Welcome to episode 431 of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork interviews Lauren Toyota from Hot for Food.
Last week on the podcast, Bjork chatted with Nathan Barry. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.
The Highs and Lows of Being a Food Creator for Over a Decade
Lauren Toyota has been blogging for almost ten years and has had tremendous success during the past decade — two cookbooks, 450,000 subscribers on YouTube, and qualifying for Raptive. But all of these high points have been balanced by some professional lows, especially since the pandemic and becoming a mother.
Lauren is incredibly honest in this interview about the current “slow” period of her business, and how her mindset has changed around her business goals recently. She openly shares her struggles, and how she views the future of hot for food.
And part of the future of hot for food is Lauren’s membership (EAT IT)! Lauren walks listeners through the process of starting a membership and why she enjoys creating that type of content so much. This is a raw, transparent, brutally honest interview that we know will resonate with many of you!
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- What’s changed (and what’s stayed the same) since Bjork and Lauren last chatted on the podcast in 2016.
- The different experiences Lauren had writing and marketing her two cookbooks.
- How her business and mindset have changed over the last decade (especially due to the pandemic and becoming a mother).
- What the future of hot for food might look like.
- Why she decided to start a membership (EAT IT) on her website and what the process has looked like.
- How she’s approaching creating content and growing her audience on YouTube.
- Hot for Food
- 079: How Finding a Unique Niche Led to YouTube Success with Lauren Toyota from Hot For Food
- Hot for Food Vegan Comfort Classics: 101 Recipes to Feed Your Face
- hot for food all day: easy recipes to level up your vegan meals
- The Iced Coffee Hour
- 1000 True Fans
- EAT IT by hot for food
- The Getaway Co.
- Follow Lauren on Instagram and hot for food’s YouTube page and her personal YouTube page
- Join the Food Blogger Pro Podcast Facebook Group
Thank you to our sponsors!
Small Plugins is focused on creating thoughtful, small-yet-mighty plugin solutions for bloggers, creators, and website owners. Listeners can use this link to get a 70% discount on ALL current and future Small Plugins plugins!
Interested in working with us too? Learn more about our sponsorship opportunities and how to get started here.
If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for interviews, be sure to email them to [email protected].
Transcript (click to expand):
Bjork Ostrom: This episode is sponsored by Once Coupled, the development agency behind the brand Small Plugins. Small Plugins is focused on creating thoughtful, small, yet mighty plugin solutions for bloggers, creators, website owners. And their first plugin, The Dynamic Connector Block can help you customize promotional content, so think affiliate links, email opt-ins, purchase links, based on the content someone is reading. So on this podcast we talk a lot about being intentional with opt-ins. We might not want to show an ebook for our best cookie recipes on a salad recipe post, as an example. With the Dynamic Connector Block Plugin, you can create targeted opt-ins that match the content your reader is already choosing to consume.
Here’s how it works. It’s great because it’s really just two steps. So step one is, choose a specific location in each post where you want the connector block to appear. For example, you might want it placed below the recipe card. And step two is, create the connector blocks. This happens in another area of WordPress. For instance, you might make a connector block that includes a targeted email signup option for any recipe in the healthy category for your site. And once you’ve done that, the magic happens. All the posts in the healthy recipe category will automatically display the targeted email signup form you designed. Again, it’s just two steps. You one, decide where you want in the post the connector block to go, and two, create the block you want to appear in that spot. If you ever want to change that block in the future, you only need to modify it in one place and all your healthy recipes in this example will instantly reflect the new block.
Now as you add more and more targeted opt-ins, the block in your posts from step two will automatically update based on that post category. No manual updates, that’s the thing that’s important here. No manual updates to hundreds of posts needed. It’s a super slick plugin, and the small plugins team has two other plugins in the works. One that can help you highlight categories in each post, and another that allows you to feature a comment within your blog post. They’re really great, and like we said in the beginning, small but mighty plugins that allow you to do some really cool things. And this is where it gets great. You can learn more at smallplugins.com. And if you’re interested in the Dynamic Connector Block Plugin, you can go to foodbloggerpro.com/small. Again, that’s foodbloggerpro.com/small to get a 70% discount, 70% discount, on all current and future small plugins plugins. Thanks again to Once Coupled and Small Plugins for sponsoring this episode.
Emily Walker: Hey, this is Emily from the Food Blogger Pro team, and you’re listening to the Food Blogger Pro podcast. This week on the podcast, Bjork is interviewing Lauren Toyota from the food blog Hot For Food. This is Lauren’s second time on the podcast, she last joined us in 2016, and she’s been blogging for almost a decade. In the past decade, she’s had huge success with her blog and YouTube channel. She’s published two cookbooks, she has 450,000 subscribers on YouTube, and that’s just the beginning.
