This episode is sponsored by Clariti.
Welcome to episode 414 of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork interviews Kyleigh Sage from Barley & Sage.
Last week on the podcast, Bjork chatted with Maggie Zhu. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.
Combining Brand Work and Ad Revenue to Make $10,000-$15,000 a Month
There are lots of different opportunities for food content creators to make money. And one of the most common ways is by partnering with brands!
In this interview, Bjork and Kyleigh chat about partnering with brands on sponsored content and freelance work (even when you don’t have a large social media following), including how to effectively pitch to brands and negotiate your contracts.
Kyleigh is honest and transparent about her strategies for working with brands and how she navigates pricing her work. It’s clear that she is passionate about helping other food bloggers find success, and you won’t want to miss this interview!
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- About Kyleigh’s professional background and journey to starting her food blog in 2019.
- How she strategically approached her first year of blogging while still working full-time.
- More about how she first started partnering with brands on sponsored content and freelance work.
- How she combines brand work and ad revenue to make $10,000-$15,000 a month.
- How an SEO audit transformed how she approached her blog and helped her qualify for Mediavine.
- How she recommends calculating your rates when working with brands.
- How to effectively pitch your work to brands and network with PR agencies.
- What she recommends for maintaining good relationships with brands and PR agencies.
- What she would repeat, and what she would change from her food blogging journey so far.
- Barley & Sage
- Media Wyse
- Pricing Guide for Food Photography
- Barley & Sage Resources
- Follow Kyleigh on Instagram
- Join the Food Blogger Pro Podcast Facebook Group
About This Week’s Sponsor
We’re excited to announce that this week’s episode is sponsored by our sister site, Clariti!
With Clariti, you can easily organize your blog content for maximum growth. Create campaigns to add alt text to your posts, fix broken images, remove any broken links, and more, all within the Clariti app.
Sign up for Clariti today to receive:
- Access to their limited-time $45 Forever pricing
- 50% off your first month
- Optimization ideas for your site content
- An invitation to join their exclusive Slack community
- And more!
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 Clariti, C-L-A-R-I-T-I. And I kid you not, I was going to record this half an hour ago, but I was in Clariti and realized there’s an opportunity for Pinch of Yum that is a project we should move forward with, so I created a video, communicated it with the Pinch of Yum team, and said, “Hey, we should move forward on this and really get to work cleaning this up.” In our case, what I had done is I said, “Hey, show me all of the posts in the past year on Pinch of Yum.” Then I sort ordered that in reverse order by page views. I was looking at pages that Pinch of Yum in the last year, got zero page use, and I realized we have a lot of really thin not valuable content, and it’s important to clean that up.
In our case, we’re going to delete a lot of that content and we should have done that a long time ago, but we just didn’t get around to it. And it wasn’t until I was using Clariti that I realized that that was something that we should have done. I was able to see that. It’s a lot of old giveaway posts and things like that. We’re going to move forward with that and clean up Pinch of Yum.
That’s what Clariti is for. It’s to help you discover that actionable information to create a project around it. Either you can follow the project or you can assign it to somebody with your team and then track the impact that that has by making notes or seeing when you made those changes over time. We bring all the information in from WordPress, Google Search Console, and Google Analytics. You hook it all up and then you can sort order and use Clariti, like a Swiss Army knife for your content. If you’re interested in checking it out, go to clariti.com/food C-L-A-R-I-T-I.com/food, and that will get you 50% off your first month. Thanks to Clariti for sponsoring this episode.
Emily Walker: Welcome to the Food Blogger Pro podcast. This is Emily from the Food Blogger Pro team. This week on the podcast, Bjork is interviewing Kyleigh Sage from the blog Barley and Sage. Kyleigh has only been blogging for a few short years, but she’s already had really tremendous success in that short time. In this interview, Bjork and Kyleigh chat a lot about partnering with brands on sponsored content and freelance work, including how to effectively pitch to brands and negotiate your contracts. Kyleigh also shares more about what she recommends for maintaining good relationships with brands and PR agencies and how she recommends calculating your rates for brand work.
When Kyleigh first started out blogging, she was working a pretty demanding full-time job, and she has lots of insights into how she balanced working a full-time job with growing her blog. She also shares more about how an SEO audit early on in her blogging days transformed the way she approached her blog and helped her to qualify for Mediavine. Kyleigh is super honest and transparent about her strategies for working with brands and how she navigates pricing her own work. It’s clear that she loves helping other food bloggers and is passionate about supporting those in the community and helping them to find success. We hope this episode will resonate with you and we’re really excited to share it with you. We’ll just let Bjork take it away.
Bjork Ostrom: Kyleigh, welcome to the podcast.
Kyleigh Sage: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, we’re going to be talking about how to make money from the work that you’re doing, which I think is not for everybody, but for a lot of people that’s what they’re trying to do. We’re trying to figure out how to do this work that we love, that we’re passionate about, that we’re excited about, and not only to do that work, but to figure out ways to get compensated for it. You’ve done that with your social following and your blog. One of the things that’s interesting with your story is that you actually started and went full-time working on this before your blog really got traction. You talk about how you weren’t at the point where you had been accepted to Mediavine and you were already working full-time on your creative work being a creator. What did that look like when you started to work on your publishing, your creating full-time, and what were the decisions that went into deciding to jump in and do it full-time?
Kyleigh Sage: Yes, I started blogging as just a hobby in December of 2019. Obviously, we all know what happened a few months after that.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.
