For most, losing one’s job is a pretty big setback. For Melissa Ben-Ishay, it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to her. Working as a media buyer in 2008, Melissa fell victim to the recession. Devastated and not knowing what to do, she turned to her best friend and brother, Brian, who set the course for launching her own mega-brand, Baked by Melissa. Always a fan of baking, Melissa followed his advice and set out baking 250 cupcakes that were distributed to the right people at the right time; a PR firm that was smitten with the tasty treats, and Baked by Melissa was born. Now, 100 million (yes, 100 million!) cupcakes later and with 14 shops in the New York area, Melissa chatted with heymama about her new CEO and how she’s planning to take her business to the next level.
Melissa, it’s so good to chat with you! Our kiddos are huge fans of your cupcakes. Tell us, why did you create them in miniature form?
Every time I walk into a bakery, I want to try one of everything. By making our cupcakes just a bite, you can have one of each flavor, without feeling bad about it. All of our treats are hand-crafted using only the best ingredients that remind me of my favorite desserts and bring me back to my childhood.
One of each is a good motto to live by! How do you come up with your flavors?
I am always thinking about new flavors, and I draw inspiration from everywhere. If I eat a delicious dessert or snack, I think about how I can turn it into a cupcake or macaron.
Did you have someone who influenced you in the early days to get your business off the ground?
I am fortunate to have two parents that encourage me to do everything and anything I set my mind to and an older brother who has been my very best friend since the day I was born. It was he who encouraged me to go home and bake my tie-dye cupcakes the day I was fired, and we ultimately started Baked by Melissa together!
What was your biggest challenge when starting your business? Do you think you’d do anything differently if you started all over again today?
There are so many challenges when starting your own business. You must make it your top most priority over everything else, and you have to be willing to put in the hours and make sacrifices. For me, having the self confidence that it was even possible was a big challenge. My parents and brother’s support during that time made all the difference.
How many employees do you currently have and how would you describe your company culture?
Between our corporate office, bakery and retail stores, we have 250 employees. The culture at Baked by Melissa is hippie, smart and fun! We have a team of like-minded, hard working and passionate people who get sh*t done!
Were there moments in your #startup days where you wanted to give up? What pulled you through?
Of course there were moments at the beginning in which I wanted to give up! That’s why it’s so important to surround yourself with people who love you, support you and can pick you up when you can’t necessarily pick yourself up. When I was having those moments in the beginning, I would call my dad. He always reminded me that I am smart and capable and can do anything I set my mind to (just like you can). He would always say, “What makes steel so strong? Extreme heat!” Also it’s important to be able to remember that tomorrow is a new day and nothing is the end of the world.
That’s an amazing quote. You describe your brother Brian as your best friend but he was also your CEO. Do you have any advice for working with family?
Working with family is hard! And it’s amazing more than anything. It forces you to be self aware and to take responsibility for your actions. When there is a disagreement there is always something you can do differently to affect a better outcome next time. We learned and grew together while growing Baked by Melissa while also fulfilling a dream of ours – that’s some special once in a lifetime stuff! And of course, it’s normal to have disagreements when working with family (and when not working with family), so it’s important to keep things in perspective.
You currently have a new CEO that is focused on growth and scaling your business. How did you know it was time to make a change in leadership?
My brother was ready to work on new projects and was able to recognize the need for a new CEO, so he could continue to do what he does best – create new businesses. Brian led the search for our new CEO, and we were so fortunate to find Seth [Horowitz, formerly the Chief Operating Officer of Iconix]. There are so many times that Seth’s passion reminds me of my brother. I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to work alongside my brother for so many years, and I feel so fortunate to now have the opportunity to work with Seth!
Baked by Melissa Founder Melissa Ben-Ishay and CEO Seth Horowitz
Your first book, Cakes by Melissa came out a few months ago. How did the experience of writing a book differ from your day-to-day? What surprised you the most about the process?
I was so excited to write a book because it was something new that I had never done before, and I love going out of my comfort zone. Writing the book was much different from my day to day job. I got it done in three months! I had to, because I have a job to do at Baked by Melissa too! I worked with an incredible team of extremely smart and creative people on Cakes by Melissa and I am so proud of what we created.
We love that family is extremely important to you. What special things do you do with your kids when you have such a demanding career to juggle?
On a recent snow day I had the opportunity to take my 2 year old daughter Scottie to play in the snow and make a snowman. It was SO MUCH FUN! I wake up early to spend extra time with her and leave work as soon as my work is done! I do my best to balance work and family, and I cherish every minute I spend with my daughter. I know she is going to grow up quickly, and I just want to be a part of every moment I possibly can!
They DO grow so quickly! How has becoming a mama changed the way you view your career?
Becoming a mom gave me a new sense of confidence and also gave me something that’s even more magical than Baked by Melissa (I could have never believed that would happen before giving birth) – a daughter. Women are amazing. We can do anything because we can have babies and that is some magical stuff.
What advice would you give to others wanting to scale their business? Are there any integral steps one should take that you may not have known when you were first starting to expand?
Seek out people who have done what you want to do with your business before. Engage them. Ask questions. Read books. And go for it! You only live once.
Let it be.
Everyone has their sh*t, so take it in stride.
People have been having babies since the beginning of time. It's primitive, so don't worry—you are doing an AMAZING job!