446: How to Position Yourself as an Expert with Erin Jeanne McDowell

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A blue photograph of someone baking with the title of Erin Jeanne McDowell's episode of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast, 'How to Position Yourself as an Expert.'

This episode is sponsored by Clariti, Memberful, and Raptive.

Welcome to episode 446 of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork interviews Erin Jeanne McDowell.

Last week on the podcast, was a solo episode with Bjork! To go back and listen to that episode, click here.

How to Position Yourself as an Expert

Erin Jeanne McDowell is a cookbook author, food blogger, and video creator who brings lots of joy to everyone who follows along with her. In this interview, Bjork and Erin discuss her career journey so far, and how it all started with her love of writing.

Erin shares her approach to creating multiple forms of content for her many platforms, including how she balances creating video content for Food52 and her own YouTube channel.

She has come to be one of the leading experts on baking in the online space and you’ll learn lots of her secrets in this great interview!

A photograph of pies with a quote from Erin Jeanne McDowell's episode of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast that reads, "If you can stay focused on making things that you really believe in, it also becomes a lot easier to promote them mercilessly."

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • How Erin’s entrepreneurial journey as a food creator started.
  • The importance of prompts in writing.
  • How she has approached the promotion of her cookbooks.
  • Her strategy for creating multiple forms of content (without getting too overwhelmed).
  • What it is like creating content for Food52 vs. her brand.
  • How she thinks about her schedule and productivity.
  • How she has become the ultimate expert in baking as a content creator.


Thank you to our sponsors!

This episode is sponsored by Clariti, Memberful, and Raptive.

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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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Thanks to Raptive for sponsoring this episode!

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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. You spend a lot of time on your blog content. From planning to recipe testing, to writing, to promoting, but do you know if each of your posts are bringing you the most traffic they possibly can? With Clariti, you can see information about each and every post, which is automatically synced from WordPress, Google Analytics, and Google Search Console so that you can make well-educated decisions about where your existing content may need a little attention. Think broken links or broken images, no internal links or missing alt text. You can also use information that Clariti polls about sessions, page views, and users to fuel the creation of new content because you’ll be able to see which types of posts are performing best for you. Get access to keyword ranking, click-through rate, impressions, and optimization data for all of your posts today with Clariti. 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 dot com slash 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 Erin Jean McDowell. You might know her from her Food blog, which is named after herself, Erin Jean McDowell. You might also know her from her incredible baking videos on Food52, her sizable social media presence, or her new YouTube series, Happy Baking, which is on her own YouTube channel.

She has really become one of the foremost experts in baking as an online creator, and she has so much wisdom to share with us today. Bjork and Erin chat about how her entrepreneurial journey started as a food creator and why she thinks prompts are so important in writing, and she really does love writing. She also chats more about her cookbooks and how she’s approached the promotion of her cookbooks and her strategy for creating multiple types of content all at once to avoid getting overwhelmed. She also shows more about what it’s like to create content for another entity like Food52 versus your own brand and how she thinks about her schedule and her productivity. It’s a really awesome interview. She’s just a joy to listen to, so I’ll let Bjork take it away.

Bjork Ostrom: Erin, welcome to the podcast.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: Thanks so much for having me.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, we’re going to be hitting a few different things. We’re going to be talking about cookbooks. We’re going to be talking about video. We’re going to be talking about the role of a creator and entrepreneur, and we can hit all of those things because you’ve done all of those things. You’re multifaceted in what you’ve done. I watched the, so I was preparing for the interview, your trailer for your new YouTube channel, and you go through each one of those and you talk about all those different things. So when you were starting out, usually there’s one thing that people get into, there’s their entry point, and then from that they realize there’s these branches that come off of it. I know for many people, food itself is the entry point, but what was the entrepreneurial entry point for you as a creator in this world?

Erin Jeanne McDowell: Well, I wanted to be a writer. So when I went to pastry school and when I got my first jobs working in bakeries, I was actually always coming at it with the idea that ultimately someday maybe I could write recipes and I could write about food. I’d always loved writing growing up, my dad had a thing where he would ask us sometimes on our birthday what we would want to be when we would grow up, and from a young age, I said that I thought I might want to be a writer. The only thing is I could never finish anything that I started writing unless it was for an assignment. That’s what I told him when I was like-

Bjork Ostrom: You needed the artificial or not the artificial, actual deadline.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: The prompt. And still to this day, prompts are immensely helpful for all kinds of people writing and doing creative things. It’s actually really fun to give creative people a prompt and they will come up with all kinds of crazy ideas. But anyway-

Bjork Ostrom: Can you explain what you mean by that when you say a prompt?

Erin Jeanne McDowell: Yeah. Like in school when you would get an assignment and it would be that you needed to write something in the first person, but it had to be something you hadn’t experienced firsthand or anything like that. One time I got a creative writing prompt where we had to draw three random words out of a hat, and then you had to just make sure you included that in the story. So that’s what I mean. And still to this day, it’s like if an editor says, we’re looking for strawberry recipes for spring, it’s even just a little prompt like that definitely gets my juices flowing in a way that sometimes pulling an idea out of the air is a little bit trickier.

