433: Transitioning from the Corporate World to Full-time Creator with Zhen Zhou from Greedy Girl Gourmet

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This episode is sponsored by Clariti.

Welcome to episode 433 of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork interviews Zhen Zhou from Greedy Girl Gourmet.

Last week on the podcast, Bjork chatted with Morgan Peaceman. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.

Transitioning from the Corporate World to Full-time Creator

We first got to know Zhen when she joined Bjork for a Coaching Call on Food Blogger Pro back in July, and we loved that conversation so much we wanted to bring her on the podcast!

In this interview, Zhen shares more about her journey from working in the corporate world to working full-time as a content creator. She shares her strategy for monetizing from the early days of blogging up until now, and how she has diversified her income.

Zhen is also working to create a community of food bloggers through her Facebook group (Connecting Bloggers) and is very transparent with the steps she’s taken to find success as a creator.

A photograph of a veggie noodle dish in a bowl with chopsticks and a quote from Zhen Zhou's episode of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast that reads, "What problem are you solving for your reader?"

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • More about Zhen’s Coaching Call with Bjork (lessons learned, takeaways, etc.).
  • Why she started a Facebook group to connect food bloggers.
  • The differences between her corporate job and her current role as a creator, and how she made the leap out of the corporate world.
  • What the monetization of her site has looked like over recent years.
  • The things that were most helpful for her to implement when trying to replace her corporate income with blogging.
  • How she diversified her income.
  • What her plans for scaling and diversifying her business look like (keeping in mind changes to third-party cookies and AI).
  • Her best advice for beginning food bloggers.


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Thanks to Clariti for sponsoring this episode!

Sign up for Clariti today to easily organize your blog content for maximum growth and receive access to their limited-time $45 Forever pricing, 50% off your first month, optimization ideas for your site content, and more!

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If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for interviews, be sure to email them to [email protected].

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Transcript (click to expand):

Bjork Ostrom: This episode is sponsored by Clariti. If you’ve been frustrated trying to discover actionable insights from different analytics and keyword platforms, Clariti is your solution. Clariti helps you manage your blog content all in one place so you can find actionable insights that improve the quality of your content. Not only does it automatically sync your WordPress post data so you can find insights about broken images, broken links, and more, it can also sync with your Google Analytics and Google Search console data so you can see keyword, session, page view, and user data for each and every post.

One of our favorite ways to use it? We can easily filter and see which of our posts have had a decrease in sessions or page views over a set period of time and give a little extra attention to those recipes. This is especially helpful when there are Google updates or changes in search algorithms so that we can easily tell which of our recipes have been impacted the most. Listeners to The Food Blogger Pro Podcast get 50% off of their first month of Clariti after signing up. To sign up, simply go to clariti.com/food. That’s C-L-A-R-I-T-I.com/food. Thanks again to Clariti for sponsoring this episode.

Emily Walker: Hey there. This is Emily from The Food Blogger Pro team and you’re listening to The Food Blogger Pro Podcast. This week on the podcast, Bjork is interviewing Zhen from Greedy Girl Gourmet. She was actually part of a coaching call on Food Blogger Pro earlier this year and we loved that conversation so much we decided to bring her on the podcast so everyone could hear more about her journey. In this episode, she shares more about how she went from working in the corporate world to getting her MBA and then starting her food blog, Greedy Girl Gourmet. She shares more about the differences between her corporate job and her current role as a creator and how she decided to make the leap from the corporate world to working for herself. They also chat about how she has monetized her site and diversified her income over recent years and the things that she found most helpful when she was trying to replace her corporate income with a blogging income.

She’s really intentional about monetizing her site and diversifying her income, especially with the awareness of the changes of AI and third party cookies that are coming down the line and she shares about what her plans are for scaling her business in the future. Despite her dislike of networking back in her business days, she has worked really hard to create a community of food bloggers to share resources with, share stories, and just create a community. She’s started her own Facebook group and holds regular meetings with other food bloggers in the community. It’s a really awesome interview. She has a great perspective on food blogging and how lucky she is to have this career and how she’s turned it into pretty much her dream job. I know you’ll get a lot out of this interview and really enjoy it so I’m just going to let Bjork take it away.

Bjork Ostrom: Zhen, welcome to the podcast.

Zhen Zhou: Hey. Thanks for having me on the show. Great to speak to you again after the coaching call.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. This is our first time doing a coaching call first and then a podcast. So for those who aren’t familiar when we talk about coaching call, can you just briefly share what that was and what that looked like from a conversation standpoint?

Zhen Zhou: So basically, ’cause I’m part of the Food Blogger Pro and you guys kindly have this monthly session where people can write in and say they have this question and then we have a conversation with you around the question and then you give us your advice and I found it really helpful.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Zhen Zhou: I don’t know-

Bjork Ostrom: It was-

Zhen Zhou: If you want me to recap what our coaching was-

Bjork Ostrom: Sure. And that would actually be an interesting step into a conversation around that. I’ll just say really quickly, it’s one of my favorite things to do is these coaching calls. So where we get on, and people know the podcast, who listen to the podcast, they know what it looks like for me to interview people and have a conversation, but the coaching calls are really fun because it’s somebody, instead of bringing a story or bringing their success or whatever it is, it’s bringing a question or a curiosity or a problem and then we kind of work through that together and I love doing that. It’s always interesting to hear what people are thinking about and what they’re working on. Yeah. To start, why don’t you talk about at a high level what that was for you and what the conversation looked like?

