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The unexpected entrepreneur: tips on overcoming doubt, setbacks, and expectations



Key business takeaways

  • Setting boundaries is good for your mental health. If you need to hire more staff, reduce operating times, or explain any limitations to customers, do so knowing it’s the right move for you and your business.
  • Doubt is the enemy of success. Every business owner has their own hurdles to contend with, be that financial, cultural, social, or otherwise. When encountering setbacks, think about how you can pivot to keep your business alive, and remember that you’re capable of achieving your goals.
  • It’s okay to ask for help. You don’t need to make the cupcakes, run front of house, and drive the delivery truck. Delegating tasks will streamline operations and reduce the risk of mistakes and burnout.

Sometimes entrepreneurs stumble into being business owners when they thought life was leading them elsewhere. In the case of Marley’s Treats owner Gemma Ballesteros, she was a new mother, caretaker, and had been trying to finish her degree—no bakery in sight. But when her cupcakes became a hit outside her social circle, her new path became clear.

Despite the obstacles of entrepreneurship and pressure from her Filipino culture to go into the medical field, Gemma forged her own way as a successful baker and champion of Filipino culture and flavors.

How did your connection to baking and cooking start?

Growing up, my mom and my dad cooked a lot for me. It was my connection to the Philippines because I was born [in the U.S.]. On summer vacation, my parents would drop us off at our grandparents house. So I also grew up watching my lola cook and bake, and I can remember the smells of anything and everything that she was cooking in the kitchen.

How did becoming a mother lead you to baking again?

It was 2010. I was working at my cousin’s MMA gym at the time, and I was pregnant with Marley. And then it came time where I was super pregnant with her, and my cousin was like, “You can’t keep driving across the bridge. It’s too much. Just stay home.” And not too long after, I went in for a routine doctor appointment, and they’re like, “Okay, you don’t have more fluid, so we’re going to get her out now.”

So we had her early. For the first month and a half, she was in the nursery ICU because she was born so small. So for a long time, I did not go back to work. My dad got sick a while back, so at that point, my role was to be home with Marley and watch my dad.

That’s when I found myself like, “What can I do with my extra time?” So I started baking. I think my first cupcake was a red velvet cupcake. And then instantly after that I was like, “What can I do with ube?” And then I made an ube cupcake. And at that point, it was just cupcakes, cake pops, nothing huge.

When did you know it was time to start a business?

I started posting [my cupcakes] on Facebook. And then friends and family were like, “Oh, hey, I have a birthday coming up,” or, “It’s my niece’s, it’s my son, my daughter… Can I put in orders?”

So I started taking orders from friends and family, just baking out of the home. And pretty soon, it got to where friends of friends of friends were ordering. And I was like, “I can’t do that.” So that’s when I started looking into a commercial kitchen.

When I found one, I started doing just weekend stuff, where during the week I was still taking care of Marley and my dad. And then on the weekends, my mom would take care of Marley and be with my dad. And that’s when I started like, “Okay, I can do deliveries. I can start to look for little events just to get a name going.”

Even at that point, I didn’t have a name that I was stuck on. And then it just happened like, “Oh, you know what? This started because we had her.” So that’s where Marley’s Treats was born. 

Were there times when you thought you’d quit?

I did this LivingSocial deal and Groupon at the same time, and I thought I was going to quit. It got crazy. There were thousands and thousands of orders from just those two alone, and I was delivering everywhere. I just didn’t know how to set the boundaries yet back then.

My fiance was working full time, but when he was available too, he was delivering and whatnot. But for the most part, I was just taking everything up. And then there were a few times where I was so late to a delivery because there was just so much on my plate. And there was backlash in the reviews. Back then, I let that get to me, so I was at a point of like, “Do I even want to do this anymore?”

How did you get past the doubt?

Growing up seeing how hard my mom and dad worked just to provide for us, it’s something that I feel we learn in the Filipino culture: how to work hard and just continue to work hard, something that I saw in both my parents and my grandparents. So to me, the mentality was just, “You can’t quit. You can’t quit now.”

So I kept going, but I toned it down a bit. I stopped LivingSocial, stopped the Groupon, and just went back to basic little parties and that sort of thing. And then I started going into cakes and cake decorating, and I was like, “Oh, this is fun. Every order is different.”

What challenges did you encounter while getting Marley’s Treats off the ground?

One of my friends actually contacted me in 2016, and he was like, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to open a bakery.” So we opened our location in Oakland. It was small but ready to move in and get going. There were a few things that happened in that building. The ceiling collapsed in from the apartment upstairs, and it just didn’t go well.

