Tips from Bjork and Lindsay
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Welcome to episode 93 of the Food Blogger Pro podcast! In this episode, Bjork chats with Meggan Hill from Culinary Hill about how finding a niche transformed her business.
Last week, Bjork interviewed Chelsea Lords from Chelsea’s Messy Apron about how she managed to earn $40,000 in just her first year of blogging. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.
As an internet entrepreneur, it can be tempting to try to appeal to everyone. You don’t want to send potential traffic away from your website, right?
However, successful bloggers have said time and again that a big contributor to success is finding a specific audience and sharing only content that fits that audience perfectly. In other words, finding a niche.
Meggan Hill started her blog, Culinary Hill, with an aim of pleasing everyone. And… it didn’t work out so well. Her blog did okay, but she ended up feeling discouraged and gave it up for a while. A couple years ago, though, she decided it was time to make some changes and make this blogging thing work for her. With the help of a branding agency, she was able to find a niche, free up her creativity by sticking to that niche, and nearly triple her traffic in just one year. Today, she’s here to tell us all about it.
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Bjork Ostrom: In this episode, we talk to Meggan Hill from Culinary Hill about how she gave up trying to find viral posts and she still tripled her traffic, the impact that she found with finding her niche, and launching a blog about angels on GeoCities.com.
Hey everybody, this is Bjork Ostrom, and today we’re talking to Meggan from CulinaryHill.com. Meggan is going to be talking about her story with building her blog over the past years, about how she started, stopped, eventually got back into it, and then within the past year how she really found her niche and the impact that that had on not only her traffic but on her enjoyment of the process of blogging in general and how she kind of gave up trying to find viral content that would be really, really, really popular and focused in on her target audience and her niche and what a big impact that that had not only on her enjoyment of creating content and writing for her blog and developing recipes, but also on the traffic that she got to her blog. It’s a great interview that I’m really excited to share with you, so let’s go ahead and jump in. Meggan, welcome to the podcast.
Meggan Hill: Thank you so much for having me. I’m honored to be here.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it was a fun connection to make because Jadah who has been on the Food Blogger Pro podcast before was previously with Simple Green Smoothies, now is kind of jumping into her own kind of coaching and consulting path, but you’re working with Jadah and she connected us and I said, “I know Meggan!” Then before we got on the podcast you were like, “You don’t really know me”, but I’m familiar with you, so it’s really exciting to be able to talk with you in person.
Meggan Hill: Well and of course, I stalk this podcast so I do feel like I know you, so it’s nice to close the loop.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, for sure. It’s fun because that’s one of the things about a podcast that’s so different than writing a blog post or even like a traditional recipe video or something like that is whenever I meet people that listen to the podcast, it’s like, “Oh, we kind of have a headstart at least one way with the relationship”, so it’s nice when I’m able to meet people or in this case have them on to the podcast to learn a little bit more about them, so thanks for coming on.
Meggan Hill: Of course.
Bjork Ostrom: We’ve traded some emails back and forth talking about some different ideas for things that we can talk about, and there’s a lot of stuff that I think listeners will really get a lot out of, but before we do it, I’m interested to hear a little bit of your we always call it the origin story. I know it goes back to 2011 when you started your blog Culinary Hill, and I’m interested to know what that was like, what the reason for starting it was at that point?
Meggan Hill: Sure, so I had just finished self-publishing one of those little church slash school fundraising cookbooks with all of my favorite recipes for my friends and family, and I ordered 100 copies and I started handing them out and then I realized this is not an efficient way to-
Bjork Ostrom: Distribute content?
Meggan Hill: Spread this information, yes, so my husband said, “Why don’t you start a blog?” Of course I didn’t know what that meant and then there were a lot of Google searches, and I just kind of started it. I was working in finance at the time, but it was for sure my weekend passion project. I was already cooking with all of my free time, and so then I just added the whole taking pictures and writing stories about it.
Bjork Ostrom: At that point, it sounds like and just kind of from doing some research about what you’re currently doing now, it’s obviously the blog, but had you always had an interest in food and recipe development? Obviously you weren’t in the industry, but it sounds like it was maybe something that you were always passionate about or interested in?
Meggan Hill: Right, well I’m for sure a person who loves to eat-
Bjork Ostrom: You and I both.
Meggan Hill: So I realized I should probably love to cook, and as my parents would say, “You better love to do dishes too.” I think in high school was when I started. I made a couple of really bad things and then I kept experimenting through college, and then by the time I was working it was just what I wanted to do with my free time.
Bjork Ostrom: It sounds like also that’s what you’re doing with your free time right now. We’re going to get into that in a little bit, some of the kind of side hustle things that you’re doing, but I’d love to talk a little bit more specifically about your blog. One of the things that was so interesting that you pointed out was you started in 2011, but you said that recently you kind of narrowed it down and picked a niche. You’re from the Midwest from Wisconsin, which is always fun. Whenever somebody’s in that circle, so it’s Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, maybe we’ll put Iowa in there as well, Nebraska can sneak in, I feel like okay, we get each other. Kind of the Midwest cold winters, all of that stuff.
You kind of narrowed down to a specific niche. Can you talk about that process? Was that kind of stumbling into that and realizing, “Oh my gosh, this is what I’d like to do”? Was it more of an intentional decision to say, “I want to do this because I know that I need a niche”? I’m curious to know how that happened?
Meggan Hill: Right, so that happened I guess it was the summer of 2015. Prior to that, I was just blogging whatever I thought might work. I was looking at what other people were doing and I was talking to my mom friends in California and just throwing everything out there. Then I actually hired a branding agency, and they said, “Let’s find your story.” We just started talking about it, and I thought it would be a one day thing, like “Hey, eight hours from now I’m going to know my brand.”