Zhen Zhou: So at that point of time, I kind of just joined Mediavine quite recently and I was thinking about diversifying my income. So I believe I was wondering whether I should start a podcast ’cause you guys have the most iconic food podcast. So I asked you what you thought about it and whether there was space in the field. And then you gave me your advice. I must admit, before the call I wasn’t really sure what I would get out of it, but it was super useful. Over the process of the call, you kind of, based on my experience and what I’ve been doing, you advised that maybe I would like to think about coaching other beginner bloggers. And I thought that it was something I really enjoyed and I guess it must have fit my journey so perfectly that I think a week after we finished our call, someone actually emailed me and asked me to coach her.

Bjork Ostrom: Oh. So it was like destiny.

Zhen Zhou: Yeah. I was like, “It’s a sign.”

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. And part of the conversation, I’m trying to remember back, also came out of the fact that, so you’d been building your site, which we can talk about, but you had also been building a community on Facebook of other people who were creators, publishers, bloggers in the food space. Can you talk about the reason behind that ’cause I think that helped inform some of the thoughts that we had around working with some of those bloggers.

Zhen Zhou: So I love blogging. It’s so much better than a corporate job, but the only thing I would change about it is sometimes it can get a bit isolating ’cause you’re kind of working by yourself and most of your friends or family, they have no clue what you’re doing. So I personally felt the need to have conversations with other content creators and then I was a bit shy to do this, but I decided to reach out and food blog essential, all these Facebook groups and just say, “I find blogging isolating. Would any of you guys like to catch up and do regular calls?” And I got thousands of replies.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s like there’s obviously a need there.

Zhen Zhou: Yes, there’s obviously a big need there. But then, and this is the crux. I can see why people do paid masterminds because when people pay for something, they show up. So I got thousands of calls and I organized them and then we settle all these things and I think three people showed out of these thousands of people. So then I tried it a couple of times and I was like, “This is not working and it’s a really bad use of my time.” So I thought, “Let’s just start a Facebook group.” I give you the time and you have two days notice or something. If you want to be part of it, you just sign up and there really shouldn’t be any reason why you don’t show up ’cause it’s a last minute thing so you should already know your availability.

Bjork Ostrom: Yep.

Zhen Zhou: And so then that has been working pretty well. So basically anyone can apply to join the group and every month or every two months, I just put up a Google form where you register for the call and I say, “During this call, are we just going to be talking and making friends or are we going to talk about specific topics?” So some topics that we talked about were using AI for the blog or Pinterest and that kind of thing.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. That’s great.

Zhen Zhou: It’s been really helpful and fun.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. One of the things that I think is really true is if you want to connect with other people, the best way to do it is to be the person who connects people. If you’re like, “Gosh. How do you form a group?” Or, “How do you get connected with other bloggers?” It’s harder to inject yourself into a group, but it’s a lot easier to say, “Hey, I’m going to gather some people. Here’s what it looks like.” And then facilitate that. In and of itself it’s not easy. It still requires work and effort and you probably have to iterate a little bit like you did where it didn’t work and so then you figure out a new way to do it. But the end result my guess is that then you kind of become a hub and you have spokes off of that and you get to be connected with people, you learn from others. It’s kind of like networking at its best and like you said, not only is it helpful and informational, but it’s also fun to connect with other people.

Zhen Zhou: I totally agree. So as I mentioned before the call, I’m actually in the UK and then I put together a meeting for Mediavine publishers in the AM. So we had a meeting two days ago and when we were talking, someone said, “Wow. You know all the gossip about the bloggers.” I was like, “Oh, that’s ’cause on Monday I have this blogging call and on Tuesday I have this other blogging call and then you kind of get everyone’s information.”

Bjork Ostrom: Yes. Totally. Yep. You get connected, you get to know people, and it’s one of the best ways to learn is to connect with people and have those conversations. So do a quick shout out for the group. Is it an open group? Could people join if they want to be a part of it?

Zhen Zhou: Yeah. It’s an open group. So it’s called Connecting Bloggers on Facebook and you just ask to join and then I approve the request ’cause I don’t actually get spammed by people who are not bloggers. I just do a quick check to make sure you actually are a blogger before I approve the request.

Bjork Ostrom: Yep. That’s great.

Zhen Zhou: And if you are, you get accepted.

Bjork Ostrom: Awesome. Thanks. So let’s talk about your journey a little bit. So you referenced this a little bit earlier on this idea of much better than a corporate job. And I know that you’re traveling right now in the UK, home for you is usually Singapore, so it allows flexibility already. That’s great. So there’s this autonomy that you have, but talk to me a little bit more about the contrast that exists for you as you reflect on what it was like for you to live your corporate life and then what it’s like for you now to work on your blog and your following full-time.

