Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The final push

I'm going on holiday. An actual away-from-the-oven holiday. Soon. If I can last that long, which is in no way a sure thing.
My business has several different types of customers. I have a bunch of private commissions, where someone rings and requests a cake for a specific date. Easy peasy, I just tell them I'm unable to take the commission for that period. I have the Cake Box Club customers, who get a mixed box of lovely things once a month: again, I can schedule that to suit myself. And I have two wholesale customers who have regular weekly orders to sell on to their customers. And therein lies the tricky bit.
They still need cake to sell. I've tested every one of my products so I know which cakes freeze well and which don't - a freshly baked cake, frozen, is still very nice when defrosted - so as long as I can bake enough cake/cupcakes/biscuits to tide them over, they will have stock to sell. But I work pretty flat out most weeks. How can I fit in an extra fortnight's work in at the last minute?
(It is a truth of clients that they want the freshest possible cakes at the last possible second)

In order to fulfil this, I have been baking like a woman possessed for the past 5 days. Yesterday I made 15 chocolate cakes and 90 scones. Today I baked 7 cakes and 250 iced gingerbread men. It's been a bit manic.
Unfortunately, I managed to get a chest infection as well, so I've been a bit unwell. This has added to the strain somewhat. My knees ache because I've been on my feet for so many hours in a row and I'm not sleeping well because my endless coughing keeps waking me up. And of course there's all the stuff that needs doing in order to facilitate a family holiday.
Much of that seems to be paperwork or laundry. Laundry, like the poor, is always with us.

Mark keeps telling me that self employed people don't get to take holidays. (It's remarkable that he doesn't get the odd smack about the chops, isn't it. I am a shining example of self restraint.) I know LOADS of self employed people. Most of them take holidays. Surely it's possible if you just plan enough and slog through the tricky bit.
Anyway, I'm not quite at the finishing line but I reckon I can see it from here. And it is a sunny, gorgeous finish line.
If I make it, I promise to send you a post card!

Quick update - I did it! I'm so immensely relieved and a bit giddy with excitement.

Friday, 18 March 2011

RND hijinx

I do love an excuse to fund raise. I hate selling, I hate plugging my wares and charging people money (although I do LOVE getting paid) and I get all self-conscious about it. However, give me a cause I believe in and I am a shameless hustler demanding cash from everyone I see.

When I was just starting my business two years ago I raffled off this cake to raise money for Comic Relief
I wasn't very good at cake decorating back then and covering a cake in sugarpaste scared the bejeesus out of me, but I persevered. I raised £89 and was so pleased!

For Red Nose Day this time I decided to raffle a box of red-nosed smiley cupcakes. They'd retail at about £15 (including decent donation to Comic Relief) so my initial goal was to get at least twice what I'd sell them for in raffle tickets. I no longer go to toddler groups and other places with a nice captive audience so I thought I'd struggle to sell as many tickets this time. And to be frank, I didn't have much time to spend on flogging tickets because work has been pretty busy.

After the first go at selling tickets it was obvious £30 wasn't going to be a challenge, so the kids and I decided to aim at £50. By Wednesday that seemed far too easy, so we thought £75 would be better. My fabulous 11 year old got selling on my behalf and we passed the £85 mark. Had we the chutzpah for try for £100?

Damned right we had! After 4 days of pouncing on all the other parents in the playground and shaking our tin at them we reached a grand total of £126. Coo! That's a lot of ticket selling. Yay us!

Ever the enterprising soul, my able assistant explained he should get 10% of all ticket sales he made because Comic Relief getting 90% of something was much better than 100% of nothing and his hard work deserved a reward. I pointed out that virtue was its own reward. He looked unimpressed. Upon realising I'd saved a cupcake for him, however, he thought himself to be adequately recompensed!

I felt a bit bad that the chances of winning had become so slim because I'd sold so many more tickets than I thought I would, so I added a 2nd prize of a box of 4 cupcakes and a 3rd prize of one in cellophane with a red ribbon. The winners were chuffed to bits - it's always a nice feeling when people love your cake, isn't it - and I feel very proud of our little bit of fundraising.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Sick days

How on earth do other self-employed people manage when they are poorly?

