This episode is sponsored by Once Coupled.
Welcome to episode 416 of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork interviews Sarah and Kaitlin Leung from The Woks of Life.
Last week on the podcast, Bjork chatted with Matt Briel. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.
Preserving Family Recipes with a Food Blog
For Sarah and Kaitlin Leung, their food blog, The Woks of Life, is a family affair. They have run the blog with their parents, Judy and Bill, for over ten years, and now they all work together full-time!
Bjork chats with Sarah and Kaitlin about the early days of The Woks of Life, including why they started documenting their family’s Chinese recipes, and how they grew their site while working full-time.
Sarah and Kaitlin share more about the division of labor when running a food blog as a family, and what they’ve learned over the last ten years of blogging. They have a really unique perspective on food blogging, and it’s a can’t-miss episode.
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- More about being nominated for a James Beard Award for their cookbook.
- The origin story of The Woks of Life back in 2013.
- Why they wanted to preserve and document their family’s Chinese recipes on the blog.
- What the division of labor looks like amongst the four family members behind The Woks of Life.
- How they transitioned to running their blog full-time, and the changes they made during that time that were most beneficial for the growth of the blog.
- How the skills from their previous jobs translate to running the blog.
- What international site traffic looks like for Woks of Life, and how it affects RPMs.
- What advice they have for beginner bloggers.
- The Woks of Life
- The Woks of Life Cookbook
- Clarkson Potter
- Pinch of Yum
- Chinese Ingredients Glossary
- Google AdSense
- The Go-Giver
- Optin Monster
- Designing Your Life
- Designing Your New Work Life
- Follow The Woks of Life on Instagram and Facebook
- Join the Food Blogger Pro Podcast Facebook Group
About This Week’s Sponsor
Small Plugins is focused on creating thoughtful, small-yet-mighty plugin solutions for bloggers, creators, and website owners. Listeners can use this link to get a 70% discount on ALL current and future Small Plugins plugins!
If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for interviews, be sure to email them to [email protected].
Transcript (click to expand):
Bjork Ostrom: This episode is sponsored by Once Coupled, the development agency behind the brand Small Plugins. Small Plugins is focused on creating thoughtful, small, yet mighty plugin solutions for bloggers, creators, website owners, and their first plugin, the Dynamic Connector block, can help you customize promotional content, so think affiliate links, email opt-ins, purchase links based on the content someone is reading. So on this podcast, we talk a lot about being intentional with opt-ins. We might not want to show an ebook for our best cookie recipes on a salad recipe post, as an example. With the Dynamic Connector Block plugin, you can create targeted opt-ins that match the content your reader is already choosing to consume. Here’s how it works. It’s great because it’s really just two steps. So, step one is choose a specific location in each post where you want the connector block to appear. For example, you might want it placed below the recipe card, and step two is create the connector blocks.
This happens in another area of WordPress. For instance, you might make a connector block that includes a targeted email signup option for any recipe in the healthy category for your site. And once you’ve done that, the magic happens. All the posts in the healthy recipe category will automatically display the targeted email signup form you designed. Again, it’s just two steps. You one, decide where you want in the post, the connector block to go, and two, create the block you want to appear in that spot. If you ever want to change that block in the future, you only need to modify it in one place, and all your healthy recipes in this example will instantly reflect the new block. Now as you add more and more targeted opt-ins, the block in your posts from step two will automatically update based on that post category. No manual updates.
That’s the thing that’s important here. No manual updates to hundreds of posts needed. It’s a super slick plugin, and the Small Plugins team has two other plugins in the works, one that can help you highlight categories in each post and another that allows you to feature a comment within your blog post. They’re really great, and like we said in the beginning, small but mighty plugins that allow you to do some really cool things, and this is where it gets great. You can learn more at smallplugins.com, and if you’re interested in the Dynamic Connector Block plugin, you can go to foodbloggerpro.com/small. Again, that’s foodbloggerpro.com/small to get a 70% discount on all current and future Small Plugins plugins. Thanks again to Once Coupled and Small Plugins for sponsoring this episode.
Emily Walker: Hey, this Is Emily, and you’re listening to the Food Blogger Pro podcast. Today on the podcast, Bjork is interviewing Sarah and Kaitlin Leung from the blog The Woks of Life. Sarah and Kaitlin run the blog with their parents, so it’s very much a family business. In this episode, Bjork and Sarah and Kaitlin are chatting about the early days of The Woks of Life, including why they started documenting their family’s Chinese recipes and how they grew their site while they were all working full-time. They share more about what the division of labor looks like amongst the four family members that run the blog and how they transitioned to running their blog full-time. Sarah and Kaitlin also share a little bit more about their cookbook, The Woks of Life, and being nominated for a James Beard Award for their cookbook. It’s a really great episode, and it’s fun to hear from sisters who run a blog together, and we know you’ll enjoy listening to it. So, I’m going to let Bjork take it away.
Bjork Ostrom: Sarah and Kaitlin, welcome to the podcast.
Kaitlin Leung: Hey, Bjork.
Sarah Leung: Hey, Bjork. Thanks for having us.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s going to be fun. We’ve connected before. It’s a rare thing for me to do a podcast interview where I speak to somebody in real life first and then we do the Zoom conversation. There’s been a couple conferences that we’ve been at, one in New York, which is close to home for you, another in New Orleans, and I think this podcast might have been scheduled before that. Does that sound right? Maybe a month or two ago or maybe right around the same time we scheduled it.
Sarah Leung: I think it was around the same time.
Bjork Ostrom: Anyways, very excited to talk to you. One of the things that’s happened since we’ve scheduled the interview is you’re nominated for a James Beard Award for your cookbook, which is incredible. Can you tell us about that moment when that happened, Sarah, and what that process was like?
Sarah Leung: It was super exciting. It’s something that I guess all of… So, we worked with Clarkson Potter on the book, and they helped us submit our application for the award a while back, and we just forgot about it. So, to actually be nominated and to get that news was really exciting. We were like, “Wow, that actually did something.”
