Mignon Francois started her cupcake business, The Cupcake Collection, with the $5 she had left to feed her family for the week. 15 years later, The Cupcake Collection is a multi-million dollar operation, with Mignon still serving as CEO and “Director of Joy.” In this live episode, Emily brings Mignon back to the podcast to talk about her inspiring business journey and empowering new book Made from Scratch: Finding Success Without a Recipe. You can listen to the first episode with Mignon here.
On the Yelp Blog: Find more inspiration from Mignon’s entrepreneurial journey in “How self-confidence built a cupcake empire.”
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Behind the Review features conversations with business owners and customers who wrote one of their Yelp reviews. In our discussions, we talk about lessons they’ve learned that can be used by other businesses to improve their own reviews…and their bottom line. Occasionally I sit down one to one with an industry expert to talk about topics like digital marketing, social media, and leveraging technology. Today is one of those expert episodes featuring Mignon Francois, a business owner, and newly acclaimed author.
Let’s give our conversation a listen.
EMILY: We are here with Mignon Francois, one of my favorite business owners. Even just looking at you and your smile right now is getting me excited for this conversation. And you’ve been on the podcast before, so I’m going to link to our previous episode in the show notes for anyone who didn’t hear that episode, which was almost three years ago now.
And since then, so much has happened and I’m excited to dig in today. Before we do, Mignon, can you introduce yourself and tell us who you are and what business you own?
MIGNON: I’m Mignon Francois. I’m the founder and director of Joy at the Cupcake Collection.
EMILY: Director of Joy, one of my favorite titles of all time. Can you give us a little summary and journey of how Cupcake Collection started and where you’re at today with your locations and how you guys operate?
MIGNON: The Cupcake Collection got started out of hunger. We were drowning in debt. We were losing everything that we had, including the house that the Cupcake Collection is in. 15 years ago, almost to today, we’ve been open on the last $5 that I had for dinner one week when my neighbor knocked on the door and offered to buy cupcakes from me for all of her clients for the season.
And I’m like, “God, why would you give me this opportunity when I have no money to take it.” I was sitting in the back of my house doing this Dave Ramsey baby steps plan, which includes stuffing cash into envelopes, trying to allot money to first your four walls, which include your shelter, your food, your transportation, and then snowballing your bills. But I didn’t have enough money to accomplish anything. And I realized that all I had left was $5 and I hadn’t fed my family of eight by that time when I only had $5 left.
I was sitting in the back of the house with no electricity because we couldn’t afford it. And we were running our house on a generator at the time. I would walk to the store around the corner and I would buy water in bottles to pour into the tub to give my children water for baths. And I decided to take her offer. It was a gamble that if she didn’t pay me, we weren’t going to be able to eat tonight.
But I believed God that if he is who he says he is, he can do what he says he can do. And so I turned that five into $60 that day because she paid me for what I brought. And I turned that $60 into $600 by the end of the week. And I’ve been flipping that same money for the last 17 years.
EMILY: My favorite part about that whole story is the 5 to 60, right? That’s already a big jump for you in that moment. And then 60 to 600. When you first told me that business story in this very similar framework, I was amazed and surprised, but when I read your book that recently came out, Made From Scratch, Finding Success Without a Recipe, that was when I really understood that $5 story, it’s not a story, it’s the reality of what you were living in that time.
And I think after reading this, anyone can be inspired. I mean, people who don’t have access to a lot of resources and want to make something of themselves. And people who do have resources, but maybe have looked at them as not enough or, they need more. And it was emotional for me to read this book.
Let’s talk about this book real quick, because this is the current day version of where you’re functioning. So we’ll get back to the evolution of the Cupcake Collection, but let’s talk about this. Talk to me about the decision to write this book and then give me the summary of how this is really you in pages.
MIGNON: I wrote the book because a lot of people were sharing my story but they weren’t always getting the facts right. if you don’t give people a story, they’ll make up one for you. And so I wanted to be the author of my own story. And so I wanted to write it down so that others could know what they could do if they believe. That was my promise to God. I promised God, if he would make me successful, I would tell anyone who would listen about what they could do if only they believe.
