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Losing $40,000 and going cotton candy viral with Emily Harpel, founder of Art of Sucre (part 1)

by Female Startup Club
February 2nd 2022
Today on the show we’re chatting to Emily Harpel, the founder behind cotton candy brand, Art of Sucre.  While wedding planning Emily was inspired to give a traditional childhood treat a chic upgrade. ... More
are you on the lookout for a new podcast to listen to Being boss by Emily Thompson is brought to you by the hubspot podcast network and something I love about this show is getting the chance to support my community of fellow creators and business owners. Being boss is an exploration of not only what it takes, but what it means to be a boss as a creative business owner, freelancer or side hustler and I know it's going to resonate with so many of you who are listening in, so if you like female startup club, trust me, you're going to love being boss. This is Emily Harpal for female startup club. Hey everyone, it's soon hear your host and hype girl today on the show. We're chatting to Emily Harpal, the founder behind Cotton Candy brand Art of Sucre while wedding planning Emily was inspired to give a traditional childhood treat, a chic upgrade. The biz was born in 2016 with the idea of spinning fresh cones of cotton candy in creative and unique flavors such as champagne, orange bourbon and watermelon for all to enjoy.

We talked through her vitality on Tiktok and her advice for other small business owners who haven't yet taken the leap, Her biggest mistake with money and some interesting learnings from along the way and by the way, if you haven't heard about our little London's worry yet, I'm hosting an intimate book launch party on the 24th of february and you are of course invited if you're keen to come. Just send me an email to hello at female startup club dot com and I will pop you on the guest list. Let's get into it. This is Emily for female startup club. Are you working around the clock to build the business you always imagined? Do you want to communicate with your fast growing list of customers in a personalized way, but in a way that gives you time to work on the rest of your business. Do you ever wonder how the companies you admire the ones that redefine their categories do it? Companies like living proof and chubby's, They do it by building relationships with their customers from the very beginning while also evolving in real time as their customers needs change.

These companies connect quickly with their customers, collect their information and start creating personalized experiences and offers that inspire rapid purchase often within minutes of uploading their customer data. Clay vo empowers you to own the most important thing to any business. The relationship between you and your customers and the experiences you deliver from the first email to the last promotion to learn more about how clay vo helps you own your growth visit clay vo dot com slash F S. C. That's K L A V I Y. O dot com slash F. S. C. Female startup club precincts Emily, Hello, welcome to the show. Hi, thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be talking to you today. You're the first person I've spoken to in the cotton candy industry, wow. I love that for both of us. Actually, me too, after I was looking through all of your tic toks, I was like, gosh, I haven't had cotton candy in a really long time and I want it.

Oh absolutely. I think that's kind of the fun part about what we do is that most adults you're not consuming cotton candy on a regular basis. Yeah, 100%. You made me get a bit of a craving. Good. We love that. Especially when you see it on a video, just wait until you smell it in person. It really makes you crave it. Oh my God, you um tell me more, let's go back to 2016 circle when you were kind of leading up to starting this business, what was getting you interested in cotton candy and thinking about becoming an entrepreneur. So I had just graduated from college. My degree is a bachelor's in psychology and the original plan was to go on to graduate school. There's not a whole lot you can do with just an undergrad in psych and I, at the same time was planning my wedding. So through that process and spending an embarrassing amount of time on Pinterest, I really couldn't figure out what to do for wedding favors for whatever reason that was like by far the hardest part of wedding planning was to figure out what to give out as wedding favors.

And so naturally I didn't want to be something that was going to be wasteful or end up, you know, thrown away or guess not wanting, nobody wanted a picture of mine and drew my husband's face on a magnet like to put on the refrigerator. Nobody wants that. Yeah, it just, it was a whole lot of money for something that I wanted to be practical and food seemed like a fit to look through that. So I was scrolling through hours of instagram Pinterest, all of that and so all of the upgrades that are really commonplace now. So sugar cookies that look like works of art, I'm sure you know exactly what I'm talking about or like donut walls or something like that. And one of the things that I popped popped up on my screen was cotton candy, but I was super disappointed in the options. It was a lot of just pink or blue with no actual flavor attached to it and the packaging was honestly left something to be desired. So I really couldn't let it go. I just kept thinking about it. And on the way back from my honeymoon, we drove like 20 hours in one day to get home and I turned to, yeah, that was a whole other whole other thing.

