Small Business From home to a storefront Raven P.D. Dennis III, New York City
By Amy Wilson

(MONEY Magazine) – Like many entrepreneurs, Raven P.D. Dennis III, 34, started his business at home, making his first sale at age 13 when the school secretary bought two coconut pies for $2.50 each. "I ran a cake business out of my apartment in Harlem for nearly 10 years, baking around the clock using my oven, my neighbor's oven and my aunt's oven two floors up," he says. In 1991, Dennis felt confident enough to look for a retail space. His odyssey from a one-oven apartment to a two-story bakery and cafe in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, though, took another decade.

His first problem was raising money for rent, equipment and renovations. Even though he estimates that he was bringing in around $60,000 a year before taxes and expenses, he had no receipts. So he couldn't establish how profitable the business was and qualify for a bank loan. "When you start a business, you've got to start a paper trail--whether it's a receipt for flour and eggs or cakes sold--and I hadn't done that," he says. Not easily deterred, Dennis turned to friends and family. But a lease fell through on one space, and a construction problem ruled out another.

His break came three years ago, when he found a former deli on sale for $30,000. After buying it (with the help of an inheritance), he turned around and sold the equipment that had been left behind for $15,000. Again, friends and family pitched in. His college fraternity paid for a cash register, and a cousin gave him a computer. He held his start-up costs to $78,000--what a contractor had quoted for renovations alone--by doing nearly all of his own labor, shopping at restaurant auctions and sleeping in the store instead of paying for security. Since Cake Man Raven Confectionery opened, profits have more than doubled. He sells his famous Red Velvet cake for $5 a slice. And the coconut pie that got him started is still on the menu--but now at $2.50 a slice. --AMY WILSON