This is one of my favorite interviews we’ve had in a while because Lauren is incredibly honest and open about her business over the last 10 years. She shares a lot about how her mindset has changed in recent years since becoming a mom, and thanks to the Pandemic. And she openly shares her struggles and how she views the future of Hot For Food. Lauren also shares a little bit more about how she’s approaching creating content for her business right now, and why she decided to start a membership called Eat It on her website and what that process has looked like. Like I mentioned, it’s a super honest and vulnerable interview, and I think it will resonate with everyone who listens. I can’t wait for you to hear it, so I’ll just let Bjork take it away.
Bjork Ostrom: Lauren, welcome back to the podcast.
Lauren Toyota: I am very excited to be chatting, I haven’t done a podcast in a while.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, we were debriefing, re briefing, pre briefing, maybe is the right word, before we pressed record, and we’re like “2016 was when we talked last, and it’s just so crazy.” Anytime you do something on the internet longer than five years, it’s like you need to have a little badge, like a Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts badge, that’s like five years of doing the same thing on the internet. And we’ve both done that. You’ve been creating content online, video, you have a background expertise in video, we’ve been doing the podcast.
But also a lot has changed and a lot is the same, and we’re going to be talking about some of that stuff today, and just catch up and hear where you’re at. So this is maybe an unfair question because there’s so much packed into it, but in between these years it’s like seeing an old high school friend and saying, “What have you been up to?” And it’s like, “I haven’t seen you in 15 years.” But in those seven years, my guess is a lot has changed for you, maybe some things are the same. What would be the things that you would surface as like, “Hey, these things are some of the similar things, and these things are the things that are very different now than when we last chatted.”?
Lauren Toyota: Well, it’s crazy when you say 2016 because that was so early in this journey of doing Hot For Food, my food blog, YouTube channel, and everything. At that point, I don’t even know if I had considered doing a cookbook, it might’ve been something I was tossing around, but since then I’ve done two cookbooks. I put out the first in 2018, which was a massive success, and blew any of my expectations under the water. And then I did a second one that came out in 2021 that was tail end of pandemic, and that was a totally different experience.
Bjork Ostrom: Can you talk about, before we get too far away from it, those two things? I think that’d be really interesting. So there’s Hot For Food, vegan Comfort Classics, and that was the one in 2018. What were your expectations and how were they exceeded?
Lauren Toyota: I wasn’t anticipating creating a cookbook, that wasn’t necessarily something on my goal list, not that I have a goal list. But it just wasn’t what I envisioned because at the time in 2016, and maybe I said this, I thought maybe publishing was on its way out, or somehow antiquated, and that I’d have to do something more modern like an online course, or some type of interactive ebook with video. I was thinking really high-tech for that time. And I got a book deal, I got some offers, and then I felt like I needed to be savvier and shop a little bit, get an agent.
And so I got a fairly what I thought, decent book deal. Now that I feel like I’m an expert in publishing, at least in what I know what’s going on in the food space, and what the deals look like, and what the money looks like. So I felt like I did pretty good for someone who popped out of nowhere, built their YouTube following, that was what I was riding on, and because it was a reasonable advance. And then again, the whole thing about publishing a cookbook is, don’t expect to sell books. You’re putting this out as a calling card, it’s a nice piece of the pie for marketing, it’s something to talk about.
But I actually sold very well, and that was unexpected, and the book continues to sell. It, in my perception, feels like it’s one of the essential vegan cookbooks. It feels like it’s part of that small collection of books that makes an impact on people’s lives. And that was timing, and what I had been doing on YouTube. So that was great. I reflect on that time as my heyday, now we have so much time to think about that. That was really at the peak of the pinnacle, I had achieved something, I had put out something, it was successful. I was riding on this skate, I was doing a lot of press. And that actually allowed me the possibility to get O1B Visa, which is why I took that and moved to LA to finish my second cookbook. So I went from Toronto, Canada to Los Angeles, which was an over decade long dream of mine to live in California from my television days.
Bjork Ostrom: And for those who aren’t familiar, just briefly, can you explain your background in television?
Lauren Toyota: Yeah. I did almost a decade of hosting in Canada at a number of channels, but primarily Much Music or NMTV Canada, which Much Music was MTV for Canada, and then we had MTV Canada. So I was an on-air personality and interviewed celebrities and musicians, so I had that public version of myself, which was also what attributed to me being able to qualify for a visa to move to the US. But secondarily, in my content creation role, publishing a cookbook was that other thing that allowed me the credentials or whatever they call it.
