As part of our Entrepreneurship 101 series, we sit down with female entrepreneurs who inspire us and, we hope, will inspire you. Whether your goal is to start a little something on the side or to leave your current job in order to pursue your passion full-time, take heart that starting your own business may not be as hard as it may seem.
From selling clay jewelry on the playground to catering for her parents' friends in high school, Emily Dubner, 26, has had an entrepreneurial spirit all her life. She finally decided to turn her initiative into a full-time venture after college. While working as a management consultant in New York City, Dubner and her colleagues bounced around ideas as part of an entrepreneur peer group.
In 2009, she left her consulting job to launch Baking for Good, an online bakery that donates 15% of each purchase to a charity selected by the customer--like the school bake sale, on a larger scale.
Dubner chatted with LearnVest about launching a business on a shoestring budget, learning patience, and where it doesn't make sense to cut costs.
When did you first have the idea to start your own business?
D: About two years ago, I was visiting my family in Massachusetts. My grandmother had gotten sick and my mom’s friends sent flowers, but one friend sent baked goods. That sparked the idea to bring together the concept of high-quality baked goods as a gift--and a traditional bake sale to support a cause.
How did you get started?
D: I started with the vision of an online bakery where you could send baked goods anywhere in the country by ordering online, and 15% would go to a good cause. In order to get started, I broke my next actions down into steps. First, I started testing recipes and figuring out how to satisfy every taste bud. I also had to figure out who would actually bake everything.
Then I had to figure out how to work with different charities. I developed a list of organizations I was interested in working with. We started with a list of about 50 charities, but the list grows all the time as new organizations reach out to us. We use Charity Navigator or GuideStar to verify that they're legitimate.
What did you learn from your previous consulting job that helped you start this business?
D: My previous experience helped me with the ability to understand a problem, break it down, and figure out a solution. It really helped me structure my business idea, both in terms of understanding all the component parts and executing. And it showed me how to either solve problems or reach out to others who can help.
There are a lot of bakers out there—how do you know if your product is good enough to start a business with?
D: I had to test the recipes on friends to make sure we really did have an awesome chocolate chip brownie, a great peanut butter cookie, and that every product was delicious. There was a lot of testing that went into it. Then, I reached out to bakeries across the country that were already comfortable shipping products and spoke with people about what I was trying to create. The first person I worked, whom I found on Foodzie.com, was someone who understood the concept and cared about using quality ingredients. I loved working with her and trusted her baking ability to bring our products to life. Now I work with bakers throughout New York City.
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Were there any hiccups along the way?
D: To save money, I tried to outsource the website design to a firm overseas. The result wasn't up to par, and then the overseas firm disappeared on me—I went to their site and got all these security warnings! I wasn’t sure I could trust them. I ended up going with a web development firm and design team in New York City to complete the website.
How long did it take for Baking for Good to become profitable?
D: Within our first year, we were cash-flow positive. I haven’t recouped my initial investment yet but our month-to-month revenue covers our expenses.
Do you remember your first sale?
D: On the day we launched, our first sale didn’t really happen because it turned out that the checkout process hadn’t been built quite right. A friend tried to place the first order, and it was a mad scramble to actually get it up and running. Fortunately, we managed to get that sale later in the day. DailyCandy picked us up in the first week and we got lots of sales from that.
How did you save money as small business owner?
D: I funded the business from my own savings, so I was very cautious about spending money. I outsourced the baking, because I knew I couldn’t bake at home or rent out kitchen space before I launched. I also outsourced the design and web development. That said, I don’t have a lot of overhead, since I have a home office. Until recently, I spent most of the extra money on packaging and other things that would improve the customer experience. But recently I just hired my first employee!
How did you know it was time to hire someone?
D: One of the first signs was that I used to walk a lot to get where I was going, but I had started taking cabs everywhere because I was always running late. I was spending time doing things that weren’t helping me me grow the business but rather maintaining the status quo. Bringing someone on, a full-time paid intern who's a kind of Jill of all trades, was a way to allow me to focus on growth. She’s creative and artsy and very interested in community events. I did a lot of online recruiting, posting a couple of opportunities on Internship.com and UrbanInterns.com.
What are the best and worst aspects of owning your own business?
D: The wins feel so wonderful! It’s so exciting when someone says they received a gift from us! I’m glad be helping different charities. The highs are very high, but it’s so stressful. Sure, they’re just cookies, but I take every order so seriously. If something goes wrong, I feel responsible. I work all the time. People are so excited at the idea of being their own bosses, but I’m the hardest boss.
What's one thing you wish you knew before you started?
D: Everything takes longer than you think! I had planned to get my business up in three months, but it took nine. Even if you make serious deadlines for yourself, you’re not in control of every little detail. Things with my designer and web developers took longer than expected. And I’m constantly waiting for a FedEx delivery or waiting for my computer to load a document. You can’t let that stress you out.
Any advice for readers who want to start their own businesses?
D: Start small and test your ideas on friends and family before you spend a lot. Funding the company by myself meant that I had to think about each expenditure. Your ideas are inevitably going to change as you go, so talk to as many people as you can. Also, no one is going to execute the way you would, so don’t worry about people stealing your idea.
Be prepared to invest a lot of effort and time and energy. I don’t know anyone who started a business who doesn’t spend way more hours than she did at her previous job. I usually get up before 6 am, go for a run, and start working by 7:30. I respond to emails right up until I go to bed, usually around 10 or 10:30. Basically, my company is with me through all my waking hours, but being my own boss does give me the flexibility to schedule things when I need to.
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