a Hobby into Gold
When Charlotte Fowkes was fired from her job, she turned her hobby creating "diaper cakes" into an online business. Three years after Baby-Cakes.com was created, demand for her product has been so great that she recently opened a traditional retail store. Charlotte shows that ingenuity and creativity can lead to success in entrepreneurship.
Isabel M. Isidro
http://www.powerhomebiz.com/OnlineSuccess/babycakes.htmWomen today are faced with the difficult task of trying to balance their career with motherhood. Instead of staying at home to care for the kids, many mothers work at 8-to-5 jobs to help support their families and provide better future for their kids. But what does a mother do when her child is sick and hospitalized?
Charlotte Fowkes was working as a computer programmer when her boss fired her for taking too much time off to care for her very sick child. Unfazed by the loss of her job, she turned it into an opportunity to commercialize a hobby that she had been engaged in for years: creating "baby cakes." These are not edible cakes; rather, a combination of diapers and baby products artfully arranged to look a cake. Friends have marveled at it for years, and she knew that it could be turned into a full-time business. In 1998, she started Baby-Cakes.com
After four years, her business has grown and expanded in a way that even she has never expected. She now sells both retail and wholesale online. In August 2001, she has crossed a new milestone for her business: she opened a retail store. She is all set to combining the dot-com world with the traditional brick-and-mortar.
Charlotte shows us that entrepreneurship is sometimes a matter of simply taking the opportunity and going for it. Learn how she developed her very creative craft and established relationships with suppliers. Know the low-cost marketing techniques that she uses to keep her cash registers ringing. Get some ideas on how she balances her home-based business with her family life. Be inspired with her story as you pursue your own entrepreneurial endeavors.
What exactly are "baby cakes?"
Baby cakes are gift packages made to look like layered cakes that you eat. But they are not edible! Rather, these "cakes" are completely made out of diapers. Inside, it contains blankets, undershirt, towels, bottles and toys -- things that you can take apart and use for the baby. What sets my product apart is that everything inside is practical.
Baby cakes are perfect as gifts, and can be the centerpiece of the shower. I have a lot of corporate clients who order them as gifts to their customers or employees.
When I first saw your site, I asked, "How can she ship out cakes?"
Exactly. I have a lot of people in a day call me or email me thinking that these are regular cakes because they look like it. They ask me, "How could I possibly mail them?" It's a normal question that I get everyday.
Where did you get this idea of packaging things to make them look like a cake?
When my 9 year old was born in 1992, I received a similar gift called diaper cake. It was real small, made of a layer of diapers, but it wasn't practical. Lace and stuff had been glued on the diaper to make it look cute; but it wasn't usable.
I decided to create my own version of it to be given to my friends as gifts. My friends would tell me, "Oh, can you make me one for this friend;" and, "Oh, you should sell these. These are the neatest things I have ever seen." The difference with my creation is its practicality: no matter how big it gets, they can still use the diapers. I didn't begin to sell them until 1998.
Your product sounds labor-intensive. Describe your process in creating baby cakes.
When I talked to other online entrepreneurs who just pop their things into the box and ship them off, I realized how much work I have to go through for my products. It's not too bad, but I build it from scratch. I have to band the diapers with rubber bands, pin them together and pick the toys that are color coordinated with the diaper's design.
The diapers are not ruined in any way. You can still use them. I wrap the "cake" with towels and blankets, which could be taken apart and used for the baby. Inside are rattles, socks and shoes, squeeky toys, and other practical stuff that parents could use no matter how many babies they have.
The tallest is 22 inches tall. It consists of 55 diapers, and contains about 25 to 30 items depending on the theme. The smallest one is "baby cupcake" with 4 diapers and 4 or 5 items in it.
I then wrap the finished cake, put a hand-made gift card with a handwritten note. I put an ingredient card on each one, which looks like a recipe. Just little personal touches that I always like to put.
To completely put one together probably takes about 20 minutes. I'm pretty quick now actually, whereas before it used to take me an hour to create one. Now I know how to get it perfect faster.
Have you always been crafty?
It's funny because I never considered myself the least bit creative or crafty. But I sew my own blankets because I want certain colors to look right with the things I have. If I can't find them commercially, I buy the fabrics and sew some of the stuff myself.
What made you decide to go commercial?
Everything happened all at once. It was 1998, and I was then pregnant with my 3rd child. For a time I have been thinking of doing something at home.
