They say pending nuptials can spawn all kinds of personality traits. Most are not kind. What they don’t say, is that, perhaps for some, there’s a frustration or requirement that might just give way to creating yourself an entire business concept. Eloquently Her chats to one woman for whom that’s exactly what happened.
Six years ago, if you’d have asked Nila Holden to knock you up a batch of two dozen fairy cakes, she’d most likely have smiled kindly and suggested you ask elsewhere.
Not only did she not think she had the capacity or capability, but this was a woman who had grown up believing she didn’t possess a single shred of creativity.
In fact, she’s the girl who was side-lined in her art class, convinced herself she was only ever meant for a ‘sensible career’, and would have graded herself somewhere between a zero and minus-infinity on the ‘how artistic are you?’ scale.
How then, does a woman with seemingly such little creative back-story, manage to pull off the most fabulously creative – er, and not to forget ‘enormous’ in scale – order of some 12,000 beautiful biscuits for a global brand customer just a few years after being made redundant?
“It really is quite incredible when I think back to the kind of dialogue I was telling myself about what I was capable of and what my professional ‘talents’ were,” she says, smiling.
“Even to this day, I can still see the art teacher pretty much writing me off and putting me toward the back area of the classroom.
“I got an E in that subject in my GCSEs, and I suppose I took from that that I was therefore not at all ‘creative’ in the wider sense, and couldn’t ever make anything beautiful with my hands.
“Isn’t it amazing what an impact those early experiences have?”
Today, you can’t help wishing that Nila could come face to face with that same art teacher and demonstrate where those ‘artistic hands’ have in fact got her in life.
And all this just a few years from a pretty devastating career interruption of having to make herself – and a huge number of her friends – redundant.
“I can honestly say I adored my public sector job and felt it was really worthwhile and achieving something important,” she says, with genuine gratitude for her previous professional chapter.
“I was in children’s services, and I was one of those fortunate people who never saw reason to moan or groan about my work because it was with great people and was, at times, very rewarding for what we were achieving for families.
“I’d had some bumps in the road in my private life and was a single parent of two small children for about four years, but then I met my now husband, and it was while I was planning for our wedding that something new started to come about for me.”
Faced with frustration at not being able to identify the kind of wedding cake she had in mind, Nila began to research options for making her own cake.
Wrestling with the historic thoughts about her ‘lack of creativity’, she resolved to put herself on a cupcake course, in order to gain confidence and improve her own technique.
“The minute I began the course, it’s like I found myself in love with something,” she reflects.
“I just loved every second of it. All of a sudden, this person who thought she wasn’t in the least bit artistic, was using her hands, discovering colour, understanding design – it was magical.
“For 18 months I would then spend my weekends making and baking for friends and family, and then anything left over I would take into work or accept the odd orders from people I knew for a batch of cookies.
“It was just incredible fun, and lit up a different side of my brain that I’d not thought existed – but I still hadn’t thought there was a ‘business’ there.”
That changed, however, when an election shifted the political goalposts, and within a matter of weeks, Nila found herself having to make herself and 13 colleagues (“who had become friends”) redundant.
Suddenly, despite options for an interim redeployment, this soon-to-be-married mum-of-two, was facing a really uncertain future, and no guaranteed income.
“It was my husband who first suggested the baking as a revenue option,” Nila picks up.
“He reminded me that I’d spent many years ‘managing’ while a single Mum before he’d come along, and that no matter what, I would be able to make it work.
“He was right in many ways, but I have to say it was a huge learning curve and I made many mistakes.
“I remember rocking up to a country fayre with my cupcakes thinking everyone would love them and pay for them, because that’s what my friends and family had wanted.
“The truth was that I just had lots and lots and LOTS left over, and that once I did the calculations, I realised I would be having to make thousands in one go to make any profit.
“It shifted my thinking and I realised you couldn’t have a baking business which was a hobby. You needed to see it as a business with an eye on potential profitability from the outset, so that’s where I shifted my mindset.”
Nila is ‘big’ on mindset.
She talks with heartfelt honesty and openness about discovering meditation and mindfulness.
She admits that she never thought she would be one for setting her watch for twice-daily commitments to guided mindfulness, but that these are fundamental to her ongoing strength and resilience.
“I think we as women are particularly bad at neglecting our wellbeing when things get busy in whatever area of life, but I learned that I have to constantly work on ‘me’,” she says candidly.
“I’ve started coaching other food entrepreneurs through a dedicated group.
“What I tell them is that you can have the single best idea in the world, but unless you’re always working on ‘you’ at the same time, there’s no way you’ll succeed in what you hope to.
“We have to learn to get out of our own way and make sure our own doubts and fears don’t stop us achieving great things.”
It mirrors the ‘oxygen mask’ theory, whereby we’re encouraged to ensure we grant ourselves the air to breathe, so that we can always help those around us.
Whatever the rhyme or reason for its effectiveness, the approach seems to have paid dividend for Nila.
After the country-fayre catastrophes and some new research into the most appropriate profitable product range, she struck on biscuits as the perfect answer.
“They were the solution,” she says, triumphantly.
“You can post them and pack them easier, they have a better shelf life, and there is loads of scope for personalisation.
“I went through many design iterations and always felt a little bit dissatisfied, until one day, when I was on the verge of giving up and instead looking at other craft ideas like clay and fabric, I realised that we could start embossing the sugarpaste like clay.
“Even before I felt really confident to start selling them publicly, we got to the point of posting them on social media – and before we knew what was happening, Fortnum & Mason were in touch saying they’d seen a design of ours and wanted something for their Christmas range.”
The snowball had undeniably started.
Nila had found her niche in beautiful iced biscuits. In the months that followed she was being approached by Disney, by Benefit cosmetics brand, and by countless other commercial organisations who wanted personalised biscuits for staff, clients, customers, or for the sheer marketing and social-media sharing asset.
“That hastened my need to fully explore wholesale, and then to find a premises, rather than keep trying to run at the same speed from my own kitchen,” laughs Nila.
“I was lucky enough to find a great place not too far from home, and to recruit some exceptional staff who were all equally talented as bakers and creators.
“Over the last year or two we’ve then been able to upgrade our equipment, which is just as well, given that last year we had an approach from a corporate client, who said they needed 12,000 biscuits.
“Honestly, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing at the time, and I remember calling my husband and him saying ‘well what are you going to do?’.
“There was only one answer for that – ‘of course we’re going to do it’.”
And perhaps it’s that unshakeable ‘make it happen’ attitude which continues to make Nila’s hugely successful, and still relatively young, business thrive.
She’s clearly still passionate about what she does, a stickler for quality, fascinated by all things artistic (….oh for that art teacher to see her now…) and working hard on developing coaching solutions to impart her knowledge on to other entrepreneurs faced with similar challenges to those she’s been through.
Of course, one question springs to mind in the midst of what seems to have been a phenomenally hectic period of baking, creating, and producing perfect culinary creations for others.
Nila, did you ever get to create your own wedding cake?
“Oh my goodness, no,” she says, laughing the kind of infectious belly-laugh that makes you keep smiling for hours afterwards.
“There was no way on earth I could have managed to do that.
“I’m sensible enough to know when it’s best to ask someone else to help you on something they can do better than you can.
“I’ll stick at making a success of what I’m good at!”.
**For more information about Nila’s business, her corporate business, or her entrepreneurial coaching, please visit www.nilaholden.co.uk
**Watch this space for an event in which Eloquently Her will be collaborating with Nila to deliver an inspirational event for women who want to learn more about start up businesses and growing pains.