How to start a cookie business

Almost every large business started as a small business that someone with a big dream created. People have been starting businesses in their kitchens, garages, and backyard sheds for as long as businesses have existed.

Creating a purely digital business is usually the easiest and safest path, but you can’t email someone a cookie — at least, not the kind that people like, anyway. Fortunately, starting a real-world business is easier than ever, thanks to the internet and all of the modern marvels it provides.

Starting a business always comes with some risk, but hopefully, this guide will help you minimize that risk. 

Picking the perfect recipes: Planning your cookie business

When you’re starting a fresh batch of cookies, do you just dump out some flour, throw in a few sticks of butter, crack an egg or two, toss in a few extra ingredients, roll it all up, and throw it in the oven? Probably not. That’s not a recipe for cookies; it’s a recipe for disaster.

In order to make the perfect cookie, you need to start with the perfect recipe. You need to make sure you have the right amount of every ingredient. And you need to make sure that you’ve measured everything properly and portioned it correctly.

The same thing applies to your business, but building and running a business is a lot more complicated than baking cookies. You can never plan everything because unknown variables will always pop up.

So don’t stress out too much about getting everything perfect before you start, like you would with a recipe. Figure out as much as you can first, but know that things will change and there’s no such thing as a perfect plan.

Brainstorming

A lot of people have a hard time organizing their thoughts and ideas when they’re planning, and you’re likely no exception. That’s because all the thoughts and ideas you have about your business are rattling around in your brain in an unstructured way.

You have to get those ideas out and somewhere safe before you can even think about structuring them. So let’s start there.

Mind mapping is a planning technique that will help you get all the thoughts out of your head. It will even help you start structuring your ideas without getting distracted by the structuring process.

Start off by writing down a central idea. Then add a child idea and draw a line between the two. Then add sibling ideas and child ideas to the various nodes, creating a collection of branches.

When you’re done, all of your thoughts will be visible and safe. And as an added bonus, those thoughts will have some organization to them.

You can create those nodes and branches with sticky notes and string, like they do on cop shows. Or you could draw them up on a whiteboard. Optionally, you could also use specialized software like Whimsical, a suite of planning tools that includes a mind mapping tool to reduce the friction between thinking of something and getting it into your mind map.

Organizing your thoughts

Once you’ve created your mind map, you can begin organizing your thoughts into a collection of projects and tasks.

Getting Things Done (GTD) is an organization technique that involves getting ideas out of your head, like you did with mind mapping, and turning them into projects and tasks. It’s a formalized system that works with any project.

The kanban technique is one of the best ways to manage projects and tasks, and it plays very nicely with GTD. There’s a lot to the kanban technique, but the most popular part is very simple.

Turn every project into a 3×5 card or the digital equivalent. Then organize those cards into relevant stacks.

You can use kanban stacks to work through the GTD project-creation process. Once you have everything organized, you can then create stacks of cards for the tasks that you need to break down into actionable steps.

Trello is one of the best kanban tools available. 

Developing a professional business plan

Once you’ve finished structuring the ideas behind your business to the best of your ability, it’s time to start working on a business plan. This stage of planning is important because it creates a professional document, and a business plan is considered a requirement in the business world.

Developing a business plan is a way to convey financial projections, business structure, and other relevant information to bankers, investors, and mentors.

There’s a ton of different resources out there that can help you write a business plan. The Small Business Administration has a great guide that walks you through the process step by step.

Listening to the taste testers: Seeking out advice and mentorship

Another service the SBA provides is its SCORE program. SCORE stands for Service Corps of Retired Executives. It’s a collection of people who’ve successfully created and managed their own businesses for years.

And now that they’ve retired, they’ve dedicated their spare time to helping the next generation of business hopefuls. They have a wide body of knowledge to draw on from many different types of businesses. SCORE will help connect you with someone who’s best suited for your business type.

Having one or more mentors and advisors is important for a few reasons:

  1. Education. This article covers a lot of important information, but it can’t cover everything. Many people have written countless books about how to start a business. A lot of the people in the SCORE program, however, are walking books. You can draw on their vast knowledge to help fill in any gaps.
  2. Avoiding pitfalls. Many businesses fail for a number of reasons. Some people just don’t have what it takes, and they give up too soon. But more often, people will go down dead ends or miss critical details that do irreversible harm to their businesses. Working with a mentor can help you navigate the uncertain waters of getting your cookie business up and running.
  3. Encouragement. It’s an odd fact of life that when most people branch out and try to do something amazing with their lives, the people around them will discourage them and try to hold them back. That doesn’t mean they don’t care about you; they just want you to take the safest path. It’s called the crab mentality. Having a mentor who has successfully managed to run a business guarantees that at least one person in your life will be on your side and dedicated to your success.