Bjork Ostrom: How do they decide that? From the outside you look at it and you’re like, “Yeah, totally. You have these awesome things. You did a cookbook, you’ve been on TV.” I’d be like, “That’s cool.” But then is there just somebody in some office being like, “That’s cool, let’s give her a Visa.”
Lauren Toyota: Yes. I forget the acronym. US CIS, the border security type people, immigration people, are going through these applications, these very detailed legal petitions they’re called. So you have to do it with a law firm who’s familiar with all of this, and I had a 1000 page petition. I’ve seen it printed, it’s in a binder, it’s all paper. Printouts of all the articles I’ve done, interviews with celebrities, any press, any mentions, any award nominees. All this stuff that makes me look, and this is what the visa’s called, Alien of Extraordinary Ability, which is a very cool title.
Bjork Ostrom: Totally. Business card.
Lauren Toyota: Exactly. So I qualify as an Alien of Extraordinary Ability when this gets approved because I’ve proved, look at all these cool things I’ve done to prove why I’m essentially going to take a US person’s job. Like what? So I did all that in 2019 and got the Visa, and then moved here about six months before the pandemic. Finished cookbook two submitted the manuscript, and then a week later the pandemic started. So that was an interesting time too, because actually this is not how I ended up at the end of the pandemic. But at the beginning of the pandemic, I felt a little spoiled and bad because I was like, “Well, I’m living in LA, it’s sunny, I have a sanctuary in my backyard. I can hang out, my manuscript’s done. I don’t have anything to worry about.”
It was actually very good timing for me personally, although terrible globally. And then as that time stretched on and on, that’s really where this whole journey really changed and pivoted, because this was not something I anticipated doing, but I decided to have a child after the pandemic. I have a 17 month old now, and obviously that changes the way I approach my business, and just changes my capacity. But even the pandemic previous to that changed my capacity. Sure, you’ve talked to a lot of people in the last couple of years doing your podcast, but this idea of grinding and working so hard, for what? It’s just changed our perspectives. And I don’t know if we have any answers. I don’t have any answers, but my capacity is so much less.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Lindsay and I talk a lot about that, and we compare these days where we would get up, and essentially you just work until 6:00, 7:00. And order something for dinner, or maybe you’ve made something that night and you have it. And then you watch a couple episodes of your favorite TV show, and then you get up and do it again. And you get up and you work from 8:00 to 6:00, 7:00, which is great, and that’s a season. But it’s interesting, at least for us, when we moved out of it, didn’t realize like, “Oh my gosh, we just essentially have all of this time that we could dedicate to this thing.”
And then the kids especially changes that, and suddenly it looks very different. I’d be interested to hear for you the two buckets. So you mentioned Covid, the pandemic, and how that changed almost some of your philosophical contemplations around work, and then we can talk about that. So maybe lead with that, and then talk about how that’s changed with having a 17 month old, and nine month old, and three month old, all the different versions of it up until where you are now. But how about the pandemic? What changed for you during that season as a creator and an entrepreneur?
Lauren Toyota: Well, the first immediate thing I remember feeling was relief. When it feels like everything stops, the whole system halts, the relief you feel, that’s significant. Because prior to that, you’re not even aware that there’s this whole outside force basically making you do what you do, in a way. Does that make sense?
Bjork Ostrom: So if I could mirror it back to you, tell me if this is accurate. You’re in it, and you have maybe this loop of these deliverables, and this content that you need to produce, and some of it’s externally imposed, like maybe book deadlines. A lot of it’s probably internally imposed, like you want to create something every Tuesday, and publish it on your channel. And so you have these deadlines, you’re grinding, you’re grinding, and then some big thing happens. In this case, it’s the pandemic. Maybe those expectations are released, and what you felt in that moment was relief. And that caused you to be introspective to say, “If I feel better when I don’t have these things, what does that mean?” Is that accurate?
Lauren Toyota: Yes, 100%. I often don’t know if I’m being articulate enough, and I don’t feel like I have any profound takeaways. I feel like I’m still processing a lot of it. These conversations are helpful because it allows me to reflect and remember how I felt, that’s the major thing. So that I just sat with for a long time. It felt like a more free time to create, because now we have people online more. I remember sourdough saga, I’m making sourdough, this was a significant moment during this time. We also had a lot of creators in all kinds of spaces, but obviously observing the food space because people were cooking at home and had pantry staples. And so you started seeing the rise of certain TikTok people and the prolificness of which they fell into the space and blew up. And so that just again, systematically changes the game for me.
