Mignon Francois is the owner and director of The Cupcake Collection, a boutique-style bakery in Nashville that sells homemade cakes and cupcakes baked fresh daily. A true rags-to-riches story, Francois attributes the tremendous rise of her business to strong faith and a conservative financial approach.
Why did you start your business?
I was a stay-at-home mom, or as I call it, “a household manager.” I graduated from college and had my degree, but I was at home raising my children because that was what was important to me. Times were hard and I was trying to make ends meet. Our electricity and our water weren’t regular. I wanted to regulate those things for my family. I was listening to this financial guru on the radio who was telling people to have a bake sale. I decided to have a bake sale every single day, though I didn’t bake at all – not even out of a box! I went and bought books and magazines and turned on every cooking show. I enlisted the help of my grandmother who is a well-known baker. She doesn’t really have any recipes, she just kind of throws everything in there. She would tell me over the phone, “Open up your hand and go to the first line and that’s how much of this you need.” I made my first successful cake over the phone long-distance with grandma.
I knew that if I wanted to make a business with this, I needed to make it consistent and add science to it. I had gone to school for pre-med biology. All these years later, the science of balancing equations came to my mind and I realized what we were doing was creating a chemical reaction. It all made sense to me all of a sudden! I’m not really a baker – I’m really a food scientist!
I had started making cupcakes for the neighborhood. Whenever new people would come, I would ask them to try my cupcakes. They would try them and come back for more. They started ordering. One day, I had $5 left to my name. I was sitting in the back of my house with no electricity, praying and asking God what to do. A neighbor knocked on my door. She said she wanted to give my cupcakes to all her 600 clients for Christmas. She said that every time I made some, she would pay me. She knew I couldn’t afford to do all 600 at once. I closed the door and started right then with the $5 I had to use for food. By that night, I had turned it into $60. I took $5 out of that, went back to the store, and by the end of the week I had turned it into $600. I continued to flip the money like that over the next 11 years.
What’s the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting out?
I believe that mistakes are never tied to dreams. Every little thing that happens is necessary to get you from where you are to where you want to be. I converted a school bus into a mobile bakery. At the time, Nashville hadn’t seen anything like that. People didn’t know what to expect. Though I don’t see it as a mistake, we, along with the city, ended up creating the rules of what not to do when you decide to create a food truck business!
What’s the smartest thing you did when you were first starting out?
I started! Sometimes, we think we need everything perfect to be in place. It’s never going to be perfect. You can just start from where you are and it will be enough. I had a dorm-size refrigerator and a KitchenAid mixer when I opened what would eventually be a multi-million-dollar company. And I’ve always bought my equipment used, at auctions and on eBay.
Managing the Business
How do you finance the business?
When I started, I had no credit. I had no money. I had no experience. I bootstrapped it just like that guru on the radio was telling people to do. And I am still a debt-free company.
How do you manage cash flow?
I use QuickBooks to manage things. I would recommend the first thing any business should hire is an accountant, even if it’s just consulting with you quarterly or at tax season. We still bootstrap everything, though the company does have a credit card, which we use just for convenience and to earn frequent flyer miles.
What is the most challenging thing about running the company?
Cash flow. This is not easy. It is easy to get credit cards and run up debt and all of that. If you’re really committed to being debt-free, you might not always have what you need and things might take a little longer. It teaches you discipline. It teaches you gratitude when you get the thing. And it teaches you to take care of what you have.
Staffing is also difficult. Finding loyal people to get onto your dream, hold on, and stick with it can be hard. It’s a challenge to find the kind of people who want to build this with me. The great thing is that some of my kids work in the family business. Though, some of them have been recruited away or I’ve had to fire them because entitlement is not a word in our household! We have to work to get what we want!
What’s the most rewarding thing about running the business?
The most rewarding thing for me has been going out into the lobby and seeing people. When I started this, I didn’t know how to bake. We just celebrated nine years of business. I’m still overjoyed and overwhelmed that people are waiting on line – surgeons, teachers, stay-at-home moms, actors – and talking to each other about which kind is the best! The connection and camaraderie created by the cupcakes is one of the most rewarding things.
What advice would you give to a new entrepreneur?
Start. You will always have a reason not to do it. But, waiting is going to be the thing that keeps you from getting where you want to be. Once you start, everything is going to fall into place. You will realize that you really didn’t need what you thought you needed or that you had it all along.
What’s next for The Cupcake Collection?
We just got picked up by HSN as one of their next big discoveries, which was announced on TV about two months ago. And I decided that I wanted to help other people who want to open a business but may never have the opportunity to do so (not because they’re not smart enough, but because they’ll never have enough money). I created a quasi-franchise opportunity that would let people use sweat equity to get into a business. I decided to test the model by opening a new location in New Orleans myself with my sisters. I didn’t want to sit here building wealth while I watched them struggle. That permanent store will open on Magazine Street in New Orleans before the end of the year.