Kyleigh Sage: It was a right place, right time kind of a thing. I had just started blogging just as a hobby. I’ve always loved cooking and baking and been developing my own recipes and had just started getting into photography realizing like, “Oh, this is really cool. This is really fun. Let’s just see where it goes.” I had no real…
Bjork Ostrom: Enjoyable, it’s a craft, like it’s a fun thing to do. Yeah.
Kyleigh Sage: Yeah, in the beginning, I had no real ambition. I didn’t even really understand that people could make money from doing any of this. Right around the time that the pandemic kicked off, my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, had just gotten selected to be a pilot in the Air Force. We were starting to have these awkward conversations around like…
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, totally, because you were just dating at this point. Yeah.
Kyleigh Sage: Well, we were at a point in our relationship where we knew it was going somewhere but too early to really fully make that call.
Bjork Ostrom: Sure.
Kyleigh Sage: We were having these conversations around like, “Okay, if we’re going to stay together, what does that look like for me and my career?” Because for anyone who doesn’t know, military families are typically moving roughly every three years or so. Its’ really, really hard for military spouses to have a stable career in most industries.
Bjork Ostrom: What were you doing at the time?
Kyleigh Sage: It’s a little awkward because people are always like, “What.” I worked for the FBI in D.C., I did medical logistics and…
Bjork Ostrom: Wow. Natural transition into publishing food content.
Kyleigh Sage: It was an incredibly cool job. It paid really well, but it was something that was only based in D.C., I could not go somewhere else and keep that career, keep those connections.
Bjork Ostrom: With that job specifically, I’m just so curious, what were you doing? Or if you tell me will I get a dull pain in the neck?
Kyleigh Sage: Oh, no. Yeah, I basically did medical logistics. It’s the same thing where if someone is working at a hospital, you’re doing all of the supplies ordering, all sorts of intricate stuff because the FBI has their own paramedics and nurses and doctors and stuff. We also have medical details for the attorney general and things like that. I was in charge of all that kind of stuff. Then also, part of my job, I was a part-time instructor at Quantico teaching, like emergency trauma medicine. It was the coolest job in the world. I loved it. Again, it’s only based in that one city, and unfortunately it just wasn’t something that I could really translate into something else easily. I had planned-
Bjork Ostrom: Like starting a blog on medical logistics?
Kyleigh Sage: Yeah, exactly. I had planned on being in D.C., forever. I loved D.C., I loved being there. I loved my job. Again, yeah, like I said, it was this weird time of like, “Well, he’s doing this and going to be moving no matter what. What are you going to do?
Bjork Ostrom: You love your job and want to stay there, but also you love your husband, then boyfriend. It feels like a difficult crossroads.
Kyleigh Sage: It is, and having a career and my own financial independence is also something that’s always been very important to me. That’s all happening right around the beginning of the pandemic. He finds out, he gets selected and is supposed to leave pretty soon, and then the pandemic happens, and then they’re like, “Okay, this is on hold indefinitely.” We were like, “Okay, we have more time to figure this out because you’re not leaving anytime soon.” Then right around that same time, the few recipes I did have on my blog were sourdough.
Bjork Ostrom: Oh, interesting.
Kyleigh Sage: As we all know, beginning of the pandemic, everyone was making sourdough. It got this unexpected boost right towards the beginning, both on social and a little bit of traffic on my blog, but we’re talking pretty small numbers. I got a boost on social media because everyone was making sourdough and that just so happened to be the content that I was producing. Again, I already realized I loved it just a couple of months in. I realized this could be the answer. I want to see if I can make this work. We sat down and I was like, “Okay, you’re probably not going anywhere for a year. I want to see if I can make this work in a year because that would allow me to move with you. I could do this job from anywhere. I still get to maintain that financial independence that’s so important to me. I think we can do this.” He was like, “Okay.”
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, what’s great about that is you set a deadline. I will occasionally refer to my dad on the podcast and the quotes that he has, one of them is, “A deadline is the greatest motivator.”
Kyleigh Sage: Absolutely.
Bjork Ostrom: In this case, it really is where you have this point where… It sounds like you didn’t know you’re going to be leaving whatever, June 1, 2022. It’s like you know eventually there’s going to be a date where he’s going to move, he’s going to be somewhere different. You either are moving somewhere, finding a new job, and then working at it for three years or remote job. And you said, “Okay, I’m going to try and make this thing work that I know that I’ll love, and I know it will be transferable. It’s remote, it’s location independent, it doesn’t matter where I am.” Then did you quit your job and get after it, or did you work on it nights and weekends?
Kyleigh Sage: Yeah, what’s interesting is I got to start working from home a decent amount. I still had to go into the office a decent bit because security things. But I got to start working at home more, which I had a two-hour commute. I all of a sudden had extra time I didn’t previously have. Again, I was making decent money. I was able to take all that disposable income that I was lucky to have and really just invest in a way that I think a lot of people don’t necessarily have the means to do in the beginning. Money, it does make everything easier.
Bjork Ostrom: Sure, it’s time or money, and if you have a lot of time or if you have more money, it’s going to accelerate the process of whatever it is that you’re working on, like the business that you’re working on. Also, you have to be smart about it. It’s not magically putting money into a thing results in growth. What was it in those early stages that you were investing in?
Kyleigh Sage: I was really investing in photography, equipment courses, just learning as much as possible because I feel like I saw that as the most immediate way to make money was with the photography aspect. I poured a ton of money my-
Bjork Ostrom: Why is that?
