Jane Asher on running her Party Cakes business

Jane Asher has starred in movies opposite Michael Caine and Lawrence Olivier. She’s written novels and regularly treads the boards in the West End. Despite all that, nothing could prepare her for the highs and lows of running her own business, Party Cakes.

There is a big leap between having mad ideas in the middle of the night about starting a business and actually doing it. That’s the tricky bit. I opened my cake shop, Party Cakes, in 1989 in Chelsea, near where I lived.

In order to raise the finance, I did something that would now be difficult, if not impossible. I walked up the road to my local bank, saw the manager and said, ‘I want to start a small business.’

Independently, he was able to say that he thought it was a good idea, noting that his wife had read my books, and I received an £80,000 loan. I rather doubt whether that would happen today, as I’m sure I would be sent to some business centre and statistically assessed.

Of course, it helped that I was a known figure. I always say there are pluses and minuses to fame. It undoubtedly helps you get coverage and publicity, which any business needs to attract customers. By equal measure, if there is anything wrong with your product, people will remember. You’ll get a black mark against your name.

Surviving the market crash

A really serious recession began pretty much the day I opened my shop. I had what they laughingly call a “business plan”, but they always seem to me like fairy stories: year one will be this, year two will be that.

My estimations were a bit pie-in-the-sky. It was terrifying. Not only was there the recession, but I got so much wrong and underpriced the cakes for a long time.

I hadn’t considered what I was spending and my hidden costs. Eventually, I calculated what I would have to make per hour to cover those costs and make a small profit. All our products are individual, which makes it very complicated.

Someone once said to me that one’s instinct when times are tough – like they are now – is to try and cut the price of your product. In a way, for luxury goods like mine, that’s the opposite of what you should do as you’ll have to sell more to stay in the same place. If you push them up slightly, you need to sell fewer to stay where you are.

A long road

It is embarrassing to admit, but it was years before we broke even. If I look at just the shop and the core business, if I’m absolutely honest, it was nine or ten years at least. Isn’t that shameful?

We survived by diversifying outside the shop. I designed cakes for Sainsbury’s, and that’s what kept us going. Later on, I branched out into a range of high-quality cake mixes that I’m very proud of.

Now we make a small profit on the shop, but it’s not a money-spinner. I would never say that people should try and start out with our sort of cake shop expecting to make a fortune, as they won’t.

If you’re clever, you can diversify. I had a website very early on – I’ve always loved technology – and that has been brilliant because you can market wonderfully through the internet. I diversified in ways that I never thought about it in the beginning.

I started the shop because I knew that, with children, I didn’t want to be out all the time on location. I never stopped acting, but I did very much curtail it so I could be with my family. I could work in the shop, spend time with my children and do two to three hours’ theatre work in the evening.

It was okay but it was hard work. There was a lot of juggling, and I know it’s sexist to say it, but I think women are good at multi-tasking.

It was easy for me because I loved it all. I believe it’s much harder to do one job that you really don’t like as it’s boring to have to drag yourself into work each morning. If it’s doing things you love, like all the things I do, then it honestly makes it easier.

I love the fact that we are producing such beautiful things. The team here are the best I’ve ever had. I have created this business that is doing something really extraordinary. It makes people’s lives happy. Life can be bloody awful really, as we all know.

But there are pockets of joy, like a birthday or a wedding, that should be celebrated.

Marc Barber

Raven Connelly

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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