The Mantra That Inspired This Baking Guru to Start a Multimillion-Dollar Business

Photo: Courtesy of Baked by Melissa

Career tips from Melissa Ben-Ishay
Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins

Getting fired might drive many of us to find consolation in a platter of cupcakes. But when Melissa Ben-Ishay was sacked, at the age of 24, from her job in advertising, she didn’t just bake and eat some sugary treats—she decided to launch a business selling them.

Fast forward eight years and her company, Baked by Melissa, sells thousands of bite-size, brightly colored cupcakes daily from 13 brick-and-mortar bakeries and its bustling e-commerce site. And this month, Ben-Ishay released her first cookbook, Cakes by Melissa, crammed with more than 100 mix-and-match recipes.

Here, Ben-Ishay shares how she manages to scale her business while still squeezing in self-care. (Spoiler: 4:45 wake-up calls ahead!)

Keep reading to see how Ben-Ishay turned a pink slip into sweet success, how she handles rejection, and her inbox-conquering strategy.

What was your first job?

When I graduated from Syracuse, I decided to take advantage of every opportunity that came my way. A family friend got me an interview for a media sales position, and I started there. I wasn’t inspired by the work or the environment, so I moved on to advertising. That’s the job I was fired from.

How did you find the confidence to start your own business?

The day I got fired, I went straight from my office to my brother’s brand new office in Midtown [Manhattan]. He’s an entrepreneur and had just started an interactive agency with a friend. I was crying, and he told me to go home and bake some cupcakes, because that’s what I love. It wasn’t like a lightbulb moment that I should start my own business, but it was better than going back to my apartment and feeling sorry for myself. And I kept thinking about the phrase ‘do what you love.’ The very next day, my friend tried my cupcakes and shared them with a caterer she knew, and within a week I was catering events with her.

How do you handle rejection?

It’s not easy! But it’s easier if you surround yourself with people who love and support you—especially if you’re going out on your own to start a business. You have to have confidence and you have to get out of your comfort zone. No one enjoys that all the time, but having the right people around me has made all the difference.

Do you have any tips on how to network without it feeling fake?

There are some people who are serial networkers, who just love to put themselves out there, and kudos to them. I’m not that kind of person. For me, it’s all about purpose. Every New Year’s I set resolutions, and a few years ago I decided to reach out to successful women that I admire, like Rebecca Minkoff, and get to know them. That was out of my comfort zone, but having a concrete goal helped.

Let’s talk about your routines. What’s the first thing you do in the morning?

Ugh, look at my phone in bed. I think social media is such a double-edged sword. I love Instagram because it’s so inspiring to follow other food accounts, but it can also give you this false perception of the world. People only post amazing things happening to them, and it’s easy, when you’re going through a tough time, to constantly compare yourself to this perfect version of others' lives.

What’s your best tip for tackling email?

If I get an email that I need to respond to, I’ll mark it as unread, and then I sort my email so the unread ones are always at the top. It makes my inbox like a to-do list.

I don’t want to ask ‘how do you do it all’—but I’m curious! How do you make time for the business and self-care, like exercise, cooking, unwinding?

I am wildly efficient. Honestly, sometimes my husband wants to kill me, because I’m always thinking about what’s next. And I’m big on routines. Three days a week I wake up at 4:45 a.m. to work out, because if I don’t do it first thing in the morning, I won’t do it. Either Saturday or Sunday, we grocery shop for the week. And then Sundays I cook for at least two hours. Another one of my New Year’s resolutions was to learn how to meal plan, and I’ve got it down at this point. I can prep for the whole week, and we eat pretty healthy all week. During the week, I like to be the first one in the office, and I try to leave by 5:30 p.m. to have some time with my daughter before she goes to bed. But if I’m done with my work at 4 p.m., I leave then. If you work hard and know you’re getting your shit done, you can have the confidence to walk out the door at 4 p.m.

What do you think makes a good leader?

I’m big on leading by example. I try to hold myself to the same level as I hold my teammates. And I’m always asking questions.

What’s your favorite thing on your desk?

My husband calls me Dino, short for dinosaur, because when I was pregnant with our daughter I was really big and made dinosaur noises—I love nicknames that mean something. He got me this little T-Rex planter from Urban Stems that makes me smile.

Do you remember any moments that you felt like quitting? How did you push through?

Oh, so many of those moments. It helps to have some someone to talk to. In the beginning, I’d call my dad and he’d coach me through it. Say these clichés—like ‘extreme heat makes you tougher’ and ‘if it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it’—but they were very true. And the thing is, after feeling that way more than once, you realize it’s never the end of the world. You’re always going to wake up the next day.

What’s the last thing you do at night?

I usually eat a piece of dark chocolate.

What’s one thing you know now that you wish you knew when you were 20?

That I’m awesome, and I can do anything. At 20, I didn’t have the confidence I have now that I’m older and I’ve done more things. But we’re all extremely capable. If you have a goal you want to achieve, and you’re willing to work at it, of course you can do it. We all can.

Even the most successful women deal with imposter syndrome: Here's how Well+Good Council member Claire Wasserman deals with it. And Carol's Daughter founder Lisa Price reveals how she reminds herself she's the boss...even when she doesn't feel like it.

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