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Planet Cake owner Paris Cutler: Let them eat cake!

It was Paris Cutler’s own experience with ordering a very expensive and disappointing wedding cake that inspired her to make cakes her business. But that’s where the cute part of this story ends.

Planet Cake has nearly gone bust three times, contributed to the break-up of her marriage and been plagued by copycats, intimidation and even people bringing hidden cameras in. It’s been a roller coaster ride starting with giving birth to daughter Estelle the very day she bought the business seven years ago.

“People think cake decorating is all pretty and frilly. It’ a blood sport, it’s brutal, “ says Cutler. “It’s a small, secretive market and everyone’s fighting over it.”

Cakes for Kidman and Rihanna

Today, the couture cake shop is a business success story, best known for the impressive iced creations its designers dream up for celebrities. They’ve made birthday cakes for Rihanna and Celine Dion and cakes for the nuptials of Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban, and Lleyton Hewitt and Bec Cartwright. And the list goes on. But Cutler comes from a very different background.

“Before buying Planet Cake I was a corporate drifter,” says the 37 year old. “I tried stockbroking, law and recruitment. It wasn’t engaging for me. I really wanted to own my own business but what could I invent? What was going to be my big idea?

“When I was in stockbroking, the bicycle couriers used to be known as the rats of the city, then someone came along and corporatised them, gave them uniforms, and made big money. It was a brilliant idea. When I went through the process of ordering my own wedding cake it cost a fortune and the whole experience was horrendous. That’s when I thought, ‘This is it’. I knew I could design cakes, so I went into the industry as a partner and when the opportunity came up I bought Planet Cake.

Broke within three years

“I was naïve and thought I’d make millions but the reality is I was nearly broke within three years. I was on the bones of my arse and trading insolvent.” Added to that, the stress was largely responsible for her break-up with ex-husband Billy, who is still her business partner. “I’m sure he’d agree,” she says. “We get on a lot better as just business partners.”

But going back to the beginning, when Cutler started Planet Cake, she knew her product was good but what she needed to do was put in place excellent service, systems and processes.

“We had a two-pronged approach,” she explains. “We sell really expensive cakes and the reality is people only buy a celebration cake like that once a year. On top of that, there are not enough people in Australia rich enough to buy that kind of cake. It’s also really seasonal. When I look back it now, the business model sucks! I knew the business was never going to make money just selling cakes. It’d be lucky if it broke even.”

The next part of the plan was to expand the cake decorating schools, which are now in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Fans come from all over the world to attend and the classes run six days a week, booked up for three months in advance. “We had no competition at all for the first three years, which really surprised me,” says Cutler. “And since the GFC, all the others have been struggling. We’re now the highest profile cake decorating school in the southern hemisphere. I laugh in the face of competition! Nobody else has the same depth of philosophy and love for it that we do.”

A list endorsement

Celebrity endorsement helps, of course. “You get an A-lister endorsing you because of the service, rather than the product, though,” she points out. “We’re completely confidential, we have a publicist to deal with everything and the whole experience is professional. Most of them come to us through the gay Mafia. They’re all power in Sydney, maybe not in other businesses, but in this world, they are. They’re a fantastic alliance.”

Next came a lucrative deal with Murdoch Books in 2009, and her second book, Planet Cake Cupcakes, was released last month. With international distribution, the first book has had great success in the UK and the States as well. An appearance on Masterchef last year caused a renewed flurry of interest too.

Ever honest, Cutler also puts a lot of business success down to timing, citing the craze for both cupcakes and Martha Stewart as definite sweeteners.

Innovate to stay ahead

So how is she keeping it going, and growing? “I’ve had to look at the business and work out what I have to sell, and that’s IP,” says Cutler. “I’ve had to package that into different things to sell. A big part of that has been creating a website, blogs and social media that are a sticky enough environment for people to keep coming back and creating a customer loyalty. I have events where people come and have morning tea with me, and I personally update the blog every day. You’ve got to do all that stuff, you can’t muck around.”