Zhen Zhou: Well I guess the main thing is I like what I do now and I didn’t like what I did in the corporate world.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Zhen Zhou: And second thing, we spoke on networking. I hated it when I was in the corporate job because it felt very artificial. People were just networking to get something out each other. But in blogging, it feels very organic and natural and people like each other and they want to help each other and I love networking. Like we said, I just created a networking group essentially. So I think those are the two main things. And the third thing is that it’s much more difficult actually to be a blogger than to have a corporate job because when you do a corporate job, you have a boss, they tell you what to do, you just do what you’re told to do, but when you are a blogger, you’re your own boss and you kind of have to figure out which is the path that’s going to work best for your job.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. There’s a certain element of decision fatigue that could potentially happen because you’re needing to not only do the work, but decide which work to do. And in some jobs, not all jobs, but in some jobs, you’re not having to decide what work to do, you’re just having to do the work. So you kind of have this new role, which is not only the decision maker, but also the executor and that can be difficult, especially when there’s 1,000 different things to do. So yeah. Totally makes sense. I think a lot of people would resonate with that. I’d be interested … yeah, go ahead.

Zhen Zhou: Just the most important point is, in your corporate job you get fixed income every month. So presumably it’s something you’re comfortable with, that’s why you’re in the job and you’re not moved somewhere else. And I do have friends who they just coast by in their jobs because they know that they just need to do this minimum and they will still get paid. You cannot do that in blogging.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Right.

Zhen Zhou: It’ll start showing in your income if you start to coast.

Bjork Ostrom: Yes. Your raise becomes effective when you do, but so does a pay decrease. There’s less. And for everything there’s risk. There’s risk in having one corporate job for 15 years and then you lose that. There’s risk in building a business. Just all different types of risks. But that definitely is one where it’s like you can’t coast, especially in the early stages. When it’s dependent on you landing a deal or traffic or whatever it might be, you have to really show up and do the work. Can you talk about when you made that transition from your corporate job to working on your blog full-time and how did you make that decision and feel comfortable enough to make the leap?

Zhen Zhou: So it wasn’t really linear, and I did see one of your previous podcasts about how success isn’t linear and I think that describes a lot of things in life. So it wasn’t like I had a corporate job then I went into blogging, but it’s more like I had a corporate job and I knew this didn’t want to work and I was trying to figure out something else that I could do and then I tried a couple things and then land up with blogging. So did you want me to go into the very long story?

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. I think the piece that specifically I’d be interested in is, for those who are on a similar journey, they’re thinking about making that transition, I think one of the questions people often have is, “When do I know that I’m ready to officially say I’m done with my corporate job?” And to hear other people reflect on their decision-making process I think helps inform others. And for some people I know, they say, “You know what? I’m not quite there yet. I haven’t replaced my income, but I know that it’s going to be a really good motivator for me to hustle like crazy so I do get there.” So they leave a little bit earlier.

For us, for Lindsay and I, it was a really slow transition. We were quarter time at our full-time jobs and then we’re halftime and then we did, for me at least, I did a day or two a week, made this very slow transition, until we had a history of knowing, “Okay. We’ve replaced our income for two years now. Now we feel comfortable changing over and just focusing full-time on our entrepreneurial pursuits.” So how about for you? What did that look like and how did you finally make that decision to be done?

Zhen Zhou: This is going to be very different for everyone depending on whether you have someone else who’s bringing in the bacon, whether you have dependents.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure.

Zhen Zhou: And honestly if I redid it, I might redo my journey a little bit. It’s not that I regret it. Okay. So I left when I paid off all my debts. So I had not replaced my income at all and I just left my job. That was a huge struggle in the beginning trying to make up that income.

Bjork Ostrom: Yep. And for you, the point was like you have these debts and you know that you’re going to feel most comfortable when you don’t have those debts.

Zhen Zhou: Yes.

Bjork Ostrom: And also, you probably didn’t have this huge lifestyle creep where you had all these expenses. So you knew that that was relatively manageable. Did you have a certain amount of money saved up that you knew, “Okay. I can work through this and then eventually I’d have to go back to a corporate job if I don’t figure it out and kind of bridge that gap.”

Zhen Zhou: Yeah. So I had some savings and I guess I also had the safety net of staying at home. So ideally I would like to have my own place, but I live in Singapore, it’s really expensive. And I thought between staying at home and working in my corporate job, I prefer to stay at home and get to quit my corporate job.

Bjork Ostrom: Yep.

Zhen Zhou: Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: In the startup world, there’s a guy who started Y Combinator, his name is Paul Graham. Have you ever heard of him or familiar with Paul Graham?

Zhen Zhou: Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: Okay. So one of the things he talks about is this idea of ramen profitability for startups. And in the early stages of starting a company, one of the best ways to be profitable is to have as few expenses as you can. And I think when we think of our own journeys and we’re playing a game and the game is like, “How do we do life well?” It’s not just business. Really what we’re after is how do we do life well? Like you said, number one, it’s completely individual. Some people will have dependents, some people have kids, some people might be taking care of their parents, some people might have a bunch of debt that they have to work through.