It took a couple of months, but I really realized through that process that Midwestern food was one, what I loved and two, what I knew. I started doing it, and it really resonated with my readers. It was the craziest thing, because when I say it now it sounds so obvious, and yet it took a professional for me. Maybe I was too close to it, but going through that process it felt great, and now everything feels so natural and I don’t feel compelled to do what everyone else is doing. I know what I want to put on my blog and I put it there and it works.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s really an interesting topic, the branding agency specifically. When was it that you first reached out to the branding agency?
Meggan Hill: I heard about them from my friend Cara from Fork and Beans, and we were talking about cookbooks. That was why we met, and she’s in the LA area so we met up one day, and she said, “I’m working with this agency and if you want to take things to the next level you should really reach out to them.” That was kind of how it happened so I had that reference from her, and they were kind enough to take me under their wing.
Bjork Ostrom: I would love to dig in to some of the details of that. You meet up with them, and what does that process look like in general? You said it was a few months?
Meggan Hill: Right, actually and we only had a couple of official quote “Branding days”, but then there’s a lot of back and forth and emailing. They gave me a lot of tasks, like, “Go to Amazon and look for cookbooks that you think identify with you, and look at the reviews, and what’s that language that people are using and what resonates with you?” A lot of research into what I like, what I’m interested in, and what I want to do. Me just talking about my life and then this agent just taking notes and turning it back to me and saying, “This is what I’m hearing from you.” It’s a two way street where I’m just sort of saying all these things and she’s making notes and she’s saying, “This is what I’m hearing. This is what your story is.”
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah interesting, it’s really a reflective process it seems like where you’re having somebody reflect back to you the things that you’re saying, which is hard to do on your own so it makes sense that you would work with somebody to help with that.
Meggan Hill: It was so helpful. Like I said, I thought it would all be done after that first branding day, and they kept saying, “We’re going to pin your brand down into a tiny box that you will know forwards and backwards”, and I was just dubious. I was like, “This is never going to work. I have no idea what you’re saying and I don’t know what my brand is.” By the end, now I feel that way exactly. I’ve pinned it down into a tiny box and I know it backwards and forwards.
Bjork Ostrom: I’m curious to know, and you don’t have to share specific numbers, but I’m sure a lot of people are curious what would that cost potentially? If somebody says, “I’m really struggling to figure out the brand for my site or my business”, do you have any even a range that you would say that would cost?
Meggan Hill: Sure, I’m happy to share whatever. I mean, obviously it depends on who you work with. My specific agency was $2,000.
Bjork Ostrom: Okay, great. What was the name of the agency that you worked with?
Meggan Hill: It’s called Cook It Media.
Bjork Ostrom: Okay, so it’s specific to food and recipe industry.
Meggan Hill: Yes, it is.
Bjork Ostrom: Cool, so that process eventually led you to the point where you said, “Okay, I know that Culinary Hill’s going to be about blogging Midwestern food. It’s a food blog and focusing in on Midwestern food recipes.” When you had that realization, how did that impact then your content creation?
Meggan Hill: Well, that constraint of Midwestern food was so freeing, so now it’s like I can think back to what I grew up with, what everyone’s favorite recipes are back home, what I might make for someone’s birthday, what my grandma used to cook. I can page through old Herberger cookbooks and I can see my brand there. It’s reflected to me. Now, instead of what I’d call anxiety driven content creation where I’m struggling and blindly going through Pinterest and seeing what’s trending or worrying about the latest diet or what’s the popular ingredient, I know it now. It’s around me and it’s what I grew up with.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, and in a lot of ways it makes it easier for you to say, “Okay, who am I making this for?” You’re not making it for this massive pool of people hoping that millions and millions and millions of people come. You’re making it for a smaller pool, but knowing that more people in that pool are going to be interested in the content that you’re creating. What impact did that have in terms of numbers, and you had shared some specific numbers in your email. I think that would be interesting to reflect for people that are listening what that can do, like refining your brand. What impact did that have?
Meggan Hill: Sure, I mean obviously there’s a lot that goes into it. A lot of it I think is SEO and photography comes into it, but over the course of that time from when I hired the agency to now, do you want me to give the exact traffic numbers?
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that would be great if you’re up for it.
Meggan Hill: Yeah, I went from about 400,000 to 1.2 million.
Bjork Ostrom: Which is huge.
Meggan Hill: That was in like a 10 month period.
Bjork Ostrom: Three times. How much of that would you attribute to, obviously you can’t say this is exactly attributed to refining the brand, but would you say 50%, 75% kind of can be traced back to that?
Meggan Hill: Yeah, I would say somewhere between 50–75%, and the reason I would say that is most of my traffic comes from Google and it’s from ranking on these classic Midwestern recipes, so I do think that’s a lot of it.
Bjork Ostrom: Got it. One of the things I’m curious to know about is you go from 400,000 page views to 1.2 million page views, and that’s a really big jump obviously. That’s also getting to the point, and did you say, so that’s 400,000 page views, what was the time frame for that?
Meggan Hill: It was a 10 month period from about February 2016, that’s what I was in December of 2016 was 1.2 million.
Bjork Ostrom: Got it. In December 2016, 1.2 million page views in the month. Is that right?
Meggan Hill: Yes, that’s exactly right.
Bjork Ostrom: Great, so 1.2 million page views, that’s a substantial amount and at the point where you’d be earning enough. Obviously December peak month, there’s a lot that goes into it like you said, but continued growth. That’s enough to be at the point where it’s a substantial income that you’re able to create from a blog that gets 1.2 million page views, and yet one of the things that I learned about you was that you’re involved with lots of other things. One, most importantly, you have a family and so you have kids that you’re raising and spending time with, but also you’re doing a couple of other things. You’re going through culinary school, and you had also mentioned that you’re interning with somebody that does, what was it specifically you said?
