A decade ago, I discovered a new passion. By day, I was an ambitious digital producer and by night, I obsessed about food and travel — I read about it and I blogged about it until the early hours of the next morning. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought my little blog would take me on this great journey!
Back in 2006, a time before Facebook and Instagram, all my Instant Messenger chats and emails were about breakfast, lunch and dinner — where I’d eaten, what I’d recommend ordering. I’d just commenced my dream career in online advertising and the excitement of being able to work with brands that I grew up with powered me through a full-time job with concurrent full-time postgraduate studies. (I used to quote “you can sleep when you’re dead“!)
At the same time, my personal blog, Jenius.com.au, a play on my name (it was either Jen-ius or a-Jen-da), was created to document my design work and my culinary adventures. Little did I know that 10 years later, the blog would be my launching pad to the most fulfilling entrepreneurial journey.
Back in 2009 when I resigned from my day job, I wrote this blog post. It’s been almost seven years since then. While I’ve kept you up-to-date with my eating adventures, I know I’ve been pretty quiet on the behind-the-scenes business front so this post is a little different from what I usually write about. On the face of it, my blog-to-business journey has become a sustainable full-time gig consisting of two thriving companies, but the reality is, there’s been a lot of long hours and sleepless nights (as well as some incredible have-to-pinch-myself moments). With the many highs and lows of being in business, this post is all about my learnings and hopefully, maybe, if you’re trying to turn a hobby into a business, it’ll give you a few ideas on how to make it a reality.
Earlier this year, I was invited to speak at Tasting Australia, Words To Go 2016, a conference for bloggers and social media influencers in the culinary and travel field. Plus, more recently, I was honoured to speak alongside Declan Lee (Co-Director at Messina), Jake Smyth (Co-Director at Mary’s), Jack Hanna (Co-Founder of The Grounds), Mina Nada (General Manager at Deliveroo) and Oscar McMahon (Co-Founder of Young Henry’s) at General Assembly’s Made in Sydney event: Food & Liquour Legends. The following is a brief summary from these two talks.
Here are my slides from the Words To Go talk on From hobby to business: how to take your food or travel blog to the next level — I will be referencing the material from this as we go through my tips from the General Assembly event talk.
First and foremost, let’s talk about your purpose — your calling.
Tip #1: Calling
I’m going to quote Oprah Winfrey here because noone says it better. “Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.”
I didn’t really understand what my calling was when I decided to go into business. I just wanted to be my own boss and to do what I want, when I want. While that naivety got me started, it is understanding my calling that has kept me going. Understanding your why can help you to make decisions easier, it can drive you during those late nights in the office, and it is ultimately what provides a sense of contentment. When you’re stuck at crossroads, always look back at why you first started.
How do you find your why? Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What makes you come alive?
- What are your innate strengths?
- Where do you add greatest value?
- How will you measure your life?
When I first started blogging, I felt like an outsider in a mysterious world of culinary arts. All of my disposable income went into food and travel — exploring both fine dining and cheap eats locally and internationally. Reading other blogs and sharing my experiences on my own blog was a way of gaining/sharing access into this mysterious world. I’ve used this as an opportunity to hone my craft in writing, photography and videography in the process.
In late 2013, ‘Jenius.com.au’ eventually merged into I Ate My Way Through, an off-shoot business I’d set up to run food tours in response to the request of friends of friends, and some dear readers. I opened up the blog to contributors that year as well because there was simply too much food for myself to cover alone, and food is better shared. We now have a page called Why We Do What We Do to remind myself and my team of our why. On the page you’ll find quotes from readers and tour attendees validating our purpose, which largely stems from my deep connection with supporting refugees and their businesses (as my parents were both refugees from Vietnam). I believe that through food, we can spark dialogue among all cultures, racial and religious group and foster greater international understanding and cultural tolerance.
As important as it is to understand your why, you must also know your what — your end goal. I’m a firm believer in what gets measured, gets done. One of my greatest learnings in business is to never lose sight of your numbers, cashflow is everything. I landed in a hefty tax debt a few years into business as I took poor accounting advice and I had to work twice as hard to repay ATO whilst still paying the usual overheads, consisting predominantly of staff salaries, office rent and IT. Thankfully I learned that lesson at a young age and nowadays, I am a lot more focused on understanding my numbers and on defining and achieving my goals. If you’re new to goal setting, follow the S.M.A.R.T. approach:
- S – Specific – Clear, concise, tangible. What, who, when, why, where?
- M – Measurable – Time, money, volume. How much and how many? Active vs passive income?
- A – Attainable – Goals should be challenging but not impossible.
- R – Relevent – Goals should be consistent with other long term goals.
- T – Time-Bound – Create a time frame, when to achieve the result?
I’ve learned that success is more about persistence, determination, resilience and hustle than just a great idea. And as Anthony Robbins puts it, “progress equals happiness“.
Tip #2: Curiosity
The real beauty of blogging is that noone can really tell you what to write about or define your image or word count! I love that if there’s a particular topic I’m fascinated about, I’m free to pursue my curiosity however I like, and then via the blog, I’m instantly connected with like-minded people. Take for example, one of our all-time most read blog posts on the best Korean fried chicken in Sydney. Blogging is a great platform to use your curiosity to encourage, engage and empower others.