So any generic advice isn’t good advice. But the advice that you could give is once you have figured out what your constraints are, reduce those as much as possible in order to free you up to do the thing that really gives you life or brings you passion. And so I love that idea for you of saying, “Hey. I can reduce all of these things around my life, these expenses, in order to do this thing that I love and that I’m really passionate about and that I really want to grow and build.” Alternatively, I know somebody who’s later stage in their life, they’re thinking about retirement, but they said, “We want to continue to do travel and have these adventures. So I’m going to continue to work. I’m not going to change my career or shift things because I want to make sure that I have this ability to have money coming in in order to travel and do these things that I want to do.”

So it’s different for everybody, but I love that idea about being intentional and saying, “What are the cards that I can play and how do I play those in a way where I’m maximizing the things that I want to maximize?” So what does that look like now for you? I know you’re traveling, you’re staying at an Airbnb, obviously you have some flexibility in your life, and you’ve maybe moved a little bit out of the ramen profitability stage. So what does it look like for you with your blog and your site now?

Zhen Zhou: It’s funny you say that. So when I first joined Mediavine, my friend said, “Finally, we can start going to events where we don’t have to look for free food,” ’cause there was a stage-

Bjork Ostrom: Totally.

Zhen Zhou: They could only call me out for things which we’re giving free food.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, yeah.

Zhen Zhou: And we’ve moved out of that stage now. Obviously everyone always wants to grow faster, but right now I’ve replaced my previous income. Anyway. For people who are not familiar, so before I became a blogger, I did go for the MBA, which is the Masters of Business Administration. So I’ve not quite reached the income I would have received if I pursued the traditional corporate path, but I have managed to at least replace the income that I had before I left my last job.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Yep. Which is incredible. Congratulations.

Zhen Zhou: Oh, thank you very much.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. You were going to say, there’s one more thought that you had.

Zhen Zhou: I was just going to say, well you know as with blogging, it’s quite seasonal. So it’s quite hard to give a number ’cause it kind of depends on RPMs and on traffic and everything. And Google’s been going a bit crazy recently.

Bjork Ostrom: Yep. So one of the ways that we look at it, you wouldn’t have to know this number, but it’s just a fun thing to help normalize the ebbs and the flows. So we have a spreadsheet and in that spreadsheet we have revenue for each of the businesses. I’m going to try and explain this for anybody listening on a podcast. It’s a terrible way to explain a chart or a graph, but we have a metric that we call the trailing 12 months. And so it looks at the previous 12 months and it adds all of that up. And so if you earned let’s say exactly $1,000 over the last 12 months, you’re trailing 12 would be 12,000. And this is for anybody listening. I know you have an MBA so you could be teaching me this stuff, but-

Zhen Zhou: No. I’ve kind of forgotten everything I learned in the MBA classes.

Bjork Ostrom: Okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Relatable. So trailing 12, it would be 12,000 if you earned $1,000 exactly every month, but one of the things that’s really cool about that is when you chart that out, then you can start to see the general direction of where your site is going. So if you had a really good 12 months and then the next month is really, really bad, it doesn’t look like things just fall off ’cause it’s going to have one bad month and then 11 good months. And so it helps to kind of normalize that data. So as anybody’s thinking about trying to understand how their site’s doing and what they’re looking at, that’s kind a cool little metric that we like to use is that idea of trailing 12 months and then charting that so you can see generally speaking what that looks like.

So in your journey, what were the things that were most helpful to get you to that point where you replaced your income? That’s a huge accomplishment. A lot of people are trying to do that, trying to bridge that gap, work for themselves. I think people from the outside would look at it and be like, “Oh my gosh.” You’re traveling the UK, you’re staying at an Airbnb, you’re your own boss, you’ve replaced your income. I know the grind is a lot harder than that, but what were the things that were most helpful for you in that journey?

Zhen Zhou: Well first thing I would say, which is not related to the answer, is that it sounds great and I love it, but I think when you see this glamorous picture that others paint, there’s always a lot of other pieces that you don’t. I have to say, my income wasn’t high so it wasn’t really that difficult to replace it. If you leave your job at very senior stage, you’re going to have to work a lot harder to replace it. So don’t feel discouraged if you look at someone and think, “Oh, they’ve done it and I haven’t done it.” There’s just probably a lot of backstory that you don’t know.

Bjork Ostrom: Yep.

Zhen Zhou: And then as to what worked for me is, well firstly was getting the blog on Mediavine. So to do that, I needed to know more about keyword research and SEO. And then secondly, besides the blog, I do have other income sources. This is not actually related directly to the travel blog. I do some freelance writing for people as well. So I actually write for a travel blog and I told you that I started a travel blog. So actually I think of it as a great way of I’m being paid to learn.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Totally.

Zhen Zhou: Yeah. And I got those freelance jobs by network, well, I would say networking, even though I hate the words, but mainly through the community I have-

Bjork Ostrom: Relationships. Yeah.