Bjork Ostrom: It worked. We went through the process and it worked.
Sarah Leung: Which is really cool, and I think it’s somewhat rare for bloggers to show up in that space. So, I feel like it was really exciting for that reason too, just to be acknowledged by more of a traditional food media channels, so that was really cool.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome. You do incredible work, the site, the brand is called The Woks of Life. Can you talk a little bit, Kaitlin, about if we rolled the tape back 10 years when you first got started, what was the premise behind it and what were you thinking? Because as we’re going to get into it, it’s a family affair, and some of that, as far as I understand, was the purpose for starting it. Is that right?
Kaitlin Leung: Yes, so we started way back in 2013, which is crazy to say.
Bjork Ostrom: Yep.
Kaitlin Leung: Now that we’ve been doing this for decade.
Bjork Ostrom: In internet years.
Kaitlin Leung: Seriously, I’m ancient, and it really started as a way for us to stay connected because in 2013 I was in college, Sarah was in college, or just out of college, I can’t remember now, but basically we had flown the nest, and then my parents had actually moved to Beijing, which was a huge shell shock for two gals who were born and raised in New Jersey and didn’t leave much.
Bjork Ostrom: Right at a stage where it’s like you’re at the point where you’re like, “I want to go out on my own,” but I still remember as a college kid, or even out of college like, “I’m going to go back and stay at my parents for the weekend.”
Kaitlin Leung: Totally, I picked a college close to home, and so did Sarah on purpose. We wanted to be close to home, and then my parents were like, “Okay, bye. We’re going to Beijing now.” I was like, “What the heck?”
Bjork Ostrom: It’s as far away from home as you can be.
Kaitlin Leung: So my dad was on a work assignment, which was really an amazing opportunity, but we were in two totally opposite time zones. Me and Sarah didn’t really see each other often, and we realized being away from home that we were super disconnected from all the food that we grew up eating, and we didn’t really have any idea how to recreate those flavors. So, it was like a twofold purpose where on the one hand, Sarah was closing out her college years, and staring down the barrel of entering corporate jungle and not sure what to do, and we wanted to stay more connected on a day-to-day basis. And also my mom and my dad, and also me and Sarah realized the importance of passing that culinary knowledge down the generations, and we realized that if we didn’t prioritize it in a purposeful way, that connection would get broken.
Bjork Ostrom: Can you talk about that? What do you mean when you say prioritize it in a purposeful way? What did that mean to you at that point?
Kaitlin Leung: I think that we had always grown up in and around the kitchen and loving food, and me and Sarah actually cooked a lot growing up, but it was always my parents had the domain of Chinese cooking, and they were masters and commanders of that area, and then we diversified the family meals by cooking Italian or “American foods”, non-Chinese foods that were learned from the Food Network and cookbooks and things like that. So, we realized that we needed to study Chinese food in the same way that we had studied how to roast a chicken or how to make Caesar salad and things like that.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s one of the things that has been so great for me. So, my sister-in-law immigrated from China. Her parents will occasionally come over and visit, and whenever they do, they’ll always have us over and they make this huge meal, and it’s a reminder to me that we all have this database in our head on all of these incredible things that we’ve learned growing up that somebody else taught to us, and there’s lots of different examples of that. Food is such a great one, and it’s so rich, and it’s also such a contrast to the database of foods that I have in my head or that my parents have. And so, I can imagine as you’re telling that story that it’s a little bit of… It sounds like reflecting on the fact that there is this… It’s maybe a geeky word to use, but this database that your parents have, and you don’t want that to disappear for you. And so, what does it look like then to intentionally transfer that? And was the blog in some ways, Sarah, a conduit to allow that to happen, especially while overseas?
Sarah Leung: Yes, for sure I think that a lot of people, regardless of what your background is, have experience of I guess trying to learn a recipe that somebody in your family has been making for years and then realizing it’s actually hard to nail down what that person is doing when they’ve been cooking that dish for years and they’re just cooking by feel, and-
Bjork Ostrom: You’re like, “Wait, I know what it tastes like and when I make it it’s… I’m following… What’s off with this?”
Sarah Leung: Yes, exactly, and it’s like the person who makes it has maybe never written it down either, they just do it. The early years of the blog were really just my sister and I acting as translators or as we were taking the information that our parents were giving us and trying to put structure to it, so making sure that they’re measuring, making sure the instructions were super clear, that we’re actually timing each step, how many minutes is this cooking for, and just trying to enforce those traditional recipe formats onto these dishes that weren’t necessarily being documented in the wider media space. There were some cookbooks at the time, there was a blog or two at the time, but for us, when we found that when we went on the internet or searching for cookbooks that we weren’t seeing a lot of those recipes that we had grown up with, and so we wanted to do that, to record what we knew.
And over the years, I think that that process of watching very closely what our parents were doing and participating in that recipe development process, Kaitlin and I, we became proficient Chinese cooks ourselves, and were able to develop recipes ourselves. So while the early years were this… Maybe the first year and a half to two years we’re this process of Kaitlin and I translating or putting structure to our parents’ recipes, since then we’ve transitioned into broadening our scope to cover recipes that maybe we only ever ate out at restaurants or that Chinese takeout style recipes that my parents or my grandparents used to cook at the family restaurant, things like that, and we’ve been able to apply what we learned to develop our own recipes as well. And now I think it’s been amazing to see all four of us become these equal contributors to the blog and have each of our voices equally represented, which is pretty cool.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s awesome, and I want to talk specifically about what that looks like, the family dynamic of division of labor and how you all divide that up, but one of the things I want to acknowledge that I think is important and a really cool outcome from it is it’s almost like it sounds like you had this internship in Chinese cooking for two years that resulted in you getting an official position, and I think that we discredit sometimes, or we don’t acknowledge that one of the gifts that can come from all of the work that we do, which it’s a lot of work, any time, right now when you’re starting, it’s a lot of work, and I think it’s important for us to find the value from it.
