Real Business is out to discover small British enterprises that understand technology can be incredibly powerful for a company’s growth, customer service and more – even if the business doesn’t revolve around digital.
Canadian entrepreneur Mellisa Morgan, founder of Ms. Cupcake, told us how she recognised a gap in the market – not just in London, but across the country overall.
She was able to fill a hole with vegan sweet treats and explained how social media and online reviews through Yelp have created a loyal customer base, including tourists who visit the shop especially while on their travels.
(1) Please give us a brief introduction to the business?
Ms. Cupcake was set up about six years ago in my home kitchen. I was making the transition from being a vegetarian to being a vegan when I realised that there weren’t any vegan bakeries in London or even in the entirety of the UK!
Hailing from Canada, I saw a real gap in the market for vegan cakes and goodies. I thought to myself: “Now there’s a niche that should be filled – if I want to eat indulgent and decadent cake that happens to be vegan, maybe other people will as well.”
I began by running a few market stalls around London and before I knew it, word was spreading. Our shop opened in Brixton back in 2011 and we are now also stocked in retailers across the UK.
(2) What have the significant growth milestones been in the last few years?
My big milestones have been starting to wholesale our products to different retailers, which led to Ms. Cupcake products on Whole Foods Market shelves, and growing our turnover year upon year to levels that seemed impossible when I initially started trading. Also, branching out into delivering classes, writing books and creating Ms. Cupcake merchandise, such as tote bags and t-shirts, due to customer demand.
These past few years have been a crazy rollercoaster ride for Ms. Cupcake. We feel like we’ve taken the brand to a whole new level and it is continuing to grow.
(3) What inspires you as an entrepreneur, and how does that come across with your company?
The business was started for ethical reasons, and these ethics still are my driving force today. We never cut corners when ensuring what we are doing is cruelty-free here at Ms. Cupcake. Even though the majority of our customers come to us because our products are indulgently delicious, rather than because they are vegan, I feel that the ethical aspect to what we do is my driving force.
I always joke that we will never get rich doing what we are doing, and that’s probably true. But I can go to bed every night knowing that my staff are well cared for, my customers are satisfied and we’ve done our little bit in forwarding the vegan cause. That’s good enough for me.
(4) What kind of obstacles are you encountering as you grow your enterprise?
Perhaps one obstacle that we face, which is unique to big cities, is a lack of physical space to grow our business. Our office team is crammed in a tiny office and we have to purchase supplies for the shop in small quantities due to lack of storage. Space is really at a premium here in London.
We hope to overcome these obstacles as we open our next space, which will have a focus on wholesale manufacturing rather than being direct to consumer.
We also face the same difficulties that any growing brand might face – altering systems that we have outgrown, learning about new markets, finding ways to exceed expectations of our consumers, and always looking out for what the “next big thing” is, in order to stay ahead of competition.
(5) For a company that isn’t technology based, how has a digital approach helped you to carve out a bigger market and acquire new customers?
I was an early adapter to social media. I thought – here was a way, for little or no money, to promote your business in an ever-growing marketplace. I could never grasp why some businesses would drag their heels when embracing new platforms to reach customers.
I owe much of Ms. Cupcakes’ success to social media and the way people have found us online. I use every channel in a different way and I think there’s a lot to be said for taking social media very seriously and approaching each platform in a smart way. As a result of keeping a consistent tone and by maintaining a steady volume of posts, I organically grew a large following of Ms. Cupcake fans and kept true to my brand.
I’ve always been especially interested in platforms that allowed customers to give you direct feedback and so I began to focus on Yelp and other review sites. In addition to getting useful advice from customers, we also started to notice the affect a positive review would have on our sales.
If a great review was posted about a particular product, there would often be a spike in sales of that product. When we asked customers “what brought you to our shop today?” they would often say “I saw something on Yelp”.
Fundamentally, consumers trust what other consumers say. It wasn’t good enough for me to be telling our potential customers how good our products are, I needed our current customers to do that. Yelp reviews are a great and trusted way for that to happen.
Read about some other of our Digital Champions:
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(6) How is technology helping you to overcome hurdles, and what are the challenges of implementation?
When we first started out, we were very much a “destination business”. We had very little passing trade, so we needed to find a way to get people to our shop. Also because we are a specialist bakery, we needed to make sure the “right” people were also finding us too. Without a marketing or advertising budget, we needed to think of efficient ways to spread the word.
Being a top rated business on review platforms has meant that when people are looking online for our kind of products we always came on top of general search engine results. We’ve honestly had people come far and wide to find us – we’ve had customers turn up, suitcase in hand, straight from Heathrow. That’s how powerful the technology is – getting us followers from all over the world and getting customers through the door.
I think one of the biggest challenges is handing over control to others as the business grows. Obviously I’ve always been in charge of social media because I want to be talking to and hearing from customers directly. But as the business grows it’s simply not been possible to be posting regularly on all social media just myself.
It’s been about finding that balance of having a trusted employee take care of it and keeping an eye on what’s going on in order to still hear that customer feedback directly. It’s really important to me that I know what consumers are saying about us and how we can improve. Customer service is paramount to our success.
(7) Do you employ any kind of flexible working, and how does technology fit into this?
We try and work smartly wherever we can. So it might mean staff meetings with Skype and having our team communicate using WhatsApp. This allows our team to work remotely when needed and to capture inspiration whenever it hits them.
I often travel around the world doing cookery demos and giving talks on veganism, so non-traditional working times and methods are needed. We ensure that we do have “technology switch off time” for all of our team though, but I think that when you have an invested workforce who really care about your customers, they don’t think twice about replying to a tweet at the weekend or posting a picture on Instagram.
If I’m the one responsible to monitor our social media on a Saturday, I often find out when going to reply to a review or question someone posted, that another team member has already replied! That’s the kind of committed and dedicated team we have at Ms. Cupcake.
(8) What kind of technology tools can you not work without?
I love tools that allow us to work “on the go”. We don’t even consider using platforms that don’t have an app that allows us to edit, check, and update on the fly.
As we have a shop, an office, and are often doing events around the country – we can’t wait to reply to reviews or post photos of items when we are back in our office in front of a computer.
A lot of our work happens on buses, waiting in queues at the bank, or at our shop in the middle of a lunchtime rush. Tools like business apps allow us to be on top of our customer needs straight away. Customers are no longer satisfied with waiting until Monday after 9am if they have posted a question to you on Friday night.
(9) What kind of technology would help you better compete with larger rivals?
As we grow, so does our need for technology. Here at Ms. Cupcake we are continually automating services, whilst still creating everything by hand. However as we move more into larger manufacturing we will need to rely more on technology to ensure consistency and quality on a large scale.
Additionally, we have always thought that an app that would allow customers to be able to see stock items in our shop in real-time throughout the day would be a great help!
(10) Where do you want to take your business in the future?
We expanded so rapidly in those early years that we are now slowing things down to expand at a steady and careful pace. We have seen lots of other brands grow too quickly and then self-combust because they haven’t thought the growth out correctly.
We are working to open a new manufacturing site which would help to more than triple our current output. This would allow us to branch out and stock in more retail locations.
We are working on our second cookbook and broadening our offer of cookery classes in 2016. We are also keen to move more into savoury vegan options, so this focus would be a driving focus over the next couple of years.
Beyond that, who knows? We will continue listening to what our customers need and try our best to cater our future plans around that.
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