Welcome to out first Cookier Close-up!
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!
For this premier issue of Cookier Close-ups, it seems fitting then that we showcase two of the industry’s earliest online pioneers, Karen and Mike Summers, partners both in life and the business of karenscookies.net.
Way back in 2001 when most of us were transfixed by the emerging cupcake fad, this husband-and-wife team had the foresight to launch Karen’s Cookies, a cookie decorating instructional site. Since then, the business has grown and evolved as cookie decorating has come into its own. In 2007, Karen and Mike revamped their site and added an extensive array of cookie decorating tools and other products; and in 2012, they introduced the cookie community to the world’s first cookie art convention and show, CookieCon! Yep, they’re one dynamic duo!
I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Karen and Mike (separately, I should add) to discuss their experiences as forerunners in the online cookie business, where cookie decorating is headed, and how they see their business evolving in the years to come. Here’s what she and he said, without the benefit of knowing what the other said!
JMU: I’d love to understand how you had the prescience to start a cookie business in 2001 when most bakers and decorators were fully occupied with cakes or cupcakes, the darlings of that time. Whose idea was it to start the business? And why cookies and not some other sweet?
She Said: I had decorated both cookies and cakes professionally for several years, but in 2001 I had just finished a two-year stint as a cake decorator. After doing up to six wedding cakes a weekend and countless cakes during the week, I was tired and burnt out on cakes! I wanted to go back to my cookie decorating roots, because I always enjoyed the creative process of cookies more than cakes. People seemed much more interested in the fact that I had been a professional cookie decorator than a cake decorator. I rarely had anyone ask me to teach them cake decorating, but was being asked constantly how to decorate cookies. Although I wish I could say I had some great foresight, I was really just filling a demand that I saw emerging.
He Said: Well, Karen had been a decorator of cakes and cookies professionally over a number of years and for different bakeries. She loved doing cookies especially. A small fun-shaped cookie is just such a more inviting canvas than a large cake. So she decorated quite a bit outside of work as well. All the while I had been a web designer and developer, so the idea of shooting a few pictures of her cookies and doing some online tutorials was just a natural step. Between the two of us we had all the know-how and have always enjoyed working on projects together. A lot of positive feedback and gratitude for sharing the information just fueled us to keep it going.
JMU: I’ve read that Karen is the creative genius behind the business, whereas you, Mike, are the tech guru. How else are you similar or different in your approaches to running the business? BTW, feel free to refute my first statement. Mike, you get to go first this time!
He Said: Ha! Well, I'd say Karen is a genius AND guru – I just happen to have some tech experience that I'm happy to lend to her pursuits.
She Said: I really think we go back and forth being the creative force behind Karen's Cookies. It seems like whenever I'm feeling like I'm in a creative rut, Mike steps up and gets some new ideas flowing, and vice versa. Mike is actually more creative than I am in many ways. CookieCon is a great example of this. Most of the little details that people thought were my ideas were actually Mike's. He is an out-of-the-box thinker, and comes up with ideas I would have never thought of. As far as the technical, website stuff . . . yeah, that's all Mike!!
JMU: Can you briefly describe your typical day at work to give readers a clearer idea of what it takes to keep Karen’s Cookies thriving?
She Said: I work a lot from home these days. Mike takes care of the day-to-day packing and shipping, along with our two employees, and I do what I can from home. That will probably change in the fall when our baby goes to kindergarten! I'm sure I'll be spending more time back at the shop. On busy days, we have a playroom for Molly (our youngest). She hangs out, and we fall into our regular roles. Mike packs boxes about 10 times faster than I do, so he does the packing and I print shipping labels. On our busiest days (Mondays, usually!) it takes all day just to ship the orders, with four people working at it. On the slower days, I can work on ordering product and answering emails from home.
He Said: Well, the “typical” day unfortunately might not sound too exciting. We print out orders, pack them up, send them off, re-order new stuff, answer emails – then repeat the next day. We do have some different projects here and there, such as developing new content for the site, finding new products, etc. And of course, planning and carrying out things like CookieCon is a ton of fun. Another thing that really makes it awesome is feedback from people who appreciate our site and store. We love hearing from people who are happy with their experience with Karen's Cookies. It's funny, people meet me and ask what I “do." I don't know that I really have a proper title so I just say, “My wife and I have an online store.” I am just not sure what people think of that – but I state it proudly as there isn't any other occupation I'd rather have.