And for a lot of people, the value is like, “I’m building a business,” which is great, but oftentimes what’s happening is we get to pick an internship and we get to develop expertise and skills in certain areas, and that’s different for everybody. For some people it’s photography, videography, web development, maybe it’s writing, maybe it’s recipe development, but these incredible skills that we get to develop and craft that even if things don’t take off or go in the direction that we want, we’re developing these skills that are valuable that we can use in other places or that we can apply in other ways. And so in your case, the great thing was not only did you develop these skills, but also the site itself got to the point where it was sustaining enough to be a business. Can you talk about that moment, Kaitlin? When did that happen where you’re like, “Wait, this is a thing, and not only can it support maybe one of us, but it can maybe be something that in some ways supports our family?”
Kaitlin Leung: I’m totally on board with everything you just said, and I think that was what kept us going in the first two years of the blog, which was really and truly, we always said, “If anything, this is our personal family recipe box or recipe book. If no one looks or just our friends and family look like, that’s still a really valuable thing,” and it was almost nice in a way to get down those family recipes and greatest hits that we grew up eating free from…
Well, how do I say this? Purely within our own domain of it was all under our control, and Sarah mentioned earlier that we weren’t really seeing recipes that matched up with our experience, and there were Chinese cookbooks and there were a couple of Chinese cooking shows and things like that. I don’t want to discredit anybody, but all of those were under the watchful eye of the traditional media gatekeepers where they’re trying to reach a broad audience and make things simpler and more generalized in a lot of cases. So the fact that we were able to, as you say, take on that internship and do things on our own terms from the get-go through the blog was incredibly valuable because we always said, “These are our standards. We know how it’s supposed to taste.: If people don’t get it, we explain it and do that education piece for me and Sarah, and also for any audiences, readers who are wandering into the blog at that time, which as you can imagine was really few.
But I would say that those building years was a lot of perseverance in terms of this is our thing, we’re going to learn photography and learn how to build our social media presence and just recipe post by recipe post build this thing. And I think we started to get this slow, but sure trickle of people who were like, “Oh my gosh, I’m so glad I found you. I’ve never seen anything like this,” and they would talk about these incredibly personal experiences of rediscovering recipes that their mothers and grandmothers who had now long passed had cooked for them, or cooking for foreign exchange students or rekindling memories from a trip that they took to China decades ago, and just rediscovering flavors and memories.
And I think a lot of that also is what kept us going as we slowly grew, and over time, you’re intimately aware of all the different little hacks and tactics that come up along the way with food blogging, and we were blocking and tackling on those things. And periodically we would get a really popular recipe or really popular post that would go viral on Pinterest, which is hilarious to talk about anything going viral now because something is constantly going viral. Before it was lightning in a bottle, now it’s business as usual.
But I think once we hit a critical mass of those and started to get a more regular and devoted following, even though it was small, we were like, “This definitely has legs to stand on. There are people who are really interested,” and a lot of people like me and Sarah, our age group, millennials who were starting to realize, “Oh crap, if I don’t start picking up my wok spatula, no one’s going to do it for me.”
Bjork Ostrom: Right, so it sounds like in those early stages, like we talked about, part of the fuel, there’s always we talk about fuel for business, what’s keeping it going? Part of the fuel was not only your personal mission that you had to document your family recipes, but then also the positive reinforcement that you got from people who were interacting with that and being like, “Hey, this was really valuable for me because of this.”
And I think anybody listening who’s ever gotten one of those messages knows that for whatever reason, psychologically, when somebody reaches out and says, you made a difference in my life, that’s extremely motivating, and eventually got to a point where it was like personally, this means something to us, to others, it means something, but also now it can be a business. At what point did you make the transition, Sarah, maybe you can talk about this, into we’re going to work on this as our full-time gig, and are all four of you working on it, or do you view your mom and dad as contributors, or what does that look like being that it’s a successful family-owned digital business? Which there’s lots of family-owned businesses and it’s I think more rare to have a family owned digital business like this.
Sarah Leung: So, we were working on the blog as more of a side project, I would say for about six years. So from 2013 to around mid 2019 for everybody, it was like a side hustle. We were doing it on the weekends, we were doing it at night. So my sister and I, we had full-time jobs, we were doing it after work. At the time, my dad’s Beijing gig was his last hurrah in the corporate world. So after that, he was not retired, he still was doing other things, but basically we were all doing other things in addition to the blog, and the blog was this plan B that we all had, but that we were dedicating a lot of time too, particularly our old blogging… I don’t even know, looking back how we did it, honestly. It would be-
Bjork Ostrom: Totally.
Sarah Leung: It would be a whole weekend, and we would blog 15 recipes in one weekend, all four of us simultaneously cooking, me on the camera, just running around, taking pictures of everything, and now we’re lucky if we get three done in one day.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s interesting how that changes. To go down that rabbit hole real quick, is that just there’s more that you’re doing? Have you built in more margin? Is the quality higher? Because I feel the same thing when I look at the Pinch of Yum team and day-to-day work, there’s a point where they’re doing three to four recipes, or Lindsay was doing three to four recipes a week, and now it’s one, maybe two. Why do you think that is?
Sarah Leung: Well, I that in those earlier days, we were definitely… So, now we’ve incorporated video into the workflow, which slows things down significantly, but also we figured out that it was really stressful, those blogging days, eight recipes a day were really stressful. So, we’ve all figured out it’s okay to slow down in the name of family, harmony and just keeping everybody in a better mood. Now that we’re all doing this full-time, we are all doing it full-time. We have the time, such that we can take that time and just… So, right now what we’re doing is each individual family member gets one dedicated day. So, everybody supports that person that day in blogging their recipes, which is just so much better because you have people cleaning up after you and everybody’s tasting your recipes, everybody’s focused on one person and making that person successful, and I just think that that’s created a lot more harmony than our old simultaneously simultaneous kitchen chaos thing.