I feel rubbish. My throat feels like someone's been at it with a cheese grater, it hurts when I breathe, never mind when I talk. My chest is sore from coughing, my eyes are gritty and I am so tired I could collapse.

However, it's a work day. So I dragged myself through yesterday to get the biggest order of the week done and I've baked for 6 hours today. My teeth are gritted, I'm counting down the minutes to being finished but I am trudging through it. I've not been at my best for weeks (months?) now and although this is just a minor ailment, it feels enough to push me near breaking point.

I'm lucky it's not a stomach bug, or I'd be forbidden to handle food for 48 hours after the symptoms stopped and I can't afford to stop for that long.

So, how do self-employed people handle sick days? With contracts to fill and inflexible deadlines, we can't pull a sicky and spend the day in bed. If we don't do the work it doesn't get done, and if the work isn't done we don't have a business after all.

Is it all about pushing through regardless? Taking lots of medication? Chugging coffee and coke to keep alert just long enough to get the work done? If there is a secret to it, I'd love to know.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Learning from my mistakes

I really like Meet The Robinsons. It's one of Disney's less well regarded movies but for several reasons I'm very fond of it. One is that it was the brand new film when we were in Disney World last time and a tiny toddler Miss B was transfixed by the character of Lewis who was meeting kids. Another is because it talks about how you learn from failures. And WOW I've had plenty of learning opportunities lately.

Here are some of the lessons I've learnt:
  • Do not bake when overtired. I've messed up 2 chocolate ginger cakes (same batch) and a chocolate malteser cake in the past few days. I had assumed I could bake them with my eyes closed by now but it turns out that when staggeringly tired I forget raising agents or miscalculated when scaling recipes up or down.
  • Do the accounts every month, not every 6 months. This ought to be a no-brainer but as work, builders, decorating and general family stuff ate up all available hours I got dreadfully behind. It's a tedious process catching up that much and it's possible I've forgotten some cash purchases so am not accurately reflecting my true earnings. I also hadn't realised I was owed £300! That's been paid now, I believe - I can check on Monday (Nice surprise though!)
  • It is not a good idea to experiment with recipes or new techniques when overtired (are you sensing a theme?) To use up one of those wrecked cakes I did some experimenting. The same bleary-eyed hard-of-thinking befuddled state of mind that caused me to mess up a cake in the first place pretty much ensured the experiment was a disaster
  • Green and Black's white chocolate does not melt to a thin enough consistency to make a good dipping coating. Adding butter to thin it curdles it, adding a tiny splash of milk makes to go a horrible colour. I think cheaper chocolate might be worth a go.
  • It is OK to say no to commissions. If I am overtired (ha!) or over-committed (double ha!) it could be the smart move to turn down some work, whatever Mark says. (Mark is a keen fan of Always Accept Work but as I am the one working myself into something of a stupor, I have decided not to take his advice.)
  • If a customer changes the rules at the last minute it is OK to say No to the whole job. I'd accepted a job for a Sunday which, on the Wednesday before, was changed to a "I need to collect it tonight and forgot to tell you." I was already baking 14 batches of cakes and cookies that day and it was demented getting a celebration cake made as well. It was nice to satisfy the customer and she's a lovely woman but I pushed myself to tears of fatigue getting it done. Not smart.
  • I need to account for my time when costing things, and do so at a proper wage. Earning £5 a hour when I am an experienced, skilled professional is ridiculous. That's under the minimum wage.
    - as a self employed woman, does that mean I'm exploiting myself? probably!
  • It is good practice to ask for some detail about the person for whom a cake is intended if the customer has no design brief other than "make it nice." Having a selection of themes to get me started on a design is a big help.
  • I am not a lazy person. I think I am, because I hate exercise and am a messy slattern in some respect. However, my Mum pointed out that I work pretty much non-stop from waking up until 8 o'clock ish most nights, and that is not being lazy.
  • It is very important to keep my laptop calendar and my iPhone calendar synched. I nearly missed 2 appointments and did miss a talk at the school because the calendars weren't synched when I assumed they were both up to date.

See? Isn't that a lot of important stuff to have learnt? I think so. But then, I've not managed more than 5 hours sleep for most of the last month, so it's possible my judgement is impaired!