The big push came when I was fired from my job as a computer programmer. My oldest daughter, Kirstie, was hospitalized when her appendix burst, and my employer fired me because obviously I was missing too much work. We almost lost her; and she was only 5. She had too big an appendix for her little body.When you were fired from your job, did you immediately think of starting Baby-Cakes.com?
No. I didn't. My boss told me not to come back and Kirstie was still in the hospital. I just concentrated on her. I didn't think about it anymore. Once she was out of the woods and came home and got back to school, then I thought about my "cakes." People have told me for so many years that I should try selling these. So I'm just gonna do it.
My husband and I both have computer backgrounds and I figured I could put together a web site and start a business on the Web. One of my friends agreed to host my site. My family and friends told me that I could do it; since I can program computers I can easily figure out FrontPage. So sure enough; I just did it.
What were your expectations?
The Web was new to me. I looked at it as trial and error; I wasn't really sure how it would go. I didn't really expect to do a whole bunch, or more than what I was doing in my hometown. I have been marketing my products to our community here, like hospitals and craft fairs. I really wasn't expecting the Web to do anything. I was expecting the local market to do more. It ended up reversed.
What part of your background prepared you to embark on a business?
I was raised by a single mom. I saw how hard she had to work and how she didn't have a choice. She couldn't be with me even if she wanted to. So I think between that and my kid's health problem, with my boss expecting me to work when I couldn't, that made me want to go on my own. I'd rather work this hard to have the flexibility of not having to answer to anybody.
I didn't see my mom as much as I wanted to. And I didn't want that to happen to my kids. So that really pushed me to work hard. The 8-to-5, I did that for years, but then there's the fact that even you work hard for a boss and you need a time off because of a sick child, you are not always allowed.
Describe the early days of Baby-Cakes.com
I started my Web site in August 1998. I did everything myself: I researched what the search engines were and I submitted everything myself. But I didn't get my first order until three months later, in November. And that was only a single order. I didn't have another order until December.
What were your greatest difficulties when you were starting out?
I was lucky that everything seemed to fall into place. Looking for suppliers was easy: all I did was to turn the package over of the product I like and look up the number of the manufacturer. I call them up and explain to them what I do. Some of them were pretty nice and really good about not making me meet the minimum order right away.
But a few refused to give me leeway and insisted I place their required minimum order, which was often too big for me back then. Instead of just trying out 10 or 20 pieces, they wanted me to order cases and cases of their products. That first whole year I just cringed when I had to place an order. I had trouble finding a place for them in the house. More importantly I was thinking, "How am I going to get rid or sell all of these?" But then it always did.
How did you finance your business?
I didn't get any loans - never have. We started by buying in the clearance sections of the department stores and putting a couple of cakes together. We then sell those to hospitals and stores, and that would give me more money to buy more. I was able to keep on replenishing my stocks that way at first.
You are running this business from your home. What are the advantages and disadvantages of running a business from home?
It's nice because it is a lot more flexible. I hate to work for another boss again who frowns when you tend to your sick child. I would not be able to go back to that life ever again.
But the hardest part is that you're never away from work. It is always right there: 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. It is hard to walk away from. Plus, you have to look for room in your house to place your inventory. We used to put our stocks in the garage, then we bought a big shed.
You have 3 kids. What advice can you give in terms of coping up with work while raising kids?
I have to say it's hard work, but it's nice to think that you're doing it to help yourself and your family instead of a boss. And my kids love to help! The eldest (9 year old) can really help and the little one (the one whom I was pregnant when I started) is my toy tester. He probably tried every single thing. It if works for him, I am confident that it will work for the kids of my customers.
How do you balance family responsibilities with this business?
My husband is a huge help. He is so supportive. When the kids are in bed, he will help me complete the orders for the next day. No matter how late we have to stay up. So it is a real team effort. He has an 8-to-5 job yet when he comes home and there's lots of orders, he knows that we've got to do it. He helps a lot.
What is the market of Baby-Cakes.com?
Primarily retail, but I get a lot of wholesale orders too. In fact, I've developed a wholesale line for other stores and Web sites. At least 30 web sites and about 50 retail stores, hospitals etc. across the country carry my "baby cakes." I now probably put an average of 35 or 40 a day for wholesale orders.
Corporate clients are now a sizeable part of our business. We get a lot of repeat business from a lot of big companies and they just found me in the web. In April, I got my first national celebrity order when the lawyer of the country western singer Clint Black ordered baby cakes for Clint, whose wife had just given birth. That was kind of exciting.