Kyleigh Sage: I’ve always been interested in photography. I was a yearbook staff in high school and stuff.
Bjork Ostrom: Yep. Even I was.
Kyleigh Sage: I was never good at it, but it’s something that always interested me. I was like, “Well, I would enjoy learning this skill anyway.” I guess I have a lot of friends that are wedding photographers or I know people that are in photography industries. I know there’s money there. I just assumed that photography was gateway into making money quickly. I invested a lot of money upfront into that stuff. Also, just props and stuff to make my photos more exciting and interesting. Obviously, you don’t need all that stuff, but I had money to spend essentially. I feel like I just really invested a lot in those first few months and pretty quickly it started getting reached out to by brands for photography work and stuff in general when I only had a couple of thousand followers.
Bjork Ostrom: Can you talk about what that was like? Because I think what’s interesting is and worth pointing out is you said, “Okay, I had this disposable income.” Some people would spend it on a new couch and other people would buy a car. None of that stuff is bad, but you said, “You know what? I’m actually going to invest.” Warren Buffett talks about this when people are like, “What’s the best investment?” He’s like, “Investing in yourself?” It sounds like that’s a version of what you were doing. You were getting equipment that helped you shoot to a certain caliber. You were investing in courses that allowed you to learn and accelerate the process of gathering information that’s going to allow you to do what you want to do better. The result of that, I think that’s what’s important, is that naturally your photography gets better. It sounds like what happened then as you were posting on social media, brands would reach out to you and say, “Can we hire you to take pictures?” Or what were they saying at that point?
Kyleigh Sage: Yeah, essentially I just started getting pitched by smaller brands at first, just asking for either sponsored posts or just freelance work that they were just going to post on their accounts because my account wasn’t very big. There wasn’t a whole lot of benefit to me posting, but they saw a benefit of using my photography to promote their product.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, because the photography’s great and they want their product to be featured in a way that makes it look great. Worth pointing out with that, it’s a little bit of a tangent, but before we get too far away from it, I think it’s important for anybody listening to be reminded of this fact that good work wins the day. And it doesn’t matter how many followers you have, if your work is good, it will eventually get noticed. I know good is very abstract and very subjective. I think generally what we’re trying to get at is like, “It’s not the tip, it’s not the tactic. It’s really the work that you’re producing.” We say this occasionally, it’s not about how many, it’s about who. And in your case, it’s a great example of that. You have maybe a handful of thousand followers, but the who, there’s somebody in that following that recognized your good work and said, “I want to connect with you and I want to work together.” Tell us about some of those early deals. Did you end up working with those brands and how did you know how to get started?
Kyleigh Sage: I had no idea how to get started. I just started reaching out to other bloggers honestly, and being like, “Hey, what do you charge? Have you done this before?” I think that that is such an important aspect is that community with other people in your industry. There’s a whole list of names that I could credit of people that were so, so helpful in helping me figure out how to get started. Also, my now husband, he had done a lot of businessy type stuff and run businesses for other people in the past. He had a lot of knowledge into that side of things that I didn’t have. He was also very helpful in just helping me with the initial negotiating and starting to figure things out. To me, since I had a full-time job and I didn’t necessarily need this extra money, it was also very easy for me to say no to things that just didn’t seem worth my time.
I think that that’s something that new people especially struggle with is figuring out what is worth your time and how to pass on those opportunities. There’s definitely a level of desperation I think like, “Well, I have to work with every single brand that reaches out because it’s an opportunity cost type situation.” Again, I think I was very lucky that I had a job that was paying my rent. I didn’t necessarily have to say yes to everything. That helped me, I also think raised my rates very early on because I was getting a certain amount of inquiries for a couple of hundred bucks here and there. That’s when I started realizing this isn’t worth it. It makes so much more sense to be charging more money and taking on less clients than killing yourself trying to do all of these different projects for just a couple of hundred bucks here and there.
It was a little bit like I just got thrown in and figured it out and also just really loved it in the process, which I think is also important because I think there’s so many people that get into this and then realized they don’t love the business side of everything, which you don’t necessarily have to, but it’s definitely helpful if you do enjoy that side of things as well. It’s something I never really expected to enjoy, but I really do. It’s been a lot of fun just figuring that out and learning from other people and implementing different tips and tricks and ideas from other creators that I followed. Obviously, your podcast and other resources have also been so great in figuring out stuff like that too.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it feels like one of the keys with what we do is, you mentioned enjoying the business side, there’s going to be a lot of people who are listening who are like, “Ugh, that’s my least favorite part of it. I just want to figure out how to do this creative work and create an income from it.” It almost feels like part of the key for us as people who are running our own businesses is figuring out what we love doing and figuring out how we can continue to do that and figuring out what we don’t doing, endure that, until we get to the point where we can have somebody else help with it, and having a very loose list of what are the things that we can have somebody else come in and help out with? If you’re somebody who doesn’t love doing the business side of things, it doesn’t mean that you have to just suffer through it, but think about who could that be that could come in and help with that, whether it’s a contracted basis, maybe it’s somebody who’s in your family you could hire, bring in.
You might need to do it for a while, but you can bring somebody else and eventually that would help with that. At what point did you get to the point where you said, “I think I’m making enough from this where I can step back from my job?” Or did the move happen and you were like, “Okay, now’s the time to make this happen because we’re moving and I don’t want to get another job. I want to figure out how to make this work.”
