Michelle Laratta: Founder of Big Ass Piñata
Republished with permission from Make Lemonade an Evio Community Partner
With a business called Big Ass Piñata, it shouldn’t be surprising that Michelle Laratta has a big (ass) personality.
Looking at her journey to becoming the entrepreneur she is today, it certainly has served her well. With an extensive background in managing high profile events, Michelle spent several years successfully bringing politicians and celebrities alike to McGill University, in addition to raising money around the globe.
Now, fast forward to today, she has managed to uncover a unique niche where her personality can truly shine through: creating big ass (in other words, 2-6 foot tall) piñatas.
From unicorns to pigs, the CN Tower and, of course, lemon wedges (come by our space to see it, if you haven’t already!), there seems to be nothing that Michelle can’t create. Although her story also includes a failed marriage and raising a little one as a single mom, she has maintained her zest for life and now lives by the incredible motto: It’s not a party until you break something!
Keep reading for a hilarious and refreshing take on everything from being your own boss to the REAL life lesson in Lord of the Flies. In a way that only Michelle can, she will have you nodding your head in agreement as she reflects on the harsh reality of entrepreneurship and making your own luck - and laughing uncontrollably at the exact same time. If you’re sipping on a drink while reading this, you may just want to put it down first! Here’s Michelle:
Tell us about a time that life handed you lemons. Did you make lemonade?
My entire business is lemonade, girl. I was 7 months pregnant with my son Dante when I moved back to Toronto after an 18 year stint in Montreal. I lived the downtown life after far too much fun at McGill where I got my degrees and moved on to work in Alumni Relations as part of the mix that brought in Bill Clinton, Richard Branson, Tony Blair and, hello, William Shatner, on top of already helping the University manage events and raise money around the globe. But, that sh*t takes time.
After I had my son and my marriage went south, I knew that I'd be on my own in a flash raising a little one alone without dad or 80 hours a week to devote to my career. There was no way I was going to work events in Toronto but I had every connection and a sh*t ton of risk aversion working for me. When my son turned 2, I decided to throw him a construction themed birthday because he liked trucks and I liked construction workers. I wanted a wrecking ball piñata for the kids (to go with all the other crap I thought was cute on Pinterest) and it hit me like a ton of bricks: if I couldn't get what I wanted, no one could.
No-one had a wrecking ball piñata. So I made one.
I was in business the next day.
After that first year, how did you scale your business and continue to grow?
Big Ass Piñata was originally called Alottapiñata after a friend who used to call me Michelle "Alotta" in highschool because I developed early...smdh...But I changed it. I originally thought my base north of Toronto was great positioning for party mamas who are known to do it up out here. (We know Vaughan moms love to throw down!)
But after year one, I decided to go another route and pursue custom and original designs for corporate, weddings and special events. I'm a high profile event manager by trade and an artist at heart with buddies in IP law, holding two trademarks... so making licensed characters was not in the cards for me.
I wanted to bring something different to the game by reimagining piñata wedding cakes and favors, which got me a little shout in Wedding Bells magazine. I fell in love with some of the best planners in the business, and set my sights on larger pieces in the 2 to 6 foot range for special events. Somebody asked me what I did for a living and I said, "I make big ass piñatas". I registered the business a few days later under the new name that would automatically and immediately pull me out of "kids" and into the crazy that you can only imagine comes with a company that starts with "Big" "Ass" and the internet. God bless them internets. I say it all the time: this life ain't for everybody!
“I'VE HIRED ABOUT 12 STUDENTS TO DATE AND THEY ALL WALK AWAY WONDERING HOW THEY'RE GETTING PAID FOR GLUING CARDBOARD, LISTENING TO TRAP MUSIC AND DRIVING AROUND DOWNTOWN WITH ME. ONE OF THEM TOLD HIS MOM I COULD TAKE OVER THE WORLD.”
How much of your success as an entrepreneur has come from taking risks versus playing it safe?
Haha all of it. I risk it all. Why not? I'm the boss here! In life I wear my heart on my sleeve and in business I'm basically the emperor with new clothes walking around with my ass out while everybody watches, but they're watching! And that's all me under there, baby!
How do you measure success in your career?
Most people won't get this but here goes: I tell my son that if mommy doesn't work, we don't eat.