But in the early years, it was more so a necessity because we were blogging as a side gig, and to go back to that, I think… So, it was 2019 when I decided to move into blogging full-time, and my sister actually just went full-time a year ago.
Bjork Ostrom: Congratulations.
Sarah Leung: I guess for me about four years and for my sister one year, and for me, making that decision was really about realizing that there were a lot of things that I wanted to do that I knew would grow the blog that I just didn’t have the time to do, so things like redesigning the site to make it more user-friendly to really give it a brand, a visual system, and to make it more professional and recognizable and user-friendly for people who… Our old blog format was very traditional, early–2000s blog of very chronological, not a ton of… It wasn’t really designed to be a resource like it is now. And so things like that, and just dedicating more time to creating content, creating content at a faster pace than we used to, I think that really grew the blog. We saw huge growth even in that first year that I went full-time and we realized, wow, the more time we dedicate to this, the more it will grow.
Bjork Ostrom: What do you think were the things that you did in that year that were most beneficial for growth?
Sarah Leung: I think redesigning the site definitely helped because it wasn’t just making the site user-friendly, it was also making it faster, making it more SEO optimized. Our old blog format wasn’t as optimized in the backend for SEO, and I think the other thing, another big one was really dedicating time to the ingredients glossary. So, we have this big section of the site that is totally dedicated to different Chinese ingredients, explaining what they are. We created a linking system, so that in every single recipe card that we have, there’s a link out to that ingredient. So, that definitely helps people feel like the recipe is accessible, but then also it’s a lot more information and more things that can show up in search, so that definitely helped as well. And I think just creating more content, honestly, just being-
Kaitlin Leung: More frequent.
Bjork Ostrom: For sure.
Kaitlin Leung: We upped our schedule and also-
Sarah Leung: Frequency and consistency.
Kaitlin Leung: But it’s also worth a look under the hood on the ad managing side, was that we had a really hilarious mishap in the early days of the blog where my grandma caught wind that if people clicked on ads or saw ads that we would make money, and then I guess-
Bjork Ostrom: And then they’re like, “Wait a minute, fraudulent activity.”
Kaitlin Leung: Exactly, and so we were hamstrung in the really early days by getting booted off of Google AdSense, and I think that’s why our building years were so long because we were like, “Well, we’re making money, but we’re not making a crazy amount of money,” and I think it was the power of advocating for yourself of being like, “We have this to our ad manager Raptive, we have this problem…” And they were great about it, but somebody was like, “Hey, you know, guys are missing out on a lot,” and it was really important that we sounded the alarm bell finally of, “Hey, is there anything we can do about this and that…” Well, that was an important moment where we really had to push for ourselves. Sometimes it was like, “Well, there’s nothing we can do.” And it’s like, “Well, you have to find a way,” because that’s really what laid the foundation for Sarah to be able to move over, and then all of the growth efforts that she was spearheading wasn’t wasted.
Bjork Ostrom: Because you’re capturing that through ads, you’re monetizing the growth through ads.
Kaitlin Leung: Totally.
Bjork Ostrom: What was the workaround that you were able to eventually… Because even there’s a Food Blogger Pro member right now who’s going through the process of trying to figure out… She wasn’t accepted to Google AdSense, which you need to be in order to be with the ad network, and was there something specific that was helpful in that case? Did you apply with a different EIN?
Sarah Leung: It honestly was nothing like that. It was just having a relationship with Raptive, who at the time was known as AdThrive. So, they’re a Google publishing partner, and they had contacts at Google, and we pushed them to advocate for us, which they did, and obviously they made no promises because Google is so-
Bjork Ostrom: It’s kind of a black box.
Sarah Leung: Right, but eventually… They essentially were like, “This is the family business.” They told the story about our grandma. They’re literally like really unfortunate-
Kaitlin Leung: Big misunderstanding.
Sarah Leung: Huge misunderstanding, and they made it work.
Bjork Ostrom: What a great story though. I know it’s easy to look back on now, but I think the heart behind what she was doing is her way to support you, which is just so great. Can you talk… Go ahead.
Kaitlin Leung: Sorry, it really was the power of people, which I know in this world with a digital business, it’s a lot of like, “Oh, what technological hacks or workarounds can you have?” But we’ve found a lot of the time, because we are a family, those conversations are what get us farther, and the same thing happened with getting verified on Instagram. Instagram’s system had no recognition of like, “Let me verify this four-person entity.” It just didn’t work, so I think obviously building those relationships and connections takes time, but we’ve been pretty lucky over the years that we’ve been able to do that.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s such a testament to the fact that behind every website, behind every URL, behind every platform, it’s a bunch of people, and it’s people who have moms and dads and kids and cousins and friends and feel happy and feel sad. We forget that when we are interacting primarily with a computer, but there’s always that personal element to it. We felt that earlier this year when Pinch of Yum’s Instagram account just was like nonexistent, it went away. And what we found out was Lindsay’s Facebook account had been hacked, and that was connected to her Instagram account. And so whatever they were doing, which wasn’t okay on Facebook, Facebook through their system, shut it down, and then brought the Instagram account down as well. So, you’d search Instagram for Pinch of Yum, it wasn’t there. It was super stressful for two or three days.
And her friend Brad, who works at Meta, was able to go through the process of getting it back up, but it was because of that relationship. And so to your point, those connections and those relationships are so important, and so often those come from, usually… There’s this book called the Go-Giver, but I love that idea of the best way to have those connections is to first give or to help, and so often nothing will come from that, but every once in a while there might be a situation where you say, “Actually, can you help me out with this?” So I think your point, Kaitlin, about relationships being a key component to any of that is super important, and the importance of being the captain of your own ship and pushing forward and saying, “This person said you can’t do anything about it. What about this person? And let’s go here and let’s look at this angle.” It’s interesting how often I see that as a recurring thing with the interviews we do where people don’t take no as the final answer.
