I don’t know about you, but I have faced many challenges in my lifetime, the biggest of which knocked me down so hard I thought I would never survive. Oddly enough, it was through that challenge that I found my true calling and built a small cookie business that is successful beyond what I ever thought possible.
I started my cookie business in 2008, from my home with 800 dollars. By my second year, I barely broke even. My business nearly quadrupled during my third year, bringing me from approximately seven to about 28 orders per week. And last year, I averaged about 47 orders per week.
Admittedly, I am an optimist, but if you had told me ten years ago that I would be able to build a cookie business from my home, doing what I am absolutely passionate about and grossing six figures into my fifth year in business, I would have certainly told you, "You are NUTS!"
By no means did these results come without much hard work, many long hours, adding a candy line to my cookie business, and other sacrifices that we will get into in future blog posts. But it is my belief that similar results are possible for you as well, if this is what you wish to accomplish.
2007 was an insane year for me, as for so many Americans, because of both the economy and a handful of personal challenges. I was in the midst of a devastating divorce; my mother, who was my best friend, had died after a bout with Alzheimer’s Disease; and I had just sold off my interests in a lucrative mortgage business I co-founded for much less than I felt I deserved.
I was left with a huge mortgage and car payment, and a three-year-old son and 76-year-old father to care for. I was emotionally devastated, and things just continued to get worse until they hit critical mass in August 2008, when every stream of income that I depended on dried up.
I can’t remember exactly when the idea hit, but it was certainly at a moment when I was so low that I felt I could hardly breathe. I kept asking myself: How can I make money from home? What am I good at that people want? How can I use my creativity and skill set so that it benefits others and myself?
Cookie/Photo Credit: Aymee VanDyke
The immediate answer that popped up for me was: I will bake cookies! At that moment, I thought it would be a breeze because I have always felt comfortable in the kitchen. You see, my parents owned a catering business and a couple of restaurants when I was a child. My grandfather was a chef, so cooking and baking were natural choices for me.
What I did not realize at the time I got started were the challenges I would face as far as improving my decorating skills, building a client base, and finding a forum where my cookies would reach a wide audience.
Cookie/Photo Credit: Aymee VanDyke
During my first year of business school, I learned about the concept of creative destruction in capitalist society. Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian American economist and political scientist, coined the term. Basically what it means is that, when certain sectors in an economy are destroyed, others will naturally grow as a result, and that is exactly what we are living at the current moment.
Since the economic crash of 2008, the number of cottage food businesses has grown in the United States, which has, in turn, given rise to the cookiepreneur. How many people do you know who are selling baked goods out of their homes and at farmers' markets?
When I sought estimated annual figures for the cottage food industry, I found it difficult to come up with a national number. This was not surprising to me considering the overall lack of state regulation and current number of businesses that are operating under the radar, so to speak.
However, due to the increasing number of states passing cottage food legislation, I would hazard an educated guess that we will begin to see good, solid figures on cottage food industry size in the near future.
(I thought it worth mentioning that, even though I do not have solid market figures, there is clearly a growing supply of cottage food businesses and products as reflected in the recent push for cottage food legislature to be passed in a number of states.)
Taking the Leap
I have spoken to so many women who have started their businesses out of a need to either survive financially or to contribute to their spouse’s income. I have also spoken to other ladies who started their business out of massive inspiration and the encouragement of loved ones.
One of these extraordinary ladies is Shannon Harman the owner of The Sweet Shop Cookie Company. Her mother was also her best friend, and her passing prompted Shannon to pursue her dreams of using her talent to build a successful cookie business.
Shannon is a force of nature, and her store can be found on Etsy. She has built an amazing business where she has consistent demand for 20 dozen-plus cookie orders per week. I recently asked her a bit about her business and how she got into it, and here is what she told me:
AVD: Shannon, how were you first introduced to baking/decorating cookies?
SH: I can remember as a young girl always baking with my mom and grandma. We were always baking cakes, pies, and cookies. Every meal ended with a yummy dessert.
AVD: When did it become obvious to you that decorating was a passion of yours?
