Real Talk with Sarah DeClerk, Owner of Ann Potter Baking

We all enjoy various hobbies, but Sarah DeClerk took her love for baking and cookie decorating to the next level when she started Ann Potter Baking. By simply making cookies for family and friends, Sarah built up a network that allowed her to leave her job and bake full time. Now she manages to be a wife, mother, and full-time baker from the comfort of her own home. In the last several years she’s learned a lot about what it takes to be an entrepreneur and how to grow a business organically, through word of mouth and even social media (her Instagram maintains over 17K followers).

Sarah let us into her home to talk about building Ann Potter Baking, finding some semblance of balance in life, and what success is really all about.

Name: Sarah DeClerk
Title: Owner
Company: Ann Potter Baking
What it is: Custom sugar cookies, cakes, and other baked goods
Education: Bachelor of Business Administration, University of Mississippi

What inspired you to make cookies and build this whole business?

I’ve always loved to be in the kitchen and bake — I started baking at a really young age with my mom and my sister. The decorated sugar cookies craze hadn’t come about yet when I started Ann Potter Baking about seven years ago. On Pinterest, I saw some Superbowl cookies and other cute cookie designs and I thought, “I want to make those.” I’ve always been creative and love being in the kitchen so I just started making some.

I first did cookies for my niece Ann’s baby shower; she’ll be six in September. Friends of friends started asking me to do cookies for their events and it snowballed busier and busier. I was coming home from my real job every night and working until 11 or midnight. That’s how Ann Potter Baking started: a hobby turned into something bigger.

What inspired the name?

The name came from the necessity of needing a business name. Everyone said, “Sarah, you need a business name.” And I said, “No, I don’t. Because this really isn’t a business.” But quickly I realized they were right and I needed to figure out a business name. Ann is my middle name, and my niece’s name, who started it all. Then we have two golden retriever dogs and one of them is named Lily Potter, so I morphed the two into Ann Potter as my alter ego. I felt lame and silly naming something after myself; “Sarah’s Sugary Creations” seems a little weird to me — so instead, it’s my alter ego.

I like it! It’s like Beyonce’s Sasha Fierce, but for cookies.

Yeah, it’s nice being a little anonymous in all of it. People don’t automatically know it’s me. Sometimes that’s really nice because it separates my own personality from my business. We are one and the same but it’s kind of nice to have that.

What does a typical day look like for you?

A typical day starts with me getting my daughter Sam up and getting her ready for the day. Then I get to work. What I’m doing depends on if she’s home with me or if she goes to school (she goes to school three days a week). For my weekly schedule, I do most of my baking Monday through Wednesday. Then, depending on when the orders need to be out of the door, I make the icing and do the decorating.

It’s a really long process. Each day has its own task. Tuesdays are my big “make or break” day. If I get a lot done on Tuesdays, I’m going to have a really efficient week. So Tuesdays I’m not on my phone — don’t email me, don’t text me, don’t call me. It’s kind of hard to get in touch with me on Tuesdays.

Do you bake every single day or do you have them broken up by day?

Yes, I have them broken up to be the most efficient. I know people are probably horrified when they need cookies for their wedding on Saturday and they hear that I made them on Monday, but the cookies are still good, are they not? Really it’s all the butter, it keeps them fresh for quite a while. If they’re stored properly, they stay good. So I do my baking early in the week, my icing prep on Tuesdays, Wednesdays are outlining all the cookies, and then the really detailed work is on Thursdays.

It’s kind of funny — I watch all these cookies being made and I’m like, “These look terrible, they look terrible.” Then Thursday afternoon I’m like, “Oh, these are beautiful!” I spend all week on them but the gratification doesn’t come until the very last minute. I was listening to a podcast about the creative process and how most creatives think about the process: “This is terrible, this is terrible, this is awful, this is awful, oh my gosh this is the worst…Ah, this is awesome.” And that’s really how it goes.

real talk with sarah declerk

When you started, if you could go back and give yourself advice or a piece of knowledge, what would you say?