Zhen Zhou: Yeah. Well I didn’t really know her, but we were part of the same Facebook group and then you just have to be thick-skinned and just answer every single query out there and someone will get in touch with you.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. So there’s a software company called Basecamp and they originally started as 47signals and I think went away from that name and maybe now went back to it, but the way that they started was they started as an agency building software for other companies. When they had time, they worked on their own internal project called Basecamp. Eventually that became the main thing. I think to be your own boss, one of the best ways to do it is to think about all of the different resources that you have, resources being like all of the different opportunities, maybe that’s a better word. And to say, “Okay. I can build my site and I can build traffic to it. I can monetize that via Mediavine. That can be a source of revenue. I can do freelance writing. Not only am I going to be learning, I’m going to be seeing the process somebody else uses.”

“Maybe I can implement some of that into the process that I use.” It’s kind of on the job training and you want to create a really great product and so you’re refining your product skills in terms of the product being content. So that’s another bucket of revenue that you can create. You talked about coaching and that coaching relationship coming out of this community that you had where you were working with these other creators. There’s a post that I did a long time ago talking about the egg carton method to build up your income to replace your income essentially, but the idea being to think outside of just one avenue and to say, “What can I be doing? What is my ultimate goal? I want to work for myself. Okay. You want to be the CEO of you. You want to make your own decisions and build your own revenue. Okay, great.”

And you want to travel. Let’s say that’s the goal. Okay. What is the best way to do that? You can build the component parts of that more quickly than you can one singular part like, “I need to get to this ad revenue in order to replace that.” I think usually you can get there quicker just by building the different parts up and then rolling that all up, view it as your own company. Was that a little bit the mindset that you took like, “Hey, I’m going to work on my site. I’m going to build that, but I’m also going to look at the other ways that I can be creating income for myself as I think of myself as a CEO of my own company or an entrepreneur in different areas.”

Zhen Zhou: So I think when I first started out, and I think for many bloggers, we just have this goal in mind, which is just Mediavine, Mediavine, Mediavine. And I think like you said, actually it will be better to take a more wider approach. Obviously we do want to be on Mediavine ’cause there’s great passive income, but there are a lot of other things you could be doing even if you just started out to build the different parts of your income. Sorry. I was just thinking about my journey. Actually I realized, I made affiliate income first before I made ad income and then I started into freelance income. So that was the journey.

But the affiliate income, it was an accident in the way I wasn’t really expecting to get any income from it, but I just wrote a post about a course I tried, which was actually cooking with keywords and I found it really useful. So I was like, “I think this would be very helpful for people,” and I would just write a post and put the fitted link and then it started generating income. So sometimes I think it helps to share about things that you really find useful and those will lead to some success.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. I was just at this conference, this is a group I’m a part of, it’s called Rhodium. It’s online business owners. All different spaces. So it’s content, it’s e-commerce, it’s service businesses, and just this wealth of experience and one of the ways that a lot of people who own sites in that group, one of the ways that they monetize is affiliate. They don’t even think about ads. It’s just strictly affiliate based monetization and I think in our space, you can kind of get focused in on just one thing, which is ads, which is great because it works and that’s the reason that people talk about it, but there are all these other opportunities like people who monetize newsletters and they are a newsletter company and it’s like we don’t even think about that in our space, but there’s a lot of opportunities there.

And if the ultimate goal, beyond just ads and earning money from ads, if the ultimate goal is something else, which it almost always is, it’s autonomy, it’s being with your kids more, it’s not doing a job that you don’t like. Really that’s what we’re after in all of this. There’s a lot of creativity that you can have in structuring what that looks like. And sometimes it might be a W2 job. Maybe you’re working a full-time or part-time W2 job, you’re getting to work on your side hustle, and that becomes incremental income. All of these are really cool opportunities that you can piece together. And so I think my encouragement to people and pulling from your story with this is to think creatively around how you want to create your ideals and then get to work with building that. Yeah. Well comment on that and then I have another question for you.

Zhen Zhou: Oh, sorry. I just had one thing to say, which is that I totally agree with what you’re saying and I also think it depends on the personality of the person.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Yeah.

Zhen Zhou: So depending on your personality and what you like and don’t like doing, certain of those income streams will be easier or better for you. For example, I think a way to monetize your site when you start out and don’t have 50,000 page views is to get brand sponsorships and that can actually lead to a very lucrative income very quickly. But I intentionally did not do that because before this I was working for Interbrand, which is a branding agency. They’ve done work for BMW, AIA, United Airlines, all that kind of stuff, and I hated client servicing. So it did not make sense to-

Bjork Ostrom: So you knew personally for yourself, that’s not something you want to do. Yep.

Zhen Zhou: Yes. But maybe if you like that, this might be a better source of income for you than ads, which you would have to wait to get.

Bjork Ostrom: Yes. Yep. Exactly. And I know people who love the idea of finding brands that are a good fit and working with those brands and nurturing those relationships and that’s primarily what they do and personality wise, it’s like that’s what they love. They don’t have a history of having to do that in a corporate job where they’re like, “Ugh. This is the worst.” So like you said, it’s very different for each individual and for each person as they approach building their ideal. And I’ve talked about, there’s probably a better way to describe this, but this idea of we get to build our own video game, our video game being our life, and what we get to do in deciding that is build the point system for what we consider to be a win. And for some people it might be, “I want to build a really big business,” but for other people the point system might be, “I want to spend more time with my parents or with my kids,” or, “I want to read more,” or, “I want more time for exercise.”

