Liz Marek is the owner of Sugar Geek Show, an online cake decorating school and blog, in Portland Oregon. Liz specializes in sculpted cakes, realistic figure modeling, and cake structures but also enjoys making sugar flowers, working with isomalt, chocolate work, and experimenting with the limits of what sugar can do. In 2014, she began traveling and teaching all over the world as well as competing and has won numerous awards. She has since retired from cake decorating to pursue teaching and content creation full-time. She is most well-known for her book, Artisan Cake Company’s Visual Guide to Cake Decorating, and winning season 7 of Halloween Wars on the Food Network. You can find more of Liz’s tutorials, recipes, and online classes on her YouTube channel “Sugar Geek Show” or her online school www.sugargeekshow.com
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Table of Contents
Thank you for joining us today. Please introduce yourself to our readers. They want to know you, some of the background story to bring some context to your interview.
Liz Marek: Hi, I’m Elizabeth Marek an award-winning cake decorator and Sugar Geek from Portland, Oregon. I have lived all my life in Oregon and I love the Pacific Northwest. I’m the owner of Sugar Geek Show, an online cake decorating learning platform and recipe blog. I specialize in sculpting cakes to look like people and defy gravity through my understanding of engineering internal structures to support the cake. I have taught the art of cake decorating in 7 countries over the years, and I hosted the Cakeology Cake Show in Mumbai, India as the Master of Ceremonies. I have been running Sugar Geek Show with my husband Dan Marek for the last 6 years.
You are a successful entrepreneur, so we’d like your viewpoint, do you believe entrepreneurs are born or made? Explain.
Liz Marek: I think it’s a mix. What I believe is many have the potential, but few realize it. Everyone has a great idea, but it’s the doing of the work for a long period, it’s the persevering, the failures that you have to push through to see success on the other side. Not everyone can do that. You can teach someone exactly step-by-step how to be an entrepreneur but you have to be a little bit crazy to do it, and you need to have support that you can rely on to keep you going at times.
If you were asked to describe yourself as an entrepreneur in a few words, what would you say?
Liz Marek: Oh my, I think I would say I have a lot of crazy ideas all the time, and not enough time in the day to do them all and stay focused. Maybe, “Hopelessly curious?” I can’t stop learning and creating and coming up with ideas even if I try to stop.
Tell us about what your company does and how did it change over the years?
Liz Marek: My company started literally as a hobby. I was working as an Art Director at a small ad agency in Salem, Oregon. I hated my job, which was such a disappointment because I had just graduated from design school and I thought I was going to love it. Clients at ad agencies are always grumpy about the work you are doing. You spend all this time making a logo and the client says, “Why isn’t it blue? I don’t like this at all, what were you thinking?” I loved making cakes for friends, you could be super creative and it was for an event that everyone was celebrating, so the clients were always so happy and thankful. My ad agency boss found out I was making cakes in my free time and threatened me. She said, “I need all of your creativity, you can’t be splitting it up between my clients and your cakes.” I think I quit the next day, haha! She didn’t understand how creativity works.
I started making cakes while working at a few different bakeries. My client list grew until I was a full-time cake bakery. When I got pregnant with my daughter, I realized I wouldn’t be able to continue working 100-hour weeks to keep my business going, so I got into teaching online. At that time, Patreon had just come out and I decided to try it out. I was competing a lot in cake competitions and submitting my work to magazines to get noticed. When I started teaching, I realized I had built up a following over the years, and things took off. We decided to make our platform when we didn’t get a lot of support or attention from Patreon. I’ve heard Patreon is great to work with now, but they were just figuring out their systems at that time, and we needed a website that was easier to search through for cake tutorials, so after a year of work, we jumped ship. I have since added recipe content and a food blog to our website.
Thank you for all that. Now for the main focus of this interview. With close to 11.000 new businesses registered daily in the US, what must an entrepreneur assume when starting a business?
Liz Marek: The first thing you need to have is passion. If you decide to start a business, you NEED to be passionate about the idea or thing you are making. If you aren’t, YOU WILL FAIL. I’ve seen this so many times with other business owners around me that ask me for advice. The reality is, it’s so hard to build the business and grow the business in the beginning, and it usually takes a good 2-3 years before you start to see the seeds you planted grow into something real. If you aren’t passionate about the work you are doing, it will suck the life out of you before you see results and you will quit.
There are some other things like having a business plan, or a strategy of how you will create the product or service and then how to scale it up that are important, but you won’t get anywhere without a foundation of passion that you can hang your hat on. It’s also important to have people around you that support you. I feel like I could go on and on with tips and advice for entrepreneurs starting, haha.
Did you make any wrong assumptions before starting a business that you ended up paying dearly for?
Liz Marek: When I first started, I didn’t know how much to charge for the cakes I was making and I was nervous to charge a lot. I think the first cake I made, I lost money on, because I didn’t consider how much the ingredients cost. If you don’t know… butter costs a LOT of money haha. It’s important to sit down and figure out your costs (how much overhead is, how much rent is, how much ingredients cost, how much labor and insurance costs) first before you start charging for services. There’s this hurdle you have to get over mentally of, “How can I charge $1500 for a wedding cake?” but that hurdle is much easier when you can itemize out all the expenses and how much you are making.
I think after all the expenses, I realized I was charging less than minimum wage for my time, and it became easier to raise my rates. This is also why I don’t answer the question, “How much should I charge for my cakes?” because it’s different for every area you live in, how much ingredients are in that area, and quite frankly, how much you think you should charge for your time. The rate should go up over time, but the amount of time you spend on a cake should technically go down as well because as you become more experienced, you get faster at making the cakes. It’s a balance. It’s also much easier to sell that to brides. When a bride says to me, “You charge so much!” I can show them exactly where all the money is going and they realize the hourly rate for labor is very reasonable. It’s the butter that costs too much, I swear!
