Interview with Ben May, Founder of Austin Cake Ball

Austin Cake Ball

We've recently had to rebrand our bar/lounge because people couldn't get their heads around the idea that we are both a bar/lounge and restaurant. We had a guy come in to take a panoramic view for Google Maps which you can see here: Copper Restaurant & Dessert Lounge

A lot of what we've done is completely custom fabricated for us, so we've invested a lot of time and money it. Since we just rebranded we're hoping our current customers and prospective customers start realizing that there is more than cake balls in the spot. We really do have good food and cocktails!

1. Ben, you've had quite the whirlwind last few years. You went from being an IT architect for to starting your own business. What pushed you down that road?

We just started going and going and going and it got to the point where it was so big Stacey (significant other) left her full time job to work at what was going to become Austin Cake Ball and then it hit me last year that we've got 45 employees, big monthly payrolls, etc and I figured I should probably start paying attention to it. So I had to leave Dell and start moving forward full-time at the business.

I went first to trying it part-time and then the full re-development of was going on at that time and it was an incredibly difficult time to be a part-time employee as well. I knew that I just needed to leave and it's been a great rollercoaster ride since then.

Austin Cake Ball was originally started because Stacey and I wanted something fun to do together and we didn't know it would become what it is today. We realized a few months ago when we woke up and had one of the largest privately owned bakeries in Austin. That we have gone wayyy past what we had dreamed of in the beginning.

2. You are making quite a name for yourself not just in Austin, but across the US. Can you give us a virtual roadmap for your success?

We picked something to focus on. Back in the day we used to be a full service bakery - cupcakes, mini-cakes, anything "cake related" - we would do and do well. Its frightening when you're small to turn off something that might generate 10% of your business (like wedding cakes for us) that are an integral part of your revenue, but we knew that getting those time consuming products to market while still doing the full production cycle for cake balls would be detrimental to both. So it was hard, but also a great decision to focus on getting cake balls to be the premier product that we are known for today. Our product with ingredients, packaging , quality, etc is absolutely the best I've found not just here in the continental US, but internationally too!

We established our online marketplace early and now are a major player in the cake ball scene. We have a great frontend and a lot of time and money invested in our online platform and the SEO before we really even started selling anything.

We also needed to achieve a consistent process from end-to-end. By moving from the old school paper and pen systems that are commonplace in our industry we've been able to jump years ahead of our competition in a pretty short time.

3. Working at Dell gave you an understanding of the differences between using an Open Source Shopping Cart and using UltraCart's Hosted Shopping Cart. Can you tell us why you chose UltraCart to power your online sales?

One of the things we learned early on with the open source side of things is that if something breaks, there is no one except a couple forum posts to help you get back up. We weren't trying to be a technology company that sold cake balls, we were a bakery that needed to sell cake balls online. So when we needed very specific things like having zip code restricted shipping methods for our delivery service, we needed something more powerful than an open source solution that would not break when we upgraded to the new version.. UltraCart provided not only the reputation and reliability we were seeking out in a scalable system, but also was as committed to constant growth as we are.

So we looked all around at other shopping carts, from open to hosted and UltraCart was an easy decision. I'm probably only using 10% of what is available and so we know we have all the tools we need now and in the future. I love it because we have had other carts offer to get us over to them for free because of my connections in the industry, but its more worthwhile to be in UltraCart and pay for a service than to accept a lesser substitute for free.

And from what I can tell since UltraCart is continually developing we're not ever going to outgrow you.

We have absolutely no intention of going anywhere else.

4. Now that you have several physical locations you can see the differences between running brick and mortar stores and online systems. Can you tell us how you run those two differently?

our online presence is frictionless. We move our orders from the online or phone order to the kitchen for the guys to execute and then into our accounting platform. The brick and mortar side is much more variable because you don't know what your employees or your customers are going to do on any day. With online it is all the same for every experience, but with multiple brick and mortar locations, it can be a different experience. I still offer people a 5% discount on their entire order if they order online even when they just stop in to pick it up anyway. It makes that much sense because that lack of friction makes everyone's life easier.

5. Anyone with a little bit of baking knowledge and an oven can throw together some cake balls, but your cake balls command a premium price, what sets your product apart?

Really in terms of the presentation of the pieces, no one makes them look as good and as consistent and eye-pleasing as we do. Plus we pay a lot for the best quality ingredients and so you are getting the absolute best product that money can buy. Finally, our trademark copper tin that we use for every order keeps people talking about us months after they get their order.

