Reality Check: Terry from Cakes and Cookies (South Africa)

The last two weeks, I’ve really pushed you to think hard about your business. Yes, I’ll go back to some nitty-gritty daily questions – the little things we all worry and wonder about (because they’re important,too.) Some of you will notice that I occassionally repeat questions in multiple interviews.  I do that because I think it’s fascinating to hear different people’s take on the same issue – we’re all coming at this from our own experience, and that colours how we feel about things. Today’s interview is a great example of that, and it’s an interview which I have thought about for quite a while after it was complete. I reached out to Terry from Cakes and Cookies because, to my mind, she is an innovator in the industry…but somehow manages to stay one step removed from custom cake making. Her facebook presence is fascinating to me as well (19K likers and counting!); one day she’s posting another incredible creation, the next she’s telling it like it is. She has had a meteoric rise in the industry – amazingly, she’s only been doing this business and had it on facebook (in it’s current incarnation) since 2010.

Terry’s replies to my questions totally floored me, not only because of her fascinating life but also because of the very raw, very honest (and often funny) way she answered me. I should not have expected any differently, given what I already knew about her communication style, but…well, best I stop chattering and let Terry have the floor.

Your involvement in the cake industry has followed a fascintating yet windy path! Tell me a little but about how you got started in the cake industry and what Cakes and Cookies is all about.

Firstly Michelle, thank you for showing interest in me and my work. A bumpy path, more than a winding one I think, but each time I seem to have taken a rise in the road, and seen a new horizon. Perhaps that is the best way to explain how I came to work with cake, although perhaps in a most unusual way. To backtrack a bit, I am by qualification a graphic designer (of the old school, having qualified in 1976!)….before computers and the age of technology which today seems to change on an hourly basis. Post 1976 I had the huge privilege of being able to experience a broad spectrum of the creative world, dipping my toes into “styling” for TV advertisements (TV only started in South Africa in 1976), working with the very best commercial photographers of the day, ( a bit of waitressing thrown in too….everyone has to have a bit of waiting on tables to put life into perspective!). Having always wanted to work in photography and news, I finally managed to wedge my way into a male dominated world, when I got a job as a photographer on a large daily morning newspaper. Some of the happiest days of my life. During these years, I married a passionate sailor, and spent some 5 years sailing largely in the Mediterannean. Three of those years based us in Mauritius, where we did yacht charters. Finally in 1988 we returned to South Africa, and my beautiful daughter Sarah was born – and cake making and baking and decorating also seemed to get a life of it’s own.

Sadly in 1996 I lost my home and all belongings in a devastating flood, which also saw the end of my marriage. At that time I had a very successful decoupage business, but since all my materials had vanished overnight, it was time to re-think my life. I was offered a job in the town that I now live in, namely Knysna on the well known Garden Route of South Africa. I became a director of that company which made both carved wooden birds, and ceramic wildlife. 9 years on, it was time to bake!

Eventually, I think one needs to break free from the shackles of being productive for someone else’s account. If one works hard, then it might as well be for yourself. A daunting move, but I started doing birthday cakes for people using edible prints throughout. In 2010 I started manufacturing cupcake wrappers from imported papers, which I still continue to do. I recently stopped baking for the public as my days are pretty valuable, and between the wrappers and my new venture into decorating the inside of cakes, and writing the tutorials, little time is left over for much else.

You have an enormous facebook following – but as we all know, sometimes social media is a bit “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” What has your experience with it been like?
I could give you the honest answer, or the one that I guess is the expected answer. I will go with the honest answer! I personally dislike Facebook, I don’t Twitter, I loathe Pininterest, and I am actually a very unsociable person!!…I probably have friends sufficient to be counted on the fingers of both hands, but yes, I have enough Facebook followers to fill a rugby stadium! My answer probably sounds arrogant, but actually I am a very simple, humble, giving and understanding person who has had to go with the times and learn to use technology. It was my teenage daughter who at the time said “Mom, you simply have to get with the programme! – The only way to communicate is via social media, and you best start a Facebook page”. And that is how it came to be. I started it in 2010, largely keeping my cupcake wrapper customers up to date with what I was doing, and in September 2012 had 850 people on my page.

Shortly after posting my first “inside cake adventure”, somehow Richards Cakes in the UK came to see it and shared it. It was the beginning of an extraordinary experience, in which thousands of people have continued to flock to my page on a daily basis. The page changed direction from one on which I could occasionally post something of interest, to one which now requires daily attention. It is my window to the world, and yes, it has been an incredible tool for reaching the people who would like to learn my techniques. And yes, I have made some real friends, some lovely friends. And yes, I have made some enemies. Social media can really remove one from reality, and the reality is that some of the “sweet cookie” pages out there are anything but. And I am talking about pages here with huge followings. The last thing I expected was for nastiness and professional jealousy to exist in the sweet world of cakes, but apparently it runs through all creative disciplines, which I think is quite a shame.

I stay out of the fray though. I had a private message the other day, in which someone said “everyone wants to be you!”…in explaining why other pages take ideas that I have created and try and put themselves out there as their own original ideas. I am a real person with real views, but it becomes awkward to really express your thoughts in a forum that is so large and varied that you need to measure your words to avoid offending people. Having said all of that, I value my followers enormously, and they contribute to a page that I like to think is original, innovative and informative.

What’s the one thing about being in business you wish someone had told you before you started?

To rather marry a rich man, and have him provide for me!

What has been your biggest challenge in coping with the growth of the business? As yours is an online and therefore global business – do you ever get to turn your computer off?

I think that one thing that most people do not realise is that I am a one man band. I have no employees. The one person in my life who has been my source of encouragement and incredible help in every respect is my partner Karel. He is one of the most creative forces that one could hope to have in every single way. Together we make magic!… My baking adventures are fully supported by Karel, and where technology fails me, or rather where I fail technology, Karel fortunately always comes to the rescue. He helps me “fairy dust” my tutorials, helps me work out the finer details, and always stops me from writing what I really want to write on Facebook.

I work long hours. Up early and sometimes up during the course of the night to attend to my mail. Good service is the backbone of any great business, and I owe great service to those who wish to support my ideas. 

I recently read that you designed a new cake from a dream you had (and by the way,it’s one of my favourites!)When making a business decision, how do you marry your obvious passion with the need for profit?

An interesting question. I would love to be able to give my ideas and tutorials to people at no cost. However, the reality is that my baking, ideas and work are my living. Much like other professional people charge for services rendered, I do likewise. A tremendous amount of time and effort go into each of my concepts, and the dream cake to which you refer, and just released has taken baking to a complete new level. I know in my heart that no other person has ever baked a cake in the same manner that these have been created. I have called the tutorial the Pan-Tones, and the lesson covers the baking of three different cakes. Ideas come from experimenting and my lessons encourage people to think freely, break the rules, and have a thoroughly good time. If I can bring joy to people and teach them to expand their vision, then I think I have accomplished what I set out to do. 

Thank you so much Terry – for your honest answers, and for bringing something truly unique to the cake world. I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with next! (no pressure, right?)

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