Katherine Kallinis and Sophie LaMontagne - Owners of Georgetown Cupcake
Recipe for Success
By Caroline Cox
Not all business owners can say they went from installing toilets and painting walls on two hours of sleep, to appearances on Oprah, a New York Times blog mention and their own TV show in just three years. But sisters Katherine Kallinis, 32, and Sophie LaMontagne, 33, owners of Georgetown Cupcake and stars of TLC Show “DC Cupcakes,” did just that.
The duo risked all of their savings and worked nonstop to open what was “D.C.’s first and only cupcakery,” which now bakes around 10,000 cupcakes a day and boasts a staff of more than 200 employees. The second season of “DC Cupcakes” premiered February 25 on TLC.
Here, Katherine and Sophie talk to PINK about how their grandparents inspired them, what it’s like working with family and the rewards of their job.
PINK: What’s your success secret?
Katherine: Having a strong work ethic and a drive to work hard. It seems obvious, but some people don’t realize that, when you own your own business, the mix of work and drive that you have to undertake is basically like having a child. At first, when it was just the two of us, we worked 22-hour days for the first four months. Physically and mentally, we were exhausted, but we pushed through. Where some people may have given up and said, “I can’t do this, it’s too hard,” and just shut down, regrouped and hired a team to help, we pushed through and did it ourselves.
PINK: What’s the biggest issue for women business owners today?
Sophie: Being taken seriously. When we started, we had all these people telling us what we needed to do, and we had to stand up and be assertive. The boxes we use to package our products are three times more expensive than generic boxes, and everyone told us to just get generic ones. We didn’t listen, and now are boxes are iconic. You can’t be afraid of doing things differently.
PINK: How did you get the money to start your business?
K: Funny story – we were actually turned down by three banks, but we didn’t let it deter us. We took our life savings and maxed out all of our credit cards. We started on a shoestring budget of less than $100K and put in a lot of “sweat equity.” We painted the walls and installed the fixtures and toilets ourselves instead of hiring outside help. A lot of people said, “This isn’t going to work,” but now we’re baking 10,000 cupcakes a day. I guess it wasn’t the traditional way to start a business, but we wanted to do things on our own terms. It was scary, but we got creative and made it work.
PINK: What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?
S: Our grandfather, Paschalis Ouzas, always told us to follow our hearts and our gut. We kept this in mind and, especially with big decisions, we’ve always been right.
PINK: Describe your leadership style.
K: We lead by example. We’re very hands-on and are always there, teaching our employees. We spend a lot of time frosting the cupcakes in our bakeries, baking and even packing orders. We keep a visible mission statement and a code of conduct, and we need employees who want to come to work and who are passionate. A positive work environment is so key – when employees are happy, the business can run smoothly.
PINK: How do you motivate your team?
S: We grew from a team of two to more than 200 employees in three years. It’s definitely a challenge to communicate with that many people. We’ve got 20 managers and we have regular meetings where we sit down, have dinner and talk about any issues we have. It helps to have a transparent management structure and an open line of communication. We also go all out for the holiday parties, because we know how hard everyone works.
PINK: How did your grandmother help inspire this business?
K: We got our love of baking from our grandmother, Katherine Ouzas. She loved to bake, and we spent a lot of time with her. She inspired us to start our business. Quitting a comfy, stable job to start a business is a risk, and we were scared. We wanted to do it, but we didn’t think we had the guts. Our grandparents emigrated from Greece – they didn’t know English and built a life here from scratch. I think all entrepreneurs have to have a spark inside them, and that spark may be genetic for us. It’s that attitude of, “Let’s go for it, and if it doesn’t work out, we’ll just pick ourselves up.”
PINK: What are your biggest weaknesses as leaders?
S: Sometimes we can’t resist diving in at the micro level, and then we get stuck “in the weeds.” We’re so passionate about our business, and we know that the more you remove yourself from the frontlines, the more likely you are of losing control.
PINK: What makes you most proud?
K: The fact that we’re seeing tangible, positive results. Before this, Sophie worked in venture capital and I worked in fashion [at Gucci]. In this business, you get to see how happy you’re making people. Seeing a 3-year-old’s face light up and being part of special events in peoples’ lives is so rewarding. We shipped 10,000 cupcakes to the troops in Afghanistan for the holidays to give them a little piece of home. They were actually flown there with one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
PINK: How do you balance Life/Work?
S: As sisters who work together, we get to spend time with our family while we’re working. We usually have breakfast with our families and try to carve out time for them like that. We’re lucky to not be missing out on family time at work.
PINK: What do you do to relax and rejuvenate yourselves?
K: We don’t have much spare time, so we enjoy just sitting at home watching TV, curled up in a blanket with popcorn.
PINK: What’s one thing most people don’t know about both of you?
S: Katherine is afraid of flying, and she always wants the middle seat on a plane. She says it makes her feel safer. I think she’s the only person who actually requests a middle seat [laughs]. K: Sophie’s left-handed, and she has a left-handed personality – very independent and creative.
PINK: What’s one personal goal you’ve yet to achieve?
K: I just got engaged, so starting a family is a major goal. I’ll achieve it one day, though I don’t know when I’ll have time [laughs]. There is so much pressure on women to find that balance between life and work and to excel at both. But I’ve had the luxury of starting a successful business, so I know the rest will come eventually.
PINK: Do you have a favorite quote?
S: We have a poster on our shop fridge with the Winston Churchill quote, “Never, never, never give up.”
PINK: How do you define success?
K: Success is doing what we love, doing it every day and doing it well. We do the best we can and we do it together and as long as we’re doing that, we’ll be happy. We can’t think of a better way to live.