Meggan Hill: Private chef.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, so a private chef, so you’re interning with a private chef as well. One of the questions that I wanted to ask you is, knowing that you have traction with your blog, that it’s growing, that you’re lining things up and moving things forward, what is the purpose for doing kind of these side things like culinary school and the internship? Does that all feed back into the blog or is there another purpose or meaning behind that?
Meggan Hill: Well, originally I wanted to start culinary school because I love food, I love cooking, I want to be better at it, and I want to share that with my readers. Originally it started off, and the internship is a requirement for the culinary school so I have to do it eventually.
Bjork Ostrom: So tied in, sure.
Meggan Hill: Yeah, so I didn’t really want to work in a restaurant. I was lucky enough that one of my instructors took me under his wing. He’s very graciously taking me on all his private parties, but this is a huge time commitment. Now, I feel like the learning to cook better is going to extend into other things in the future, and part of it is the uncertainty of blogging. I mean, 10 years from now are we still going to be doing this? Having skills that translate into the real world, not that I would ever want to go work in a restaurant. I don’t, but I’m getting some skills that I could potentially do other things if I had to, and then also just like I said sharing the new skills and the things that I’m learning with my readers. Now I can put some of the classic, like I put hollandaise on my blog.
That’s one thing that I’m doing in addition to Midwestern food is somewhat more complicated recipes that I’m very passionate about. My readers like to cook, so we’re not there for one pot, five minute, two ingredient recipes. It feels like a natural fit.
Bjork Ostrom: That was one of the things that you had said that I thought was so interesting was, and it kind of speaks to what you were saying before a little bit, is that you’re not necessarily trying to hone in on what is the super easy fill in the blank, or five minute XYZ. You’re okay saying, “Hey, I know what my brand is and know what my target market is. It’s people that love to cook that like to maybe spend more time cooking that really get a lot of joy out of it, and so I’m okay doing a recipe that’s a little bit more complicated and therefore also need to know the details about how to create that recipe.” Specific to culinary school, what does that look like in a typical week in terms of how much time commitment there is to it?
Meggan Hill: Well, I’m just going to a local community college, which I really recommend. I don’t think food bloggers should go to the Culinary Institute of America and do a full-time program. That’s super crazy. I mean, if you want to, that’s great. They’re very expensive. I would never get that investment back. I’m lucky that I live in California where education is a priority and it’s very inexpensive, but I’m only going two days a week. I basically take one class at a time and that’s because I have the kids and the blog and all this other stuff.
Bjork Ostrom: Two days a week, so that would be two days like a two hour class?
Meggan Hill: No, it’s about 9:00 in the morning until 3:30 in the afternoon.
Bjork Ostrom: So it’s a full day?
Meggan Hill: It’s a very long, tiring, lots of dishes have been done day.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, for sure. Can you tell me specific with culinary school, so obviously there’s you give the example of maybe coming away with certain recipes that you can do, but what else has it done for you in terms of how it translates to your brand, your blog?
Meggan Hill: Well, I think it’s giving me a lot more confidence responding to reader questions, especially about things like food safety and substitutions. I’m learning a lot about that. I’m just getting outside of my comfort zone and creating new things for my blog that I haven’t thought of or weird things that I know I’ll never put on my blog. I’m still getting that background, and I can also do dishes endlessly now.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah right, you fine tuned your dishes skill, which is so important as so many people that listen to this know.
Meggan Hill: Right, I also think, sorry, the positive time constraint of having the school makes me more productive overall.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s interesting, because I think about that a lot when I think about high school, and they always said people that were involved with a lot of extracurricular activities statistically had higher grades. There’s always the potential of people that are involved with extracurricular activities are generally more involved, but the idea I think, the point was if you have some time constraints then you use your time in a more valuable way. You’re a great example of that where you’re spending time with your family, you’re doing culinary school, which also involves interning with this private chef, and then you have your blog. I’m curious to know, and it’s growing, so it’s not just like you’re doing it and maintaining it but you’re working on your blog and your brand and it’s growing. What does that look like for you from a time perspective knowing that you have two days out of the week that are booked? I’m guessing you don’t have a ton of time on weekends or mornings or weeknights, so how do you fit that in and what does your content calendar look like?
Meggan Hill: Well, I would say there’s a lot of room for improvement in that area, and I fly by the seat of my pants a lot. I’m hoping to get it all under control. I actually just hired someone that’s going to be 25–30 hours a week, but I literally hired her last week and up until then, I’m just juggling it all. I actually do work a lot on the weekends. That’s when my husband’s home, and I lean heavily on him to support me with the kids, so I will take very long blocks of time on the weekends, so I don’t really know.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s an honest answer, and I feel like that is probably the reality for more people than you would imagine. I know it is for us for sure where people would think that maybe it’s a super systematic perfectly aligned system, and in reality there’s a lot of times where we’re continually moving forward, that being the most important thing, but as we’re doing it we’re kind of building. We’ve used this analogy before on the podcast, but building the plane as it starts to take off where we say, “Okay, what do we need? How do we put this together?”
Like you said, obviously you don’t want to be at that point forever and you want to get to a point where maybe you have more content built out or you have a little bit more of a timeline, but I think more often than people realize whether it’s a big corporation or a small solopreneur, that you’re kind of building it and working on it as you go without super strong like, every Monday I do three blog posts and this is how I structure it. It’s like well, when I can fit it in on a Sunday afternoon that’s when I dive in and do as much as I can.
Meggan Hill: One thing I like to say is that I have short bursts of super productive time and then long periods where nothing happens. In January I didn’t have school and I was super productive about building up content, and now it gives me a little bit of breathing room, and leading up to trips and stuff when I go back home to visit my family I always have to just get super focused.