Kyleigh Sage: Again, I got very lucky with timing that they coincided. I think it was March 2021, literally about a year after I really started to focus on this. I wasn’t quite replacing my income yet, but we were moving to Oklahoma, which is a lot cheaper than Washington D.C.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, totally. It’s kind of the two ends of the spectrum.
Kyleigh Sage: Well, exactly. I was making more than enough money to survive in Oklahoma, not quite enough to survive in D.C., it’s obviously very relative. Yeah, the timing just worked out very well, but it was just a natural like, “Okay, we’re going to do this.” Yeah, I’ve been full-time since March 2021.
Bjork Ostrom: Okay. Are you still in Oklahoma now?
Kyleigh Sage: Yes, we are moving to Spokane, Washington at some point in the next few months. We don’t totally know when, because that’s how it goes.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s life. Yeah, we talked about this before, and you’re open with sharing this, which I think is awesome because it’s motivational. At the point now where between your social and your blog, earnings fluctuate between 10,000 to 15,000. Is that accurate for everything rolled up?
Kyleigh Sage: Yeah, I’d say that first year where I was primarily just doing brand work was right around 100,000 for that year. Then once I finally got onto Mediavine in the beginning of last year, 2022, that obviously helped a lot. I was able to scale back brand work a tiny bit just because that’s not my only source of income anymore. Now it’s a little above that, but a nice mix of brands and then the ad income, which is… I’m so grateful for that.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Can you talk about that, why you say that you’re grateful for it?
Kyleigh Sage: Honestly, just the consistency is amazing because that’s the one downside to brand work is that you’re not getting a consistent paycheck every month. I would have a month where I made $30,000 and then a month where I made $1,000 and then I’d have a month where I made nothing. But then I’d have another great month where I made 20,000. That was hard, the instability of not knowing when you’re next paycheck is going to be. Now my Mediavine income is pretty consistent. I have a base rate. I can expect at least 5K a month-ish from Mediavine, and then obviously good months are more, but my minimum that I’ve seen is that level, which that alone is enough to live on decently.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.
Kyleigh Sage: Just that consistent monthly income has been a huge stress relief in finally feeling really comfortable in doing this full time.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it’s like a level of predictable that brand work isn’t.
Kyleigh Sage: Yeah.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s awesome when it’s good, and then like you said, if you have a month where you don’t have any deals that close or decide not to or just have other stuff going on, whatever it might be, suddenly there’s this internal pressure. I would imagine when you start to get that ad revenue that fluctuates, but not in the same way that brand work would, it relieves some of that pressure where it’s like, “Hey, regardless, you’re going to always have this baseline and then you can build on top of that in a way that feels really good.” In a relatively short amount of time, 2019, today’s 2023, but in a couple of years really you were able to get to that point where you were making a substantial income. What do you think were the variables that existed within that that allowed you to do that? If you had to go back and replicate it again, what things did you do that were helpful?
Kyleigh Sage: Well, as for the Mediavine aspect, I didn’t really know what I was doing in terms of SEO and stuff when I first started the blog. I had gorgeous photos, but the blog posts themselves were a mess. Right after I went full-time in 2021, that’s when I decided I needed to focus on the blog itself more. I did an audit with Casey Markee, who we all know and love. He was brutally honest.
Bjork Ostrom: Like he is?
Kyleigh Sage: But it was amazing. Within six months of really starting to implement all of his recommendations, my traffic skyrocketed. I think when I met with him, I had maybe about 15,000 to 20,000 sessions a month. Six months later, I hit that 50K threshold for Mediavine. That was February 2022. Now in the past year, I’ve gone from about 50,000 sessions to about 250,000 sessions. I would say he alone, and that audit was probably one of the best things I’ve ever done in terms of the SEO blog side of everything. That was just so valuable. I would pay him all of my money again and again.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. What were the changes that you made that were most beneficial? When you talked about it being a mess, the before and after of your content, or even just how you approached the process?
Kyleigh Sage: I essentially just didn’t really write blog post… I would have one paragraph and a couple photos, and then the recipe card. I just didn’t. Really just writing actual high quality blog posts because I wasn’t doing that at all before. Obviously-
Bjork Ostrom: High quality, meaning you’re having different sections and being strategic with the pictures and making them be informational as opposed to just random pictures, things like that?
Kyleigh Sage: Yeah, and just adding in FAQs, notes about ingredients, just all of those, just adding content essentially. Then obviously some keyword research and all of that baked into that. Essentially I just was posting photos and not really understanding that that’s not enough to get Google traffic.
Bjork Ostrom: Which is interesting, it’s one of the things that was most beneficial for you, I’m guessing it was on Instagram, was the primary platform that you’re using before. There’s this reality for us as creators where we’re having to speak in different languages depending on the platform that we’re on. I think some of us speak different languages more natively. There’s people who are really good at photography and they’re going to shine on a platform that prioritizes photography, but they might not love the idea of more technical oriented writing, which right now is doing really well for search. Or you might be somebody who speaks the language of engagement around video really well, and you’re funny or you’re interesting to watch, then you might do well on TikTok. What’s interesting for me to observe after for doing this as long as we have is the different waves of things that work in different areas.
When you are somebody who can ride a certain wave really well, like somebody who loves keyword research and loves writing in a certain way that’s going to prioritize search and build processes, you’ll catch the wave of search that prioritizes that type of content, which is happening right now really well, or in your case photography and working with brands and catching that wave really well. For you, when you reflect on your own interests abilities, what type of wave do you think you like to ride the most as you think about your business and the way that you create content?