“And so in order to do that, I’m going to prioritize building a business to this point and once I get there, then that’s going to make me feel comfortable enough to focus on some of these other things.” So encouragement to anybody listening to build your own game, build your own value system, build your own point system, and get after it. And it’s cool to see you doing that and to live that out in some ways now where it’s like you get to travel in a way that I’m guessing you couldn’t if you were still at your corporate job. Is that right?

Zhen Zhou: Yeah, I couldn’t.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Zhen Zhou: But you guys were the OG of doing this.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure. Yes and no. It’s like music where everything is an iteration on top of somebody else. Nobody can say, “I originated this.” It’s just everybody building on something else that they’ve learned and that’s true for us and it’s true for the people that we learned from. So we’re all kind of iterating off of each other.

Zhen Zhou: Bring your own spin on things.

Bjork Ostrom: Yes. Totally. So what does that look like for you moving forward? So as you think about what you’re doing, what’s worked in the past, you pull that out into the future, what are the things that you consider to be your goals as you look forward to building what you’re building and what are you focusing on now moving forward?

Zhen Zhou: So I think one thing I learned in the MBA, which is not anything theoretical, it’s really that what gets you here doesn’t get you there. So that was the first thing we were told that what got us into the program is not going to get us to the job we want and I think that’s true for bloggers. So what got me into Mediavine isn’t going to get me to the next step, which is scaling up the business. So I will have to look at different things and that’s what I’m focusing on now, scaling and diversifying ’cause I’m sure most of us are worried about the disappearance of the third party cookies, AI generated content, and how that’s going to impact traditional blogs.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Zhen Zhou: So I don’t want everything to be tied to just one blog. And I do think recipes are a bit in danger because it’s quite factual. If AI does a good enough job, let’s say 99% of the time, a lot of people might just go and get the recipe from them because they already are telling us they don’t want the personality, they don’t want to hear our life story, they just want the recipe, and AI can give them that. So I am a little concerned about that and that’s why I started the travel blog. And at the same time, I’m also building other income streams for the food blog. So affiliate and whatnot.

Bjork Ostrom: Yep. Yeah. So third party cookies, let’s talk about that. Can you talk about at a high level what that is for those who aren’t familiar?

Zhen Zhou: Okay, cool, but I must say I’m not really a tech expert. I’m really terrible at tech as you can tell from the fact that-

Bjork Ostrom: I can do color commentary as well. I can add to it. So you can kind of cue it up and I’ll add to it.

Zhen Zhou: Okay. And don’t feel shy to correct me if I say something totally wrong-

Bjork Ostrom: Okay. Okay.

Zhen Zhou: ’Cause I’m really bad with tech. But I think basically if you go to a website, they have this cookie and then they track you after that.

Bjork Ostrom: Yep.

Zhen Zhou: That’s how advertisers know what you like and don’t like and then that’s how they serve you the ads. And I think in the future that’s going away. And this I do know is true that Facebook used to have something similar and they did away with that and then the ad revenue plunged ’cause I was speaking to an MBA colleague and then I shared about third party cookies and she told me about Facebook.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Zhen Zhou: So there is a danger to Google.

Bjork Ostrom: Exactly. Yep. So the idea being privacy is a big consideration and people want privacy. And so as these big companies start to contemplate how to continue to be relevant, one of the considerations they need to make is privacy. Obviously the downside for a site like Google is that’s how they make a lot of their money. And so a lot of companies who don’t make money from advertising, like Apple, were pretty quick to do away with third party cookies. And so I don’t remember when the change happened, but it happened a while ago where Apple removed the ability for companies to do third party cookies within the iOS infrastructure. And so that’s when, for Facebook, it fell off because there’s so many iOS devices, Apple devices. When that update happened, suddenly they couldn’t track and target people as well with Facebook ads. So they lose a bunch of revenue from Apple making this update.

Apple doesn’t care because they make money almost like because they’re privacy focused, but now Google, which has Chrome as their main browser, has been holding out, but eventually they’re like, “Okay. We have to make this change eventually in order to appease people and their privacy preferences.” There were a lot of browsers that were coming out which were privacy focused. Decent number of people switching to those. And so the third party cookie goes away, they’ll replace it with some technologies, but the idea is nobody really knows how that’s going to impact ad revenue. And so there’s this big question of we’ll see. Quarter four of 2024, the change will happen, it rolls out slowly, but there is this question of does this business model change, which you’ve kind of talked about as something that’s on the horizon and this like shrug, what’s going to happen with it? So that’s a consideration. And then talk about AI, for people who haven’t used any type of Chat GPT or Bard, your experience or what your high level thoughts are on that.

