Tiffany Washington works as an account manager at a publishing company and Jo-Laine Duke-Collins works in education management, but they are currently in the process of becoming Tiffany the pastry designer and Jo-Laine the dessert stylist. I was introduced to Tiffany and Jo-Laine’s Kickstarter – I.M. Pastry Studio is coming to Brooklyn, NY! – through a mutual friend and was so impressed by the endeavor that these two women are about to embark on over the next few months. As they work to turn their online business into a brick-and-mortar business in Brooklyn they are maintaining their 9 to 5 jobs, on top of being full-time mothers! What started as just a passion project that they did for friends and family on the weekends has developed into creating custom cakes and dessert tablescapes for the likes of NBA star, Carmelo Anthony. All done through word of mouth and the help of their strong support system.
In an effort to make their dream a reality, they have turned to Kickstarter to help with some of the costs of opening a space within their neighborhood. The Kickstarter ends on June 3, 2014 – so take some time to read their story and consider giving some money to a great Chapter Be story…
Can you give us a bit of your background and story as well as the history of I.M. Pastry Studio? You are in the beginning stages of turning I.M. Pastry Studio into a brick-and-mortar store, but what were your past chapters before this?
Tiffany Washington: A little background on I.M. Pastry Studio is that it was inspired and started out as Ilene Miriam Pastry Studio. I named it after my grandmother. We used to bake together when I was younger, and that is what inspired this business. As far as my background, I am a self-employed baker and cake decorator. I didn’t take any formal classes, nor did I attend culinary school. I actually have a degree in Fashion Merchandising Management from FIT here in the city. It’s kind of connected because pastry design has artistic value to it, and I studied Fashion Design as well. I kind of merged my arts background with cake decorating to come up with my design ideas.
Jo-Laine Duke-Collins: Prior to meeting Tiffany I was always in education administration. I went to State University at Albany and majored in Computer Science, but I decided to go on the education track and now work for the New York City Department of Education. However, on the side I was always interested in doing event planning and design. A few years ago I had an interest in designing tablescapes for dessert tables. This friend of mine connected me to Tiffany because she was decorating awesome cakes and she thought Tiffany and I would make a great connection – I have a great eye for design and she was great with baking. So, that’s how she and I got together. I always have been in education administration, but I always had a passion for designing.
You both are about to embark on doing this full-time. How did you come to the decision that this was a passion of yours that you wanted to turn into a career? What was the process like for you as far as realizing that this was more than a hobby and something that you want to do full-time?
TW: When I first started out I was making cakes for my family and friends. One day I made some Chanel cupcake toppers for custom cupcakes, and I posted a picture of them on Facebook. I had a great response to them, and had people asking where they could buy them because they were so cute. I said, “Oh, I made them! Do you need some?!” Word of mouth really put the stamp on everything. A lot of people heard about the cakes and it went from orders for family and friends to friends of friends and then it became people that we didn’t even know. It just really grew to the point where we had to start turning down orders because we just didn’t have the manpower. Once we saw the demand then we realized that we had something good going here. We decided to take it to the next level.
JLDC: Even though I had been in education administration and enjoy helping families in the admission process in New York City, when I am designing it creates a whole other space for me. I’m a creative person by nature – creating makes me feel really good. I’ve always been into design, and I love seeing Tiffany’s work, as well as helping her and learning the baking and decorating process. So, it first started out that it was just an outlet for me. I have two kids, Tiffany has a daughter, we are full time professionals, but it feels good when you wake up every day and you are doing something other than what you were doing every other weekday. It starts to consume your weekends, and it fulfills not only a hobby but also a thought that I could see myself waking up and doing this every day for free. Even if I don’t get paid and have to do this only on the weekends – I don’t mind. Tiffany and I spent hours picking up different pieces of art and different pieces of design so we could create a tablescape from something like Christmas ornaments. There is a creative outlet for both of us that we honestly feel has gone way beyond a hobby and is more of a passion. I wouldn’t do this if the passion were not there. There is also the entrepreneurship piece of it, as well. We both have management backgrounds, so it is interesting to think about how we can turn what we do into a business. There is an oversaturated market with cupcakes. Everyone makes cupcakes and everyone makes cakes. How do we turn this into more of an experience for people as opposed to just a come, buy a cupcake and leave thing?
As you mentioned, you are both mothers, both have full-time jobs and you have been doing this on the side for a while now. How do you manage all of that, and what are some of the struggles you have encountered along the way as you transition into this being your full-time job?
