These days, it feels like the American dream of owning one’s own business is becoming harder than ever. Whether it’s due to the constantly fluctuating state of the economy or a simple lack of space for new ideas, it can be difficult to know exactly where to start, or if your idea has enough merit and passion behind it to even get off the ground. How does one put themselves out there in today's modern business world? Luckily, you often never have to go it alone, as others who went before you can provide advice on where to begin.
That’s exactly what Candace Nelson, the acclaimed creator of the bakery chain Sprinkles Cupcakes and renowned judge of Cupcake Wars on Food Network, hopes to do with her latest endeavor: a new book on what she believes is her recipe for business endeavors, appropriately titled Sweet Success. While the book claims to be “a simple recipe to turn your passion into profit,” the chapters take on much more than the metaphor, as Nelson takes the reader through her own experience to explain what steps must be taken to ensure success.
“We all want to live a passion-filled life, right?” Nelson says in an interview with Modern Luxury. “I think for me, passion is really the fuel that keeps you going… it's what helps you attract people to you, whether it's customers, whether it's people who want to work for you, whether it's suppliers. I like to think of it as that extra battery pack, when you're really just presented with all those obstacles and all those challenges, you can kind of tap into it and it helps you get through.”
The book, sitting at over 225 pages long, is a comprehensive guide to what Nelson believes is critical to success, both mentally and practically. Chapter topics take on a wide variety of advice, including ideas like adding your own perspective – which Nelson explains was a critical reason Sprinkles became such a popular chain, as she dared to ask “could a cupcake be sophisticated?” – and suggestions for keeping one’s brand in a good place financially, like registering a name for the business early or pushing it on social media.
“It's a four-step recipe; I don't go crazy with the baking analogies, they're really just the chapter headings, it is meant to be accessible,” Nelson says. “It starts with ‘Dream It!’ which is all about the mindset, which is foundational to any journey… Then ‘Package It!’ which is the building of the brand… I take you through how to craft your brand from scratch, which is so important… Then ‘Build it!’ which is once you know that you have something and you want to grow it, and then ‘Protect it!’ … Are you planning to grow it quickly and protect it, even with just intellectual property, copyrights, trademarks?”
What makes Nelson’s book so different from other advice or entrepreneurship books is how grounded her advice is. While sharing anecdotes from her own journey, Nelson frames the process with concrete steps to take and often does not shy away from how difficult following one’s dream can be at times. One notable example occurs early in the book when Nelson tells the reader to ask themselves one simple question: “is there anything else you can do?” If the answer is “yes,” like following one’s backup plan of a stable desk job or finding work elsewhere, then entrepreneurship life is not for them.
“If you're not completely obsessed with your idea, it might not be the one just yet,” Nelson explained. “If you're a creative person or entrepreneur, you're looking for problems to solve in the world; you're not going to just have one idea, there's always going to be more. There's so much opportunity cost to putting your money and your time and your efforts and your reputation into something better… [you need to] make sure that you have to do it, like you can't sleep, you wouldn't forgive yourself if you didn't do it, to make sure that it's really the one… if there’s a Plan B, keep looking.”
There are several other lessons Nelson adds throughout the book, like the importance of persisting through adversity – “what separates the successful entrepreneurs… the idea that no matter how many times you fail, or how many “no’s” you hear, you pick yourself back up and you keep going” – and having a purpose for your business in addition to a passion:
“Purpose is really that grounding force,” Nelson says. “It's sort of that “why,” right? [For me,] passion was baking, but [the] purpose was like the joyfulness and the connection of elevating a simple food and watching people enjoy it and integrate it into the special moments of their life. I love to get in the bakery every day and bake, but really, what drew me to it was this idea of bringing joy into a world that is sometimes fractured and divisive.”
Perhaps it’s this “purpose” that makes “Sweet Success” so endearing to read, as Nelson’s voice seems to anticipate the echoes and worries one might experience on their endeavors and almost puts all of them at ease. Unlike other helping books, which sometimes require extra effort from the reader and ask them to write in their own responses to questions, “Sweet Success” is focused on amplifying the human experience in business, something Nelson says is critical to her own philosophy:
“I think customers want to have a human element to the brands that they are buying and supporting,” Nelson says. “The OG way of that discourse was me standing behind the bakery counter and talking to everyone as they came in the door. You can't discount that sort of one-by-one human connection, and ultimately, that's what gets people talking and doing your marketing for you. That’s the holy grail of marketing.”