And so this book was just my opportunity to collide with women all over the world, wherever they are, whatever time it is. I am getting DMs, Emily, from around the world. I have received them from Asia. I have received them from India, Africa, England in the middle of their nights. They’re saying, I just discovered you.
And so just having the opportunity to meet people right where they are, and to be able to allow my story to feed them. Even if we never cross physical paths, we get to cross paths in this book, and they can see what I’ve been through and what I’ve overcome so that they know they’re not alone. So that they know that you can do hard things. I’m not saying it’s not hard. But you can do hard things. You were built for it. And I just want them to see that all they have is all they need to get from where they are to where it is that they want to be.
EMILY: And I think that’s so valuable and you talk about it in current day. I’ve heard you educate other business owners and say, “you don’t need that huge fridge that you think you need. You don’t need these big professional mixers. You’re not maybe even there yet, but you have what you need to get started.”
Tell my listeners about starting small and what that journey looked like for you when you only had that first $5. Take us back to that first batch of cupcakes your neighbor asked you to make and then how you were operating out of your home for a while. That was the reality for a long time before it was your business in the place that you used to call home.
MIGNON: It’s crazy because I never thought it was going to be all of this and you’ve heard that statement “You can’t see the picture for the frame,” like when you’re in it, you don’t know what you’re actually going through. You don’t actually know what you’re capturing. It’s just like, I want out, whatever that looks like. And somewhere along the line, I started figuring out what “out” looked like for me. And saying, “okay, for me, out looks like more than paying the electric bill on a regular basis. Out looks like more than being able to get field trip money for my Children. Now I want school uniforms. Now I want to know that our mortgage is sure. Now I want to be able to give them a steady consistency.”
Now I want to show other young women that they can do it, too. And I’m gonna hire people and I’m gonna give them real salaries and I’m gonna set up a corporate ladder and I’m gonna hold it at the bottom and let them climb so that they know that they won’t fall because I’m down here holding it for them as safety.I think that the vision begins to evolve and you start moving and working toward that. And that’s what happened to me.
I just finished reading the audio book and that’s gonna come out very soon. And when I read the last page, I struggled not to cry through the whole entire thing. I had to read it through three times, and as I read it through it doesn’t become less emotional for me. Because as I look back on my own story, I don’t even know that girl, but I’m grateful to her, I’m grateful to who she was that allowed me to become who I am today.
When I look back on my life and what God has brought me through, I couldn’t imagine the life that I had and the atmosphere I created for my children. I’m still apologizing to them and thanking them for just loving me anyway. Knowing that I was giving them the best that I had, the best that I had to give, that I was the perfect hot mess to be their mom. And they gave me grace and that grace was sufficient for me. And so now all I want to do is offer grace. Grace to other people who I come in contact with to say, “you might not have it all right now,” or grace to be able to say to my children, “Hey, give yourself some grace. You’re right where you’re supposed to be.” And so this story is lending itself to me also to remind me of where I’ve been and where we’re going.
EMILY: So let’s talk more about your business journey and the steps you took when you decided you wanted to get “out” of your current situation like you said.
So after that first time you made cupcakes for your neighbor for that one off event, let’s talk about how you grew into being a real business. It kind of started with a couple guys hearing about your cupcakes and grabbing them over lunch. It was a really slow trickle. You had a sign out front that basically said bakery coming soon. I don’t want to spoil the whole book, but I love the story when that one lady comes and she’s like “this sign is misleading. You’re not coming soon.” How did you win over customers like that and get more customers to come to your business, that was really just your house?
MIGNON: I remember her so clearly and it’s so crazy because who does that? Who walks up to somebody’s house and says, “excuse me. Your sign is a lie. This is not coming soon.” I’m like, “the heck, who are you?” I remember laughing about that and asking her what was her favorite cake and offering her to come back later, that I would have it.
And I don’t even remember, honestly, at the time having had, in my opinion, perfected my red velvet cake, or I had just finished perfecting it because I’m from New Orleans and we didn’t really have red velvet cake. That is a Southern thing, but it’s not really a New Orleans thing.
And as I did my research, because I’m a learner. and I started finding out what red velvet cake is and where it came from, and that this was a part of our heritage as a black community, that this had been a derivative straight from a plantation. And knowing that, it made me want to understand what it really was.