Bjork Ostrom: Having some boundaries on the creativity allows you to create differently.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: Definitely. And so I told him that I struggled unless I had a prompt, and he said this knowing dad wisdom, which was, “It sounds like you just haven’t figured out what you’re supposed to write about yet.” And so when I figured out that I wanted to write about food, it just felt like all these pieces were going into place. So writing was really my entry point with the goal that in order to write about food, I definitely also needed to be able to develop recipes. And then if I wanted to develop recipes, I might need to learn to be able to photograph recipes to a certain degree because that’s how I would share this information with people.

And then social media playing into that of, “Oh, hey, here’s a way that I can share all of this information. Every new recipe that I have, I can share it.” And then that leads into this video thing. And so really it all comes back to me of trying to do different things so that I can keep writing.

Bjork Ostrom: Interesting.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: I want to keep writing, I want to write books, I want to write recipes, and I want to share them with people. So doing some of that other stuff is the way that I get to keep doing that.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome. And so for you, the motivation is like, I want to write cookbooks. Would you say in a sentence that’s what it is?

Erin Jeanne McDowell: Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s what you’re passionate about, that’s what you love doing. And we live in a world now, not across the board, but in many cases where in order to do that as a career, you have to sell cookbooks. And one of the best ways to do that is to have a following. And one of the best ways to do that is to understand social media platforms and video and to build an engaged audience. Is that more or less accurate?

Erin Jeanne McDowell: Yes. And for me, I just want to be really clear that it’s so many people definitely learned as I was going because it was not my intention when I started out. I was just using social media as an individual, and I just loved food so much that that was all that I was doing. And so because of some of the places that I worked in my career, Food52 being I think one of the places that, especially when Food52 was launching, they were sharing some of my images and sharing some of my recipes, and that really exposed me to a group of people as their following was growing. And so it definitely happened really organically for me, but then I saw it firsthand because I did something that I’ve even been told sometimes by publishers that you shouldn’t do, but I’ve always found it immensely helpful, which is as I was writing one of my cookbooks, I shared every step of the way.

I shared developing recipes. I shared photographs of what things looked like, I shared as I was buying pie plates and just all sorts of things. And so basically what I did in a way, without realizing it was for a full year ahead of its release, I was promoting that book. And then also when it was time for it to be released, I’d already shared so much about it that it was really easy to get those pre-orders, which was one of the things that publishers often really judge you on. So again, I just want to be really clear that this was not some well-thought-out plan-

Bjork Ostrom: Strategic, yeah.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: … that I had. No, not at all. But then you learn each time you do it and you realize, okay, this is what happened when all of those things lined up that way. So now definitely that’s the way that I think about it moving forward. But definitely it happened for me in a way that was not, I was just taking it as it came.

Bjork Ostrom: But it’s this idea that we live in a world where everything has the potential to be content and everything has the potential to be interesting. Just like if you were to sit down with a friend or family member, they wouldn’t say, “No, don’t tell me about your cookbook until it’s finished.” They want to know along the way, the ups, the downs. And I feel like so much of social media can be a reflection of how we normally operate in life, which is just telling stories and sharing what’s happening.

And it sounds like what you’re saying is that was a really great marketing tool to build up for the eventual sale of the cookbook. And the other thing that’s really nice about that is it helps to provide some coverage, I think for creators who are like, wait, I have to do this cookbook in addition to all this other stuff that I have to do. And it maybe could be that the cookbook itself is what you’re doing and you’re documenting that along the way. When you are in those seasons of writing, does it feel like you’re at 150% capacity or do you feel like you’re able to do it in a way where you have the margin you need or?

Erin Jeanne McDowell: Yeah, I definitely feel like for me, it’s helpful to block schedule things. Like to have a day to meet, to create content or to try something new separate from the tasks that have to get done. And actually, as I mentioned since I wanted to be a writer, I love nothing more than sitting at my computer and doing computer stuff. I just love a full plate of I’ve got to type all day. And so I definitely find that blocking that stuff out for me works really well. But it is also tricky because I try to leave myself a somewhat flexible schedule because the actual writing part, it’s one thing to write recipes and type instructions, and it’s another thing to write head notes and introductions and things that are meaningful and are more of my chance to actually communicate with people.

So you can’t just say, today I’m writing that. I have to wait for the day that it feels and then jump on it when it happens. But if I just block out time to write versus time to create, it’s helpful. And for me, I think one of the things that it also does, which I think people are both interested in, and I also think it’s nice for me as a person who’s creating, I want people to see how much goes into it. I think that that’s a testament of something that might actually make you want to buy the book, that this is something that I’ve been working on for this long. These are all the stages that’s gone through. This is the level of care I’ve taken as I’ve been reviewing the edits. And I think that some of those things now you’re seeing more videos and more things where people are letting people into their process.