Bjork Ostrom: For sure. One of the things I wanted to ask you about that I’ve noticed a few times, there’s just a few things that you’ve said with your story, is your philosophy with investing back into your business. You talk about the branding agency, reaching out to them and partnering with them to help you refine your brand and understand that better. You’re working with Jadah to do some coaching and consulting and to help you reflect on your business, but also you personally. Then you also talked about, well culinary school is another example where you’re investing back in that way, so can you talk a little bit about what your thinking is behind that and how you’re intentional about not just doing the work but also bringing people in that can kind of advise you? The other example would be hiring somebody right, so that’s investing back into your business. I’m curious to know what your thinking is with that and how that all plays out.
Meggan Hill: Well, I found that whenever I make a big investment, there’s growth that follows that. After I hired the branding agency, obviously I saw a huge shift in how everything worked, and I’ve only been working with Jadah for a couple of months but I can already feel and see the results of where that’s going. I just find that I’m not an expert in everything, and bringing in experts is … I love to throw money at my problems. There’s so many people that you’ve had on the podcast that I’ve hired, even Delores Custer. I literally went to Portland and did her week long food styling workshop after you featured her.
Bjork Ostrom: Awesome.
Meggan Hill: I just find that this is a really good way to grow my business is just by investing in myself, and I’m also very fortunate where I don’t pay the mortgage with my blog money.
Bjork Ostrom: Sure, so there’s the reality that you can take some of that and reinvest it back into the business.
Meggan Hill: Right, I’m very lucky that my husband supports me.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, and also just to point something out because you’re being humble about it, a lot of people would say, “I’m just going to keep this as income and not put it back in”, right? There’s always that option as well where you have this income where your husband’s working, he’s able to pay the mortgage, but you could have that as icing on the cake above and beyond and spend it on frivolous things but instead are intentional to put it back into the business. That’s one of the things that I’ve felt to be really true, and it’s similar to what you’re saying is a lot of times people will ask or say, “You guys have been able to build something that’s so cool”, or “Do you have any advice” or whatever it be, and for me the biggest piece is always I feel like any time I’ve done something that’s gone really well, it’s usually because of the people I’ve worked with that have helped me get to that point.
The hard thing about it is that it requires you to be proactive in reaching out to those people, so it’s not like you didn’t have anything to do with it, but you took the initiative to connect with those people and say, “I want you to either coach or consult me” or “I want you to be part of my team”, whether it’s in a full-time capacity or as a consultant or an advisor. That just has such a big impact. You’ve talked about it and it’s true for us as well. One of the questions I would be curious to hear you answer is for those that haven’t yet taken that step into having somebody coach or consult them, what would your advice be knowing that you’ve had some experience with this? What would be a good first step into that for people?
Meggan Hill: What I did before I hired Jadah is I thought about it for a year, which sounds crazy but it’s a lot of money, and so I would say start exploring your options. Get on these people’s email lists and just see if what they say resonates with you, because when I look at Jadah’s page about the mentorship lab, which is the name of her signature program, that’s exactly what I was looking for. I think you should start researching the options and look for the one that fits. That’s how it worked for me.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, for sure. The other thing that’s interesting with what you had said is that you took some time to think about it. So often those can be emotional decisions where it comes as a result of maybe feeling the need to have a problem fixed or something, but I think it makes a lot of sense to take that information in, to think about it a little bit, to say, “Is this a good fit”, to wait it out, and to not necessarily feel pressured into purchasing some expensive program or something if you know that it’s not going to necessarily be 100% in alignment or 100% fit. Go ahead.
Meggan Hill: Sorry. I would just say that I got to the point where I was like, “Yes please, just take my money”, so if that’s how you feel about the person then you know it’s a fit, where you’re like, “Just take it. This is exactly what I want to do.”
Bjork Ostrom: For sure. The other thing that I was interested to hear you talk about a little bit was the hiring. Can you talk about the person that you’re bringing on? You said 25–30 hours a week, which is a pretty substantial amount. How did you find that person, and what will they be doing?
Meggan Hill: Actually, I had a VA that was helping me with a few side projects. I had him for about a little over a year, but he was pretty minimal just helping mostly with social media, so this person it’s actually one of my friends from culinary school, and she came over one weekend to help me cook. That was really fun because she’s not afraid of knives and we’d know all the same stuff so it’s really good, and then she just mentioned that her roommate was moving out, she needed some more money, she was going to pick up extra hours at her job.
Well, a couple of weeks prior Jadah had said, “I know that you need someone to help you more, because you’re completely overworked. Why don’t you write out a job description?” I was prepared at that moment, I had this two page job description of things that I needed help with, and I said, “Why don’t you just let me send this to you? Take a look. If you like it, you can come on board”, and so she emailed me back and she said, “This looks great.” It is a friend and it’s a real live person, which I’m really grateful for because I’ve missed that collaboration, and then as far as what she’s doing it’ll be some of the things that you might expect, social media and stuff like that.
Also, what I call framing out posts, because when you go into WordPress with the blank screen and you’re doing a food blog you have so many different things. You have to check the categories box and you have to make your long pins and put that into your program, and you have the SEO description that goes in a million places, and so there’s just all these little things that might take a while. Obviously I’ve always done all of that, and I would love to just be able to come in and write my posts and put the pictures in and be done, so I would like to focus more on the content creation. Also, I have this massive spreadsheet with all the posts and all these different elements that need to be completed for everything, so she’s really Type A personality like that and she’ll enjoy checking off all of those boxes. I switch over recipe plug-ins or when I added Nutrifox, it’s like every post needs to go back and have that added.
Bjork Ostrom: Absolutely, and I was looking at that and I was so happy to see that you’re using Nutrifox, so thank you for that as a side note.
Meggan Hill: Of course.
