nikki from unbirthday bakery
NIKKI LEE FROM UNBIRTHDAY BAKERY IS DOING EXACTLY WHAT SHE WAS PUT ON THIS EARTH TO DO: MAKE THE COOLEST CAKES YOU'VE EVER SEEN. SHE'S A SINGING TEACHER, DESIGNER AND cake BAKER EXTRAORDINAIRE, AND SHE IS LIVING THE DREAM.
Last month, I co-hosted the very first Cereal Entrepreneurs event in Sydney, otherwise known as the “pilot episode”, because we’re so media. If you haven’t seen or read about it yet, I wrote a day-after post about the event here. But just to recap, Cereal Entrepreneurs is about bringing the best creative and business ideas together over breakfast, run by Cool People Doing Cool Things and Dream & Do creative agency. Nikki Lee, from Unbirthday Bakery, was our very first guest entrepreneur, and she absolutely blew our socks off.
A graphic designer turned corporate salesperson turned cake baker extraordinaire, Nikki is unconventional, creative and, with over 100k Instagram followers, refreshingly grounded. She talked to us about “insta-fame”, learning to say ‘no’, and the nostalgic beauty of the Curly Wurly.
I mop the floor every day with my girls, in the kitchen. It keeps me grounded.
It’s safe to say unconventional is in her blood. When Nikki quit her corporate sales gig to bake mind-blowingly awesome cakes, it wasn’t even a big deal. At 19, she dropped out of six months of a design degree to go out on her own, working as a graphic designer for several years. Well, with a background like that, the aesthetically pleasing cakes make sense. (Have you stalked her Insta yet? @unbirthdaybakery) As a tiny tot wrapped in a fluffy purple dressing gown, she used to watch rented cake decorating videos, over and over again. She asked for a cake mixer for one of her pre-teen birthdays and has nostalgic memories of the Women’s Weekly birthday cakes (who doesn’t?) if that isn’t the most perfect example of an entrepreneur being put on this earth to do what she’s doing, then I don’t know what is. Nikki is also a singing teacher, because why not be a little cooler?!
It’s about putting something out into the world that you can create and you have full responsibility and power to create. That’s an enormous task.
Nikki had some seriously amazing insights, and we could’ve listened to her talk all day. We feel incredibly lucky that she said yes to this opportunity and shared her wisdom with our guests, especially when she’s said no to some pretty big collab opportunities in the past.
Watch the pilot episode of Cereal Entrepreneurs below!
by Amy Lovat
Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to stop dreaming and start doing?
I can’t recollect any one light bulb moment. Making the decision to leave my corporate job was probably accumulating inside of me for a long, long time. Even before I started my corporate job, I knew that at some point in my life, I’d be baking cakes. It’s what I wanted to do. When exactly that moment came, I can’t say. There are key moments and memories I have… talking, dreaming about cake. The dream and desire was always there.
All you have to do is keep doing good work constantly, constantly, constantly. In that dedication to doing that, the work will evolve and change and if you keep doing good work, the people who want to see it will come. That’s an action you have to take.
What was your biggest fear in starting Unbirthday, and how did you overcome that?
I’ll rewind about 15 years. I started a graphic design business in my 20s and quit university to do that. Being unconventional and taking a plunge is not foreign to me. I went out on my own without guidance or advice. My parents thought I was the crazy, wild child kid to quit uni! I didn't have any experience, but I created that experience. That was for about ten years. And I was a very different person then, too. So when people ask me, ‘Was it scary quitting?’ No, because I’ve experienced it before. The scary thing was putting out there into the world something that was very personal to me. My background is in sales, so I have no trouble selling things to people, but when it came to promoting my own cakes, it was different. It took me two weeks to put my first picture of a pavlova up on Facebook! The scary thing was revealing what’s inside and what’s important to me and leaving myself vulnerable and open to other opinions.
You’ve grown to over 100,000 followers in less than a year. Are you scared of the business growing?
It’s about keeping myself in check and grounded, making sure the work we do is aligned to something important. The danger is being thrown off into being “insta-famous”, popular or counting likes. It’s great for measuring things, but if you don’t keep it in check, it can skew your perception of success and esteem. In a business sense, does getting X number of likes equate to profit, loss, how happy your staff are, the quality of your work?
As a start-up, it would be pretty easy to say yes to every collaboration or opportunity that comes your way and thinking it is amazing. You’ve said no to some pretty big brands; was it a big decision to do that?
Absolutely, because your ego gets stroked when you’re approached and people say they want to work with you. It’s human nature to want to be liked! What I’ve noticed, though, is that people want to know you on a very superficial level. People say ‘I love your cakes’ and I say, ‘Great, have you tried one?’ And they always say no. And I think to understand the product, maybe you should try the product, taste it, have an experience with it, then decide if it’s a smart collaboration. I’ve had a lot of people ask for cake that have plenty of money but don’t want to pay for it. It’s hard to say no when you start, but when you keep saying no, it feels great. You’re not being disrespectful; you just hope that people understand what they’re asking you and what will come from the collaboration. Where I want my energy to go is to the 19-year-old girl who has been following me for a while, dreaming of the birthday cake and she’s been saving up for it.
Thank you for saying yes to us today! Being “insta-famous”, you’ve said before that people come and pick up a cake and want a photo with you. Do you find that weird? Has it been a conscious decision to keep your face and personal life off Instagram?
Yes, very much so. Maybe it’s a stage in my life where it’s not about me anymore, it’s about others and what you bring to others. There’s a life outside Instagram and social media, and it’s sacred and private and if people want to know that side of me then it’s called ‘becoming friends’. The other reason is that I want the work to speak for itself, without having any preconception of the person behind it all. I feel like this is a very esoteric talk!
Who’s the coolest people you know?
How do you define cool? My husband is pretty up there; he’s a bit of a rockstar. He doesn’t buy into anything that’s popular. He is the one that constantly cuts through anything that’s not real for me. Those people really get you, they care about you and want you to win and succeed and keep true to yourself. He’s one of those guys; a no BS guy. Sometimes, he says things and I think, ‘Wow, that’s why I married you.’ There are other people around me who are cool too, like my family. My brother is a cinematographer and my sister is an art teacher who wants to be a director. Every Monday or Tuesday we catch up, have breakfast and bounce ideas off each other. We’re very honest. They’re huge pioneers of being creative.
What does creativity mean to you and where do your ideas come from?
Creativity is about bringing something into the world. It’s not about being artistic – a designer or an artist. It’s about having an idea and taking the steps and actions to bring the idea into fruition. My process is organic. You start with something, do it, review, assess, tweak a little, and do again. Then you keep doing that until something is created. All our styling has been born that way.
It’s really great to dream and have an idea, but I think it’s the physical actions that give those ideas reality. The ideas come from the doing. Not just being in the clouds.
It’s nice for everyone to hear that. Often we put creative people on a pedestal, and we think we can’t be that, or do that. But the fact is, you just have to be open and try things and experiment, review and edit, and be a credit of your own work. Just keep going.
The creatives up there don’t think they’re on pedestals; they think they’re on the ground doing the slog. And they are. To me, it’s funny when people do a song and dance about being “insta-famous”, and I think, ‘If you really saw the hard work we do every day … we roll our sleeves up, we get dirty.’ It’s so easy to get caught up in how it looks and how pretty and photogenic it is. You ask any creative, and they’re humble about their work, because they’re in the process of creating, it’s not the aftermath.