RJ - Thats funny you mentioned that, my wife uses her copper cake ball tin to hold her earrings.

yeah we want to make sure that everyone got to experience our great packaging and ensure that would never be thrown away and give them an incentive to come back. It makes sense in a number of ways, its attractive so people want to reuse it and that helps save trash from going into our landfill, and they can reuse them for other things that people had told us they use them for like pencil holders, dog treats, tea bags, etc. And since we know that our copper tin is going to help people remember their experience and how good the cake balls are and come back. So if you bring your tin back we give them a discount to refill it. In fact one lady told us when she brings her tin in for a refill that it is right up there with her company's 401k match.

6. When you look over the last few years as your businesses continued to increase, what 3 things would you say you did wrong and 3 things you did right?


1. In a startup mode, you have to focus on your core competency. Whatever it is that you think you can do best is the best thing to do. Don't ever outsource the parts of what you do best. We originally hired a consulting firm to do the design and integration of our website and they blew it. Those were my core competencies but I was so busy and thought I just needed someone to take some of the stuff I was doing off my plate. It ended up being the wrong decision because after I paid them for what they did I ripped it all out and redid it myself anyway. After I had done what I wanted to do, it was better than what I had just paid what seemed like a TON of money at the time for their iffy expertise.

2. Definitely choose wisely where to spend your limited capital. Every startup company is unique but what is not unique is that very few have a ton of capital to blow. Everyone saw how well that worked out for people in the dotcom bubble bursts. Throwing money at something will not solve the problem. You have to understand what you are trying to do and how that fits in what you need to purchase.

3. If you are bootstrapping your company and find yourself spending a lot of money on something, its probably time to get good at it.

By just moving from a simple merchant account that we didn't really research, to a true interchange provider designed for high transaction volumes, we saved $6000 year.

When we found out how expensive it was to have one additional employee there that was just standing around we got very focused on making sure that if you didn't have something to do, you were heading home.

1. Unique brand - branding ourselves in specific way from the very start. From the quality of ingredients to the packaging, to the great taste. In reality it was 60% intentional and 40% luck; you really never know how well something is going to work. So, we stayed observant to what seemed to work and then kept that and whatever didn't seem important we dropped or adjusted.

2. Making sure that we invested the time and effort in learning our systems from front to back. We recently had a kitchen manager leave, but because we already knew how everything works, we were ready to move right away and so what could have been a major blow to our productivity ended up being a relatively small speed bump.

3. I have list of things that I keep that I need to eventually fire off on. That keeps me wondering what is next on the list. Like right now I know that I need to take a look at the Auto-Order items in UltraCart for customers that have asked for us to send out cake balls to their company on consistent basis.

4. If I can add a 4th, it would be to use what works. We have a system for our kitchen that I developed to increase our efficiency and its a little bit hokey but it works. There was no handwriting on the wall, and to use an external system was overkill for what we need to to . So just continuing to move forward with what is working so we can change what is not has continued to be a good plan of attack.

7. If you were to mentor a new UltraCart Merchant, what parts of UltraCart would you tell them to look into first to get them ready for success?

Make sure that your shipping options are clean and easy for whatever your business is setup to accomplish. Shipping for customers is always a no win deal, customers hate shipping and so do you. So try to make it line up as best you can to what can be accomplished in the cart. When we intentionally decided not to ship on particular days and during holidays cutoff days it was key to delivering what the customer expected. Because if you can't make it easy and understandable for your customer, they will call and that adds a lot of cost.. or worse, if they don't, you just lost them.

When you build your website, pull up the Amazon Seller Central Best Practices for your industry and use that as your template for building your website. I don't have a problem saying that in itself was a huge help for us in terms of guidelines that we didn't even knew existed. For example they recommend a certain size for images/ resolution, that the consume product is 80% of each image on a white background, product descriptions etc. It really validated a lot of what we thought going in and made it easy to not feel like we were reinventing the wheel. Find a website you like and copying it is not the way to go. You want to be your own company with your own brand but still make sure you are doing the right things.

What we've found so far looking back with 20/20 vision.
Success is not about a the really good decisions you do make, its about all the really terrible decisions you don't make.

For example:

Betting the farm on one vendor or customer, deciding to move to a bigger space you can't currently afford on the off chance that the gamble will result in higher sales, or moving away from your core competency.