If you’re after a case study of how to start up a successful cake business from nothing, then look no further than Truro-based Tilly Mint Bakery. Maxine Nelson started the business in 2009 with just £126 in her pocket and, within one year, the bakery was turning over £147,000, with no grants, loans or family help.

It has been a rapid ascent for Nelson, the artistic director behind the bakery’s whimsical cupcakes and fantastical confectionery. Having left her life behind in France 18 months ago, boarding a flight back to Stansted airport with just her hand luggage and no idea of what she would do, Nelson had to think fast about her future.

Up until 2003, she had been running a number of businesses in the UK, including a café and chocolate shop in Brighton, beauty salons, sunbed shops, as well as working as a consultant to the cosmetic ingredients industry. A family decision saw her up sticks and move to France for a slower-paced rural life. But in 2004 she was diagnosed with cancer and underwent major surgery, developing brittle bones as a side-effect of her treatment. However, she refused to let things stop her and, once on the mend, she began to run a small café.

After going through such a tumultuous time, Nelson began to take stock and started to re-evaluate what she wanted out of life. In 2007, she sold the café and the house was put on the market. Four days before completion the buyers pulled out.

She said: "This sent me into a downward spiral. Even though I had kept on doing consultancy work for cosmetic ingredients, having no business and no house sale made me pretty depressed. On the spur of the moment in 2009, I booked a flight back to the UK.

"It really was a single-minded decision, but I knew my husband and I wanted different things and my teenage daughter was happy to follow me at a later date, so I just needed to start doing something for myself."

Belgian inspiration

After making her mind up in Stansted Airport to "give Cornwall a go", she moved there with the intention of baking cupcakes. "I had started my career as a nurse, but soon moved over to the cosmetic ingredients industry, which involved lots of travel, including many trips to Belgium, where I fell in love with the patisserie and chocolate designs I saw, and where I took chocolate and patisserie courses," she explained. "I was fascinated by the intricate and innovative creations I had seen. Sitting in that airport lounge with no plan really made me home in on what I could do and where I could go, and quickly."

By staying with a friend, Nelson managed to save up enough money to make cupcakes for Falmouth Week in 2009, and the Cornwall Pride event in Truro, where 500 quirky cupcakes were snapped up.

This success enabled her to open a stall in Pannier Market in the city. "We used wallpaper tables covered in pretty paper as our display stands at first, but things happened very quickly and we moved into our current café space next to the bus station in March 2010," she said.

Nelson now has a separate bakery where she conjures up her cupcake creations, with the assistance of Mike Williams, 26, who literally got on his bike and cycled from the Midlands to work with her.

She runs the café with the help of Clare Pope, 22, from Truro, and a small team of helpers. She said: "Clare has been a huge support, in the beginning only taking wages as and when I could pay her, and I could not imagine running the business without her."

The café, along with being a showcase for the cupcakes, also sells soups, sandwiches and crêpes, but Nelson, not being one to sit still, is now looking to wholesale for the bakery trade too, while taking the cupcakes to a new level.

She has since worked with a number of business support organisations in the county, such as Partner to Succeed and Cornwall Enterprising Women (CEW), taking part in CEW’s Growth Programme, delivered in partnership with Truro and Penwith College, which aims to develop ambitious female entrepreneurs’ companies.

She said: "Life is sweet and I intend for it to get sweeter still."

l Visit www.tillymintbakery.com