How to Avoid Making Mistakes in Your Business

One of my earliest “paid” cakes

I recently read a post over on my friend MJ Valentine’s blog where she wrote a letter to her 15 year old self. It inspired me to write a letter to the Michelle who was just thinking about starting out in business – I thought I might give her a hand and help her avoid a ton of mistakes. If I could go back in time, she probably wouldn’t listen to anything I have to say (she’s stubborn as hell, and prefers to learn how to do things the hard way) but… I’m going to give it a try.

Dear Michie*,

(*”Michie” is what I call myself in my head. This is how I’ll know this letter is from me, because I don’t allow ANYONE else to call me that.)

Another really early cake. Don’t you love my gaping ribbon and fabulous backdrop?!

Hello from your future self, the self who is now on the OTHER SIDE of that “I’m going to own an amazing cake shop” dream goal.  I have to tell you, sister, you did some pretty damn spectacular things. You did it. You actually did it. You created the shop which only existed in your head. You made a WHOLE HELL OF A LOT of people really, really happy, you met some amazing cake people, you influenced and inspired a lot of people. You also ate wwwaaayyyyy too much chocolate, but that’s how you deal with stress so I forgive you. Now that I’ve been there, done that AND got the dirty aprons (and t-shirt) to prove it, I thought I’d give you a bit of guidance so that the road from there to here isn’t quite as bumpy. Here’s the stuff I wish you had known way back when you were secretly buying and hoarding one cake toy at a time (and one glass jar at a time) for your dream cake shop:

Stop Beating Yourself Up: Life is way too short to constantly give yourself a hard time about the stuff you haven’t done yet, or the things you should be doing faster or harder or better. You’re always feeling like you won’t be as successful as those cake gods, or other business owners are doing better than you are financially, or you feel like a fraud every time you teach someone how to pipe a buttercream border or ganache a cake. Cut out that bullshit right now. It’s a waste of time. Instead, know that you’re doing the best you can with the resources you’ve got, and that’s better than most people. It’s time for a bit of self love.

This is me about 3 years into my business.

Get the Client Database Happening from DAY ONE – Grow your tribe really, really early on. As soon as you read this, in fact. Collect client information and especially email addresses because this is going to be VITAL to the growth of your business, and later on it’s the one project you really regret not doing properly. You have got to have a way to consistently contact your fans and clients and a proper database is the single best way to do it. This is non-negotiable, so listen to me on this one, okay? Grow your tribe. They love you and your product, so you’ve got to be able to tell them about it.

Take Time Off – You can afford to do it, and I promise that you won’t lose that many orders because you take a week off twice a year. Your mental health will be WAY better if you do it. Let me assure you that therapy costs a lot more than a week at home sleeping and eating properly does. You need to just remember to breathe, and the best way to do that is to build in some time off to your schedule. Whatever orders you may lose over those two weeks are worth less than the investment in your own well being.

It’s Going to Be WAY Harder – and WAY BETTER – Than You Think: You’re one of those over achiever people who makes things happen no matter what, so it’s going to be a hell of a shock when you realise no amount of hard work is equal to success. You’re still going to work more hours, pop more anti-inflammatories, and feel like you’ve been run over a bus more times than you can count. The good news is, you’ll also be so loved, so inspired, so supported and so grateful for all of it that you’ll forget the painful bits and keep coming back for more (a bit like childbirth for some people). You’ll also be glad that you realised early on that it was more about business than it was about cake, and the investments you’ve made in your business knowledge were worth it…even if some days it still feels like you have no idea what the hell you’re doing. You’re doing it for the love AND the money, and that’s why it’s both harder and better than you imagine.

This is me in year 6 of my business.

Let’s Talk About The Money – Remember that piece of paper where you wrote down every single start up cost and expense of the business so you knew how much money you needed to start off with? You big nerd, you even included a pack of garbage bags and a bottle of dishwashing liquid! TRIPLE that amount. Not because your math was wrong, but because you forgot to leave yourself a financial safety net and that causes you more stress than anything else ever will. Hire the bookkeeper REALLY early on (stop trying to do it yourself), remember that the tax you have to pay is a good thing (because if you were not earning real money, you would not be paying real taxes) and learn as much about money, finance, pricing and general numbers as you possibly can, because (as you will later say to your students): THE CONFIDENCE COMES FROM THE NUMBERS. Don’t be afraid of money, about checking your bank balance, about asking clients for what you are worth, about needing to ask for financial help. Make friends with “the whole money thing” even though it freaks you right the heck out, because there is no shame in wanting or needing to make a living. None whatsoever. “Starving artists” are really just people who didn’t bother to make friends with the money. Money is not scary if it allows you to pay for the kids’ school fees and invest in the business. You need to THRIVE, not just SURVIVE so make friends with the whole numbers and money thing.

Don’t Let Fear Rule Your Decisions –  Every single time you were afraid of something but did it anyway (introduced a new product line, moving to a bigger premises, hosting an international teacher, started a blog) it worked out. Not always in the way you hoped (that one international teacher didn’t end up as fab as you hoped…) but the lessons you got from it or the opportunities it created made feeling the fear worth it. Your naked cake idea is going to take off, moving to bigger premises works out really well, starting a blog was a good all worked out okay even though you were scared.  Learn to make cupcakes (!!), get in on that whole dessert bar thing and go with that chocolate dipped everything idea you had, hire the business coach, take the accounting class. Pay attention to your gut and then jump in – too many times you either created or saw a good idea or trend or class you wanted to take or do, then you dragged your heels out of fear and missed the boat as a result. Just. Do. It. Stop being afraid because, dear Michie, that’s an utter waste of energy and emotion.