Rolling out the dough: Creating a web and social media presence

This section isn’t actually about creating a web presence as much as it’s about creating the assets necessary to build your presence. Those assets include your domain name, your social media accounts, and your business name.

The hardest asset to acquire, by far, is a good domain name, so let’s start there.

Domain name

If you intend to start a business that only operates locally, you might really miss out. If you want to see a real degree of success, you should consider selling to a wider market. And for that, you’ll need a domain name.

Getting a domain name is tricky. You’ll likely discover that someone has already taken whatever you come up with first. And, as if that doesn’t make it hard enough, you need to come up with a good domain name in order to improve the chances of your business’s success.

Here are a few pointers to help you overcome both of those problems:

  1. Keep it short and sweet. Ideally, your domain name should be no more than seven or eight letters. The idea is that you want it to be easy to type. People are impatient enough that if they have a hard time getting to your website, they may just move on to the next one. For example, consider tooforate.com. On the one hand, that’s a nice, short domain name. On the other hand, you’re just asking for people to get the spelling wrong and make mistakes typing it out. Your domain name should be easy to say, spell, and share.
  2. Try to get a .com domain, but know there are alternatives. The shortage of domain names that end with .com has been a problem since the 90s. A few years back, some new top-level domain extensions (TLDs) were introduced. So instead of being limited to smilecookies.com, you can now consider smilecookies.store, .fun, or .cafe, among many others.
  3. Get creative. As we’ve already discussed, the best domain names have mostly been unavailable for the last 20 years. You can still get many of them, but they’ll be expensive. If you want to get a decent domain name, you have to be original. Think along the lines of crumbl.com, not cookies.com.

The best place to get a domain name is from Google Domains. It has the best prices available, a simple interface, and no ads or upsells.

Social media name

Coming up with the domain is the hard part. Social media names are much more forgiving. They don’t have to perfectly match your domain name or your business name. You can have a few extra letters and numbers without throwing people off. That’s because once a person is following you, they’ll probably never have to type in your social media name ever again. 

Get creative. Just don’t let your social media name look like alphabet soup, or people might think you’re a scammer.

Business name

You can do business under your own name if you want, but it’s a good idea to actually have a business name, especially if you incorporate it. We’ll come back to that in a bit.

When you’re filling out the paperwork to incorporate your business, come up with a few alternatives in case your desired business name is unavailable. But don’t worry — registering a business name is less challenging than finding a decent domain name.

Stocking the pantry: Funding your venture

You should always be careful about trusting information you find on the internet regarding legal, financial, and medical information. And this article is no exception. The information you read here is meant to point you in the right direction and isn’t meant as legal or financial advice.

Now that we have that out of the way, here are a few pointers to consider bringing up with your financial advisor:

  1. Know your numbers. If you’ve made a business plan, then you’ve got this one in the bag. The numbers should all be in your financial projections. Keep them in mind when you seek assistance.
  2. Be realistic about your goals. Plan your business in stages. Down the road, you may have a huge bakery with a dozen employees, but not yet. In the beginning, it’ll probably be you and maybe one or two other people working from home or possibly in a rented kitchen space. If you’ll be selling your cookies to the public, you may want to consider starting from a food truck instead of renting a commercial space. Whatever the case, think about your plans for the next year, not the next five years.
  3. Be prepared to answer tough questions. When an investor or banker gives you money, it’s a loan, not a gift. They expect to get a return on their investment. And they expect their money to be safe until that investment pays out. In order to make sure they’re making a sound investment, they’ll want to know a lot of facts and details. Be prepared.
  4. Be patient. If you have outstanding credit — and maybe even a background of successfully running a business — you may be able to get a microloan from the first banker you talk to. But chances are you’ll have to approach a few sources during your quest to seek funding, and many of those sources might say no. Be persistent and patient.
  5. Have a backup plan. Of course, if all of your sources say no, that can be quite discouraging. But that doesn’t mean you should give up. You don’t have to go the traditional routes. There are several different ways of getting funding.