EMILY:. I love that story and it really shows the importance of hard work and a dedication to your craft. After you put in the hard work, did your research, and made her that red velvet cake, you really won her over.
So once you start functioning more like a business, you had to start putting more money into the business. I remember you talking about starting to buy equipment and stuff. What was that process like? And talk us through this decision to be self funded. You never went out and looked for a bank loan. That just wasn’t in the cards for where you were at and where you were trying to get. Talk us through that.
MIGNON: I love that you said decision, I have to laugh, because I wanted to have those things, but no one would give me any money. No one would give me any money. No one would finance anything I had going on. They felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. I was setting up to fail and I was trying to put it in an area of town where nobody was coming.
Nobody was coming to Germantown. As a matter of fact, nobody even knew at that time, what Germantown was or where Germantown was. We put Germantown on the map and now it’s a destination in Nashville. So if you ever come and talk about Germantown and the growth of Germantown, and you don’t mention the Cupcake Collection, you have done yourself a major disservice because without the Cupcake Collection, Germantown, as you know it, does not exist.
And we had to tell people, “Oh, Germantown is this little few blocks in North Nashville, just beyond the farmer’s market, just beyond the Capitol. And it’s only a few blocks long and it’s only a few blocks wide and it’s a residential commercial warehouse district neighborhood.” And people said, including my neighbors, which we laugh about this even today, Said “poor girl, She does not know Nobody’s coming in here to stand in line.” First of all, they’re gonna be scared because the reputation of the area was that it was dangerous. So what we turned it into, not only had God redeemed my time, he redeemed that property and turned it into something people could be proud of.
EMILY: Amazing. And, I think a part of your journey that’s always fascinated me is the revenue started coming in. People started buying the cupcakes. But you were in debt, couldn’t afford things for your kids, heard a guy on the radio talk about a bake sale. How did you go from that to getting some of that financial stability? What was that process like? And what would your advice be?
MIGNON: I think you have to be delusional. You have to be delusionally optimistic. And that was me. I was like, “okay, I’m going to do this.” I didn’t know that I shouldn’t have been able to do this.
We were talking about this in our prayer circle this morning. Most teams have a huddle. We pray for our team. We pray for our customers before we open our doors every day. And one thing that my son posed to the team this morning, cause now my children lead the operation. “Do you guys expect to win? And he said, hold on, hold on, hold on. Let me rephrase that question. Anybody that doesn’t have my last name, do y’all expect to win?”
Because he understands the point of view from which he was asking the question. Anybody connected to him expects to win. He was raised to win. In fact, the Bible tells me that God always causes me to triumph. So the fact that I haven’t seen a win yet is an indication that the race isn’t over. And so we always believed that we were winners. I think I even talk about this in the book. My mother was my biggest cheerleader and I don’t know where she got it from, but she always decided that our names meant that we win. And so she was like, “listen, you got this. You are a Terrio.” That was my maiden last name. “You are a Terrio. And that means you don’t come back in this house without a win. And if you come back in this house without a win, then something must not have been fair.” You know, she was never one of those people that was like, “take the blame and cast it away.”
I think she required a quiet greatness out of her children. And I pass that on to my children, because even though my mother was always saying, “you are great, you are great, you are great.” I didn’t think that I was a lot because other people had gotten into my ear. And had it just been my mother in my ears, it’s like, “well, mom, you love me. You have to say that,” but people who didn’t necessarily have a lot going for themselves or people who didn’t think highly of me. I listened to what they had to say and I believed what they had to say.
So when I got my own children, you parent the way you were parented. And I told my children everything that I wanted them to believe. And every time somebody told them that they weren’t something, I told them what they were and what those people subsequently were not. And I literally instilled into them delusional optimism about who they are. And what they could do to the point that it’s not delusion for them. Cause they’re constantly hitting the bar. They’re constantly moving the needle. They’re constantly going above and beyond because they actually believe this stuff.
My son said, “you’re not going to beat me.” My daughter believes the same thing, “you’re not going to beat me.” So when it comes to each other, I don’t even know if they ever compete against each other because they understand that together we’re so much better, so “I’m not even going to compete against you, I’m gonna compete with you.”
