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Cupcake Queen Candace Nelson Shares Insights for Sweet Success
The Sprinkles Cupcakes founder Candace Nelson shares her recipe for success in starting a business you love
Like many of us right out of college, Candace Nelson thought she knew what the path to success looked like. She’d ticked all the boxes and was on her way to a lucrative career in investment banking. But the allure of the dot-com boom and the soul searching that came after the 9/11 attacks pushed her in a different direction than her peers who were going back to school to get their MBAs. Instead, she decided to go to pastry school and start a cupcake bakery.
Today, Sprinkles Cupcakes is a globally recognized brand, and she’s shared her stories of reinvention and entrepreneurial spirit in her book Sweet Success: A Simple Recipe to Turn Your Passion into Profit. Here, she talks about her road to reinvention and how others can learn from how she did it.
Andrea Adleman: Tell us about how Sprinkles Cupcakes came to be.
Candace Nelson: I thought I knew the steps I needed to take to find success. I went to a good school. I got a good job, a prestigious job. I was recruited out of Wesleyan to go work for an investment bank, and then I did what everyone else was doing at the time, which was jumping ship to go work for an Internet company during the dot-com boom.
I think I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity for introspection if life hadn’t handed me a couple of curve balls. The first was the dot-com bust, where I was out of a job and thought, ‘Oh, wait, this wasn’t supposed to happen. I’m doing everything quote unquote right.’ And then 9/11 was the next curve ball, which was very clarifying because it just brought into such a clear picture for me the fact that nothing is really guaranteed. It gave me a moment and some time to really reflect on what it was I wanted to do. It was the first time that I really asked myself that because everything seemed, sort of, ‘This is the way you do things. There are certain steps to success.’ But it doesn’t really mean anything if you’re not happy and you’re not enjoying it and you’re not feeling fulfilled.
I felt like a fish out of water. But the thing is, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. It took some soul searching, it took some career development, it took career aptitude testing. It took a lot of hours on the couch watching Martha and Oprah, and then ultimately playing in my kitchen to really rediscover and reignite my love of baking, which had been a childhood passion of mine.
I was in this environment at the time — the San Francisco food scene — where I was really being exposed to wonderful chefs and great food and I just felt like I wanted to be creative. I loved working with food. Maybe there’s something here. To test that interest, I decided to go to pastry school and that’s what sort of lit a match under me to take this passion in a professional direction because I loved it. I loved how simple it was. I loved the tangible nature of creating delicious foods and being able to hand them to someone and watch them enjoy. I just felt there was something so grounding and rewarding about that and very different from what I had been doing previously in my career.
AA: Once you decided to open a cupcakes-only bakery, you persevered through rejections from prospective landlords who doubted the viability of your business. When the Beverly Hills store opened to critical acclaim and long lines out the door, how did you navigate the transition from creative pastry artist to business owner facing popular demand beyond your production capacity?
CN: I did develop this small but devoted following when I was just baking my cupcakes out of my kitchen. That following really relied on me for these custom decorations I was doing. I was really known for not just the taste of my cupcakes, but this personalization that I would do. I wasn’t ready to let go of that when we first opened the store, but then, as you said, all of a sudden this demand just completely blew away any expectation we had. People were waiting in line for these cupcakes and I remember my husband walking into the kitchen one day and he saw me mixing fondant into the perfect hue of whatever and he was like, ‘No more custom decorations.’ He made that call. I was too emotionally attached to that part of the business. I felt like I would be letting my early customers down. I had to say goodbye to that part of artistry, so to speak, and just really focus on my product and being able to meet the volume of demand and scaling up my production and bringing in business savvy.
AA: As the cupcakery got more and more media coverage, there came a point when you realized that you yourself had to embody the brand. You became more conscious of syncing your personal appearance with that of the glamourous cupcakes you were representing.
CN: For me, baking and hospitality is about being generous and giving. There was something that didn’t feel quite right to me initially about putting myself front and center. It really took a lot of media — you know, cameras coming around and insisting that somebody come out and talk to them — to realize that people were starting to expect this of me. They wanted me to take off my apron, step out from behind the kitchen, and be a leader. Be a face. Be additive to the brand. Once I was on Cupcake Wars and I had all of these friends who were in the entertainment world, I would ask them, ‘Do you guys have stylists?’ I was so naïve. There were actresses and they’re like, ‘Oh, honey, you gotta get a stylist. You gotta do this. You gotta do that.’ And I was like, ‘OK, all right.’ It’s not superficial to be thinking that you need to put your best foot forward and represent your brand in a polished way, but it took me a second to get there.