Bjork Ostrom: One of the things with that that I thought is important to point out and that I’ve been thinking about for Pinch of Yum and Food Blogger Pro and the different brands we have is for any brand that is personality driven, which Culinary Hill would be an example of that, Pinch of Yum would be an example of that, one of the easiest ways to bring somebody on to begin with is to figure out what are the elements that are very personal and require you to be a part of it, and what are the ones that aren’t and what are the ones that are most easy to hand off to somebody.
A lot of those things that you said are great examples of things that the origin of what you’re creating is personal, like the content that you’re writing, but the actual process of putting that into place isn’t. So much of the time for a post for example that goes into creating it is connecting those dots, right? So it’s bringing in images or structuring that within WordPress or checking off the different boxes that go into for the SEO stuff, so I think that’s really smart to bring somebody in to help you focus on the things that you’re great at and that do require your personality. The recipe, the development process for that, and then the actual writing and the content, a lot of times the photography as well, so it makes a lot of sense and I think that’s a smart move, so kudos to you for doing that.
Meggan Hill: Well, thank you. I’m really grateful that I found a good person to help me with that.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, and the other thing that I think is interesting about that is that you start out with somebody that you knew that wasn’t necessarily a super close friend but was somebody that you were connected with, and I think I’ve heard a lot from people that have a similar story where they say, “Hey, friend of a friend or a distant friend that you’re familiar with is a great place to start.” A lot of times it could be somebody from your community if your site is big enough at the point where you’re able to put a job description or job listing out there and there’d be people that would respond to that, or they’re familiar with who you are, they get it, it’s not a complete stranger and yet it’s somebody that will know what to do and will do a good job with it, so it makes sense that you would reach out to somebody that you kind of know, not necessarily a best friend but somebody that you’re familiar with.
Meggan Hill: Right, and I know that I love her work. She’s sharp as a tack and quick as a whip. She’s going to be great.
Bjork Ostrom: Nice, cool. One of things, this is a shift in focus, but it’s a really interesting topic for me and Lindsay I think would agree with this. It’s something that she’s really interested in, and it’s something that you had mentioned when we were trading emails back and forth. This idea of wanting to go beyond just building a food blog, so on this podcast a lot of times we talk about traffic, we talk about how do you generate income, we talk about the business side of it because I think a lot of people are really interested in that.
They’re interested in becoming their own boss, working for themselves, building a brand, but there’s also this reality as you get into it where it’s not enough just to build a business. You can get to the point where you have something where maybe it’s really substantial in the traffic you have or the income you have, but the heart piece isn’t there sometimes for people. They get it to a point and it’s really successful in the eyes of the world, but if it’s not something that you feel like is bringing meaning into the world then it’s still not fully successful.
From the few things that you said when we were trading some emails back and forth, I kind of got the sense that you’re processing through some of those things. I’m interested to hear you talk a little bit about that.
Meggan Hill: Sure, and that actually comes back to why I hire Jadah is I am looking for that deeper purpose, and having a food blog isn’t enough. Again, in the future whether blogs are still the way they are now or not, I don’t think that just putting recipes on a website is going to fulfill me for the rest of my life. I mean, I love it. I love making recipes and taking photos, but long term I am seeking something more. Now that I’m in culinary school, I’m realizing that maybe that will play a role in it. I will say that the bigger your dreams are the safer the container needs to be to hold them.
Bjork Ostrom: What do you mean by that?
Meggan Hill: I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving you my three year vision on a podcast, just for fear of judgment and people will think I’m crazy, so I have big plans and I don’t necessarily want to divulge all the details, but if I can find a way to serve in the world I think there will be an in real life component, maybe teaching people how to cook, underserved populations and things like that. I have plans for more than just a food blog, and I think that will fulfill the hard piece, as you say. It’s great to have the money to fund things like that, and now that’s kind of how I feel. I’m building this business so that it can one, have a platform to launch something bigger but also fund that.
Bjork Ostrom: As Lindsay and I have processed through that same question, that’s one of the things that we continually come back to is it doesn’t necessarily have to be a complete pivot away. I don’t want to speak too much for Lindsay, but an example would be she talks about she loves the community and the people and the brand and the business of Pinch of Yum and what she’s build with that, and also feels like there’s this piece of her that comes from being a fourth grade teacher at Edgerton Elementary School in Roseville, Minnesota, and goes back to this hard piece of really feeling like there’s a lot of emotional income that came from that and still having that desire to make that impact. Sometimes what can happen is you can get to a point where it seems like, and I’ll just speak for us for this, you grow to a point and you say, “I want to get some of that back, that emotional income. What does it look like to shift and pivot and to look in a different direction?”
But a lot of times what you can do is you can actually use what you’ve built to then launch something else like you said, because what a valuable thing it is to have an audience or to have people that you can speak to in order to create that other thing that then fulfills that deeper desire. That’s what I hear you saying a little bit as well is Culinary Hill isn’t in and of itself the thing that you want to, in terms of the blog or the recipes, but it allows you then to have a platform for one year, two years, three years, whatever it would be down the line to then create a branch or something on top of it that then fulfills that fulfillment piece or whatever it be. Does that somewhat align?
Meggan Hill: Yeah, that’s exactly right.
Bjork Ostrom: And if this whole blog thing does crumble, I wanted to bring this up, you have your ReoCities page that you can go back to. I should have brought this up at the beginning, but I didn’t want to get too far into the podcast before we’d forget about it. ReoCities.com/SouthBeach/9327. This is a complete rabbit trail, but can you talk a little bit about what that site is and how that came about? 1998.
Meggan Hill: Right, so that was, I’ll be aging myself here. Sophomore, junior year of high school we had the internet, and I created my first website which was called Meggan’s Angels Page.
Bjork Ostrom: This is so awesome. We’ll link to this in the show notes.
Meggan Hill: Please do. I want it to be the ultimate resource on all things angels.
