​Sprinkles' Founder Candace Nelson
image courtesy of Candace Nelson

Behind Her Empire: Sprinkles Cupcakes' Co-Founder Candace Nelson On Finding Your Market Niche

With multiple TLC shows devoted to them, and high-end bakeries popping up all over the country, it’s hard to imagine there was ever a time when cupcake brands weren’t a thing.

But when Candace Nelson introduced Sprinkles Cupcakes in 2005, the market looked a lot different. On this episode of the “Behind Her Empire” podcast, the Sprinkles co-founder shares her journey to revolutionize the baking industry.

In September of 2001, Nelson found herself dealing with the emotional turmoil of losing her job and the attacks of 9/11. She had worked at an internet startup until the “dot-com bust,” and was struggling to figure out what to do with her career.

“It was the first time in my life that I reflected on what it was I actually wanted to do, as opposed to what was sort of this traditional path to success,” she said.

She wanted to do something that brought her “joy.” She realized she was always happiest when she was baking. So her journey to create the perfect cupcake began. She spent two years perfecting her recipes alongside her husband and sorting out the branding before launching Sprinkles. She tried out different recipes, tweaking them each time to get unique flavors.

“My idea was to really brand the cupcake and elevate it — make it aspirational, make it giftable,” she said. “So I knew if I was going to do that and go all in on cupcakes, I had to really make the product exceptional.”

Part of creating an exceptional cupcake business was nailing the aesthetic.

“If I was creating an upscale cupcake, I had to elevate the brand and the aesthetic of the cupcake as well, leaning into: what was the Sprinkles cupcake going to look like?” she said. “And that meant reinventing the sprinkle itself to that modern dot that sat on top.”

Launching a cupcake business in the height of diet culture wasn’t easy. Nelson found herself facing constant rejections from almost everyone.

“I would show up at every party I was invited to with my cupcakes, with my business cards — yes, business cards in tow,” she laughed. “And I just generously gifted my product all over town.”

A few hundred parties later and word started to spread about her cupcakes. Because she had a clientele built up before she had a physical location, it was no surprise that Sprinkles sold out on its opening day.

“After a while I felt this natural pull, and that was sort of the product-market fit — to use a tech term and apply it to cupcakes — but that kind of gave me the confidence that I had some traction and there was appetite for my product,” she said.

Nelson said the advice she always gives to young entrepreneurs is to own a niche.

“I think it's really important to start with one product and really test the market to find that hero product,” she said. “Owning a niche and being known for something, so people associate you with something and will turn to you.”

Her advice on how to do this? Start by “speaking directly to a smaller demographic.”

“Speaking directly to a smaller demographic target market that you really resonate with is going to help you in the long term because they become your brand ambassadors and start to really spread the word for you,” she said.

dot.la Social and Engagement Editor Andria Moore contributed to this post.

This podcast is produced by Behind Her Empire. The views and opinions expressed in the show are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of dot.LA or its newsroom.

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