Bipolar made me threaten to stab myself in front of my kids- but now I run a 500k cake business & baked for Queen


DESPITE running her own hugely successful cake business and baking for The Queen, making cakes hasn’t always been a big part of Michelle Shulman’s life.

The mum-of-two, 42, from Eaton Bray in Bedfordshire, only ever dabbled with baking during her home tech classes at school – but threw herself into it when she began making her daughters’ birthday cakes.

Michelle Shulman founded her cake company in April 2006

After impressing mums with her extravagant cakes – which would often be in the shape of Disney princesses – Michelle began taking orders from parents at her daughters’ play group and local nurseries.

Unsurprisingly, Michelle was inundated with orders as a result of her creative and purse-friendly designs – but began struggling with her work-life balance when customers would call her home late at night.

Six years after she set up her business – which was originally called Cakes by Shelly and now goes by La Belle Cake Company – Michelle suffered a total breakdown which forced her to make some drastic changes to her business. But fortunately, her risks have paid off.

Michelle spoke exclusively to Fabulous Digital for our #BOSSINGIT series about ordinary women who have launched incredible businesses.

The mum-of-two only got into baking after having kids

Although she inherited the “baking gene” from her grandmother and experimented with cake designs in food tech, it wasn’t until she had her daughters – Fiona, 19, and Kelsie, 16 – that Michelle really threw herself into the hobby.

The mum explained: “I was always making cakes for the kids’ birthdays.

“But when they got to play group age and we’d be hosting birthday parties that couple of mums would say ‘you’re really good, can you make a cake for my little one?”

At this point, it was 2005 and Michelle was a stay-at-home mum – having drifted between jobs at McDonalds, the Foreign Exchange and working as a cleaner in a pub before having kids.

As she grew in confidence with cake-making, Michelle educated herself by buying more recipe books and tins – but she believes her skill came naturally from watching her grandma bake for so many years.

Michelle with her husband Darren and daughters Fiona, 19, and Kelsie, 16

She said: “Whenever I saw her on a Saturday she always had some kind of cake she was making going off to a neighbour or for someones birthday.

“I made my 13th birthday cake with her, it was a little record player with a Kylie and Jason record stuck on the front.” 

When she first started out, the mum found the financial side of things so awkward with other mums that she only charged up to 15 for cakes to feed between 20-40 children – even if they cost 25 to make.

But even though she was originally losing money from her hobby, Michelle said the outlet was “like therapy to me.”

She added: “Ive always loved it. Its almost like a therapy for me. Ill put some music on and Ill just get on with it. Ive always really enjoyed it.”

Michelle’s business started off small – and she made all her cakes herself out her kitchen

In May 2006, Michelle officially launched Cakes by Shelly as a business to coincide with the new tax year – and for the next six years, she worked out of her kitchen at home.

At the start, the aspiring entrepreneur paid 20 to get business cards made and would only buy ingredients for the cakes as and when the orders came in.

Without a fancy website in place, the mum-of-two found Facebook – which was still in its early days – a great way to connect with her customers and resulted in her first wedding cake order.

“Orders just started rolling in,” Michelle recalled. “Someone would have a cake at their party and I would leave a couple of business cards with it and then I’d get more orders from their guests.”

As well as using social media to promote her business (and make online albums devoted to her designs), Michelle also sold a cake in the shape of the Fifi and the Flowertots cottage for 55 on eBay – something she would charge upwards of 200 for now.

But as her business started to skyrocket, Michelle started struggling more and more with her mental health.

She explained: “It was just building up and building up. There was always cakes on my kitchen table.

“Weve only got a kitchen-diner in our house and I couldnt escape it at that point, which was both a blessing and a curse.”

In May 2012, Michelle suffered a breakdown – having already made two extravagant wedding cakes that week and with four other birthday cakes on the go.

With customers calling her home phone at all hours of the day to order cakes and her work covering every surface in the kitchen, Michelle couldn’t hold it all together any longer.

She recalled: ” I was making a cake in the shape of Bagpus and for whatever reason it just wasnt going right.

“It was May half term at the time because the girls were home and it was a Thursday so I was trying to get the cake finished because Thursdays and Fridays were just cake days, I had to get the cake finished.

“Id be starting at 8 oclock in the morning and not finishing until gone midnight. I had no work-life balance and it just wasnt going right and it was at that point where I just broke down and had had enough.

“I couldnt do it anymore, I just wanted to give up and I just wanted to put a knife inI actually got a knife and tried to put it in my stomach in front of the kids and they ended up having to phone Daddy.”

Michelle’s husband Daniel, 44, rushed home to find his wife a “crumbled mess on the floor” – sobbing and rocking back and forth.