Obviously, there’s a lot of context around where sometimes you’re asking somebody if they would help you with a thing, they’re like, “No.” Then they’re just not available, but when it comes to a problem, if somebody’s like, “No, there’s no solution for it.” It’s like, “Well, maybe there is. Let’s look at it from a different angle,” so I think that’s important as well. When you talked about a four-person entity, this is getting into the weeds on the business mechanics, but I’m so fascinated by this world, and I was just having a conversation with a friend who’s thinking about doing a business deal.
How do you think about ownership and then salaries? You don’t have to share numbers, but anybody who’s moving into a partnership, it wouldn’t have to be family, but anybody who’s moving into a partnership, you know there’s like, you can own a business and that’s like your percentage ownership of a thing, but then maybe you don’t work within the business, so you don’t get paid. And you can be the other way around too, you don’t have any ownership, but you do get a salary. And my guess is, those would be hard conversations as a family to navigate or maybe not, but
Kaitlin Leung: No, they’re tricky.
Sarah Leung: Honestly, this is why. Yes, so I’ll first start talking a little bit about division of labor amongst the four of us. So, my dad is basically now our CFO, so he handles all of the accounting and the bookkeeping, and he sets the salaries, so that for us as the kids really works because then it’s just like we know that our parents are going to treat us fairly, and that’s it.
Bjork Ostrom: Does he set that based on industry standard? If you are a photographer in New York, or not that specific, it’s just like, hey, generally speaking…
Sarah Leung: I wouldn’t say it’s that specific necessarily.
Kaitlin Leung: It’s not that specific, but it is… Because me and Sarah did have corporate jobs in New York, that is a basic benchmark where it was a hilarious conversation. My dad was like, “Well, we’ll match your salary once you’re…”
Bjork Ostrom: It’s like a job offer and then you’re negotiating, totally.
Kaitlin Leung: I’m like, “Where’s my bonus?” It is a funny thing. I think my dad is managing it, but we all talk about it as a family, wouldn’t you say, Sarah?
Bjork Ostrom: Totally.
Sarah Leung: Yeah, so there is a salary structure, plus an ownership percentage. So after the salaries are paid, we have the remainder that gets distributed based on ownership. So, if the blog does really well in a given year, it basically all evens out. I would say that everybody, their roles play to their strengths, and for my dad, he in the early years, he was an engineer and product manager in software prior to the blog. So, he would actually take on a lot more of the technical aspects of the blog in those early years. Things like when we were a managing our own ad waterfall, at one point he was doing that. He was helping with the hosting and making sure that the site stayed… Or if the site was down, fixing that, things like that.
Which I would say now, I guess I’m managing a little bit more. My mom has always been more of a creative person. So, she is our food stylist. She manages our Pinterest account, and I would say that in the food realm, she brings that aspect of tradition and research. She’s the only one in our family that’s fluent in Chinese and can read Chinese, so she’s always looking for new ideas. And then my sister and I, so we both edit. I’m the photographer, my sister’s the videographer, and then we each edit in our own space. So I handle everything photo, and she handles everything video, and then my sister also manages the social media accounts. Just I think on in terms of the blog too, in terms of the recipes, we each have our own strengths and our areas of expertise. Behind the scenes too, we also have that. And I think it also helps that my sister and I, in our previous jobs, they actually applied pretty well to-
Kaitlin Leung: Extreme well-
Bjork Ostrom: Can you talk about that? And I think that’s an important point too. I think sometimes people come into this world thinking, “Oh, I don’t have any experience with it,” but even for Lindsay, she was a teacher and that crosses over really well into certain areas. For me, I was at a nonprofit and one of the things I would go and do is speak at schools and it’s like, “How does that translate?” Here I am doing a podcast. There’s all of those ways that we can translate those over. Just a few points I’d be interested for each of you, what were you doing and how did that translate?
Kaitlin Leung: So, I was a brand strategy consultant, which sometimes confuses people. I wasn’t working at an ad agency and I wasn’t a strict management consultant. It was looking at brands at the corporate strategic level to say, “Oh, what can we do to evolve the brand using a variety of levers from messaging to customer segmentation strategies and also visual system of course, and bringing that all together through one client team?” So, I did a lot of client work. I guess if I bubble up some things, there was an aspect of it where it was just the pure brand strategy of it all, which is thinking from every angle, how do we present a brand or an entity in a way that’s consistent and compelling and cohesive, and then there was also… Kind of interesting, snuck up on me, but that job definitely made me an extrovert because when I started I was extremely quiet.
I was pretty crappy at public speaking. I was okay at it, and after seven years of being in a consultant, being in these client meetings where you have to make small talk, you have to present in a super sharp way, that was super important to getting on camera, being a public personality or I don’t even know, an influencer of sorts, so that was super important. And then I think the other thing was it did teach me how to be more of a team player and a consensus builder, which is big in our family because sometimes-
Bjork Ostrom: I would imagine.
Kaitlin Leung: … It’s a huge struggle to get to consensus, and that was just a really useful job in finding different ways to get people to align. That’s the joke in consulting. It’s like, “We’re aligned,” that’s what you’re always wanting to reach.
Bjork Ostrom: Alignment.
Kaitlin Leung: Exactly.
Bjork Ostrom: When you have four people who are a part of decision making, that becomes increasingly complex. What about for you, Sarah? What was your before role and how did that translate over?
Sarah Leung: So, I second the extrovert thing. I’m not as extroverted as my sister. So, my first job was working for a nonprofit in China. So, I actually ended up moving to Beijing after I graduated, lived there, and obviously just living in China was a huge, totally transformative experience and really great for the blog. I got to eat so many different regional Chinese foods that I’d never tried before. It expanded my mind about the cuisine in general, but also around language, just having to really put Chinese into practice, and we do some translation on the blog. In the writing of our book, there was quite a bit of Chinese in the book that needed editing and translating. So, we actually had a cousin help with that a little bit, but I was able to do the first draft of everything, which was really valuable.