But I turned to drew and said, hey, I have this idea, what do you think about me starting a cotton candy company and the original idea behind it was to do events. So we would come to weddings bar and bat mitzvahs birthday parties, professional sporting events, spin live cotton candy fresh on site and really make it an experience And I fully expected him to look at me and be like, girl you're crazy, go get, go get a real job, go to graduate school, what, what are you doing? We're freshly married, we got married very young and he didn't so all of the props to him because he immediately was like, I think this is a fantastic idea, you you have to do this. So in that car ride home we came up with the business name and secured all of the social media handles the domain name for the website, everything on that car ride home and that's where our sucre was born. A 20 hour like Jam, a power jam, literally that's exactly what it was just like noted out all the bits and bobs on the spot.

I love it. That's so cool, wow. And so, but like you didn't have any experience in doing cotton candy making, like how did you know what to do? How did you start finding clients? So it's so funny looking back on it. I was so young and naive in a good way. I had never touched a cotton candy machine before. I decided to make this business. Like I had, I had no business starting a business like that's just the reality of it to any sane person like on the outside looking in. Yeah, So I spent a lot of time on youtube and google and figuring out how to just make it work. I bought my first cotton candy machine with the money from our wedding and we lived in like this tiny condo at the time and just started whipping up cotton candy on my own. And I really took to social media to find my first paying client. And actually the first day we did events in the beginning.

So that was the vision. That's what we did for four years. So my first day of having a paid event, I actually had two events back to back, which is an insane thing that I agreed to. But at the time I was like, I can't say no to the money. I have to have to do this and all came through social media and one of the first people that paid me was a dress shop that sold wedding dresses and so she? Re posted about me and it really just kind of took off from there. One event led to another led to me quitting my like two part time jobs and taking artistic work full time in less than a year. How much did you spend on buying that piece of machinery in the beginning? And how much were you charging for an event in the beginning? Oh gosh! I think my first machine all in was right around $500. So not a ton of money when it comes to starting a business. I would say between getting like my LLC and paperwork and all of that done, it was just under $1000 to get started.

And in the beginning I was charging not nearly enough money and quite honestly, it was just excited. Of course. Yeah. Just excited to have somebody want me to be there. So I was charging anywhere between like 75 to maybe $150 $200 to go and do these events. Oh wow. You're a real Boggan. I was, yes. Yeah. If you get in with us that first year, you were very lucky because you got a really good deal. Let's just say that. So at some point the bookings are just kind of word of mouth. It's starting to pour in. When do you think, Oh, I should raise my prices and how can I like turn this into a bigger thing because obviously it's just you at that point, right? Like you're just hustling your time to go to these events. I imagine you must have been really busy. It's like you're capped at the level, you know, because you've only got so much time. 1000%. I really, until we transitioned to like our online store and what we do now I would lose sleep over that I knew that I had a really cool idea. I knew that I was successful on my own. It was my full time job.

I was paying the bills. I was doing everything. I was exhausted. It was seven days a week. There were some days that I was doing myself like three or four events a day. I would do, you know, a morning event, I would do one kind of like mid, like late morning, mid afternoon and afternoon event and then evening I was gone all the time. I was exhausted. I was running myself into the ground. It wasn't feasible to have a social life or you know, start a family one day, all of all of the things, it just wasn't, it was not working. And even when I raised prices, there's still a cap, you know, there's only so much people are going to want to pay for cotton candy as a dessert. So it wasn't like I could back down to a lower amount of events to make up for that money. The growth was still, there was absolutely a ceiling there that I was hitting. And what changed that, to be totally honest with you is absolutely the pandemic. Yeah, let's get into what happened.

You know, obviously March 2020 hits, you're an events-based business, you're doing really well as kind of the one woman show and you're busy, but you're also burnt out and you're also kept with your potential, what happens The, I'll never forget. It was right around my wedding anniversary, which is very ironic in all of this when I got married in, in March and March 12 and that was quite literally like the day that the world shut down here in Cleveland Ohio for us, that was, you know, the stay at home orders were starting to come down all of that and cotton candy is obviously clearly not essential nor should it be. And so I went from running myself into the ground to being a stay at home dog mom, can I just ask you a question before we keep going? Are you able to share, like what kind of revenue were you doing at that point? Because obviously you go from like doing revenue to like zero I imagine to paint the picture. Yeah, so I would annually, I believe at that point we were, I was bringing in around like 70-80 $1000 a year, which was comfortable.