Kyleigh Sage: I think definitely the photography wave. I just really enjoy the whole creative process around photography. Again, that does go into both sectors. I love having beautiful photos on my blog, but also selling them to brands as well. That overall I think is what I love the most. I very much struggled with the video centric everything lately because it is just such a different skill set. But at the end of the day, brands do still need photography. Even though in terms of sponsored posts and social media, there has definitely been a push from a lot of brands to focus more on video. They still need photography for their websites. They still need photography for in-store promotional flyers. They still need photography for product packaging. If photography is what you love, I wouldn’t get too discouraged by video because I definitely went through that a little bit last year, but came to the realization that just because video’s having a moment, it doesn’t mean that photography’s going away.
Bjork Ostrom: Right. I think it’s important for us as creators to think about what is it that we want to be doing? There’s always going to be something that works well that you could potentially do, but if you’re going to be miserable in doing it doesn’t mean that you should do it or just generally not enjoy it. I think about that even for writers and have had conversations with friends and people that we’re connected with who are like, “Oh, I don’t want to write for SEO and even from a structural standpoint, I don’t want to structure a post for SEO.” But the reality is, and you’ve seen this, if you are strategic about how you’re structuring a post, what you’re writing about, that’s going to potentially be significantly beneficial from a search perspective. That doesn’t mean that there’s not a platform or a wave that you can’t ride.
I think of the different email subscription services like Substack. If you’re a writer who really loves to write for the sake of writing and you want to lean into the art of that, not do keyword research, whatever it might be, that might be a great platform for people. Or in your case, you talk about photography, just because video is important and there’s a rise in the presence of video and video advertising and all of that, doesn’t mean that you have to throw everything out and focus on video. It just means you have to find where’s the wave and you have to catch the wave that’s best for you as a surfer if we’re going to use that analogy. It sounds like that’s some of the consideration that you’ve made in deciding how you work and what you work on. Does that feel accurate?
Kyleigh Sage: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve definitely been dabbling in video because I do think it’s important to still try to evolve with things, but it’s just not become my focus. I haven’t really tried very much on TikTok because, again, it’s just a platform, it’s just not the kind of content that I’m really good at producing. I’ve found that if I put my time into producing the content I enjoy, I feel more fulfilled. I’m happier, I’m still successful. Yeah, I think, again, definitely be a balance there between definitely trying new things and not getting totally lost in the sauce, but also focusing on the things that you enjoy the most because there is a place for every single aspect of the creative process.
Bjork Ostrom: Lindsay gives me a hard time because I’m trying to develop this as a concept, but I’m thinking of it as life soup. We have the ability not to create a fully custom soup because there’s some things that are just set, whether it be caring for a parent or caring for kids, or you have a regular job, 9:00 to 5:00 job that you have to do. But for the most part, everybody listening to this podcast has some ability to create their life soup, the custom ingredients that you want to have that results in a soup that you really love.
One of the components of that life soup is finances. It’s money, but it’s just one of the things. The other variables are like, “How much do you enjoy the work that you’re doing? How much time do you have for family and friends? What is the level of stress that you have?” All of these different variables that are in the ingredients in our life soup. And our goal isn’t to have the most of one ingredient, the money ingredient, right? Our goal is to make the most delicious life soup that we can. It sounds like that’s what you’re saying a little bit is, “I know there’s these opportunities, but I also want to be aware of the things that are important to me and the things that I enjoy. Does that feel accurate?
Kyleigh Sage: Yeah, absolutely. Yes. I love that analogy.
Bjork Ostrom: I’ll work on it. I’m still developing it a little bit. I say that and now I’m going to ask some specific questions about money and specifically about working with brands, negotiating with brands. It’s something that I think is intimidating for a lot of people, especially early on. How do you know when you’re first getting started, what to charge? We’ve had that conversation before, but I feel like people want to hear what others have to say about getting to a price point that you can feel comfortable with and that justifies the work that you’re doing and the time that you’re putting in.
Kyleigh Sage: Absolutely. That’s one of my favorite things to talk about because in my experience, most people, especially when they’re starting out, are just vastly undercharging. Also, in this age of social media, so much emphasis placed on the amount of followers you have. This idea that like, “Well, if you only have 1,000 followers, you can’t charge anything. You have to work for a free product.” Or, “If you only have 5,000 followers, you can only charge a couple of hundred dollars because it’s not worth it otherwise.” I just really hate that line of thinking because at the end of the day, you’re providing a service and your work, your time should be compensated as such. Especially if a brand is reaching out to you or interested in using your photos, they clearly see value in your work. A lot of times, even if you’re doing say sponsored posts on Instagram where you’re posting a photo that goes out to your followers, even if you only have a few hundred followers or something, 9 times out of 10 in your contract, that brand also would like the rights to use that photo on their social media platforms. Sometimes on their website. Sometimes in their email list. And none of those things have anything to do with your follower account.