Bjork Ostrom: Because suddenly there’s a new type of medium. And it’s hard to pull all of these things out and understand it, but you have Covid, which is this existential, maybe philosophical time where you look at, why are we working? How are we working? You look deeper at things. But also everybody’s behavioral patterns changed, and one of the ways they changed was they started to consume a lot more content because they were just at home more, on their devices, mobile. And at the same time, this platform, TikTok is taking off. And so my guess is for you as a video creator who had traction with a certain type of content, suddenly there’s this presentation of a new type of content that’s very different, at the same time where you’re questioning it all.
Lauren Toyota: Yeah, that’s not a good equation. somebody who didn’t have as much history as me might be more enthusiastic to get on TikTok, play around, but I was coming from this long format place of YouTube, again, preparing for a book launch. There’s lots of reasons why I should have been enthusiastic and jumped on TikTok, but I didn’t. But again, I’m older, it just was hard for me. I only started on TikTok this year.
Bjork Ostrom: Sure. And how has that been?
Lauren Toyota: I was very resistant to it, but I’ve caught myself, and this is no fault of my own, of why I’m addicted to it. I’m addicted to consuming TikTok, and not anything in my field. I don’t even look at food.
Bjork Ostrom: Sure. It’s just random.
Lauren Toyota: I’m just getting what I’m getting. But it all seems to know my brain, and it’s incredible how intuitive and amazing this algorithm is that knows what you want to hear. It’s a lot of more philosophical, self-help, guru stuff. I love that stuff.
Bjork Ostrom: And also, what you’re saying is where your head’s at, it’s like, “Wow, that’s interesting.” We don’t have to go down this rabbit trail, but I was listening to a podcast on AI, and they were talking about how eventually there’ll be a point where AI is creating content. And you can imagine the algorithm of content optimization combined with the ability to actually create that content. And when those two things are paired together, not only is it optimizing which content to show you, but it’s also optimizing the content itself. And you can imagine just how addictive that becomes.
Lauren Toyota: A human can’t compete with that, so where does that leave me and all these other people who have built a business on creating content, optimizing content? We are not machines, that is clear. And I think I was operating at a machine like pace up to the pandemic point, and it’s funny to talk about it like this and analyze it like this, because we’re really truly being asked to compete with these machines, with machines, AI.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. It’s interesting. The other thing that’s interesting to talk about is, platforms evolve so quickly, and things that work well don’t work well eventually, and then there’s a new thing. And I’ve referenced this a few times on the podcast, but I have a friend TJ, it’s like a friend of a friend. He probably wouldn’t call me a friend, but he’s my good friend’s friend. But he does birth order humor, and he has cumulatively two or three million followers maybe. But if he was doing those same bits, but 10 years ago as images on Instagram, it just wouldn’t have worked. And so not only has it aligned in terms of his skills, his abilities, he has all of these different skills and abilities, and does a podcast too, he’s just a dynamic person. But also it has aligned well from a medium standpoint, short form content performs really well.
And what’s interesting, if you look back 10 years, I can also think of friends or acquaintances, but people we knew who did really well because they were photo focused, and they would be really good at compiling beautiful photos and sharing those on Instagram, compelling writers. And that worked really well. And Pinch of Yum had this long standing stagnant season on Instagram with growth, and it wasn’t until we started to really think about reels that started to grow again. And so it’s interesting as a creator to think about, and it sounds like you were doing some of this reflection, how much do I want to evolve into the platform and try and figure out how to make it work, versus say, this actually isn’t a good fit for me, and I’m okay with that. I don’t want to get on and do 30 second short form content, 60 second short form content, I just want to stick to what I feel like is my best medium. Do you feel like there is any contemplation for you around, it’s more specific than video, it’s like even what format of video you’re doing.
Lauren Toyota: Yeah, the options just became so much more demanding and larger. This will lead into us talking about the membership that I started a little bit, but you bring up a good point in that at some point I rode what felt like a long wave of being able to post what I wanted to post and for people to be attracted to it. And not really playing any games, not playing into the tech, not playing into the algorithm or the SEO. I really did not, I never have. And now it feels like if you don’t do that, you’re screwed.
Bjork Ostrom: You have to be aware of it, and you have to be a good creator.
