Real Stories: Tasha

Welcome to Real Stories, a weekly feature here at the Business of Baking. I thought it would be great if we could all see what it’s like for ‘real’ people whose businesses are still growing as opposed to those who are at the top of their game already (much as we love those guys too).

Here’s how it works – once a week I’ll profile a real person with a real business. I’m getting all my volunteers to answer the same questions so we can get a feel for how different people in different countries and situations are doing things. I’ve got case studies of people from all over the world, with different levels of experience and different sizes of business.

Where you come in – I’d really like to build this feature into a community of support and help, so when you get to the bottom I ask you to please COMMENT on this post. Either send them a word of encouragement, make a helpful suggestion, or just say thanks for contributing. It’s very brave to volunteer for this sort of thing and I think we should show them all some love.

Today I’m chatting to Natasha from Tasha’s Tasty Treats (UK).

Tell us a little bit about the person behind the business: What city are you in? How old are you?

My name is Natasha Shomali I am 37 years old. I run my business from home which is in Eastry (nr. Dover) in the United Kingdom.

What’s the back story to your business? How did you get into this industry? If you don’t yet have a business, what are your business plans?

Before I began my love affair with cake decoration I was a full time scientist working for Pfizer.  I have always had an artistic side and dabbled in several art forms including painting, modelling with polymer clay and pottery.  I started baking cakes, sweets and puddings when I was about 30 due to my partners love of anything sweet.  I didn’t even really eat many desserts or cakes before I met him!  So baking in general developed into a big hobby for me and I even baked and decorated my first Christmas cake (though shocking to the well trained eye it is now!).  I learned what I could from books and made lots more cakes cookies and sweets for relatives/friends birthdays/christmas presents for the next couple of years and really enjoyed it which started me of thinking about it as a business. In conjunction, Pfizer’s had started to do several rounds of staff reductions and restructuring globally from about 2009 which is one of the reasons that I had to consider my options outside a life in science which is all I had ever known.

Tasha’s First Christmas Cake

In 2010/2011 it was announced that the site I was working at would be closed and we would all be made redundant (it was eventually however kept open in a much smaller capacity).  I took this as my sign to use my redundancy in a positive way as an opportunity to re-train and do something different that I was developing a passion for. So my journey to opening a business seriously began in 2011 which is when I started taking a few cake/business/food safety courses including a PME Masters Diploma in sugarcraft which really set-me up at a good place to start making cakes for actual customers. Tasha’s Tasty Treats opened for business in August 2011 offering a few different products and I have been going ever since.

How do we find your business online? (include all your social media links that you want people to look at or follow)

Just for fun, how and where do you read the blog? (in your pyjamas on a laptop? On your phone on your way to work? while sitting in the

In the evenings chilling on the sofa in comfy clothes on my laptop

Where are you hoping to get to with your business? What’s the big fat dream goal?

I would like to be well known enough to be able to inspire, be in demand to train others in the craft and generate orders for higher end cakes.

At the moment you’re facing a bunch of different challenges – as we all do at certain times.  Tell us a little bit about those challenges. What would you say is your biggest challenge or limiting factor which is keeping you from getting to the big fat dream goal?

I think my biggest limiting factor at the moment is actually my brand.  Tasha’s Tasty Treats is quite a cute and homely type brand which suited what I was doing 3 years ago selling cakes, cookies and sweets both as orders and via food and craft fairs. I quite quickly discovered though that where I live people’s mindset is not suited to the product line I had to offer.  They would not pay the price I wanted for confectionery type items and I was trying to just to do too many different things which just diluted the brand and probably confused people! Tasha’s Tasty Treats does not conjure up the image of beautiful classy wedding cakes and nor does how my current website looks in general (although the cake pictures themselves are all lovely). I was also spending way too much of the income I did generate on advertising and lots of wedding fayre’s which generated no or very little comeback.

My aim was that after a couple of years I would have liked the business to start generating a profit as I was living off savings; this cannot be sustained forever.  Unfortunately with the slow economy and not getting in the number of orders I would have liked this was clearly not going to be possible. I also suspect that my location right near the coast may put off potential clients who are more centrally located in the county or in adjacent counties.

Last year I was the opportunity arose to take a part time contract job as a scientist, so I now do this 3 days a week and the cake business the rest of the time.  This gives me the income I need to pay the bills but it does reduce quite significantly the amount of time I can devote to making improvements to the business and practice new techniques etc.  My work life balance is tipped a little too far towards all work and not much time off which long term is not good as there is a danger of burning myself out.  I still would like that feeling that my business is ‘successful’ and am just trying to find a way to make it all work.

Okay so here’s the tough one – what are you doing (or have you already done) to get past or around that challenge?

