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11 December 2011
In the midst of her first TV series (now screening on pay TV’s LifeStyle FOOD channel); writing and launching a new book on cake decorating, and at one of the busiest times of the year for specialty cakes, Paris Cutler, self-confessed all-and-sundry designer, bookkeeper, cleaner, proprietor and director of Planet Cake, is very aware that all time is money.
“Getting your pricing formula wrong is a recipe for disaster. It took me a long time, about three years, to understand that what I was actually doing in my business was selling time just like an accountant might. I wasn’t a food production company. My business is a service. I sell my time, the time of the decorators I employ and, in that calculation, overheads, costs of goods sold, and GST also figure,” says Paris, whose utilitarian family life, in which all people are equal and everyone deserves the same as everyone else, did not prepare her for the bottom-line world of business.
“Doing this interview is an hour of my time that has to be accounted for. When I first began, I wouldn’t have thought about that nor would I have considered that you can actually only reward those who add to the business.
“Sometimes, I’ll sit down with my daughter and say jokingly, ‘okay, that’s going to be $50 of mummy’s time so you better make the most of it’. My daughter just laughs.”
Paris Cutler’s in the business of creating edible art forms: cakes that defy what many of us would imagine when we think: birthday, wedding, cup, etc cake.
Planet Cake’s products are luxury items that may, in fact, take the mantle for being the shortest-lived designer fashion product in existence.
Because these ‘little’ luxuries last only as long as the knife cutting them – into delicate pieces for your guests to consume – remains sheathed.
Paris was born in Kenya, spent her formative years there and then moved with her family to Sydney’s outer-west. She says growing up in what was then the very isolated suburb of Northmead made her hungry for something more.
“People say to me: ‘Oh, that’s a lovely area [Northmead]. It is now, but when I was there it was isolated: one bus an hour and girls with badly permed hair, wearing dessert boots, throwing fruit at you in the school quadrangle.”
From school: it was straight on to the trading floor as a stockbroker. This was a time, she explains, when no degree was necessary: you were thrown out into the arena and either lived or died. Paris lived, but burned out quickly. She also says she saw the writing on the wall with the rise of technology in trading, exiting to do a law degree, which she loved the intellectual side of… but loathed the accompanying culture. From there, she drifted into recruiting, which she describes as being the same as the share market… but “you trade people rather than stocks”.
Discovering her liquid paper
And all the time, she was actively looking to be an entrepreneur: “I just couldn’t work out how I was going to invent the next range of liquid paper.”
In fact, when Paris looks back at what she enjoyed as a child it was setting up shop, making her brothers perform tricks and getting people to pay for them. She established a lawn mowing business, and did jobs for cash.
“The corporate environment wasn’t imaginative enough from a business perspective nor was it creative enough for me,” says Paris, who admits she also couldn’t make enough impact in corporate life to satisfy her own ego.
“Having your own business as a women is liberating. There’s no glass ceiling any more. I didn’t have to pretend I was the perfect mother and a ball breaker at work. I didn’t have to compete with the boys any more.”
But the most important thing about running your own business, for Paris, is being able to introduce her daughter to her world: “My daughter has jobs here to tweak the showroom: dust the cakes and polish the table. She really feels she’s part of mummy’s working life rather than the two being separate. She understands what I do and I think that is a huge advantage for her.
“I’ve always envied people who were taught to budget and save and where finance was discussed not swept into the background because it wasn’t an appropriate subject.”
The confession seems a strange one coming from a woman who appears to epitomise business control and success. But behind the towering pieces of sweet art in colours and designs reminiscent of the scrumptiously decadent creations of Sophia Coppola’s movie, “Marie Antoinette”, Paris Cutler has tiny elements of doubt.
She says she was completely unaware how much she would have to sacrifice to her business and the prime learning for her has been that anyone who says running a business is not a personal journey is not reflecting on how much the business confronts you and mirrors who you are.
“I thought I was frustrated by what it costs to run a business, how much people don’t seem to be working in comparison to me, and how much I was spending,” explains Paris. “What it came down to facing was I didn’t know how to manage money. That was a horrible shock, because in our society not knowing how to manage money is viewed as a weakness. On the positive side of things, I never realised how successful I would become.
“My greatest business challenge,” says Paris, “has been cash-flow and managing that. My initial answer was to sell more, but what happens if I’m not there? The business is not sustainable under that sort of regime. Now, I employ people to help me and I’ve educated myself, but it took me 3 years to face the truth.”
Personally, she has also faced challenges: “I sacrificed a marriage for Planet Cake. I think there are times in business where it asks you to choose between it and your personal life.”
Maintaining the dream as the leader she also finds challenging and her strategy has been to focus on a big goal which allows her to keep the business story going through the good and the bad.
“The GFC affected us. I had to let staff go and that was awful. To grow I need a bigger market. I have a luxury product, which requires wealthy customers who place a high value on edible art and who want what I am capable of delivering. That market exists in the UK, US and Europe and that means taking the brand international. The books and now the TV show are my carrier pigeons.”
Having candidly referred to her future, questions arise about the financial decisions she’s made along the way and whether anything in particular has established itself as a turning point for the business.
A couple of years ago, Paris explains, the business expanded into Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth and although the satellites were all doing well in terms of turnover, the expense of running those businesses and the dilution of talent at home in the Sydney Head Quarters forced her to close the venture down to develop a stronger core business. It was the best financial decision she has made so far, and it’s one she predicts will help foster her overseas ambitions.
“I rely on the people I employ to build my business, to work in it and make it happen. I also foster entrepreneurs in my own business. That’s something I think corporate Australia is starting to do, but when I was there [in the corporate world] it suffered the worst case of ‘Bozo Creep’. It was a place where the political players and not the best entrepreneurial people were advanced. Women miss out in that sort of workplace landscape and still do.”
Planet Cake screens Wednesdays at 7.30pm on LifeStyle FOOD, available on FOXTEL and AUSTAR.