I think at one point people were scared to let people into their process. But people can’t take what makes you you. You can share all of the information, you can share absolutely everything you did and what somebody else is going to do with it is going to be completely different. So I just feel like it’s better to share within the realms that you can stay sane because also social media is-

Bjork Ostrom: You could always, sure.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: … a place where you can go crazy and you can do too much, and you can also hold yourself to a standard of, if I want to see growth, I have to post this much and I have to do that. And it’s like when you’re trying to do that and write. But yeah, I think there’s a lot of overlap and clever ways of finding that overlap is I think what creators are all about, is I am making a pie today, so how many videos can I turn that into theoretically, this one thing that I’m doing? And then also sometimes that you take these stabs in the dark and they really hit and that thing of what is going to resonate with people in the right time of day and year and all of these things, there’s so much crazy things that you can try your best to factor them in, but sometimes it just helps.

Bjork Ostrom: Do you have an example of that when you think of a thing that hit that you maybe didn’t expect?

Erin Jeanne McDowell: Yeah, sometimes when I share things about my personal life, I don’t expect them to hit is the thing. I just think I’m just going to share this because it makes me feel good. There’s been a large number of things that I’ve shared that I really thought, I’m just doing this for me, I don’t really care what other people say about it. And then some of those have been the things that people really grab onto. And that makes me really happy because it makes me feel like the people that are with me, they’re with on a larger sense, because there is also an element where you get put into a box. I’m a baker, I’m a food person, so will they care about anything, a piece of equipment I bought or an outfit or whatever. And it can be scary to branch out of those other things, which is funny when you think about it because meanwhile I’m just throwing every food item to the wall to see what will stick, but I’m scared to tell you how I tie my bandana. I don’t know why that is.

So yeah, I think that there’s a lot of things like that where it’s been a pleasant surprise for me. And then also sometimes my crazier ideas where I’m just like… The first episode of my new web series, we thought it would be funny to pay homage to a 90s style sitcom intro. And so it’s just real cheesy and lots of me crossing my arms and nodding at the camera and all of these jokey bits. And what’s fun for me is that when I make content for brands or other people, sometimes I get to do some of that. But then when it’s fully in my court, I can just be like, I think that’s funny. Let’s do it.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, there’s no gatekeeper to that.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: And then seeing if it does hit, because sometimes you do something and you’re like, oh man, I thought that was hilarious and just it doesn’t… But then this 90s sitcom thing, it really resonated with a lot of people. They totally understood what I was trying to do, and I feel like it made people smile. And it’s separate from the great episode that follows it. It was just a funny little thing that we did, and it was a lot of fun.

Bjork Ostrom: Lindsay talks about this and she’s been experimenting with this sideshow with a friend of ours, Nate. And so our background, my wife Lindsay, she has Pinch of Yum, and that’s the main focus now. They’ve just recently launched a show called Snack Dive, which they just try snacks. But one of the things that she talks about that’s so meaningful with that is creating a thing that is representative of a feeling or emotion for other people. And in this case, it’s just a chance for people to laugh or smile. And I think sometimes we forget about that as something that is meaningful in the work that we’re doing in the world.

It’s like some of it is informational and if you look at what people say about what’s so great about the content that you create, it’s helpful, it’s meaningful, you’re teaching people, but there’s also a component of it makes people smile, people laugh, and that’s also important in the world. And I think for us as creators important for us to think about. It’s not just like how do we get the most views or how do we get the best, most crisp information across? It’s also like, how do we have fun both as creators and then translate that to other people who are viewing it. I think people do see that and feel that. So it’s fun to hear you talk about that.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: Well, and I think that’s honestly something that I felt like when you’re a person that does things largely on the internet or even in my case, print with the books, I didn’t realize the reach that things had. And what’s funny about that is that everything is so tied to numbers. So I literally can see the reach that it has in a numerical value. But then it was after the pandemic, one of my books came out during the pandemic, so all the promotion for it was just remote and everything. But then after the pandemic, I went on a book tour for my most recent book, Savory Baking, and I got to meet people. I went to 10 cities and I got to meet people in all of these different places and it really blew my mind and it changed that very thing that you said, which is I felt like I’d been chasing numbers for a long time.

And suddenly when people were telling me what about certain things had resonated with them or what it meant to them-

Bjork Ostrom: How it impacted their life, yeah.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: … and specifically during the pandemic, I think people being starving for content, for human interaction, for so many things that it was sort of… My web series had already been out for a couple of years when the pandemic came, but a lot of people hadn’t seen it. So then they had all this backlogged content that they could go through and discover and whatnot. So that really changed exactly what you said, how I see success now. Literally when I see people saying that they made a recipe and it was successful, that is something I view as very like a marker of success. And the numbers, I find that if I pay too close of attention to what the algorithm tells me to do, what the publisher tells me to do, what anybody tells me to do, then I lose that little bit of me that is also hopefully the part that people are resonating with. So anyway, just to add to what you were saying.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it’s a really important thing to point out. I was just having a conversation with somebody else. Now, this wasn’t related to the podcast, but we were talking about this idea of why. What is the reason why you’re doing something? And sometimes metrics can pull us away from the why because you’re like, oh, it looks like a gummy bear hack video is doing really well right now, and it gets a lot of views. Maybe I should do a gummy bear hack video. And then it does get a lot of views. Then you’re like, maybe I should do another similar thing. And not that that’s bad, and I think some people are really great at that and it’s a fun thing. But I think it is bad if it pulls you away from the reason you’re doing something in the first place. And so anchoring on that or reminding ourselves about that.