Lauren Toyota: Yeah. And so I think, like your friend, I’m a dynamic person. I have all these skills, I taught myself all these things to get into this space, and it started to feel like, does any of this mean anything? I don’t even know. This is where I’m at now. Making what I want doesn’t work. I was going to say about the photos. I used to just take pretty decent good photos, it was just simpler times. And now to make very high quality video, I also was doing that at the time on YouTube, but now I’m not even sure what, I don’t know. I just feel like I have a bit of, for sure, imposter syndrome, but also everything at my fingertips. I couldn’t do exactly what everyone else is doing, but I never want to do what everyone else is doing.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it’s interesting. And my guess is it’ll be refreshing for people to hear that because number one, you don’t often get a lot of people talking about their journey in real time and being like, “I was here.” You talk about this peak, your cookbook just comes out, you have a ton of traction with that, YouTube channel’s growing. And then inevitably things change, and shift, and adjust, and then it’s like, “Oh, this looks different.” And now it’s frustrating and it’s stickier than it was because everything has changed and shifted.
And then you need to look at it again and figure out, “Okay, what do I do? Do I grind? Do I put my head down? Do I reanalyze and go in a different direction?” And I think more people than not are in some version of that. They’re thinking, maybe it’s feeling imposter syndrome, it’s feeling like, “Man, the caliber has to be so high and I just can’t keep up.” So how are you processing through that? What does it look like for you to make decisions about it? How do you stay true to who you are as a content creator and continue to show up?
Lauren Toyota: Well, that’s the thing. Ultimately, if you were to ask me what’s the most important, and for me it is to stay true to me. I don’t know if I can turn on a part of my brain or turn off another part of my brain to become super calculated, which maybe means I get weeded out. I’m not sure. Except on the other hand, you have everybody talking about, be real, be authentic. It’s just sometimes it doesn’t really seem like that’s what’s happening. And I never want to play a viral game, I’m not trying to go viral, I’ve never gone viral. So I’m like, “Okay, I built a pretty sustainable big thing without having to go viral. That’s not the only path to success or sustainability in the space.”
But I don’t know, it’s a daily reassessment. Because I want to figure it out. Basically, I’m at the point where I’m like, I need to figure out how to do this for another 10 years. I’m almost at my 10 year anniversary, February 2024, I don’t want to kill it off and go away and be like, “Can’t run a blog in a YouTube channel anymore, got to go work at whatever.” I don’t want to do that. But that is what I’m thinking about right now thinking, “Is that what I’m going to have to do to just make a living and pay for now another human being that I’m caring for? As expensive as things are now, again, the world has just shifted in such a way.”
So that’s where I’m at. I don’t have an answer, but I have a strong urge to figure it out. Maybe it’s not figuring out the social game or figuring out the TikTok game, there’s a lot of different things I could do and I just don’t know where to focus my thinking. These are truly the things I’ve been thinking about. I could become a private chef, I live in Los Angeles. Sure, there’s a demand for vegan people to cook for small groups. I see all this content on Instagram too. Do you see these private chefs showing off with their cooking? Everybody?
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.
Lauren Toyota: A lot of them are self-taught, they’re not necessarily huge culinary graduates. But anyway, that’s one thought. I could maybe start some other small business actually serving food. That’s not what I want to do, that’s a real risk, creating something where I sell food. Not a restaurant. But do I nose to the ground trying to find investors? I need cash, there is no cash coming into this business anymore. It’s a slow period, but it’s been a long, slow period, and I don’t know if that’s a combination of things. My effort having had a child taken a step back a little bit, it’s also super oversaturated, the budgets are being super spread thin across more micro creators because the bulk of my income came from brand partnerships. Did I make a mistake investing too much of my income in brand partnerships and not diversifying? There’s so much going on in my head. I’m trying to not beat myself up. Also financially, we’re supposedly getting into this really bad recession. And I can say supposedly, I can’t tell if that’s true or not.
Bjork Ostrom: Sure. I don’t think anybody can. It’s like “What’s happening out there.”
Lauren Toyota: And I’ve been in these places before, but when I was in television I had times when I got let go, and I’m in that place again. I feel like I’m on these 10 year cycles where up to about 10 years things start to feel like they need to shift, some other door needs to open in some way. So I don’t know what it is, but I am trying to just focus on what is it that I love to do. I do love to cook, I’m happiest when I’m cooking. I like to actually provide food to people, I actually like people eating my food, and I haven’t really had that opportunity yet. The social media game’s really burning me out though, that’s probably where the most stickiness comes for me because I enjoy it to a point, but then it just starts to feel like you’re feeding into this starving monster, you just can’t give it enough. And for what? The only way you can make money is if you advertise on social media, there’s no other way to monetize that.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. We just were having that conversation yesterday, Lindsay and I, and a lot of the focus that we have is around creating video content for Instagram. And what we were saying is, we just need to make sure that we have a purpose attached to that in order to justify, because it’s expensive, whether it’s time resources, or money resources. And the most obvious way to do that, like you said, is working with brands, doing partnerships. And it’s interesting in this year, at least for us, and anecdotally I have some friends who have said this as well, it’s just a slow year. With that specifically where brands are a little bit, I feel like, slower to work with, and we’re starting to see that pick up a little bit. But even I have a friend who does video and he’s like, “This is the worst year I’ve had in 12 years.”