SH: I always loved baking. I discovered after years of baking Christmas cookies that it just wasn’t enough. Cookies had to be for more than just Christmas. I was soon the cookie lady for every occasion. I have heard people say, “You just know when you are meant to do something." This is so true! I felt it in my heart that one day I would own my own bakery.
AVD: At what point did you decide that you would turn your passion into a business?
SH: My mom urged me to take the step towards my own cookie company. I kept saying, “I’ll do it one day." Three years ago my mom passed away and, in memory of her, I decided to give it a try. This was what she wanted for me. I am thankful because here I am today as the owner and lead decorator of The Sweet Shop Cookie Company.
AVD: Tell me a bit about your self confidence and your level of expertise at the time that you decided to do this professionally. What was the process? Were you incredibly confident or did you have concerns about your readiness to start the business?
SH: I am such a perfectionist. When you are baking for your family, you can say, “They are good enough." When you are baking for a customer, it’s different. I remember, when I first began, I would stress over every single cookie. They would take forever! To me, they were good, but never good enough. Over time, I did a lot of research. I created a lot of practice cookies (which my husband is thankful for). I am finally to the point where I am very confident with my product. Through trial and error, you learn what works. And when a customer raves over your product, you know you must be doing something right.
AVD: What is your favorite part of running your own business?
SH: My favorite part is being my own boss and working my own hours. I have the freedom to take a few hours during the day to go to lunch or a movie with my husband. It’s nice to know I am not on a set schedule.
Cookie/Photo Credit: Shannon Harman
AVD: Which is your favorite part of the cookie business and why?
SH: I love to talk to people about cookies. I love that they come to me to create something special for their special occasions.
AVD: And your least favorite and why?
SH: Decorated cutout cookies take time. They are not something you whip together in minutes. Sometimes it gets overwhelming. I would be lying if I said I’ve never had to step back and regroup. I do this from time to time.
AVD: What has been your biggest challenge thus far?
SH: It doesn’t happen often, but cookies do get broken in the mail. It’s very frustrating when you put time and effort into creating something amazing and the mail shatters them. It’s so sad.
Cookie/Photo Credit: Shannon Harman
AVD: And your greatest reward?
SH: Feedback from my wonderful customers. When I hear them say that the cookies were wonderful and they really added to the event, it makes all the hard work worth it!
AVD: What would be your best advice to women (or men) who want to start baking businesses at home by turning their hobby/passion into a business?
SH: Go for it! If you love baking, why not give it a try? I have grown so much over the past three years. I recently looked at cookies from when I first began. Boy, have I learned so much! Practice makes perfect! If owning your own cookie business has been your dream, only you can make your dream a reality.
When I asked Shannon about her overall vision for her company, she responded, "My vision for my company is to create not only uniquely designed cookies but ones that are absolutely delicious. I want my customers to be wowed when they look at the cookies and double-wowed when they taste them."
She also went on to tell me that she is going to concentrate on expanding her client base in the next year. Her three- to five-year plans include having her own brick-and-mortar bakery where she will expand into drop cookies, cupcakes, and cakes.
So there you have it! Sounds to me like Shannon has a clear vision for what she wants. I wish her the best of luck with her lovely shop.
No matter what your inspiration or motivation, it’s a new day filled with opportunity for the aspiring cookiepreneur.
He Who Works Hard Gets Lucky
Now I don’t know who you are or where you live, but what I can tell you is that there is nothing you cannot accomplish with hard work and dedication. I have spent hours on Cookie Connection, and I have seen your work. I have to say, honestly, that I am in awe of your creativity and talent.
Unlike Shannon, I admittedly was not a perfectionist when I started and am still not the greatest cookie decorator who ever existed. In fact, when it comes to decorating, my designs are not spectacular compared to many of yours.
I have made a very calculated business decision not to sell very intricate cookies that take days to create. It was a difficult decision, but one of the trade-offs I made in order to make my business profitable - and I make no bones about sharing this information. After all, we are talking business here.
