The BritPop Bakery: Jessica Williams
The homemade entrepreneur on learning from her mistakes and having the courage to break the mould
Tell us what your business does:
We make organic cake pops – bites of homemade cake, coated with organic chocolate, on a lollipop stick.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
Cake pops originated in the US and were popularised by bloggers such as Bakerella. I became aware of them when I was living in Singapore, and was initially excited when they began to take off here in the UK.
However, I was horrified to discover that companies here made them using a substance called Candy Coating or Candy Melts, which includes partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil and titanium dioxide.
Nobody can honestly claim that cake is healthy, but I strongly feel that it ought to be wholesome. It took a lot of trial and error but we finally alighted on the perfect recipe and it proved so popular that we launched as a fully-fledged business in November 2011.
How did you know there was a market for it?
We hoped there was a market, and our market research seemed to bear this out, but really we just had to bake and hope that people liked them!
Our USP is that all the ingredients in our cake pops are completely natural, and we are totally committed to using organic, free-range, fair trade and locally produced ingredients wherever possible. Our list of ingredients is available on our website for anyone who'd like to see what is in their cake.
What were you doing before starting up?
Prior to opening The BritPop Bakery, I worked as a copywriter for The Village, Coconut Island – a 5-star resort in Phuket, Thailand. The company has been very supportive and allowed me to continue working for them part-time. It's a very modern arrangement that works, in no small part, due to the wonders of Skype!
I have always loved baking and used to run a food blog, The Daily Home. The BritPop Bakery seemed to be a natural progression from this.
Have you always wanted to run your own business?
I have always dreamed of being my own boss. When I was 17, I set up an events company, Eventus, which produced corporate events.
After a while I realised the value of a monthly paycheck, and have worked solidly ever since – but always wished for the opportunity to start something of my own.
I think a lot of people feel trapped by the security of their day job and it's never easy to find the right time to ‘take the plunge'. It's a very scary thing.
What planning did you do before you started up?
I baked cake pops for everyone who would eat them and sent batches into my poor dad's office – begging his colleagues for feedback on them!
We sent them to everyone we could think of and only when we were confident that the recipe was right, and the concept was well-received, did we go ahead.
I don't think you can ever hear enough opinions of your product, as they can give you ideas that you would never have considered yourself. I asked a lot of people for advice.
How did you raise the money?
My start-up costs were helped by two major factors. First, thanks to Southwark Council's fantastic Environmental Services Department, I realised that it was completely possible to base the bakery at home.
It involves regular inspections and a lot of very stringent safety checking and adhering to Food Standard Regulations, but I would advise it to anyone opening a food business, because it drastically reduces overheads.
Secondly, I was approached by my boyfriend's brother, the artist Charles Gordon, who had been following my progress throughout the inception of the bakery. He offered to invest, in return for a percentage of the business. I agreed, and we were able to get underway.
What is your current turnover?
Conservatively projected to turn over £15,000 this year, although this is likely to change
How did you find suppliers?
The main issue in sourcing supplies, for us, was provenance as we are determined to use the best possible ingredients and where possible, know where they come from.
In the end, the traders at London's Borough Market turned out to be our saviours. As small business owners themselves, they understand the lack of buying power of small companies and are willing to help in any way they can.
Certain items, such as flour, can be bought in bulk to make savings, but other items such as eggs and butter obviously need to be as fresh as possible. This is just something that we have to work around.
What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
The main challenge was the issue of how to market a small company on a tiny budget.
Thankfully, due to the advent of social media, if you are willing to put in the time and effort, you can generate awareness fairly quickly and without spending any money.
Where is your business based?
The bakery is based in the home I share with my boyfriend Alex in London Bridge. I worked from home while working in Singapore, so I sort of knew what to expect. However, nothing can prepare you for the challenges of working from home. Your home is no longer your sanctuary and this takes a while to accept.
How have you promoted your business?
The first thing we did was build a good website, then we set up Facebook and Twitter accounts. We try to engage with our customers, keep them entertained, answer their questions and most importantly we don't spam them.
We don't retain email addresses and we don't use email marketing unless a customer has specifically requested it. Nothing is more of a turn-off than an inbox full of unsolicited emails.
The best marketing, for us, is getting people to try our cakes. Developing relationships with food bloggers and asking them to review our cakes has been effective and is utterly free. As long as your product is genuinely good, you have nothing to worry about – and there's so much to be gained.
How much do you charge?
We charge £2.00 per cake pop, or £2.50 for custom pops – which can take up to an hour each to make, as all the sugarcraft is made by hand.
We offer discounts depending on how many people order. For example, for weddings, we had to ensure that we remained attractive price-wise, in comparison with a traditional wedding cake.
We decided to price ourselves at the same level as the other cake pop companies in the market, so that our customers do not have to pay a premium for proper food. Our profit margin is smaller, because the quality and cost of our ingredients is a lot higher, but we were determined that we wanted the price to remain accessible to everyone.
What about staff – how many do you have?
I have one member of staff and it's always a worry. When other people are involved, the risk of failure is infinitely greater.
I'd like to employ more staff so I'm going to have to stop worrying and focus on growing the business – to ensure that we can do the best for everyone involved.
What has your growth been like?
Our growth has been fantastic! We were so busy over Christmas and New Year and we broke even in eight weeks, which was an amazing feeling.
It's hard to put a realistic figure on our turnover for this year because one big order can blow everything out of the water. For example, we have just completed an order for Crew clothing, which was for an enormous 1,000 cake pops!
What's the impact on your home life been like?
It's been tough. Alex works very long hours as it is, and he's got used to coming home late in the evening to find me packaging up piles of cake pops.
I am very lucky to have a hugely supportive partner and this has made all the difference. He's been an enormous source of encouragement and I couldn't do this unless he was behind it.
What would you say the greatest difficulty has been in starting up?
The greatest obstacle, for me, has been overcoming my self-doubt. There have been times – such as when we accepted the Crew order – that the stakes suddenly got very high and I would literally not be able to sleep for fear that I am not good enough to pull this off.
You have to just get your head down, keep on working and try to believe in yourself as best you can – otherwise you are certain to fail.
What would you do differently?
The first event I did, I wildly underestimated the amount of time it would take for the pops to dry. I was due at the venue at 8 o'clock, and I was still sobbing over unset chocolate at 7.15pm.
Thankfully they dried in time and – thanks to an amazingly fast cab driver – it was all ok, but I have since learnt the value of the three Ps: planning, preparation and patience. Best lesson I've ever learned.
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?
Have faith in yourself; work every hour you possibly can; and, if you are not good with money, find someone who is to do your books for you. Get them right from the start.
Where do you want to be in five years' time?
In five years' time, I'd love us to have our own premises. I'd love for more people to have decided they like cake that isn't full of chemicals, and I'd like to buy my mum a micro pig. I'm going to try to do it in two.
If you're interested in starting your own baking business, take a look at our cake-making business guide