Justin Ellen found himself at a difficult crossroads when he was 17: Should he pursue his passion for baking full-time or go to college to further his education?
At the time, the youngest member of the hit Netflix cooking show cooked custom cakes from home as a part-time job and also juggled at school.
He brought home at least $5,000 a month, but he couldn’t help but compare himself to his peers.
“I was upset that I saw all my friends [apply for colleges].”
However, the young famous baker held his own, believing that “everyone has their own way.”
Just two years later, entrepreneur and cake business owner Everything Just Baked is making over $100,000 a year – and he has no intention of going back.
In March of this year, he made his debut in the Netflix series Is It Cake? is a baking competition in which pastry artists create edible replicas of everyday objects such as bowling pins and sewing machines.
The show, which premiered March 18 on the streaming service, took place in 10 most popular listings in the US for four weeks. It has also accumulated over 100 million hours of views from all over the world.
But the road to success is not without setbacks, Ellen told CNBC Make It. Hard work and wise words from loved ones also helped him move forward.
“Who made this cake?”
As a digital native, Ellen knew from the beginning that a social media presence would be critical to grow his business. But it took a lot of practice and courage to make a statement.
“In the beginning, my social media was not very good… not very good photos, they were very blurry. But as I continued to progress, I realized that they had to be very clean.”
Ellen also saw that Instagram was “really promoting” video content on the platform, and that’s when he decided to point the camera at himself, sharing snippets of his life as a young baker.
“In the beginning I was definitely shy because it was just embarrassing for me… but the more you do it the better and honestly no one cares if your hair is a little frizzy today,” he shared.
“Honestly, it makes you more attractive. People want to know the person behind the brand, and if they like you, they’ll want to spend money with you.”
However, Ellen said posting on social media was something he “didn’t take seriously” in the beginning.
“I just posted for fun. Finally, [through] word of mouth… people kept asking, “Can I order a cake?”
Ellen also gradually wins over his fans and customers by baking every time he has the opportunity, even if it was for family events.
“It doesn’t even have to be a huge cake… just make something small because you don’t know who will be there. Someone will eat it and ask, “Who made this cake?”
Before he knew it, he had over 50,000 Instagram followers and was making between $5,000 and $9,000 a month in high school.
“I figured, wow, this could be serious business.”
When he saw his part-time job take off in high school, Ellen started thinking about pursuing baking as a career. But not everyone approved.
“My dad looked like a baker? I feel like there’s a subtext [with baking] for example: “Oh, you don’t make a lot of money” or “You have to work hard,” he said.
But Ellen had big plans for herself.
“I realized that I don’t need to think about the little things. There is so much you can do in the field…think about every lane you can get on.”
“I looked at other bakers who have set up their own business – they have product lines that I had no idea about, which is something you can even do.”
Around this time, Ellen, like his friends, had to think about what would happen next after school.
“Perhaps somewhere in junior high, when everyone is looking for colleges… I discussed [about] go to culinary school. [But] I realized it wasn’t for me,” he said.
“I just felt like it wasn’t worth it and it was a lot of money. And you can’t teach how to do art in a sense, it’s really just practice – and the more you practice, the easier it will be. get.”
It was a turning point for Ellen, who realized that he was no longer just a high school baker.
“[I’m an] first an entrepreneur, then a baker. If you want to be a baker, go work for someone else.”
Social media may have been “completely free” to use as a form of marketing, but Ellen needed help with initial capital to get her business up and running.
“In the beginning, I sold cookies that I sent out myself… I asked my parents for $500 to buy boxes and other supplies.”
According to him, this was the first and last time he asked his parents for money for his business.
Even though his parents had doubts about his business in the early days, Ellen attributes his success to their words of wisdom: always reinvest what you earn.
“I was able to reinvest the money that [I got from] people buy, back to my business. I didn’t go buy Jordans,” he said with a laugh, meaning Popular Nike Air Jordan sneakers that can cost at least $200.
According to Ellen, this mindset was instilled in him by his parents, who run their own real estate company.