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.