Sweet Lionheart: baking a better business
Megan17 Aug, 2023
Life is meant to be celebrated. No one knows that better than Sweet Lionheart. The online bake shop specialises in drool-worthy cakes and delicious sweet treats that bring joy to every occasion.
The brainchild of Nikki Symons, Sweet Lionheart fills its customers’ hearts (and tastebuds) with pure delight. Cake enthusiasts can order a cake to celebrate a special occasion or opt for a more hands-on experience by signing up for Sweet Lionheart’s online courses that teach audiences how to make their own awe-inspiring creations.
Read more: RWD Honeybees: sweeter than honey
We sat down with Nikki to learn more about how Sweet Lionheart came to be and the lessons she’s learned along the way.
The baking of a business
Before Nikki Symons opened Sweet Lionheart, she used her talent for creating works of art at various other jobs. After studying graphic design, Nikki put her skills to use at a job in advertising as well as an online food magazine.
While working for this online magazine, Nikki got her first taste in creating food content. “I was able to flex a different creative muscle,” Nikki explains, “one that I’d never actually delved into before.”
Her desire to hone her cooking skills solidified after she began working for a mom-and-daughter duo that sold soft furnishings online. As she helped the duo expand their business by producing lifestyle and food blog content, she realised she wanted to attend chef school.
Nikki enrolled in a part-time pastry course at Silwood in Rondebosch. “Pastry wasn’t my first choice,” she admits, “but I wanted to do something comprehensive, and that was the only course I could find.” Nikki documented her journey on Instagram, and soon her followers started requesting their own custom cakes.
As more cake orders began rolling in, Sweet Lionheart was born. Nikki worked part-time while juggling the needs of her growing business. She continued advertising her business using Instagram and set up a basic website for customers to place their orders. “Since my availability was limited, I needed to control the number of orders coming in.” At the start of 2016, she began running Sweet LionHeart full-time.
Cake is a work of art
Sweet Lionheart cakes are more than just delicious to consume; they’re magnificent to look at. The cake’s designs are inspired by places and objects Nikki encounters in the real world. “When we started out, I drew inspiration from things that aren’t in the cake world,” she says. “I looked at artworks and buildings and played with different styles.”
In those early days, Nikki designed all the cakes herself. But as her business grew, she hired additional cake designers to keep up with demand. “I allow the cake designers to bring their own ideas to the table. There’s always a process of looking at the designs and determining if they align with the Sweet LionHeart look and feel. So while we’ve created room for our designs to expand and have somebody else’s voice added, it still lives within the brand.”
While the cake designs differ, they’re woven together by how they’re photographed. Nikki photographs the cakes using a similar aesthetic so that online audiences looking at them will immediately recognise that it’s a Sweet Lionheart cake.
Growing an appetite for the business
Sweet Lionheart launched at a time when the Instagram algorithm was still relatively simple, and accounts posting unique content were highly rewarded. “We were incredibly fortunate with how Instagram operated at that stage,” says Nikki.
Sweet Lionheart’s gorgeous cake designs played into audiences’ appetite for drool-worthy images, and this helped Nikki grow her brand. Publications and online reviewers who were hungry for new content picked up her unique concept. “People came to us for our story, so I never paid for marketing,” she says. “It’s one of the benefits we’ve had from the beginning. I never had a financial business background, but I knew how to build a website to attract customers and make sales.”
Instagram’s algorithm has changed since Nikki first launched Sweet Lionheart. She can no longer solely rely on free word-of-mouth advertising; she now needs to invest in paid advertising and SEO to drive more customers to their website. “People will always assume that if you have a large following on Instagram, you’re swimming in it, and that is not the case. Followers do not equate to money, and having a ‘big brand feel’ also doesn’t equate to money.”
Along with changing its marketing tactics to capture more sales, Sweet Lionheart also changed how customers place their orders online. They moved from a request-to-book model to a checkout model, where customers have to pay for their orders immediately. “With our initial business model, the drop off of sales was quite high. People would request to book an order, and during the time it took for us to get back to them, they would change their minds.”
“The checkout model has been a game changer for our business because we capture many more sales. People want to get the ordering process done as quickly as possible. They want to place their order, pay for it and know when to expect it.”
Recipe for success
At the heart of Sweet Lionheart’s success is its focus on customer satisfaction. “We
are obsessed with trying to make people happy,” says Nikki. And while the business owner knows that trying to make everyone happy is detrimental to her mental health, she’s determined to give her customers a delightful experience.
This goes beyond delivering scrumptious cakes that customers will rave about. It’s ensuring every part of their experience is seamless, from responding to every query on Instagram to responding within 48 business hours to every email. “Every single person you speak to matters,” she says. “And for me, it’s been about ingraining that thinking into the team. That means helping people even if their questions might seem obvious.”
“We are grateful for reviews and feedback,” she continues. “If someone says they had a bad experience, we will always make sure that we handle those really carefully. We don’t ignore problems or praise. They’re all the same to us because it helps us improve the way we work.”
Along with responding to customers promptly, Nikki works hard to ensure the ordering process is as easy as possible. “It’s great to get feedback from people that say ‘your ordering process is so smooth’,” she says.
“Online payments make our lives so much easier. As an individual, business aside, SnapScan is the way that I like to pay. I hardly ever have my wallet on me, so I just use my phone to pay. It’s been great to be able to use that platform for our business as well. It’s just made everything so much simpler, so we can focus on what we do to make it successful. I’ve never had any issues using SnapScan, and our customers always have a good experience.
Have your cake and eat it
It’s been seven years since Nikki first opened Sweet Lionheart. As she’s grown the business from a one-woman show to a fully-fledged business that employs numerous other people, she’s gained plenty of wisdom along the way.
Her biggest advice for others looking to start their own business is to learn how to be patient. “I think people are so used to seeing instant results that they might start a business and think that they’re going to be successful in six months. It’s been a huge eye-opener that change happens slowly. For people looking from the outside in, they will think that it’s happening fast for you. But it does take time.”
One of the things Nikki wishes she had done early on was to set financial goals. “I started doing those very late in the game. I’m pretty sure we could have sped up some of our processes if I had done these earlier,” she explains.
“I’m trying to be more goals oriented. I’ve always feared setting goals I can’t achieve, and that’s been a huge learning curve for me. Now that I’m running the business with other people who rely on actually getting a salary, I need to set those goals.”
As Sweet Lionheart continues to change and adapt to their customers’ growing needs, the one thing they’ll continue to do is deliver high-quality cakes.
Get your own taste for their business by ordering one of their cakes to celebrate the special occasions in your life, or sign up for one of their online courses to bake one of your own. While you’re at it, follow them on Instagram to see what they bake up next.
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