If your photos being posted on their page, your followers have nothing to do with that. I like to encourage people to think about pricing in terms of the value that you’re providing and the work that you’re doing. I have a whole pricing guide blog post on my website that goes into how I like to calculate things. What I like to tell people, especially if you’re a beginner, to think about the time that you’re putting into things and charging based on your time as a way to calculate your rate. You’re not going to a brand and saying, “My hourly rate is X.” You’re doing your own calculation to figure it out. I like to say for absolute beginners, the minimum you should be charging whatsoever, absolute minimum is 50 to $100 an hour. Then sitting down and realizing how much time it takes you to actually do everything involved in a brand shoot. You’re talking about concepting the recipe, testing the recipe, the cooking, the cleaning, the photographing, the editing. All the post-processing stuff. Communicating with the brand.
That can take anywhere from 10 to 15 hours, right? Thinking about how much time it’s going to take you to do something and coming up with an hourly rate that reflects your skill level, and that’s your base rate. A lot of people will say, “Well, 50 to $100 an hour, that’s a ton of money.” And it is, but it’s also not, because I think where a lot of brand new freelancers struggle is they don’t understand everything that then has to come out of that $100 an hour. If you’re starting at $100 an hour, off the top, you need to take off 25 to 30% for taxes. Now we’re down to say $75. Then you have expenses and some people might charge extra for groceries or whatever on top of their rate, but that’s also something that could be included in that rate.
Then you have other expenses, like web hosting fees, your equipment, all of your stuff that it takes to run your business. At the end of the year how much money is that costing you? I say probably another 10 to 30% depending on how you run your business. Let’s take off another $20, now we’re down to $55 from 100. We’re already at half. Then there’s stuff like health insurance, especially if you’re full-time. There’s so many things that go into running a business that it’s not directly comparable to someone working at Target making $20 an hour.
Bjork Ostrom: Right.
Kyleigh Sage: I think this is what people struggle with is they say, “A hundred dollars an hour sounds like so much money.” But you don’t realize that it’s not actually $100 an hour that you’re taking home.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, when people are anchored on a rate that would maybe be a W2 type rate, the business is absorbing some of the additional overhead and costs. Whereas when you’re freelance contracting, that’s not built in the same way. Yeah.
Kyleigh Sage: Well, I was going to say, and then two, it’s not feasible or realistic to be doing 40 hours a work a week every single week for brands.
Bjork Ostrom: Right.
Kyleigh Sage: Even if you’re then making $50 an hour, you’re only maybe able to do 20 hours worth of work. Really if you spread it out, you’re at like $22 an hour. You’re comparing $100 an hour to $22 an hour and realizing that’s the bare minimum that you should be accepting, otherwise it’s really not worth your time after everything that you put into it.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. This is a fun little thing. I thought of my friend Nate, he’s a photographer, but mostly videographer. One of the things he often talks about is his day rate and like, “What’s your day rate?” It’s a new term for me as I’ve started to talk more about him with his work because I never really thought about that. It’s almost like we as creators or people who are in the realm of publisher, influencer, creator, there’s a spectrum and the spectrum is agency, and it sounds like a big word, but essentially it’s freelancer or group of people creating work for other companies to purely influencer. It’s almost like one way that you could think of it, let me know if this feels accurate, as a baseline, you always are just going to charge what it costs to create the thing.
Kyleigh Sage: Yes.
Bjork Ostrom: Like you’re an agency, you’re creating the thing, you’re producing it. Then as you get more following followers, as you get actual influence, you can add on top of that the impact that it’s going to have if you publish that to your following online. You don’t want to charge. An equivalent would be if somebody came to you and you had to go hire somebody else to create it and then publish it onto your site. You would never pay somebody more to create it than what you’re getting paid from the brand. You can think of yourself almost as that agency, which I loved that you drive that point home. The thing that I was going to say that’s fun is I was just curious, and so as you’re talking, I Googled food photographer day rate and Barley & Sage is the second result there.
Kyleigh Sage: SEO.
Bjork Ostrom: Yes, SEO, it’s working and we’ll make sure to link to that in the show notes, but I think that’s a great point. Just figure out how many… Essentially at the core it’s saying, “How much are you charging per hour?” Let’s say $100 an hour, and then how many hours is it going to take you to do this using that as your baseline.
Kyleigh Sage: Yes.
Bjork Ostrom: The thing that I feel like is worth pointing out is you still have to be good.
Kyleigh Sage: Yeah.
Bjork Ostrom: That I think is where a potential spectrum or a potential gap exists is somebody who says like, “Wait, it doesn’t feel right that I’m doing this.” Maybe that’s because you’re still in this stage of being a beginner. I’d be interested in your thoughts on this. In those stages, it feels like maybe you do for a season under price what you would hope to get as an hourly rate in service of working with brands, building a portfolio, getting experience. Some people would push back against that. I’d be interested to hear where you land in that world and the idea of experience, not for the sake of just saying like, “I’m just going to do this for experience.” But to refine your craft and skill in service of as quickly as possible getting to the price point that you want to operate at.
Kyleigh Sage: I would push back a little because there are ways that you can obviously build your portfolio without working with brands. If you have a blog, you’re building your portfolio by practicing, you’re putting everything on your blog yourself. Yes, there’s absolutely stuff you learn from working with brands, but I don’t think it necessarily benefits you or the brand to be working for really, really low prices. I would say local small businesses that don’t have much of a budget. I think that’s a great way that can be mutually beneficial for someone that’s just starting out, because if there are really local, small, one or two person run show and you’re just getting started out, I think that can be a more even exchange. I’ve seen people working for these huge multinational brands charging a couple of hundred dollars. I just think that that’s bad for the industry because it signals to those types of brands that they don’t actually need to pay more.
Bjork Ostrom: I think that’s a great point.