My overhead was extremely low because it was just me and so it was super comfortable, nothing to sneeze at, but nothing too, you know, it's like you created yourself a job essentially quite literally. That's what I had done. Absolutely. And the interesting part about that is that it, and it's like this now too, but it varied extreme because obviously in the summer we were way busier than I was or if you were sick or something. Yeah, or even, you know at that point what if there was like a family emergency, like I had to miss family funerals and things like that because there was no one else to carry the weight of what I was doing. So it was a whole little quite literally a one woman show at that point. So the world shutdown went from being working all the time, stay at home dog mom. And at the time we were told it was two weeks, right. You know, you're like, I'm having a bit of a holiday, like a false holiday. No, little like quite literally, that's what it felt like in this. It sounds, I hate to say this out loud, but it was my reality.

It was almost like a sigh of relief. I'm, I'm very aware of how privileged that is to be able to say that and to be able to be in a situation that I was not sick, no one else was sick any of those things. But it kind of felt like a, oh I can take, I can take a pause here and then very quickly as we all know that that is not at all the reality of what happened. And so I found myself a couple of months later at this point saying, okay, I have to figure something out. Do I go and get a real job As I like to tease, do I start a new business from scratch that's more friendly to the world that we're now living in or do I pivot what I already have and try to make it work in this new space. And one day it just all of a sudden clicked out of nowhere after a lot of tears and a lot of processing and a lot of hard conversations and I decided to move into the packaging space and I was going to find a way to package the magic of what we did live and in person to be able to ship out anywhere.

And at the time I was thinking, you know, there's a lot of opportunity here, but pretty small ship in the U. S. And my state probably specifically. But Tiktok really came into play for us and that is what really expanded our opportunities and horizons beyond anything that I could have imagined at that time. Let's talk about the Tiktok thing because for all the listeners tuning in, you have 1.2 million followers as of today, you have like millions and millions and millions of likes and views and you know, all the crazy stuff and you've obviously just absolutely blown up from the power of Tiktok. How long did it take for it to start snowballing? Like, can you step me through those early days of creating content on Tiktok? Yes, it happened very quickly. I don't know if you were like this during lockdown, but I was consuming Tiktok, which I think like much of the world was to be honest with you. And it was something that drew and I were texting back and forth to each other throughout the day and you know, friends, family, all that stuff.

So I really took the time to consume. And at some point when I decided to switch to this packaging, I was like, why am I not sharing what I do on here? It's unique. It's really cool. Not a lot of people know about it. And so I started just doing really trial and air of what was going overwhelmed. So I started posting day in the life videos. Here's me, you know, Planning on this online store. Here's a day in the life of owning a cotton candy company and a pandemic. Here's what events used to look like. Here's our little cotton candy studio that we have all of our equipment in that kind of stuff. And when I truly mean this, the first video that we had that really went kind of viral. I think it got maybe two million views. It's the dumbest video I've ever posted Casually. Oh, you know, I got two million views. I don't to this day. I do not understand why this video has that many views. It's the dumbest video. It's literally just a bag that we used to take two cotton candy events and it's me packing it as I thought and it's just my hands and it's my voice saying, all right, we're gonna grab this flavor of watermelon sugar, we're gonna grab these cotton candy cones and this extension cord and that was it.

And people were like, tell me more, I want to hear more. They were commenting on how I pronounced, I think it was pina colada, which is a whole other thing about, about Tiktok, my skin had to grow thick pretty quickly. But from there we had more videos just start popping off of just day in the life kind of stuff and what really put us on the map. I had a friend that got married who used to help out with events occasionally and she did a very small backyard wedding and we did cotton candy for it and it was her spinning cotton candy in her wedding dress And that video has 25 million views. See that when I browse, that's so cute. I love that. Yes, Rachel is an angel and I think it was just a story behind it, of us being friends, her helping me out and being so supportive and then her actual wedding day, it was so sweet and Tiktok felt that way too. And that's by far our most viewed video, but that's really kind of what put us on the map and people started to take notice after that.

