest about what happened. Honesty is something we’ll talk about later in more detail – but remember I said I only ever operate with integrity? For me honesty was the ONLY option here since I couldn’t re-make Sophie in time. I called and fessed up. I told her that because I didn’t think I had the skill level to make Sophie, I’d ordered it in, but it looked too terrible for words.

I got really, really lucky on this one. She laughed, thanked me for my honesty, and said we’d put a real Sophie on top and it would be fine. She could have just as easily told me off, demanded a refund, and basically given me a hard time – and I would have probably deserved it. I was telling her that I couldn’t give her what I want ..with only a few hours notice. I’m in the business of making people happy, and there I was having to disappoint someone. SO. NOT. COOL.

The next day when she came to pick up her cake, I spent about 10 minutes apologising and offering refunds and basically making a complete moron of myself in front of this poor woman. She spent about 10 minutes calming me down. It all worked out fine, and I am very proud to say that, five years later, she’s still a regular client of mine who orders several times a year from me.

What’s the final word on this one? Is it better to do it yourself, or is it better to order it in? Well, I’m afraid only you can answer that one … but here’s what I think. Order it in, or make it yourself** – but ALWAYS, ALWAYS have a Plan B. (Even if that Plan B is begging your client for forgiveness and learning to grovel effectively.) Learn the skill AND have the resources to order it in – which choice you make will depend on the client, the details of the item, and your time.

** But never try to outsource Sophie. She’s just not worth it. 

4 comments on “I’m So Clever, I Bought It All By Myself

  1. I love this! I named my company An Extra Ingredient because I try to make everything from scratch. I still make my cakes and fillings and frostings from scratch, but figurines? Nope. My skill level is not there and I flat out tell my potential customers. I get a lot of cakes for children's birthday parties (gotta start somewhere!) and the clients are more than happy to provide a figurine for it. I've swallowed my pride and decided I would rather have a plastic toy than something that looks terrible!

  2. Hi Michelle
    Found you through the post sharon posted on facebook. Just wanted to stop by and say im loving all your post i started cake decorating for a couple of years now and recently i decided to start out on my own and ive learnt so much along the way but reading all this has it made it more clearer for me! Thank you for sharing your insight with everyone!! Trish

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