Everyday I get more orders. Every month there's been growth. I am the bookkeeper too (although I am a little behind in bookkeeping) and there are more gross sales every month.What are your customer relation strategies?
Since most of my orders are coursed through the Internet, I contact each one personally, either through a personal email or phone call. I confirm every order at least through emails. But if I ever have a question I call them. I make sure that I communicate directly with each customer for every order. I like that. That is how I want to be treated when I'm shopping. I want continue with this approach, no matter how big my business will get.
How do you market your site?
I have never paid for any advertising on the web, even until now. Everything I've done is just to submit to the search engines, exchange links with similar sites, and network with other moms. In February 1999, I was listed in Yahoo. And since the day I got listed in Yahoo, I always get an order. It was incredible. That really helped the site take off. Plus, the more links you have, the more you start showing up in the search engines and the more popular you get.
I am involved in a couple of mom's sites. One of which is MyBabyShops.com, and we help each other network. We can't compete with the big guys so we pull resources to market our sites collectively both on and off the Web. For example, I will be the rep for the whole group carrying everyone's products for the big baby show here in Denver next month.
I also belong to another group of moms called LittleDidIknow.com, which also operates their own gift shop and moms consign their goods.
What kind of offline marketing strategies do you use?
All I've done are craft fairs, where I pass out my literature. I participate in baby shows, like the upcoming merchandise mart in Denver. I also trade business cards with other businesses that I go to or frequent. I help promote them in my store and they help get the word out for my business.
I haven't done any advertising although I may have to start looking for parenting newspapers and magazines in town now that I have a place where they can go and shop. I might be able to push the local market a little more now.
Do you have a lot of competitors doing similar "baby cakes"?
Yes, a lot of wannabes. I saw one other gal doing it when I started. Yeah, there's been a lot of people -- copycats - trying to do the same kind of thing. Unfortunately the one other gal who was doing it at that time - I don't think she is still out there anymore - she ended up getting a domain similar to mine to try to get my traffic. Just one letter off! And there's also one without the dash "babycakes.com." And there's one without the "s" or "babycake.com."
The thing is you have to sometimes buy a lot of domain names to protect yourself.
I did buy a few of them, but mostly it was for words that I want people to search for me with. And that has worked out for my benefit.
What are the next steps for Baby-Cakes.com?
My site has grown so much that now I have decided to take it to the retail store. By the end of July (editor's note: interview was done in July 2001), we're going to have a store. It has gotten too big for the house and I get too many orders everyday.
Our house is only 1600 sq. feet and we looked at either rebuilding it or getting a new one but we decided against both options. I didn't want to change the kids' schools; there wasn't anything available in our area that was bigger. So, as of August, I will be working 5 minutes from home and I will be in an actual store. My very own store.
So you're moving to a brick and mortar.
Yes, a brick and mortar. Isn't it neat? I am so excited. It is 900 sq. feet. While there, I can still operate my online store; take orders and answer emails. We have arranged for UPS to pick up deliveries. They are already picking up at the house. I print all the shipping off the computer anyway. And I will do the assembly there.
How will that change your operation? And your family and kids?
I will only be gone while they are in school. I'll be able to hire some people to help in operating the store. I don't think it will affect them negatively at all because we are so overwhelmed with too much stuff in the house.
Plus, I think I'll be able to get away from work now. I won't have to be there working at the house all the time. So maybe this will give me a little more time for them because it won't be like 24 hours work. I might be able to leave it a little more than I can now because it will be at a retail place.
Also my 9 year old is pretty excited because she will be able to use one of the rooms that I was using downstairs as her bedroom. She's very excited to have her own room.
Do you have employees now?
I have. I have three part timers who help get things together. I know I'll keep them for sure. And I will have to hire at least one more full time person.
What advice can you give to other online entrepreneurs?
I have to say just do it. That's what I did. I had my mind set that I was going to do this; that I was not going to work for a boss again. You know I've just been through so much with my kids - I remember that one of my kids had an incident at school and my boss wouldn't let me leave because no one would answer the phone. To be told I cannot do that, particularly when it comes to my kids. Especially moms - they do not stay in a situation like that. The kids are more important; your family is much more important. You can always find another job. It pushes you to find an alternative and discover the things that you've always wanted to do.
I never imagined that I could have my own store. Yeah, it's neat.