For entrepreneur James Willis, success has come from making the most of the opportunities he’s been presented with, however unexpected.
Willis is the founder of The Mason Baker, a unique gift company that allows shoppers to order and send gourmet cupcakes in jars to anywhere in Australia, and which received a deal on last night’s episode of Shark Tank.
He founded the company in 2016, having worked as a development manager for Nirvac and in site acquisitions and retail leasing for Coles.
The idea for The Mason Baker products came from a sense of personal frustration; Willis had ordered cupcakes as a gift for his sister but when the treats arrived in the mail, they didn’t resemble anything like a cupcake. It was a problem he wanted to solve and he’d seen other companies in the US tackle the same segment of the gift market.
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But Willis tells SmartCompany the opportunity to learn how to do that solving came from his day job; while working in the retail leasing team at Coles he was required to spend time working on the shop floor. He chose to spend that time in the bakery department.
“I quickly learnt how the food business worked and how to scale very quickly,” he says.
The next opportunity
Willis describes the early days of developing The Mason Baker’s products as “pretty humble beginnings”.
He had taken over his parents’ kitchen and began product testing for the cupcakes.
“I realised pretty quickly that to make the company scalable, I needed a proper commercial kitchen,” he recalls.
There was a need too for someone to help fine-tune the recipes. Willis approached prominent Brisbane chef Philip Johnson, who came on on board as a collaborator and helped create The Mason Baker’s first eight recipes.
Today, The Mason Baker sells six cake flavours, plus its very popular Maggie Beer Christmas pudding, which is available during the holiday season.
It’s the company’s number one product, but it too came about by Willis making the most of a chance meeting with the popular chef herself.
Willis was selling his cupcake jars at the Regional Flavours food festival in Brisbane and struck up a conversation with a man who quizzed him about the products and The Mason Baker. The man said he was attending the festival with his wife but was reluctant to say much more. It was then that Beer walked forward through a crowd in a moment that Willis describes as being like “Moses parting the Red Sea”.
“I told her everything. She was so lovely, with the most endearing nature,” says Willis.
“I wrote to her a year later and her team were great, they jumped right on board.”
While some business founders may find the prospect of approaching Maggie Beer with a collaboration idea daunting, Willis says it’s more exciting than daunting.
“When your business gets to the point that it’s viable, the hard part is done,” he says.
“The fun part is the unknown. I love the creative process.”
“No better place” than Shark Tank
Entering the Shark Tank on last night’s episode, Willis was seeking $50,000 in investment from the sharks and in return, was prepared to part with 15% of his business.
The pitch valued The Mason Baker at $333,000.
“After a year-and-a-half, I knew the business was ready for an investment,” Willis says of the decision to apply for Shark Tank.
“And there’s no better platform to pitch your business; it’s an amazing accelerator for any small startup.”
Willis had his eye on working with Andrew Banks, thanks to his experience with Krispy Kreme Australia, but his confident pitch impressed all the sharks (including Steve Baxter, who especially enjoyed tasting one of the Maggie Beer Christmas puddings).
While Baxter told Willis he thought the cakes were “bloody fantastic”, he decided not to make an offer, as did Janine Allis and Glen Richards.
It was then down to two, Andrew Banks and Naomi Simson, who were both keen to work with Willis. And after some negotiation, and counter offers, the trio agreed to a joint investment deal, worth $100,000 for a combined 30% equity stake.
For Banks, it was a case of wanting to invest in Willis’ future.
“It’s a modest investment in a 26-year-old who will go places,” he said to his fellow sharks as Willis walked out of the tank.
The deal has passed through due diligence and Willis has high praise for the two sharks, who he describes as “great people”.
“If I ever start another business, they will be a great sounding board as well as a potential source for future investment,” he says.
Not that Willis is already thinking about what’s next; with a $100,000 investment in his The Mason Baker, his focus is on doing things bigger and better.
“More economies of scale, bigger shipments, lower overheads,” he says when asked what the investment means for the company. And there’s plenty of product ideas in the pipeline, including plans to release an edible cookie dough product.
“It means we can rapidly scale; if we didn’t have that investment, it might take a few years to do,” he says.
The funding will also allow the entrepreneur to bring on more staff, including in marketing and production. The Mason Baker currently employs a rotating team of four and Willis is keen to bring more people in-house.
Finding passionate people is one of the key lessons he’s learnt over the past two years. In those early days, Willis says he thought he needed to hire highly skilled, specialised chefs to make each product. But over time he realised this was the wrong approach.
“What I needed was really passionate people who care about food and gifting,” he says.