You’re Going to Plan to Succeed, and Still Fail (sometimes) – Although your big plan was to sell the business when you turned 40,  something WAY more awesome is going to come along way before that which will fulfil you way more. So – make the endless plans and To Do lists, and then don’t fall apart if the plans don’t always go right, or if there is a fork in the road or you need to make a bigger decision before the time you planned to. I’ve learned that there is no real thing as failure, there’s just a whole lot of lessons to learn … most of which are more valuable then you will realise right then and there. You’re going to make money, lose money, screw up orders, create masterpieces, feel like a failure, feel like a goddess, make some pretty poor decisions and some really genius ones – but you’re also going to come out a better person for ALL of it. Just accept now that sometimes, you’ll screw up. Ehhh. It happens. You’ll move on and keep on going.

Some early product development…which I should have actually followed through on. Mmmm, homemade s’mores!

Let’s Talk About the Money (again) –  It will take you being in business for several years for you to work out WHY you are in business, because at this point you still think it’s about cake. It’s not. It’s about making people happy, and those people include yourself and your kids. This means your business needs to make money – real money, not just pocket money. Take bigger risks with your money in terms of investing more in the business right from the very beginning, but also make sure that safety net is there (at least 6 months of rent and wages) so you’re not going to freak out about it.  Having the safety net means you make less fear-based decisions, you have the freedom to invest where you want to, and it fixes up the really big fat tax problem you created somewhere around Year 6 of the business. I’m saying this again in the hopes you’ll listen to me: make friends with the money. Better the devil you know! (really)

The Cake Will Fall Over: There is a 6 tier (3 double barrel) wedding cake which will fall over in the back of the car with a sickening thud. There will also be a 3 tier red velvet cake where the bottom tier totally explodes AT THE VENUE, as well as some figurines whose hands fall off while you are setting it up in front of the bride. You’ll also spell a few names on cakes wrong, random cake bits will fall off, break totally or fall over, some cakes will just never ever stand up straight, and you’ll have a couple of clients who complain or offend you so much that you cry. There is that one REALLY crazy lady who…ahh, actually, I’ll let you discover that one for yourself. Oh, and driving away from a wedding cupcake tower set up, you’ll back into the groom’s son’s car and smash in the whole side panel of it less than an hour before the wedding starts. Very embarrassing. I promise you that every time, you’ll seriously feel like crap about it, but every time you’ll get up and keep going. I promise, you survive every one. 100% of the time. It always ends up being about how you deal with it more than it is about what actually happened.

My very first fondant wedding cake, first figurines,first sugar flowers – my final year pastry school project.

Here’s the thing, Michie. Every step you take in your business, you’re going to come up against one really big roadblock: YOURSELF. The problem is never the lack of money, lack of time, lack of confidence or customers who only care about the wrong things. The problem is simply that sometimes, you’ll be indifferent, sometimes skeptical, sometimes procrastinating, sometimes worrying the heck out of things. It’s the choices you make even though you feel those things which will lead you to this moment. I’m going to let you in on a secret from the future. This moment (the one I’m writing to you from) is the one where you’ve sold the business as you planned, you’re raising your kids as you would like to, you’re getting to hang out with amazing people, and you finally get to be the writer you wanted to be. You are actually living the life you wanted for yourself. You did it. You really did it. It’s not perfect (would be nice to lose 10 kilos, make more money, finally learn to sew, fix up the house a bit blah blah blah) but you know what? This moment and this life? It’s a life of love, adventure, gratitude and sweetness – which is precisely what you’re aiming for, cake shop or not.

There is so much more I could warn you about, Michie – the employee who quits on you with no notice, the dodgy landlord you have to deal with (and it costs you a bomb to sort that out), the advertising you paid a heap for but it netted you nothing…and so on. The thing is, there is so much more BRILLIANT stuff I could tell you about, too – the mothers who cry tears of gratitude, the little kids whose faces light up when they see their cakes, the other business owners who tell you that you inspire them to be better,  the people from all walks of life that you will meet. I can’t tell you all of it, though, because you’ve got to get back to learning by doing and I’ve got to keep on keeping on, too. I’ve got so much I still want to do! Actually, that’s my last lesson (and maybe the hardest) – don’t be so damn impatient.  Things have a way of happening exactly how and when they were meant to.

And, as always, be grateful. Not everyone gets to make a living doing what they love. You will. Every single day, make sure you stop for a moment and just be grateful about it. Breathe.

Love (and a whole lot of chocolate buttons stolen from the 15 kilo bag),


8 comments on “How to Avoid Making Mistakes in Your Business

  1. Wow! Well that was eye opening. Brought tears to my eyes and was one help of an eye opening read!!! Loved it! Thank you Michelle for all the honest information you share. ❤

  2. Thank you so much for first time met in the internet honest story sharing!
    i hate all those perfect home bakers who only show the beautiful side of business and they nice pictures and stories of success. fuck them. total lie. everyone passes your thoughts and events in more or less the same way.
    at least, you story helps to feel better and not to be afraid and not fill my head with this bullshit fears and doubts. common, if i am afraid of this cake stuff, i will never come out of little miserable frame.

  3. I love this! Got me sort of teary-eyed. Especially the last part. Be grateful because you are blessed to do what you love. Thank you for this Michelle. I am now a follower of your blog.

  4. In my 5th year of owning my own retail bakery. Been a Baker/Pastry Chef for almost 15 years. I relate to a lot of this and it was nice to read I’m not the only one. I’ve just recently been following you; I will be attending your class in Waco, TX. I’m glad I found you! 🙂 Thank you!

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