Monday, June 25, 2012

Failure:the key to success; building your own tool kit

  I'd love to boast that the title  of this post is a quote I learned from reading some heady tome from  Winston Churchill or a bit of folksy wisdom from Abraham Lincoln, but nope: Honda commercial. It doesn't make it any less true, however. I have been thinking a lot about this post for a long time now. What I am about to write may seem to be counterintuitive to someone who teaches classes and will soon have a book to sell.*Will my words kill the golden goose?*
  I have been doing cakes so long I used to write inscriptions in hieroglyphics (snare drum, ba dum bum!) but seriously folks...Back then if I had an idea about something I wanted to do, I had to use the only resource available: my brain.The same goes for any art project. Much trial and error , probably way more error, and you develop a wealth of skills, kind of a tool kit.Being of little means as a child also meant that if I wanted to make something , I needed to be extra creative.I would draw on paper towels if there was no paper to be found. A sketchbook was a special treat for me.At that time I was also really into miniatures. My brother  Randy worked in furniture production during that period and he made me a tiny chair.I decided I needed to also make a chair. Being 8 years old- ish  and having no carpentry skills did not seem like it should be a deterrent to me.I worked all day long on that chair using tools plucked from my dad's shop, all the while repeating the phrase: "If at first you don't succeed, try and try again".I don't even remember now if  at the end of the day  I had managed to produce a mini chair, but to this day I still think about that effort and my mantra,"try and try again".
  I don't know when mass market craft stores hit the scene but almost overnight,instead of shopping for art supplies , stores filled  themselves with "kits". I'm sure they were designed for convenience, but what they successfully actually did is create a society that was robbed of that "try and try again" experience. Taking the  guesswork, the failure out of  a project also insures that you will also be without the experience of truly LEARNING something.I have learned far more from my countless mistakes than from my successes.You may be able to make one project well , per the instructions but what about the next project? Will you need a kit or tutorial  for every project? I'm betting that these Big Box craft stores are counting on that.
  I once read on a forum, a person had taken 3 cake projects on and needed tutorials for all 3!This is a thinking I simply cannot understand, but I will try.Perhaps this tutorial culture that is fostered by Youtube and cake forums, etc... is so pervasive because of fear of failure.I'll be honest, failure is scary. It's stressful. It will give you grey hair.I'm never happy when a cake  cracks or some thing falls off, but I analyze the situation, I correct it, I LEARN from it, and you know what? the next cake is better for that experience.My work is so diverse, I almost never make the same cake twice, so honestly, every week I utter the words "I have no idea how to do____________". But that's my fear talking. I do know, and I know because I DO.I make a lot of work, I make a lot of mistakes. I'm building my tool kit.When I have to make, for example, a  Marlin fish, maybe I have never done one before, but I have done other fish, which at one time I had never done before, but I just went for it. I did it, I tried things out, I  made mistakes, I LEARNED from them.
  I am not saying you should never take a class or read a book or watch a tutorial, but they should only be tools that supplement your own tool kit.Don't be afraid to try something new, create your own techniques, even have a few cake disasters.I promise you you will be a better artist because of them.
  *Health check on that golden goose from earlier: still alive and honking!*

Sunday, April 15, 2012

CDD:Cake dysmorphic disorder

....and why you're only as good as your last cake.
Body dysmorphic disorder is defined as a mental illness that causes the sufferer to obsess over minor flaws or defects that no one else can see.This is the condition most often seen in those with eating disorders , causing the affected to see themselves as fat while others witness a body wasting away. It's a disorder of a skewed perception.Cake dysmorphic disorder is a newly recognized condition (recognized by me )characterized by an individual cake maker's inability to accurately perceive their own work.With CDD ,as it will hereafter be referred to, instead of a body wasting away, opportunities to improve are what is wasted.
Every cake you make is a chance to learn.All of us are in different stages of development of our craft. A side effect of CDD is arrested development.We all yearn for praise, it's only natural.The healthy can accept this much needed praise with an open mind.Yes, your loyal friends and family will tell you how you need to go on Cake Boss (which , btw, I was unaware was some sort of show that had guest cake decorators) and that's great, that's what friends are for.But,in order to be free of CDD you must always be aware of your own flaws.I don't beat myself up for making mistakes or having imperfections on my cakes, but I do try to never make the same mistake twice. I'm not always successful, but I am always striving to be better.CDD robs you of that chance. Those who have lost the ability to see their cake's flaws will clap their hands together declaring it a job well done.The next cake will have the same flaws, and the next,ad nauseum.Sufferers with the most advanced cases of CDD will go on to declare themselves invincible, able to do "anything you can imagine".Wow! A bold claim to be sure, clearly one only someone with this affliction could dare to promise.Lately,there is evidence it may be contagious.Warning signs might be self proclaiming "masterpieces" or "fabulousness". While there is no known cure at this time there are a few things you can do to avoid being afflicted.
1.Try to remember, no matter how successful last your cake was, that has no bearing on the next one.After you have basked in the glow of hundreds of comments and accolades, put them aside.The next customer doesn't care how great THAT cake was, they are only concerned about their cake.

