Justin Ellen found himself at a difficult crossroads at the age of 17 – should he pursue his passion for baking full-time or go to college to further his education?
Back then, the youngest contestant on Netflix’s popular baking show was making custom cakes at home, while juggling school.
He brought home at least $5,000 a month, but he couldn’t help but compare himself to his peers.
“What depressed me was that I was seeing all my friends [apply for colleges].”
Nevertheless, the famous young baker remained faithful to his positions, believing that “everyone has their own path”.
Just two years later, full-time entrepreneur and cake business owner Everything Just Baked is making over $100,000 a year — and he’s not looking back.
In March of this year, he debuted on “Is It Cake?” from Netflix. — a baking contest where cake artists create edible replicas of everyday objects, like bowling pins and sewing machines.
The show, which premiered on the streaming service on March 18, was in the Top 10 most-watched in the United States for four weeks. It has also garnered over 100 million views worldwide.
But the path to success is not without failures, Ellen told CNBC Make It. The hard work and wise words of those close to him also helped him forward.
‘Who made this cake?’
As a digital native, Ellen knew from the start that having a social media presence would be crucial to growing her business. But it took a lot of practice — and courage — to get noticed.
“At first my socials weren’t great…not great photos, they were very blurry. But as I progressed I realized they had to be super clean.”
Ellen also saw that Instagram was “really pushing” video content on the platform and that’s when he decided to turn the camera on himself, sharing snippets of his life as a young baker.
“I was definitely shy at first because it was just awkward for me…but the more you do it, it’s like, well and honestly, nobody cares if your hair is a little frizzy today,” he shared.
“Honestly, it makes you more accessible. People want to know the person behind the brand and if they like you, they’ll want to spend money with you.”
Even so, Ellen said posting on social media was something he “didn’t take seriously” at first.
“I was just posting for fun. Eventually, [through] word of mouth… people kept asking, ‘Can I order a cake?'”
Ellen also slowly built up his following and clientele by cooking whenever he got the chance, 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’s going to be there. Someone is going to eat it and say, ‘Who made this cake?'”
Before he knew it, he had over 50,000 Instagram followers and was making around $5,000-9,000 a month in high school.
“I realized, wow, this could be serious business.”
From baker to entrepreneur
As he watched his hustle side gain momentum in high school, Ellen started thinking about making a career out of baking. But not everyone approved.
“My dad was like, a baker? I feel like there’s a connotation [with baking] like, ‘Oh, you don’t make a lot of money’ or ‘You have to do a lot of work,'” he said.
But Ellen had bigger plans for himself.
“I realized I don’t have to think small. There’s so much you can do on the pitch… think about every path you can go down.”
“I’ve looked at other bakers who have started their businesses – they have product lines, and I didn’t even know that was something you could do.”
It was around this time that Ellen, like her friends around him, had to think about what was next after high school.
“Probably around freshman year, when everyone’s like looking for colleges…I was debating [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 really teach how to make art in a sense, it’s really just to practice – and the more you practice, the easier it is to have.”
This was the pivotal moment for Ellen, who realized he was no longer just a baker in high school.
“[I’m an] entrepreneur first, then baker. If you want to be a baker, then go work for someone else.”
The best business advice
Social media may have been “completely free” to use as a form of marketing, but Ellen needed help with the initial capital to launch her business.
“At first I was selling cookies that I was shipping…I asked my parents for $500 to buy boxes and other materials.”
It was the first and last time he would ask his parents for money for his business, he said.
Although her parents had doubts about her business at first, Ellen credits her success to their wise words: Always reinvest what you earn.
“I was able to reinvest the money that [I got from] people who buy, back in my business. I didn’t go buy Jordans,” he laughed, referring to Nike’s popular Air Jordan sneakers that can cost at least $200.
That mindset is something her parents — who run their own real estate company — instilled in her, Ellen said.