Kristin Marin worked as a paralegal for twelve years until she decided this past summer to turn her side cookie business into a full-time affair. She learned to bake the specialized sugar cookies in 2011 and in 2013 she started to turn her hobby into a side-business. She would work her 9 to 5 desk job all day and then would come home and start baking to fulfill the various cookie requests she had waiting for her. Until one day she decided to just go for it and commit to Suga Me Sweet full time.
When I met with Kristin to interview her one of the first things that I learned about her was how much she loves scuba diving and that she adores sharks. I was very intrigued by this fact since sharks are one of my greatest fears. This gave me a small glimpse into the fact that Kristin was not afraid to tackle the things that many others might find scary and frightful. She attacks things with gusto and seems to have an endless supply of energy. She’s golfed since she was eleven years old and has played on almost 100 different courses around the world. So it shouldn’t be surprising that she now has 466 different types of cookies that she can bake for her business. It’s just how she does things! Read on to learn more about her story to becoming a full-time baker…
Tell me a little bit about what you were doing before you started making delicious cookies!
Well, I was a paralegal. I got my Paralegal Certificate in 2002, and then got my first job right after paralegal school. Before that I was doing a little bit of everything. I got my degree in Journalism from Metro State University in 1995. I was just kind of goofing around. I worked for the Rocky Mountain News for a while and the faculty paper at school. I had done some writing, but I just wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. At the time, my kids were little. The girls were like 7 and 6 so I still needed to be available to run them around and take them to do random stuff. So, I went to paralegal school and did that for 12 years.
Why did you go to paralegal school? Did it interest you or were there other reasons?
I thought at one point that I might want to be a lawyer, but with the kids being that little I couldn’t commit three years of my life to getting a law degree. So, I thought being a paralegal was a good compromise. I could still make a decent living, and do what I thought I wanted to do. It wasn’t as fun as I had thought it would be, though.
I started baking the sugar cookies in early 2011 when my sister taught me. I thought, “This is fun, this is cool.” She only taught me a couple of things, but after that any time somebody had a birthday or special event I would just make up a cutesy batch for them. Finally, one of my girlfriends at my last job said, “You know, you really should do cookies for real.” I said, “No one is going to buy my cookies.” She said, “I will buy your cookies and lots of other people will buy your cookies.”
So, I halfway started the company. I registered the trade name Suga Me Sweet, which came from my husband, Brad, because he calls me Suga. So, that’s what we went with just for grins…thinking it wasn’t really going to go anywhere and that it was just going to be a hobby thing that I do. So, I started it in October 2013, and my friend did buy cookies. Then in December lots of other people bought cookies, too!
It started with the holidays – Halloween, Thanksgiving – and then we needed fall cookies, summer cookies, winter cookies, birthday cookies…it just kept going! We no sooner got done with Valentine’s Day cookies when we needed St. Patrick’s Day cookies. There was Teacher’s Week and all of these other days, where I really had no idea. Next year I’ll be more on my game about all of the holidays that are coming up!
There really is a holiday for everything – there’s even a National Chocolate Chip Day!
I hadn’t discovered that one yet but Sugar Cookie Day is July 9th. It got a little crazy, and it has stayed steadily busy. So, I found one client (actually they found me). I had a girlfriend who introduced me to some of her friends and one of those friends owns a coffee shop that is at Swedish Medical Center. She wanted to sell my cookies at her coffee shop, so I’ve been baking for her since January 2014. She sells the butter cream cookies and goes through two dozen a week. I also make gluten-free and lemon bars for her. She has kind of pushed me to expand. I need to do this, can you do that, and can you try this?
It changes almost weekly. The quinoa brownies are a favorite, too. Basically you just blend the heck out of the quinoa and use that in place of the flour. Because it is such a moisture holder those brownies are super gooey. They have all of the chocolate, all of the butter, all of the fat, just no flour.
Do you get your recipes from other places or do you just tweak and make up your own recipes?
Some of both. My girlfriend made me some brown-butter chocolate chip cookies. I thought they were amazing, but I didn’t want to ask her for another recipe because she sends me anything I ask for. She is so good to me, and I didn’t want to harass her for her chocolate chip recipe, too. So, I thought I would just look online. I found one, but I wondered why it would need Greek yogurt. I’m not putting yogurt in my cookies! I took the second recipe and went ahead and browned my butter even though it did not call for that. It asked for 1 egg and a double yolk. I was making a double batch, so I said, “Screw it, I’ll just throw in 3 eggs!” They wanted semi-sweet chips, and I’m a milk-chocolate girl. So, I modified it and made the best chocolate chip cookie I’ve ever had in my life!
Do you write down your revised recipes as you are baking or do you just have the memory?