That is crazy. I have so many different questions on like different parts. So just to stick with Tiktok for a few minutes more before we get into like what the impact of that was and like where you were with your online store, what was your posting schedule then, and what is it now, like how much content are you putting out on Tiktok and reels in the beginning? I was posting three times a day and that's because I had nothing else going on. I wasn't doing events. My main focus was to grow that account and to really ride that wave while it was, you know, going really well for us. We didn't have the packaging, done that, whole process took about a year. So it was, yeah, it was very time consuming a lot of trial and air, but it provided great content because we were able to in real time, you know, explain to the audience like, hey, what do you want to see? Here's what I'm thinking, here's what's going on behind the scenes and being really vulnerable, raw and real and bringing people through that journey.

I think it endeared a lot of people into supporting the business, to wanting to be a part of it. And they were, I mean, they were really part of the journey. So in the beginning I was posting a lot now as things have grown, I've taken a little bit of a step back or had, because it, it takes a lot of time and energy. So once the store started kind of taking off, I had to All of a sudden train, a team of 20 people and you know, that comes with its own set of growing pains and learning and all of that and I had to figure out shipping, I had so many things now on my plate, I took a step back but we are ramping up to start posting three videos again a day just to see where we're at. Unpredictability is part of what makes starting and growing a business both exciting and terrifying from the next loan payment to your next big sale or your next acquisition, finding predictability and business is about as likely as finding a last minute valentine's day dinner reservation, unlikely hubspot Crm platform is here to help grow and scale with you through uncertainty.

So you can spend your time getting to that dinner reservation, hub sports reporting dashboard is like your crystal ball giving you a bird's eye view on your marketing, your sales and customer service performance. So you can get ahead of any issues before they happen, lead rotation and automation takes on operational sales tasks. So your team can focus on customer needs and shared inboxes, make incoming chats and emails easy to manage and scale for the whole team, learn more about how a hubspot Crm platform can help your business grow better at hubspot dot com. When you say, you know, you have to grow a thick skin because of you know people online. How do you deal with that. Like how do you deal with the negativity or like people saying shitty comments, that was something that I don't think people really think about when you talk about going viral in anyway. Um and it was even more shocking to me, I feel like because I wasn't expecting it in the way that it happened because I rarely show my face or not that I'm like hiding anything, but I'm I'm not the brand, people want to see cotton candy at most.

It's my voice that people recognize in my hands and so things that people would pick apart and would be brutal about would not be things that I was prepared for. Does that make sense? And it was in now looking back, it's I can see it clearer and see like, oh it's just trolls or oh that's just part of being on the internet and you know, it's unfortunately where we live in the space at the time, it was really difficult. I would spend all night not sleeping really just scrolling through comments of people saying the silliest things, like commenting on how I would open a bottle of soda or how I would pronounce certain things or that I was killing the environment because we used this type of packaging or just very, I mean I've been called incredible names that you can't believe on the internet for like cotton candy and it's, it's a dark side of going viral.

It is equal parts the best thing that has happened to me as far as career wise and and all of that and there's also the hardest thing, It's super lonely and there is absolutely this sense of you can't control what's happening to you at the, at the same time. And it happens fast. So again, it was equal parts really incredible and such a gift. And it was also really hard and a really dark time through trying to figure all of that out. Yeah. And I feel like it's one of those things like it's easy to say like you have to develop a thick skin. But like in reality I'm sure it's still something that's like hard to deal with. Like if if someone says something nasty on the internet, it's like you can't help but just let those things creep into your like psyche because we're human things hurt. Yes. Things hurt. And I have gotten so much better at it. I did a lot of things. Finally drew was like, we need to, we need to figure out a better balance about this isn't working.

But I have no notifications for Tiktok on my phone. So that was part of the problem at the time I had notifications on. So it was just constant scroll of everything. And it's hard not to just be in that this. Mm hmm You needed boundaries. 100%. And it's so much better than it was. But you're right every once in a while, something will get said. And it's especially when it's something that like I have worked so hard and so hands on with, it's hard not to take it personally and also like with such good intentions like you know what's the negative to cotton candy? Come on. I had no idea that we could, you know, there would be something that people could find to be upset about with cotton candy. So that's been a learning lesson two and 99% of people are so incredible and so supportive and all of that. But it's really hard. Like you said when you're human to not let that one comment stick out occasionally. It's like the negative comment like always seems to outweigh the thousands and thousands of positive comments and cheerleaders that you would have like supporting you and you know, just so excited about what you're doing.