In our house that means, mom is constantly, sporadically, randomly and forever in a state of work: whether it be physically making, selling, buying, drying, or even thinking, there is work to be done and I want my son to understand entrepreneurship so he understands mom.
Nothing is guaranteed. The next cheque isn't coming. You make your luck. The dream doesn’t work unless you do.
Call it whatever you want, but there is something to be said about staring into a black hole knowing you got this. It is daunting and empowering at the same time, and I measure success by the fact that we've never missed a meal.
You're 30 minutes away from walking into an important meeting. What do you do to get yourself in the right headspace?
I teach Zumba for fun. And damn, is it ever fun.
If you've never done Zumba, I can barely recommend it. I say that because you need the right teacher. Everyone is different. Some want easy, some want fitness, some want dance, some just want to hide in the back...
I teach like I'm on a cruise ship and you've signed up, half drunk, to party for 60 minutes. Is that your style? LOL
So if I need to clear my mind, trust in what I know and get the edge off, I am absolutely in the car with salsa music blaring, literally shaking windows, dancing in my head, visibly twitching to the beat, and pretending I'm a total badass.
Do you have a mentor? What role have they played in your success?
I am surrounded by so many strong women, it's absolutely stupid. Now, this isn't by accident. I'm admittedly drawn to brave, wild, kind and selfless perfectionists, but who knew there were this many.
She doesn't know it but I've always looked up to Doris Wai. Doris is the brains and hands behind @loveletteringdoriswai and she is an absolute beast. An elegant, silly, creative beast. She toils away from home surrounded by mirrors and pose cards and walls and antique furniture and marble hexagons and leaves and shoe bottoms and wood slices and hell, you name it, she'll letter on it.
But as awesome and successful and dedicated to her craft as she is, Doris is like the Chinese mother I never had (sorry to my actual Chinese mother who was bound to show up in this piece sooner or later). Doris will straighten my sh*t out right quick with a few sentences about being more serious, focusing more on areas that need focus and basically making better decisions. "Make more money”, she said. "Stop worrying about that", she said. "Oh Michelle, you're crazy", she said. She's always right. Dammit. LOL.
What impact are you making through your work?
Sigh... only time will tell but I want girls out there to know that they don't have to flip burgers, babysit, or fold clothes to learn about responsibility. No disrespect to any of those first-time jobs. We all had them. But I come from an era where working for yourself was something mostly men did, except for Martha Stewart. Young entrepreneurs were young boys who sold snacks on the playground, biked newspapers around and cut lawns from early on. Wtf?
In my experience, girls weren't out in the trenches or on the block in the same way at all.
But they sure as hell are now, in person and online and it's amazing.
I try to reach kids through workshops and talks and just invitations to come make sh*t. I want kids to know they can do whatever they want and make money in this extremely important city, and that there is recipe and design behind even the easiest looking gig. So they come make stuff. They hang out with auntie Michelle and realize she doesn't have a 9 to 5. She wears ripped jeans, she's covered in paint, there's a bathing suit under her clothes and there's a 4 foot unicorn hanging from the ceiling. And somehow she's cool. As for the older ones, I hire them. I've hired about 12 students to date and they all walk away wondering how they're getting paid for gluing cardboard, listening to trap music and driving around downtown with me. One of them told his mom I could take over the world.
But boy, girl, young, old, (yup... I had four seniors working for me last month) I just want people to find the fun in their work, learn in a relaxed and creative environment, and swear comfortably.
What is one book and/or podcast that you believe every woman should read or listen to?
Lord of the Flies. Holy flipping Christmas, do you not even understand the level of f*ckery men reach when left unsupervised???
What is something on your bucket list?
I gotta learn to tango. I just have to.
What's next for you? Can you tell us a little bit about something exciting you're working on?
Oooooooo child! I'm going retail.
Having a space at Toronto Designers Market has been fabulous. For years, I worked with little to no overhead, no forecast and no care. I used a wonderful opportunity to impose rent and responsibility onto myself for 6 months so that I'd have to be accountable to my loving shop owner, my city and my brand by designing, coordinating, planning and making.
Doing our window on Queen West for a month got my creative juices flowing. Making 200 piñatas for a marketing giant downtown got my ass in gear. And picking the brain of one of the quickest and loveliest store owners the Distillery has ever seen has inspired me to do something a little different.
So stay tuned for my last display at TDM (and possibly a party!) and my next move that's gonna fit in your carry on. It's not a party 'til you break something!