If you are wondering what it takes to build a cottage cookie business and make a profit, let me just say: you don’t have to be the most skilled or experienced decorator in the world, but you do need to have a consistently executed product formulated with great ingredients, a solid business formula, encyclopedic knowledge of your customer base, a good bit of determination, an impeccable work ethic, and nothing short of the psychological resiliency of a world class athlete. These things, along with good, practical advice, will surely help you navigate your way to success.
There are many challenges that you will face as a cookiepreneur. If your decorating skills are already there (mine were not), you are off to a great start. But as you will soon find out, it takes much more than just being a talented decorator and baker to turn a profit in this business.
You will have to learn the nature of the business and to deal with the fact that no matter how prepared you are, you will be thrown curve balls. You need to have the emotional dexterity to handle, learn, and even grow from them.
Although the purpose of this blog is to encourage you to build your own business, some of you will inevitably find that the business of cookies is not for you, and perhaps you will just continue to do it as a hobby.
What I hope to achieve though this blog is to provide you with the necessary tools so that you can create your own formula for success as a cookiepreneur.
I will take a two-pronged approach with this blog. The first will consist of the mechanics and the second will be mindset.
The mechanics part will include technical and practical information and advice on how to build a successful cottage sweets business, such as how to create a clear vision for the kind of a business (volume) you wish to generate, how to build a costing model for your products, basic business planning, licensing, food safety, branding, and more.
The second prong, which is mindset, is my strongest area of expertise and carries just as much weight as the mechanics, if not more. It's aimed at helping you achieve the attitude of a winning entrepreneur.
For many years, I have made it my business to study the habits and philosophies of the world’s most successful men and women. What I have learned from both my personal experience and the masters I've studied is that mindset most often determines whether a business succeeds or fails.
You can have the most impeccable business plan and abundant capital and human resources, but if you do not have the proper mindset to deal with the day-to-day challenges, along with the inevitable defeats, your business can eventually fail.
Being an entrepreneur means hard work, thick skin, patience, dedication to a quality product, flexibility, passion, and commitment. In short, success comes with a price tag, but the rewards are much more than the monetary remuneration. A great sense of pride and personal achievement comes from building a successful small business.
In the coming months, I aim to provide you with a wealth of information, not only from my perspective, but from many other cookiepreneurs who own and operate successful cottage food businesses.
We will discuss what they are doing right, as well as the mistakes we have all made, so you can draw from those experiences and create your own recipe for success.
What’s Your Story?
I would love to hear your story. How did you get into the business of cookies? If you are an aspiring cookiepreneur, tell me what your inspiration/motivation is to do this. As Julia had mentioned in her introduction, I expect reader participation! After all, this blog is all about and for you.
My definition of success is being paid to use your gifts and do what you absolutely love. I look forward to our journey together and hearing your stories of success in cookiepreneurship.
Until next time, always remember: the ultimate key to success is persistence! Never give up, never! [EDITOR'S NOTE: Keep reading to learn more about Aymee and the challenge mentioned in this post's title.]
Aymee VanDyke, also known as Cookiepreneur, is a successful entrepreneur and business consultant whose main focus is to help women in the cottage food industry build profitable and rewarding businesses. She is the founder and owner of Cookiepreneur and The Wacky Cookie Company, a four-year-old cottage/commercial cookie business that has operated in the black for most of its existence. Aymee has an extensive background in personal development and attended the Norwegian School of Business in Oslo. Her articles have been published in BISSI, the magazine of the Norwegian School of Business, and Somos Magazine.
Photo credit: Aymee VanDyke
Note: This column, which has yet to be named, is a regular Cookie Connection blog feature that provides business planning, marketing, and other tips for starting a cottage cookie business and taking it to the next level. Its content expresses the views of the author and interviewees, and not necessarily those of this site, its owners, its administrators, or its employees.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: NOW FOR THE CHALLENGE! HELP US NAME AYMEE'S COLUMN by posting a pithy title, along with any other remarks you might have for Aymee, in the comments area below. Aymee and I will choose the winning title before her next article is posted in about a month. And that's not all: the winner will receive a free copy of Julia's cookie decorating DVD!]