Courtnee Futch proves that entrepreneurship can happen at any age. As a Syracuse University freshmen, Courtnee invested her last 6 dollars into what has now become the ThunderCakes bakery. What we love about her personal brand is how deliberate and visual it is, making your mouth water with every scroll. Her entrepreneurial endeavor to put more money in her pocket has now become a way for her to gain experience in the hospitality field by filling her own orders and providing catering. We are sure that internships, job offers and partnership opportunities will be knocking on her door shortly. Read on to learn about how she took her dorm-room operation to a well-developed brand.
Describe your personal brand in three words:
Innovative. Hospitable. Energetic.
30 second elevator pitch, Go!
Hello, my name is Courtnee Futch, I am the Founder and CEO of ThunderCakes. ThunderCakes is an online retail bakery based on the Syracuse University campus, we specialize in customized cakes, made-to-order baked goods, bake sale hosting, and private/corporate catering.
When did you begin deliberately building your brand?
I realized fairly early the importance of brand building, as my mother was in the field of Marketing/PR. Prior to the founding of ThunderCakes, I built a personal brand on campus my freshman year at SU as a motherly, warm, and Southern baker. I was given the nickname “Chocolate Thunder” by floormates, which I can only assume was based on my extrovert and sometimes-outrageous personality. I was known, firstly for my genuine love for others and secondly, for my love of food. Once I became aware that people perceived me that way, I was able to claim it and truly tap into it. Since then, it’s been incredibly easy to build a professional brand as well.
Everything that I’ve done since receiving the nickname was “Thunderous” in some capacity.
“Have a Thunderous Thursday.”
“It’s a beautiful day in Thunderville.”
“How are you today, Courtnee.” “I’m doing well, Thundering as usual.”
So naming my business ThunderCakes was the next logical step.
How much time, money and energy do you invest to continue building a solid brand?
75 percent of my time, 85 percent of my money, and 90 percent of my energy goes into building the ThunderCakes brand. And it has been so difficult, especially while in school to grow the brand the way I would have loved to see it blossom.
I spend class time, free time and sleep time thinking of the “next step”, how to take ThunderCakes national, how I’ll manage to do so in the next two years with a full course load, extracurricular activities, and some semblance of a college social life.
As far as money, I started the business with 6 dollars, so I’m not afraid to get down to the last penny in my bank account for ThunderCakes. Because I was completely self-financed for a little over a year, a lot of sacrifices had to be made because I had such blind faith in the return on investment. I’d seen what I’d been able to do with next to nothing. Overall, I’ve invested a little less than $5000 total in ThunderCakes since its founding in March of 2012. But a lot of those costs were legal fees, insurance, supplies, equipment…things that only need to be purchased or renewed maybe once every one or two years. But the company has made almost 3 times the investment back in revenue. I would certainly say it’s paid off.
What has been the greatest opportunity you have been offered?
By far the greatest opportunity I’ve been offered since founding ThunderCakes was the invitation to join The Kairos Society, which is an elite organization of international college-aged entrepreneurs. In February, they held an annual Global Summit, in which 350 of the Kairos fellows stay in NYC for 3 days to network with 150 global business leaders. I was one of two food services at the Summit, as well as the only African-American female, so it was a truly unique experience. Impressions were certainly made on both sides. But I walked away from the Summit with the business cards of multi-millionaires, made connections with potential investors, and learned so much about how to grow a business. Now, I just have to apply that knowledge.
How did you get started?
I was approaching the conclusion of my freshman year with $6.14 left in my bank account knowing fairly well that no amount of budgeting was going to make that money last from March until May. It was in that exact moment, that ThunderCakes was created. Well, I’ve been baking since I was 8 years old, and I had all the ingredients to whip something up in my dorm room fridge. So that’s exactly what I did. In under an hour, I had created a Facebook Group named ThunderCakes by Courtnee and added 300 university peers to it, immediately creating confusion. Those who knew me understood exactly what it was. Anyone who didn’t know me probably thought I was crazy. I remember people writing on the group wall asking, “ What is this?” But 30 minutes later, I posted photos of my first “thunderous” creation… “Bacon Chocolate and Caramel Rice Krispie Treats”. An hour later, all 40 of the treats I made were sold out, and I just knew that I had something special there. I’ve been Thundering since.