Or even as much as possible, seeing if you can have actual touch points with people that are following as opposed to just numbers, whether that’s a meetup or a conversation that you have with somebody that emails you and you say, “Hey, would love to touch base,” or whatever it is that feels like it helps to keep you anchored around the why with what you’re doing.

One of the questions I wanted to ask you about is, so you have a series on Food52 and you have a big following on that, and now you also recently launched your own YouTube series. Can you talk about what it’s like to create within the context of a brand and also what you learned and have been learning in that to then take and create your own entity owned within your own entity, your own series? What was that like and what have you learned along the way?

Erin Jeanne McDowell: Well, one of the things is that within a brand, I’m one representative of a larger group. So for one, Food52 has a bunch of different residents who are creating videos and contents, and I’m one of those residents. One of the things about creating content with them is that I’ve really been, I still play a lot of roles. I write the script, I write the recipes, I test the recipe, develop the recipes, all these things. But I also have people on their staff who are serving as checks and balances and also who take a large number of the things off of my plate. So I’m usually working with a producer and I have dedicated camera people and sound people and all of these things, whereas when I’m doing it with myself, sometimes I am all of those things or my husband is one of those things.

And so there’s a few different things. One of the things that I learned was reading the comments, really seeing what resonated with people. There were rules that I broke. One of the things on my series with Food52, it’s called Bake It Up a Notch, the episodes are quite long form, and this was just something that for one thing, you couldn’t do it not on the internet, but even on the internet, the attention spans are notoriously short. So the idea that my Pie Crust episode is an hour and 20 minutes long was baffling to many. But what I wanted to do was provide these deep dives that were essentially a real class on it, and you can’t do a deep dive in breaking it up like a standard video of like, here’s this part, here’s this part. But I did think that also what it would do was create evergreen content. And that has proven to be true.

So some of the videos in their first year, they get a million views, but in the second year they also get a million views. And they’re building like that. And sometimes in some cases, people are watching these episodes, they’re watching the layer cake episode every time they frost a layer cake and watching it and doing it in real time with me. And so the other thing is that working with resources like that, I’m able to do certain things just budget wise. I wanted really to show mistakes and to show mistakes can be expensive because I have to make three times as many things and I have to purposely mess them up. And both the hours that it takes me to make the conscious mistake, the mistakes are actually one of the hardest parts about creating those episodes, which I think is a really funny side note, but I think it’s one of the things that’s the most informative about it.

So anyway, breaking some of the rules and both working with a brand to say, okay, please let me do what I do, but also I want to make sure that I’m representing you and representing what you’re doing as well.

Bjork Ostrom: You mean Food52 the brand, or are you talking about-

Erin Jeanne McDowell: Yes. Speaking, in terms of Bake It Up a Notch, yeah, definitely. And then also into sometimes brands that are sponsoring episodes or things like that as well. But I will say that I felt a little bit more of an instinct to be professional Erin. Which is not to say that I didn’t sometimes make a joke or do whatever, but one of the things that’s so fun about doing my own thing is actually just saying, like I said, I think it’s cool, let’s do it. But also I’m learning a lot of new things because I’m learning a lot about the back end that wasn’t my job when I was doing it before. And also the budget is I’m setting the budget. So now I’m definitely thinking more about how to structure that, whereas before I had a number to play with and I would like, let’s do it. Let’s cover everything in chocolate. This is so fun.

Bjork Ostrom: Because you know that if you don’t spend it’s not like you get it as a payment, it’s just like the budget for the show. Whereas in your case, with your own show, if you don’t spend it, then that could go somewhere else. And so it just feels different.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: And it’s also, it’s really scary if I just want to be honest because today is the day actually that the very first episode came out. And one of the things that’s so scary about it is knowing that you have this following this group of people who are interested in what you’re seeing, but how difficult it actually is to get the information to them, to make sure that they click on the right thing, that they see that I’m doing something different. And that part of being a creator that is tough of the basically shameless self-promotion where I have to say every single day because only 20% of even the people that are following me are going to see the thing that I say.

You have to, and find lots of different ways to reach out to people and fresh ways that doesn’t feel like you really are necessarily ramming it down their throats. But also you are, because that’s the only way I’m going to get people, especially when it takes multiple clicks to get to something. It’s like every additional click I am requiring more faith from you that you will proceed and do that additional click.

