While contemplating paths in the cookie world, a Cookie Connection member recently commented in one of our forums about the seemingly endless choices for cookie expression. Should she blog? Expand her for-profit cookie business? Teach classes? Try to do it all? Or distinguish herself in a completely new niche?
Whether seasoned or just starting out, many of us grapple with these same questions. After all, making a choice means taking a leap faith. A considerable amount of courage and work is required to clear a new path and pave it into a road to personal success. The rewards can be high, but there are always the risks . . . opportunities forgone, money lost, time poorly spent . . . It takes a daring cookier to boldly leap into the unknown and carve out a distinctive sphere in cookie space.
This is why I’m so fascinated with the subject of our next Cookier Closeup, Marlyn Birmingham of Montreal Confections. She’s exactly this kind of cookier!
You see, Marlyn was one of the first decorators to venture into cookie expression on YouTube. In January 2012, she started her channel, also called Montreal Confections, and now, a mere two years later, it is home to nearly 29,000 subscribers and 190 delicious cookie, cupcake, and cake tutorials. Through her videos, like the recent one about how to turn a Christmas cookie into a toy (below), she’s become widely recognized for her clever yet doable cookie designs. (More cases in point: her paint palette and gender reveal cookies, also below!)
In this Cookier Closeup, we’ll cover the usuals – how Marlyn got started in decorating, her typical day, etc. – but we’ll also explore why she chose YouTube as her cookie platform and what it takes to be a successful videopreneur.
So let’s get started, OK?
JMU: Hi, Marlyn. I’m so pleased that you’ve agreed to share your unique path with Cookie Connection members. Thank you!
I know you’re more than a cookie decorator – you also play in cakes and cupcakes. And in addition to your videos, you sometimes take customer orders. Is this right? How did you develop your interest in and aptitude for decorating all things sweet? How long have you been operating in the world of sweets?
MB: Once upon a time I did take orders, but with the success of my YouTube channel, I no longer have the time or inclination. I began baking when my first child started school. I would bake for her little parties and bake sales. This is where I saw, from people’s reactions, that what came easily to me wasn’t easy for everyone.
JMU: When did you decide to parlay this aptitude into a business? And which came first – selling sweets or teaching how to make them?
MB: I started taking orders in 2008. I had been looking for a way to earn a little extra money and so I built a webpage with Yahoo, posted a few photos, and it wasn’t long before I was turning people away. Baking is hard work and, before I knew it, I was burnt out and couldn’t stand the sight of my mixer anymore. I needed to find my way back; I couldn’t understand how I could hate something that had brought me such fulfillment. That is how I found my way onto YouTube.
JMU: Well, I found you on YouTube through your lovely peacock cookies (below). I loved that tutorial, and still do!
From your videos, it seems as if you have a special fondness for decorated cookies. Is this fair to say? And if so, what draws you to decorated cookies more so than cakes or cupcakes?
MB: You are right, my preference is to decorate cookies. With simple royal icing and a piping tip, you can achieve such amazing results. I love working with them.
JMU: Some people teach through written tutorials; others through in-person classes. But you’ve carved out a teaching niche in the video world, specifically on YouTube. Why did you choose video as your medium for cookie expression?
MB: When I started thinking about making tutorials, there were already many successful blogs on the topic. I needed to find a way to compete with the teachers whom people had grown to know and love. I had previously posted a very primitive video for my friends who wanted to see a wet-on-wet technique. The video quickly reached 10,000 views and so I figured I’d give YouTube a shot.
JMU: Wow, that's an amazing trajectory for one video! A corollary to my last question: why did you choose YouTube as your video marketing/distribution vehicle, as opposed to selling DVDs or choosing another platform like Vimeo or Craftsy?
MB: A positive about YouTube is that you have little to no expenses. If I had to hire a camera person and a video editor, the channel would not be sustainable and I would be unable to cover all my costs. As for a CD or Craftsy, the same applies; you need to produce a certain level of quality to justify charging people for these tutorials. On YouTube, people are getting their lessons for free, so they are much more forgiving about bad lighting or less than perfect editing.
JMU: Can you briefly describe the process you go through to conceive of, shoot, and edit your videos? For instance, do you fully script out what you’ll say? Do you shoot and edit everything yourself, or do you have help with any aspects of the production?
MB: I take care of every aspect of my videos from designing the projects to filming and editing. I start by researching what is already on YouTube. I proceed with an idea only if I don’t find an existing video. I don’t script anything. I try to talk naturally as if the people watching were sitting there with me.
