Candace Nelson Founder of Sprinkles Cupcakes Goes with Her Gut. Literally.
May 13, 2021
After launching the first cupcake-only bakery, Sprinkles in 2005 (which she sold 10 years later), Candace Nelson went on to write a New York Times best seller, The Sprinkles Baking Book, became the executive director of Netflix's Sugar Rush, and most recently launched Pizzana, a Michelin Bib Gourmand Neo-Neapolitan pizzeria in Los Angeles, a clothing line, Willy California, Play 2 Progress to help reimagine childhood learning, and c0-founded CN2 Ventures, which invests in early stage companies. Got all that?

Here, she shares Sprinkles' Oprah moment, how bringing in outside experts isn't always a good idea, and her favorite Zoom hack.

You launched your business, Sprinkles in 2005, and after major expansion, sold it 10 years later. What do you think have been the key pillars to your success?

Sprinkles did one thing, did it well, and consistently delivered on this simple promise.

At the beginning, how did you go about setting Sprinkles apart from your competitors?

Sprinkles was the original cupcakes-only bakery. As the first of its kind, we were innately differentiated, but as the market exploded with other cupcake bakeries we relied on innovation to set ourselves apart. To name a few: we were early adopters of social media as a way to drive traffic into stores, we launched a celebrity-charity cupcake program and we invented the Cupcake ATM.

You have gone on to launch Pizzana, Willy California, as well as co-founding CN2 Ventures which invests in early stage companies. You have a best-selling cookbook and another book coming out, you were a judge on Netflix’s Sugar Rush—the list is long. What sparks your various entrepreneurial interests? My gut – literally! I’m always thinking about food, and my resume reflects that. But I’m also inspired by other first time entrepreneurs who have a talent and a passion. My mission now, through CN2 Ventures, is to partner with them to help bring their entrepreneurial dreams to life.

How do you decide which way to pivot and what is the deciding factor in choosing each new path? My business ventures are guided by my own personal interests. I pursue products and services that I would be an avid customer of, in markets that I have an authentic interest in – as opposed to just looking for whitespace. I guess you could call it the Warren Buffet style of entrepreneurship.

I’m an optimistic person by nature – I think most entrepreneurs are. So I have a tendency to stick with things that might not be working longer than I should. I bang my head against the wall a few too many times before I pivot, but at least I always know I gave it my best effort.

How important do you think it is to constantly iterate? I think my tendency is to iterate a bit too much! I have what I call “entrepreneurial ADD”- I absolutely love starting new projects and businesses. Currently, I’m trying to embrace essentialism more fully. New mantra: If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no.

Is there another business sector you want to get into? If yes, what and why? Yes, I’d like to get into the beauty space, specifically targeting the issue of women’s hair loss. Women’s hair loss is just as common as men’s but it carries with it a whole different stigma. It can be devastating for a woman’s self esteem. I’ve dealt with hair loss personally and found it frustrating to find products that made a difference. There is a lot of snake oil out there!

What are the unique challenges to having food-based businesses? How do you solve them? You have to start over every single day! I’ve always been so envious of those in the CPG space, or even non-food retail. Everyday at Sprinkles and Pizzana we start from nothing and create the products we sell fresh from scratch. Of course, that’s the magic of it, but I do sometimes daydream about a business where I could just come to work and turn the lights on!

Favorite part of your job: I love seeing people gather, connect and celebrate in my restaurants. Because of the pandemic, Pizzana hasn’t been able to welcome guests for dine in service for over a year. Fortunately our take out business has gotten us through, but I miss the energy and excitement of a busy restaurant.

You pivoted from banking to entrepreneurship. Advice on making a big career change successfully? It’s always wise to test the waters in some way if you can, before making a big leap. I went to pastry school to make sure that my baking hobby was something I wanted to do every day. Then I started small, selling cupcakes out of my apartment before securing a retail space. If you can make a side hustle of your new career or business venture, do it! Otherwise, make sure you have some money to get you through the transition and start working your network and talking to everyone you know in the space.

What’s missing in your line of work or one thing you would change? How would you fix it? I would like to see private equity investing more democratized. Why shouldn’t everyday investors get the benefit of investing in an early stage company?

Career highlight: When Harpo Studios called to ask us to bring 300 Sprinkles cupcakes for Oprah’s studio audience in Chicago the next day. Oprah highlighted Sprinkles as one of her favorite things on the show and it caused a sensation that catapulted our business to a national brand. At the time, Sprinkles was just 8 months old with a single location.

Your advice on how to give and receive feedback: On giving: If you come from a place of truly caring when delivering feedback, you can’t misstep. Always lead from the heart. On receiving: I always feel like there’s always something I can be doing better, so I am constantly proactively asking for feedback.

Was there ever a time your career was at risk? How did you overcome it? I lost my job in the dot com bust of the early aughts. The whole industry collapsed overnight and I had no no job prospects. But, the best thing about having your greatest fear come true is that it frees you from the fear of failure. It was at that point that I started dreaming bigger.

Women on your radar:

Fawn Weaver, founder Uncle Nearest

Michelle Cordeiro Grant, founder Lively

Auzerais Bellamy, founder Blondery

Dr. Allie Ticktin, founder Play 2 Progress (a CN2 Ventures company)

Productivity hack: I live in LA so I’m in my car a lot. I keep a curated queue of business, self help and news podcasts downloaded and ready to listen to while I’m driving. I also keep my airpods in my purse, so I can stay tuned in when there’s dead time - such as waiting for a doctor’s appointment.

Also – I’m always surprised that not everyone knows about this, so I’ll mention it here, but the “Touch up my appearance” setting on Zoom is a game changer.

What motivates you?. Food is an incredible conduit for bringing people together, which is more vital than ever. I feel compelled to create products and spaces that allow for these important moments of connection.

A business mistake you made and what you learned from it: I used to believe that hiring from outside the company to bring in expertise from more established companies in the industry was a shortcut to success. What I failed to realize is that these established veterans came with a different company culture that typically didn’t mesh with the one I had created. What I have learned is that promoting from within and hiring for attitude over experience is my preferred path to building a great team.

Find Candace on LinkedIn.



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