When Justin Ellen received a "random" direct message on Instagram asking if he would like to be part of a Netflix show called "Is It Cake?" — he thought it was "very sketchy."
It was only when they said there was an interview that he realized, "OK, it's legit," said the youngest contestant of the popular baking show.
After a Zoom interview and a month of waiting, Ellen — who was 18 at that time — was picked to participate.
It was very overwhelming, he admitted.
"Because I was super young … and I realized I had to fly and stay in a hotel by myself. Filming was a whole month. I've never been away from my family for that long," he told CNBC Make It.
Ellen even had to skip his high school graduation for the show's recording.
"Is It Cake?" is a baking contest, where cake artists create edible replicas of everyday objects — such as sneakers and handbags.
At first glance, the 19-year-old did not seem to have as much experience as the other contestants. The young baker only started creating hyper-realistic cakes two years ago. One of his opponents started baking even before Ellen was born.
Yet, before appearing on Netflix, he was already running his own successful cake business, Everything Just Baked.
"Last year, we grossed $100,000 in sales," said Ellen, who is from New Jersey.
"With [the] Netflix [show] coming out, I've been getting like a lot more inquiries … my calendar is flooded. I'm super grateful for it."
Ellen learned how to bake from his mother and grandmother when he was just 7 years old. They used to bake together during holidays like Thanksgiving.
From breads, to pies and cookies, they baked everything — but strangely, "never cakes."
But he quickly outgrew being an assistant and when he was 14, went down the rabbit hole of cake tutorial videos on YouTube and got inspired to start his own creations.
"I just watched videos of other people doing it, YouTube's a great thing. You just got to really practice and take the time to learn," he told CNBC Make It.
"I've failed a lot of times … I'll think it's such an easy cake and then everything's going wrong."
Yet, Ellen was undeterred. He was in high school when he began immersing himself into baking — which was "definitely hard" because he did not have a lot of free time on his hands. He recalls taking part in a baking competition and getting to school at 5 a.m. to practice.
"I was super busy. [But] if you're really determined, you'll find the time," said Ellen.
The biggest challenge Ellen faced as a young entrepreneur was knowing his worth — he was pricing his cakes like he was shopping with his own wallet.
"Back then, I didn't realize how valuable my art is. I asked my mom and my mom's just like me, she's cheap. Like, 'I'm not going to get a $100 cake.' But today, people are easily paying that."
When he first started, he was selling a six-inch cake for $60, but now it's "easily $150 for the same size."
From January this year, he started earning up to $12,000 a month after running his business full-time.
"I realized people are buying designer purses for thousands of dollars. You have got to make your customers understand the worth in your brand and what you're providing them because the cake tastes great and [I] use high-quality ingredients."
Even though the prices of his cakes have more than doubled in price over the years, that has not stopped him from building a "very profitable business."
"Art is super valuable and people will pay for it. Honestly, my price slightly goes up every day … depending on my mood," he said.
And if a customer asks why his cakes costs this much? "I'll just be honest and say, every day I progress in my skill, so the price has to go up. You're paying for someone's expertise … it took me 5 years to learn how to do that."
Dreaming big has certainly paid off for Ellen. What he envisioned for himself came true — he now sells cake mixes and baking tools online. Occasionally, he holds classes for aspiring bakers too.
Ellen added that he accepts around 6 orders a week and they are "bigger orders now." On a typical day, he would be up at 8am, working on his orders in his home kitchen single-handedly.
"Honestly, most of my clients don't choose hyper-realistic cakes, they're more like wedding cakes."
His parents are now "definitely convinced" that he has made the right decision to pursue baking as a career — in fact, Ellen, who started as an assistant in the kitchen, is now the boss.
"My mum works for me now," he said gleefully. "She helps me a lot with the backend stuff … like deliveries."
Even as he marvels at what he has been able to accomplish at just 19 years old, the young entrepreneur is not done dreaming.
"Non-stop, I'm thinking about my business and new ways to elevate it. I want to have an appointment-based studio … but my final goal is to be like Wilton, the cake decorating company."
Headquartered in Illinois, Wilton produces a wide range of bakeware, decorations, baking tools and ingredients that are popular among bakers.
"My goal is to be just like that … [Everything Just Baked] is minority-owned, black-owned and I think we need representation because there's like no major minority brands in the baking community."
Everything Just Baked is on track to make $200,000 by the end of this year, Ellen told CNBC.
As for the studio he has in mind – "I think I'm super close. We've been looking at some spaces," he teased, without offering further details.
In the meantime, Ellen's got both feet on the ground because he knows things are "not just gonna happen" without hard work.
"It's going to take a lot of time. But in the end, you'll realize it's completely worth it."
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