JMU: Can you describe your video/editing setup, i.e., the cameras, lighting, editing suite, and other equipment or tools you rely on to get your terrific results?
MB: I have a somewhat primitive setup. My camera is on a tripod, angled down towards my hands, in order to film what I am working on. I don’t use any fancy lighting. I just film during the day using my photo camera on video mode. You will rarely see me on a video since it is difficult to film oneself while working on a project! My largest investment to date was the purchase of an Apple computer which has made video editing much easier. Their iMovie program is fast and easy to use.
JMU: What’s your typical work week look like? Specifically, how much time do you spend producing videos versus doing other cookie work or other things?
MB: I have no set work schedule, but YouTube pros do suggest that you establish a programming schedule and stick to it, so I post every Tuesday and Friday. I have some weeks that are more productive than others, but I try to make at least two videos per week. The extra videos completed during my productive weeks are for those weeks where I’m uninspired or busy with my family.
JMU: What would you say to cookiers who are aspiring to get into the business of making video tutorials? That is, how do you measure the success of one of your video tutorials? Are there certain features that a video tutorial must have in order to be most successful?
MB: I don’t know that you could call it a business right away since it does take a while to develop a loyal subscriber base. I can’t say there is a set rule on YouTube since so many people are watching from all over the world, each with their own preferences. I do think that being original is important for success though. For me, it has been a lot of trial and error, trying to find my place in this new online world.
JMU: And are there certain features that a YouTube channel must have in order to be successful, i.e., well subscribed and regularly watched?
MB: Having many subscribers is nice but you get paid with views. The more views you get, the more successful you will be.
JMU: None of us wants to spend more than is needed to start a new business. Why assume the added risk, right? That said, what, in your opinion, is the minimum investment one should make in equipment or training in order to ensure a successful startup of a YouTube channel/video tutorial business?
MB: All you should invest in the beginning is your time, since there is no guarantee it will work. If you plan to teach cake or cookie decorating, you should already have all you need, such as the cake and cookie tools and a camera. Most cameras come with video editing software that should suffice to edit your first videos.
JMU: What would you say to cookiers who want to make money with their video tutorials? Is it possible to earn a living making decorating videos and doing nothing else? What sort of scale (number of subscribers or views) is needed in order to expect a reasonable return from advertising?
MB: It can take a while before you see a decent salary. Thankfully, I don’t solely measure my success by my revenue, but also by the letters and feedback I receive from all over the world. I especially love hearing from women thanking me for sharing my knowledge and giving them the opportunity to supplement their family’s income. It is pretty gratifying to know I have impacted a person in such a positive way.
JMU: I’ve noticed recently that you’re experimenting with different layouts and looks for your tutorials. Is this an indicator that you’re taking a new direction with Montreal Confections, or your video tutorials?
MB: I am always researching and trying to make my videos better, so the new layout was a test to see what the viewers wanted. [EDITOR'S NOTE: The trial layout allowed viewers to skip quickly to different parts of the video by clicking on embedded buttons.] I have viewers at all decorating levels. Some get the idea after a few seconds; others may want to watch a section more than once. The feedback to date regarding the new layout was mixed. I will make the buttons smaller and leave them on for a few more videos before I decide if they are staying or not.
JMU: You’ve charmed the cookie world with hundreds of videos. What or who allows you to keep up this breakneck pace? Will you continue along this path for the next few years, or are there other exciting plans in the works for you and Montreal Confections?
MB: The truth is that my husband has given me the opportunity to do this. If I needed to have another job that paid the bills while I grew my channel, it would be impossible to keep up this schedule. He saw how unhappy I had become taking orders and so we agreed that I would transition my baking business to YouTube. His support and encouragement allow me the freedom to do what I love without the pressure of immediate financial results.
Cookie Photo and Video Credits: Copyright Montreal Confections
Cookier Close-ups is the place on Cookie Connection where we celebrate the change-makers of the cookie decorating world. Whether forging new enterprises, inventing novel decorating techniques, or consistently charming us with their cookie decorating prowess, each of our featured thought leaders has redefined in his/her distinctive way how we interact, create, or otherwise do business here in cookie space!
If there are other cookiers you'd really like to get to know, please post requests in this forum. We'll do our best to round them up for an upcoming Cookier Close-up! Thanks!