2.Keep your skill set fresh. OK, great you "invented" a cake technique back in 1985. What have you done lately? Even Thomas Edison didn't rest on his laurels after "discovering" electricity.

3.Look with fresh eyes.I recently revisited a cake theme I had not tackled for 5 years. Instead of referring to my previous work, I started anew. I'd rather not be influenced by my past work and past mistakes, but hopefully I can approach each design whether a new or old one with a fresh approach , one rich with the experience and lessons I have hopefully gained over the years.

4.The delete button is your friend.As we are all hopefully on a journey to be the best we can be, undoubtedly , if you have not yet been stricken with CDD , you will become embarrassed by your own work.This is actually a sign of growth! Routinely prune your portfolio as your skills improve.A healthy cake maker should do this often, otherwise you're stagnating.Of course, keep private photos of all stages of your own progress.You can still learn from these images, but not everyone needs to see them. Your public portfolio is only as good as your worst piece.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Cake designer seeking informed customer

In a dream world, I'd post this want ad on Craigslist and in every newspaper in the area. In this age of the internet, it seems there are an infinite number of places customers can post their ad hoc reviews about services. These posts are never complete,never truly accurate, but always powerful.When you have a mainly web based business like mine, word of mouth is incredibly important.I have been quite fortunate to be the recipient of many great reviews and literally thousands of positive comments from customers on sites like Yelp, Facebook and Flickr, to name a few.For this I am truly grateful.....however.....where are the sites that empower those small businesses? Namely: where can I review the customer? Now, don't get me wrong, I know which side of my cake gets buttercreamed and without customers I'd just be a chubby girl sitting around with unsold cake, but.....every now and again I feel that I need to speak out about my experiences with a customer.Apparently there is some unspoken rule that says , in order to be in business, you must bend over backwards, change your policies, oh hell, just drop EVERYTHING to please the customer. I do not know who wrote this but I say it's time to burn that rulebook.
First let me tell you a little something about being an artist and small business owner.Let this serve as a guide on how to be a great/ informed customer.

Number 1. : I'm NOT getting rich. I have even had people joke to me, wow! that cake was $$$$? You must be getting really rich! Um, no. Your idea of a bakery might be those production facilities that churn out sheet cakes.As someone who had 15-16 years working in production bakeries, I can tell you that the only thing those "factories" and a custom cake design studio have in common is the word "cake".It was entirely common to have 50-60 cakes a weekend in the production bakeries.Add in answering phones and waiting on walk in customers, cleaning, etc... that left about 20 minutes max to produce each cake.Compare that to the number of cakes I can do per week.On a busy week I can do 6-8, and that is pushing it. Why? Because I devote entire days, sometimes several days to each cake. This is not because I'm incredibly slow or have a broken arm or something, it's because QUALITY takes time. So back to that getting rich thing? again, no.

Number 2. "I'm the customer and you have to do everything I say". Guess what? Nope.Being self employed ,I sacrifice a lot. Weekends, vacations, health insurance those are all just fading memories to me. One of the only perks I have as a result is being able to decide what I will and will not do. I don't willy nilly make up policies as I go along, mind you. I try to make it very clear on all my web pages all the info that you will need to initiate an order. Among these are my menu selections, availability and notice requirements and my policies about tastings and meeting with clients. Time and time again, these are just disregarded and I just cannot understand why .Just as you would not demand a restaurant to produce an entree not on their menu, nor should you ask that of me.Neither would you demand a store to open just for you, should you ask that I do the same.My policies are the result of decades of experience and knowing what is right for my business. please don't ask that I change them for you.

Number 3.:Please do not insult me.I hear constantly, "Debbie, I LOVE your work! Now, here's a picture of someone else's cake.Make it for me!" I presume you came to me because you recognized that I am an artist. Please don't treat me like a machine. I am a designer, not a cake machine.Let me do what I do, I am assuming that's why you chose me over another.On the subject of insulting me, do NOT question why I charge what I must(and I say MUST).I don't sit around calling out the first number that pops in my head. Pricing is an incredibly difficult and complex issue that is ever evolving.Because what I do is so unique, most of my cakes are one offs, I must rely on previous experience with similar cakes to help me gauge a fair to all parties price.I have woefully underestimated the amount of work a particular project will take on countless occasions. I am the one who absorbs this cost oversight. I had a cake last year , for example,that I priced at what I thought was a reasonable number and when I got into the actual crafting of the cake, ended up spending 3 times the hours than I had estimated. Once you factor in my expenses and the salary I must pay my occasional assistant, you can easily see I lost money. A tough mistake for sure, and not one I could afford to make, but I turn these experiences into lessons.The next person who asks for something similar will receive a much more realistic quote. Believe it or not, this is beneficial to everyone. When I know that I have priced a cake properly, I can set aside the amount of time that it deserves and am a much more creative and non stressed cake designer.