Daniel then called the emergency services who sent out a crisis team to help Michelle, who had previously suffered with post-natal depression after Fiona was born.

“They said to me did you actually want to hurt yourself? and I said no, I probably didnt,” Michelle said. “It was just that cry for help. I dont think anybody around me realised just how much it was overwhelmingly me.

“Im quite a stubborn person, Im not really a person that asks for help a lot. I do now, but back then I was thought, Ive got to cope, Ive got to do this, Ive got to do that, and I was actually making myself ill.”

After the incident, Michelle began seeing a therapist – who helped her whittle down her daily 40-item to-do list – and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

She said: “I am so open about the bipolar and its ok, its not my fault, its a chemical imbalance in the brain, theres nothing I can do about it, its not something Ive done and its not something my family have done.

“Yes I take tablets for it, as I call it, my happy pills, but also I am very aware that they are only 50 per cent of the solution and I needed to make changes in my life to come the other 50 per cent of the way.”

In an attempt to add some much-needed distance between her work and personal life, the businesswoman finally took the plunge and rented out her own shop – which allowed her to get her kitchen back for the first time in six years.

But it still wasn’t all smooth sailing from here – and for the next five years, Michelle was too scared to raise the prices of her impressive cakes for fear of alienating her loyal customers and racked up rent arrears.

She said: ” I couldnt pay the rent and I was making excuses and the landlord came in. I was playing shop, I was like yay this will be exciting, Ive got a shop, it looks great, this is exciting and I didnt look at the fundamentals.

“But there was no-one out there to help me with the fundamentals either.”

Michelle – pictured with Mary Berry – had a breakdown in 2012

However, Michelle says there were two vital things that helped her take her business to the next level: Daniel coming on board to help the day-to-day running of the shop in 2015 and rebranding as La Belle Cake Company two years later.

“Cakes by Shelley is great but it sounds very home bakish and thats stopping me putting my prices up because I dont sound very luxury,” she said. “I wanted to start working with all these high-end venues and as soon as I rebranded, everything changed.

“I would always send my wedding cake pictures into wedding cake magazines but hardly ever heard anything – but as soon as I rebranded, I had sent off the same pictures and they then got featured.

“The business has grown more in the past two, three years then it ever has before.”

This rebrand finally gave the confidence to put up her prices – and she now charges 500 for a basic wedding cake (which still takes up to three days to make) in comparison to the 275 she used to make.

Unsurprisingly, this has made a huge difference to Michelle’s business – which has turned over an impressive 500k in the past 14 years and now has an annual turnover of 70k.

As well as making Olivia Atwood’s wedding cake, Michelle even baked for The Queen when she visited local Berkhamsted school in 2016 for its 475th anniversary.

Michelle made a fruitcake for The Queen in 2012

The Queen visited nearby Berkhamsted school in 2016 for their 475th anniversary

Explaining how she got this impressive gig, Michelle said: Im such a cheeky person, I dont wait for things to come to me anymore, I go out there and grab things by the b***s.

“I knew that she was planning on visiting so I contacted her with the school and asked if they’d like me to make the cake for her to cut.

“They said that would be amazing and obviously it wasnt something that I charged for but the publicity was great.”

Naturally, Michelle made a classic fruit cake for Her Majesty and neatly decorated it with the school’s logo and some pretty roses.

But while you’d expecting baking for royalty to be the biggest highlight of Michelle’s career, the mum had something else in mind entirely.

Michelle says baking for Take That was her proudest moment

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She said: “My biggest highlight was baking a cake for Take That. I am a huge, huge fan of Take That and that was my first ever celebrity commission.

“It was for their Sing Star launch. My friend is a bigger Take That fan than I am, she actually makes me look normal!

“She knew about the event and so she said it was coming up and that it was for a charity, so I reached out and said that I would like to make a cake for the event and they came back and said yes please, that would be fantastic so yeah I designed the cake and we got to go to the event which was amazing.”

Unfortunately, Michelle didn’t get to meet her idols that night – but the knowledge that they’d enjoyed her best-selling rich chocolate cake decorated with the band’s logo was enough of a thrill…. that combined with the free Playstation and games she was given by Sony too, of course.

For more inspiring Bossing It stories, we spoke to Cherish Reardon who founded Popsy Clothing when her anxiety made it impossible for her to apply for jobs – now it’s set to make 1m and Ladbaby Mum’s a fan.

And Victoria Eagle was battling post-natal depression when she set up her stationery business on eBay and now it’s made 500k.

Plus Cecily Mills of Coconuts Organic crowd-funded 400k towards her ice-cream company in just two weeks – and now it’s set to make 1m.