We had to stop working for a few months and wait for insurance. But even insurance couldn’t cover things, so we had to be like, “Okay, let’s figure out what else we can do.” And then we dipped into the food truck industry, and my partner at the time didn’t want to go forward with a food truck. So we sold Oakland and partnered up with a couple of new guys and just moved forward with the food truck.

And then we fell on this location, the end of 2017, early 2018, thinking, “Oh, it used to be a bar and a grill. There’s already a kitchen. We just have to renovate a little bit, and we’ll be good.” Come to find out, we start dealing with permitting, and you have to have an architect do the plans. You have to turn in the plans and wait X amount of time. So that the whole process ended up being way more than we had ever expected.

It ended up taking two years. We ended up having to gut the whole place, pretty much. Everything is brand new between the electric, the plumbing, the hood, and the HVAC system.

And then I just remember March 15, 2020 was when everything fell apart. It became, “Oh, this is canceled. The catering, everything, canceled.” I’m sure it happened to everybody, but at that moment, I was in shock. I was like, “What are we supposed to do? We just opened. This is everything that we were working on.”

So I took a two-day break just because. Nobody was coming in anyway because everyone at that point was either completely shut down or everyone was scared to go anywhere. So we had to just reevaluate how we were going to run.

Did you encounter any personal challenges when starting your business?

In the Filipino culture, I feel like [parents] want you to finish school. They want you to finish college. They want you to get a degree and do something like become a nurse or a doctor, and that is not where I went. And then having a kid without being married—it was a lot of things that I did not do in the order that I was raised to do.

They definitely have been supportive [though]… My mom will ask, “Do you need help? Do you need me to come in and wash dishes? Do you need me to watch the kids?” But it is a little bit of a struggle for me knowing that they wanted me to do something else. Even before I had Marley, I was going to school for early childhood education. So it was nothing close to this, but this is the path.

Having to take care of the baby—and, at the time, my dad was going through dialysis, so I was driving him there—it definitely was a struggle, but I feel like there’s already been so much struggle that it wasn’t anything that I couldn’t get past. I’m the oldest child, and I defaulted to stepping up and taking care of whatever needed to be taken care of. So it wasn’t a different feeling for me.

But there were times I wish I could have just been able to do what I wanted or needed to do. I think now it’s changed a little bit where [my parents] see where this has gone and it’s not just a hobby. This is real. We’re really out there and really doing things. Now it’s more like, “Okay, what can we do to help you out in whatever you need to do?” So I feel like it came back full circle. I did whatever I need to do to assist, and now it’s a family thing.

What advice would you give to other mothers starting a business?

Allow people to help. Before, I was like, “I could do it all. I could do everything.” But it got to a point where that hurt me more than anything. So for moms, my advice would be: If somebody is there to help you, take that. Take whatever you can because they’re there to help. If they’re offering it, that’s the best thing that you could do for yourself. I still struggle daily, especially now that the kids are a little bit older.

I think something that’s not talked about is, even after having my middle child, there’s that period of postpartum depression where there’s no telling what feelings [you’ll have] or how to maneuver through all of that—and then still having to be the one here making sure everyone’s doing their job to make sure we get to open. I think the real struggle is moms [think they] have to do everything.

Even now, sometimes I’m like, “No, I can handle it. I can do the deliveries with all the kids in the car.” But that’s what I think I’ve learned the most, too, is how to not take on so much. Because for a while, I couldn’t even walk because I was in pain. It was just bad.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would’ve told my younger self to stop doubting myself. I feel like especially recently, I’ve doubted myself so much just because of all the stuff that we’ve gone through here. And to plan ahead earlier. I feel like we would’ve been in an even better place if I started earlier.

But I try not to go back to that. Everything happened the way it happened for a reason. So I don’t think I would really [say anything] besides “don’t give up.” And if I was to go back and say that—because there are plenty of times where I thought, “I’m done, I can’t take this anymore”—I don’t feel like I would want to go back and tell myself to change anything because we went through what we went through to get to now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity; photos of Marley’s Treats on Yelp


Gemma’s is one of many inspiring business owner stories we’ve featured over the years. Visit our Behind the Business playlist or the Yelp for Business channel on YouTube for more tips, tricks, and insights from entrepreneurs, Yelp employees, and industry experts.

Plus don’t miss all the other stories and small business resources here on the blog.

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