JLDC: Tiffany has a daughter that is four, and I have two daughters that are five and six. So, when we met four years ago, our daughters were just babies! I think one of the best things for both Tiffany and me is the support system that we have. We both come from families who see the potential in us and are willing to assist us on the weekends with our daughters. Beyond us being business partners, we are really great friends. There are times when it’s like, “Can I bring the kids over?” and we will create a play day out of it while the other one gets some work done. Working 9-5 has been challenging! It makes you feel a bit like Superwoman, though! We come to work every day to our different professional careers and then in the evenings we have to do networking and promotional events. If there is a corporate event in the evening, we have to go home and change into other outfits. And it’s not just cupcakes all the time. We often stay behind and talk to people and network as well. Long nights and long hours. We just found a way to make it all work through our support systems who have also helped us deliver cupcakes, work on our branding and fine-tune the event planning. There are a lot of things to do so it is really important to have a great support team around us to get it all done and bring it to final presentation.
TW: It’s pretty difficult when it comes to having a social life. Like, even if you go somewhere you end up bringing a cake to the party or just dropping it off and then going to another event to drop off some more things. And sometimes with home life you have to sacrifice certain things for the business. But this is the beginning and we are trying to establish ourselves. They are small sacrifices for a big reward. I think we have a pretty good balance of everything at this point as far as what our roles are and how we execute everything but it isn’t necessarily easy. I think sometimes we can make it look very easy but actually it’s very difficult. We are a great team. I think what makes I.M. so special is the teamwork between Jo-Laine and me. We are good friends, also, so sometimes I don’t even have to say anything. I can just look at Jo-Laine and she knows exactly what I mean without even saying a word. That is a great connection, and it makes the business even better.
Do you think either of you would have gone on this adventure alone or do you think having a partner was an integral part of doing this?
TW: I can say that I would not do this alone. I never wanted to try it alone and it would be very difficult to do it alone. I don’t know how anyone could actually get it done alone. I tried in the past with another person, and it didn’t work out for me. Once Jo-Laine was introduced to me it was an instant connection. We are so much alike it is a little scary. Areas that I lack she is great in and areas she needs a little help in I can pick up. So, it worked out perfectly. I wouldn’t want any other partner.
JLDC: I agree 150% with Tiffany. It is important to have a very symbiotic relationship. We are very personally compatible. She is like my “sister-wife!” You have to create a personal and business relationship and then establish clear roles. Tiffany might say something like, “What do you think if I create this cake?” I’m like, “I don’t know, Tiffany!” Or if we are setting up a dessert table and she is like, “I don’t know how to do what you do!” If you had two strong bakers, the work might not get done in the same way. I put my energy into marketing, styling and the dessert tables, so that Tiffany can put all of her efforts into the baking, pastry design and the recipes. That is our dynamic. I remember going to an event where I met the women from the Gilt Groupe and they wrote a really great book about how they started Gilt Groupe (see below). It discusses the idea of partnership and they are both moms. So just studying other relationships of other really great mom moguls who have had similar experiences to what we are having. Learning about their challenges and their strengths gives you an idea of the trials that may be in front of us.
How did you know that now is the time to go for it? You talked a little bit about the fact that it got to the point where you had to turn away orders, but what was that tipping point to make you say, ‘Let’s just do it!” – and not wait another year or 2 years or 5 years. There is always going to be risks, but how did you decide that now was the right time?
JLDC: Well, Brooklyn is, more-or-less, the place to be right now. With the Barclays Center, and all the real estate development, Tiffany and I happened to come across an excellent location in the neighborhood, Prospect Lefferts Gardens. The neighborhood is thriving and growing, and a lot of families are moving into the neighborhood. A lot younger professionals are moving into the neighborhood. So it is a really great, diverse target audience for us. So we just think this is the time to invest. We are both at a time where our daughters are entering school and they are out of Pre-K and they are entering really great programs that allow us a little bit of down time because we’re not running around looking for child care – and the cake world is growing right now. We believe that we are one of the best in the cake business – just somewhat underground and we are just continuing to grow. I don’t believe that we are going to fail at it, but if we did we are in our mid 30s and can bounce back! Then we’d try it again in our early 40’s! We are kind of reaching a plateau with our online market of those who are ordering from us online. We just want to create more of a brand and experience – an environment where you can sit down, have some coffee, have some tea, meet-up groups can come in, local artists can come in and hang some of their art – we want to create a really great community of creative people.
What is the scariest risk in taking this leap? Then on the other side, what is the biggest reward?
