A Potential Craigslist Creep Ended Up Being My Bakery’s Angel Investor

Before I founded Ovenly, I was broke in New York and desperate for a place to live. I scoured Craigslist and found an unusual opportunity from a stranger—and it ended up changing everything.

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Jan 15 2015, 9:04pm

Photo by Mark Weinberg courtesy of Ovenly

I jumped around different jobs before founding our bakery, Ovenly, but I generally worked in nonprofit management and social justice programs that were based in the arts. I worked for a theater company in Chicago that did a bunch of community programs with low-income communities, and I have a Master's degree in Arts Management with a focus in arts in youth and community development.

When I moved to New York, I worked for a large national women's organization focusing on issues related to ending domestic violence and violence against women. I did a lot of event planning and speech-writing, but I was always baking and dreaming of doing something that was my own. I had 800 different business ideas starting with opening a co-op in chicago, having a jewelry design business; I don't even know. I think that other people in my position at the places I worked before, like at the women's organization, would think, this has great benefits, 35 hours a week, a great team, but I felt like the juice was being sucked out of me.

I now pin the success of Ovenly to so many random moments. You can't predict life, and this all could have easily failed, but the defining thing with the people I've met in New York is the general acceptance of chaos. I'll meet a person and they'll tell me to do something totally crazy, and I'll just agree to do it. Sure, I'm going to take this chance and go to a crazy concert in a warehouse in Bensonhurst, or take this chance on starting a business with a person I basically don't know (which was Agatha).

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Erin (left) and Agatha at their bakery, Ovenly. Photo by Winona Barton-Ballentine for the Ovenly Cookbook courtesy of Ovenly

In Chicago, I would cook and bake every single day—I was cooking out of cookbooks, reading magazines and blogs. It wasn't as much baking. Baking was always Agatha's straight-up passion. But I was working like, 12 jobs to support my one full-time arts job, and that was really burning me out too, so I knew that when I came to New York I wanted to do something different. When I moved, I ended up becoming a personal chef for a family, but only for a short while. Then, I started writing a blog and contributing to a West Village newspaper, and I was just trying to network with people.

MAKE: Ovenly's Peanut Butter Cookies

At the time, I was also paying half rent on an apartment in Chicago because I had just broken up with a boyfriend, so I had to pay rent there and find an apartment here. I was making, you know, five dollars a year as an artist. I had no savings, nothing, but I had very generous friends. I stayed in my friend Sarah's apartment for a month and then lived on my friend Allie's couch for a while. I was just hopping around. I tried subletting a room from my friend Sue, but then had to start looking for my own apartment, because the place I was subletting became infested with rats, and then mice, and then cockroaches, and then the ceiling fell in.

You can't predict life, and this all could have easily failed, but the defining thing with the people I've met in New York is the general acceptance of chaos.

So I was looking for apartments after that craziness happened, and I just couldn't afford anything. This was in 2007 and I was looking at Craigslist. I came across an ad that said "Free rent. No joke."

Usually those ads then say something like, "All you have to do is walk around in lingerie. I won't touch you unless you want me to and you can live here for free." But to show you how truly desperate I was, I clicked on the link. I still have a copy of it to this day. It was a hilarious ad that this young woman had made that said, "I'm a professional poker player, and I've bought this condo in Park Slope. I have an extra room. I'm only home a week or two per month, and I don't want to do any of the house chores, take care of bills—I don't want to do any of that. So if someone can do that for me, they can live here for free. The caveat is that if I get audited, you're out."

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Photo by Mark Weinberg courtesy of Ovenly

So I thought, well, why not? I responded to the ad and we decided to meet at a coffee shop in Park Slope. I brought a friend because I thought, This is going to be an axe murderer, or it's going to be an 80-year-old man." But it turned out to be this woman Vanessa Selbst—I ended up living with her for a year, and then she went to law school at Yale.

She is the number-one female poker player in the world now. The winningest female poker player in history, and and I think she's ranked number two overall worldwide—and she was our first investor in Ovenly. But at the time, she was just playing online, and she became one of my best, most supportive friends in the world. My random Craigslist roommate, five years later, became our first true angel investor.

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Photo by Mark Weinberg courtesy of Ovenly

She really understood the risk-taking part. Agatha had a friend who wanted to invest in us for way less money, and we thought, this is amazing! But we told Vanessa, and she said, I'll quadruple that. Who knew that this person whose ad I answered on Craigslist, who I was really afraid to meet, would end up being the person who really helped our company happen?

It all plays out as serendipity. We've seen some of the worst of the worst, and also some of the most generous behavior. All the connections we've made now—it's something I've never experienced before, and beyond the business side, it really just makes me feel like there's goodness in the world. But the story of Ovenly isn't just the story of entrepreneurship; it's the story of entrepreneurship in New York. If you read any business book, there's always crazy shit—someone cheated you, someone screwed you out of money, someone gave you a fraudulent contract. But then someone comes along, an angelic guy with a crazy accent from Staten Island who will help you rid your warehouse of maggot-infested meat. It's why shows like Broad City are so fun. All of the characters in New York have played a role in our lives here.

That's why simultaneously, I love it, and sometimes I want to move to the country and raise cattle or something. Everyone wants to know your story.