Bjork Ostrom: It looks like you are. You have a list here, table of contents. There’s 13 things. Ranks of angels, earth angels, angels of time and astrology, and then the last thing here, this is my favorite. Number 13, how did I gather so much information about angels? This is so great, and it reminds me of a time of the Internet where it was just so awesome. There’s so many nostalgic pieces like your AOL email at the bottom, the guestbook, the bird flying with the piece of mail that it’s holding to. If Culinary Hill ever doesn’t work out and these grand plans don’t work out, you can always go back to the ReoCities pages, which you told me is like a rebranding of GeoCities, apparently?
Meggan Hill: Yes, it’s been archived. I want to just put my same remorse that I emailed to you. If only I had kept up on this page all this time, I would be a millionaire for sure.
Bjork Ostrom: Right, 1998. You think of all the time and energy that would go into that, it would be one of the most popular sites, undoubtedly. That’s funny.
Meggan Hill: Yes, I would be on top of the world.
Bjork Ostrom: Okay, rabbit trail. Coming back though, the other topic area that, this is the worst transition ever on the podcast but I saw that in my notes and I was like, “Oh Bjork, you cannot let that slide”, so I had to jump into it.
Back to the blog piece, so we talk about kind of this deeper meaning piece, and a lot of that comes from the ability that you get when you grow it into a business to have finances then to fund these other things or to direct time or energy into creating these deeper meaning pieces, but there’s a balance with that, so I’m curious to know what that looks like for you in terms of how much do you focus on the business side of it versus also now that you’re into this place of kind of thinking about deeper meaning, and we can talk in abstracts knowing that you had talked about this idea of not wanting to fully reveal what it is you’re thinking about, but we’ll just call it deeper meaning. Knowing that you’re getting to this place where you’re kind of contemplating that, how do you balance those things together saying, “I know I have limited time. I want to continue to build this, but I also want to think about the impact piece”?
Meggan Hill: Right, I mean I’m still pretty early in that whole journey of deeper meaning. I would say there’s just a couple of things that I’m doing now that I didn’t used to do. I’m sure you’re familiar with the five minute journal, so just trying to take a few minutes every day, the whole miracle morning situation, and trying to take time to think, which is really challenging for me. Having just a little bit of space to think about what is going on my head.
Bjork Ostrom: For those that aren’t familiar, can you talk about what the five minute journal is?
Meggan Hill: Sure, it’s called the five minute journal. It’s a little book that has a few questions, and it takes five minutes or less to answer each day. It focuses on gratitude, daily affirmations, and just kind of getting your mind set for the day. Then at the end of the day, you put in a couple of things, what went well and what could have gone better, just to sort of clear your head and take stock of the day.
Bjork Ostrom: What has done for you, the five minute journal?
Meggan Hill: I think it just, it gives me a little bit of focus each morning. Generally I wake up and it’s just chaos starts. I jump on my email or my phone or get the kids ready for the day, and so it’s just a little time to myself to try to center and just think about things, and also that gratitude piece is so important. I think I get caught up in my schedule sometimes and all the activity, and it’s really nice to just be reminded that I’m so blessed and I have so many great things going on that even if it seems like I’m having a bad day I’m probably not really having a bad day.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, so I do the five minute journal as well. One of the things I’ve noticed in terms of my heart and soul, one of the best ways to feel better in general is to focus on those gratitudes, and so often those gratitudes are the smallest of things. It could be a hot cup of coffee next to my side on the table, or one of the recurring ones is the simplicities of my relationship with Lindsay or even Sage, our dog Sage. It’s like I just love Sage so much. Obviously I love Lindsay so much, and it’s the small things within those relationships like seeing Lindsay and smiling at each other and that’s something that I never would notice if I didn’t intentionally take time to reflect on that, whether through bullet journaling or five minute journal. It’s interesting to hear you talk about that. You were talking about some of the other things, so taking time to intentionally kind of process through that in the morning has been a good thing?
Meggan Hill: Right, and that’s part of the miracle morning, you know how Elrod’s book. Just having a set schedule, and I have a long version and a short version because I don’t always have the time to do the full, but I’m trying to get into meditation and then just a little bit of activity, just trying to have that morning routine set.
Bjork Ostrom: What would the miracle morning be? What would the outline of it be if you were to follow that? It’s a book by Hal Elrod for those that aren’t familiar. What would the structure for that be?
Meggan Hill: The acronym is SAVERS, and I’ll probably get this wrong but I think it’s like Silence, Affirmation, I can’t remember what the V is, then Exercise … I don’t know, you’ll have to put it in the show notes, but basically it’s just a few activities that kind of get your day started, and the idea is that if you can have a miracle morning you will accomplish more in the first hour than everyone else will accomplish all day, so it’s just really getting a few important things, getting focused, having time for yourself to have that direction, to have an awesome day.
Bjork Ostrom: Cool. Silence, Affirmation, Visualization, Exercise, Reading, and then Scribe, which I’m guessing is writing down.
Meggan Hill: The journaling. Thank you for pulling those up, yes.
Bjork Ostrom: For sure. You had mentioned the meditation piece. Is there an app that you’re using for that, or is that silent meditation on your own?
Meggan Hill: Let’s see, what is the app I’m using? It’s called Insight Timer, and it just has a whole bunch of different … I started with Head Space and then, I don’t know, I thought Insight Timer might be a little bit easier for me.
Bjork Ostrom: You and Andy broke up with Head Space. You were done with Andy?
Meggan Hill: I mean, I liked it, but someone would come and talk to me.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, for sure. I use Head Space and then I told a friend about it, and he’s like, “I don’t know if I can hang out with Andy every morning.” I think he’s great. He’s the guy that, for those that aren’t familiar Head Space is a meditation app and he’s like the only person with all of the different packs that guides you through them.
Meggan Hill: I liked his voice. Maybe I’ll have to give him another try.