Don’t undervalue yourself. That’s the biggest thing that I tell anybody who is starting a creative business or creative endeavor, putting themselves out there and trying to make money with it. Do not undervalue yourself, your time, your process, your ingredients, all of it. You can get stuff for cheap, but cheap labor is still cheap and cheap products are still cheap. What we do as creatives takes a lot of time and energy and heart, so always value yourself for that. Your time is important and you don’t ever want to do something like this and go through that process and not feel valued. We didn’t start jobs like this to not feel special or not feel like we’re doing something important.

So charge what you need to charge to keep yourself loving it day to day. It’s so huge. I mean, there’s so many people who undervalue their products and I’m like, “You deserve better!” Because you spend so much time doing this. If someone is not willing to pay it then they aren’t your target customer. I know that’s kind of a hard line, especially when people’s budgets get brought up, but just don’t undervalue yourself or let anyone shame you into feeling like you’re not worth it. That’s not a good thing to feel when you’re a business owner.

Looking back, would you have done anything differently?

I really don’t think so because all of this happened so organically. I really wouldn’t change much of anything because the growth happened slowly, which has been nice because luckily I haven’t had to make any big mistakes to learn any business lessons. I’ve been really lucky to not have any big fails. Of course, you mess up things and have to take credit for certain things, like something not looking the way it’s supposed to look. But nothing huge that’s made me second guess what I do.

You have chosen not to have a formal storefront. Why? And would you ever consider that in the future?

I have thought about what’s next for my business so many times, and I keep looking over my business plan. One of my biggest reasons for not having a storefront is that I am such a control freak. Ann Potter Baking cookies are Ann Potter Baking cookies because I do them. The detail work, all of the process, the things that make them look like my cookies — all of that is done by me. Part of having a storefront is that I would lose a lot of that control. I know needing control is probably a personality flaw, if we’re being honest. But at the end of the day, I don’t ever want a customer to be dissatisfied with their order because I didn’t do it.

Keeping overhead low is great for businesses but if you have a storefront, you would have to mass produce cookies and then you take away the artistry. You take something that is artistic in a little cookie to mass-produced cookies that are just being thrown out there. Maybe if we got together a ton of cookie artists and had this big conglomerate of talented cookie artists, then this big storefront could happen — but until then, I am a one-woman show. That’s my thing and it works for now, so we’ll see!

Speaking of the control freak thing, how do you deal with processes that you can’t control (like being on Etsy, shipping things, etc.)?

It’s definitely frustrating but it’s part of the business. One thing is that I do have a couple of people I trust with some of the processes, like packaging cookies for shipping. During holidays, I have designs already laid out and I don’t do custom orders that week; I just do medleys and pop-up shops, so people don’t get a lot of specific input with the cookies. Weeks like that, I have a couple of people that I can bring on depending on what needs to be done. They can help me with stuff like mixing icing or meticulous, time-consuming tasks like cutting parchment, washing dishes, packing up boxes, etc. I allow others to help me, but they’re people who are really close to me that I trust, and they’re business owners so I trust them to be part of my crazy, controlled process.

What’s your biggest driver of traffic for selling cookies on your Etsy shop?

I don’t know the special algorithm of Etsy and how your posts get pushed to the top — if it’s orders or feedback or what. I have noticed a change when I update my shop photos. For example, in the different listings, like “circus cookies” I used to have old photos and I updated them to better, more professional looking ones. It’s important to have good quality photos online because people see that and have a positive reaction so they click on it for details and see more of your shop, and maybe seek you out on Instagram.

The first impression is super important. That’s why on my Instagram page I only post cookies that I love. Those usually aren’t the only cookies I’ve done that week but there are some I’m not crazy about because I’ve done it before or I already did that color palette earlier in the week so they don’t make it to Instagram immediately. I try to always post stuff that’s eye-catching. The first photo impression I think is the biggest thing in getting clients. People aren’t going to read something long and poetic and important; they want instant gratification. I know that sounds tacky but hey, I’m the same way. Instagram is my favorite social media because it’s easy.

