The Origin of CAKE: One Woman’s Tale of Starting a Successful Business
In conjunction with our post celebrating International Women’s Day, we asked CAKE Founder, Creative Director, and Co-Owner Aimee Ellingsen to share her story on how and why she decided to #beboldforchange and start CAKE Websites & More, LLC way back in 2001.
If you ask us, Aimee’s got some great insights for anyone thinking of starting a business. Spoiler alert: trusting in your own abilities and asking for help when needed are musts.
Woman-owned tech companies were rare in the late 1990s. What made you decide to start a web design firm?
“Coming out of art school in New York City, my degree had little value locally, where so many artists flock to work for little or no pay. I knew I loved code thanks to the little exposure I had in school and educated myself further as I neared graduation. I thought designing and coding websites might be the right path for me, but needed a way to show what I could do.
I called my uncle and asked if I could do a website for his plastic surgery practice, for free. His initial response was, “Why would I want a website?” (this was 1996), but soon he became enthusiastic about being one of the very first medical practices with an internet presence. Other doctors saw his site and that led to more work, and we’ve been growing by word-of-mouth ever since.”
What challenges did you face in starting a business?
“I was very fortunate in that doing one website for free led to a whole career, but certainly there were challenges along the way.
One was getting set up in a more official way. I incorporated in 2001 on the advice of our tax preparer. The truth is, I wasn’t educated about business enough at that time to be aware of the differences or advantages of incorporating, but he pointed out all the reasons to do it. It probably cost around $1,000 to get it all done, which felt very dear at the time, but I was reassured knowing I would save that much on my taxes that year by making the leap, so I made the effort to shuffle our meager finances around and get it done.
The next big challenge came when I needed to grow the business. I’d had a few freelancers helping me with production along the way, but my clients wanted me to expand my services, and more people were coming to me to design and build their websites. I was getting overwhelmed and working long hours. By this time, I’d moved to Asheville, and fortunately was referred to Glenda Larson of Money Matters to advise me on how to have employees.”
We never truly do things on our own, and getting the right help is always key. There are so many talented people and where we lack abilities, we can (and need to) gather trustworthy people around us to help.
“I can’t overstate the importance of Glenda’s help at that time. All the rules and regulations about having employees seemed like an intimidating mountain of details and laws; hiring an expert to help made all the difference. I didn’t have to worry knowing she was making sure we were properly licensed, submitted all the right forms, paid required taxes and fees, and did everything correctly.
This is a major theme in my development as a person and in the growth of CAKE. It is helpful to remember that we never truly do things on our own, and getting the right help is always key. There are so many talented people, and where we lack abilities, we can—and need to—gather trustworthy people around us to help. A more positive way of putting it: You are not alone!”
What helped you deal with the challenges as CAKE continued to grow?
“Approaching challenges in little bites helps a lot. Honestly, I was a little scared to take on the responsibility of employing people, because I took it so seriously. I’d never want to be the person who didn’t pay someone on time, or have to lay off anyone who was doing good work for reasons beyond their efforts. So I just took it slowly.
Soon I saw how wonderful it was to work as part of a team. Peeling off responsibilities I was weak in meeting and sharing them with people who loved that type of work was amazing. It helped me love my job more and be better at the things I am good at. Plus, I got to see and appreciate other people soaring with their personal talents. One example—the day Gwen came on board to do billing and keep track of all expenses changed my life!”
The theme for International Women’s Day 2017 is #beboldforchange. How do you see CAKE’s role in creating a better world for women?
“I love the theme; it is so true that we all do need to be bold on some level for change. If one is not bold, others around you will be, and you’ll be forced into their paths, not your own. That’s not to say only women with bold personalities will succeed. I’m quite nervous and shy at times, so boldness for me has meant not doing what was expected of me, and persisting (and persisting some more!) in my quiet ways.
Getting into marketing, especially in cosmetic medicine, was a step out of what was expected for me. I was supposed to be an artist, but I was so aware of the statistics against women artists actually “making it,” and grossed out by the sexist art world, that I couldn’t stomach that path of attempting to make a living with my art.
Some of my friends thought it was pretty strange that the woman who revived the on-campus feminist alliance and spearheaded some controversial feminist actions would end up having a clientele including so many plastic surgeons. I learned to get over the opinions of others.
And really, marketing for plastic surgeons is only contradictory with my feminism if I accept other people’s rules and thoughts on the matter. My personal opinion is that women should be free to love their bodies in any way they wish: whether that means changing your shape, getting tattoos and piercings, or never touching a razor and being au natural, I love and celebrate it all. I really get tears in my eyes thinking of how physically beautiful each and every person is. I feel like we bring a special joie de vivre to marketing for women because of that.
So that is one key to CAKE’s role—that maybe we move people’s opinions about body modification a little and help people support women’s individual choices about their bodies.”
What makes CAKE a great place for women (and men) to work?
“CAKE is very pro-women in terms of employment, and we work to build on that more each year. We actually used to be an all-woman team in the early days; only when we got up to 5 employees did we add a guy to the team.
We welcome seeing staff members’ children in the office for a few hours after school or when childcare falls through. Our staff members also know if they have a sick kid, we’re totally supportive of their working from home that day. We also provide sick/personal time which people can use for themselves or family things. Providing health insurance and retirement contribution matching are other ways we support folks personal success.
My co-owner, Clark Mackey, and I always are on the lookout for how we can help staff to have a good work-life balance, and we’ll keep adding benefits as we grow.”