Bjork Ostrom: For sure. Cool, and for those that aren’t familiar, I haven’t read “Miracle Morning” but I know a lot of people that have and really highly recommend that, and just how important that morning routine is in establishing the direction for the day.
Meggan Hill: I’m really surprised you haven’t read it. I will send you a copy.
Bjork Ostrom: Okay, I’ll take you up on that. Last topic that I wanted to hit on, not necessarily related to the deeper meaning side, but it is related to the side that helps allow you to kind of fund that or have time for that, is the agency piece. You had talked about working with an agency for your blog and how that’s been a really good thing. We’ve done that in the past. It was a pretty good relationship. We were working with a company called Sway Group. They ended their influencer program for, I forget what it was called, but it was more of like a custom program. They ended that. They have this massive Sway Program that they’re a part of, but it sounds like agency’s been a good thing for you.
Meggan Hill: Yes, and it’s the same agency that did my branding incidentally. That I think is so helpful, because they know my story inside and out and they helped me craft it, and so they can so easily have these conversations with brands and it’s been really great.
Bjork Ostrom: Can you talk about what that’s like? Are they sending you work? Are you sending them people that connect with you? What does that look like for somebody who’s never worked with an agency? Do you have to wait to get to a certain point until you can work with an agency?
Meggan Hill: Well, and obviously I’ve only worked with this agency so I don’t know how it always works. I know that Cook It is pretty boutique. They have a portfolio of bloggers that they work with. I never know if they’re taking clients or not, and I don’t think that there are traffic requirements. I don’t think it’s like that. It’s just what’s your brand and does it fit in their portfolio. As far as how the logistics work, it’s a little bit of both. I get lots of emails, I’m sure Lindsay does too, of brands that want to work with me. Sometimes it’s just a hard no, like no I don’t want your glass straws, but a lot of times it’s like, well I don’t know, that might be a fit, and I just forward it on to the agency and then I forget about it. If something comes of it, they have all the phone calls and the email back and forth. They handle all of that, and then they just let me know, “Congratulations, they would like to work with you. Here’s the details. What do you think?”
Bjork Ostrom: How often are those types of relationships solidifying into a partnership, like let’s say an example would be once a month, and do you have restrictions? Are you saying with sponsored content that you’re only doing x amount per quarter or per month or per week? What does that look like for you?
Meggan Hill: Well, I don’t have any hard and fast rules, like I’m only doing a certain number per month, but I do have a kind of general feeling. If it feels like there’s too many close together I kind of back off a little or I try to push things out, but I know like in December it’s just heavier because that’s just the time of year and so there might be more in there, but then I’m also posting. Normally I post two or three times a week, so then in December I jump up to like four or five times per week so that the percentage of sponsored content is about the same. Sorry, I forgot the question. Where am I going?
Bjork Ostrom: The other thing I was curious to know about with that, so you answered the question, the question being what does the frequency look like. The answer being it depends, and that’s the same for us where like you said, in those peak months, quarter four, maybe it’s November or December, that goes up a little bit, agencies have more to spend, but the second part of that that I’d be curious to know about is what does that look like in terms of those that aren’t familiar with what it looks like to work with a brand or even an agency. You and the agent maybe trade an email, they interact with the brand or the PR agency, but then when it transitions into you actually doing the work, are you communicating with Cook It or are you communicating with the brand that you’re working with? What does that relationship look like?
Meggan Hill: Generally, they negotiate the terms and the details and the contract, and then they turn it over to me, so they’ll just have a final email that sort of closes the loop with them and they introduce me, which of course I’ve probably already emailed with the brand at that point, and then I just basically communicate with the brand on the expectations and what they’re looking for. When everything’s done and the assets are available or whatever it might be, I will send that off to them. I copy everyone on everything all the time.
Bjork Ostrom: Do you have any communication advice? I know that’s one of the things that’s so hard with any type of sponsored or branded content is communicating with brands and setting expectations. Is there anything that you’ve found to be helpful in that process?
Meggan Hill: Can you rephrase the question? I’m not sure I’m understanding what you’re looking for.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, so an example would be let’s say a company comes to you and says, “We really want you to do this style recipe, because that’s what we’re focusing on right now”, and you’re like, “Well, I focus on Midwestern recipes and it doesn’t make sense for me to do a taco recipe” for example, and they’re like, “Well, we really want to do a taco recipe.” That type of back and forth with brands, or they might come to you and say, “This looks really good, but we’d love for you to do a re-shoot on it without as much cheese”, or something like that.
Meggan Hill: Who are you?
Bjork Ostrom: Any of the brand communication, or is that something that really hasn’t come up?
Meggan Hill: No, that for sure comes up. I think one thing that I’ve been working on myself is making sure that I’m only working with the brands that are really a fit. In general, I mostly have creative control over what I do and they’re hiring me because I know the recipes that resonate with my audience. I don’t think it comes up a ton. I think I’ve had some experiences where I’ve made content and then afterwards I say to myself, “I don’t think that was the best fit.” I’ve done a few posts that feel more lifestyle, and I don’t think I really want to do that. I don’t think it resonates as well with my audience, so now when those brands come back I’m sort of moving away from them.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s interesting, it’s a pre-filter as opposed to trying to fix things post relationship, and that’s one of the things that we’ve developed as well is trying to fine tune our radar for what are the brands that work really well. Part of it is just needing to do it and realize when you get in if something works well or doesn’t work well, then you develop that filter a little bit, which makes sense.
Meggan Hill: I tell people that a lot. I mean, even with hiring coaches or spending money on things for the blog or working with brands, I say, “You know what? You just have to try it and see how you feel, and then you’ll know. I can’t tell you how you’re going to feel about doing it. You just have to try it.”
Bjork Ostrom: You don’t need to figure it out before you do it, but as you start to do it you need to figure it out. It’s ready, fire, aim, in so many ways, what we do.