Bjork Ostrom: Is the idea behind that with launching a new show as an example, it could be applied to anything. It could be your cookbook coming out, that you have this following of people, but there’s this understanding that somebody might have a 100,000 people who are subscribed to a channel or to a show of which maybe 10,000 to 20,000 will see a video that you put out. You’re having to, in all the places where you show up, potentially promote or mention or make sure that people are aware of this thing, because if you don’t and you only do it once and then you never mention it again, there’s a really good chance that the majority of people who care about it or would want to know about it don’t hear about it. But then for you, you’re saying it all the time, so it feels like you’re just promoting this thing over and over?

Erin Jeanne McDowell: And cookbooks really taught me to not really fear that because I have a mentor, Rosalie B. Beranbaum, who’s published 13 cookbooks and is incredible, and she spoke to me many times about how she’s still promoting all the books and that they’ll only have as long of a life as she gives them, basically. And it’s one of the most important things that she taught me because specifically my most popular cookbook, the Book on Pie, I am promoting it year round all the time. And part of the reason is because I truly am so proud of it and I have so many resources packed into it that it makes it a great reference for all the other things that I’m doing. Here’s this great recipe and if you want to know more, here’s this, all of these things, but it is continuing to sell because I’m continuing to promote it.

And so the same thing is true with anything else that you’re doing, but I think it’s also, again, if you can stay focused on making things that you really believe in, it also becomes a lot easier to promote them mercilessly, because I refer people to episodes of Bake It Up a Notch all the time because there are so many important things in there. And rather than making yet another video for social media, it’s like, no, don’t let me try to distill this into 15 or 30 seconds. Just go watch this 15-minute video and it’s going to answer that question for you. So then you’re suddenly organically promoting your stuff constantly if you really believe in it and if you build those sources. And I think the same is true with blogs and recipe collections. It’s like if you really take the time to build them out in a thoughtful way, considering everything, you’ll be rewarded with that for many years and clicks to come.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s a resource forever. And so it’s not necessarily self-promotion, it’s like tool promotion. And in your case, the Book on Pie, it’s fun to see the number one bestseller in Pie Baking, 4.8 stars, which just feels like such an incredible thing, especially with over 3,500 ratings. It’s obvious that it’s something that is really helpful for people. And so it goes from trying to promote a thing that is maybe you’re not excited about, or it feels like self-promotion too, promoting something that is actually going to be helpful for people, especially when it’s so aligned. If people have questions about pie baking, it’s like it’s a great resource for that, and therefore you can point people to that. And they’re like, “Thank you for pointing me in this way because this is what I needed to know.”

Erin Jeanne McDowell: Well, I enjoy what I do very much for the opportunity to be creative and to be able to tap into that creative side of myself where growing up I just didn’t know if job opportunities I was going to have were going to let me be able to be so creative in such a way. To get to put sprinkles on everything and have… It’s such a dream. But then it’s also the real reason that I’m doing it is to share the love of doing it, to share the knowledge that I have learned that has made it more enjoyable for me. I think that especially with food and cooking, there’s so much fear and for different levels. So you have somebody who’s really actually amazing, but they’re terrified of one thing, bread or whatever it is. And I just think that if you remove that fear element, then you can have so much more fun and be more creative and have more joy.

And so then I think that that’s also how the side hustle of bringing people happiness, bringing people comfort. I don’t want somebody to think, “Oh, I have to make a cake for my niece’s birthday this weekend.” I want somebody to think, “Ooh, I get to make a cake this weekend, and what am I going to do and how am I going to pull out?” And that was the whole concept too of Bake It Up a Notch is like, yeah, make banana bread and then also learn how to make chocolate banana bread in a cool pan and just spin and riff and do all of these things and make it your own.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, and I love what you said, that idea of a side hustle where it’s like the idea being you have your entrepreneurial pursuits of building a following, selling cookbooks, whatever it is, but it’s like adjacent to that is these other really important things like inspiring people to fall in love with baking or to feel more confident about something they wouldn’t have otherwise felt confident about, to learn a new thing, a new skill. And I love thinking about framing it up in that way. Before we continue, let’s take a moment to hear from our sponsors.

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When you think about what you do on a day-to-day basis, we’ve talked about this idea that using the Food52 example where you go in, you get a focus on being a creator or somebody who’s in front of the camera, but that’s one area of what you’re doing. You also have the cookbooks, you have videos that you’re publishing, social media following, Netflix shows. How do you view what it is that you do? I know we talked about writing as being important, it all coming back to that, but in the world of your business, your entrepreneurial pursuits, creative pursuits, how do you think of that, for lack of a better phrase, that pie chart? How do you divide that up in terms of what’s important, where you spend your time? Can you talk about that a little bit?

Erin Jeanne McDowell: Yeah, on my business card it says author, recipe developer, video host. So I feel like those are the three things. It’s like kitchen time, video and the writing. But I also think that truthfully, one of the things that I like so much about what I do is that it is a rotating pie chart. Okay? I spend some seasons, so to speak, writing much more and then I spend months on end back to back in the kitchen.