JMU: What are the best (and worst) parts of running a cookie business with your spouse? What advice would you give our readers who might be considering a business venture with their life partner?
He Said: As I mentioned, we really do enjoy working on things together. I get that there are relationships where people have their together-time and they just need their apart-time too. That may work for some marriages, but you really have to enjoy LOTS of together-time if you're going to run a business with a spouse. I guess we're lucky that we're okay with lots of together-time.
She Said: The best part is being together. The worst part is that when we're really busy at work, our kids' parents are both busy at the same time. I feel extremely fortunate that we work so well together. We thrive on the creative aspect and really have the most fun together when we're working towards a big project like CookieCon or new cutters, etc. I think the best advice I can give for life partners working together is respect. Whether it be respecting your partner personally, his/her ideas, or his/her method of doing things, you'll be okay if there is understanding present. That, and a really good sense of humor is needed!
JMU: What has been the single biggest challenge you’ve encountered in growing your business? What has been your crowning achievement?
She Said: The biggest challenge for me has been growing the company. Growth is a wonderful, painful thing. It's a challenge to balance everything as it grows, but it's a good challenge. I think our crowning achievement is just the simple fact that we are doing what we love and supporting our family while doing it. That's satisfying.
He Said: Wow . . . there have indeed have been lots of challenges in growing. Hard to pinpoint one. Growing from just the two of us to having employees was quite a step, finding new suppliers, ordering in greater quantities, estimating popularity of products, shipping to more and more countries . . . yeah, hard to say what the biggest challenge has been. Crowning achievement? Man, I don't know. CookieCon was awesome for sure. I'd say pulling that off is something we're both very proud of. Of course it wasn't perfect, but bringing together that many decorators in one setting was a lot of fun!
JMU: A large part of your business relates to cookie decorating education and instruction. How, if at all, do you think advancements in technology or other changes in the cookie decorating world will affect future methods and practices used in decorating and culinary instruction? Will these changes cause you to re-think any aspects of your current business?
He Said: You know, we decided a long time ago that our general content, instruction, etc. was going to be geared to beginners. We wanted everything we've ever published and recorded to be approachable by someone with little to no experience. Yes, there are always going to be new techniques and methods, but I think we're pretty content helping beginners get going. There are plenty of very talented bloggers and such who are keeping up with trends and showing advanced stuff. The way I look at it: we're happy to let people graduate from some of the basics we offer and move on to some of the awesome material available from the cookie geniuses out there. We have heard from SO many people that they got their “start” from some of the material we offer, and then moved on to do amazing things. We're so grateful to have been some small part of their journey – and that's enough.
She Said: We live in a world that is constantly changing, and that applies to the cookie decorating world as well. One example is the 3-D printing technology that is changing the way cookie cutters are made. I've had several people ask me if we're worried about that and how it will affect our business. I'm not worried. We have the ability to change and adjust our business to the changes in technology. I think the trick is to keep thinking outside the box and be the innovators, not just follow the innovators.
JMU: You’ve clearly morphed your business over the years, adding products in 2007 and then making what most would consider a large (and courageous) leap into event planning and production with CookieCon in 2012. What is the driving force behind these changes? Is it one or the other of you, market-driven signals, gut instinct, or something else? How do you make decisions about when to expand into new lines of business?
She Said: It's Mike! He thrives on the creative process. As much as he loves packing all those boxes with yellow tissue paper, it would drive him crazy if that's all he were doing. As long as we are building something and working towards something, he can handle doing the mundane, day-to-day tasks. CookieCon was part gut instinct and part creative drive. For me, it just felt like the right step to take, and for Mike I think it was an outlet for his creativity. We definitely watch market shifts as well, and make decisions based on what customers are demanding. We love and listen to customer feedback.
He Said: It's funny, almost everything we've ever done sprouted from just a simple conversation that started with one of us saying “what if we . . .” In the case of CookieCon, that was Karen. I admit that I held back a bit. I remember saying, “Karen, do you know how much time that's going to take?” Of course, we're both so glad we pursued it.