After coming to the conclusion that food and craft fairs were a thoroughly miserable experience and not profitable for us personally, these were the first thing that we stopped doing after year one.

We tried advertising in lots of different places over the first 2 years to try and get our brand out there and got back zero in return.  The advertising we do now is very limited and we cut back on the number of wedding fayres attended to the venues we believe may work for us.  I do not want to give up on wedding fayres completely as it does give general brand awareness to people attending and other wedding suppliers.  Networking with other wedding suppliers has been so useful for me (especially when getting started) and I have met some truly fabulous people.  They try to pass business my way and I do the same for them if I can.  I am also friends (though networking) with other local, reputable cake suppliers and we all support each other and pass orders around if we cannot accommodate a customer.

We also did some SEO on our website in year 2 as increasing your ranking on search engines is a definite benefit to people being able to find you, but had to stop this as we could not sustain the cost involved long term.

We also tried opening an on line shop in year two to make the cookies and sweets available as we were no longer doing craft fairs but this did not take off so we removed the products from it after about 1 year.  I think this failed mainly because we did not really market it much at all and I was not overly enthusiastic about it either.

Another thing I realised after a year or so of trading that where I live people have fairly simple tastes and limited budgets when it comes to wedding cakes, so the bigger and more complex wedding cake orders are in the minority.  To try and help get more orders from Autumn 2013 I now offer a range of simply decorated cakes with a clear pricing structure to try and attract more people who are on a limited budget as well as the bespoke type cakes.  I also have over time tried to make sure that my display cakes for wedding fayres are a mixture of simple but well executed and more modern designs. The more modern and colourful stuff does seem to turn those with simple tastes right off even talking to us on our stand.   This is a fact, we have heard people near our stand saying  ‘I want a simple cake’, ‘I want a white cake’, ‘I just want a cake with ribbon on’. It doesn’t seem to register that if I can make an ornate display cake that I would also be equally able to make a simple one.  I am hoping that over time, as the popularity of cake decorating continues to increase and TV shows popularise the craft, peoples mindset will begin to accept these things more easily. 

At the moment I am trying to address my work life balance so next year things are a easier. The first stage is to do a bit of work on the current website to remove the cookies and sweets completely and sell cakes only.  Stage 2 is re-branding the business with a new subsidiary name and concentrating on aspects of the business that I enjoy and that stand the best chance of getting me to where I would like to be (making higher end cakes as well as doing more demonstrations, tutorials and making sugar craft products like specialist moulds). The aim of this is to give myself back some free time which can be lacking currently.

My business story is not all doom and gloom, I found success and a sense of personal achievement in the fact that my work itself has being recognised globally. This is my list personal achievements that have not generated income but in themselves do stand for something:
-I have been invited to contribute to Cake Central Magazine 4 times (I think from the fact that a few of my cakes I uploaded to their site ranked highly with people), this was great fun.
-I regularly get my work published in local bridal magazines and Squires Kitchen magazine ‘Wedding Cakes a design Source’
-I work with other wedding suppliers and lend out my cakes dummies regularly to bridal shops or for photoshoots.
-Demoing for the British Sugarcraft Guild and writing tutorials in by blog -Social Media, others liking and sharing your work
-Getting ‘gold’ awards in Cake International in the wedding cakes class and getting a 3rd place in the Wedding cakes class London 2014.  Entering competitions is a great way to challenge yourself, learn and get your work out there for people to see.
-Being selected as a finalist in a local wedding award in the wedding cakes group. Nothing to lose entering these sort of things especially if you can self-nominate and it does help raising your local profile if potential customers and other wedding suppliers can see you were a finalist of winner.

I did find one thing that pays -I have written a couple of tutorials for Cake Craft and Decoration Magazine in 2014 which was an amazing experience and hard but rewarding work.

Through the British Sugarcraft Guild I am on the list to go on their ‘accredited trainer’ course to become an official demonstrator for them.  This means that I can travel to other branches, demonstrate and get paid for it.  In the meantime I donate and will continue to donate my time for regional and local events demonstrations as this is something I really enjoy doing.  Joining a local sugarcraft group is another great way to meet like-minded people who you can support and who will do the same for you.  Eventually I think it would be a good idea to approach some businesses that do cake courses to see about guest tutoring for them on an ad-hoc basis if they will have me of course!

Fortunately I enjoy my job that provides that much needed income so I believe long term that doing both jobs is the way forward.  I have learned so many lessons from running my own business that I could not learn or appreciate from doing a corporate job, the main ones being that you have to work long hours sometimes to meet deadlines, making your own money is not easy and cake decorating generates so much washing up, more than I thought was possible! Also, sadly, just because you have a talent for something doesn’t mean you can turn it into a profitable business even if you think you are trying really hard!