Absolutely. I feel like for anyone listening who is a small business owner just getting started, they're going to listen to this and be like, oh yeah, but she started during the pandemic, it's not gonna happen for me. Like, you know, Tiktok saturated now feeling that like, oh, I've missed the boat kind of feeling what would your advice be to, you know, in progress, entrepreneurs who are early on in the journey and haven't gotten into the video content side of things yet. I feel like that is so easy to think that way and to get, especially because social media in the world now, it's, it's hard to play the comparison game. It's hard, it really is. I also think you've got to learn to quiet that noise and to just get started because the reality is the skill set of the video world. I don't think it's going anywhere anytime soon. And whether it's Tiktok or a new app that pops up, there's always going to be something new and bigger than better that's evolving and you can't predict it. People thought that Tiktok was going to go away and it hasn't and I don't think it's going to go away for a while.

But getting into that space now, it's not too late and just get started and it will help prepare you for whatever that next big thing is. And then maybe you catch that and you're in the right place at the right time. And also to part of being a business owner is finding what does make you different and what you bring to the table. And so there's no such thing as it being oversaturated. If what you are bringing to the table is truly unique and what it is about you that makes your company shine and what you have to offer then absolutely. The world needs to see that whether it's Tiktok instagram Youtube, whatever platform that you find you do well on man, you're such a great hype girl. Absolutely Though. I think, I mean it's, it's true. We all have something to offer. Mm hmm So true. Yes. So for anyone listening start today, Start tomorrow, start putting yourself out there. It's awkward. It's embarrassing. I'm trying to do it at the moment and it's tough.

But I'm going to persevere. I'm really gonna try and get to that like three videos a day. But God, it's a lot of content and it's it's that's the thing too, that I don't think people realize when it's like three videos a day and like, yeah, but you don't understand like that took me 8, 10 hours to create those three videos a day between. It's it's intimidating. I totally I understand that, but I do believe that it's worth it. And as far as the whole cringe e aspect goes, you've got to let that go because if anybody is making fun of you behind the scenes or making comments, hey, that's not your person. Anyways. And B. They are, you're gonna be the one that's laughing when you have the success behind you. So, you can just find a way to put it out there. I mean, I cringe at some of my old videos, but ultimately, I'm really glad that I posted because if not, yeah, look at where you are now a year and a half on your pretty happy about those cringe e videos, definitely. I will proudly share them now, Right?

So what's happened since, you know, you launched the online store and you switched and made the pivot to, I would say you're primarily probably an e commerce business now verse an events business. although I'm sure you still have the events arm of the business. But what's been the impact of switching and having kind of that viral Itty through Tiktok my life has changed in like truly every aspect from a personal standpoint, I am so much happier and more fulfilled in a way that I didn't even realize work issues or were not working well for me Previously, which is super interesting. But from a business standpoint, I'm now sitting in our new production facility in new offices. It's 2500 square feet of Barbie's dream house. There's just pink and glitter everywhere. It's incredibly good fun that I mean so fun. So we're moving in like officially here in the next two weeks, which is incredible. I went from one person to now a team of almost 20, I have a full time right hand gal whose name is Emma and she is incredible.

She has been by my side through all of the launching of the store and really helping me figure out and build a team, There is no book out there or manual that teaches you how to be a boss and let me tell you that has been like some of the most incredible learning experiences of growing as a human, growing as a business owner, as a leader. All of the things this past year has really taught me and to be able to provide a job for people is satisfying in a way that I was not expecting or prepared for. So that has been really cool and then just being able to ship all over the world and to share our cotton candy with so many people is I mean truly and it's truly an incredible thing to be able to experience and witness firsthand 100% and you play in a space that's like joyful, you know you it's playful, it's joyful, you you're around happy moments and special occasions and you're putting smiles on people's faces.