And naturally we have a number of “what if we . . .” conversations that don't materialize – and probably shouldn't! For example, I started to develop a set of cookie cutters that would come with little strips of silicone tubing. (Stay with me here . . .) So what the end product would be is a 3-D standing cookie that is a functioning bobblehead figure! You'd have the over-sized head, the body, and a piece to make it stand upright. You would bake in the segment of silicone tubing as the neck, so it would actually bobble! I had prototype cutters made, rubber tubing I bought, and everything! But ultimately we figured it wouldn't fly. So now that I've published [this idea], someone can feel free to do it . . . just mention me when you're rich and famous for doing so! [Editor's Note: For the record, I am in love with the bobblehead idea!]
JMU: Do you feel that decorated cookies have the potential to be the next cupcake? Why or why not?
He Said: Honestly, I feel like decorated cookies are more like the next cake! Cupcakes kind of come and go a bit. There are people into cupcakes for the long haul, but not like cake decorators. We are always thrilled to associate with people that break into cookie decorating professionally and many tell us that more and more people are ordering them for parties and such. I don't think that too many brides will request a platter of cookies instead of their dream cake (though some do!) but I really feel that cookie decorating is growing and here to stay.
She Said: I do think decorated cookies can be the next cupcake. I think the only real obstacle (and it's a big one) is educating the public about why they are so much more expensive than cupcakes or other desserts. All cookie decorators know the vast amount of labor involved in each cookie, and the trick will be convincing the buying public that they are worth the expense. (And they are!) Part of this trick is convincing the decorators to band together and not undersell themselves. Cookiers unite!
JMU: What are the biggest changes you anticipate in the cookie decorating world in the next three to five years? And how, if at all, might they impact your business?
She Said: I think the 3-D printers are going to continue to have an impact as technology improves and cutters with a sharper cut can be easily manufactured. I think we'll see more and more cookies making their way into the cake decorating world as they are used for cake decorations, and other dessert-combining. I hope that we can just keep up with the changes and morph as we need to to meet the needs of our customers.
He Said: You know, I don't know that there will be too many big changes. There are definitely trends. People just aren't baking cookies on sticks and making bouquets as much as they were two or three years ago. Maybe it will come back a bit. One thing that we do follow is popularity of specific shapes. That's one reason we've done these “plaque” and “frame” cutters. People LOVE doing platters now with “message cookies” as the centerpiece. We sell tons of those. You can never predict some things too. Like who knew a couple years ago that mustaches would be so popular? I mean, that's HAIR on a dude's upper lip? Why are we making cookies out of these things!? [Editor's Note: LOL!] But that's the trend, so we found a supplier and we got some mustache cutters, which should be here any day now.
JMU: So, I know Karen is an ace cookie and cake artist, but she’s also alluded to the fact that you’re a pretty darn good decorator too, Mike. How frequently do each of you decorate cookies? And which of your partner’s cookie designs is your all-time favorite, and why? Pictures, please!
He Said: Hmm, good question. We try to have example pictures of most of our cookies on our website. I know one or two of them are cookies I've done, but I don't even remember which. I haven't done anything that spectacular. But I love everything she's ever done! [Editor's Note: Now that's a well trained husband if I ever heard one!] Picking one of Karen's cookies as a favorite would be like telling a kid they're the favorite – and that never goes well for me!
She Said: Mike's only obstacle in the way of being the “next big thing in cookie decorating” is getting used to the icing. He doesn't have a lot of experience using icing, but he always comes up with the best designs for cookies. Right now, he sketches them out and then makes me do them!! One of these days I'm going to make him decorate for a full day or two so he can get the feel of the icing, and then there will be no stopping him! His out-of-the-box thinking definitely translates to cookies. My favorite design he ever did was during our second or third Christmas together. We were decorating Christmas cookies, and he turned a snowman upside down and made a guy with a giant head. It was my first experience watching someone do the “Sugar Belle-ish” trick of making something unexpected out of a plain old snowman cookie! Sadly, I don't have a picture. Maybe he can recreate it sometime! [Editor's Note: Sugar Belle = The cookie decorating blog The Sweet Adventures of Sugar Belle.]
JMU: CookieCon 2012 was a smashing success by all accounts. Congrats! What is your favorite memory of that event? (P.S. Above is a pic of the small team that made CookieCon 2012 larger than life!)