Financing sources

There are more options available today than there were even 20 years ago for getting the money to seed your venture. Here are five of the best paths you can take:

  1. Bootstrapping and savings. One way to fund your business is to build it in stages. You can start off by baking cookies from home and selling them at your local farmers market on the weekends. That will give you time to perfect your recipes, find out what people want, and get a sense of running a business. And you’ll do all of that with minimal upfront investment.
  2. Friends and family. You might even have a friend or family member who has successfully run a business. If so, you might be able to get them to take an interest in your business. And if they do, they might be willing to help you out with a few bucks, or they might even want to go in halves with you and help you run the business.
  3. Grants. There are many government grants available to people with fewer advantages and those seeking to help their community. If that sounds like you, you can look into grants that might be available. Never pay for information about grants because it’s all available for free from official government websites. If somebody’s trying to sell you the information, it’s probably a scam.
  4. Loans. Getting funding is one of the most common concerns for anyone trying to start a business. The SBA recognizes that. It can help you connect with a network of lenders to help you get started.
  5. Crowdfunding. If you’re trying to do something really unique, creative, and different, you might be able to get enough attention to secure money through crowdfunding. Cookies aren’t exactly a cool new gadget, though, so Kickstarter might not be your best bet. If you’ve been selling your cookies for years to friends, family, and people in your community, you may have a chance to fund your business through one of the other crowdfunding services with the help of the people who already know and love your cookies.

Handling the tough cookies: Taking care of legal matters

Let’s just stop for a second and go over this point again: Please don’t take anything you read here as actual legal advice. Talk to the appropriate professionals before taking any action.

Here are eight things you can talk to them about:

  1. Incorporation. We mentioned this when we talked about picking your business name. Creating a corporation is a good idea for almost any kind of business. That’s because corporations move your business affairs into a separate entity. That entity can protect you from being held personally responsible for your company’s liabilities.
  2. Federal ID. Next up, we have the EIN (Employer Identification Number). Your EIN will act as a Social Security number for your business. Even if you’re doing business under your own name, you’ll still need an EIN to file taxes and open a business checking account.
  3. Local licenses and permits. No matter what you’re selling, your local city and/or county will require permits. You’ll need basic sales permits as well as any health code permits. Check with your local government to make sure everything is in order.
  4. Intellectual property. Talk to your mentor about securing your intellectual property. You probably can’t patent a cookie recipe, and you probably can’t copyright a cookie. But you can definitely trademark your logo and business name. You should also pursue any other ways you can find to protect your intellectual property.
  5. Taxes. Taxes are a hard pill to swallow, but swallow them you must. A good rule is to set aside one-third of all income for taxes when you’re self-employed. Talk to an accountant for advice after you’ve started hiring.
  6. Insurance. Insurance is necessary to protect you and your business from any kind of liability. If you have a bakery and somebody trips on your premises or one of your bakers burns themselves, you’ll be really glad that you have insurance. 
  7. Contracts. Contracts are a way of formalizing business relationships. Most companies you work with will require you to fill out contracts. Talk to a legal professional to help you sort through all of that and find out if you need any contracts of your own.
  8. Employment law. Employment law can be complicated and tangled. Fortunately, there are specialists you can hire to help you sort through this as well.

Stoking everyone’s cravings: Marketing your cookies

If you decide to take your business online, you’ll need some serious marketing chops. If you decide to sell from a local bakery only, you’ll still need to know marketing.

Of course, people will discover you by just walking down the street or passing you on their way to lunch, but many will find you through sites like Yelp, Google Maps, and even social media platforms. Many people won’t even eat at a place that has bad reviews.

That means your internet presence is very important to the success of your business.

Building an internet presence

Your presence on the internet tells a story about your business. It can either attract customers or drive them away. If your social media accounts are friendly, in touch with your community, and full of appetizing pictures, it’ll look very good for your business.

Maintaining a consistently outstanding experience and a top-notch level of quality are vitally important steps to keeping your reviews positive. Keep your customers happy, and keep an eye on your reviews. If you see them start to drop, find out what’s going wrong and make improvements.

Learning marketing

Marketing is a complex topic. The best way to learn marketing is from reliable online courses through sites like Udemy and from well-established marketers with a proven track record, like Seth Godin.

Udemy has a wide array of excellent courses with ratings and reviews. Its courses usually cost $200 or less, and it offers frequent sales that can bring prices down to as little as $11.

So far, Seth Godin has written 20 bestsellers, and he publishes great advice on his blog. The best book to get you started is This Is Marketing. Even if you’ll be hiring marketers, it’s a good book to help you understand this critical aspect of your business.

Mixing in the chocolate chips: Sourcing ingredients and equipment

Kevin Kelly is a futurist, a generalist, and a pretty wise person. On his 70th birthday, he released a long list of 103 bits of information he wished he’d always known.

The original list doesn’t seem to be available on the internet anymore. You can only find it in book form. But one of his pieces of advice was about buying equipment for a new hobby. It was something like, “When you begin a new hobby, start with the cheapest equipment you can. Then, when you know that you’re going to stick with it, buy the best equipment you can afford.”