Speaking of Instagram, you have so many followers! Everyone wants followers, that’s the goal for every business — but normally people with over 17 thousand followers are bloggers with their face all over it or they’re selling clothes or something. Your cookies are beautiful and they taste great, but it’s fascinating that people just want to watch you make cookies. What’s your secret?

I feel the same! At the end of the day, I’m like, “It’s just cookies y’all, they’re just cookies.” It used to be my personal Instagram, I would post cookies as I made them as a hobby. Now that it’s my full-time business, and all I do, I have tons to post. It’s really funny how it’s organically grown. I’ve done giveaways with some people and paired up but the biggest trend I’m seeing is the Instagram videos. People love to see the behind-the-scenes process and the filling of the cookies. It’s a little hypnotic and a little daily dose of therapy.

One thing I’ve found is that people who have no interest in decorating cookies or even in buying the cookies are still really interested in watching the Instagram videos because it’s so satisfying — at least that’s what they tell me and I’m like, “Okay, then I guess I’ll post more videos!” It’s really funny how sometimes the simplest videos I post will get a hundred thousand views. I choreograph some videos step-to-step and edit them together, which takes me an hour or two from start to finish. But the little ones where I’m holding a camera with one hand and filling a cookie with the other, those are the ones that blow up. There’s no rhyme or reason. It drives me bonkers.

Did all of your Instagram followers happen organically as well like your business? Or did you stumble upon a magic hashtag?

Well, I hashtag everything. But I don’t really know what the hashtags are that really boost things. Sometimes the videos blow up and they’ll be on the featured videos page for a few days and I notice on days like that I’ll get 200 followers in a day or 500 over a course of a week. That’s always nice.

I try not to micromanage. I have an app that tells me who’s followed you and who’s unfollowed you but there’s just not enough hours in the day to keep up with all of it, between social media and keeping with emails.

Do you just use your phone or do you have specific gear for taking photos/videos?

Yes, I use my phone. I have a little tripod to film stuff so I’m not doing it one-handed all the time. But you’ll see some where it’s shaky because I’m decorating a cookie in the other hand. The only important thing is good lighting, and fortunately, my kitchen has that. I can’t do stuff at night, but I don’t work at night anyway.

How do you handle work-life balance?

I’m a nine-to-fiver. If it’s a holiday week, then I’ll dig into that time a little bit because I know a ton of cookies are going out so it’s a little bit of a grind. But a normal week is daily nine to five and then I’m done. I always make sure the kitchen is cleaned up because we live here and I think everybody needs that separation from work and life. It’s an important line to draw in the sand. Especially for those of us that work at home, it’s really important to decipher and be firm with.

How do you keep everything organized and controlled and stay in a focused mindset?

When Sam’s home with me I just try to get work done when I can. She’s two and a half and you can’t really micromanage a toddler, it’s impossible. So those days I get done what I can. Days when she’s at school, those are my grind days. I really just try to have my house put together in a way that it doesn’t need tending to; everything is done so I can focus on work. Of course when cookies are baking and I don’t have to roll out more or don’t have to wash dishes, then I can go and change over that load of laundry or do something else for a little bit.

That’s something I love: that flexibility. It makes me a much more efficient person, but when I’m working I try to stay focused on work-related tasks. Instead of doing laundry, I might check my email or respond to those Etsy messages that pile up. I’m a very type-A organized person. I like to keep my to-do lists and stick to them, so that’s my workflow.

Working from home can be hard because you’ll always have people stopping by or wanting you to come out. How do you handle that?

Usually just “no.” It’s unfortunate. My day that I can sometimes do errands or my fun day is Thursdays because Sam is in school. Those days, I’m finishing detail work or packing orders, or I’m letting things dry so I have a few hours. So Thursdays sometimes are really open, but sometimes they’re still really busy. Most of my friends know that I’m not available for lunch. But dinner and drinks? I’m great for happy hour. But during the day, I’m locked down.