And as business owners, we all have different places where that hits, it doesn’t always just go up and to the right. And I think especially if you start something and you experience growth, and you experience traction, it feels really great until you have one of those seasons where things contract as opposed to expand, and then it’s scary. It feels different, whether it’s traffic, or revenue, or followers. And what I love about how you are viewing it is, to say, and I’ve been talking about it as designing your own video game. To say, what do I want my game to be? What is the points that I get? And for you, it’s food. It’s making food, somebody else enjoying that food. There’s the revenue component of it, but my guess is that’s an additional benefit that comes along with it, not the main thing.
And so you start to quantify those different elements, and design your game, and then you look and say, “Okay, within this game, what kind of avatar can play that game?” And insert yourself into that? That’s hard creative work to do, but it’s also helpful because it allows you to shield yourself from seeing what everybody else is doing, and being like, “Oh, I need to do that.” Where really what you need to do is, and I’m talking to myself here, design my own game and play my own game, which is hard when you’re getting a lot of input from other people.
Lauren Toyota: I really like how you did that analogy and said it that way, I’m going to completely just take that and look at it that way because that’s what I’ve been doing, I couldn’t describe it in a better way. And it’s been also, if we were talking about focusing on, what’s important, again for business, I would use the word spiritual because we’re not just talking about numbers, and charts, and strategy. I don’t know anything about business, so I just apply these more spiritual or philosophical ideas to what I’m doing. And like what you’re saying, if I take the things that are just important to me and identify those, and build the framework around that, it should work. Or that’s how it’s always worked for me in the past anyways, without knowing. And so another thing, like you’re saying, who can play this game? Now I’m a different person, I have a child, I have less mental energy, I have less time to devote to social. So that can’t be all I do because it’s literally impossible. So I think I’m building that out right now.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. In the middle of it.
Lauren Toyota: And I think I’m going to keep thinking about it that way. And like you were saying, revenue obviously has to come, but that was never on the framework of my game. It’s just something that has to be the result of all of this stuff, it’s not like I’m doing this to make money. But in the last few years it started to become that way because I had to sustain a certain level of expenses with this business. All the websites cost money, I had people helping me with production. And so there was a lot of change in my thinking of not I’ll just do this for money, but I had to start thinking about money as one of the things, and I don’t actually like doing that.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. This is on the extreme end, but there’s a YouTube guy who just talks about money, I think his name’s Graham Stevens, he has this show called Iced Coffee Hour. He was interviewing a comedian, and he was asking him about how much he makes in a year, and he was like, “I don’t know.” And he was like, “What?” The interviewer. He’s like, “You don’t know?” He’s like, “I have no clue, I have a money guy. And I want to be so far removed from that because as soon as I get into it, I know I’ll be so stressed that it’ll take over everything in my life.” And I’m not saying that’s a good example and you should do that, and it is probably pretty rare that somebody could do that without having a budget.
But I just thought as an extreme creator, it was a really interesting take where he essentially asked his money guy, “How long would it be before I am in trouble if I didn’t work?” And he’s like, “You have lots of time.” And that’s all that he needed to then go and just freely create. But it’s such an interesting thing that we have to navigate as solopreneurs, or people with a small team, is in those early stages at least, you kind of have to be all of the different pieces, but none of us are all of the different pieces. We are each collectively best in a certain department, creative, finance, HR, whatever the business departments are. We’re all good in a certain department, but in the early stages you have to be all of those things, which is a really difficult thing. It’s why what we do is hard is because you have to be good at lots of those different things.
Lauren Toyota: That’s the biggest challenge, I’m still all of the things. Yes, I have an accountant. I don’t have a money guy where I don’t know what’s going on though.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, I don’t know of anybody who did, which is why it was interesting.
Lauren Toyota: Also, I’m wondering, is that a pretty famous comedian who makes good money?
Bjork Ostrom: Yes. That’s part of it. That’s what I mean by most people can’t do that.
