Inspiring Stories – Dr Amanda Penny

Amanda Penny is a trainee in Anaesthesia who took a career break and has become an award-winning pastry & bespoke cakes chef, launching Amanda Penny Cakes in 2014.

Interview recorded in December 2014.

1. Hi Amanda! Thank you for your time to talk about your career break from Medicine. How did you decide to set up your cake business? Did you have a light bulb moment?

41st birthday cake - anaesthetic room and theatre Hello, thanks for inviting me. No, there was no light bulb moment. I was a trainee in Anaesthesia, with two young children and a rapidly growing hobby. I enjoyed my job but I wanted to do more, yet I didn’t have the time. I was paying a lot of money for childcare and I wasn’t there enough for my young children and saw very little of my husband. I kept feeling that I wasn’t fulfilling everything that was me. We were ticking along day-to-day as a family but I was very frustrated and I knew I just didn’t have the balance right.

2. What were the practicalities of stepping out of a clinical role and setting up your business?

Originally, I didn’t set out to start a business. Approaching my Training Programme Director and the Deanery about a career break was relatively straight forward. The more challenging task was explaining it to friends and family – getting their support emotionally, financially, and accepting that our roles would change in the home. I got further training at patisserie school, then with a cake decorating company, along with training in food safety and hygiene. I got work experience in restaurant kitchens including at The Waterside Inn, a three Michelin-starred restaurant run by Alain Roux. I was also making lots of cakes for friends for free but wanted to start earning from it, so the business came about as a natural progression.

Setting up my business, I needed to learn about marketing, financial planning, product photography, web design, social media, press releases, getting mentors, networking locally and UK wide, finding and renting out kitchens. A lot of people gave me advice, such as local entrepreneurs and Women in Business. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I find it hard to trust others to do the job the way I want it done, so the most difficult part was learning to ask for help. Anyone can learn web design, or accounting, but in order to really focus on what I do best – making and decorating the cakes – I needed to employ a web designer and an accountant instead of trying to do it all myself. I also had to learn to promote myself: getting out there and saying “Hey look at me. This is what I’m doing and it’s pretty good!” So it was a steep learning curve.

3. You mentioned renting out kitchens - does it mean your business is no longer home-based?

Amanda: My business is based at home, but I teach from a rented kitchen locally. I just I haven’t got the space to get all those students in yet. But we’re working on it!

4. And on this journey so far, who would you like to thank the most and why?

My husband. When there was a position advertised for a cake decorating teacher at a London based company, he suggested that I apply, just to see if I was good enough. I had a huge portfolio by then but I didn’t know if I was any good. My husband said “Why don’t you send your portfolio to them, not to get the job, but just to see what they think”. To my surprise, they offered me the job. At the time I couldn’t take it because I was still working in Anaesthetics. But it was nice to get the confirmation that I was actually okay. Instead, I did an unpaid apprenticeship with them on an ad hoc basis – just going and spending the day there, watching the tutors, bakers and cake decorators, trying my hand at a few skills, helping out in classes and in the commercial kitchen. My husband supported me when we decided that I would take the career break. He believes in me even when I don’t. When I have those days of doubting myself, worrying “I don’t think I can do this”, I can borrow some of his belief in me.

5. What were the most important factors or skills that helped you to propel your business to success?

Simply putting the hours in! Being used to long and antisocial hours in hospital, I wasn’t afraid of the hard graft needed to start up a business. Thankfully, those hours are much more home-based than they were before. Determination and self-belief help too. When I run out of belief, having someone to say “Actually, you can do this. You’ve worked hard for this, and more, before”. Willingness to keep learning. Asking for help and learning from mistakes. Understanding that mistakes are necessary to grow. There are lots of skills needed to run the business. It’s not just all about baking – that’s the easy part.

6. How did people react to you stepping out of training?

AMANDA5 - Jubilee cake_300My biggest advocates were actually my medical colleagues who said “Wow, that’s really cool. Do it! I wish I could do something similar. I wish I had a hobby that I was passionate about, to take it further. If I did, I would step out of Medicine too”. My friends and family were more hesitant saying “What a shame – you’ve put so many years into this. What a lot of work to just sort of throw away, what a waste”.