And so there are these funny rhythms, and one of the things actually, I really like the way that you asked that question because I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. One of my brothers is a painter, so another non-traditional career where the times that he is able to go and devote to that are limited. And also even within those times, and maybe he isn’t feeling inspired or whatever. One of the things that I’ve struggled with is that I sometimes feel really productive at not at all typical business hours, and why does that matter in my particular case, except for the fact that I have to do so much business with brands and things that are holding regular business hours.

So this thing of is it necessarily bad that I can’t take an 8:00 A.M. meeting because I felt compelled to write at midnight last night. But I bring it up just because I do think that one of the things that is so wonderful about working for yourself, about this part that people don’t really talk about is that flexibility. The flexibility is the best part about it. Sometimes you’re so consumed by how many roles you have to carry that I don’t think you can enjoy the flexibility the way that if you had a very standard job where here are your three to-do lists every single day and you have to do them and you can do it from home. Well, that would be an incredible amount of flexibility. But in my case, I could work from 6:00 AM to noon and then again from 7:00 to 9:00, why couldn’t I do that? There’s no reason that I can’t.

So anyway, my point just being that even just breaking that societal box in my own head has been so instrumental to me feeling like I have a better handle on all those parts of the pie chart, because I used to feel like, oh, I’m not spending enough time writing, or, gosh, I wish I could be in the kitchen more. And it’s like as soon as I started blocking out the schedule to just actually fit with what made sense with what I was doing, I was in the kitchen twice as much and I was working half as much. It was better organized and better laid out, and I was able to be more productive. So anyway, I just think that it’s an interesting thing because I just think with more and more non-traditional jobs, I think maybe some people have a more natural way of doing this than I do, but for me, it was really dismantling it in my head before I could actually use that in a way that was helpful for me and my business at all.

Bjork Ostrom: When you say dismantling, you mean the traditional, you show up at 8:00 and you work until 5:00 and you fit work into that as opposed to, it sounds like part of the shift is almost for, I don’t know if this makes sense, but energy matching when you’re doing the work. Okay, I write really well from 11:00 PM to 1:00 A.M, and great. Don’t try and fit it between 9:00 A.M. and 11:00 A.M if that’s going to feel really forced and it’s also going to be more productive if that’s when you’re doing it. Similarly, if somebody’s a morning person and they’re like, I work great from 4:00 A.M to 6:00 AM to find those, yeah.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: That’s my actual situation, by the way. I don’t know why I gave that midnight example.

Bjork Ostrom: Oh, sure. You’re morning.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: I am a crazy early riser and I’m freshest first thing. And so it’s like I love to be up and doing it right away and then have the afternoons to regroup or do whatever. And yes, dismantling it and being comfortable with it being not, I think we’re a productivity culture, so for some reason what was happening for me was I just kept adding more and more tasks to my to-do list, and I was becoming less and less productive while also piling more and more and more on myself.

Bjork Ostrom: Because you were working during times when you were not at peak energy or tasks that you didn’t want to do or all above.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: And yes, sometimes, and also even now, I try to even batch things like meetings and calls in a way where it’s like, man, it changes your life and your schedule when you can have one or two days a week that just like I am doing my work today at my pace, at my schedule. And obviously we can’t always all be so lucky. We often have many calls and many emails and all of these things, but figuring out a way to block that time and just not feel, I found that it helped to remind myself that because I’m doing an unusual combination of things, it isn’t a typical… If I was doing this in a normal office setting, there would probably be three or four of me. So I have to figure out a way to figure out how to get it all in there. And that striving for a better balance has really been actually helpful. Like I said, making me more productive. So I think it’s something worth chatting about.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, no, it’s great. I remember Lindsay talking about, she went into, there’s a local company here and they had a kitchen studio and they had one person whose full-time job was to import and organize the media. And it was more obviously, but I don’t know how much more. It was like, oh, that’s a full-time job is the SD card guy, and it’s like he’s importing and organizing photos and videos, and that’s 100th of job for a lot of us-

Erin Jeanne McDowell: What’s being done.

Bjork Ostrom: … on a day-to-day basis.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: I remember how it was when I actually put cleaning the kitchen on the list. That was just a thing that we do, of course. But what would happen was I never got the satisfaction of… And that’s such a silly example, but I was not putting everything on the to-do list or in the project management software or in the whatever that I was actually doing. And that made it seem like, man, why am I not getting this stuff done? And it’s like, actually, it’s because you did 15 things before you even started today. So anyway, that productivity thing is so real, and I think it just contributes to so many other negative things like imposter syndrome, comparing yourself to other people because you suddenly are like, it all collides in a firestorm if you’re not careful.

Bjork Ostrom: I’m taking this course right now, speaking of a culture of productivity, it’s a course called Pillars of Productivity, which is so, really internet business. But one of the things that I really appreciated about it is that the course, it’s by a guy named Tiago Forte, and I’ve read one of his books and he has a YouTube channel and stuff like that. But one of the spirit of it isn’t like, how do you just get a bunch of tasks done? The spirit of it is we have so much coming at us from all of these different places, not just email or DMs or messages. That’s one thing. But we also have a ton of information coming in more than we’ve ever had. And one of the things that I appreciate most about the course is the spirit of part of what we need to do as creators, business owners, really anybody who’s spending time online and having all this input. Our job is really to take that in and to prioritize the things that are most important, knowing that we’re not going to do all of the things.