EMILY: So talking about your kids, you kind of brought me to my next question. You’re big on legacy and your journey means for your children and others in your community.
Talk to me about that. Because I think for many business owners, that is the goal, but it feels a little bit abstract. Why is that important to you? And then how have you actually built systems in place where it’s not just something you’re hoping for, it’s really something you’re creating?
MIGNON: Yeah, I think I did it flying by the seat of my pants. I think that people put so much pressure on themselves to show up looking like a thing, you know, to have a certain suit or to “fake it till you make it”. I do not believe in fake it till you make it, I believe in “faith it till you make it” because if I was everything I needed to be then you wouldn’t see what my growth is right now.
So I think that transparency and honesty has kept me and led me a long way. People can see fake a mile away. And I think it’s also been the thing that authenticity and that transparency has also been the way that we sustained. Because as I’ve watched other businesses that look like mine on the outside close, we were nothing alike because we’re still standing, and we started from a girl that couldn’t bake, not even out of a box. With no money, no experience in the business, no credit. I didn’t have any of the things that you need to be successful in an industry known for its failure.
And I want to encourage somebody who hears me right now and understands where I am, you’re good at starting things. I’m a great starter, but I was never a good finisher, because I would always quit. I would always quit on myself.
EMILY: I think you made an incredible point about following through and not giving up. People reading this book, they’re going to resonate with your story on different levels.
I’m gonna read something you wrote on one of the pages that really hit me the most and hammers this point down.
“Through this book, I want people to see the enormity of the obstacles I’ve overcome so that they know there are no excuses. There’s no losing because you can’t lose. You either win or you learn through the struggle. You decide which it is. I believe that anyone can move forward and succeed if they look at every life situation, every challenge, and every struggle and ask, what’s the lesson I’m supposed to take from this? And after asking the question, be willing to follow the steps God outlines for them to follow.”
It’s so powerful. Tell me how you got to this place. Cause I know there were days, I read about them, where you didn’t want to learn anything. You just wanted it to work.
MIGNON: I think I got to this place over time. The Bible says that God is a redeemer of time. And so a lot of times we’re in the situation and we think we’re supposed to be further than we are, or we’re looking around at everybody else and seeing how they got to where they are and you’re trying to catch up or compare yourself to them.
And so as I’ve been learning in the process, I’ve been picking up little wins. I’ve been taking little steps. There’s a song that I grew up with called “Slow Motion” and “slow motion is better than no motion.” If you move in slow motion, you’re still moving. And for me, I had been moving in slow motion for a really long time.
And I think that little babies take steps. They get hurt when they fall down. It doesn’t stop them from getting up and trying again. And I wish that we would see ourselves like those little babies because the only difference between the us then and the us now is what we believe. What somebody told us, how somebody drilled it into us, like “you can’t do those kinds of things, Nemo”
EMILY: That was a good reference you just threw in there.
MIGNON: And the fact is you can. You can do hard things.
EMILY: I think you led me right into the next one, which is this balance between taking feedback and using it to evolve and also staying true to who you are yourself. And it also makes me think of one of your favorite phrases, which is “collaboration over competition.” You segued into that perfectly. And I think that’s why your business was able to grow so effectively. Can you just talk about that and why that’s a mindset for entrepreneurs to really adopt?
MIGNON: Yeah. Because if you look at everyone around you as competition, then you’re trying to compare yourself. And comparison is a killer. And I think if you would look outside of the box and understand that collaboration is key, you will go a lot further.
The Bible says, “I am the vine and you are the branches. If you stay in me and I am in you, then you bear much fruit.” Everything in the Bible is from a farming community standpoint, but if you can see these as seeds that are being planted and how the seed needs the soil and the soil needs water and the vine needs the sun and the flowers need the bees to help carry their pollen, That’s the same thing that we are to one another. I need you and your beautiful gifted voice to help me tell this story that gets spread amongst other flowers and then it grows and it becomes something that the bees can use and that the flowers can use to help them spread their beauty. The bees are using it to make honey to take back to the colony and then we’re using that as humans to sweeten the things that we want to enjoy. It’s all about collaboration. Collaboration is key.