TW: I think the biggest reward is that when you work in the corporate world you put so much time and so much effort into making someone else’s business a success. I think the sweetest part about this is that we get to work extra hard and live out our own dreams and make our business into a reality and reap the benefits from it. That is not just a financial benefit, but also a satisfaction of putting all this hard work into it and succeeding – and bringing great products to the community. I feel like we are unique because we have the custom cakes, but also the dessert tables. Other places that do this are just a bakery and the fact that we make everything in house from the cupcakes to the cookies to Rice Crispy treats – it is all made by us personally. It is a one-stop-shop. When the doors open up then we will have coffees, teas, wines, beers, and we will be able to have cooking classes and design classes. We will be able to give back to the community – we were both born and raised in Brooklyn, so that is important to us. We want to create an experience to really show the neighborhood that we care. We couldn’t do this anywhere else.
JLDC: I think one of the most rewarding things is that even though there are a lot of risks and a lot of challenges, once we came up with this idea just seeing how the universe works on our behalf. Once we got really clear about what it is we wanted to do, it wasn’t too long after that when we found a space. Then we found our interior designer. Then the whole team came on board to help us plan everything out. Even the Kickstarter experience – we are taking a huge risk with this investment, will people support us? We haven’t been able to see our friends in awhile – will they remember who we are?! Now here we are toward the end of the Kickstarter and we are almost at 16K and it’s still coming! So people do believe in what we are doing and that is very rewarding in itself. Also, being an inspiration is rewarding. We have random people come up to us and say, “You guys have been so inspiring. You motivate me to keep doing what I am doing.” We aren’t just hiding in the back baking. We are out talking to people. We have a great network of people who are telling us that they are studying our model and hope to do what we are doing!
One of the goals of Chapter Be is to help people feel less alone in the process of starting their own thing. So many people who want to be an entrepreneur or be a creative, just don’t know how to go about it. They hit struggles, possibly give up and perhaps think that it means that they are not supposed to do it. Have you guys ever hit points along this process where you wanted to give up, didn’t know what you were doing, or you just doubted it all? If so, how did you get yourselves through that?
TW: I can tell you that at one point, I quit every week! At times it gets stressful. There are many different things going on, so many curve balls being thrown your way and things that happen out of nowhere. Anything can happen. A lot of things can throw you off. You just have to be strong and grounded, and have that support system around you to help you. Sometimes you need to call on family or friends to help. I think it is important to know that you are going to make mistakes and you shouldn’t beat yourself up over them because everybody makes mistakes. We are all human – we are not robots. Sometimes people expect us to be robots and just churn out cakes or just pop up with a tablecloth and everything there. But, we are human. That is a big thing to always remember that everybody makes mistakes you just have to learn from it and take that lesson and try not to get back to that place again. Whatever mistake you made, learn from it and move on.
JLDC: I definitely agree. Tiffany and I are lucky to have a partnership. A lot of entrepreneurs are out there trying to do it all on their own. I totally believe that it can be done but that you need an accountability partner. That person doesn’t necessarily need to be an investment partner but just someone who keeps pushing you and telling you that you can’t give up. Someone that can tell you, “Okay, it didn’t go just right this week but you should definitely try again or look at it in a different way.” You need someone who is constantly encouraging you to keep going. You should definitely have at least one accountability partner. This needs to be someone with the ability to encourage you to keep going.
What is your ultimate vision for I.M. Pastry Studio? I know that the first step is opening a brick-and-mortar and you have talked a little bit about how you envision that but what do you ultimately want for the brand and how do you foresee that happening?
JLDC: Beyond creating I.M. Pastry Studio Brooklyn and opening a brick-and-mortar where everyone feels comfortable – because we want a Cheer’s-like environment, a place where everyone knows your name – we want to create a place where you can take a baking class or offer a Baking Academy for kids or maybe young couples want to come and learn to make things together. There are always the custom cakes that we do as well, but in the end we would love to see I.M. Pastry Studios in other cities, like an IM L.A. or an IM Miami.
Do you have any advice as far as Kickstarter goes? Would you do it again? Has it been a positive experience for you?
JLDC: I just think that everyone needs to be willing to take risks. The Kickstarter became so much more then just the Kickstarter. It brought us a lot closer to our clients and our families. You are able to be supported, or not supported, and to give back and look beyond the challenges. One of my biggest awakenings has been just taking a risk. Getting up, stepping out there and trusting the process.
