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Self Employed Stories: Alices Cupcakes - The interview

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by Startacus Admin

Some of you will already know that for 2014 we’ve decided to make an extra special effort to inspire you potential startup business types by introducing a new weekly feature called ‘Self-Employed Stories’.

The series is focusing on people who have shown great determination and passion for their business idea in the face of considerable challenges. It’s Week number 2 and to carry on from last week’s inspiring story “From prison to poolside” we’ve been in touch with the lovely Carol Drake, founder (and chief baker) of delightful business “Alice's Cupcakes & Novelty Cakes”.

“The funny thing is that moment in time has a strange effect.  You realise that life is for living not for existing.”   

A visit to Carol’s website shows you that it’s a great little enterprise and that she has a flair for beautifully decorated cakes for all occasions…but there is no hint of the turbulent times which Alices Cupcakesultimately led to the business’ creation.

Carol is a breast cancer survivor and her inspiring startup story demonstrates brilliantly how a new business can grow from even the bleakest and most unlikely of situations…

It’s the first time she has shared her story, and we are thrilled she is doing it here at Startacus.

Carol, let’s set the scene, could you tell us a little about your background?

My parents were ordinary working class people, dad was a dockyard worker and mum a housewife with a little cleaning job, but neither had any ambition for anything more.

I was stubborn and ambitious from the start but as a child was expected to tow the line and get a job as soon as I left school (college was always out as my parents couldn't afford it).

So I did the usual thing - had a string of menial jobs; kennel maid, hospital cleaner, silver service waitress, nursing home carer & sales.  But apart from my time as a waitress I was never really happy, I guess you could say I always had my head in the clouds, always believing there was something better.

I got engaged to my husband Derek  while I was working as a waitress and soon after bought a house under Maggie Thatcher's shared ownership scheme.  Derek got ill after contracting Russian flu and was never right after that.  His breathing suffered, he had chest pains and walking problems, he was often in hospital - in fact he still is, even to this day.  This compounded issues which we had been having with paying for the house and eventually we had to let it go.

So what were the events that led to you start Alice’s Cupcakes?

In Nov 2009 I started a little dress shop in Plymouth 40 miles from my house my home but I soon started to feel increasingly tired and assumed it was the commuting to and from my shop - I am normally such an energetic person…

But then In January 2011 I found a small lump under my breast, I was sent to have it investigated and had a procedure to have it tested. The results came back that it was cancerous. I made the decision to close the shop. In March of that year I had the operation but was recalled because they had missed the mark and my wound kept having to be reopened.

So there I was back at home, bored and fidgety, when a friend said to me “you make really good cakes, why don't you make some and sell them at the local market?” I figured I had nothing to lose and started selling a few in the local town hall on a Saturday morning. It wasn't much but it did get me out of the house.

In July I got the news I was hoping for- I was clear of the cancer.

After you got the all clear how did you feel?

The funny thing is that moment in time has a strange effect.  You realise that life is for living not for existing.  I was back in debt because I still had to pay the lease on the shop I rented... but the cancer had closed a door that I knew wasn't to be and instead it has opened another…. the opportunity to build a new business.

With your new found outlook, what was next for the business?

In May 2012 I took a huge risk, I used £150 destined to pay a bill and used it to sign up to the 3 day Kingsbridge food & music festival (I had been offered a last minute cancellation pitch). With only 36 hours to go Derek and I baked and iced 360 cupcakes!  I knew I would get the money back because I had a big cake order for that weekend.  I sold all but 24!

That July I took another risk by signing up to sell at the Kingsbridge farmers’ market. The table rent is much more than the little market in the hall but I had exposure, people were taking notice and what's more they were buying my little cupcakes & loving them!

I made enough to invest in a DIY website and started getting celebration cake orders from London & Bradford for people coming down here on holiday.

I got invited to be on ITV’s Food Glorious Food September 2012. I didn't win but I did get my 15 minutes of fame. The next few days were crazy, I got recognised by total strangers.

Alice CupcakesDo you think that you would have done things differently had you not been dealing with a serious illness at the time?

I think if I hadn't been ill I would probably be doing the run of the mill stuff, I know I would have lost the shop because the recession hit hard shortly after. I know of 5 other gown shops that have gone under.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of starting a business like yours (Particularly someone who is facing health challenges) ?

My advice would be follow your dream... but do it slowly!  Don't be in a hurry to get a shop - try doing it from home first if you can.  Get a little DIY website, sign up for any social networks - I found Twitter to be the best. Also, don't be afraid to approach the people who interest you.  But most of all don't go straight to the bank with an idea... get it up and running first before you think about that!

Lastly make sure you enjoy what you do, because enthusiasm is infectious!

Whats the plan for 2014?  

2014 is already on the up! I have weddings booked,  my first wedding fairs on February 2nd and 9th. Birthday cakes & a new National Trust deal with one of their coffee shops.  We are really excited!

We can’t thank Carol enough for sharing her inspiring story with us and we hope that it’s given you a little nudge towards doing something with your big (or small) idea.

Why not check out Alice's Cupcakes for yourself by visiting her website?

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Published on: 9th February 2014

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