EMILY: Absolutely. In these final few minutes here, I would just love your thoughts on feedback. And obviously you and I have talked about reviews before and reviews are a big part of this show but I want to generalize it a little bit more because different feedback has different levels of value, [Yeah] as you continue on in your business so just talk to me about how you approach feedback and maybe any of the advice you have for entrepreneurs who have a hard time processing feedback from consumers.
MIGNON: You have to be willing to take constructive criticism. And if it’s not constructive, throw it away. Constructive means building. If it’s going to build you, if it’s going to edify you, receive it as that. Sometimes it requires a step back to look at “what is this trying to teach me or what is it that I need to learn? Or what is this trying to just diminish me?” Cause some people just desire to destroy you because they don’t have anything else they’re in control of. And so if energy is not created or destroyed, it’s only transferred. Maybe the only energy transfer they could accomplish today was what they put on you.
So I think you have to look at it and say, “what of this is meat that I can eat that can nourish me, that can nourish my business? And what of this is trash that I can throw away?” Because your body even filters the good from the bad. It says “I can use this. And I’m going to waste that.” “What of this is nourishing for me to use right now today? And what of it am I going to store up and find nourishment in it later that I will use as fuel to propel my business.”
And I would say that people have to also understand that those people who are giving you reviews are just coming from their opinion and everybody has one. you’re not supposed to be one size fits all. You’re not for everybody. Sometimes people are going to use their authority to review you as an opportunity to make themselves feel better. And some people will use the opportunity to make you feel better, like you grow for other people to get a dose of what the goodness is of you. And so just take that.
In the end, the story that we were talking about also this morning was, on the African tundra I heard Bishop T. D. Jake say this, “there are turtles and there are giraffes”. Giraffes have a different view of the tundra than turtles do. A giraffe can’t spend too much time bending down to hear what the turtle has to say. Because his heart is too big. He can’t afford for his head to be bent down too long because then he’ll pass out and fall over or he’ll die spending too much time to listen to what the turtle has to say. What the turtle is saying It’s not necessarily wrong, but the turtle is only telling you from his view of the African tundra and what you know is different as the business owner. You can see where you’re going much further than that turtle can. That turtle might be telling you the truth, but he’s only telling you from his experience of the African tundra. He can only see as far as tall as the grass is in front of him, but you can see above the trees. You can see what’s coming down the pike. And if you keep your head bent down too long to listen to the negativity of the ones who cannot see where it is that you’re going, then you can’t warn the others of what you can see coming. And give that turtle enough time cause he moves slow to get out of the way.
EMILY: That was great. It’s like you’ve done this before. To finish up here, I’d love to hear about your goals for the future and what you see for yourself and the Cupcake Collection in the short and long term.
MIGNON: Yeah. So we’re growing now. I started out with only $5 and have turned this into a multi-million dollar company that still remains debt free. We still operate the way that we began, but we’re moving a lot faster now. So it’s just like that baby that we talked about before. When you first learn to walk, you don’t stop trying because it hurts. You just get up and you keep on going. One foot in front of the other is still forward. And as you learn to walk, you begin to be able to run. So while you might not have been able to do it in the beginning, you most certainly might be able to do it now.
So now we’re moving a lot faster than we had before. And it’s because my children have taken over the helm. And now they’re leaving me to be the face of the company and to do this thing that I was created to do. And that was to tell others about what they could do if they believe. I’m just trying to keep my promise to God and they’re just trying to keep the Cupcake Collection open.
And so we have two new stores under construction in Nashville. We’re opening in North of Nashville in Hendersonville, and we’re opening south of Nashville, towards the Nolensville area. And then we have our store in New Orleans that has been there now for six years. I think we’re going on seven years.
So it’s still been hard. And so I hope somebody who’s listening to this, who’s experiencing a little bit of success, it doesn’t change when you become successful. It’s still hard. Your heart just looks different. Your obstacles change, but you don’t cease to have obstacles. And so, I just want you to know that once you hit that glass ceiling, that you see things differently, but it doesn’t cease to be hard. You just now know that you can do hard things.