While these days business is booming and Planet Cake is much less vulnerable, Cutler has been through more than her fair share of hard times. When the GFC hit in 2008, it hit Planet Cake hard, and quickly.

The GFC hit hard

“It was catastrophic,” she says. “It hit us before it hit anyone else. In wedding season I’d usually be doing 25 to 30 big cakes a week and we were down to just six. I had $10,000 in the bank, a five year-old daughter and barely enough to pay the wages. I had to retrench all my staff. We’re never going to go through that again because I’ve buffered myself now.

“The worst part back then was that everyone kept saying that the GFC hadn’t hit them and it was all just media hype and they were still doing fine. Nobody seemed to be able to help me. I like the idea of Mafia in business, in the context of brotherhood, sisterhood and protection. I called together a big meeting of all my business contacts and said, ‘Look, I’m screwed. What am I going to do?’ Finally people started admitting they weren’t doing that well either. So we asked how we were going to approach this and we decided we would all refer business to each other and do it aggressively.

“I call myself a greasy monkey,” Cutler says. “Wherever there was an opportunity to sell or make an alliance, I was there. It’s amazing what desperation can make you do, and I was desperate.”

Juggling business and motherhood

She also admits she may have got her priorities wrong in terms of motherhood back then but doesn’t apologise for it. “I’m making up for it now,” she says. “But it never meant I didn’t love my child. I was so driven and ambitious and she was part of it, she was there in the kitchen with me.

“I remember going to my mother and asking her, ‘What kind of mother am I?’ and she said you’re proving the best example for your daughter by being a strong, ambitious woman.” Seven-year-old Estelle has the official job title of showroom tweaker at Planet Cake. “It’s the most wonderful experience for her,” says Cutler. “When you’re in business you have to own it. My solution was to bring her into the business with me.”

There have been other lows as well. “The thing in business that shocked me the most, and that I’ve learned, is not to share your roller coaster ride with your friends and family because they can’t handle it.  On the plus side, there is nothing like the joy of creating something that starts as an idea and becomes a real living, breathing thing. It’s intoxicating. I still find it hard to believe that all these people will pay $375 to come on my decorating courses! It’s shocking!”

The personal brand

Cutler never intended for her personal brand to become as tied up in the business as it has done. “I find it exhausting and exposing. I feel like a wanker signing copies of my book. It’s embarrassing,” she says.

“I was brought up in a family where praise never given. But I’ve realised my personal brand is important. After the break-up of my marriage, I took a back seat from my business for about eight months and it fell into a pit!”

She’s not averse to using her womanly wiles to get ahead either. “I can sit there and play dumb and pretend I don’t understand what’s going on. Business is business! I hate those women who have grown balls. They dripping in Tiffany and wearing Armani suits and they don’t have a heart. They’re terrifying and it’s unhealthy!” Her biggest business inspiration is the late Anita Roddick, who founded The Body Shop.

In terms of the future, Cutler’s ultimate dream would be to sell to someone like Sara Lee or Nestlé and see Planet Cake cakes for sale in supermarkets. In the meantime, she is in talks with an American television show and has plans to take the cake decorating school to Asia and Hawaii. “I hope to have a lot more arms to the business, including online streaming of our courses.”

What’s next?

Cutler is still on her learning curve. “I still don’t have a bank loan and I don’t trust myself to have one!” she says. “I’m creatively really good and I’m great at the marketing. I’m driven by ideas, whatever they cost, but I’ve got proper finance people on board now.” Her honest, no bull approach, however, has led to Cake Biz Whiz with Paris Cutler, where she shares the secrets of running a successful cake business, becoming Planet Cake’s most popular course.

While the business now turns over millions of dollars a year, she hasn’t lost sight of reality. “We all know turnover’s a load of crap,” she says. “It’s profitability that counts and I’m working really hard on that. We’ve reached that tipping point and it’s really exciting. The business has morphed so many times and it will keep on morphing.”

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Jen Bishop

Jen Bishop

Jen was the publisher at Loyalty Media and editor of Dynamic Business, Australia's largest circulating small business magazine, from 2008 until 2012. She is now a full-time blogger at The Interiors Addict.

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