Lauren Toyota: You can do that when you hit a certain level. And that’s really great if you can do that, because I think energetically that’s actually helpful when you can, not ignore it because you’re afraid of it, but just trust someone else to handle it. And that only comes with a certain level of money coming in and out.
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The other piece that you had mentioned a little bit, your membership. Can you talk about that and how you approached that? And I’m just be curious to hear you talk a little bit about what that’s looked like.
Lauren Toyota: Well, so I decided to work on this membership and launch it in the early months of 2021. I was going to launch it in the summer, and in that time I got pregnant. Or did I get pregnant? Oh, I got pregnant right after I launched it. So my plan was to, again, what do I love doing? I actually like sharing the recipes, I like creating the recipes. I liked photographing the recipes, and again, I didn’t like all the video. The video took so much time and resource for editing and everything like that.
Bjork Ostrom: Editing, specifically when you said the video.
Lauren Toyota: So I was just like, “How can I just do what I like?” And I was thinking about subscription because I wanted to monetize off of YouTube, because I hadn’t really come back to doing YouTube regularly. And the money, unless you get a brand partnership, is just so low. Unless you’re in the millions and millions Mr. Beast level, you’re not making a living wage or even close to that from Ad Rev. So I was just like, “How can I own what I’m doing?” Not have it on Patreon, not have it on YouTube, or Instagram, I really wanted to get back to what’s going to be mine if all of that goes away tomorrow. And in the fallout of 2020, and Covid, and everyone talking about fair wage, and being compensated for your work, and there was a lot of discourse around that. I was like, “Yeah, I should be compensated for my work.”
I’m not going to stop giving away free content, but what kind of business model is it to be a creator who just gives away everything for free practically? That seemed crazy to me. People had started doing Patreon, and so I was just hopping on a little bit of a wave that I thought was there, and thought people might respond to it. And of course I knew it would still just speak to the core, but I was referring back to that 1000 fans idea and the idea that should just focus on the core. Those are the people who bought my book, those are the people who bought the second book, those are the people who bought the merch, what else can I get them to buy? Truly. And they feel like they have a relationship with me, so if they’re getting something valuable in return, it’s an equal exchange. So that was my whole thinking around that.
And I launched it in July 2021, and I didn’t really know what would happen. And it cost me a lot to set up because I built it myself, and built it on my website so that I could own it on my own domain. So it wasn’t just a no cost investment of signing up to whatever. And so there was a bit of an investment, I’ve made it back now, but it’s going okay. I don’t know what it should be, and I don’t know if the amount of time I put into it is actually being fairly compensated in the end. Then I got pregnant, so I felt like I could have put a lot into the marketing of it. I started doing it, but then I was like, “Oh God, I’m sick.” I was sick for the first trimester.
Bjork Ostrom: And you don’t want to make a potato soup recipe.
Lauren Toyota: Yeah. But anyways, I’ve done it. I’ve released something like eight issues. I do quarterly issues, or bundles of content.
Bjork Ostrom: Yep. That’s what I was going to ask is, what is the thing within the membership that you’re delivering?
Lauren Toyota: So I’ve done it consistently, I’ve never missed an issue. One of my ways of helping myself out when I was pregnant in the third trimester was I had a guest issue. So I had my fellow vegan bloggers contribute recipes for the issue, so I didn’t have to really do any work except set it up on the site. So it’s been fun to get a little creative with it, I do get excited around releasing the next issue. The whole point of it was to really ask what the people paying for it wanted, and so there’s been some exchange that way where they’ve contributed ideas, or I asked them what recipes they want and I develop them. So it’s a small community, but it’s just a nice add-on to what I’m doing. People come and go.
I think I’ve had people on it for the two years, and the majority of them have stayed, and some people have for financial reasons, have to cancel. But I don’t know, for me, it’s something that’s on a schedule, it forces me to create. Again, it’s compensated. It’s not just putting it all out on YouTube. But now I’ve had to balance also, I still have to put out the free content now. I’ve come back, this year I’ve come back. So my baby went to daycare at 10 months and I was like, “Okay, now I’m going to get back to YouTube and really try to just plug back in that way.” And of course, I don’t have enough hours in the day and enough arms to do all of this. And truly now I’m by myself, other than an editor, I don’t have any production team members or anyone doing anything. I’m doing all the writing, all the posting, all the whatever.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. And with the membership site that then it’s quarterly issues. Those are digital issues, videos, and it’s also maybe live component. People can hang out, connect.
Lauren Toyota: It is a live component.
Bjork Ostrom: So it’s like an inner circle, almost.