And then the job that I was at the longest, actually, it was literally digital marketing and demand generation for a startup. So, working in email marketing and making landing pages, lead generation, all that kind of stuff, building an email list, just marketing a product, I think that all of that really… In my day-to-day at work, I would be like, “Oh, I could definitely use this for the blog, or we should definitely do something like this for the blog,” and also just the technologies that we were using at work, I would apply to the blog as well.
We did a lot of customer segmentation and targeting on our website at that job that I was at and I was like, “Oh, we could totally use Optin Monster to segment users and have them sign up on different pages of the site,” which we’re about to implement soon on The Woks of Life. So, things like that were really helpful. And then also that job put me… Because it was a startup, it put me in a lot of… Not uncomfortable situations, but things where it’s like, “I don’t know if I know how to do that, but I have to figure out how to do that.”
So things like, “Oh, we want to create a customer marketing video series.” Figure out how to use a camera, buy the microphones, get people in here to interview. You’ve got to figure out how to edit video, so that kind of stuff, and just basically building those skills in a way that just makes you feel like whatever it is, whatever curveball the blog throws you of like, “Oh, this is a new thing you have to learn,” it just makes you feel like you can do it and that you’re capable.
Bjork Ostrom: You can figure it out.
Sarah Leung: You can figure it out, or if it’s not your thing, there are freelance resources out there that you can leverage, which was something that I did often at work.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s great.
Sarah Leung: It couldn’t have been more perfect, really.
Bjork Ostrom: I love that. Oh, go ahead.
Kaitlin Leung: It’s worth mentioning my parents, so me and Sarah, for anybody listening, it’s like, “Oh, well, easy for you to say. You guys are in completely appropriate fields to go into blogging,” but my parents were not traditional creatives with language and visual media in the sense that me and my sister are, but my dad definitely had a passion for cooking from his upbringing. His parents owned to Chinese restaurant, so he always had that through line, even though he was a tech engineer for Belcorp and Nokia and Microsoft, things like that, and then my mom actually worked in fashion, but in a very unglamorous part of the supply chain, which was sourcing materials and working from start to finish to create buttons and zippers and getting it to the final stages. So, she has an incredible eye for quality control and detail, which as you can imagine, is super applicable on the blog. So, all four of us come together to form this funny super entity.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome, and I think a great takeaway for anybody listening with that is I think a lot of people think about, how can I be doing this full-time? How can I get to this point where I’m just doing my own business, my own work? And I think one of the steps along the way isn’t necessarily jumping off and doing that, but taking a step into doing something that’s closer to that. And I think your story, Sarah, of digital marketing is a great example of that. It’s a stepping stone where you’re doing things that are helpful for the company, but also you’re learning things that are immediately applicable to the day-to-day, and there’s lots of different versions of that. And so, for anybody who’s thinking of eventually on their career path, wanting to work on their own or build their own thing, a great transition to do that is a more aligned, to use that buzzword for our interview, job that has some of the overlap of what you’d eventually want to be doing.
One of the last things that I want to talk about is just the unique demographics of your site. Knowing what you talked about, there might be a family in the US who has an exchange student, but it also might be somebody who grew up having these wonderful recipes and no longer knows how to make them and wants to learn that. Can you talk about in so far as you’re comfortable, the traffic that your site currently gets and then what the makeup of that looks like? Is it more international than maybe a site like Pinch of Yum would be and what those percentages would be?
Sarah Leung: Yes, so I would say that we are more international than your average blog or average US-based blog. So, I think right now we’re at 59% US traffic and 41% international. Most of that coming from Commonwealth countries, so UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and that definitely… It’s an advantage and it’s a disadvantage. It’s an advantage because you get all of these people from around the world who are contributing their experience to your blog, and knowing that somebody randomly in Singapore is reading is pretty cool, but of course that does cut into your RPM a little bit. Your RPMs are going to be a bit lower, but I think that it is the name of the game with… We’ve talked to other niche blogs that are similarly situated in terms of international traffic and it is what it is kind of thing.
But in terms of demographics, I would say that we actually have a higher than average male audience for a food blog. I think that we’re about 40% male readers, which is pretty high. I think usually a food blog, it’s more like 80/20, women to men, but I think that when it comes to, perhaps because it’s more niche, because these recipes speak to, I don’t know, I guess… Everybody loves Chinese food, so I think that it speaks to a really broad audience that way, and I guess geographically I would say it’s definitely spread out. Obviously, like any other blog we see concentrations of readers in larger US cities or just larger cities in general, but it’s been really surprising to see the diversity in our readership, and I think that the reason for that is just the pathways of Chinese food are so spread out across the world and through immigration, and there’s a Chinese restaurant in almost every small town in the US.
Kaitlin Leung: Even elsewhere, I was just in Ireland on vacation and I was doing a mental log of Chinese restaurants that I saw, and there were some small towns that had Chinese restaurants in Ireland, but anyway, go ahead, Sarah.
Sarah Leung: And I think that what we’ve tried to do with the blog is to be really inclusive in the types of recipes that we represent. So, we represent this mom’s cooking space or the home cooking as well as the Americanized Chinese takeout and the regional cuisines that you might only see in China at this point. So, I think that because all of those things inform our family’s Chinese American experience, and so to have those diverse entry points into Chinese food, I think it brings in a really diverse audience. And then once they’re there, the hope is once you’re on our site, if you came in for beef and broccoli or a lo mein recipe, you would come away with another recipe that you may not have heard of or something that expands your mind about what Chinese cooking is.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s cool. It’s interesting when you think of advertising and how that changes based on where people are coming from, and I had a conversation with my sister-in-law’s cousin, and she’s studying at NYU, focused on social media, and one of the things she was pondering was starting an agency around helping us companies… Her initial thought was like, could this be a value for Pinch of Yum, on other platforms like WeChat? And my initial thought was, there’s this huge market that you could connect with. Obviously, we wouldn’t have expertise in what that would look like, but also there’s complexity from a business perspective around not only sponsored content and what does that look like, but also advertising is just so different. It’s not like one of the ad networks is going to be able to plug and play in a way that they would if it’s somebody from Minnesota versus Beijing. So, have you ever thought about building a presence or do you have a presence on any of the Chinese social media apps like WeChat?