Number 4.: Do YOUR homework or: Why are you better than ________? Technically this question belongs in the last paragraph but that was getting wordy =) As a customer, it is up to you to take advantage of the years of work I have laid out for you to see on the internet.Please take some time to peruse my website(s), read my reviews, note the large amount of international press I have worked hard to receive.I AM my portfolio, and if that isn't enough to convince you, then I am not the right designer for you, and you know what? That is fine too. Not every business can be right for every customer, just as not every customer is right for every business.

All rambling aside, I am eternally grateful to the hundreds of customers that have trusted me and continue to make me a part of their important occasions, to you,a heartfelt THANK YOU!

Friday, March 25, 2011

you asked for it!

I'm excited to announce I will be teaching my inaugural class on August 8, in Raleigh NC. Hosted by the awesome guys at Swank Cake Design,I'll be teaching my popular realistic teapot cake. For all of you who have asked about classes, please join me in my first foray into the classroom.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The end is near!

if you are to believe this truck, and we all know that if it's on a truck it HAS to be true, right? In fact it's "guaranteed!"
There are really only two ways this can play out, either the believers are right , or those of us who believe that, in fact, the world is nearing collapse but it will be a long, slow demise instead.Either way one of us will be right.
All this talk of an apocalypse does make me reflective.....a cake will never avert world collapse, but , I can hope that I have managed to be true to my ideals as an artist and fulfill my goal of always trying to be the "Best Me" I can be.There are many things in life that you have little to no control of.For me, I try always to do my best and to always strive to improve. Because, in the end(whenever that is) that is all there truly is.

Here's a retrospective of my personal favorite projects of 2010, let's do it again next year if we can, if not i'll see some of you later, bring ice!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

you want me to wear what??!

Yes, i'm one of those people who puts clothes on their dog. Apart from the amusement I get from seeing my lil' guy in a mini "snuggie" or pajamas with strategically placed "opening" it does serve a very practical purpose . Contrary to popular belief, California is not all sandy beaches and big sun. Here in Northern California it is chilly more often than not. For a guy who has little to no hair, clothes, regardless of how amusing or humiliating , are a necessity . As he gets older, more and more parts of his body have become off limits. Today we had one of those frustrating contests of wills , culminating in some growls and snaps,and apparently "we" have decided that he will no longer be wearing the snuggie.It reminded me of when we first arrived here, nearly a decade ago, and repeated attempts to send him to bed clad in a warm sweater .We'd always awake to a newly "naked" chihuahua. An apparent clothes Houdini, he is able to wiggle out of everything short of a straight jacket. I'd try an actual straight jacket if it wouldn't result in a disappearing act of my fingers =)! Anyway, all these memories of "naked Bee" made me think of naked cakes.My first installment about these unfinished works was well received so I thought it would be a good time to revisit it.Now, off to turn up the heat!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Tim time!

I warned early on that this blog would be both in praise of my life with cakes and my bouts of malaise too, admittedly, it may have thus far been a little light in the praise department. Maybe I'm just old or getting lazy in my old age but , forgive my complaint leanings, but 13 hour work days don't leave me much in the mood for celebrating these days.Still, there are some jobs and clients that completely make me forget about the seemingly never-ending days. One such family are the "Z's" Carolyn Z first contacted me a few years ago about making some special airplane cupcakes for her son, Tim. Tim's a pretty special kid with a beautiful smile , who really knows what he likes.He's into planes and Mario, especially the Yoshi and Toad characters. Tim is also autistic.We've never actually met, but I am always treated to wonderful stories and pictures of Tim and his cakes.Words cannot truly express how touched I am that this wonderful family has let my cakes become a tradition in their family.I have never been able to make it through one of their wonderful thank you notes without tears.My work can feel so insignificant at times, but knowing that I have brought joy to someone through my work is a pretty awesome feeling. Tim's annual birthday cake has become as much a tradition for me as it is theirs. So from the bottom of my heart,Thank You!!!!!!...........xo, Debbie

The one's that started it all.....

The first of Tim's Mario themed cakes.........More Mario, the following year featured "Toad" of my fave cakes.......

Next up was an homage to Tim's love of planes,Mario (see the tail wing) and his very special service dog Charlie.I mean, of course he's special, he can fly a plane afterall!
This year I was tasked with combining Yoshi, Toad, Charlie and Nerds candy all in one. I love that dog butt =)
how can you NOT love this picture?? Carolyn told me Tim wanted to stare at the cake all night and even wanted to go back downstairs at bedtime to get one more look haha!