Kyleigh Sage: Yeah, I think I would say that if you’re at that very, very beginner level, you want to get your feet wet, but you don’t feel like you can charge very much yet, I think I would go for more small businesses where it’s a little bit more of a mutually beneficial thing and not necessarily you getting taken advantage of things.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s great. Yep.
Kyleigh Sage: The other thing I would say with the hourly rate that I’m talking about, I want to stress, you should never go to a brand and say, “My hourly rate is $100 an hour and I’m going to charge you for 10 hours.” Because then they’re just going to try to be like, “Well, what if we only want to pay for six hours? What if we only want to pay for five hours?” It’s like an internal calculation you can do and you say, “Okay, I think this is going to take 10 hours. My rate’s are $100 an hour, that’s $1,000.” My base rate that I’m going to the brand with is $1,000 and that’s what you’re telling them essentially. To your point about adding extra stuff on, I like to refer to this initial charge as your creative fee.
That is your base fee for services that you’re doing. That’s your creative fee. Then on top of that, you’re going to add in licensing, and within licensing, that’s where I would say any extra charge for influencer type things, like doing a sponsored post. If you have a million followers, you can charge a hefty extra fee on top of that base rate for the promotion that you’re doing. If the brand wants to put your image on a billboard, that’s an extra fee that you should be charging as part of that licensing that goes on top of the base fee. Honestly, if you’re a brand new beginner and you’re just doing really small jobs, you don’t necessarily need to be getting into the nitty-gritty of licensing. As long as you have a pretty solid base creative fee that’s paying you for your time that you’re spending working on this, I think that that’s fine when you’re just starting out.
Bjork Ostrom: Is there an additional thought before I ask this next question?
Kyleigh Sage: Oh, I have so many thoughts. I forgot what I was going to say, so go ahead.
Bjork Ostrom: Okay, it’s perfect time to ask the next question. One of the things I think people would be thinking is like, “Where do these deals come from? Are you reaching out to brands and pitching them specifically, or are these mostly inbound at this point for you?” People coming in because they see the work that you’re doing on Instagram? If that’s the case, are you including specific language in certain places that helps to open that door more easily to working with brands?
Kyleigh Sage: It’s a little of both. At this point, the majority of brands that I end up actually working with tend to seek me out first, which I found if a brand is seeking you out, they’re obviously more willing to pay more money because they came to you, if that makes sense? I do a decent amount of pitching as well. I don’t know, it’s both. What I found is a lot of the brands that I work with work with essentially PR agencies. I might start working out with one brand through this PR agency and then if you build that relationship, then when they have other brands that they represent, you’re the first person that they think of. That’s how I’ve ended up really expanding a lot of client work is by getting in with one brand and then that PR agency is like, “Oh, well, we just took on this new client, we think you’d be a great fit to work with them as well.”
You can also pitch directly to PR agencies. You can look up food PR agencies in your city and find a whole list of companies that work with every brand under the sun and pitch those agencies directly and say, “Hey, I saw that you work with X, Y, Z brands. I do food photography, if you’re looking for anyone…” You can craft a whole thing. But I found that’s a really good way to get your foot in the door because even if one brand isn’t necessarily looking for people, the other ones might be. It’s a way of pitching multiple people at once. I found that to be really effective. Then I’ve also had a situation where a contact that I worked with at one agency, she went to a different agency and then reached out with me from there to work with other people. There’s definitely a lot to be said about building connections within the PR agency community. I think that’s very underlooked a lot of the time. I think people think about pitching directly to brands themselves and not necessarily the middlemen, but the middlemen are the ones that are actually making all the decisions.
Bjork Ostrom: To refer back to my friend who does the video work. That’s basically what he’s doing. He has three to four PR agencies that he’s pretty close with, along with a handful of clients that he works with directly. That’s essentially what he says is like, “I know I’ve crafted these relationships with these people at these agencies, and I have this ongoing relationship with them.” When a deal from LinkedIn comes and they want to shoot a video, he’s somebody that is on that project. What have you identified as the important factors to consider to maintain a good relationship with those contacts, the PR agencies?
Kyleigh Sage: For starters, just doing what you say you’re going to do at the time you say you’re going to do it.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s amazing that’s…
Kyleigh Sage: It’s such a small thing, but yeah, literally-
Bjork Ostrom: But also rare.
Kyleigh Sage: … just meeting deadlines. Just meeting deadlines is very basic. Honestly, I typically try to work a little bit ahead of… I prefer to ask for more time than I actually need and then get things in early versus feeling rushed. Then along with that, I like to underpromise and overdeliver. If I say, “You’re going to get a minimum of five photos.” I like to deliver 10 because most of the time I’m taking 100 photos during a shoot anyway. I like doing little things like that where… It’s one of those things, I’m under no delusion that they don’t know what I’m doing, right? It still makes them feel good that I’m giving them extra content. There’s little things like that. If a brand is only paying me for an Instagram post, sometimes I’ll throw in some story slides for free.
Just little things that don’t actually cause more work for me or cost me more money, but can signal that I’m willing to go above and beyond, when again, it’s not that much above and beyond, but it’s enough. I definitely feel like it helps foster a solid relationship with brands. Again, I think those can also just be good negotiating tactics too. If you send over a quote for a whole bunch of stuff and they say, “Well, we can only afford this much.” You can throw in one extra thing for free as a goodwill type thing. That’s also just a good negotiating thing as well that I do a lot.