And I think that’s one of the key pieces of it, is not how do you get all of it done and more, it’s how do you decide out of all this stuff coming in, what are you not going to do and what are the things that you are going to prioritize? And it was like one little 32nd clip where you talked about that, and I was like, oh, yeah, emails that come in don’t all need to get responded to within a day or a week. You take that and you say, how does this fit into my priority within the day? And what it allows us to do is think about what are we trying to do? What is the message we’re trying to spread? What is the mission that we have and what are going to be the things that we can do in our two hours, four hours, six hours, eight hours, 10 hours, however much time we have in the day to most effectively spread that? And it was strangely reassuring to me because it wasn’t about how do you brush all of your tasks.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: Did it all in.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, totally.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: And I think that’s even what I mean by saying, putting some of those things on the list that I formerly didn’t even deem as list worthy. They were just things that had to get done, but arguably that’s the stuff that should always be on the list. Because if I wasn’t making time for silly things, but importing files or accounting, but all of those things, I can’t move forward if I don’t do those things. So yeah, I think that’s the one thing that I wasn’t planning to be when I started all of this, is a business owner.

I wanted to write books, but of course to write books, you work for yourself. So that wasn’t the way that I went about doing it. And that part for me has definitely having to, especially I think working in professional kitchens and restaurants and the hospitality world, there’s I think an special both extreme productivity and sometimes long hours. And I just think that there were certain things that were so deeply ingrained in me of what a job was that I was… And especially as I’ve started to create more things, realizing that I do also need help. That it is so helpful to have a producer for my new web series. It’s so helpful to have a video editor to lean on when I can’t edit every single thing myself. So yeah, stuff like that.

Bjork Ostrom: Before we continue, let’s take a moment to hear from our sponsors.

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Can you talk about that shift that you had? You talk about getting in as a creator, as a writer, but then also realizing that you’re a business owner. What was that like, and what advice would you have for people who are maybe coming up against some of those same things? They know that they’re creator first, and it’s not like they’re super excited to get in and do accounting.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: I think identify your strengths and your weaknesses, and even when there isn’t a lot of money to spend, one of the very first things that I spent money on was an accounting because I know that isn’t my strong suit. So it was like that, I know I need help there right out. And the stress that relieved from me of not having to have all of my eggs in that particular basket and being able to rely on somebody else. And so even very early on in my career, that was one of the things where it was like, if I could have help with taxes, that would really make me feel better. And I think that is still the advice I would give myself today. Also learning a little bit about the tax situation and what is going to be best for… I talk about this all the time actually, that I don’t understand why they don’t give us the very basics of that in school.

Bjork Ostrom: Totally.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: Just feels like that would be such helpful stuff to go over.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s so practical.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: Yeah, literally, I took Calculus two, and I don’t use that at all, but I would love to know a little bit more about taxes. And so anyway, that’s the advice. Even now when I’m working with young people coming into the food media world, and usually the first thing I say is, let’s talk taxes. Because that was the first thing that terrified me, and it was just like, oh my God, that was really when the switch happened was, I’m not just an artist. I’m not just a creative person. I’m not just a writer. I am a business owner. And it was that realization that I had all of these things. And then also I think setting up a good system for yourself. We were just talking about how now I’ve figured out scheduling and a blocking, but whatever that system is, as long as it makes sense to you, it’s wonderful to be so organized and thinking ahead that you can create a system that then when you can bring other people in that you can share that system.

But I think at the beginning, it’s not so much about that and you don’t know what it’s going to look like. I think it’s more about just tracking everything in a way that makes sense for you. Keeping a paper trail. I am a notebook person, so I have one of these digital pads now that has really changed my life because I can digitize everything. I can hand write, it’ll convert it into a document for me on the computer, or I can access it for my phone even if I don’t have that pad on my person. So having a system, something that works for you, tracking it so that as you start to notice patterns… At a certain point I realized like, oh, I need to raise my prices. But it was because I was tracking everything so clearly that it really was. It’s also like I knew what content to make because I was tracking all the feedback I was getting. So it really ends up being a huge time saver to take that time from the get-go, I think is that advice I would give.

Bjork Ostrom: To create the system to create the process. It’s going to be less efficient to start more efficient later on. Even for yourself if you don’t bring somebody in. But also if you do bring somebody in, all the better because then they can look at it and say, okay, I get this and I understand this. It’s almost like I think of this idea of being a router, a super router, and things come in and then who do we route them to? Whether it’s like request or a task, so you have something accounting related, eventually you get an accountant and you can route it to them. That’s such a relief when you get to that point where you have a, whatever it is, a 1099 that comes in and you know where to go with it. You don’t have to question what to do with it, but it also applies to information.