I have started writing as I go, because I’ve got so many now. I have a lot of recipes that I will modify, so when I do that I will write those notes in there…but I wasn’t doing that until I got so many. Now every time I do a modification I go in and write stuff down, because if I come back to it 3 weeks later I may have baked 46 other things and I lose track.
Do you have any aspirations to make your own cookbook?
At first I didn’t. I just wanted to bake. Now I have amassed these recipes that are amazing. People ask for them over and over again. So, I am thinking that maybe I should because the coffee shop woman, Lisa, had somebody ask if I would sell her the lavender lemon cookie recipe. She said, “Why would she sell you that recipe when you are just going to buy the cookie?” She said, “I don’t know, but I’ve looked online everywhere. I can’t find that recipe.” I thought, she never will. It’s here in my notebook with my notes on it!
The more I keep collecting these recipes the more I think about what might work together in new ways. The lavender lemon cookie came to be because I saw this lavender muffin and thought that a lavender cookie would be really good. What goes with lavender? Oh, lemon and cream. I made it and gave it to some people and they thought it was amazing. I knew I had a winner. When I asked Lisa if she wanted to try this lavender lemon thing she was like, “Sure, bring me a dozen.” Then she was like, “I’m going to need another dozen.” Then she started selling them before they were even delivered.
I was supposed to take her a dozen cookies one day and she called and said, “I need another dozen.” I said, “Another dozen in addition to the ones you don’t have yet?” She said, “Yeah, somebody came in and ordered them all.” I said, “Well did you tell her she could just call me?” She was from out of town and she wanted them to be ready to go, so we boxed them up in pizza boxes so she could just take them with her!
Tell me what happened when you decided that you were going to focus on Suga Me Sweet full time. Had you been unhappy being a paralegal?
I was bored. I was really bored. It just felt like more and more tedious crap was being dumped on us. Like, now you guys get to do subpoenas and notices of deposition. The secretaries had been doing it and not complaining but we had higher billable hours so they needed to move it to us. It sucked. Now, not only did I get to read about people’s dog poop letters, now I get to draft subpoenas. So, it was more and more tedious crap and more and more stuff that just made you want to put pins in your eyes.
I would go to work, come home, bake until 1:00 a.m. and then I would go to bed. Then I would get up, go to work, go home at 6:00 p.m. and bake again until 1:00 a.m. It was going on for 9 months. I was having my husband assist me with everything until he was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore!” I said, “Well, then something’s got to give. I either have to quit doing it, or I have to quit my job.” He said, “Quit doing it. You can’t quit your job.” I said, “Why? Why couldn’t I quit my job?” He said, “Can you make the same amount of money?” I said, “Well, I’m already making half of what I make at my job, and I was only doing it part time. So if I did it full time I could probably build that up to where I could completely leave my job.” He said, “Well, if you think you can then I guess you could give it a try. We’ve got some savings and some reserved. As long as you can bring in something every month we can cover it.” So, I gave my notice in June 2014 and made my last day the day before I went on vacation. I went and enjoyed my 10 days off, came back and hit the ground running.
Was part of leaving your 9-5 job and focusing on Suga Me Sweet full time with the hope that you would have more time to do your recreational hobbies like golfing and scuba diving?
I like the possibility. I knew that once I went to work for myself I would be working harder. It’s funny, because sometimes I’ll get up in the morning and it will be run, run, run – then I get to kind of take the rest of the day off. I had a friend come over the other night to help teach me how to make macaroons. We got two decent batches, so we started going through and taking pictures. She was there until 10:30 p.m. and had shown up around 4:30 p.m. So, she was there for like 6 hours, which was so fun but total work. It was just a blast. So, its work, but it’s not work. If I finish cookies and its 1:30 a.m. then I’m like really? Yeah, I worked a 12-hour day, but it was doing something I loved. I just get so engrossed in it that time flies. That’s so much better than drafting disclosures all day!
I have a little more freedom with my day. I can bake at night, and I don’t have to get up by 6:00 a.m. so if I need to sleep until 8:00 a.m. or 9:00 a.m. I can. I can walk the dogs every day. It’s just a lot more freedom…but I work more.
I think the difference is that it’s yours. You own it, and you are working your own schedule. Like you just said, “I work 12 hour days but don’t even realize I’m working 12 hour days.” It just feels different than when you are at a desk job that you do not love.
That’s exactly what it is. You get tired of the other stuff. I would rather work my ass off for me than to work for unappreciative bosses.
You started out with friends buying your cookies, but it has clearly grown past that – how did that happen?
My Facebook page is really it. I get 90% of my orders from Facebook. I recently redid my website, too, so that now it includes all of the categories and all of the pricing – which has really helped with orders.