Meggan Hill: Yeah, and I think I have had to do re-shoots, not really for blog posts but I do food photography on the side and there have been a couple of instances where they come back and they say, “Well, those vegetables weren’t brown enough”, and I just want to make it right for the client.
Bjork Ostrom: Which makes sense, for sure.
Meggan Hill: Yeah, I’ll do it.
Bjork Ostrom: Meggan, we’re coming to the end here. It was an awesome interview, a ton of content, we covered a ton of different topics. One of the things I always like to hear from people, especially people that have been working at this for a while is, let’s say you were to go back and you were to do this again. You were to start over, maybe not all the way back to ReoCities Angel Blog, because we know what the answer would be to that is stick with that, build the angel brand, but let’s say you were to go back to 2011, have a conversation with yourself. What would you say and what advice would you give yourself?
Meggan Hill: Well, I think this is specific to me, but about two months after I started the blog is when we relocated from Milwaukee to Los Angeles, and what I should have done then was stick with the blog. Instead, I got a job at Warner Brothers and I was sort of distracted for a year before I came back to the blog, so I would say for myself in my position I should have just stuck with it. Also, I resisted the photography piece for so long, and I think now when I talk about it with people I just say, “You know what? I take 2–300 photos a day, and I just keep working on it.” For so long I was like, “No, I’m not going to learn it. I don’t want to do it.” Now for me it’s the video pieces. I’m working on that and I’m building that up and I need to put in the 10,000 hours or whatever to make it seamless and it’s just, got to push through.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, the 10,000 hours being a callback to the concept that that’s what it takes to become an expert.
Meggan Hill: Yeah, sorry for the ramble.
Bjork Ostrom: No, that’s good. I’m totally on track with you, but for those that aren’t familiar, Malcolm Gladwell talks about that in, what is the book? There’s a book that he talks about. It’s also a Macklemore song where he references it, which is a great song. It’s one of my favorite songs. We’ll link to it in the show notes.
Meggan Hill: Link to everything in the show notes.
Bjork Ostrom: It’ll go right under the ReoCities Angel Blog.
Meggan Hill: Wait, I just have one thing to say about that. When you do things like start angel blogs, then you get angel themed gifts for the rest of your life. Socks and snow globes.
Bjork Ostrom: And there’s so many of them, so there’s so many options for those.
Meggan Hill: Obviously that’s my favorite thing, right?
Bjork Ostrom: You have a site for it, so it has to be. I actually wanted to ask you one specific question about one of the things that you said. It was the last question with a PS question at the end, so you said, “I wish that I would have stuck with it” with your blog. Obviously you got back into it and then you did stick with it. What was it that helped you stick with it the second time that you got back into it?
Meggan Hill: Well, I think I really just didn’t want to have a corporate job in Los Angeles. I was so unhappy working out here that I just thought whatever it takes, I’m just going to do it. I just started putting in all the hours and all the time, and I made it my number one focus. I probably could have developed some more close friendships out here. In my mind, I think of it the same way as when you and Lindsay went to the Philippines and that was your big focus because you didn’t have all the extraneous things to distract you, and I think when I cut some of those out living out here, it really helped me focus.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s a hard thing to hear because often what it means is not doing stuff that’s still good things. It’s not like you’re cutting out, and maybe it is, but it’s not like it’s cutting out partying and running around. It’s cutting out maybe coffee with friends or sometimes it’s like quality time with people you care about. Not that that should always be what it is, and I’ll say this. Before it’s those important things, there’s a huge chunk of not important stuff that you could also cut out.
Meggan Hill: Right, Netflix.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, Netflix, and I’ve been tracking using an app called Moment the time that I spend on my phone and how much I pick it up, and it’s like two to two and a half hours a day. It’s a ton of time.
Meggan Hill: I also do that.
Bjork Ostrom: Part of it is work, so checking email and reading and things like that, but also if you could get an hour to an hour and a half of time a day by cutting out stuff that I don’t need, that would be a huge win. I think that’s a good takeaway for people that are listening is this reality that in order to build things, at least for a certain period of time, one year, two year, three years, you really have to find those margins and win them back in order to make progress on things that you care about. I think that’s a great note to end on. Last thing that I’m curious to hear you share is where people can follow along with you? Obviously Culinary Hill. Are there other places that people can track along with what you’re doing?
Meggan Hill: Sure, I’m on all the social medias, just Culinary Hill’s the name on all of them, and then just the blog, CulinaryHill.com.
Bjork Ostrom: Awesome. Meggan, really fun to talk to you. Thanks so much for coming on the podcast.
Meggan Hill: Thank you for having me.
Bjork Ostrom: One more big thank you to Meggan for coming on the podcast. Really fun to connect with you Meggan and to hear a little bit about your story, as well as some of the advice that you have and were willing to give the listeners. To you listeners, thank you for tracking along with and listening to the Food Blogger Pro podcast. Really, really appreciate it. Two things that I will ask of you. If you are a listener of this podcast, number one, if you haven’t transitioned to being a subscriber I would really appreciate that, so wherever you listen to this podcast, I’m guessing it’s probably the podcast app on your phone but maybe it’s on your computer. Wherever it is, would ask that you subscribe to the podcast, and you can do that just by going to iTunes or the podcast app if you’re using an iOS app or using something like Stitcher. All you have to do is hit the subscribe button, and that way you will get a notification anytime there is a new podcast released.
The second thing would be if you haven’t yet, would love it if you’d jump on and leave a review for the podcast. What does that do? Well, it helps us show up higher in search results whenever somebody’s searching for something, and the different podcast aggregators or iTunes or the podcast app, all of those of search engines of sort and the higher that we can show up when people search for a certain topic the better, so if you would be up for jumping on and leaving a review we would really appreciate that. That’s all that I have, make it a great week. Thanks, guys!
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