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5 crucial lessons learnt from building a startup home bakery, plus a startup tech company



Entrepreneur | Leadership

By Sheryl Thai

Cupcakes and technology. These two words don’t really belong in the same sentence together. Throw the word “startup” in there and you’ve got some weird word salad. Yet, I’ve somehow mashed it up in the title of this article and as I dissect the lessons I’ve learnt, it’ll all piece together like a perfect recipe.

Having built a business from scratch in the kitchen of my mum’s home about 10 years ago, I didn’t know much about business. There weren’t any entrepreneurial courses or business workshops I could attend. It was a lot of trial and error, google sessions, watching YouTube tutorials and reading books such as The E-Myth Revisited.

10 years on, I’m now building a tech business again from my kitchen table (or We Work, depending on the day) and I must say that whilst they’re both very different experiences, there are crucial concepts which are the same.

So here are my key five:

#1 MVP – Minimum Viable Product

Ideas are great fun and the excitement that builds when you’re thinking about all the amazingthings can be exhilarating. When the creative juices start to flow, there’s no slowing down as to where the mind can go. Then comes reality check. When starting a business or hatching an idea into reality, there are often constraints of some sort. Time, money, resources and so forth. So this is where the MVP comes to play.

Before I mastered my cupcake craft, I had to get the base recipe right, without all the beautiful trimmings. I created the basic Vanilla, Chocolate and Red Velvet bases, got my friends and family to taste test them to refine them. Eventually, I sold these at farmer’s markets to strangers, got their feedback and improved the recipe until I knew customers were telling their friends about me. That was when I knew that I was ready to add on the trimmings and customisations.

In the tech world, I researched the first iteration of launched products of tech giants. Their first MVP’s were vastly different compared to how their products are now. Just have a look at LinkedIn or Facebook. The key here was to get something released, allow the early adopters to test it and collect feedback so that you can continue to improve it further.

#2 You are more resourceful than you think

Money is not the only resource to trade out there in this economy. There is knowledge, connections, tangibles and favours.

10 years ago I couldn’t just whip up a Shopify store to sell cupcakes. If I wasn’t able to sell a single thing, I had budgeted enough money to last me 6 months before I had to go and find a job – so this impending sense of doom made me very resourceful. I managed to barter with a web dev friend to build me a website in exchange for a wedding cupcake tower. He was getting married and he needed a cake.

In the tech-world today, there are thousands of resources at the touch of your fingertips tapping away at a keyboard. If you’re looking at a new piece of tech, chances are someone has already created a version of it. Use Zapier to hack it together, get on Product Hunt, use TypeForm, get on Reddit or follow Techcrunch.

#3 Listen to your gut

This is simple. When something feels off, listen to it. Over time your gut instinct will start accumulating all these life lessons and it gets stronger. Meditation, I’ve found, has been really pivotal to allowing me to make better decisions and being confident with them. It is true what they say, it’s better to make a decision and deal with the consequences if it fails than not to make a decision at all. Build that momentum.

#4 Say no, more than you say yes

In the startup phase, you’ll have limited resources and finite focus. When you start gaining traction, there will be customers, clients, friends, investors and strangers telling you what you should do with your business and your time.

Saying no will be your best friend during these times.

When cupcake orders started trickling in, people started asking me to make custom biscuits, macarons and cake pops. I said yes because all I could see were the shiny dollar signs. After 3 failed attempts at making macarons and an impending deadline, I made a vow to myself that I would never put myself through such torture again. So I said no, no, no to those finnicky macarons until I was able to hire a proper pastry chef, 2 years later. Instead, I put all my energy on focusing on what I loved and doing it well and that was baking cupcakes.

#5 You don’t fail, you “iterate”

Some person: “What happened to that grand idea of yours, is it still going?”

Me: “Oh no, it’s not. I’ve decided to stop doing that”

Some person: “So it failed then?”

Me: “Uh, I dunno, yeah I guess so?”

Some person: “Oh hmm” *judgmental face*

Now replace that “Yeah I guess so?” with this: “Actually, it’s given me some amazing insight on how to create an even better solution!”

Remember, giving something a try and “failing” at it is better than the person that isn’t even trying at all. So just do a little swap with your language and remove fail with iterate. It makes all the difference and that *some person* can go away.


Sheryl Thai is the CEO and co-founder of the League of Extraordinary Women, founder of Cupcake Central, sought after speaker, mentor, Board Member of Project Gen Z and Membership Chair of Entrepreneurs Organisation Melbourne chapter. She was awardedthe Entrepreneur of the Yearin 2013 at the Australian Start Up Awards and became a finalist in the Telstra Business Women’s Awards 2016 in the Entrepreneur category. Sheryl is a speaker of choice for high profile brands such as Telstra, Hewlett Packard, American Express, Square, RMIT and The Body Shop. In April 2019, Sheryl made the decision to successfully exit her first business, Cupcake Central, to focus on building a tech platform for the League of Extraordinary Women to connect women on a global scale.