From selling slime to marketing macarons, DL teen is all business
As a fourth grader, Olivia Mae Smith started out charging her schoolmates for slime to cover her ingredient costs. A couple of businesses later, she has mastered a notoriously difficult cookie — the French macaron — and is selling it online.
Editor's note: This is the latest installment of The Forum's Kid Bosses series, which highlights teens and kids who have launched their own businesses.
DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — Olivia Mae Smith's first business venture started in the schoolyard.
While in fourth grade, she learned the recipe for making slime — that ectoplasmic goo that nauseates parents and fascinates kids.
Upon learning of Olivia's "Ghostbusters"-like slime-making abilities, other kids started asking her if she would make slime for them.
But the ingredients were costly and her parents weren't about to bankroll slime for a whole school.
So Olivia Mae learned to respond to their requests by saying, "Sure, but it will cost you."
By the time she was done mixing up slime and selling it, Olivia had made $50, she recalls today, grinning at the memory as she sits on a couch beside her mom, Jen, at Thunder Coffee in West Fargo.
It was a sticky sign of things to come.
Olivia, now 15, specializes in a much more appetizing business these days. Working from the rural Detroit Lakes home where she lives with her parents, Dr. Stacey and Jen Smith, and her three older sisters, she makes and sells macarons and occasionally other types of cookies.
She takes orders for the fancy French cookies through her Olivia Mae's Bowtique and Bakery Facebook site or sells them at craft fairs and other venues.
Mom Jen describes her youngest daughter as a motivated, organized, self-directed teen who isn't content to just follow the pack.
Instead, the daughter jokingly called "big boss" by her family seems to possess an entrepreneurial drive all her own.
"She's not afraid to take charge. She knows what she wants," Jen says.
For Olivia's part, she says she's been motivated more by a love of salesmanship than a drive for money.
"I didn’t start selling stuff for the money, it just kind of came along," she says. "I like to be busy and have also been good at selling things and being a businesswoman. It started out as just making and selling what people wanted. I had to make sure I could cover my cost and that there was a profit."
At just 15, she's started three businesses
The baking business is actually the third one that Olivia has started in her 15 years.
Somewhere between The Great Slime Sell-out and the mastery of finicky French patisserie, Olivia started selling headbands and hair bows.
She was around 10 when her mom noticed she was wrapping her American Girl doll in fabric in efforts to make her a dress.
Jen suggested she learn to make an actual dress, so Olivia created one with a rudimentary pattern. After that, she wanted to add a matching hair bow.
From there, she made the leap to sewing and selling hair accessories for real girls.
It's where the "Bowtique" part of her business name came from, although the bows have now been supplanted by the macarons.
"I don't really make or sell the hair stuff as much anymore, because what I have to sell them for to make a profit, people can buy them cheaper," explains Olivia, showing she already knows about bottom lines.
It isn't nearly so hard to sell her macarons, which come in a pastel rainbow of hues and flavors like red velvet, lemon, vanilla, chocolate-mint, salted caramel, cotton candy and birthday cake.
Especially when she's selling the labor-intensive cookies at the low end of the macaron scale: six for $10.
"I should raise my prices a little," she acknowledges, as her mom reminds her of the rising costs of groceries.
In search of the magnificent macaron
Olivia's macaron venture started out as innocently as her previous efforts.
Olivia and a friend wanted to bake something for fun, so decided to find a macaron recipe and try baking them.
The purple sandwich cookies they made were edible, "but they were very lumpy and not the cutest," she says. "Once I made them once, I said, 'I know I can make them better.'"
Olivia still had much to learn about the persnickety patisserie, including the fact they should be made with almond flour vs. wheat flour.
Intrigued by the challenge, she continued practicing with different recipes off the internet. Olivia estimates she made at least 20 batches and threw out a lot of malformed macarons before she really started to get the hang of it.
"I had to do a lot of research because they weren't coming out at first," she says.
When Olivia's mom bought Natalie Wong’s book, “French Macarons for Beginners,” it changed everything. Armed with an excellent basic recipe and some valuable tips, Olivia's macarons improved significantly.
She was able to produce cookies that met all standards for macaron excellence. They were uniform with a shiny, smooth, slightly domed top. The exterior of the cookie was slightly crispy, while the inside had a chewy, angel food-like texture.
Most importantly, her macarons grew "feet." Strange as that sounds, macaron feet are the tell-tale sign of the proper execution of the cookie. They refer to the little ruffles around the edge of the shell — showing the batter was the perfect ratio of wet to dry ingredients, the egg whites weren’t overbeaten and they were baked just right.
Olivia's experience and hard work show when she talks about the intricacies of creating the meringue-based cookies. "They're very particular about everything," she says. "Like the temperature, it took me a while to figure out the perfect temperature for my oven and if I go somewhere else, I have to figure out the temperature for that oven ... Even like the weather, if it's humid, I sometimes won't bake because it affects the macarons. Or if it's really hot. Before they go in the oven I dry them with a fan, so when it's really hot they don't dry right."
Olivia Mae is now so good at macaron-making that she can tell if they're just right by snapping one cookie in half. She doesn't even have to taste them.
In fact, she admits she has taste-tested so many of the cookies that she doesn't like them like she used to. "I still like them, but I like buying other people's and comparing them," says Olivia, forever the market researcher.
One smart cookie
When Olivia decided to turn macaron-making into a business, her parents offered a reality check.
"We warned her there would be times when it was not fun," Jen says. "Or deadlines. Now it's great fun to get all those orders, but now I need to fulfill that."
Indeed, producing consistent cookies under time constraints turned out to be the hardest part of all.
In the beginning, "There was a lot of 'Don't give up,'" Jen says. "And a few tears, especially when there's a deadline and they weren't coming out and she was like, 'What do I do now?'
When Olivia was completely overwhelmed, the family offered to pitch in. But Olivia knew how particular every step of the process was, so it took a trained person to do it.
In the end, Olivia handled it by placing a second post on her Facebook page that said she had received more orders than expected so would need a little extra time to complete them all.
"I learned that sometimes you just need to take a deep breath and do your best," she says. "I went in order of who ordered first and then made my way down the list. It ended up being fine and didn't take me too long."
Olivia also keeps careful track of expenses and profits and pays back her parents for any groceries purchased for macarons.
"A lot of it was, if you're going to do this, the reality is that mom and dad aren't going to bankroll it," Jen says. “A lot of times the parents will pay for everything, and that's not a good sense of what business is all about,” Jen says.
She also knows what she can and can't do within the parameters of her cottage food license, which includes specifying her goods weren't made in a commercial kitchen and featuring ingredient lists.
And she has learned that selling via Facebook is a lot easier than vendor shows. The up side to craft fairs is that people can sample them if they're unfamiliar with macarons. And in most cases, once they taste them, they buy them.
On the other hand, it's hard to estimate how many cookies to bake beforehand for a craft sale.
By baking to order, she's found there's less waste.
While she still has time before she locks in on a career, Olivia Mae thinks it might be a good fit to run a coffee shop/bakery someday. But first, she’d like to get a degree — either in business and marketing or possibly in the culinary arts.
"It's what I'm kind of leaning toward, but you never know," she says.
Whatever it is, one suspects Olivia will be taking care of business.
"I still like it. I haven't gotten sick of it so far."