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Behind the Review host and Yelp’s Small Business Expert, Emily Washcovick, shares a look at this week’s episode of the podcast.
Every business starts somewhere—a backyard, a garage, a tiny studio. For Paper Route Bakery, it all started in a small kitchen in a small apartment in Austin, Texas, with owner Aaron Seriff-Cullick making cookies and cakes for friends and neighbors. That led to delivery, and orders, and eventually, a Kickstarter campaign for a brick-and-mortar storefront.
That’s where it got tricky. Envisioning a dream is one thing, but executing that vision is another thing altogether.
“Opening a brick and mortar is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my whole life. I can’t even describe what that period of my life was like,” said Aaron. The money was running out fast—een before there was product to sell—and build outs and health inspections took longer than anticipated.
“By the time I finally passed my health inspection in September, which was like the biggest relief, I was in the weeds and needed to start making money immediately,” Aaron described. “Even from the first second I got going, it’s been high stakes. We could call it an adventure, but crisis is more appropriate.”
Just about every small business owner has been on that “adventure,” and very few report it as a pleasant experience. The truth is, owning a business is hard, but not many business owners like to talk about that part. No one wants to admit when things aren’t going to plan.
And sometimes, those plans need to be set aside, and you have to pivot your business model, like Aaron did with Paper Route Bakery. When he realized it was all work and no pay (for himself at least), he had to take a good look at his business model.
“I realized in the middle of the summer that the bakery was losing money, and I was going to have to either close… essentially the bakery was going to have to close. Even though we were selling baked goods regularly and frequently selling out, not only were we not making a profit, we weren’t breaking even. We were losing money.”
Aaron didn’t open a business to lose money—that’s not part of any business owner’s plans. He managed to open up after the initial pandemic wave thanks to some Federal Small Business Association loans. When those ran out, it was time to pivot and make some serious changes to his menu.
Almost everyone has known the disappointment that comes from a favorite menu item being discontinued. It can be a crushing disappointment, especially if you’ve driven for miles in anticipation of that one special something you just have to have.
Yelp reviewer Amber W. Missed out on one of Paper Route’s specialty cookies: the milkshake cookie. They had sold out before she could make it to the store, but she still wrote a positive review of Paper Route because Aaron handled the situation perfectly.
In her review, Amber said “They were out of the milkshake cookie I wanted to try because we got there so late in the afternoon. It’s a hot item, but we got lucky that fresh scones were coming out. The owner is super cool, and he even brought me a huge chocolate chip cookie to make up for being out of the milkshake cookie. I will definitely be back here early enough to get one.”
That personal connection made Amber a fan of Paper Route, and she immediately started following the bakery’s Instagram page. Social media can be a boon to a business like Paper Route because the product looks as good as it tastes.
“All his [social media] stories are great and show how much he cares about the importance of being unique from all the other bakeries in Austin where you can go get a cookie. You have to convince people somehow. And the way he does it is a great way to do it. Showing how he makes it, how it’s homemade,” said Amber.
That visual stimulation applies to reviews and a business’s Yelp Page as well. Amber always uses photos with her reviews because as she says, words sometimes fail.
“There’s no way you can describe their scones to someone. When I traditionally think of a scone, you think of a small little triangle or something? No, not there. That sone was big enough I could’ve shared it probably with three people. And then the cookie that I will miss so much, that cookie tasted even better because it was free, right? It was just so thick. I can’t describe it, but the picture can, right? I can’t do it justice. You have to look at the picture and then you have to be like, I’m going to go eat that.”
Reviews are crucial to any business, and Aaron especially appreciates them. Because his products are taken away from the bakery and enjoyed elsewhere, he rarely gets immediate feedback on his baked goods.
“They mean so much to me,” Aaron said. “I’m just a kid baking in my apartment and trying to share what I make with the people around me. So it blows my mind that people love the baked goods so much. Those reviews are my professional fulfillment in a nutshell.
“That said, there are sometimes bad reviews, and those really hurt. The thing is, when you’re taking reviews that seriously, a bad review really stings. But I’ve also been able to learn and grow from each of those. And so for me, the review process is essential.”
As his business has expanded, Aaron finds himself separated from the front-of-house role he enjoyed. That’s sometimes a consequence of growing a business. In the beginning, like Aaron, the owner is also the baker and running the register and handling all the paperwork.
Even though delegating with growth is a necessary step to preserve energy and balance, it can be a rough transition for some small business owners who have poured their heart and soul into the business.
“How can I instill my identity and personality so much into the bakery that they’re still conveyed, even when I’m not there?” said Aaron. “I think it all comes back to that keep Austin weird vibe, which I’ve tried so hard to instill throughout the business.”
Some of the lessons Aaron has learned over the last few years can be applied to any small business:
- Find comfort in sharing your struggles. Running a small business is hard. Talk about the difficulties instead of burying them.
- Pivoting is essential, but it can be tough on your customers. Sometimes you have to make hard decisions and changes to your business structure, even though you know it will disappoint customers. Remember that if your decision is ultimately necessary for the business, be sure to communicate it to your customers, and they will understand.
- Help your customers pivot with your business. When you do pivot your business, take your customers with you to make the changes easier. Stick to a quality product, and they’ll follow you.
- A picture is really worth a thousand words (or more). Reviews with photos can help describe a product when words fail. Use photo-forward social media to help promote products.
- Keep your personality in your business as you expand. Small business owners don’t have to give up their personal lives forever, but it’s important to set boundaries as your business expands. Have a plan for infusing your vision and personality into your business, staff, and overall operations—even when you’re not there.
Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Aaron and Amber, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviews every Thursday.