At 17, Justin Ellen was at a difficult crossroads – should he pursue his passion for baking full-time or go to college to further his education?
At the time, the youngest entrant on the popular Netflix baking show was baking custom cakes from home as a side hustle while juggling school at the same time.
He was bringing home at least $5,000 a month, but he couldn’t help but compare to his peers.
“What got me down was meeting all my friends [apply for colleges].”
Still, the young celebrity baker stuck to his guns and believed that “everyone has their own path.”
Just two years later, the full-time entrepreneur and owner of the cake business Everything Just Baked is making more than $100,000 a year — and he’s not turning back.
In March of this year, he made his debut in the Netflix series Is It Cake?. — a baking competition where cake artists create edible replicas of everyday objects like skittles and sewing machines.
The show, which premiered March 18 on the streaming service, spent four weeks in the top 10 most-watched lists in the US. It has also accumulated more than 100 million hours of views from all over the world.
But the road to success isn’t without its failures, Ellen tells CNBC Make It. Sheer hard work and words of wisdom from loved ones also helped propel him forward.
“Who made this cake?”
As a digital native, Ellen knew from the start that a social media presence would be critical to building his business. But it took a lot of practice – and courage – to make yourself known.
“In the beginning my social media wasn’t great…not great photos, they were very blurry. But as I progressed I realized they had to be super clean.”
Ellen also saw that Instagram was “really pushing” video content on the platform, and that’s when he decided to turn the camera on himself and share snippets of his life as a young baker.
“I was definitely shy at first because it was just uncomfortable for me … but the more you do it, it’s, well, and honestly, nobody cares if your hair is a little frizzy today,” he shared With.
“Honestly, it makes you more likeable. People want to get to know the person behind the brand and if they like you they will want to spend money with you.”
Still, Ellen said posting to social media was something he “didn’t take seriously” at first.
“I just posted for fun. [through] Word of mouth…people kept asking, ‘Can I order a cake?’”
Ellen also slowly built his following and customer base by baking whenever he got the chance, even at family gatherings.
“It doesn’t even have to be a giant cake … just make something small because you don’t know who’s going to be there. Someone will eat it and ask, ‘Who made this cake?’”
Before he knew it, he had over 50,000 followers on Instagram and was making around $5,000 to $9,000 a month in high school.
“I realized, wow, this could be serious business.”
From baker to entrepreneur
As he watched his part-time job gain momentum in high school, Ellen began thinking about pursuing a career as a baker. But not everyone agreed.
“My father was like a baker? I have a feeling there is a connotation [with baking] like ‘Oh, you don’t make much money’ or ‘You have to work a lot,'” he said.
But Ellen had bigger plans for herself.
“I realized that I didn’t have to think small. There’s so much that could be done on the field…think of every lane you could go on.”
“I’ve looked at other bakers that have started their businesses — they have product lines that I had no idea you could even do.”
It was around this time that Ellen, like his friends around him, had to think about what would come next after high school.
“Probably around junior year when everyone’s looking for colleges… I’ve been thinking [about] go to cooking school. [But] I realized it wasn’t for me,” he said.
“I just felt like it wasn’t worth it and it was a lot of money. And you can’t really teach art in a sense, it’s really just practice – and the more you practice, the easier it will become.”
That was the pivotal moment for Ellen, who realized he wasn’t just a high school baker anymore.
“[I’m an] first entrepreneur, then baker. If you want to be a baker, go work for someone else.”
Best management consultancy
Using social media as a form of marketing might have been “completely free,” but Ellen needed help with the seed capital to get his business up and running.
“In the beginning I was selling cookies that I mailed … I asked my parents for $500 to buy boxes and other supplies.”
That was the first and last time he asked his parents for money for his business, he said.
Although his parents initially had doubts about his business, Ellen attributes his success to their wise words: Keep investing what you deserve.
“I was able to reinvest the money [I got from] People buy back to my shop. I didn’t buy Jordans,” he said, laughing, referring to Nike’s popular Air Jordan sneakers, which can cost at least $200.
That mindset was taught to him by his parents — who run their own real estate company — Ellen said.