Zhen Zhou: So I guess I said one thing is will our audience still come to us if we are providing information that doesn’t change? Obviously if you provide news content, they will come to you because AI can’t give you the latest news at the moment. But recipes, if a recipe worked 10 years ago it probably works today. So that’s quite a threat. And the second thing is also about the volume of content because a lot of content creators are using AI to majorly produce lots of content and to fill up the topical authority in content classes. So if you don’t use AI to do that and you just write every article by yourself, you might not be able to produce enough content to be seen as an authority on that subject by Google.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure. And so essentially the super high level question is what does it look like for AI to exist in this world of content? And even for myself, I’ve noticed I’m going to bard.google.com to teach myself things. Like, “Hey, this is happening. How do I understand this?” And interesting even with Bard, because it’s using recent data, it is able to pull in new stuff. For Chat GPT, it’s using older data so it’s not able to pull in relevant news information, but the Twin Cities marathon was canceled. My brother-in-law was going to run it. And they were like, “It’s canceled.” There’s 25,000 people who were going to come and it’s like this big deal they canceled it. And they said that they canceled it because there was a black flag event. I was like, “What’s a black flag event?” I asked Bard and Bard’s like, “Oh. A black flag event in marathons is when the heat index is above 105,” or something like that.

“Recently this happened in the Twin Cities marathon,” which was just a day ago. And so it was interesting to see like, “Oh. This is actually relevant, helpful, I’m able to query it and build on these conversations.” And to your point, there will be this time where recipes, it’s not right now, but eventually it will get good enough at recipes to say, “What’s a good apple pie recipe?” And it will be like, “Here it is.” And it will be really good, easy to make, it’ll be clear, you can ask questions about it. We’re not there yet, but to your point, it’s all a vote in favor of diversification and that diversification could come from building a following on YouTube. It could come from building another audience or following in a different genre like travel site. Social media. We’re thinking a lot about how do we build a process around sales and sponsor content on a platform that right now, it’s going to be a while until AI replaces content that’s produced on Instagram in a real form.

It will get there eventually. Who knows how good it will be. But right now there’s a little bit of a moat there because it’s like human forward, human centric. So I think those are great considerations for us to think about and also don’t want to pretend like that’s not coming down the line because it is. We need to be aware of it. And like any business, the model won’t work forever. You have to change, you have to adjust, you have to evolve. Are there other things that you’re doing as you kind of think about some of these shifts or changes that are on the horizon and folding that into your considerations as a business owner?

Zhen Zhou: Well like you mentioned, YouTube and social media. So I think the difference from that, and the recipe blog, is that most recipe blogs these days are very factual because readers don’t want too much personality, backstory, and whatnot, but what actually differentiates us from AI going forward is that your person, your story, and your individuality.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Your humanity.

Zhen Zhou: Yeah. So maybe on the blog you can’t quite deliver that because people get very annoyed, but you can still do that through a YouTube video and I think those are the videos that actually do better. They tell a story. They’re not just giving you a fact or your social media. So I think that those are some channels I’m looking at.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. That’s great. And I would say that there are certain people who are just like, “Give me the recipe,” and you hear them and it kind of becomes this through line that you hear on the internet, “Oh, there’s a lot of recipe jargon and stories and I don’t want that. Just give me the recipe.” I also think there are people who follow people and they want to know about you and they’re curious and they want to connect with you. I don’t think it’s just people who want the recipe. I think there are also people who are like, “Hey, I’m interested in who you are and what you’re about.”

And I think that’s a really defensible strategy to say, “I’m going to lean into the opposite. I’m going to give you all that stuff.” And maybe it doesn’t work for search, but search also I think in the long term, there’s a lot of questions around what that looks like and how it performs and it’s a model that works really well right now, but 10 years from now, five years from now, three years from now when that shifts, it might be more advantageous to have 25,000 people on Substack who know, like, and trust you and want to follow along with you as a creator versus having a bunch of search traffic. I don’t know if that’s true, but I think it is a consideration for sure.

Zhen Zhou: Oh no, I agree with you, but I guess my point was that the people who are looking for personality don’t look for you through search.

Bjork Ostrom: Yes. Right, right, right.

Zhen Zhou: Right now most of us are getting that traffic through search.

Bjork Ostrom: Yes

Zhen Zhou: And I do have some readers who are concerned about me and want to know, but they always interact with me via social media. None of them actually come to the blog.

Bjork Ostrom: Totally. And I just had this conversation with Lindsay last night. We don’t talk about this stuff every night. It’s actually abnormal, but we got onto talking about platforms and their different purpose and the exact conversation we had is maybe the site is search centric, but then you think of the other sites or the other platforms in a different way. Maybe it is a Substack newsletter or maybe it is really leaning into building a following on social. And the point it feels like when you pull back on all of it is just making sure that you’re intentional with your approach, but also that you’re diversified as much as possible. Or if you’re not diversified, that you’re taking that revenue that you are creating and diversifying it in another way, meaning you’re putting it into something completely uncorrelated or unrelated, real estate or stock market, so you are diversifying in some way.