AA: When you sold Sprinkles, it made you realize how deeply your personal identity was tied to your corporate brand. What was your process to recreate an identity not anchored around the cupcake business?
CN: I was raised in the world of finance. My first career experience was at an investment bank and the prevailing idea in Silicon Valley and at investment banks is you start a company, you scale it, and then you sell it. And so that had always been my goal. This is what one does when one starts a business. When you have high growth, you have success, and then you hand it off to someone who can take it to the next level. By all measures of that, Sprinkles was very successful.
What I didn’t realize was how entangled my personal identity was to that business. That’s how people knew me. Every conversation revolved around Sprinkles — and in a good way. It brought other people a lot of joy and it brought me a lot of joy. So when I was sort of separate from that, it felt a little unmooring and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. And I also felt like, ‘OK, now what?’
The process of reinvention can be so daunting that I think I was intimidated by the idea that I had built this incredibly strong identity and brand and now I was starting over like, ‘Oh my God, that sounds exhausting!’ I don’t think I gave myself enough credit that any reinvention is really not about starting over. You are always honoring your past because your past got you to where you are. It’s really about, What’s that next part of the journey? We’re not just one thing. We’re not just one period of time, like one period of time doesn’t define us. It’s part of us, but we’re all learning and we’re all multifaceted and hopefully we’re always growing. And so I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s not really about…I mean, it’s so trite to say, but it’s not about the destination. It’s really about the learning and the growing along the way.
AA: That’s the perfect segue to the next stage of your reinvention. Now you are in the role of mentor, business expert, entrepreneur, and Sweet Success author. Tell us about that.
CN: I’ve always been an entrepreneur and I’ve always been obsessed with stories of entrepreneurship. I love dreaming up ideas for new businesses. I love other entrepreneurial stories of people who’ve started businesses and found success or failed — or failed and then found success. I just love digging into that. One day I realized that I had become more known in the public world as a baking influencer than what I thought was really more representative of my interest and who I am, which is a businessperson.
Not that I’m not a baking person. I am a baker. I’m a baking influencer on Instagram and you can see me on TV doing some baking. But that was only part of the story.
As my career progressed, I was becoming more interested in entrepreneurship, starting new companies, helping other women start companies, mentorship. Writing this book was my way of sharing that other side of me with the world and showing up in a different way, showing up more with my business hat on. But, of course, I’m sharing the Sprinkles story and honoring all of the fun, pop-culture moments and everything that got us there.
At the end of the day, I think entrepreneurship is fun. It’s not too serious. It’s sort of chaotic. It’s crazy. You have to keep a sense of humor. I didn’t know that a book like that really existed. I think a lot of business and entrepreneurship books are more focused on personal development or they’re very specific to one field like marketing or they’re quite dry or they’re a full-blown memoir. What I wanted to do didn’t exist yet.
My goal is to inspire that next generation of people who might not think of themselves as entrepreneurs because they’re not tech savants, they’re not engineers. Entrepreneurship is a spectrum. We all have a role to play. My role was with the very simple item, a cupcake, something anyone can make.
AA: You’re successfully reinventing as a business thought leader on platforms as wildly diverse as the Wall Street Journal and TikTok. Tell us about how you’re bridging those worlds to influence both of those audiences simultaneously.
CN: I think it’s important to remind yourself that there really are no rules. I think we all walk around thinking that there are so many rules and we need to do things a certain way and we need to show up in a certain way and maybe there’s a certain box we need to stay in. It’s so freeing when you realize that those rules are typically imposed on you by limited beliefs and thinking. Once you break through that, you recognize that you can show up as a businessperson both in the Wall Street Journal and on TikTok. You can show up as someone who can talk about the best style of buttercream frosting at the same time as someone who might be an angel investor — angel food cake to angel investing!
AA: That’s brilliant! We just came up with a new sound bite. Is there anything else you want to add?
CN: I think as we get older sometimes we tend to get more staid and more set in our ways. When we’re comfortable, that’s a good thing, that’s safe, but by the same token, I would really encourage people to break out of their usual routines. Try something new. Try something that no one would ever expect you to do and just see how that feels. Even if you don’t enjoy it, the process of taking yourself out of your usual routine, way of thinking, interests, and activities is going to help you grow and think about things in a new way that might even lead to a little reinvention. You never know.
Candace Nelson is a serial entrepreneur, New York Times bestselling author, Wall Street Journal contributor, angel investor, TV personality, and executive producer. She lives in L.A. with her husband and two sons.
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