Mixing business with employment

Saturday June 22 2013

Ironically, the very supportive environment of my workplace enabled me to leave my position of employment. I loved the camaraderie we shared as a “family” of colleagues and my job as a production manager at an international advertising firm.

When the office needed cakes, I was responsible for sourcing them as part of my duties. I became bored with the lack of options and the mediocre taste of commercially bought cakes. So I thought I would take matters into my own hands.

“Believe it or not, since childhood my cakes had always backfired. My mother bought baking equipment but we did not have access to recipe books back then. I would put together some mish-mash which would inevitably flop.

So I forgot about baking and went on to study international business relations and marketing at university, graduating in 2001. After one or two advertising internships, a four-year accounting gig at the family auditing business, and a stint at Barclays as a cashier, I was hired as production assistant and became production manager at this advertising agency.

“In September 2010, I stumbled upon a random chocolate cake recipe in a Facebook cookery group. I decided to make my family some dessert. I thought to myself, ‘I will try this out and if it fails I am not meant to bake, ever.’”

“I used a sufuria since I did not own a baking tin, but I followed the recipe to the letter. The cake turned out great. My husband, daughter, who was two at the time, and myself, enjoyed it very much. The following day, I carried some of the cake to the office and my workmates were impressed.

One of them asked me to bake his son’s upcoming birthday cake. I immediately accepted his order and went home to try to figure out how to actually decorate a cake. After scouring the Internet for ideas and tutorials, I went ahead. It took me eight hours. I used pre-mixed Betty Crocker frosting, cut out letters for the wording, then I fashioned some trains using fondant and arranged them on the top of the cake.

The client loved it and orders from other colleagues steadily trickled in. Before long, the agency would assign me to provide cakes for official functions. I posted photos of my creations on Facebook and individual orders came in, mostly from word-of-mouth recommendations.

Extensive guidance

“As a youth I used to live next door to a woman who baked for a living. We would smell the aroma of delicious cakes and come Saturday morning, we would see beautiful, elaborate cakes leaving the compound.

She has since opened a baking supply shop in Hurlingham. When I started baking, she guided me extensively on the art of fondant as well as decorating techniques and pricing strategy.

Pricing is usually the hardest thing for a new entrepreneur but since I already knew what the market rates were, I calculated my prices strategically so that my business never made a loss. And in December last year, I resigned to pursue my business full-time.

“I relish the creative challenge my work poses. I watch a lot of YouTube videos and of course television shows like the Cake Boss on TLC. I experiment and practise a lot. I often have to modify recipes and adapt them to our Kenyan palette and environment.

Plus a lot of the gadgets and ingredients they use overseas are simply not available here, so we have to do everything from scratch and really improvise. In fact, anyone who is doing elaborate cakes in Kenya gets a lot of respect from me.

It is pretty difficult given what we have to work with. We are quite a number who have the same vision and there is a cake-makers organisation where we network and share information.

“For two years I juggled a very full schedule — office work, being a wife, mothering a toddler and an infant, as well as baking cakes almost every weekend. What helped me was good planning.

My job was in production, so careful planning is ingrained in me. By December last year when our firm faced certain industry changes, I felt that it was the right time to go it alone. I had toyed with the idea for about a year but then I decided, ‘Why not?’ I took out 75 per cent of my pension money as a cushion and decided to focus on my cake business.

“I miss my colleagues a lot, but I have no regrets. My children are ecstatic now that I am with them at home all the time, especially the second born. I really have not had to spend a whole lot on capital because from the beginning I built myself up gradually.

I bought one tin, then another, then a cookie cutter, a roller… in time a friend brought in my decorating equipment from abroad, and while I was still working I bought a proper cooker.

“My goal is to build my business into a daily activity and to earn at least what I was earning when I was employed. I am about half-way there. I do everything myself, including my logo, cards, and social media page to promote my business.

I would say it all started with that one sufuria and that first cake I baked. It made me realise that I can do this — it is not that hard. That, along with Cake Boss and other baking shows on television gave me the drive to bring unique, out-of-the-box cakes to Nairobi.

“For anyone who is thinking of turning their hobby into a full-time job, I say go for it! Do your research — there are so many tools online to grow your hobby into something bigger. Build it up as you continue with your own job, then once you have a bit of funding in place, jump. I would advise anyone to take their hobby and run because half the people in employment hate their jobs. Do it now, while you have the youth and the energy; do not wait until you retire. That is what I am trying to instil in my children.”