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A good friend and colleague of mine (*cough*Sharon*cough*) is a MEGA FAN of the boy band Hanson. Seriously. Hanson, as in the long haired brothers who sing the 90’s song that never dies, MMMBop. She’s such a fan that she’s going to concerts in more than one Australian city, and she’s trying everything possible to get a photo with the boys (including offering free cake, so you know the obsession is real, right?)  She was telling me about how they own their own record label, they’ve sold over 16 million albums and how they’ve grown up into one heck of a business and a band.  Because I was intrigued, I started to do some research, and discovered that she was right about all of that…and that they even have a connection with our industry – they were judges on Cupcake Wars! (This automatically makes them even cooler to me than they were when I was a teenager…and they were pretty cool then.)

I started thinking about the music business, and Hanson in particular, and then of course I can’t get that song out of my head. We can learn a lot from the music business (and the Hanson boys in particular.) As in our industry, the music business is crowded with lots of extremely talented people, all trying to make a living doing what they love. Music is also a creative business, so they too have the issue of trying to put a dollar value on a talent and skill. The music and cake industries are very similar, except perhaps that the musicians who make it big are making a heck of a lot more money than the cake people who make it big.

So with more respect for Hanson than I’ve ever had, here are 3 business lessons I think we can all learn from the boys:

1. It’s really about being a resilient entrepeneur: Since 2003, after a split from their major record label, Hanson have been a fully independent band.  Rather than look around for another label to take them on, they formed their own company and have paved their own path ever since. Sure, they took on additional risk, but this also opened them up to additional reward. The thing about true entrepeneurs is that they don’t give up – because it’s actually about the creating, not about the details of failing and succeeding. Hanson decided to move on and do things their way, they didn’t just decide to give up music altogether simply because they were dealt one seriously difficult blow.

At the moment we are in a crazy time in the industry and it seems like every day I see posts on social media saying things like, “I’m beginning to wonder if it’s worth doing this anymore,” and “I’m just going to give up, there’s no way I can compete against the others who are undercutting me.” I’ve said for a long time now that staying in business is a lot harder than getting into business – something I’m pretty sure Hanson would agree with.

When I read those posts, I think to myself, there’s someone who has not worked out why they are in business in the first place. Is owning a business what you really wanted, or is it a case of having given in to the pressure of “You should SOOOO sell those!”?  Hanson had a massive set back in their career, but because for them it was about being able to make a living making music, they just set about doing it in a different way. They got knocked down. They stood up again. Why? Because they wanted to earn a living doing what they loved. They were in it for the long haul, determined to succeed even if it meant taking big risks and suffering potentially big failures.

Longevity in this industry – in any industry – has less to do with the product and more to do with your willingness to take the knocks and keep coming back for more.  It’s about being an entrepeneur more than you are a cake maker or cookie baker.  Hanson, and every one of us reading this, is trying to carve out their corner in a crowded market. Where we have unregistered home bakers or newbie cake makers to contend with, their equivalent is shows like The Voice and X Factor. Getting into cake and getting into music are now easier than ever, but it’s the ones who KEEP GETTING UP after being knocked down who will succeed in the long term.

2. It’s not just about the product, it’s about the people: Hanson are BRILLIANT at looking after their fans and cultivating a whole group of people who love and support them.  They’ve got an active fan club, they have several ‘members only’ events and activities, and in all their interviews they talk about how grateful they are for their fans. They also involve their fans in the creative process – allowing fans to vote on their set list and be a part of what they create. Isaac Hanson recently summed this up beautifully, saying, “As long as fans understand that the goal is to have your favourite band be successful and for you to be as involved and engaged in that process – because the fans need to appreciate the bands and the bands need to appreciate the fans – as long as you can create a good connected relationship, everybody’s going to win.”

They have worked really hard at building a fan base from the very beginning of their career. In the early days they sent CDs to fan club members, created a members-only magazine – and in 2000 when their record label pulled their funding to tour, rather than disappoint people they self-funded their touring.

