Everyone’s job stinks from time to time, but if you find absolutely no joy in what you do, then it’s time to get out. Some of us are lucky and can do this sooner rather than later, but others, like Marlo Scott, bide their time, planning and preparing for the day when they can bust out of the toxic work environment once and for all.
“I spent numerous years working in a hostile industry. The media business is full of bully bosses, but this was only fuel for me to figure out how to work for myself. When I was passed over for a promotion that I should have gotten, I swore I would get my sweet revenge on my bad boss. It was only a matter of when,” Scott said.
The wheels started turning that day in August 2005 when Scott, a media marketing pro, experienced her umpteenth disappointment. Living in the West Village at the time, she was a regular customer of Magnolia Bakery, which had ignited the cupcake craze following its appearance on Sex and the City five years earlier.
“I loved the simplicity of their business model – batter and frosting, not rocket science – and started wondering how I would do it differently if it were mine. I studied them meticulously and did due diligence and recon on the restaurant industry more broadly, learning its quirks, the risks and opportunities. I knew I needed a great product but understood the branding element and experience were really important as well,” Scott recalls.
Marlo signed up for classes on the business aspects of the restaurant industry and attended all kinds of entrepreneurship seminars. Learning that the cupcake business had an incredibly low failure rate, she threw herself in and started baking nights and weekends “for friends who were awesome guinea pigs,” while also working on a business plan.
And then, about two years later, the day of reckoning arrived. Scott was laid off for the third and final time, but on this occasion it was different.
“I was ecstatic because I had a plan in place. I figured if I applied the same spirit and approach I had done in the corporate world – being entrepreneurial and innovative – to the brand I wanted to create, I could make it work.”
Scott’s vision was to find a niche in the somewhat crowded cupcake space. She didn’t want to be called a cupcake bakery, but equally was not aiming to be a full service restaurant. She was seeking a bistro ambience, where customers could try more adult versions of cupcakes paired with wine and beer. Scott pulled out all the stops, spending hours researching, and hired a consulting chef to try out unique flavors and develop edgy presentation styles. She made great use of her severance package and invested all her savings to get an FDA loan through a Korean bank.
“I busted a move on getting the plan completed and finding the right space. I stalked the competition by assessing the foot traffic, took endless photos of bistro elements I loved, talked to bartenders and did a lot of focus groups. I put blood, sweat and tears into researching the concept of best practice. My inspiration was to create a beautiful life and a happy escape for myself from a very underwhelming, demotivating and hostile corporate environment. I wanted to get as far away from that as possible, and create beauty and deliciousness instead.”
Sweet Revenge opened its doors on Carmine Street in New York City 18 months after Scott was laid off, and welcomed customers with items like The Dirty, chocolate cake with dark chocolate truffle paired with Moscato from South Africa. The reception was great, but the timing? Well, that could have been better.
“I picked a recession to launch. I would give cupcakes away outside the store, which believe me is harder than you think, especially in New York. For about nine months, I was working really hard for no money and the end appeared in sight, until I was invited on the Martha Stewart show, and Sweet Revenge got a fuel injection.”
About two years ago, Scott started to diversify her menu, offering uniquely curated small plates and desserts paired, like the cupcakes with wine and beer. She also launched lifestyle products, lotions and candles that smell like cupcakes, but has been frustrated at her lack of resources to grow this potential. And, while many would consider Scott a highly successful small business owner, she feels she’s not there yet.
“Women are very harsh critics of ourselves, but if I’m honest, I’d like to crush it out of the ballpark financially. I want to grow the business, and that requires money. We’re constantly evolving, pushing through issues and challenges, but you only have so many resources to go around, and you end up spreading yourself thinner across more. I know where my bread is buttered, and that’s the core business of the restaurant, but it’s a tricky place to make a living.”
Does Scott have advice for those interested in opening a café, restaurant, or bakery?
“I tell them to do what I didn’t do: go work in the industry, get a job behind the counter or be a free intern in the kitchen, but work firsthand in the environment. I regret not doing that. And, this applies to any industry. Get an inside look – it makes you so much more knowledgeable and will help you when you get pushback from potential investors or the bank.”
And, while Scott doesn’t aspire to stay small, she has no regrets. “We all make mistakes along the way, but those make for great learning. I’ve been very fortunate to get to do what I do. There are times it’s driven me to the brink of insanity and exhaustion. But, that’s the lot of entrepreneurs. You’re faced with challenges and things don’t go the way you like, but you’ve got to stay steady and maintain a long-term view. It’s easier to say it than do it.”
Tips from Marlo Scott:
- Really do your homework. Focus on the details to manage the big picture.
- Taking risks and putting yourself out there really pays off.
- You’ll be successful if you keep an open mind, innovate and adapt.
- Do some reconnaissance work – it will help you eliminate doubts from the bank. It’s an awesome inside look at inner workings. You have the opportunity to get as close as possible, see vendors and suppliers, challenges with HR, see how they open and close their day, and learn what works and what doesn’t.
- Pick your location very carefully. I selected a charming block, but misjudged the foot traffic. If clients are not walking past your door, they are not your patrons. If you are not in their way, you’re not on their way. You don’t get to pick up and move if you make a mistake.
To learn more about Scott, and her inspirations behind starting Sweet Revenge, click here.