What keeps you going?
I was recently interviewed by a young lady for her class project in which I said “ I am full of love. I’m like a love piñata, and should you bust me open, that’s what you would find.” I’m not sure exactly why I called myself a piñata but I’m certain I’ve never been described more accurately.
Everyday I fall in love with my business, because others have been falling in love with it. At the core of who I am, I love to see people happy. Food does that, it controls such a wide range of emotion. It is comforting, heart warming, refreshing, stress-relieving, it satisfies craving. Sometimes food fuels love and romance.
For me, love fuels food. I’ve dreamt, for so long about a way to make multitudes of people happy. This is the one thing that I can do, that could potentially touch millions of people. And just knowing that ThunderCakes has that potential, makes everything worth it.
Also, my customers are some of the sweetest, most caring, and amazing people. They make it so easy for me to do what I do.
What is your typical day like?
A typical day has at least one order. On a weekly basis, I fill between 12-15 orders. I wake up, go to class, come back to my apartment and prep my ingredients, maybe finish the baking process, allow the cake to cool while I go to another class, come back again and decorate. The cake is then either delivered to or picked up by the customer.
Then that night, I am preparing for another order, either making batter or frosting in advance. My weekends are the most hectic due to birthdays and varied occasions that call for baked goods. If you’re ever looking for me on a Saturday afternoon, I’m likely in my kitchen covered in All-Purpose Flour and eggs.
How did you garner press coverage and media attention?
Actually, I never sought out any press coverage or attention. Word of mouth spread like wildfire around campus, and before I could say “Cupcake”, I was being asked to interview on university-run TV programming and print publications. Shortly after, various Entrepreneurship professors at SU were asking me to come speak to their classes, and would place orders for me to bring them baked goods for a class of 50.
Also, a number of the media outlets that had interest in the ThunderCakes story were student-operated by my immediate peers. The exact same peers who were my some of my first customers when TC was still a dorm-operation. They were a part of the brand’s growth and I’m sure it was mutually beneficial for them to cover the story.
What were the steps you took in college to help get you into the position you are in now?
I always say that if I hadn’t come to Syracuse University, ThunderCakes likely would not have happened. It is not by chance that the business is what it is because the circumstances were so favorable at SU. I am constantly surrounded by my market, college-aged young adults who have a zest for life and a fondness for delicious baked goods.
And because I have two more years at the University, I am still tapping into many resources. I was in the Career Development Learning Community my freshman year where I discovered the Hospitality Management major, and later found that the program was no longer accepting candidates. But when I needed to ask someone about food specific permits and legalities, I had a valuable resource because of that program. I joined the IDEA( Innovation and Disruptive Entrepreneurship Accelerator) at SU and it was the most influential in ThunderCakes’ success thus far.
Also, I’ve just met some truly dynamic, well-rounded, multi-talented, and amazing individuals in the two years I’ve spent at SU. My decision to keep them close, is no doubt the best decision I’ve ever made.
Personal Branding Ah-ha moment:
I am my brand. I am reminded of that everyday. I can’t go anywhere, anymore without being called “ThunderCakes”, “Cakegirl”, or “Thundergirl”. When I realized that my name and my brand were so closely bound, I felt a personal responsibility to exude in my daily life, what I wanted others to see in my brand. My motto is, after all, “With Love. And Butter.” Now, while I didn’t go around holding a tub of Land O’ Lakes Spreadable, I made it a point in every aspect of my life to be positive. To smile at people when walking across the quad, even on my worst days. To always go out of my way to do small, nice things. To greet everyone as “Darling”, “Sweetie”, or “Honeybun” , but still use their actual name in conversation so they know that I didn’t forget. It’s always been a part of me, but I’ve made it a more conscious effort to be seen this way.
I’ve heard many people say that my personality proceeds me. It just turns out that brand and personality for me are synonymous.
Essential Business Tip:
Be someone you’d want to do business with. If you wouldn’t want to work with you, then you’ve got some changes to make.