[Start Up Stories]: THE SAPPHIRE COTTAGE STORY
It was when Tolu’s birthday was around the corner in 2007, that her brother gave her a sum of money just to celebrate her birthday. “It was thing, at the time, for celebrants to bring along with them cakes to share with the class in order to celebrate their birthdays. A classmate was the class baker – she baked most of the cakes brought to class,” Tolu explained. “I showed up on my birthday without a cake. Then, somehow, word got out that I baked a cake but had kept it in my room. The class did not like that very much; they demanded to have their cake and so I had to pay for another cake.”
During the next semester break, her curiosity led her to learn how to bake. She did not begin to bake because she wanted to start a business; no. She simply wanted to know how to bake for herself. “I learned to bake from two different bakers. I wasn’t totally pleased with what I had learned at the first place and so, I proceeded to another baking school. That was where I learned to bake to the standards that I was satisfied with,” Tolu says. Her first training was paid for by her mom. The second training was sponsored by multiple sponsors – “my mom, my dad, my sister and I also footed a part of the bill,” she explained.
“What if someone has an interest in baking but doesn’t have the means to learn?” I ask.
“If you don’t have the money to train, you can approach your trainer and cut a deal – an agreement that gives you room to learn while you while you also contribute something to the process. What costs you nothing will not mean something to you,” she answered.
Cake baking began as a business in 2009, in her third year of school at the University of Ibadan. First it was Orebz Cakes because (short form of Orebe) till it morphed into The Sapphire Cottage. About her first cake on campus, she says: “The cake didn’t turn out like I had always baked because I did not have access to the same materials and equipment I was familiar with back at home and so, I had to improvise for most of the things I needed. I will grade myself 40% but it got better afterwards,” a small smile spread across her chubby face.
“How did you market your service?”
“I never advertised, I never tried to put word out there that I was baking cakes or anything; advertising isn’t my thing,” she explained. Though she did not advertise her cake, she had a friend who was vocal about her cakes – who always told people she had a friend who could bake.
Tolu graduated from the university in 2010 and for the whole year of NYSC, she did not bake as a business. “Immediately after NYSC, I got a job in Lagos and I left the baking life behind. Then, one day, I was with a friend when another friend who knew me from UI days called and requested if I could bake a cake for her. The friend I was with nudged me to not turn down the offer. I took the order for cake and got in touch with someone in Ibadan, whose baking I trusted, to handle the job for me.”
That arrangement wasn’t to last very long. Tolu explained why.
“Even though the cakes were good, they didn’t have the same taste like they would have had if I had made them myself.” As providence would have it, she return to Ibadan for her postgraduate studies and that was when she took on baking again seriously. She would go for classes in the mornings and return to bake in the evenings.
Tolu talks about the cake project that was her ‘tipping point’ (of sorts): “I will say it was a wedding cake I baked for one of the Olarinde sisters. A wedding is a one-time thing, a bad cake at a wedding and that ruins the day, it is not like a birthday where you have another chance to bake another cake the next year. So, for people to entrust their wedding cakes in your care is a big deal, you know,” Tolu smiled and continued, “In the case of the Olarindes, it was a huge wedding and I handled the cakes – both for the traditional and the white wedding. That, for me, was big.”
How big has the business grown – “it is still growing. I still hold a 9am-4pm job; I return home tired but I get down to baking once I have an order.” She’s based in Ibadan but her orders are not limited to just Ibadan. “I get a lot of jobs from Ibadan but I also get from outside town: Lagos, Abeokuta and sometimes, Ondo. I do out of Ib deliveries.”
Tolu talked about the challenges in the business and maintaining a balance between her day job and her baking business comes up. Also, she mentioned the “Ibadan attitude” to business – “people want good quality but are not willing to pay for it. The attitude that ‘sheybi it’s just cake’; that attitude can sometimes be discouraging.” Tolu faces challenge that entrepreneurs without formal establishments face. “It seems the more formal your business outlook is, the more justified you’re to name a price and not be bashed for it.” Power has never been a challenge for Sapphire Cottage, “very early in my baking life, I had learned to not rely on electricity. I don’t use mixers, I turn anything I want to turn traditionally – with the spool in my hands. I bake with the gas too, so I don’t rely on electricity.”
About what motivates her, Tolu says it is passion. “Regardless of the challenges, and even when sometimes, the pay sucks, baking is what I am passionate about, so I just overlook the price and take on the job.” As an aside, she adds: “but some prices can be really ridiculous; that’s not the kind of price I mean.”
Managing the business side of Sapphire Cottage has also been a challenges however, she has been taking steps to build that. She’s been reading books about managing businesses; not necessarily cake business but business generally. She has also been understudying successful cake entrepreneurs, “I critically study successful cakes businesses in different parts of the world and how they have positioned themselves as a major cake enterprise in Ibadan,” she submits.
2009 till now and Orebz Cakes has evolved into Sapphire Cottage. A small campus business has grown into venture that handles cakes for big events and even reaches clients outside Ibadan. Here’s what Tolu says of her success so far – “I still don’t advertise. It was recently that I began to put up pictures of my cakes in public – on Facebook, but I have had lots of referrals; referrals that trace back to people I had baked for in my university days. The taste of my cakes is the value I am providing and sustaining that quality is how my business has grown so far.”