That’s really good advice for your cookie startup. It’s not that you’re planning to fail. It’s that things happen. Your whole life could go in another direction between now and when you’re successful. But, on the other side of the same coin, you shouldn’t spend a whole bunch of money until you’re already earning money.

Ingredient planning is actually more complicated than you might realize. You have to think about food storage, expiration, and quality. You’ll need to create a system that minimizes waste and maximizes profits. That can take time and experience.

But there’s a lot of information available online because there are so many restaurants and bakeries that have already figured it all out. And if you have a mentor with baking or restaurant experience, they should be able to help you as well.

And what about ingredients? Are you going to buy the cheapest ingredients you can? Or would you rather purchase organic ingredients? Ethically sourced ingredients might also be important to you. Whichever path you decide to take, make sure it aligns with your values and the values of the community you’re trying to attract.

Using the right kitchen gadgets: Choosing the best software

The availability and affordability of software has made many business practices a lot simpler and more affordable than in the past. You can probably perform many of the duties that you would have previously had to hire a specialist for.

There are many kinds of software that you can use to help run your business. But some pieces of software are so flexible and well made that you’ll find they can help you perform most of your duties.

Here are three of them:

  1. Jotform. Jotform is the premier data-collection and automation tool. Its versatility means you’ll constantly find places in your business processes where it’s the perfect match.
  2. Google Docs, Gmail, and Meet. Google’s cloud-based suite of tools will let you and your team communicate and work together in real time. And when your business grows, you can use Workspace, which is designed for companies of every size — from tiny mom and pops to massive enterprises.
  3. Notion. Notion is a knowledge management tool. It provides a collaborative editing environment that gives you smart tables and lets you embed other software into your pages. You can even embed Google’s and Jotform’s tools into your Notion pages, making it a great center for all your business processes.

Following the recipe: Setting up your business processes

Your business is going to involve a lot of doing the same things over and over again. Sometimes you may find that you’ve done something several times before, but it’s been long enough that you don’t remember how. You could wind up spending a lot of time re-creating the steps that you took in the past.

Follow traditional business structures where they fit. And for the individual processes of your business, come up with repeatable systems and document them well. By the time you start hiring people, you should have your systems so well streamlined that you can hand your employees checklists to follow with minimal training.

The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber is an excellent book that will teach you how to work on your business, not just in your business. The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss is another outstanding book that will teach you how to automate and outsource much of your business.

Here are some common business processes and tricks for managing them:

  1. Accounting. This involves bookkeeping, payroll, and taxes. QuickBooks is the most popular choice for small businesses and the self-employed.
  2. Human resources. HR handles hiring, firing, managing benefits, and more. You can take care of most of your HR with Jotform, including receiving resumes, filling out legal documents, managing employee lists and information, and much more.
  3. Customer service. Keeping your customers happy is probably the most important part of your business. This is another area where Jotform is your friend. You can create forms to collect customer requests, product feedback, and more.
  4. Research and development. It’s important to have some core recipes that never change. Those are the cookies that people will remember from their childhoods and come back for again and again. But it’s also important to come up with new ideas and release seasonal and limited-edition cookies to keep people excited about your business. You can track all of your research using Google Docs. It’s also great for collaborative work.
  5. Marketing. We’ve already covered this in detail. Google Docs can help you manage your campaigns. Jotform has many marketing templates you can use to collect email addresses, do market research, and much more. Buffer can help streamline your social media marketing by automating posts. And Mailchimp will help you launch professional email campaigns without getting flagged as spam.
  6. Market validation. Don’t start mass-producing cookies until you find out what your customers like. Do extensive taste testing and don’t settle on the first thing that’s kind of good. Find the recipe and process that make people fall in love with your cookies. Jotform can help you get feedback from your customers. 
  7. Quality assurance. It’s vitally important to make sure your end product meets the highest standards possible. Jotform can help you streamline the inspection process.
  8. Online storefront. Jotform can make setting up an online store one of the easiest parts of building your business, thanks to Jotform Store Builder.

Taking the last bite

There’s a lot involved in starting a business, but the most important thing is to start. Don’t overthink it. Don’t over plan it. Don’t spend too much on it. Don’t psych yourself out. Just roll up your sleeves and get to work.

There’s lots of upfront planning required, but it’s mostly to get the ideas out of your head and somewhere safe. Once you’ve done that, get back to work.

We’ve covered a lot of information in this post. Bookmark it and, when you need more information, come back here to figure out your next steps.

Whatever success looks like for you, here’s hoping you’ll see it. And here’s to you for taking the first steps!

Photo by Jade Wulfraat on Unsplash

AUTHOR
Lee Nathan is a personal development and productivity technology writer. He can be found at leenathan.com.

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