Darden MBA student Melissa Stefaniak loves to bake.
Whether she is making something as simple as a chocolate chip cookie or pursuing a more advanced recipe for strawberry soufflés, Melissa Stefaniak enjoys the process of producing delicious delicacies. Even while working as a consultant in New York City, she would come home at night to her tiny kitchen to bake on the little countertop space she had. It was in that kitchen where the home baker cooked up the idea behind Single Baked Sweets, a startup providing single-serving bake-at-home dessert kits.
“Living in New York, I have always had really small kitchens in my apartment with zero counter space,” Stefaniak explained. “It was super cumbersome and a pain to try to do anything where you are baking with multiple ingredients or would need a certain [piece of] equipment. So I kept coming back to the thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a homemade dessert [made from] fresh basics like chocolate chip cookie or brownie, and have that experience and quality to make it myself but not at the scale of having a large portion of multi-serving dessert?’ Just from that seed of a
After getting positive feedback from her colleagues and friends about her casual entrepreneurial pursuits, Stefaniak realized that her idea had potential. Combined with her lifelong desire to start a business, she decided to quit her job in Corporate America and take the leap.
Stefaniak chose to go back to school to get her MBA at Darden with the intention of gaining the business and entrepreneurial skills to take Single Baked Sweets to the next level.
From the very beginning, she let her peers know her intentions for being there.
“I ended up going through introducing myself to everyone from day one, saying I’m going to be an entrepreneur, here’s my idea. And at this point, I really just had an idea. I did not have the physical product yet,” she said.
Stefaniak feels she owes a lot to Darden. In addition to building the momentum behind the business and generating the confidence to become a founder, the young founder was accepted into Darden’s 10-week i.Lab Incubator Program during the summer after her first year. The program taught her key principles of effectuation, let her network with founders, and gave her the time she needed to work on her venture full-time.
After developing the first physical product in August 2017 and adding improvements during her summer at the i
“The market opens at 8AM but I had to be there at 5:30AM to set up. [The organizers] assign you
Although nervous, Stefaniak was eager to prove to herself that her hard work could pay off. During that first farmer’s market, Mellissa thought deeply about her tactical approach for acquiring customers.
“I just wasn’t sure. Should I engage with customers that come by? I personally am introverted and don’t like when people try to talk to me,” the entrepreneur said. “But what strategy do I take? Should I engage them? Make eye contact? You have all these competing thoughts and then you’re also in a sales role that you haven’t found yourself in before. So you kind of just fumble around, first talking to people and then introducing them to the product. I still am learning and sometimes still ramble on when people come to the booth.”
The day before her first farmer’s market, Stefaniak’s i
“[My mentor] told me ‘Don’t look at this l
That was easier said than done. Stefaniak tried hard to follow the advice of her mentor but started focusing on results instead of process.
“Ultimately, sales are all I was focusing on,” she admitted. “I really wanted to make a sale. Otherwise, this wasn’t even a business!”
Stefaniak ended up making her first sale 15 minutes into the farmer’s market. As the hours of the day went on, more people were willing to try dessert samples and buy kits.
“It was great to go through that little bit of hesitation, nervousness, and fear of nobody buying something. I still have that. Every time I do a market, I hope [good sales] aren’t just a fluke,” she explained.
Although Stefaniak believes she has the relentless passion and determination to make Single Baked Sweets a success, at times she cannot help but question whether pursuing her own venture was the right career decision. Entrepreneurship is filled with risks and, while certainly rewarding, building a company from the ground-up comes with its challenges.
“Last week I was preparing for a farmer’s market we had on Grounds that Wednesday,” Stefaniak recalled. “I was going into stores on a Friday morning in Charlottesville, getting supplies, and I just realized […] a couple months ago I was in New York, walking through Midtown [to my] office. I’m like, ‘ok is this what I wanted? Is this who I am? Does this still feel right? Is this how I want to spend my time?’”
Even when Stefaniak’s hopes are high, the risk of failure for startups always keeps her on her toes.
“I don’t have a crystal ball and I just have to go on pure faith and focus on the problem that I’m trying to solve,” she said. “Every day I get what I always lovingly call a punch in the face from realizing that I’ve done something wrong or I’ve made a stupid decision.”
Despite the challenges of sitting in the founder’s seat, Stefaniak knows she is fortunate to be able to pursue her passions.
“I try as best I can to pull myself up when things don’t go as planned and focus on the things that I really love which is working with the product. Any time I can make these kits and take the time to shop for quality ingredients, and realize I’ve made a physical and very tactile object that I can touch and feel and hold, I always feel a little bit better,” she said.
ingle Baked Sweets has become part of Stefaniak’s identity. She does not get defeated easily but maintains her optimism through the highs and lows of an entrepreneurial career. She embraces the challenges of her venture and appreciates the results of her work as much as she does the process and setbacks.
“I just keep focusing on what I am trying to do. If you can do that, keep your chin up, and focus on the day to day, you won’t get overwhelmed in the long-term.”