So I can just imagine how fulfilling that could be. Oh it's really such a gift. We so during like towards the end of our like severe lockdown here we were allowed to open up to do pickups in our parking lot essentially. So I was spinning cotton candy in these clear containers. It was not cute but people were driving from all over to come and pick up our cotton candy and I had someone in our parking lot literally crying which had me crying, talking about how this cotton candy meant so much to her and her family. It was a favorite treat of theirs and they splurged to get it all together and they had a really rough year and how this moment just brought them so much joy through eating cotton candy and I was just, I was not okay, I'm not okay now thinking about it but being able to bring that gift to people is I mean I get emotional just thinking about it and it is just cotton candy, I am aware of that, but it's pretty cool. No, but it's cotton candy stories, it's, it's moments of joy.

I totally get it. That's amazing, wow. Especially now, I feel like it even makes it a little more special. Absolutely. And I also think like now you're probably in a position where you're able to step back if you need to, you've got the support of a team that means that if you need to be out of the office or if you need to go on vacation or you have the family emergency, everything keep like keeps going, everything still runs. Yes, which is a, I mean, I can't even describe what that feels like for me and my family. I think when we first launched, when I first launched in March, I was working 20 hours a day for probably two months and when I finally got to the point where I could hire Emma on full time, the deep breath that I was able to take for the first time in what felt like forever was something I will truly never forget and to be able to say, okay, now I can focus on myself and my family just as much as the business was really neat. I bet I'm sure What is your key piece of advice for entrepreneurs coming into 2022.

Oh wow, I feel like I could talk about this all day, I feel like one thing that nobody and I think it's talked about, but I think it's natural for people to feel like you have to wait until it's perfect, whatever it is, whether it's the Tiktok video, it's the product, it's whatever it is that your specialty is, you want to wait until it's done exactly how you want it to be. And I think that that can be a huge detriment to people sometimes releasing things. Whether it's your first service, your website, your social media posts before it's perfect is the way to go. We released our cotton candy glitter bombs, which is what we're really known for. And it's our champagne cotton candy, you drop it into a glass of Prosecco champagne spray, whatever it dissolves, edible glitter flows out and the first round of packaging that we released wasn't perfect. And I learned so much through that that was then able to give me the keys and the information to make the perfect packaging.

So there's something to be said about just putting it out there and seeing what it goes, how it goes, what the feedback is, and to not get in your own way of that perfection that to be quite honest with you doesn't really exist anyways, but just giving yourself the permission to show up in whatever way works in that moment is I think really important to starting a business and to growing it. Yeah, I mean it's so funny that you mentioned this because literally yesterday I was saying on social media, it was like this quote that came from one of the guests on the show Michelle Runabout, she said don't let becoming who you want to become, wait, I'm going to read it to you because I'm going to muck it up. I just know you know when you go to say something and you're like, it's not that you're like it's so close, but it's also not exactly that. Yeah, exactly. She said the only way to get closer to becoming who you want to be is to let go of perfectionism and it's so true, done is better than perfect and just like just start, just get out there and get started and like it, it sounds so cliche, like the whole Nike just do it slogan But truly that's their slogan for a reason.

Just put something out there, just do it, just get started. And I also say to you will never regret putting yourself out there and doing it and trying but you will 100% not doing it, you'll regret not doing it. And so I think that first step is absolutely the hardest and the most important. Yes, that is so, so true Gosh, love that advice, Thank you so much. Thanks for listening to this amazing episode. We are testing out something new here for the next while and we're splitting up each episode into two parts, the main interview part and then the six quick questions part to make them easier to listen to. So That's part one done, tune into part two To hear the six quick questions. Hey, it's Doom here. Thanks for listening to this episode of the Female startup Club podcast. If you're a fan of the show, I'd recommend checking out female startup club dot com where you can subscribe to our newsletter and learn more about our D. I. Y. Course. The ads, N. B. A. I also truly appreciate each and every review that comes our way.

It might seem like such a small thing, but reviews help other heirs find us. So please do jump on and subscribe, rate and review the show. And finally, if you know someone who would benefit from hearing these inspiring stories, please do share it with them and empower the women in your network. See you soon. Mhm

Losing $40,000 and going cotton candy viral with Emily Harpel, founder of Art of Sucre (part 1)
Losing $40,000 and going cotton candy viral with Emily Harpel, founder of Art of Sucre (part 1)
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