The coffee shop girl, her boyfriend is an anesthesiologist, and he made a little photo montage of cookies I had done and posted it to his Facebook page. One of his friends who works in an oral surgeon’s office saw the picture. She said, “Hey, every quarter we like to give out gifts to our 114 referring dentists, so I’d like to order 114 dozen cookies.” I was like, “Yeah, that will never happen. It’s just me. That’s 1400 cookies! That’s a lot of cookies. I have one oven.” She is like, “Okay, well, what about the giant cookie?” I do these cookies that are 12″ with butter cream and then you can put a logo on it if you’d like. I said, “I could do those. 114 giant cookies, yeah, I could do that. I could commit to that.” So, I did 114 cookies and they loved them. Since then I have committed to the 114 dozen for another one of their quarter gifts. So, she is using us for multiple outside of office orders all of the time. They will post it and then someone else will see it and say, “Oh, I need this.” and it just goes on.
Do you foresee at any point needing to come up with an official marketing plan?
I’m scared to do an official marketing plan, because it could get too big. I really, optimally, only want to be the boss of me. I really don’t want to have to hire other people unless I have to. My daughter will come and decorate and she is a fantastic artist. She is a great decorator. I bring her in and give her $10 per hour to decorate cookies. I get to hang out with her and its fun and she gets money for school. I have no problem bringing her in or bringing someone in for a project and saying, “Here is $10 per hour. Let’s just get this stuff done.” That is fine for big orders.
How did you decide on your pricing?
Trial and error. I started them at $25.00 at dozen. I thought, I’m doing it out of my house, and I will keep them really simple. Then people started asking for more crazy stuff, character cookies, and it got more complicated. Can you do this? Can you do that? I thought, well, I can but then I went from $25.00 to $28.00 and recently decided I was starting at $30.00 and going up from there because it’s a lot to do. So, it’s $30.00 for one dozen, three designs, and four colors. A dozen chocolate chip cookies would be $15.
How long does it usually take you to do a dozen of the designed sugar cookies?
From baking start to finish…baking is probably an hour and then it can take anywhere from an hour to three hours to decorate them. So, what I normally do is clump all of my decorating together.
So, you set up kind of an assembly line?
Yeah, I really do. Then I do everything in stages. So, if I have one flat dozen I don’t make any money but if I can clump them all together, like there are 4-5 orders to bake together then I can mix all of my icings at the same time and decorate them all in one swoop. Then I can get them all done in 4-5 hours and I can make money. I’m a firm believer in work smarter not harder!
You clearly love getting creative with the decorating – do you have an art background?
None! I don’t consider myself much of an artist. I guess I don’t have as many original ideas as I would like to have, but I can take your idea and go, “Watch this!” It’s about whatever sparks you. I remember a company, I think it was BASF that said, “We don’t make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better.” I remember that and thought I could take what someone else was doing and make it cooler. They made this, and that was kind of plain but this one is going to be badass!
That’s creativity – being able to see something and put your own spin on it. And – you can’t stop yourself just because it’s already being done. If you did that then you’d never do anything!
It’s funny, because if you see my cookies and think they are so amazing, I am like, “They are okay.” I see the other cookie makers and what those girls do! I have to stop and think, wait a minute, nobody else has ever seen The Cookie Architect‘s cookies. They only know your cookies and yours look really good. That’s all you need to worry about. All day long it’s cookies, cookies, cookies. I could spend my entire day on Facebook looking at cookie pictures. I belong to four cookie groups, and people just post and post and post. I’m always wondering what could I change or how could I make these look better?
Do you use other forms of social media in your business at all?
I use Pinterest a lot for clients in order to see what they are thinking. I ask them to create a board and then send me a link to the board. I can go look at the board and pull from there what I could do as cookies. I will go to Pinterest and look for ideas sometimes. I have a board called “Cookies I Love” and I will go there when I need inspiration for something. In the beginning, I posted my cookies to Pinterest, but it got to be too much. I don’t want to post on Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest. It takes a lot of time.
It’s true. You start something because you love it. Then there are all of these other pieces that come along with that and you realize you don’t really like that part. How can you balance the tasks that you don’t love so much with what you do love?
Yeah, I don’t like the bookkeeping part. A friend was genius enough to mention that an intern might be in order. I was like intern? He said, “Yeah, let me put you in touch with Katie over at Denver University’s Daniel School of Business. He said, “They have people looking for interns all the time. You could get yourself an accounting intern, a marketing intern, you could get whatever you want.” I was like, “Really?!” She said they would list a job description and people would contact me for interviews. So, there are resources out there that I was unaware of. So, the more of this tedious stuff that I don’t like to do that I could get rid of eventually the better! I loathe QuickBooks!
How do you define success?
Would you have said when you were working as a Paralegal that you were a success or did you not feel it?
I didn’t feel it. I was just doing a job. I didn’t feel like a career. My life-goal wasn’t to be a paralegal, sit on a file chair, and read nasty notes from HOA’s. It’s not what I went to school for. It was like making 400,000 copies and applying stickers by hand. I thought, for this I pay $400 per month in student loans?!