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How does all that translate to the cake industry? Two words for you: customer service. I don’t think cake companies focus on customer service and building tribes enough. We spend more time sharing cakes with each other rather than building relationships with our fans. I fully believe in creating a community, but that community must include the people who are going to buy from you and shout about you from the rooftops to others.  We all talk about how word of mouth is such a powerful marketing tool, but word of mouth needs to be cultivated. It doesn’t just happen like magic, it happens because you invested in giving your customers a great experience. Hanson adore their fans, understand that without fans there are no record sales, and they invest heavily in their fan base. Us cake makers should be doing exactly the same thing.

Hanson produced a documentary – Strong Enough to Break – which chronicled their leaving the record label and getting their album released as independants. In their words, they “wanted to show people what’s involved, show them what it takes to get an album released.”  This reminds me a bit about those of you who struggle with the constant explanation of pricing and what work goes into making one of your creations. Just like music fans have no real idea about the process of releasing an album, your customers probably have no real idea what the process for building a 3D cake is. It’s your job as an artist to help them understand that process so that they understand it’s worth it. Isaac’s take on this is, “People don’t value what they don’t purchase so you need to encourage people to see the products that you are making as valuable,” – which is a pretty basic premise in selling anything at all.  If people don’t see the value in it, they aren’t going to buy it! Is it annoying to keep explaining? Sure it is – but we’ve got to do it not only because it helps people value us but because it also helps us to build our tribe of fans.

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3. It’s About The Long Term Plan: It was 18 years ago that Hanson came out with MMMBop (I KNOW! 18 years! Makes me feel old…), and since then they’ve recorded 6 studio albums, have several Grammy nominations and continue to tour globally (among other things.) They still consistently sell out concerts all over the world…and yet it’s fair to say that Hanson is not a band you hear on the radio all that often these days. Until it was mentioned to me I had no idea they had as much of a back catalog as they did, nor did I even know they regularly tour. I truly had no idea how big they actually are and continue to be.

This is a brilliant lesson in the importance of having a bigger picture in mind and remembering that you’re in it for the long term.  I’m sure the boys would love to have #1 hits on the radio all the time, but they’ve managed to build a career doing what they love and between them they have 11 children. Have they reached the dizzying heights of the 90’s MMMBop fame again? No. Does it matter? No. Sometimes in our quest for fame (and fortune) we feel the need to just create, innovate, create, innovate endlessly, never truly being satisifed with what we’ve got and keeping up with the Joneses. We flutter from order to order, we get overly excited about reaching social media milestones and we endlessly chase the “oooh…shiney!” factor.  If what you’re aiming for is to have a long term, sustainable, successful (to you) business, then that’s what you’ve got to build. Stop looking at how others are becoming superstars and think about what is important for YOU. How do YOU define success? In Hanson terms,would you rather be the one hit wonder or accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award?

When I started my business, I wanted a career doing what I love, which also was flexible enough for me to raise my kids and which would pay me a decent salary. I also wanted to be able to bring happiness to people’s lives, influence the next generation of cake makers and feed my creative soul. I then actually succeeded in doing all of that because for me, that’s what success was about. Rather than be a one hit wonder, I wanted to stay in this industry, consistently earning a living over a long period of time.   Hanson’s goals are much the same, in so far as it has always been about doing what they love (music), earning a living (touring), having a life (becoming parents and starting families) and making a connection (fans). You’ve got to have the long term plan in order to actually take the steps to getting there.

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In the last week or so, I’ve learned more about Hanson than any one person should actually know…like that they had a cameo appearance in Katy Perry’s music video for Last Friday Night.  In all the things I’ve learned, the biggest lesson of all came to me when I kept finding similarities between their business values and mine.  Ask anybody working in a creative industry – from big (Hollywood and movies) to small (etsy and crafters) and the challenges are much the same although the scale is different. Think back over your favourite artists, in any number of creative industries, and you’ll find that their long term survival has come down to the same three things: resilience, building a fan base, and committing themselves to the long term.

While Hanson might not be your thing (although hello, how completely gorgeous are those men!?) – look around at other musicians, actors, artists and I think you’ll see their challenges are much the same as ours are. The ‘cake world’ can be such a bubble sometimes that we fail to see that it’s not just us that deal with customers who don’t see or value, tons of competition (some great, some terrible) and plenty of set backs.

Yes, I believe we’re all in this together…only now I know that the “we” goes beyond bakers and decorators.

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