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The CEO of Sprinkles Cupcakes Turned Her Passion Into Profit. Now, She's Sharing How We Can All Create a "Sweet Success"

The CEO of Sprinkles Cupcakes Turned Her Passion Into Profit. Now, She's Sharing How We Can All Create a "Sweet Success"

By Mara Freedman
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You likely know Candace Nelson, either as a judge from Cupcake Wars or Sugar Rush, or through her many delicious and innovative treats. Candace revolutionized the baking industry when she left a career in finance to start Sprinkles, the world’s first cupcake bakery. Now Candace is sharing her expertise, knowledge, and joy of entrepreneurship in her new book, Sweet Success. Candace joined The Sunday Paper from her kitchen last week to help us all learn the recipe to turn our passions into profit.

A Conversation with Candace Nelson

Sweet Success is written in the language of baking, yet it’s a book about passion, entrepreneurship, and business. Why did you make the decision to write about business in such an approachable manner?

I really believe that entrepreneurship is for everyone. And that is my mission. We see a lot of men in the media who are glamorized for raising hundreds of millions of dollars and for sending rocket ships into space. And I think that's really daunting and intimidating for people. And I just wanted to share the message that I built a business, a big business out of something that literally, pretty much anyone can do. I mean, anyone can bake a cupcake out of their kitchen. And that's how I started. I really believe that there isn't some special quality that entrepreneurs have that the rest of us don't. It really boils down to having an idea that you can't stop obsessing over, having a passion, but also having a plan. And so Sweet Success is meant to be that plan for people.

You say not every passion translates into success. How do you then differentiate between the passion that is just a hobby, and a passion that should become a business?

Part of having a passion is just the fact that you are knowledgeable about a certain subject matter because you do it all the time. And because I was so immersed in the world of baking, I came to it from a place of love and just playfulness and experimenting in my kitchen and having it be sort of a fun release on the weekends, just as a hobby. But because I spent so much time doing it, I became familiar with the industry and what was missing in the market. Not every person is immediately going to turn their passion into profit. Some people want to protect that part of their life. Because, once I did build a business out of my passion, there was loss that came from that, because the larger Sprinkles became, the more we scaled, the further away from baking the cupcakes, frosting the cupcakes, I became.  So I think it's sort of having an understanding of a certain subject matter and being able to spot opportunity. And then knowing that if you lean into that passion, you have to sort of grow with the growth of your business.

How do you then differentiate between what is purely meant to be your passion and just a hobby or something that is for the public?

That's where the testing comes in. For me, when I went to pastry school, it was about learning the science and technique behind baking. But it was also a test to see, do I want to get up every day at the crack of dawn, put on my chef whites, tote flour around, and really make it work? Now we talk about side hustles, but that wasn't really a thing when I was starting out. But I think that's an incredible way to get your feet wet and really test your interest. Is this something that you want to go all in on? Or is this something that you want to protect and keep as your escape and your play. Although it was my passion for baking that brought me to where I am today and led me to open Sprinkles, it really was the purpose of elevating simple pleasures and injecting surprise and delight into a person's day. That was always the grounding force. So even when I was stepping away from the actual passion that brought me there, that purpose is what kept me going and kept me going like that was my North Star.

And you can see that in the business because a Sprinkles cupcake is different from any other cupcake, which we know now. But, how was it talking to people and explaining that while you were building your business?

Well, I think people thought I had lost my marbles because I was on this very lucrative corporate path. And 9/11 was what made me reflect on the fact that if it all ended tomorrow, what was it that I really wanted to be doing. I didn't know what it was just yet, but I knew that I wanted to be doing something that brought me more joy and injected at least a little bit of meaning back into the world.

Have you continually checked in with yourself in these big moments? How can we use these powerful moments to turn our passion into profit?

I think any period of challenge never feels fun when you're in it, right? But truly, that's where all of the reflection happens. That's where all of the growth happens. That's when you are learning about yourself. When you're marching towards success, and you're doing everything right, you're just kind of like, I got this. When you are flat on your back, and you're like, holy crap, how did I get here, that's when you start to really dig in and learn who you are, and what you want. During periods of disruption, people get incredibly creative.

In Sweet Success, you go into great detail about admitting when you strayed from the path of focus and passion, especially when launching an ice cream line. How do you get back to purpose, especially after failure?

I think when I look back on Sprinkles Ice Cream, it was an example of a business decision that I made without a lot of intention. And yes, that can be translated into passion. But I think it was this idea of like, look how successful we've been with Sprinkles, we can just copy and paste that and do that with ice cream. And it doesn't work like that. That should have been my passion project on the weekends. That should have been my hobby, not a business.

You write, “The answer to my searching is yes, I am a business person and a pastry chef and a founder and a writer and a mom, and so much more.”  When and how did that light bulb go off in you and what was that acceptance in you?

I think it was releasing myself from the rules. We grow up thinking there's so many rules, and it has to be this way. And by the way, I'd already done that with my business, but I hadn't done it for myself. And so that was a really personal journey for me, because I so over identified with my business, I didn't realize that until I stepped away operationally. I was so used to seeing myself reflected in other people's eyes, and I didn't want to disappoint. When I walked into the room, who was I going to be? Was I going to be the Cupcake Wars Star? Or was I going to maybe disappoint people and be the business person? Or be the mom who dropped her kids off at school every day? Why did I think I had to be one thing? And it's ultimately what I've realized is my superpower, which is that I am not that one thing. And instead of being disappointed about it, embracing it, and realizing, that's my superpower.

I think that's what everyone needs to hear. You don't need to be one thing.

I always like to let people know where I am right now, regardless of where they met me along the journey, and show up as my whole complete self. Because whatever thing I'm doing doesn't ultimately define me.

Candace Nelson is a serial entrepreneur, New York Times bestselling author, Wall Street Journal contributor and an expert in turning one’s passion into a profitable business. Candace revolutionized the baking industry when she left a career in finance to start Sprinkles, the world's first cupcake bakery and Cupcake ATM. Nelson followed with the launch of Pizzana, a growing chain of award-winning pizzerias leading the third wave of pizza in the US. She continues to expand her portfolio of investments with CN2 Ventures and lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two sons, and Norwich terrier, Willy.

Mara Freedman runs social media for The Sunday Paper, and is the founder of the social media agency, Storyd Media. She is a passionate storyteller, who loves helping brands and individuals tell their stories and market themselves to the best of their abilities. She lives in Los Angeles, and loves baking for loved ones.

Question from the editor: What is your passion? Share with us in the comment section!

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