In truth, I probably spent about three years wondering “What if?” and “Is there something else that I should be doing?”. Then I thought what if in another three years I still think “What if?”. That would have driven me crazy! So that’s when I decided that I need to at least try it. I’m not throwing away my medical training. It’s always possible to go back, albeit by jumping through more hoops to get back into the training system. And, if I go back, it will be with a set of skills that I would have never got in Medicine. I don’t regret having done it. Those people who were initially dubious about my decision have since realised that it wasn’t about dropping out of Medicine for an easy life. It was about more than pursuing a small hobby. It was actually very important to me and integral to who I am.

7. Is your story of being a doctor helpful for your business brand?

It does generate interest. Also, being science-minded helps me as a tutor. For instance, in teaching how to make a simple Victoria sponge, you could just explain how to do it – students would go home knowing how to bake a great Victoria sponge but nothing else. In my opinion, a good teacher teaches why something is important so that knowledge can be applied more widely. So, for Victoria sponge it’s all about understanding the creaming method. In my classes, students don’t just come away having learned how to bake a Victoria sponge, but how to make any recipe that uses the creaming method and what elements are important in the process.

8. You mentioned you had to do a professional patisserie course. Wasn’t your passion and skill enough for your business?

When I had a break for family reasons, I did the diploma to keep me stimulated and because I believed that it would be my only opportunity to take on such a long course. I could have learned those skills without doing the diploma but I wanted to do it to really learn patisserie inside and out. I kept a blog about my training and baking adventures, which also helped my friends and colleagues to keep up with what I was doing away from the hospital job. I have since incorporated the blog into the business website, Amanda Penny Cakes. I really should update the blog soon!

9. Many doctors will be very curious whether you are able to match your previous income as a doctor.

No, I don’t match it. In any business or start-up, you’re not likely to make a profit in the first 18 months anyway. In the early days it’s to be expected and I’ve planned financially for that. Ironically, as a doctor with children, working very antisocial hours, we were paying more in childcare than my net salary. On balance, while my children are young, I would much rather be doing something I love, spending more time with my family and paying less for childcare, than being away from home a lot of the time, not seeing my children yet paying more than my salary to make it all happen. This may change in the future when the kids are older, but for now I’m happy. I earn less personally than before, but as a family it’s worked out better. The difference would be in personal income and pension planning, something that has to be factored in as well.

10. What's the big vision for Amanda Penny Cakes?

I’d like to be one of the top UK designers for high end bespoke cakes and wedding cakes and I would like to keep on teaching. I’ve been invited to teach at schools around the UK and online, so I’d like to pursue that a lot more and maybe even teach abroad.

11. If you were given one million pounds now, how would you spend it?

I’m very much a crafter and I’d like to do more than just cakes. I would probably open up a craft school and get some of the best crafters in their fields to teach within my school – everything from paper crafts and sewing to furniture up-cycling and ceramics. Basically, I’d like to be the UK’s answer to Martha Stewart, but without the criminal convictions. That would be fantastic!

12. There are many doctors who would love to develop an outlet for creativity through business similar to yours, but it can be difficult to start. What would you say to them?

Don’t sit there wondering, because that will achieve nothing. You’ll just sit there wondering for three years, five years, a lifetime. Whether you just want to pursue a small hobby or something bigger, if your considering a career break or maybe leaving Medicine altogether – do something about it. Today.

Go online – watch a YouTube video of your interests, follow others with similar hobbies on Pinterest, Twitter and other social media. Join online forums. Get books, get magazines. Buy that coffee-table book that you’ve been lusting after – buy it and read it in bed at night or when you’ve got five minutes here and there. Join an adult community college; consider whether you could do an evening course or a weekend course. So your rota means that you may have to miss a couple of sessions of a six-week course. So what? Most people on these courses miss some anyway. It’s still better to have tried it.

I did all these things and more before taking my career break. Maybe you think you haven’t got time, but you absolutely can make the time if it’s important to you. If you want longer or more in-depth training in a new skill, such as going to culinary school, think about how you will finance it and when will be an opportune time in your career and personal life to do it.

Don’t sit in a rut bemoaning the fact that you haven’t got time, or you really wish you could do something else. Only you can make it happen. Remember that it’s been done before. It’s been done by other doctors. I had inspiration from other trainees and consultants who left Medicine for up to five years, pursued something else and came back to the profession more fulfilled and rounded. And you can always go back if you tried it and it hasn’t worked out. At least you will have scratched that itch. The worst thing to do is to wonder yet do nothing.

13. Thank you very much Amanda, and I wish you much personal and professional fulfilment!

Thank you!

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