Skip to main content

Turning a side hustle into a thriving business

Maryland-based baker and entrepreneur Caroline Ta has been building a thriving business of selling cakes and macarons—all while juggling the commitments of being a full-time college student. And now she’s taking it full time.

Key business takeaways

  • Seize every opportunity to talk about your ideas and pitch your business
  • Running a small business requires sacrifices and hard work, but prioritizing your mental health will make you a better business owner
  • Learn how to adapt to changing trends, platforms, and work environments

When 22-year-old Caroline Ta took her first accounting class at Montgomery College in 2017, she quickly realized that a desk job in finance was not for her. “I would always get stressed and turn to baking because I’ve been baking since I was a little girl with my mom,” she said. To relax, Ta began baking French macarons from her home kitchen in Maryland, experimenting with flavors such as Ferrero Rocher, peppermint, and salted caramel. 

After tasting her baked creations, friends began asking her to bake macarons for their parties or to give as gifts. After taking on a few casual baking stints on the side, Ta decided to transform her creative outlet into SweetsbyCaroline, a full-fledged baking business dedicated to crafting macarons and custom cakes for any occasion.

Ta soon after transferred to the University of Maryland College Park, continuing her baking journey while juggling being a full-time business school student. Since then, she’s seen her business thrive—with an expanding audience of more than 4,500 Instagram followers. SweetsbyCaroline’s social media pages and website are filled with enticing photos, featuring everything from Star Wars character-themed macarons to double-layer drip cakes adorned with edible gold leaf and flowers. Ta has also expanded her business operations, selling sweets at local pop-up booths and farmers markets. Since graduating this past spring, she is now working full-time on SweetsbyCaroline and has no plans of slowing down.

Ta’s growing local presence and business success is the result of lots of learning, experimentation, and years of hard work and time management. Now, during her post-grad life, Ta reflects on the experiences and challenges she’s been through to get to where she is now.

Taking the initial steps

Sometimes, one event can be the catalyst of a journey. For Ta, this was the Raptor Tank pitch competition at Montgomery College that she entered in 2019. Raptor Tank, modeled after the Shark Tank competition, is a student-run program designed to support student entrepreneurs with mentorship, development workshops, and funding. Ta entered Raptor Tank on a whim, and she said at the time, she was still very shy and hated public speaking. She ended up winning the competition, along with a $2,500 award. “That was kind of like the sign or the validation that I needed to be like, ‘Okay, I can do this full time,’” she said.

At the University of Maryland, Ta took her business ambition and began a double major in marketing and supply chain with a minor in entrepreneurship. Through her business school coursework, she quickly learned to apply her class learnings to her real business. “Supply chain management helped me with running my inventory, the transportation of my inventory. It taught me to order my products, certain ingredients, or packaging items a lot earlier on in case of disasters like what we’re going through now,” she said, referring to the pandemic. 

Ta also entered the 2020 Pitch Dingman competition hosted by the university’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship. The in-person competition was moved online due to COVID, and Ta says she had to learn how to pitch online through Zoom. “I feel like that competition helped me public speaking wise but also on how to pitch my idea to a virtual audience,” she said. SweetsbyCaroline ended up a finalist in the Pitch Dingman competition.

Creating a successful pitch

Outside of the opportunity to receive funding, pitch competitions are a valuable educational resource for budding entrepreneurs. “You don’t have to go into these business pitch competitions having a concrete business,” Ta said. “You can go in having an idea.” Ta said that during Raptor Tank, participants attended marketing, financial, and pitching workshops to help build their presentations and hear from guest speakers. 

“Doing these pitch competitions not only helped me with building my business but also building that network and connection that you can have with all these other amazing entrepreneurs from Maryland or just from anywhere,” Ta said. Plus, pitching her business helped her become a more effective speaker and presenter.

“The number one best thing is to be very visual with everything on your presentation, especially if you’re pitching to a virtual audience,” Ta said. Showing what the product looks like helps the audience visualize your presentation, and seeing aesthetically pleasing images can also create a good impression. 

The more you talk about [your business], the more confident you become in your actual business.

caroline Ta

Ta also advises budding entrepreneurs to always be talking about your business. “The more you talk about it, the more confident you become in your business idea or your actual business,” she said. “And the easier it is for you to quickly do a one-minute pitch to someone.”

Finding a work-life balance

Running a small business alongside other obligations is always tough. For Ta, being organized was crucial to successfully fulfilling responsibilities in both school and baking. Aside from being glued to her daily planner and Google Calendar to manage her time, Ta said she had to make a lot of sacrifices in terms of her social life. 

She’s also an advocate for maintaining a healthy work-life balance because it can be easy to get caught up in constantly working. “You get so tired and burnt out, and your mental health is just not there,” she said. Ta gives herself breaks when necessary to avoid this. “Doing that can help your mental health so much, and [it will help you] be a better person and better business owner.”

Having a social media strategy

In a space saturated with perfectly edited, brightly colored photos of the latest food trends, business owners are constantly pushed to create aesthetically pleasing content in order to stand out on social media. While Ta says that most of her customers come from her well-curated Instagram page, she knows to diversify her platforms. She says that especially when certain websites and platforms can go down and be offline for extended periods of time, it’s good to have websites, Pinterest, and/or newsletters running as well. 

“I have been trying to get more into monthly newsletters. I’ve been slacking on that,” she admitted. “But whenever I have a new product, like a holiday set, there is always an email or something that is sent out to the people that are on my list.”

These new product launches are also planned in advance. As SweetsbyCaroline became more established, Ta began blocking out her schedule for specific holidays or events, such as Halloween and Christmas. During those weeks, she’ll sometimes create special macaron sets or custom treats, which are promoted through her many social channels. Then there are the unexpected trends, like when she made macarons based on characters from the viral Netflix show Squid Game. “That type of stuff is on a whim—I’ll quickly do a set or quickly post about it to get interaction from people or get new followers,” Ta said.

Social media moves fast, so consistency is challenging but essential for the SweetsbyCaroline account. Ta uses a content planning calendar where she plans out what to post on certain days and asks others to help her post if she’s busy.

Looking forward and taking the leap

After more than a year of adjusting to work during the pandemic, Ta is planning to move into a commercial studio space and hopefully transition into a bakery eventually. Part of her is also intrigued by the prospect of opening a commercial kitchen herself and renting out the space to other entrepreneurs. “I don’t know how it’s gonna work,” she said. “But I feel like from going through all this stuff, I want to be able to have a space that people can work from and also help those people with that process because it’s such a lengthy process,” referring to searching for and securing a commercial space.

When you’re really passionate and you really, really enjoy whatever you’re doing, you’ll find the right opportunities.

caroline ta

Launching a small business can be risky, but Ta believes it’s worth it to see what opportunities could arise. From studying accounting to now, her path has pivoted, and she encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to do the same. “When you’re really passionate and you really, really enjoy doing whatever you’re doing, you’ll find the right opportunities, and everything will slowly fall into place with a lot of hard work and dedication.”

The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.

Business resources, delivered to your inbox

Get the latest blog content, info on virtual events, and the occasional freebie.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

We care about your data. Read about it in our Privacy Policy.