Pick My Brain: Questions from Emma

I’m mixing it up (ha!) around here a bit – this week rather than focus on a specific topic, I’m going to answer questions I’ve gotten from you. This week I’m replying to Emma K, who on our facebook page asked me a few questions I think the rest of you might also find interesting.

Maybe you could do something about what you started making, what basic skills you think are important for example, is it a good idea to limit yourself to specific cakes when first starting out? How did you gain your skills and knowledge?

I started out cake making as a hobby when I was a teenager. I can’t remember why, but I decided I wanted to decorate a cake myself and so I did – bought the pans, some box mix, ready made icing (thanks Betty Crocker!), and away I went. It only took one cake for me to fall in love with the art of it. I then spent years reading cake books and magazines, buying cake toys, and playing around – but if you can believe it, YEARS passed between my actually making any more cakes. In my family, being a chef or cake maker was not considered a ‘real’ profession so it did not even occur to me to pursue it professionally. I never forgot my love of the art though, and many years later some friends bought  me a Wilton Level One Buttercream class as a birthday gift and an obsession was re-born. I’ve since done a number of courses (but not as many as I might like) and I also went back to school to get degrees in commercial cooking and in patisserie. I loved my formal schooling and am very glad I did it, but plenty of cake makers have no qualifications nor do they need them. Cake making is not something you ever stop learning how to do – I still gain my knowledge the same way, by reading, watching, listening, asking questions. My experience I got from practice, from working in everything from cafes to catering companies, and from practice. Did I mention the practice?

In the beginning I wouldn’t limit yourselve to a specific cake type. The beginning is when you get to experiment, play, learn, and have fun. You will soon enough realise you have an affinity for a certain style or certain ingredients. Just to give you an idea, I know a cake maker who, after doing a few different courses, discovered she had a real talent for figurine making. Her entire business is now ONLY figurine making and she loves it and is doing pretty well. Similarly I’d rather poke my eyes out with a rusty whisk than do 8 tier high wedding cakes, but I know cake makers who think making a 3D replica of R2D2 is boring.  I’d take as many “level one” classes in as many different things you can afford the time and money for. Then as your style emerges, become more picky about where you spend your time and money – but definitely push your boundaries now and again.Your style, much like your business, will grow.

Did you also on the other end, do any kind of small business course? How did you end up working out what to charge people for your cakes?

I learned a fair amount of business skills in my cooking degrees, including how to cost out recipes (including cake). I also did a “How to Run A Hospitality Business” course at the local adult education centre. Eventually I also hired a business coach who taught me a whole lot about running a business. I also asked everyone I knew (who seemed to know anything at all about business) for advice, not all of which I took but all of which I listened to. I went to a lot of small business seminars put on by my local council. Once you start looking, the information is out there! I would highly recommend doing some small business courses – I even did one which was about knowing which tax records I should keep.

The main thing is: you NEVER stop learning, about cake OR about business.

As for learning what to charge for a cake…that’s a whole story in and of itself. I’ll write an entire blog post about it. It took me a long time to work out what to charge and how to do it (they are not the same skills…) I’ll  save most of that info for a future post but in the meantime let me give you the key to the costing process.

WRITE THIS QUESTION DOWN SO YOU CAN THINK ON IT: If for some reason you were suddenly unable to create that cake (and cancelling is not an option), what would you have to pay to get someone else to do it for you?

e.g. Not what a different cake maker would charge for the same item. What YOU would have to pay someone to come into your business and do *everything* to that cake.  Buy ingredients, bake it, cover with icing, decorate, and clean up after that cake.

Yes. You heard me. EVEN the clean up time.

I just gave you guys some cake business gold right there. I really did. Go back and re-read that sentence in bold. It will totally change how you think about cake pricing.

Did you look into registering your kitchen from home? Was your local council a pain? I guess I would rather know than become disheartened.

Yes, I did look into it -that was (and would still be today) my preferred way of starting out. My council was a pain in the backside about it, but plenty of councils are far nicer than mine was. In the end it just wasn’t worth the headache. That being said, each Council (in each country!) follows it’s own rules – I’ve heard of many who found the home registration process very easy and simple,and others who spent thousands on renovating only to find their applications still rejected! It’s *always* worth calling your Council and asking – or finding local people who have already gone through the process who can provide some insight.

Thanks Emma for providing some questions for me to answer – I’ll make “Pick My Brain” an occassional post where I can answer some questions in a quicker/shorter format, so if you’ve got any questions for me, feel free to ask them here or on the Business of Baking facebook page.

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