As her philosophy suggests, this project was not a quick side project for Nelson, but rather one that came out of passion and purpose… and the pandemic. Aided by a more-open calendar than usual because of the COVID-19 shutdowns, Nelson was able to make time and sit down at home more frequently, giving her time to work on a project she says she's wanted to make for years.
“It came about quite organically, but came about also at the right time,” Nelson says. “There's only so many hours in the day, I have my own business that I'm trying to run now as well… I wouldn't normally have had time to do that, writing a book – people say this all the time, but having been through it sure is true – it is really intense. I'm not a professional writer, so the act of sitting down every day and having to come up with those words, whether or not you want to or you're feeling inspired, is incredibly challenging and time-consuming.
“The pandemic offered an opportunity: all the events were off the calendar, and I wasn't even having to take my kids to school because they were just sitting at home on Zoom,” she continued. “It gave me an opportunity to sit down, have some quiet and reflect on the incredible journey I’d just been on. It's not often that as an entrepreneur and a mom, any of us who are doing all of these things would get the time to really reflect, we're just always going [onto] what's coming next. So that was a really special moment for me to do that.”
The main purpose behind writing the book, Nelson says, was to provide something she was searching for when she got her start: support for female founders and entrepreneurs. Explaining that she gets approached frequently for advice, she took a period of introspection to think what could provide the most help the easiest, arriving at the conclusion that a book may be just the thing.
“I wrote the book that I really needed,” Nelson says. “I'm seeing such an amazing energy in the entrepreneurship world in terms of females supporting one another, and in terms of awareness about the lack of funding… I wanted to be able to share the lessons I had learned building as a first-time founder, deer-in-the-headlights, bootstrapping this business without having any idea what I was doing, and really sort of demystifying it.
I think a lot of what we see in the media is founders that are raising hundreds of millions of dollars, or they're building rocket ships to the moon, and it feels very intimidating,” she went on. “It feels just overwhelming. I wanted to break it down into a simple recipe, and I think I'm the person to do that because I built a business out of something that anyone could make.”
Nelson also added that she’s been incredibly encouraged by the initial response to the book, and noted that the environment now – especially aided by things like social media and angel investors like herself – is much different than the one she started in over a decade ago. When asked where the initial fear came from, Nelson says she believed that originally there was only enough space for one woman on every executive board, and was often only there for diversity, creating a space of competition for women amongst themselves:
“I feel like when I was coming up in the career world… it was really hard to get that seat, so there wasn't a ton of collaboration, there wasn't a ton of mentorship going on,” Nelson says. That has changed so dramatically… this idea that women need to be helping women, women need to be investing in women. We're better together, we're stronger together… the more we band together and collaborate with one another, and support.”
While it may seem like Nelson has plenty of ideas and advice to share with the world, she is also quite keen on one important thing: staying focused and resilient. Mentioning how she had to deal with plenty of setbacks and humiliating moments before Sprinkles got its start, Nelson says that while it may seem intimidating at first, having a lofty goal was not her focus, but having manageable steps that are easy to follow each day:
“I think that you have to find a system that works for you,” Nelson says. “I also think what's helpful whenever you're going after a lofty goal, which seems probably intimidating at the get go, is to break it down into small, smaller, manageable steps… I knew kind of where I was going, I had a vision for it, but it wasn't like on day one, ‘how am I going to disrupt the bakery landscape?’ When you're aligned, and you're on the right path, you start to really get some momentum, and before you know it, each step just feels a lot easier.”
The work on the book is far from over, as Nelson will continue to promote “Sweet Success” into the near future, but as she writes in the book, there’s always a time when it comes to moving on to the next adventure. Recognizing the difficulty that might come with doing so, however, Nelson is quick to explain the good that comes with moving on, and what one might have to tell themselves in doing so:
“Don't self-identify too much, your worth as a person doesn't necessarily have anything to do with your output,” Nelson says. It's wonderful to have accomplishments. It's also wonderful to have failures, and they don't necessarily reflect on you. In fact, I like to reframe failure because you're pushing yourself to grow, right? You're pushing yourself to be challenged, and do things you're not comfortable doing. So give yourself a pat on the back for that. … I think that you don't identify or identify with your business so that when you get to the end of that goal, or you step away from your business… you don't feel like you're floating or unmoored.”
While the title is saccharine, “Sweet Success” is fully baked, and finds its footing in the fantastic voice of its author. One can only await with bated breath – and rumbling stomachs – to see what she does next.
Photography by: Cover: YinYang / Getty Images. Headshot: courtesy of Candace Nelson.