The college - cupcake life
The year was 2014. My mom fixed my collar and put my hair back as I loudly recited what I mugged up like the lines of a theatrical performance. I had just arrived at NIT Trichy, one of the best engineering colleges in the country. Our team had been selected for a business plan competition organized by their entrepreneurship cell, and I was there to make a presentation about our future cupcake business.
The idea was to have a cupcake food truck, I had been studying about cupcake trends (yes, there is such a thing) around the world and was certain we could bring those trends to India. Business plan competitions have a specific format that you are required to follow - they are supposed to include your unique selling proposition (USP), an industry analysis, marketing and HR strategies, revenue streams and a financial forecast for the business for the next 3-5 years. Aroma and Rea, my best friends worked on all marketing and finance related aspects of the business. This was also their specialization in college and that worked for us.
Just a month earlier, one of our professors had encouraged me to register for this competition. All I had to do was write a paragraph about an idea, so I signed up. I got an email saying we had been selected and needed to submit a Bplan. Out of sheer laziness, I did not pursue it. Who's going to take the effort to think of all this? Plus, with classes and assignments - I had a good excuse in my head not to put in the extra effort.
A week later, I got a call from someone in the core team organizing the competition. When she heard my reasoning, she almost scolded me saying 200 teams had applied for this - we got shortlisted to the top 60, and now there was a chance for our idea to be presented to investors that were being invited to judge the competition. How can I just let this go so carelessly? I felt embarrassed about my typical college-kid behaviour and promised her we would step up. And we did step up. We worked hard on our plan and got selected for the finals. Anusha ma'am, my favourite professor, assured me that she'd take care of my attendance and I should just go there and give it my best shot.
And there I was, on the NIT trichy campus - the only girl, the youngest participant in the room and certainly the only one who was accompanied by her mom. I am no good at impromptu speeches and my child-like voice doesn't allow me to have an impacting presence on stage, so the only way I was going to make this presentation work is if I performed it like an actor who had every word memorized by repeating it a thousand times. So that's what I did, for ten days in Bangalore and then the whole time in the bus, our room and till the moment I went on stage - I kept practicing the script in my head.
The judges were from Indian Angel Networks and Mumbai Angels. They said the first 3 winners would not only win cash prizes, but would also win an opportunity to get incubated. Once the presentations were over, many participants who had come from other colleges around the country congratulated me for doing a wonderful job. I don't know if this was out of courtesy or they meant it, but I wasn't used to getting attention and this felt nice.
After lunch, they announced the winners and we had won 3rd place. We were elated. I came back to Bangalore and wrote a thank you note to the judges. The judge from Indian Angel Network invited me to his office in Delhi.
So that summer, I went with my parents to meet him. He explained that to begin this process, we would first have to be a registered company. IAN would help us with industry experts as mentors to set up the business and would in-turn expect a small share of the company. Once we achieve the mini-milestones that are set for us over a period of 12 months, we will be put in front of investors to raise a round of seed-funding. While this was all very fancy, it was too daunting for me. I was only in the second year of college and knew practically nothing about funding or equity or capital. I told him that I would come back after I graduate because I just wanted to finish college for now. He said, as long as he's with the company - the doors would be open for me, and that was a reassuring sentence to hear.
The next year in college was highlighted by a series of such Bplan competitions in universities across the country. We won some and we lost some, but we loved it all. I remember there was an event in Hyderabad, the team that won was presenting an imaginary machine to segregate waste. While the idea was great, it was clear that the team had no intention to figure out how to build such a machine or sell it in the marketplace. They won simply because it was a social entrepreneurship project. But when the judges announced the winners, they said, "while this team has won first place, there is no doubt that the girls from The Cupcake Booth are the ones who are going to make their idea a reality."
And in my mind I said, "Damn right, we are."
Ours was an easy product to make, the entry barrier to this business is very low and that's why you see thousands of people baking from home today. I was sending cupcake photos on my class whatsapp group and taking orders frequently.
I would frost the cupcakes in our classroom when we had breaks and literally passed them under the table to many of my classmates until one of our professors saw my mini kitchen below the desk.
For some reason, I did not think there was anything wrong with what I was doing until she pointed it out. She said it was not allowed as per university guidelines in front of the whole class, I accepted my mistake and said I wouldn't repeat it.
To my surprise, some of my classmates stood up. They asked - why can't she sell it? This senior from this class is promoting his business, this person from the other department is doing this. I was astonished. The irony is that 6 years later, the same teacher contacted me to show her sister our commercial kitchen because she was interested in baking. I was tempted to remind her that she wanted to shut my little business so many years ago but I'm a believer that karma catches up with you anyhow.
Luckily, I had another professor who was a lot more encouraging and connected me to the cafeteria. He said if you can't sell under your brand name, you can still tell everyone you are supplying to the cafeteria and send them their to buy your cupcakes.
One of the vendors at the cafeteria agreed to keep my little cupcake basket at his counter every Monday. That uncle barely made a margin of Rs 100/week off of my products but I think it was more to encourage a young entrepreneur than anything else. I wish I had his number to thank him and show him our kitchen today. He also left campus after we graduated and I don't know where he is now.
Cupcakes made my college life interesting. What a funny sentence to say. I didn't pursue the incubation offer when I graduated, but went on to work for a foodtech startup where I gained experience on how business is conducted. Aroma stuck with us for marketing when we restarted the business under the name "Dream a Dozen" in 2018 and Rea moved on to a different role in her world of finance. Today, we sell a lot more than just cupcakes and deliver products across the country, but I will never forget how I first sold them under the desk in my classroom. We've come a long way since then, but we have a longer way to go. As I always tell our team - Onwards and Upwards.