TW: Kickstarter is a full-time job in itself. You should quit your full-time job if you are going to do this. This has been the busiest 33 days of my life! You have to promote every day on social media, to people in the street, pass out flyers everywhere you go. It’s so funny because I would see people walk by me with one of my flyers and ask, “Where did you get that?” They would tell me and I was like, “Yes, we are everywhere!” You just have to spread out far and wide to places you haven’t ever been!
We created a team, “Team IMBK,” and then we sent our team out to a million places. We had a lot of supporters but it really depends on the community and seeing how that community can help with the effort to push things out. Sometimes you don’t have the funds but you do have a great idea. We had a great idea but limited funds to work with. Getting little donations from backers add up to big dollars that can actually help us out. We had such cool rewards to thank people for helping us. We didn’t want anybody to walk away empty handed or to feel like we were going to take this money and do x, y, and z. We really wanted to give details about what we wanted to do and how we were going to do it and show that we were working with designers and the lease is signed, so the ball is already rolling. Whether or not we get funded, we are still going to open this summer. So, my number one piece of advice for Kickstarter is to make sure you promote 24/7 until the project is over. We threw a couple of parties and did a lot of events. We are still promoting right now, and the minute I am off the phone I am going to go Tweet about it!
So, if there was someone sitting in a corporate job right now and they have something that they love to do, it might be baking or might be something else, what would your advice be to them in regard to going off on their own and trying to explore whatever they are passionate about?
TW: The main thing I would tell people is to really let go of the fear. The fear can really hold you back more than anybody can imagine. I had so many doubts in the beginning – “I can’t do this. I can’t do that. It’s impossible. I’ll never be able to get this done. I’ll never be able to get a cake for that person.” I stopped doubting myself and just went for things. I literally just said, “Let’s open this up and do this!” When I did that it just happened. I know it sounds a little weird, but I think that when you let go of fear and have confidence – that is the key to everything. You have to stay consistent with what you are doing as far as your work or with social media. As soon as you get something done then post things to your social media. I had plenty of opportunities in the beginning, but missed them because I didn’t have any business cards. So, I tell that to everybody. Just walk around with a hundred business cards. You might make your back heavy but you really don’t want to be caught without a business card. It is really important to have your information on you at all time. But, really – just believe in yourself and everything else falls into place.
Notes of Reflection:
- Let go of the excuses. When you hear yourself talking about all the reasons why you can’t take a risk, just remember Jo-Laine and Tiffany who are creating I.M. Pastry Studio at the same time they are raising daughters, working a 9 to 5 job, and maintaining their personal relationships. As they clearly state, it isn’t easy, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Instead – look to see where you can find support within your already existing communities and turn the excuses into opportunities. It takes being creative – making a working session, also a play date for your kids – but remember that it is indeed possible.
- If real estate is all about location, location, location. Then building a business is all about relationships, relationships, relationships. Jo-Laine and Tiffany were very adamant about the fact that they couldn’t be doing the work that they are doing without the team that they have created around them. Both in support for their personal responsibilities and in getting the business off-the-ground. They were very strategic in creating a specific “IMBK” Kickstarter team and delegated responsibilities to others – recognizing that there was no way they could do it all. Both women were also very clear that they couldn’t do it without one another. So, if you don’t have a business partner, take Jo-Laine’s wise advice and find yourself an Accountability Partner – a relationship built on the grounds of encouragement and holding each other to the tasks at hand.
- Don’t under-estimate the importance and power of word of mouth marketing. You might feel as though you are starting out small, but if you treat that one client or that one customer like they are your very best and most important – they will spread the word. And so-on-and-so-on. Jo-Laine and Tiffany started out doing this for friends and family and got to the point where they are making cakes and constructing dessert tables for NBA players and celebrity chefs. If you share your passion with others openly and genuinely – the word of your product or service or knowledge will spread. Trust in that.
- Can you find someone that has a strength that compliments yours? Perhaps by bringing your two strengths together you will create an even stronger and more diverse business. Think about what your business or business idea might be missing and see if there is a friend or a friend-of-a-friend that has the skill-set to compliment your own. Talk to friends about what you are looking for, and by putting the word out there you never know who the universe might bring you.
- The Conversation by Hill Harper
- The Secret by Rhonda Bryne
- I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
- The Coldest Winter Ever by Sistah Souljah
- By Invitation Only: How We Built Gilt and Changed the Way Millions Shop by Alexi Maybank & Alexandra Wilkis Wilson
- The 8th Habit by Stephen Covey
- Peace from Broken Pieces by Iyanla Vanzant
*Images provided by I.M. Pastry Studio