Reality Bites: An Interview with Faye Cahill

I’m having a fabulous time interviewing some amazing cake makers – not only am I getting the chance to introduce myself to some wonderful people with a lot of knowledge to share, I’m also learning something along the way. We all like to know how everyone else does things, don’t we? For my part it’s less about how they do it, and more about what their experience can teach me as a business owner. I’ve learned a lot (and enjoyed the sneak peak into their lives) by doing this interview series. A big THANKS to those who have participated thus far and to those of you who continue to read this series.

Today’s interviewee is Faye Cahill. Thanks Faye for taking the time to be interviewed, especially as you head into the wedding season which I know must be incredibly crazy for you.

Faye probably needs no introduction, as her elegant, clean style is well known on an international level. Her business Faye Cahill Cake Design has become one of Sydney’s premier wedding cake companies (although she has been known to do cakes for kids as well.) Her signature style of clean lines, using metallic accents and beautiful large feature flowers are truly stunning and well worth a look if you haven’t done so already. I heard about Faye several years ago as she has been in this business quite a while and has developed quite a following.  Some years ago I also did a class at her original studio and I found myself wondering how she managed such incredible creations in such a small space! She’s since moved to bigger premises and continues to grow her business while she grows her family as well – something many of us can relate to! 

1) Tell us a little about your story of success. How did you end up owning a cake studio, and what’s in store for the future?

Wow- that’s a long story… I’ve been doing cakes forever!

I fell into cakes very early on after working behind the counter in cake shops while doing my art degree. I landed a job at Sweet Art in the early 90’s with very little experience. I met Margie Carter there and we later started Planet Cake and ran it for about 8 years before selling. Faye Cahill Cake Design is my first fully solo business and and I started it with a solid idea of what my strengths are and the direction I would steer the business. My history was always in commercial studios and until I started this business, I didn’t keep a single tool or supply at home.  I’m happy to say I’ve been able to fund my entire set up from cake revenue and have build a solid business with wide exposure. My current level of cake production is what I think works for a boutique product, I have no plans to grow that part of the business any larger. I will be doing more tutorials, continuing classes and have a couple of exciting new projects currently under wraps.
2) You’ve recently dipped your toe in the technique sharing water by releasing a tutorial. How did that come about – and what are your thoughts on sharing in general?

Sharing has been a difficult issue for me to get my head around!  I don’t think there is any problem at all with finding a point of difference from your competition and looking to stand out from the crowd. My position of keeping a few things to myself has less to do with thinking I’m a genius and more to do with looking out for things that might negatively impact my business and brand. When the whole explosion of classes happened, there was a lot of talk about market saturation and competitive undercutting. I don’t have anything other than cakes to fall back on and I need to look after my staff and pay the bills.

Having said that, my business has grown through that whole period and although secondary to cake production, I’ve always offered a range of decorating classes to share much of what we practice. With the onset of online learning, I’m keen to put my own name on techniques that I’ve pioneered or made popular and to promote my work in a worldwide market. I REALLY enjoyed making the first tutorial and have no shortage of ideas for more. The challenge is always in finding the time to do them!

I’m happy to respect that people have different views on this issue and are at different places in their career than I am.
It seems to be a fraught area and I’m reluctant to weigh in, but I also think there needs to be better information in the public realm.
Any basic business course will tell you to find a point of difference from your competition in order to promote your work. My strong selling point is my designs and I’ve worked incredibly hard over a long period to develop my style and offer something new and different. I don’t need or expect that every instance of borrowing an element from my work has to be credited but I also don’t expect a direct competitor to take freely and often and promote work that’s incredibly similar to mine as their own. There have been some serious and concerning issues that I’ve had to face in this area. 
It’s part of my job as a business owner to look out for misuse or misappropriation of our designs. I’m not a design diva, I just have staff to look after and bills to pay. Many of the instances I see of cakes being influenced by mine are not a major concern, but a few particular issues have upset me greatly. At the end of the day, it’s very hard to stop it happening and I prefer to try and look at it from a positive angle- I would say it definitely keeps me on my toes and I’m always aiming to innovate and stay ahead.  I would definitely encourage other cake artists to find their own unique style. Not only has it been great for my business, it’s also personally rewarding and makes my work enjoyable. 
Copying is clearly an issue that brings up strong opinions in people and I’m happy anytime good, solid information is presented out there. The whole reason we are having a problem in the first place is a good one- our industry has evolved to a new level of professionalism and high art. We want our work to be taken seriously and to be paid what we deserve. I think it’s professionally responsible to comply with our legal structure and that includes copyright and Intellectual property law. I have had advice around intellectual property and I use it to inform my own choices around copying. 

 3) Looking back over your experience from novice to professional, what’s the single most scary thing you ever had to do as a cake maker? (eg moving premises? giving up a day job?)
Nothing can compare to the stress of setting up a compliant food premises and I’ve done it twice now! I made the move into a small studio with affordable rent as a first move out of home and now we are settled in our permanent larger studio which we live upstairs from. I’m sure anyone who has renovated can relate to the stress of those building “surprises” and unexpected expenses.
4) You get approached by a hobby baker who wants some business advice from you. What’s your ‘Top Tip’ for people just starting out?

Nothing is more important than finding and supporting a network in your industry. For me it’s weddings, but it may be kids party vendors, corporate or whatever. Sometimes cakes can come at the end of the planning process, so we may not be able to refer on as much work as for example a venue would be able to give to us, but I still see a lot of clients who might still be looking for a florist, decorator, invitation or favours. Even when you can’t refer, you can always support like-minded businesses by commenting on their posts, sharing their work and giving advice and encouragement.

5) If you could start your business TODAY, what – if anything – would you do differently?

Oh, that’s hard! I would not want to go through all the hard work of starting from scratch again! Although I’ve made tons of mistakes, I’ve also had lots of luck and I can’t think of too many really major things. I’ve always done too much myself instead of getting help and I would definitely only want to go through one premises set up, not two. Maybe I’d stay at home longer and use the money I saved to get more help and work less hours.

6) Tell us either your greatest cake triumph OR your greatest cake disaster and how you handled either of those. 🙂 

Oh my gosh, so many cakes, it’s all a blur really. There have been plenty of triumphs and plenty of near misses. I can’t say I’ve had complete disasters because I’ve always been able to deliver the cake but some things have gone wrong that have felt pretty disastrous at the time. I think my biggest success has been introducing the use of edible silver and gold leaf as a cake finish, and seeing the influence of my work on other decorators. I feel like I’ve had a great track record from even my early days at Sweet Art of designing cakes that become “hits”.  I’ve never minded re-creating the same design once it becomes popular but I also feel that the only way to stay on top and to still feel engaged and inspired by what I do is to try to continue to innovate, push boundaries and keep up with trends.

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