Sarah Leung: Yeah, so we did experiment a little bit with that a few years ago. We actually had a couple people in China helping us translate recipes and posting them on WeChat and a website called Douhua, which it’s like the Chinese version of allrecipes.com.
Bjork Ostrom: Sure.
Sarah Leung: It’s really tough because the Chinese market in particular, it’s so huge and if you could just capture a small piece of it, that would be very significant, obviously, but because it’s so huge, there’s a lot of competition out there, and also it requires a different mindset around the types of recipes that you’re promoting. We found, at least from our translators in China, they were saying, “Actually, your Western recipes are probably going to be more interesting to people because they’re different and they’re-”
Bjork Ostrom: Some novelty, as opposed to, “Oh, I already know how to make that.”
Kaitlin Leung: Right.
Sarah Leung: Right, so I think it lost steam for us a little bit because it just required such a pivot in terms of what we were focusing on, but I think we posted something like 100 recipes on that platform, and we did gain some traction on it, and it would be really interesting to see, but also just the politics of, “Oh, you need a Chinese bank account to get paid. How would you get the money out of China eventually?” That all is a big challenge and question marks that we never really answered, so that’s something to think about if you’re thinking about going into a foreign market, tax implications also, so it just brings in a lot of complexity.
Bjork Ostrom: Taxes in the US are complicated enough, so bringing in another country is like a no thank you. We’re coming to the end here, we’re wrapping up. Obviously, we could talk for hours about all the things that you guys have learned and the things that you’re doing, what’s working and what’s not, just you guys have such an inspiring story. Last question for each of you, for those who are listening, what would you say your advice would be? Any time we get to somebody who’s been doing something for a decade, you obviously have opinions and experience where you’ll be able to speak into somebody who hasn’t been doing it as long, or people who have realistically, but doing this as long as you have, having the experience that you have, what would be the one piece of advice that you’d give people who maybe want to follow a similar path? And Kaitlin, I’ll start with you.
Kaitlin Leung: Oh, it’s a good question. I feel like maybe it’s two answers. We’ll see how it goes, but I think the thing that kept us going for so long is and got us the perseverance that we needed to build the blog was having that bigger sense of purpose that we shared with our whole family. So, for so many years when we would argue, or me and Sarah feel like we were being stretched thin at our jobs, and we always had these goals, and it was like, “Are we going to meet them? How are we going to meet them?” I always call the blog the train that won’t stop running, because after that two-year mark, it really did get to a point where it was like, nobody wants to stop. It’s stressful, but nobody wants to stop. We all feel like we have this bigger responsibility now because we’ve created this audience and we filled this need.
So, that really helped me at least get through some of those tougher times where I was super busy at work and also editing posts at night and things like that, but at the same time, I think that now that we’ve been on a 10-year timeline, it starts to be that you need a catalyst to rejigger that sense of purpose.
Bjork Ostrom: Interesting.
Kaitlin Leung: And I thinking a lot of what I’ve been thinking about lately is ways that I can feed my creativity, generally speaking, because I think sometimes you get a little burnt out, or especially in this food world, you become known for something or something succeeds and then you’re like, “Let me just repeat it or replicate it or try to build on it,” and I think finding ways to do that, but also branch out and refill your creative cup is definitely a huge top of mind thing for me.
Right now, I haven’t figured it out yet, by the way, but I think about it a lot these days. So things like video, it’s like, “I know I have to do videos,” or we know we want to do videos and build our YouTube presence, but how can I make it creatively rewarding for myself and not just mimic what other people are doing who are successful? So, I think finding that unique formula for yourself of what’s the purpose that drives you and also what’s like the path there, the medium, or the method that’s going to make you feel like your creative juices are flowing is the million dollar question.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s totally relatable, and I’ve been trying to think of an analogy, and the one that I’ve been using, you can let me know if this resonates, but is life soup. And the idea being that we have all of these ingredients that we can put into our life soup and that will taste a certain way, and that changes over time. Our taste changes as different variables come into it. In our world, it’s like, “We have two kids now and what does that look like and how does that change things?” And the ingredients are work, it’s family, it’s friends, it’s creativity, and I think some of the ingredients, like work and creativity, the thing that tasted really good five years ago now doesn’t taste as good, and you need to replace that ingredient in order to get your life soup right and that problem solving process, I can really relate to that.
What does that look like to adjust it? And it’s difficult when there’s a thing that’s working, like in your case, you know you can continue with on this formula and deliver this and it works. You put this in and you get this out, but if it doesn’t taste right, how do you continue with that successful thing while also not serving it unnecessarily? So, totally relate to that.
Kaitlin Leung: For sure.
Bjork Ostrom: And the takeaway that I hear you saying is, don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself along the way in service of continual passion and investment and satisfaction in the work that you’re doing. Does that feel accurate?
Kaitlin Leung: Totally, and I think this uncomfortable part is not rushing to it because I have a desire to rush to it, but I also don’t really know what I’m rushing towards.
Bjork Ostrom: Sure.
Kaitlin Leung: I really want to be more creative now, but I don’t exactly know what that’s going to look like, and I think my mom gave me some advice where she was like, “Don’t work yourself up over all the things that you have to do or want to do. When you wake up in the morning, just really well do at least one thing and then let the rest unfold as it does,” and I think that’s been valuable. I’m in this observant stage where I’m like, “What’s working? What’s not?” So, I think the slow and steady observational approach of, what is feeding me creatively has been an ongoing journey. So I think that-
Bjork Ostrom: It reminds me of this… Well, sorry, I interrupted. Go ahead.
Kaitlin Leung: No, no, no, go.
