Tomorrow is a new day. We all have hard days. When we were first starting the company and I would find myself feeling challenged, it often felt like the end of the world. I’d call my dad crying and he’d say “what makes metal, steel? Extreme heat baby!” He was so right. The really difficult days taught me more than anything. And the way that I responded to those challenges is what defines me — in the best way. I’m always learning and growing and as time goes by I’ve learned that no matter what, everything is going to be OK.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Ben-ishay. Melissa is a mom, baker, and founder of Baked by Melissa, the New York City-based brand famous for its signature, bite-size cupcakes and treats. Passionate about baking since childhood and with the idea that people should be able to taste more flavors without a post-dessert guilt trip, she decided to do what she loved and launched Baked by Melissa in 2008 after being fired from her job in advertising. Today, the company operates 14 stores and ships nationwide. Ben-Ishay currently serves as the company’s President and Chief Product Officer. In October of 2017, she released her first cookbook, Cakes by Melissa.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I was born and raised in northern NJ, with an older brother who is my best friend and two parents who taught us we could do anything we set our minds to. I’ve always loved arts and crafts and creating things with my hands — and to me baking is just that — arts and crafts! But you can also eat your project 🙂
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
In 2008 I was working as an assistant media planner at an ad agency. I was not passionate about the work I was doing and it showed — so I was fired. I went right to my brother’s office crying and without hesitation he said “go home and bake your cupcakes, we’ll start a business together”. We had always wanted to start something together and at the time I was baking my tie-dye cupcakes for anyone and everyone and yearning to work hard towards something I loved every day. I’ve been working my ass off every day since, doing everything I can to continue to do what I love every day and make people happy with our delicious bite-size cupcakes.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
Focus. A great team. Extreme determination. I knew I had the chance to do what I love every day. I took advantage of every opportunity that came my way and eventually learned how to create more of those opportunities. I surrounded myself with people who had skills that I didn’t — my co-founders — and worked my ass off. I made Baked by Melissa my top most priority and did whatever it took — with extreme focus and a clear understanding of what my strengths and weaknesses are. And a side note: I love working hard. I never want to stop. I truly believe that working hard towards something you love is the definition of happiness and success.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
Start slow. Take a small step towards your goal every day. Ask people for help. And if you have a product, get it out there so you can get feedback and determine whether you have a chance.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
At this point, 11 years since we founded the company, I’ve learned and grown a ton with Baked by Melissa. I’ve seen so many challenges that I understand how essential they are for growth and feel lucky to have had them. Hell — I even embrace them! I get to work with a team of like-minded, hard-working, passionate people who get shit done every day. And I get to give people the opportunity to love what they do. What is cooler than that?! Baked by Melissa makes people happy and there is nowhere I would rather be every day. Also, my definition of happiness is having that opportunity to work hard towards something I love, and Baked by Melissa allows me to do that.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
I feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility for Baked by Melissa, the things we do, and the people we employ. Sometimes it can get overwhelming, but ultimately it is a great privilege and a role I take quite seriously. Without the passion and love I have for our company there is no way I could succeed in my role. I know that everyone has bad days and I always get through them. We all do. Every challenge is an opportunity to learn and grow.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I never gave much thought to what this job would be. I honestly didn’t believe this could one day be a reality and I spent every ounce of myself just trying to get shit done. When we started I was so focused on doing everything I could to do make Baked by Melissa everything it could possibly be and be the best I could possibly be. My role has evolved with the company, I’ve worn every hat, and at times changing my area of focus was difficult, but I learned time and time again how essential it was to the growth of the company, and to my own personal growth.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
LOL! NO FREAKIN WAY — and at times it was nearly impossible. I’ve shed plenty of tears over the years. But I would never ever want to be doing anything else. The most incredible things are also the most challenging. It comes with the territory!
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
My dad. The older I get and the more I experience, the more I appreciate all of the things both of my parents drilled into me from such a young age. You can do anything, treat others the way you want to be treated, nothing good comes easy, enjoy the journey — the journey is the reward, I could go on…
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
It’s a priority to give back. We’ve worked with Make-a-wish, City Harvest, Every Mother Counts, BCRF and more on programs that allow us to make a difference in society. And we have a product that makes people happy! We try to be genuine and authentic in everything we do and lead by example and always side with love.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You can do anything. My dad actually told me this every day for my entire childhood and I’m so happy he did because I truly believe it gave me the confidence to start. Self confidence in general is something I believe we earn through experience, but you also have to have enough of a foundation to start. So if you are reading this — please know that you, too, can do anything you set your mind to!
- Always do the right thing. Again, this is something that has been told to me over and over again but until you experience it for yourself — doing the right thing over and over again for a really long time and continuously being reminded that it truly is the best way to go, it’s hard to execute all the time. Because quite honestly, doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but I can assure you it’s what is best.
- Managing relationships is 80% of it. I think I’ve learned the most from the relationships I’ve built, maintained, and experienced since starting Baked by Melissa. My relationships — with my team, co-founders, friends, family, etc. have taught me the most, and are the most important part.
- Tomorrow is a new day. We all have hard days. When we were first starting the company and I would find myself feeling challenged, it often felt like the end of the world. I’d call my dad crying and he’d say “what makes metal, steel? Extreme heat baby!” He was so right. The really difficult days taught me more than anything. And the way that I responded to those challenges is what defines me — in the best way. I’m always learning and growing and as time goes by I’ve learned that no matter what, everything is going to be OK.
- Change is amazing. God I love change. I need it. I’ve learned that people don’t really welcome change and it used to scare me too. But since I’ve gone through so much of it — in my role, my company, and just life in general, I’ve had the opportunity to see firsthand how without change, life would be boring, we wouldn’t get to experience new things, learn and grow.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
We launched a campaign called Side with Love two years ago and I wish we could have continued it forever. We gave away 150,000 cupcakes to inspire acts of kindness across the country. For one day we allowed people to come to bakedbymelissa.com and order 25 cupcakes to be shipped to anyone they wanted, in the name of love and kindness — entirely on us, free of charge. We did this to Side with Love, and in response to some not so positive stuff that was happening in the media. Hell yes. Side with love. Be better. Lead by example. And always do the right thing.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are people less qualified than you, doing the things you want to do, simply because they decide to believe in themselves. Period.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Barack Obama. I’d ask him how he thinks I could make an even greater impact. He inspires me. And he also has great taste in music.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.