She Said: That is such a hard question, because there were so many wonderful moments at CookieCon. I think I have to narrow it down to two. One was during registration, just watching all of the “online friends” become “real life” friends. It was such a joy to see cookie friends meet for the first time in person and know that they were no longer only “online friends.” The second favorite memory was at the end, when Mike and I were given a standing ovation. I've never been on the receiving end of a standing ovation before, and it made both of us cry. I didn't think we would be able to speak after that! We were so blown away by the warmth and kindness that was shown to us during the entire event, and that was just the crowning moment for us, I think. [Editor's Note: That standing ovation was so completely well deserved!]
He Said: My favorite part was just seeing people happy to be there and having a spectacular time with other decorators! It was a high I'll never forget for sure! And yes, I fully agree it was a success, but there are some things that could have gone better – but that's good because it gives us a chance to improve next time! We discuss at length every bit of feedback we got and we're working to improve with CookieCon 2014. An example: smaller classrooms where every attendee will be able to see well, ask questions, interact with the instructor, etc. We're also increasing the capacity so even more people will be able to attend! [Editor's Note: Woo hoo! Can't wait!]
JMU: Droves of cookiers are clamoring to learn more about what’s in store for CookieCon 2014. I know it will return to Salt Lake City, Utah, USA on March 20 – 22, but can you give us a teeny-tiny taste of anything new and different that you’ve got planned?
He Said: I kind of mentioned this in the last question. But we also have some fantastic instructors who we are VERY close to being able to announce. As awesome as our previous line-up was, we have a LOT of people who want to attend again, so we really wanted to offer them some variety. Our core set of instructors is all new. I've talked to each of them at length about the material they're presenting, and about their general enthusiasm for the hobby. These are awesome people who will make the experience spectacular just like last time!
And, of course, the things that worked well we'll do again. We'll have another fun “sugar show” to highlight the talent of the attendees, along with a contest and voting on the best of different categories. We'll have open decorating again where people can decorate, try new techniques and tools, mingle with the presenters, etc.
She Said: We have some fun things in the works! We have an amazing line-up of instructors. We didn't know if it would be possible to live up to the standard set by our instructors last year. They did such a great job, and we thought about just inviting all of them back for round two! But we decided to do all new instructors, and they are awesome! It will be at the Hilton. Mike and I walked through every available venue in the Salt Lake area, and tried to look at all of them through the eyes of the attendees. We think everybody is really going to love the Hilton. We are very excited, and think it's going to be even better than 2012! I'll be interested to see what details Mike lets out of the bag!!
JMU: OK, I realize this is a BIG question, but I’m going to ask it anyway, because I’m dying to know. You seem to have done all that’s possible in the cookie decorating world – decorate, sell, instruct, bring fellow cookiers together . . . what on earth could be next for Karen’s Cookies? Do tell!
She Said: Ha ha! Well, Mike has a little project in the works. He just got a prototype back from a manufacturer, and we're seeing if we can get it into production. It's a great idea that will change the way some people learn to decorate cookies! We'll see if he spills the beans when he answers this question . . .
He Said: Ha! [Editor's Note: Funny how they both laughed when I asked this question. Clearly, they're hiding something from me!] I actually haven't seen or heard Karen's answers, so I don't know what she's revealing. Obviously we're working hard on the next CookieCon, and we'll continue to come up with new cutters and such for our online store . . . but there is one secret project I've been actually spending a LOT of time developing. Besides Karen and I, and our employees, I think Callye is the only one I've spoken with about it. [Editor's Note: Callye = The blogger behind The Sweet Adventures of Sugar Belle.] And hey, it could fizzle out like my 3-D edible bobblehead cookie idea . . . but I don't think so on this one.
Got a question for Karen or Mike that we didn't ask here? Post it in the comments area below, and we'll be sure they get back to you soon. Please also check this forum for the latest talk about CookieCon 2014, and visit Karen and Mike online:
I hope you enjoyed our first Cookier Close-up. Stay tuned for more to come! We've already got Marian Poirier (Sweetopia), Amber Spiegel (SweetAmbs), and Glory Albin (Glorious Treats) lined up for Cookier Close-ups later this summer.
If there are other cookiers you'd really like to hear from, please post requests in this forum, and we'll do our best to round them up!