If you could go back in time to when you first started your business, what advice would you give yourself and why? Explain.
Liz Marek: Do something that can scale. When I started doing that, everything about my business changed. When I was a cake decorator, I got good at sculpting cakes to look like people and animals and artistic designs. This was something that only I could do. I tried to bring on interns and other bakers and what would happen is I would train this intern and put all my energy into teaching these bakers how to decorate, how to understand color theory, artistic balance, and the elements and principles of design. Then, they would quit, haha. It was such a time-intensive process of training, teaching, inspiring, and then every time I would do that, one of them would go and start their own business and I could never retain them.
When I started teaching online, one piece of content could scale infinitely. You might spend twice as long time filming and editing yourself making a cake, but after you finished, you could post that video online, and 10, or 100, or 10,000, or 10 million people could watch that video, and every time, you were making a tiny amount of money. Scaling was the big-ticket to growing the business and it’s a big part of everything we do now. One of the first questions we ask ourselves is, “Will this scale?” and if the answer is no, it’s going to take a lot of convincing for me to do it.
What is the worst advice you received regarding running a business and what lesson would you like others to learn from your experience?
Liz Marek: When I first started sharing my recipes and techniques online, I did it on YouTube for free. I got a ton of backlash, with lots of DMs saying things like, “You’re destroying the cake community by sharing secret recipes for all to see.” I also got a lot of flack for sharing a LOT of techniques and tricks. Some content creators thought every tutorial should have only one technique, not several. What I found is that sharing my techniques, actually made the community better and more inclusive. And if I didn’t share this knowledge, the way people were learning through the internet was changing everything at that time. Sharing everything forced me to up my game and learn more. I ended up constantly learning more about my craft while imparting that knowledge to others, and I believe a rising tide lifts all boats.
In your opinion, how has COVID-19 changed what entrepreneurs should assume before starting a business? What hasn’t changed?
Liz Marek: Everything is pretty much the same, just online or on apps. There’s a big hurdle to creating your app, it costs a lot of money and everyone expects it. I just had an electrician tell me that he doesn’t get customers calling him to get work scheduled, they expect to download an app from him and have the app automatically select time slots for him to come out and do the service work. If you can overcome the technological hurdle, everything is pretty much the same.
People have needs. You have a service or product that helps them with that problem. You build trust and loyalty over time with your brand. It’s pretty much the same. What has changed is the public’s relation to technology. Many who never had to use video conferencing in the past now use Zoom. Everyone is used to social distancing and that has pushed more people into online-only services and products. If you can move your business online in some way, you stand to gain a lot amount of market share by opening yourself up to the entire globe as your customer base.
What is a common myth about entrepreneurship that aspiring entrepreneurs and would-be business owners believe in? What advice would you give them?
Liz Marek: I’m not completely sure, I feel like I sort of fell into running my own business, so I don’t know a lot of the myths out there. One myth I have seen in the food blogger circles I’m in now is this: I won’t hire an accountant or lawyer because they are too expensive. This is something I believed myself for the longest time and after hiring a CPA and having my lawyer now, I just gotta save, if you have to save up for it, DO IT. It’s so much better, in the long run, to have real advice from experts that know what they are talking about and they will save you so much time, you will make up for it in the amount of time you get back to work on projects for your company.
What traits, qualities, and assumptions do you believe are most important to have before starting a business?
Liz Marek: You need to have passion, you need to be okay with taking risks and living with the consequences if something doesn’t work out, and most of the time, the first time you try something, it WON’T work out, so you need to have persistence and the ability to try several things without giving up hope. You need to be patient as well, I think the average I have seen for any content creator online is that it takes about 2 years of fruitless hard work before you start to see results. For 80% of the people out there, they have a good idea, they can make good content, but they don’t have the patience to continue working on something for 2+ years to see results.
How can aspiring leaders prepare themselves for the future challenges of entrepreneurship? Are there any books, websites, or even movies to learn from?
Liz Marek: The most important thing is to always be learning. On the internet, website design, what social networks to use, how to run your business… it all changes so much and so quickly, it’s hard to say that there is just one book to read or one website to visit. Like, if I rewound time even just 5 years ago, TikTok was created in 2016. What is now one of the biggest social platforms was a joke that nobody used. Facebook got going in 2007. Do you see what I’m saying? It’s more important to always have your ear on the community of your followers and see what they are doing and learn about it quickly and deeply.
You have shared quite a bit of your wisdom and our readers thank you for your generosity but would also love to know: If you could choose any job other than being an entrepreneur, what would it be?
Liz Marek: Hmmm, I don’t know if I would choose another job? I have had over 40 jobs in my life and I jumped from job to job very quickly, even in high school. Nothing ever really satisfied me and I got bored quickly. Being an entrepreneur is the perfect job for me because there are always new skills to learn, new challenges to solve and the pace feels relentless, which I like. Maybe I would be a special effects sculptor? But even that industry has changed so much in the last 10 years and I don’t know if I would want to be sitting in front of a computer all day long doing designs in Zbrush. I like to work with my hands.
Thank you so much for your time, I believe I speak for all of our readers when I say that this has been incredibly insightful. We do have one more question: If you could add anyone to Mount Rushmore, but not a politician, who would it be; why?
Liz Marek: It would be Duff Goldman! He is the owner of Charm City Cakes and the host of the show Ace of Cakes that was on Food Network, which was my inspiration for getting into cake making. I look up to him.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Liz Marek for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Liz Marek or her company, you can do it through her – Facebook
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