This Franchisee Takes the (Cup)Cake for Making Customers' Celebrations Sweet Marina Lee traveled the world for Cisco before settling in North Carolina to open her own mini-chain of Gigi's Cupcakes bakeries.

By Entrepreneur Staff

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Franchise Players is Entrepreneur's Q&A interview column that puts the spotlight on franchisees. If you're a franchisee with advice and tips to share, email

Marina Lee had the envy-inducing job of leading teams for Cisco, on international assignments in Asia and Europe. Then she and husband Maury decided to settle down and go into business together. They chose Raleigh, North Carolina, and Gigi's Cupcakes, because, as Marina puts it, "Cupcakes are such a happy product. They elicit a smile every time." She also likes the memories and celebrations her business helps make. As the frosting on that cake, Marina contributes daily leftovers to local first responders and is active in various charities. She's also successful: In just her first year of business, her bakery was the third highest-selling store in the system and, the following year, number one. Today, four years in, Lee has expanded to nearby Durham and (soon to come) Wilmington down on the coast. That's a lot of celebrations -- and a lot of smiles.

Name: Marina Lee

Franchise owned: Gigi's Cupcakes, in Raleigh, Durham and (soon) Wilmington, NC

How long have you owned a franchise? My husband Maury and I opened our first Gigi's location at Brier Creek, near Raleigh, in December of 2011.

Related: Franchise Players: 'Cupcake Wars' Champ Takes on Franchising

Why franchising? Having been in the corporate world for over 20 years, I had no idea of how to open our own shop and all that it entailed. A good franchise will have the structures, vendors/suppliers and support systems in place and have proven success in their methodologies. They will also help your business evolve with the trends. We collaborate with the Gigi's franchise executive and support teams to help tailor our business to our market needs and growth.

What were you doing before you became a franchise owner? I was in operations at Cisco for 19 years, beginning with an entry level position, and worked up to leading rock-star teams globally. The teams were responsible for managing the company's top accounts. One of my career highlights while with Cisco was being an expatriate on international assignments, living in Asia and Europe, and working within those cultures.

Why did you choose this particular franchise? Cupcakes are such a happy product. They elicit a smile every time. We get to help create memories of birthdays, weddings, baby showers and any celebration the customer can think of! This was a great opportunity to have a successful business, but also it allowed us to pursue our passion of giving back to the community in so many ways.

We just held our second annual Gigi's Cupcakes 5k Run/Walk this year, benefiting Make A Wish Eastern North Carolina. The first year, we had 550 participants, and this year we had 1,200. Local vendors helped sponsor the event and every participant received a cupcake at the finish line. It's a great way to share the products, market and promote local businesses and provide a fun morning for all. Through franchising, we are able to utilize the structures of the system to run the business, yet operate our business like a local shop owner in the community.

Where did you get most of your advice/do most of your research? Lots of online and market research about franchising, product trends; and, I will not lie, lots of personal taste testing of cupcakes!

Related: Why the Former President of CiCi's Pizza Became a Bakery Franchisee

What were the most unexpected challenges of opening your franchise? How much time, energy and focus we spend on our business – but in a good way. We see the potential, the unlimited ways to market and grow in our communities and the impacts of hard work – so we go after it!

What advice do you have for individuals who want to own their own franchise? Love what you do. Passion will help propel you forward during the inevitable days that you're inundated and think, "What the heck did I get myself into?" Starting and running your own business may not always be easy, but it is one of the most rewarding and life-changing experiences you will ever have!

What's next for you and your business? We are in the process of opening our Wilmington, NC, store soon and are very excited to be bringing all the deliciously wonderful products that Gigi's offers to that area. We hope to replicate the successes we've had in branding and local community involvement there.

Related: A Franchise That Says It With Flowers, and Fruit and Chocolates

Entrepreneur Staff

Entrepreneur Staff


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