The Harvard Experience

When I was in law school, I was always told that the A students became the judges, the B students became the professors and the C students made all the money. I was shocked that the most talented among us would not also make the most money As I researched this saying, I found that it came from Harvard. The crazy thing is, this turned out to be fairly true. Many of the students who graduated in the middle of my law school class rake in big bucks these days.

I was looking at our industry the other day and thinking like I do on a long plane ride, when it occurred to me that this phenomenon applies a bit to us. Please bear with me on this one and don’t judge me until you have read the whole blog.

We obviously don’t get grades in our profession, but I classify the A students as the decorators who are extreme perfectionists. These are those very few of us who will remake something thirty times until it is right. These are the cakers who do work so accurately that people think their flowers are real, the sculpture is not really a cake or that it really is stitching or painting on the cake. The A students in my scenario are few and far between. I think of them as tortured artists, in a fashion. They will sacrifice sleep, profit and so much more for the sake of their vision. I have some names in my head here, but am not sharing because I want each of you to think about who YOU think is the best of the best.

These are the artists who spend a lot of time on their cakes and give a lot of detail. Their profit bottom line is short, because…for the time they spend on perfection, they will not make as much most of the time. Even if their price seems high initially, it is much lower when you divide it by their man hours.

The B students in my scenario are highly talented decorators. They pursue excellence, not perfection. They do their best, but know how and when to step away from a cake. They have the skills to compete with the As, but have decided that such immersion in work is not worth it for them. Instead, they find their passion in teaching others, in passing on their knowledge and expertise. These people could also be the ones that run profitable shops, but they have chosen to not do a high volume of cakes.

These teachers will make some money, but will not get rich from this work. They will, however, be rich in students and admirers that they will have influenced. These folks hold the future of our industry. They motivate and inspire the next generation to get involved with cakes. They are not doing this for fame or fortune (as both are probably unlikely); rather they do this because teaching consumes them. It is who they are. I am sure you have all pictured a few people that fit this category, also.

Finally, there are the C students – or decorators. They might be able to do perfect or extremely excellent work, but they have made the CHOICE to turn out good quality cakes in a shorter amount of time. For these operations, they spend less time and give less detail, to increase their profit. This is where higher volume pays dividends.

Take Buddy, for example. He is likely capable of making a perfect or near perfect cake if he wants, but is not truly known for that. He is known for being ridiculously, incredibly fast at decorating. His cakes are still beautiful, but they do not compare to the work of certain perfectionists I know. I remember watching him compete in a Food Network challenge in Oklahoma. He turned out a great cake. And finished almost an hour early. He just couldn’t slow down and saw no need to fuss with his cake the final hour making everything perfect. He was able to step away.

Grocery stores and large retail operations have to do business this way. They need to turn out 20 good cakes in the time you do one great one. Their profit per cake might look lower at first blush since the price is cheaper, but they do SO MANY that they actually rake in more profit.

The toughest decision for you will be to figure out what type of decorator you want to be. You have to understand that perfection and profit are a fine line to walk. The more time you spend, the less you make. Sacrificing detail and design in order to work faster and more economically is hard for most of us. At my shop, I was determined to not do “cookie cutter” designs. I wanted everything to be custom. I did that for a few years, then figured out that I was losing money on all those cakes. And many customers had trouble seeing designs in their head. I finally set out a couple dozen “standard designs”. Instantly, customers seemed to relax. They could walk in and pick a cake in seconds. They could see the price. We knew those designs like the back of our hand and were able to crank those out, increasing our profit. The increased profit gave us a cushion for those custom cakes we really wanted to do…but knew we were probably going to just squeak by on price wise.

For my shop, we had the A cakes and the C cakes. I guess that made us a B bakery and that was probably the right place for us. We could not make it as a straight A shop and it would have killed our decorating spirit to be a straight C shop.

You need to take a look at your goals for your shop. Is your goal to be a recognized leader in cake decorating? Do you want to be known for realism? If so, you may need to accept that you are not going to get rich doing cakes. You can get by. But you can have extreme satisfaction from your work. If your goal is to be rich or to retire early, you need to consider what it will take to increase your profit level. You will probably have to sacrifice detail for speed.

I know it is hard to think that you cannot have it all, but this is a tough industry. Fame and fortune rarely seem to go hand in hand. I have always liked a quote from Oprah…you can have it all, just not all at the same time. I personally have been mostly a B. And I am totally ok with that.


11 thoughts on “The Harvard Experience

  1. Great Insight!
    I posted the following on my Page.
    If you want great insight to Our Cake World, I suggest that you follow This blog by Ruth Rickey.
    She is truly a marvelous instructor/mentor.

    • Thank you. I want to help folks see that they are not alone. We all face many of the same hurdles. Trying to make a living doing cakes is certainly one of the biggest!!

  2. Thank you !! this is something I have struggled with for years – I don\’t think I will ever be an ”A” decorater but I have beaten myself up over that for years – always wishing that I COULD get that level of perfection that I see from some of my cakey friends. It has only been this year that I stopped worrying and just listened to the praise from the client.
    After reading your post I realise ….. it IS OK to be a ’B’ decorater 🙂

  3. I really appreciate your insight on this topic. Just concluding my first year and trying to think through how to position my business for the coming year. Laying it out like that makes it much easier to see where I need to focus my efforts in order to stay true to what motivates me AND find a way to make some income at the same time. Thanks for sharing from your years of experience. All the best to you and yours. xoxo

  4. I’ll never be an “A” decorator – once had thought I had aspirations to be when I entered several cake shows and won blue ribbons, but then fondant and gumpaste came along and I was strictly buttercream and that’s what my customers liked so I decided to stay in that category for my customers. After all, what did the blue ribbons make as far as money?? Actually nothing when you added up the ingredients to do them and the time it took. I have no desire to be certified and so my aim is solely to please my customers and enjoy their praise of what I do!!

  5. This was an excellent read. Funny how you know things are the way they are but it is not until someone puts it in writing that we do acknowledge it. I know I am an A type in decorating & personality. I feel that being the C type was akin to giving in/up. I would rather hang up my apron than go there. Your inventive suggestions are great food for thought!!

  6. Wow, I’ve thought about this so much over the last two years thinking about starting a business. I thought I could be an A decorator and get C money. I never got to an A but I still had sleepless nights, opening the box, closing the box, putting it in different light, taking a photo and checking it out, throwing out that flower and doing it again, taking off the sugarpaste and doing again. It is like torture.

  7. Excellent points. And, I would imagine some people are B/C decorators to make a living and A decorators for competitions. We all have to make the right choice for us—and not feel guilty about it. No level is bad–they are just different.

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