Bjork Ostrom: This book that I read a while back called Designing Your Life, and there’s this activity in there where it talks about empty to full and looking at each one of the activities that you go through during the day and, does this fill me up or does it empty me? And I think they also just released one called Designing Your Work Life and this very much is for people like us and people who listen to this podcast where we have the ability to change and adjust and shift, but part of it is just even knowing what we’re changing and adjusting and shifting towards, and the key word that you said that I think is so great is observant. Some of that observing empty to full helps inform totally those tweaks and adjustments you make along the way. I love that and I think really relatable for people who are listening and are relatable for myself as well. How about you, Sarah? If you look at the past decade, what would the advice be for anybody listening?
Sarah Leung: I think my advice kind of echoes Kaitlin’s, but in a slightly different way. So, I think that finding something that you think, and that you feel and that you’re so passionate about that you feel like this could drive you for the next 10 years, I think is important. Chances are if you are listening to this podcast, you’re interested in food or food blogging, but I think that I’ve heard from people who are like, “Oh, I’ve thought about starting a food blog,” and people will reach out to us fairly often for advice on, “Oh, I’m thinking of starting a food blog. Could we have a chat or something?” And I always say yes, and what I tell them is… Or the question I ask is, “Do you really love cooking? How much do you really enjoy it?”
Because when it becomes a job or when it becomes work, it can be hard sometimes if you don’t necessarily really love it. It could be hard to stick with it, and so for me, I say maybe there’s something else out there. Maybe it’s not food. You can create a website or a blog that talks about anything really as long as it’s useful to somebody. And so for me, I think it’s find that passion that you feel like you can renew over and over again and feel energized by for a long period of time because my number one piece of advice to everybody is consistency and basically just keeping at it. The majority of people… We were at this conference in New Orleans and we were both there and we met all these other bloggers and it was so great to be able to talk to them about their experience.
And one of the bloggers there said something that really stuck with me, which was like, “everybody here is here because they just kept going.” If you just keep going and you keep at it… It’s the people who didn’t keep going that maybe their blog fizzled and didn’t eventually grow into something. So, figure out what that thing is that’s going to really make you keep at it, and my other thing is don’t feel like you have to do every single thing that it seems like everybody is doing, especially for somebody who’s first starting out. I think that you can feel a lot of pressure to be on video, to be on TikTok, to be on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and all of these different… Pinterest, and to also run a dot com and on that blog to have all of these different resources all over your blog, I think that it can be really overwhelming for somebody who’s first starting and maybe perhaps a comforting thought is the idea that The Woks of Life started with just recipes.
It was just recipes, we weren’t doing… Over time, we built those other channels and sometimes we just don’t. With TikTok for example, we’ve determined TikTok is not our platform. We don’t need to be on TikTok, it’s okay, so I think that there’s this pressure to be everywhere, and I know that in a lot of these in industry speak, there’s a lot of multichannel, omnichannel or whatever. Especially if you’re one person working on this now or a couple people, it could just be a lot and it can be very difficult for you to focus on actually just creating the content when there’s all this other stuff that’s competing for your attention. So, I would say just focus on the content and focus on, like my sister just said, the medium or the method that energizes you the most and all that other stuff can come later or maybe not. Maybe it’s not even necessary.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s great, and I think one of the things that’s really common is for people to feel like they have to do it all and to have permission to not do it all and to do a few things that you really love really well, I think is a really freeing thing, so I love that. This was awesome, so I’m guessing people would want to follow along with what you’re up to, whether it’s the recipes, cookbook. Do you have individual accounts or is it all under The Woks of Life?
Sarah Leung: It’s all under The Woks of Life, My Instagram account is empty. I don’t post. I’m personally anonymous to except like only 200 people maybe.
Bjork Ostrom: Great, so people can follow along with Woks of Life, we’ll link to that in the show notes. Really great to talk to you both. Kaitlin and Sarah, thanks so much for coming on.
Sarah Leung: Thanks, Bjork.
Kaitlin Leung: Thank you so much. Thanks for having us.
Alexa Peduzzi: Hey there, Alexa here. Thanks for tuning into this episode of the Food Blogger Pro podcast. We hope you enjoyed it, and we have quite a July to look forward to here at Food Blogger Pro. If you’re unaware, there is a Food Blogger Pro membership where we teach our members how to start, grow, and monetize their own food blogs through courses, forum discussions and more. And this month, oh, we have a good one. We have so much awesome content planned and we’re just going to go through it right now. So first, tomorrow, that is the 6th of July, we’re going to actually have a coaching call, and that’s going to be with Zhen from Greedy Girl Gourmet, and she’s going to be talking about starting a podcast and figuring out how you can be just the best at what you’re doing. It’s such a good conversation, and that will be available tomorrow, like I said.
So, next we have a keyword research Q and A with the one, the only Aleka from Keywords With Aleka. She is our keyword research expert here at Food Blogger Pro, and she will be joining us on the 13th to answer every keyword research questions that you have. It’s going to be such a good one. We are so excited, and you can attend if you’re a member on July 13th. Last but not least, we actually have a keyword research course coming on the 20th, and in that course it’s going to be a little bit different from our other courses, and that’s because we’re actually going to show you how different people do keyword research. So, Aleka is recording a lesson for us, the Pinch of Yum team recorded a lesson for us, and we at Food Blogger Pro are going to record a lesson, and that’s just all going to show you the different approaches that you can take when doing keyword research.
We are so excited about this course. A big props out to Emily for being the brainchild behind this, and it’s just going to be a really good one. And I know this is one of those topics that everybody is really concerned about right now, so we’re hoping that this course makes the keyword research process a little bit easier and enjoyable for you. So, that is what we’re planning here in July. It’s going to be a good one, and if you’re not already a member, you can join in on the fun at foodbloggerpro.com/join. You can read a little bit more about the membership and get signed up right there, but that does it for us this week. We’ll see you next time, and until then, make it a great week.