I felt like it could be a monkey doing the task. I was not fulfilled and not satisfied. I was not happy. Successful in what I was doing, sure. I had done it for a long time and was making decent money with benefits. So, as far as that went I was, but other than that it was all I could do to get up in the morning and go to work. Then I would get there and I’m sure (especially the last 6 months) it was painfully obvious that there were 8 million other things I would rather be doing.
Where do you hope to see Suga Me Sweet to go?
I don’t know. People tell me I could be the next Mrs. Fields but I don’t think I want to be Mrs. Fields. I really don’t want to be that big. I think that ultimately it would be fun to have a store front, maybe, just to give me a place to work and maybe do like birthday parties and decorating classes there. I think that would be fun, but I don’t want to commit to like 100 hours a week of having to be somewhere.
It’s important to know what you don’t want to do. When you are growing really fast it’s easy to wonder what’s next, what’s next, what’s next? There’s something really beautiful about just this. This is what makes me happy. I enjoy what I am doing and I am doing it well.
Yeah, the other day I was making cookies, and I had brown butter on the stove. Is there anything better, really, than the smell of browned butter? After I browned the butter I had to make a batch of caramels. Then I have this buttery-sugary caramel. I was like, really? Then I had to bake a chocolate cake to make the cake balls. I was like, browned butter, caramel, and chocolate. This is my life now!
How have you set up a network? You said you belong to some online groups and some friends are also in the industry, but when you are on your own it can feel kind of isolating at times.
I try to give myself little breaks to chat with people like Libby, my friend in Washington who shares so many of her recipes with me. She is someone who gets it. I have another friend, Missy, who started this networking group that meets at a bar right by my house every Thursday. So, if I need to get out for chat time I can go right there.
If there is someone who is sitting at their desk and really not wanting to be there anymore, what would your advice be to them as far as what they can do to step out of that rut and explore something else?
They really just have to be true to themselves and own that. I was fortunate in that my husband and I have savings. He said if I was going to do it that now would be a good time to do it. My momentum is good, and I’m just following it down the hill on its own. I will just ride it out. I don’t know that there is ever really a perfect time to make that decision, you just have to make it, own it, and give it everything you’ve got. You can’t just half-ass it. You have to really own it, do it, and accept the consequences for your decisions.
Now was the time for me. I either had to stop, quit my job and give it all I’ve got because it is demanding so much of my attention, or I need to close it down and let it go. It’s not asking nicely while tugging on my apron. It’s like holding me on the ground and yelling in my face!
The fact that you were getting all of these orders and you weren’t saying no to them is also telling. You really wanted to be doing this. If it’s just a hobby then you don’t let it pull at you in that way. I think it’s really telling that you were like, “No, I’ll get it done, I’ll get it done!”
It’s just like being 10 again when I get that dough on the counter and all of the pretty color and these great cookie cutters! My mom did not bake. If you wanted lunch money it was on the counter. If you wanted to take a lunch then pack it yourself. There was none of this coddling, cookie baking with my mom. We had this older lady from church, who was like a grandmother to us. She would invite us over all of the time to bake. She had a molasses cookie recipe and they were the big brown ones. They always had to be this one shape, but the sugar cookies could be any shape you wanted. She had all of those cookie cutters that were aluminum with the little cut outs on them. She had sprinkles and the little balls and all of the sugars and we could decorate away. That was fun. We would go over there and come home with buckets of cookies.
When something is homemade and somebody else has made it for you there is something warm and loving about that, too.
That’s right. It’s not just a cookie. I pour my heart and soul into my cookies. I spend my whole day playing with and loving them. Leaving my paralegal job wasn’t scary. It was one of the most right decisions I’ve ever made. Failure has not even crossed my mind. There is no way to fail. I have already not failed.
Notes of Reflection:
- Trial and Error – so much of starting something of your own depends on you being okay with having to try something out and see if it does or does not work. The truth is that you cannot plan for everything and along the way you have to be open to the fact that certain things just don’t work. That’s okay – learn from it and move on.
- It is okay to not want to turn your business into a huge, internationally known corporation. Be clear with yourself on what would make you happy, and if success comes knocking at your door – don’t give up the bigger vision of what makes you happy to just grow and make money. Be true to your original intention – only grow your business if it still can allow you to follow this original intention.
- Systems can make your life much easier! Kristin’s point of the importance of working smarter not harder is one to take to heart. How can you create systems in your processes and within your day to allow yourself the time and space to be organized and pointed in your work. The more efficient you are with your time, the less stress you will feel. How can you simplify things by putting certain systems in place>
- The Power of Less by Leo Babauta
- The Female Advantage by Sally Helgesen
- 365 Tao by Ming-Dao Deng
- 177 Mental Toughness Secrets of the World Class by Steve Siebold
*Images by Chapter Be and Suga Me Sweet