And what that allows us to do is you get information that comes in, here’s this new tax consideration that comes in. Okay, in one story, you are the person that then has to go figure that out. It’s like, oh, shoot. But if you have that person, like in your case, the accountant, you can still receive that information, but you don’t have to solve it. You can pass it off to them and they can solve it, which I think is so great. But then there’s also the things that you own as the ultimate expert. And for you that’s baking. You are the ultimate expert on baking. You’re not routing that somewhere. And I think all of us, to some degree, need to be the ultimate expert on something. As creators, we own that and we are the expert on it. For you, that’s baking. That’s what you know, that’s what you’re really good at. And you’ve created these things around you to support you in that. How do you go about becoming an expert in a thing? What does that look like for somebody who wants to be best in class in a category?

Erin Jeanne McDowell: Well, it’s so lovely to hear you say that. I think I actually still really feel uncomfortable with the word expert because I feel very much like I’m still a student. I do understand what you’re saying, and certainly I am a baking resource, and that is how I positioned myself. But I think one of the reasons that I am a good teacher, it is even hard for me to say that about myself, and I know it’s true, but that is an interesting thing. I literally stumbled with the word. But one of the reasons I know I am a good teacher is because I am a good student, because I like learning. And so when I learn something that excites me, it is easy to communicate that same thing to somebody else. And I think I’m good sometimes at digesting it for people in that way. So for me, in my case, the way that I went about becoming an expert is by really studying as much as I could and continuing to open myself up to study.

And I also think that one of the things that’s wonderful about the internet in particular is you can actually somewhat track my experience because I have been sharing things for more than 10 years at this point. And so in one of my earliest things I ever wrote about pie, I said that I love glass pie dishes, which now is not true at all. I do not like glass pie dishes. They’re my least favorite. But I like that that article is still there. I don’t feel compelled to go back and change it because I think it actually shows the exact timeline of what I think to be true, which is that I believe that there is not just one right way to do things. There are lots of right ways. So one of the best ways to be an expert is to learn as many of those right ways as you can.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s great.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: So if you’re wanting to write, read a lot, and if you’re wanting to make movies or content, you do need to consume a good amount of it. But I also think that it’s just as important. As much as I love it, it’s truly a passion. I don’t watch a lot of television shows and things about food mainly because I think I can get that in my head about, oh, that’s already been covered. You start to maybe think some of your ideas aren’t as strong as they are. And so I think that you have to have this balance of both consuming a lot and also giving yourself space to create. But I think learning and always learning and being excited about learning and realizing that, man, even if I think I make great videos, that then I’m going to see some other thing that’s going to inspire me, that’s going to make me think, man, I got to learn how to do that. That’s completely different. So I think that flexibility and everything is part of at least the success that I have found, at least.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s great. I almost think about just the teachers in my life, and I think the best teachers have, number one, wanted to teach and then are also continually curious. And when you pick up on that, you know that somebody is a good teacher. They’re anxious to tell you the thing, and they’re also learning a thing that they want to tell people about. And it also feels like the best way to get better is to learn and to teach. And I think it helps us refine the craft of what it is that we’re trying to do. So that resonates a lot. There’s a lot of ways that people can learn from you. You have your three cookbooks. You have your show on Food52, your show. As of the recording of this, this will come out a little bit later that just launched on YouTube. Erin, can you talk about where people can follow along with you online? Maybe pick up your cookbooks. Just a little chance for you to do a shout-out and we’ll link to those in the show notes as well.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: Definitely. So as you mentioned, I have three cookbooks, The Fearless Baker, which covers a huge array of baking topics. The Book on Pie, which is a New York Times bestseller. And also Savory Baking, which is my newest. And it is a great time of year to be baking from Savory Baking, everybody, because it is full of so many comforting, yummy things. And you can definitely check out my web series, Bake It Up a Notch, which has over 70 highly Bingeable episodes on Food52’s YouTube channel. But please, please, please check out Happy Baking, which is my new web series. It is on my own YouTube channel, Erin Jean McDowell. And all things Happy Baking and videos and everything you can find on my website, Erinjeanmcdowell.com. Can follow me on Instagram @Emcdowell or TikTok @ErinJeanMcDowell. And I would love to have you join my community of Happy Bakers where we’re dusting things in Sprinkles and sugar 24/7.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome. Erin, thanks so much for coming on.

Erin Jeanne McDowell: Thanks so much for having me.

Emily Walker: Hello, hello, it’s Emily here from the Food Blogger Pro team. I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. Before we sign off, I wanted to hop on here to chat a little bit about the Food Blogger Pro Podcast Facebook group. So the Facebook group is a great way to continue the conversation outside of the podcast, connect with other podcast listeners and get the latest info on the podcast. Members of the group are the first to know about new podcast episodes, and we often do open calls for interview ideas and questions for upcoming guests. We’d love for you to join us on the Facebook group. It’s free and easy to join. Just head to FoodBloggerPro.com/Facebook and then request to join. We so appreciate your support of the podcast, and as always, thanks for tuning in. Have a great week.

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