Business Advice from The Cupcake Girls [interview]

Fourteen years ago, two best friends decided to go into business together. Their concept–a cupcakes-only bakery, was untried–no one in town was doing something similar. They had no experience running a bakery or owning a business. They had no business plan.

If you think that sounds like a recipe for disaster, you’d be right, but it wasn’t. Heather White and Lori Joyce opened their first Cupcakes store on Denman Street (near English Bay) fourteen years ago, and they’ve never looked back.

Over the years, their business has changed, and their business model had changed even more. These days, The Cupcake Girls own a 10-bakery franchise, and no longer come home with buttercream in their hair. They even had their own reality show on the OWN Network. But the lessons they’ve learned over the past decade-and-a-half are invaluable. Heather and Lori will be delivering a keynote at Sage Summit in New Orleans that happens July 27-30, and I’m going to be there! I recently interviewed them to discover what they’d learned, both about business and themselves, and what’s on tap for New Orleans.

RC: Why do you think you’ve made it this far? 

Lori: Tenacity. There were naysayers. We had lineups out the door, but our business neighbours were betting on us going out of business in the first three months. But what they didn’t realize was that didn’t get us down. It drove us.

Heather: Building a strong brand. We built the brand first, and the business second–we wanted to build a brand that stood out above the rest. People would ask us, “How can you sell cupcakes for $2.25 each?” at a time when people were buying cupcakes at bake sales for $.50. We wanted to be taken seriously by our consumers, so we made sure to brand ourselves accordingly.

RC: Why do women make good entrepreneurs?

Lori: I would say there’s three main things: the ability to multi-task, being organized, and compassion. They don’t just make decisions based on the bottom line. They live in a community, and make decisions that are outside of the box–more holistic.

Heather: Today in business, women entrepreneurs are changing the stereotype that to be successful, you have to be a “bitch.” Great, successful women in business stand up for what they believe is the right thing to do for your business and your community. We’re carving our own way.

RC: How has your business changed since you got married and had kids?

Heather: Our business changed when we sold our stores. It don’t think it changed when we had families. When we got out of the day-to-day retail, that changed from working in our business to working on our business. That was the biggest thing for us. Both of us had babies on a Friday, and were back at work on Monday. The idea of having children wasn’t stopping us or slowing us down.

Lori: One thing that did change was our ability to make decisions. We were always good at making decisions, but after we had kids, we became faster. Priorities shifted. You get this bigger perspective–there were things we would have focussed on before that suddenly didn’t seem so important. We got more efficient.

RC: What’s it like to be in business with your best friend?

Heather: You have to wear different hats. The two always overlap, but you can’t make decisions on emotions. We make decisions based on what’s best for the business,

Lori: We’d always say, “Monday through Friday, 9-5, the business hat’s on, and whatever’s said is what’s best for the business.” We can’t take things personally. Heather and I are really unique–partnerships are really hard–there’s a stat that 80% of them don’t work. In our first year, we discovered a tool called Insights. It really saved us, and we use it to this day. If you’re open to learning how to be a better person, and developing systems and tools, then partnership is great, because there’s no one else in the world that’s going to understand what you’re going through better than your partner.

RC: What tech can you not live without?

Lori: We love Google docs. It’s a filing cabinet–everything is there, it’s organized, it’s easy to find. It makes our business way quicker–time is money, and I don’t have time to be searching for things.

RC: What kind of advice would you give someone who wants to open their own business?

Lori: You get out of your business what you put into it. If you put 100% into your business, you’ll get 100% return. You want to make more money? You have to make sure you put that time, money and energy into your business. Effort in equals what your outcome will be. Also, don’t try to please everyone. Do what you do, and do it the best you can.

Heather: I think a lot of people are afraid of the transition from being employed to being self-employed. Registering your company and having your own business is the easiest thing. The hard work starts after. Year one was hard and exhausting for us, but year two and three were where reality kicked in. That’s when you need resilience, and that’s when many businesses don’t survive. If you have that burning to start your business, you can do it. And it’s the most amazing thing.

When we had our first meeting to look at the space on Denman, I phoned Lori, and I asked “are you in?” And she said, “yeah.” From that phone call until the day our doors opened, we had 3 months. We set our mind to it. Once you get in that mindset, nothing is going to be in your way.

RC: What will you be talking about at the Sage Summit?

Heather: I’ll be talking about building a brand: diving into our story and talking about how we built it from the ground up. Creating a concept or a brand that looks simple is the most difficult thing to do. If you do it right, it looks effortless, but it’s hard.

Lori: I’ll be talking about financial literacy for women. We didn’t know anything about finanicals. We had no interest or schooling, but when we changed our business, we had to learn. When we got into franchising, that was a totally different business. When you’re in franchising, people are buying the proven model, not cupcakes. The wording has to change, and you have to know what you’re talking about. One thing Heather and I don’t like is not knowing what we’re talking about when we’re in front of someone.

All 10 Cupcakes franchise locations are owned and operated by women. It’s a great feeling to be able to teach women and give them the tools to empower them and give them independence. When it clicked for us, it changed–not necessarily our business–but how we viewed our business. Knowledge gives you more strength, and strength gives you power.

RC: Thanks, ladies! Looking forward to seeing your keynote in New Orleans! 

If you are interested in attending the Sage Summit and seeing Lori and Heather, as well as other notables like Deepak Chopra, Matthew Weiner and more, click for more information. 

If you can’t attend, I will be live-tweeting at the sessions I attend under the hashtag #SageSummit.

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Rebecca Coleman

Social Media Marketing Strategist, Blogger, Author, Teacher, Trainer. Passionate foodie, mom to Michael, fueled by Americanos. I love my bike. Soon-to-be cookbook author. Localvore with a wanderlust.

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