Zhen Zhou: So this is so interesting. I just met the Singaporean bloggers and all them are in either Mediavine or Raptive and the whole conversation was about buying bonds and passive investments.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Exactly. And we should probably do a podcast episode around that because I think, for a lot of people who listen to this, they have this incredibly profitable or semi-profitable source of revenue, depending on where you are in your journey, but that all comes in and that isn’t always going to come in. Inevitably, like any business it changes. So either you evolve as the business or if you know you don’t want to evolve, you don’t want to learn TikTok, you don’t want to learn Instagram or YouTube, there is an opportunity to take that and put that into something else that isn’t online related in order to diversify or just create a certain level of-

Zhen Zhou: Security.

Bjork Ostrom: Security. Yeah. That’s a great word, which I love. I think that’s great. We’re now entering into one of your MBA classes where we talk about finance and diversification.

Zhen Zhou: Yeah. I was thinking, “Oh, it’s starting to sound a bit like corporate finance.”

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, totally. It’s going to be as if you’re back in your corporate job now.

Zhen Zhou: Well not really.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Zhen Zhou: My job was in branding and finance.

Bjork Ostrom: Not getting back to that. So you’re at this point with your site, Greedy Girl Gourmet, where you have traction, you’re starting to create an income, you’ve replaced your salary of your job that you were at before. What would your advice be as we wrap up? For somebody else who looks at that journey you’ve made and they’re like, “Hey. I want to do something similar,” what would your advice be to them as they’re starting out?

Zhen Zhou: I mentioned that I started a new travel blog and when I did it, I did it with the intention of what are the mistakes I made with my first blog and trying to rectify it. We’re always told, “Don’t create. Just write about what you want to write, write about what the reader wants,” and then the solution is to do keyword research. But I think it’s actually deeper than that. It’s not just keyword research. Yeah. Someone is looking for the recipe, but are you solving a problem or a need with your post? So actually I find that honestly, I’m writing about Asian recipes. I’m not sure I’m really solving this deep-seated need. I can see how some blogs do, like for example, Woks of Life or whatnot, what they’re solving is that connection to the heritage for the reader.

It’s not just about the Asian recipe, but for myself, I’m not Asian American so I’m not actually solving this need or problem for people. So that’s why for the travel blog I’m doing travel for seniors in Asia because I think that’s this big market. To bring it back to food, if you’re starting out, I think you should think about what problem are you solving for your reader?

Bjork Ostrom: That’s right.

Zhen Zhou: Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. That’s awesome. And to think, if you are going to be the person creating the content, which doesn’t always have to be that. You can just look at the problem and create it, but where does your expertise, knowledge, passion, and a problem that needs to be solved, overlap? And I think that’s where there’s some really exciting opportunity, but to approach it from the standpoint, like you said, of how am I going to be helping somebody? What is the itch or the pain that somebody has that I’m going to help them solve, I think that’s great advice.

Zhen Zhou: And that goes just beyond they want to cook X ’cause that’s not really a problem. Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: Yes. They talk about this difference between vitamins or painkillers. And as much as possible, if you’re creating a product in the world, if you’re creating content in the world, if it can be a painkiller for somebody, it’s going to be more beneficial than if it’s a vitamin, it’s going to feel different. I have this problem, I have this need. Can somebody help me with this? I think of the idea of general parenting advice versus when we had our daughter Lena and she had a reflux and she had to be held for the first nine months, we essentially spent nine months just holding her upright. Not really, but it felt like it.

That was a painkiller for us. If we could find somebody to help us understand how to help her better, it would’ve been huge. And we did find certain resources and things like that, but that as an example, I love that. For somebody who’s in the early stages of shaping what it is that they’re creating, that’s a great mindset to have going into it. If people want to connect with you, it sounds like maybe the Facebook group would be a good place to start. Obviously following you online, but can you do a little shout-out to the different places that people can find you and follow along with what you’re up to?

Zhen Zhou: So the Facebook group is Connecting Bloggers or you can find my website, which is www.greedygirlgourmet.com and I’m at Greedy Girl Gourmet on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and on Twitter-

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Question mark.

Zhen Zhou: ’Cause it’s too long.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Okay, great. We can go to your site, link to the social.

Zhen Zhou: Yeah. Go to my site.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. And find the group on Facebook. Really great to connect. It was fun to do the coaching call, fun to do the podcast, and so encouraging to see you continuing to make traction and make connections and not only building your own thing, but helping other people as well. So Zhen, thanks so much for coming on and being a part of the podcast.

Zhen Zhou: Thanks for having me and making it a really great conversation. I wasn’t so stressed before this one.

Bjork Ostrom: Good. Awesome. All right. Well thanks for coming on.

Zhen Zhou: Thank you. Bye everyone.

Alexa Peduzzi: Hey there. Alexa here and thanks for tuning into this episode of the Food Blogger Pro Podcast. We really appreciate you being here. And if you really like this episode, we would so appreciate you leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps the show get in front of new listeners and it just makes us really happy. We read each and every one and it’s just so great to hear from you what you’re liking and what you would like us to improve or change in upcoming episodes. So all you have to do is go and find the Food Blogger Pro Podcast on your Apple Podcast app, scroll down to the ratings and reviews section, and then you can rate the show and then leave a written review if you want to be even more awesome.

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