“You are never too old to be an entrepreneur.” How one woman built a cupcake empire.
By Randi Mazella
Serial entrepreneur Candace Nelson shares the secret behind her cupcake empire, Sprinkles, and why she decided to start all over again
This article is reproduced with permission from NextAvenue.org.
Candace Nelson, 48, never thought she would be able to turn her hobby into a profitable business. But the founder of national cupcake store chain Sprinkles did that — and more.
In his new book, “Sweet Success: A Simple Recipe to Turn Your Passion into Profit,” Nelson shares his experience as a serial entrepreneur and offers advice for people considering starting their own business.
Nelson herself never thought of baking as a career until she lost her job in finance.
“I was working in Silicon Valley when the internet industry went bankrupt and I found myself unemployed,” she explains. “I had no idea where my career was going. I was upset and depressed.”
She remembers going from working 16 hours a day to spending afternoons lying on the couch watching TV and cooking during the day. “I leaned into baking because it was a hobby that always brought me a lot of comfort,” Nelson explains.
Back then, in 2000, there were fewer places to find business inspiration. “There was no social media or podcasts to listen to for business advice or to teach entrepreneurial skills,” Nelson explains. “TV shows like ‘Shark Tank’ didn’t exist.”
But there was Oprah and Martha Stewart. “I saw women coming on the Oprah show who had overcome so much to start their own businesses,” Nelson recalled. “Their stories have inspired me.”
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The little cupcake that could
Nelson started baking cakes in her kitchen and selling them at her house. She quickly realized that racketeering cakes would be a tough way to make a living, because pastries — even those with a high frosting-to-cake ratio — are a treat, not a staple.
“People buy cakes for special occasions, not every day,” she says. “It’s hard to be profitable when you’re not selling something that people need on a regular basis.”
For Nelson’s good fortune, she became a cupcake seller just as a trend The New York Times dubbed “cupcake chic” made it profitable to peddle fancy versions of the childhood favorite.
“Cupcakes have always been a dessert for kids’ birthday parties,” Nelson explains. “But when I got married in 2001, elaborate cupcake towers became fashionable as an alternative to the traditional wedding cake. I thought there might be a way to market this trend in a less formal way.”
Keep the faith
However, having an idea you are truly passionate about is only the first step in starting a business. Nelson’s next hurdle was to make others as enthusiastic about cupcakes as she was.
“Friends of mine who worked in fashion and music wanted to support me,” says Nelson, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Sun Valley, Idaho. “They would invite me to their parties and pressure me to bring my cupcakes.”
But their encouragement backfired.
“It was really brutal at first,” Nelson recalled. “Other guests would come up to me and say, ‘So what are you doing in the entertainment industry?’ I should explain that I was not in this business, that I was baking the cupcakes. They went away completely disinterested. I had a lot of humiliating moments and a lot of rejection. It was humiliating.
Instead of giving up, Nelson took it in a new direction. “I always believed I had a good idea,” she says. “I just needed to find another way to market my product.”
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Create a brand
On April 13, 2005, Nelson and her husband Charles opened Sprinkles Cupcakes, a cupcake-only bakery in Beverly Hills, California. Nelson acknowledges that some skeptics thought starting a cupcake business would be difficult when it seemed like everyone was on a low-carb diet. But she was not discouraged.
“My goal was to create a product so delicious it was worth it,” she says, “If you’re eating dessert, you shouldn’t be disappointed with the taste.”
Beyond making delicious cupcakes, Nelson was determined to create a tasteful brand. “Cupcakes were seen as cute, childish and feminine,” she says. “I didn’t want that for Sprinkles. No pink logo or lace doilies. Instead, we chose an artsy, playful, gender-neutral aesthetic.”
Nelson jokes that she was an influencer before there was a name for it. She came out of the kitchen to star on camera as a judge on Netflix’s (NFLX) “Sugar Rush” and Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars.” She also served as executive producer on both shows.
“Your personal and professional personalities should align,” Nelson says. “Customers want to know who they’re buying from; they want to know you. And in a world full of mistrust, being authentic and trustworthy makes customers want to be loyal to you and the brands you stand for.”
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Tips for home bakers
“Cook from scratch,” Nelson says. “Canned mixes are convenient and guarantee success every time. But canned mixes are loaded with preservatives. It’s easier and tastier to cook with real ingredients.”
Her second big tip is to use an ice cream scoop to scoop cupcake batter into muffin tins. She explains, “The simple spring-loaded scoop ensures that every cupcake is the same size and bakes evenly.”
“Sometimes people look at a successful business and think it was easy to do,” Nelson says. “It takes work to build a brand. It’s hard and, at times, very lonely. There are a lot of challenges and moments of doubt.”
She adds that it’s important to be prepared for setbacks and disappointments when you’re growing a business. “You can’t avoid it and you have to know that,” she says.
“Even when Sprinkles took off and became successful, there were still times when I would read a bad Yelp (YELP) review and feel personally attacked,” she recalls. “You have to reframe the criticism and be like, ‘At least I’m in the game.'”
Along with the sweet cream butter and pure vanilla Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon, Nelson believes enthusiasm has been key to his success.
“Enthusiasm helps your mission,” she explains. “Not only do you need to be excited about your product, but you want to surround yourself with people like employees and suppliers who feel the same way. That energy helps you pull yourself together when you face challenges and obstacles.”
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Next stop: the pizzas
“You’re never too old to be an entrepreneur,” Nelson says. “I have a lot of friends who are empty nests and I think it’s a great time for them to start a business. They have the financial resources, the time and the energy to be successful.”
Nelson follows his own advice. After selling her majority stake in the Sprinkles brand in 2014, she took some time off to focus on her family. While she had no idea of getting back into the food business, she ended up doing just that, co-founding a Neo-Neapolitan pizzeria chain called Pizzana.
“Having run a business before,” she says, “I’m excited to do it again and bring what I learned from my first business to this next business.”
Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer specializing in a wide range of topics from parenthood to pop culture to life after 50. She is a mother of three and lives in New Jersey with her husband and teenage son. Learn more about his work at randimazzella.com.
This article is reproduced with permission from NextAvenue.org, (c) 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.
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