If I could give you the gift of an hour of time with any 3 people – cake decorators, business mentors, other business owners (anyone at all really) who you would love to get some mentoring from, who would those people be – and what would you ask them?  (As an example, you might want an hour with Mike McCarey to learn sculpture, an hour with Martha Stewart, an hour at the Callebaut chocolate school, an hour with Richard Branson and so on.)

Eddie Spence – the master of Royal Icing, I would love to pick up a few tips from him on pressure piping.  Having been lucky enough to chat to him in person once when he was judging me in a competition he is so sweet and encouraging it would mean a lot to me to be taught by him.

Christine Craig from La lavande Cake Boutique.  This woman has magic hands, if you don’t believe me go over to her Facebook page and check out her sugar flowers. I would very much like to learn and watch her make sugar roses, she takes the standard up to a level that I have not seen before!

Lizzo Marek of the Artisan Cake Company.  I admire her all round talent and business acumen. She has found ways to generate income that work and I could definitely benefit from any advice she could offer.

Lastly – give me a challenge! How can I help you? What would you like me to write about that would be of help to you in specific?

I would like to attract more customers who want the higher end cakes which probably means trying to get orders from further away like London.  I am happy to deliver the cakes further away as even with delivery charges my cakes are still very reasonably priced and therefore able to compete with their local bakeries.  I don’t have further plans for doing this yet (apart from re-branding) as I have tried doing wedding fayres further from home (e.g. up to 1.5hours away) but had zero luck in securing any clients.  I get the concept  from watching a CakeFu training that I may need to start approaching more event planners and venues in those areas but I don’t know how I should go about doing that in an effective manner.  Do I call them, send an email or post, do I send samples?

Michelle: Firstly Tasha, congratulations on your achievements thus far. You’ve managed quite a lot in a relatively short time and you should be really proud of that. The thing that struck me about your replies is that there is SO MUCH going on there, that I think your initial issue was a lack of focus. All sorts of different products, a company name that didn’t match the direction you wanted to go in, putting things for sale online then taking them off (and so on.) A lot of throwing balls around and hoping one might stick! The GREAT news is, I think you’ve not got some clarity about what you want your business to be, so you can take a big ol’ deep breath and now move forward in that direction. I think making that choice was probably one of the harder things to do.

I think re-branding the business is a wise move, as is putting up photos of only those cakes you would like to do (in terms of style and cost.)  I noticed on your website that there are some stunning pieces mixed in with simpler ones, so one thing when you re-design would be to categorise those, something like “elegant wedding cakes,” “couture wedding cakes” “colourful wedding cakes” and so on (or whatever categories you like.)  I also think the tone of your social media needs to change. Your work is completely AMAZING but you’re not showing off those showstopper wedding cakes enough – as an example on FB your banner pic is stunning cakes, but your last several posts are lovely work, but not in that same league. It’s a little confusing.

Personally I think the wedding events are terrible for return – as you experienced several times! A lot of those events seem to be people picking up ideas and free samples, but then still shopping around. I know the costs to attend those fairs can be quite high,too, and if you’re not seeing a return then I don’t think it’s worth continuing to invest. I would highly recommend hitting the street and doing some one-on-one networking. Absolutely, directly approach venues of the calibre that will have people ordering cakes of your style. Create a simple but beautiful brochure showing what you do and the pertinent information. See if you can get onto their preferred suppliers’ lists. I would make a list of as many venues as possible in a given area. Get on the phone and call them, and offer to pop in with some samples. Try to book in several in one day (especially as it’s far away) so you can pack up the car with the samples and brochures and meet a number of venues in one day (just don’t tell them that you’re doing it. Everyone wants to feel like you went their especially for them.) Also, FOLLOW UP with those guys every few months so they keep you top of mind. Networking is something done over a longer period of time as you build the relationships up.

I’d also look into teaming up with other vendors like photographers and cake people, and if there are bridal clothing shops in your area (or surrounds), see if they would like a beautiful cake on display and if they will give out your brochure to people who ask about the display. In short, I’d be spending my time and money on very concentrated networking – get to the people who TALK to these brides rather than only trying to get to the brides themselves.  

Tasha, I think you’ve got to just exhale for a minute, then take a deep breath, and then plan well for a re-launch of your business. You’ve got all the right elements there, you just need to re-focus things to start getting the clientele you’re after.  Your big fat dream goal was, “…to be able to inspire, be in demand to train others in the craft and generate orders for higher end cakes” and you already do 2 of those so we just need to work on the third. 
Okay readers – over to you! Please comment below with some love, suggestions, help, sympathy, (or whatever you’ve got) for Tasha. 

We’re in this together.

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