Six years ago, Erin Patinkin and Agatha Kulaga were your average working stiffs who happened to have a passion for baking. Today they just wrapped a book tour for their collection of recipes, "Ovenly," named after their popular Brooklyn-based bakery and wholesale business. Not bad for a couple of self-taught bakers tinkering in their home kitchens. Read on for their startup story (and check out more stories in our Built From Passion series.)

Where the Idea Came From

In 2009, Agatha Kulaga was a research director toying with the idea of going back to school for a Ph. D, and Erin Patinkin worked a stable job with generous benefits at a national nonprofit. Both were on the verge of burning out.  

What they also had in common, the two found out after meeting at a book club, was an affinity for food and experimentation.

After years of skirting around the culinary world separately, working in various restaurants and writing food-focused blog posts, they decided to dive in. They spent hours in each other's kitchens trying out ideas for baked goods and desserts. 

They wanted to get something--any one of their unconventionally flavored creations--on shelves somewhere, but they were admittedly unfocused. Finally, just when they had honed in on gourmet bar snacks, a bigger opportunity came their way. A friend was opening a bar and offered to sell their snacks. The only catch was that they'd also have to develop a line of pastries for the bar to sell when it turned into a coffee shop in the morning.

Patinkin and Kulaga agreed, and that's how in 2010, Ovenly, now a bakery store and wholesaler with 100 clients, was born. Today the Brooklyn-based company, which now has 46 employees, still sells its snacks--like maple thyme pecans with cayenne pepper--but its main business is sweets.

"We are both self-taught bakers. Going through the process of really teaching ourselves how to bake, we didn't take ourselves too seriously," Kulaga says. And it shows in some of the company's whimsical combinations, such as the Brooklyn Blackout cupcake made with Brooklyn Brewery's Black Chocolate Stout.

How the Business Took Off

Having never run a company before, Patinkin and Kulaga struggled with the adjustment of going from having zero opportunities to too many. 

"One of the first people we ever talked to about business was this caterer that we knew, and she was like: just say 'yes' to everything," Patinkin says. So they took her advice to heart and even started catering parties themselves.  

"Six or seven months in, we wondered, why are we doing this?" Patinkin recalls. 

While they were too open minded about some aspects of the business, they were obstinate about others. Specifically, they had become emotionally attached to their recipes.

"Ag and I made this this lemon olive oil shortbread for forever. It's still to this day one of my favorite cookies," Patinkin says. "But it didn't sell. And we just did not want to get rid of it from the menu."

Despite the initial startup hiccups, they were doing something right. About a month after Ovenly started working with its first customer, not one but two of their friends wanted to invest in the company. 

Patinkin and Kulaga ended up taking startup capital from Patinkin's roommate, Vanessa Selbst, who--fun fact--had made her fortune playing cards, and at one point was the number one ranked poker player in the world.

"That's the only reason we have a business,"  Patinkin says. "Ag and I come from no means. We cashed out our savings to start, and that's all we had. So we totally needed that money to start, and she generously funded us."

Three professional investors eventually bought Selbst out of 80 percent of her initial position and became instrumental in pushing them to run the business more effectively. Their investors were the first to point out that the two couldn't continue to do everything themselves. Like many founders, Patinkin and Kulaga were reluctant to hire and then delegate management tasks. 

"Letting go is coming to terms with our own strengths and weaknesses as business owners and realizing that we're not good at everything and being able to identify the people that are," Kulaga said. 

Patinkin added that once they finally created and filled high-level roles such as a public relations and marketing manager, a director of finance, and a general manager, they couldn't believe they hadn't done it sooner.

Ovenly's staff has grown 43 percent since September 2014. The founders declined to disclose revenue but say the number has doubled each year since the company started.

What's Next 

Kulaga says the company's current puzzle is figuring out how to nationally scale a company that sells handmade food products. One of their strategies was to raise their profile by putting out a cookbook last year, which they've been promoting across the country. 

Patinkin says that next, they're considering expanding regionally and shipping to different locations from Long Island to Washington, D.C.

Despite the company success so far, the founders are quick to give themselves a reality check every once in a while. "What if the company went under tomorrow?" Patinkin has mused. 

If that happened she says she wouldn't completely consider herself a failure given how far she's come from the "creatively dead" professional she felt like before starting the company. 

"I've learned so much in this short period of time compared to my life," Patinkin said. "I feel like I've never had more of an education." 

Published on: Feb 6, 2015