This is a picture of me at the very first bake sale I did nearly 7 years ago. I was still working in my day job but redundancy was on the cards and for the first time in my life I was unsure of what the future held.
If you're a baker, you're probably always wondering if you could run a baking business from home and that's what I'd been doing. I'd done the basics, got a food hygiene certificate, had an inspection from my local EHO and sorted out insurance but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make it work as a full time business, or if this should just stay as a small part time thing I did to earn an extra income.
To test the water, I signed up to do a bake sale at the local country fair. I wanted to see if anyone outside of my friends and family would be willing to pay a proper price for my baked goods.
It was the Easter holidays so I took a week off work and baked and baked - cupcakes, cookies, cake pops - the lot. The weather was lovely so my husband took the kids out for day trips so I could get on without too many distractions. I planned out my stall, made some signs and got some business cards printed.
On the weekend of the show I roped in all the family to help out with setting up my gazebo and manning the stall. We had glorious weather and the crowds were out in full force. I was so excited and a little bit nervous too.
The first morning passed by with a few customers stopping by the stand and all saying the right things - oooh and aaahhing over the cupcakes, cookies and cake pops. And then they’d walk on by.
The afternoon was even quieter. The hot dog stand a few stalls up was heaving, massive queues building up with customers eager to part with the best part of £6 for a sausage in a bun and a few onions. But no-one was interested in cupcakes. I couldn’t understand it.
That night I got home feeling really crushed. I’d been so diligent in carefully planning out what products I’d make, I’d spent a lot of time designing and making beautiful floral cupcakes, cookies for the kids and cake pops too.
They were all packaged with lovely tags and ribbons and the stand looked good. I’d put ingredients labels and best before dates on everything. It looked professional. So what was I doing wrong and why was no one buying?
Day two dawned and we headed off early to get everything set up again. Again we had beautiful weather and the organisers popped round with encouraging words as they were expecting big crowds.
The day started slow, but I had a few customers stop by and pick up some treats. Then a particularly grumpy looking woman came up to the stall and had a good look around and walked off muttering “£1.50 for a cupcake?? I can get 2 for 70p in Asda…”
The rest of the day went pretty much the same way. Packing up time arrived and I was bit flabbergasted. What was I going to do with all that stock I’d made? It was all wrapped so it would be fine but only for a day or two.
To my surprise the manager of the on site cafe popped over to have a chat. He too said how pretty my products looked - and then he asked how much stock I had left over and if I’d consider selling it to him at cost price to resell in the cafe. I was caught off guard but luckily my husband who’d helped me plan everything stepped in and suggested a price which the manager was happy with.
He went off and came back shortly with the cash to pay for the stock and a couple of helpers who loaded up a trolley with the cupcakes, cookies and cake pops and off they went.
Thanks to this little stroke of luck, I just about managed to cover the costs of the stall and my ingredients. Nothing more. Not the greatest start to my cake business venture.
For a few weeks after the fair I felt really down and despondent. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to start a food business because the short shelf life was always going to be an issue. The ‘two for 70p in Asda” in particular stuck in my mind.
I didn’t realise it all the time but in truth it was a pivotal moment in my start up journey. It taught me some really crucial lessons, and I would end using up what I learned from this experience to tweak and develop my business and product range.
So ultimately it was a really valuable lesson - learned the hard way - without which - my business might never really have got off the ground.
So what did this experience teach me:
Know your customer
It taught me that I didn’t really know or understand my customer. Before the bake sale I hadn’t really done any work to think about who my ideal customer might be, what they liked, why they would buy my products. I went into it very much in the mindset of "well everyone likes cake don’t they?" I was lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that my family and friends raved about my bakes. That’s not the best basis for your customer analysis and they are probably not going to be representative of your target market.
Know your product
It taught me that I hadn’t quite found my perfect product yet. After a lot of reflection and soul searching I realised that I would have to give up on my dream of owning a cupcake business because I would need to sell A LOT of cupcakes on a regular basis to make any real money and this wasn't practical. Sounds obvious now doesn’t it?
Know the size of your market
It taught me that by having a short shelf life product, that I couldn’t easily get to people I was restricting myself to a very local market. And this would make it hard to scale. And local customers weren’t really prepared to pay a fair price for my products. While this might be okay for a hobby baker just looking to cover their costs, if I wanted to build a thriving business I’d need to come up with a different product that I could ship around the country, the world even. If it had a long shelf life or the product was non perishable, even better.
Know your sales strategy
It taught me that if doing events was going to be part of my sales strategy that next time I’d need to do my homework before signing up. Where was the event taking place, what was the footfall and buying habits of visitors. What other food stalls would be there. Would there any competition - from an onsite cafe for example? Was this the sort of event that my ideal customer would attend? I hadn’t done any of this research before signing up.
So all in all, my first ever bake sale wasn't a complete disaster but if I’d continued making these same mistakes then I don’t think I would ever have got my business up and running. It’s not uncommon to make mistakes when you’re running a business. Making mistakes can be a valuable learning experience. It’s important to take calculated risks in business and keep trying new things. But when something doesn’t quite go to plan, the important thing is to pick yourself up, keep going and learn the lessons.
If you run a business I'm pretty sure you've experienced something similar. So tell me, what’s the biggest ‘mistake’ you’ve made in your business and what did it teach you?
Let me know in the comments below - I’d love to hear your story.
If you're a food or creative entrepreneur starting or scaling your business or looking to turn your hobby into a business then do come over and join my members only facebook group Kitchen Table Entrepreneur where I regularly offer support, tips/tricks and training to help you grow and become profitable.
I look forward to meeting you over there!