Yeah, honestly, as long as you’re meeting deadlines and you’re not an annoying awful person to work with, I feel like it’s not that hard to maintain a decent relationship. I definitely heard horror stories from people that I’ve worked with about some influencers that just don’t ever respond or just don’t meet deadlines and don’t turn stuff in. That’s the quickest way to have people not want to work with you. Also, within those agencies, they’re all friends. They all talk. If there’s one person they don’t like working with, they’re going to tell everyone else that they don’t want to work with that person, in the same way that we communicate. I’ve had brands that I do not working with, and I’ve told all my friends don’t work with this brand. They’re awful. Yeah, it goes both ways.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it’s parallels again, Nate, my friend. The other day I stopped in, they were doing a shoot for TaylorMade Golf Company, and I was like, “Oh, what are you doing?” He’s like, “Oh, I’m just doing this extra shot. It wasn’t something that we said we’re going to do, but I thought it would be really cool, and I want to make sure that we go above and beyond for them.” It’s like those core relationship things. It’s doing what say you’re going to do, doing it on time, overdelivering. It’s simple conceptually, but it’s also not necessarily easy. It’s stuff that you have to be diligent, you have to be methodical in your work, you have to communicate well. The result of it, like you said, is not only will that person want to work with you potentially, but also would share that with other people. “This is a really good person to work with.” It’s obvious that you’ve been in the relationships that you’ve had with the different brands and PR agencies you’ve worked with. Last question for you. Oh, yeah.
Kyleigh Sage: Oh, sorry. Can I just throw in one more thing that I just thought of?
Bjork Ostrom: Please.
Kyleigh Sage: One fun thing I love to throw in as an extra, and it’s not going to happen every shoot, but if I’m doing a pour shot or something where I’m using a remote trigger or something and I’m getting a bunch of shots in succession to try to get that cool pour shot to get one or two photos. Sometimes I’ll edit that together into a quick stop-motion because, again, I’m already taking those photos anyway. I’m efficient enough with editing and that kind of stuff that it takes me five minutes to make it into a stop-motion, and that can be a fun extra thing to throw in. Again, I’m not going to go out of my way to make some super crazy complicated stop-motion, but if it’s something natural where I’m already doing pour shot or I’m already doing something where I’m going to get those photos in succession, that’s just like a fun freebie that clients always love when I have thrown that in.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that’s great. Last question to round things out. You’ve, I think, done something in a relatively short amount of time that a lot of people are interested in doing. But let’s say you were to go back and you were to be at day one again. If you wanted to repeat the success that you’ve had, what are the things that you would do and what are the things you wouldn’t do if you were to go back and do it again?
Kyleigh Sage: I think I would still really place a very strong emphasis on photography from the beginning. Again, I think that’s one of the things that helped me grow very quickly and start getting work very quickly. I would definitely start focusing on SEO and the blog side of stuff a lot sooner. In terms of what I wouldn’t do, I think I wouldn’t put too much stock into social media, which is funny, given that that’s where I found a lot of success. I think I obsessed about it in the beginning to a degree that just wasn’t actually necessary because by focusing on photography and these other things, it was growing steadily on its own anyway.
That extra level of obsession and trying to do all the right things and trying to do all the Instagram hacks and growth stuff and whatever, none of that actually really made a meaningful difference. I think I would focus less on that stuff and just still really focus on producing high-quality work and putting it out as efficiently as possible because I think that’s where you’re going to see the biggest results regardless… The rest of it comes along with that. Yeah, I think.
Bjork Ostrom: Those skills are also transferable, the art of photography, the art of video, the art of engagement or writing. It’s platform-agnostic and some of the tips, tricks, and hacks, well, helpful if you figure one out that works. They’re like Fruit Stripes, that gum, is that what it’s called? Zebra stripes, Fruit Stripes. It’s a really short lifespan. It’s great for a little bit and then it goes away. But if you learn how to do the art side of it, which you’ve done, and you talked about that endures. You have a lot of content that you’ve written in this category of blogging, photography advice, and also you just have a great site and recipes that you share as well. If people want to follow along either with some of this information that you’ve talked about or with your site itself, where can they go to find out more?
Kyleigh Sage: Everything is Barley & Sage, so barleyandsage.com at Barley and Sage on all social media. And then, yes, on my website I have a resources tab and I have my pricing guide, which breaks down more of the numbers that I briefly went over here and how I calculate my own rates. Then I also have another post where I dive into the numbers on affiliate marketing because it can be awesome, but it can also be a huge waste of time depending on-
Bjork Ostrom: How you do it?
Kyleigh Sage: … what you’re talking about. That’s a really fun post too. Also, just a bunch of numbers and breakdowns. Then, yeah, just a couple of other fun resources.
Bjork Ostrom: Cool. And Sage is your last name. Barley is your…
Kyleigh Sage: Yes. My dog.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Sweet.
Kyleigh Sage: Yes. When I first was starting as a hobby, I was like, “Well, what would I even name it?” When you’re in that phase of like, “I don’t know if it’s worth even trying.” Then I was like, “Well, my name is Sage. That’s a food word. That’s so cool. What can I do?” Yeah, Barley. Makes sense?
Bjork Ostrom: Awesome. Very cool. We are all dog people here, so bonus points for that. Kyleigh, thanks so much for coming on, for sharing your background, your story. I know that it’s going to be inspirational for lots of folks, so appreciate it.
Kyleigh Sage: Thanks for having me.
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