When my Mom or sister come to town they hang out here and can watch me bake and we talk and do lunch for a break, but I’m still probably working most of the day. The good thing about my work is that people can come over here and keep me company and I can still work. I’m not making any eye contact but we can still hang out and do our thing a little bit. If a friend has a new baby I say, “Y’all can come over here, I’ll be working but we can chat. I’m a great listener!”

What would you say has been the hardest part of starting a business? I know it started organically, but what was your biggest challenge?

I can’t think of something about starting the business, but something that’s been a consistent challenge is that work-life balance, and also not getting too overwhelmed. I don’t know what my breaking point is. Is it 60 dozen cookies in one week? Well, I don’t know. I haven’t gotten there yet.

Something that’s really hard as a business owner by myself is trying to balance all the small tasks on top of the actual work, because the actual work is a very, very small part of my job. I also have to do all the grocery shopping, the emailing, the invoicing, the taxes… all of that stuff is a constant struggle just balancing that and not feeling overwhelmed. When I feel overwhelmed it affects my sleep and my daily life. It’s not worth it because your job is important and your brand is important, but you really have to find that fine line that keeps you inspired and busy. You want to be working hard and busting it daily, but you have to find the balance of taking a step back and relaxing from your job and what you’ve set up to be your lifestyle.

That is a constant struggle for me. Trying to find that perfect work-life balance and being busy enough and not being busy enough. It’s so hard. You can’t lay in bed on your phone until you fall asleep doing your Etsy messages or sending out your PayPal invoices. That’s just not healthy, but it’s hard not to do. So it’s constant, a constant struggle.

You’ve taken your passion for cookies and turned it into a business. Have you found that you’ve struggled with having that same passion or has it changed it in any way? If so, how have you handled it?

Some weeks I’m super inspired, so inspired. I could do all the cookies and I love it, I want to do this and that and new projects and new ideas just freeflow. But some weeks are not very inspiring to me. It doesn’t have much to do with the actual orders, it’s just really what I’ve done in the weeks leading up to it. If I’ve been able to go to the gym, been on a girls night, gotten to do a good date night with my husband Brady, and have good quality time with Sam, the days after those weeks I’m inspired. So I find that taking care of yourself and doing the stuff that makes you feel yourself is what keeps me inspired creatively.

So it ties back into your work-life balance?

Exactly! I know that I’m preaching and preaching about that but it’s important. That’s my personality. I have got to take an afternoon to go shopping, just walk around Target, or run into my favorite shops and look at clothes. I know those days are going to lead to a good workflow into the next week. It’s about not feeling taking advantage of. Because you can take advantage of yourself. You think by working for yourself you have all the power. That’s true, but you quickly strip yourself of all the power if you overwhelm yourself. It’s really easy to do.

How do you define success?

Having my customers happy with their orders, fulfilling enough orders to make my week valuable and make my time well-spent, while still maintaining that good work-life balance, getting my stuff done, having a clean kitchen at the end of every day. That is success to me.

I work with sugar and powdered sugar and flour and that constant sheen on your counter tops drives me crazy. So success to me is having a lot of orders and a clean kitchen counter.

What’s next for you?

Oh gosh. What’s next for Ann Potter Baking? Well, I definitely want to expand my brand. I have a dry cookie mix which I sell — of course, I don’t give out my secret cookie recipe because, ya know, it’s mine. I have the sugar shortbread cookie mix, and I would love to get that in more stores and push that out to consumers more. I have a couple other flavors that I’m working on developing so I’m hoping to get those in storefronts soon.

It’s not just about the cookies. I have people who take my classes — I love doing classes for people, whether it’s small parties or birthdays or just hobby bakers who want to be better. I just want to work on developing the brand, expanding upon that, and getting the cookie knowledge out there. It’s so funny to me that it’s such a thing that people love it, but I’m here to give them all the info. It’s fun being that person.

real talk with sarah declerk

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