Back yourself to be confident to pursue your curiosities. Don’t assume that noone will be interested in what you have to say, but with that said, I do use analytics to double check that we are producing interesting content that our audience cares about.
Tip #3: Celebrate
Too often, we get caught up in daily life and forget to celebrate the small wins or things that are readily available in front of us.
For us, it’s all about celebrating Sydney’s rich cultural diversity, which is often taken for granted; only when we return from an overseas trip do we realise how great it is here. As a publisher and food tour guide, it is a privilege to be able to shape and influence the experiences that our readers and tour attendees have. I love that we’re able to share these culinary gems in Sydney’s suburban pockets with people who may otherwise just skim the surface of what the suburb has to offer.
I find that practising gratitude every day helps me to stay focused. I mean — at the end of the day, I’m getting paid to eat and write — my greatest joys!
Tip #4: Collaborate
I always try to create win/win situations in both my personal and professional life. One of our most recent wins was a collaboration with Zomato who helped us to host four parties in four weeks to celebrate our 10th birthday! (Another business motto: If you don’t ask, the answer is no!)
Our first party was held at Paradise Road Diner, an American themed restaurant at North Bondi (296 Campbell Parade, Bondi Beach, Sydney) that I’ve long wanted to visit! Our group of contributors and blog-friends happily devoured shakes perfumed with a naughty shot of whisky, we ordered one of everything on the new Spring menu — Southern fried chicken with Caesar salad, Spring Nicoise with house cured fish, grilled haloumi with rainbow leaves, slow braised pulled beef brisket and tortillas with house-made chipotle and more — plus burgers, oh, the burgers.
Through my other business, I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with many other bloggers/influencers and their businesses; I’ve sent around many business leads and opportunities and in return, a large portion of my business comes from word-of-mouth referrals.
Someone that I’m particularly fond of is Sunny Bakehouse who kindly created for us this magnificent lychee birthday cake! She then referred me to Little Confetti Love who produced the exquisite handmade cake topper. I can’t believe there are now businesses specialising in cake toppers but there you go — the power of Instagram and Etsy! Because there’s no such thing as too much cake, the fab team at Black Velvet also supplied these custom-printed lemon vodka, passionfruit and Gaytime flavoured cupcakes.
Back onto the topic of business, one of the most frequently asked questions is “How do bloggers make money?“. Well, the business of blogging can be categorised into three groups: Advertising, Services and Products. Deciding on which is best for you comes down to your goals (as I’d mentioned in Tip #1) and your value proposition. Find the overlap between your passion/love, the opportunity/market need and your skills/talent and you’ll seamlessly discover that there are many ways to monetise your blog. These tactics may include:
- Ad networks / talent agencies
- Affiliate programs
- Pay per post
- Text links
- Premium content (pay to view)
- Books / eBooks
- Plugins/Apps development
I dabble in almost all of the above except for offering premium pay-to-view content or producing our own app. I think it’s important to diversify your revenue streams to minimise risks. All of my consulting, ghost-writing and photography services are offered via a separate company I’ve set up, The Bamboo Garden; I recognised the potential to scale this up from working as a freelancer to running a living and breathing enterprise that could create more dream jobs and empower more businesses. Having it as a separate entity also means I could potentially sell it one day if I wanted to, without it impacting on what I do at I Ate My Way Through.
The entrepreneur inside me has always loved creating something from nothing and I love being able to do that in the vehicle of a business.
Tip #5: Community
We wouldn’t be here today without our community so thank you for your support and encouragement. I know some of you have been following the blog since my ‘Jenius.com.au’ days — thank you for sticking by me all these years! I love how food can bring people from all walks of life together so if you haven’t had a chance to meet the team and I in-person yet, do come along to one of our meet-ups! 😘 😘 😘
To our team of contributors and tour guides who so passionately carry I Ate My Way Through’s appetite and curiosity to restaurants and destinations beyond what I could reach alone — thank you for making it so fun, I’m so proud of the work we do together! 👏 👏 👏
It is an absolute privilege that our readers trust our instincts and tastes in curating stories, food tours and events, and on the flip-side, that restaurants and tourism boards trust us to tell their story.
We get pretty overwhelmed with emails and social media comments, and while we don’t respond to all of them, keep them coming because I do personally read each and every email/comment and they really make my day!
So where to from here?
At I Ate My Way Through, we’re currently looking into expanding to a national scale and then the world is our oyster. You may have noticed a lot more international travel on the blog as the team and I have been busy eating our way through the world, one bite at a time! We’re also reviewing our food tour offerings to make them more tourist-friendly as 99% of our customers are still Sydney locals (which we love!). I am looking to collaborate with refugee support organisations to launch new food tours and events and on our website, expect a higher frequency of new stories every day. We are currently expanding our network of contributors so send me your photography and writing samples if you’re interested!
With my other business, I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching with The Bamboo Garden team and in the past few months, we’ve redefined our positioning, our services and we’ve restructured the team. It’s pretty exciting times as my husband, Zen, has spent this year working full-time with me on the business and hopefully we get to make this a permanent thing. Husband and wife teams are pretty rare but we’re determined to make it work.
I’ve also started meditating with the Headspace app that I highly recommend; as a result, it’s provided me with greater clarity and mindfulness to juggle running two businesses.
So here’s to ten years of blogging, and another ten more! Thanks for being part of the ride!