Justin Ellen found himself at a difficult crossroad when he was 17 — should he pursue his passion for baking full-time, or go to college to further his education?
At that time, the youngest contestant of Netflix’s popular baking show was making custom cakes from home as a side-hustle, while also juggling with school.
He was bringing home at least $5,000 a month, but he couldn’t help but compare himself to his peers.
“The thing that got me down was like, I was seeing all my friends [apply for colleges].”
Nonetheless, the young celebrity baker stuck to his guns, believing that “everyone has their own path.”
Just two years later, the full-time entrepreneur and owner of cake business, Everything Just Baked, is earning more than $100,000 a year — and he’s not turning back.
In March this year, he made his debut on Netflix’s “Is It Cake?” — a baking contest where cake artists create edible replicas of everyday objects, such as bowling pins and sewing machines.
The show, which premiered on the streaming service on March 18, was in the Top 10 most-watched list in the U.S. for four weeks. It also raked in more than 100 million hours of views from around the world.
But the path of success is not without failures, Ellen tells CNBC Make It. Sheer hard work and wise words from loved ones also helped prod him along.
‘Who made this cake?’
As a digital native, Ellen knew from the start that having a social media presence would be crucial in building his business. But it took a lot of practice — and courage — to make himself known.
“In the beginning, my social media wasn’t great … not great photos, they were very blurry. But as I kept on progressing, I realized they have to be super clean.”
Ellen also saw that Instagram was “really pushing” video content on the platform and that’s when he decided to turn the camera on himself, sharing snippets of his life as a young baker.
“I was definitely shy in the beginning because it was just awkward for me … but the more you do it, it’s like, oh well and honestly no one cares if your hair’s a little frizzy today,” he shared.
“Honestly, it makes you more relatable. People want to know the person behind the brand and if they enjoy you, they’re gonna want to spend money with you.”
Even so, Ellen said that posting on social media was something he “didn’t take seriously” at the start.
“I was just posting for fun. Eventually, [through] word of mouth … people kept asking ‘Can I order a cake?'”
Ellen also slowly built his following and clientele by baking whenever he had the chance, even if it was for family events.
“It doesn’t even have to be a huge cake … just make something small because you don’t know who’s going to be there. Someone’s going to eat it and ask, ‘Who made this cake?'”
Before he knew it, he had over 50,000 followers on Instagram and was earning about $5,000 to $9,000 a month in high school.
“I realized, wow, this could be a serious business.”
From baker to entrepreneur
As he saw his side hustle gain momentum in high school, Ellen started thinking about pursuing baking as a career. But not everyone approved.
“My dad was like, a baker? I feel like there’s a connotation [with baking] like, ‘Oh, you don’t make a lot of money’ or ‘You have to do a lot of work,'” he said.
But Ellen had bigger plans for himself.
“I realized that I didn’t have to think small. There’s so much you could do in the field … think about every lane you could go into.”
“I looked at other bakers who created their business — they have product lines, which I had no idea that that’s something you can even do.”
It was around this time that Ellen, like his friends around him, had to think about what’s next after high school.
“Probably around junior year, when everyone’s like searching for colleges … I was debating [about] going to culinary school. [But] I realized it wasn’t for me,” he said.
“I just felt like it wasn’t worth it and it was a lot of money. And you can’t really teach how to do art in a sense, it’s really just practice — and the more you practice, the easier it’s going to get.”
That was the pivotal moment for Ellen, who realized he was not just a baker in high school anymore.
“[I’m an] entrepreneur first, then a baker. If you want to be a baker, then go work for someone else.”
Best business advice
Social media may have been “completely free” to use as a form of marketing, but Ellen needed help with the initial capital to get his business up and running.
“In the beginning I was selling cookies that I shipped out … I asked my parents for $500 to buy boxes and other materials.”
That was the first and last time he ever asked his parents for money for his business, he said.
Even though his parents had doubts about his business in the early days, Ellen attributes his success to their wise words: Always reinvest what you earn.
“I was able to reinvest the money that [I got from] people purchasing, back into my business. I didn’t go buy Jordans,” he said with a laugh, referring to Nike’s popular Air Jordan sneakers that can cost at least $200.
That mindset is something that his parents — who run their own real estate company — instilled in him, Ellen said.