Lauren Toyota: Yeah. It’s behind a paywall, so if you go to my blog, you can link over there. Or it’s members.hotforfoodblog.com, and then you just sign up and you get access to everything in the past, that’s all up. It’s a sub domain of my website.
Bjork Ostrom: Sure. And then how did you set it up? What is it? Is it run on a certain software?
Lauren Toyota: Yes, it’s run on MemberPress. I don’t know the options, but I pay $400 a year for it, and then I had to hire somebody to build it out and customize it in WordPress.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s great. So it’s a WordPress membership site, and it looks really great. I’m on it right now.
Lauren Toyota: Yeah. Oh, thank you. All that functionality. I should have given you a login in advance so you could see what’s inside. But it essentially looks like my blog, other than the main pages you’re looking at, everything behind the paywall looks format wise exactly like hotforfoodblog.com. And of course, people wanted more video. When I did a feedback form maybe two or three issues in, everyone was like, “I thought there was going to be more video.” Because that’s what I’m known for. And of course I didn’t do that because of just work.
But now I’ve started to corporate. Now I basically held back some of my video content from going on YouTube, and I keep it just for the members. Like Vlog. And people do that personal aspect of my brand, like yes, I’m a food creator, but people have come to know me personally. And all these different stages of my life, my personal life has essentially been out there for people to follow along. So now they’re part of my motherhood journey as well. And I’ve tried to keep it more tight knit for the members before I put some of it out there to the rest of the people. Which it was a strategy, but I also felt like these people, I know who they are, a lot of them I know they’ve been following me for a long time, I know their handles. This is the core. So I’m always trying to onboard people, obviously, but I don’t know how big that can really get. I’m not sure.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Well, and the great thing about it, circling back to a conversation we had earlier, or something that we talked about, this idea of content, artificially generated content. One of the things that’s the most defensible against that is just our humanness, and our humanity. And what you’re doing is such a great example of that. It’s figuring out how do you lean more into that, and especially for people like yourself who you’re dynamic, people want to connect with you. It’s like you’re not going to build some system to pump out a bunch of content that ranks well for search, you’re going to connect with people, you’re going to be honest, you’re going to be authentic, genuine.
And my guess is even on a podcast like this, people are like, “Oh, I feel connected to this person.” Because of how you communicate and your transparency, and finding ways to lean into that feels like a really smart thing to do. And it feels like doing something like this where you have this inner circle that allows you to connect with people in a way that’s realistic, you can’t do it with everybody, but your YouTube channel, your social is a broad reach, and then you go in a circle and it’s not one to many in terms of your communication, it’s not broadcast communication, it’s one to few where it’s a little bit more connected. And that’s a smart approach.
Lauren Toyota: Well, and I’ve been thinking about that. When I look at the creators who have built really large businesses off of essentially social media content creation and their personality out there, it has to be personal. Because you can go buy any generic thing, but there’s only me. And so that’s something that I just do enjoy and will continue to do. But I’ve been thinking about this because TikTok, as personal as it is, when we think about food creation on TikTok, the stuff that goes viral isn’t necessarily personality driven all the time. So I don’t know, it’s interesting because I can’t figure out what TikTok wants. It wants personality, but when you look at food content, sometimes it’s just these viral recipe ideas, or just something really quick and gives people an idea. And they’re not necessarily going to follow you, they’re just like, “Wow, look at this idea.” And they share it all around and they save it. But what’s the vibe in there? I’m not sure with TikTok.
Bjork Ostrom: Well, and every platform is a different party, and expectations of the different. Yeah. And with TikTok it almost seems like it’s one of those parties where you wear masks, and you don’t really know who anybody is. That’s not entirely true, but it’s maybe not as personality centric where it’s more like content and theme centric. So people will maybe follow a really specific channel that does a really specific thing, and they may or may not know the name of that creator. It’s like, “Oh, you’re the person who does this thing.” But it’s not like they would know you if you have a long form vlog channel on YouTube where you really get to know the person and the ins and outs of who they are. And so it definitely feels like a different channel, or a different platform, where it’s a content algorithm as opposed to a social algorithm. At its core, it’s surfacing content that’s viral or that’s the type of content that’s going to get the most exposure, not your network, not your social network.
Lauren Toyota: Well, and then coming back on YouTube, it’s interesting because obviously built a community on YouTube, and I guess unless you feed that, if you go away, it really does damage you. Like, “I didn’t even know you were still here.” And there’s a lot of work I need to do to get people’s attention again, and I’m creating for that small core. That’s what I realized the other day, I’m like, “I’m making content for that small core who has stuck around. How the heck do I get more viewers on YouTube without being gimmicky?” In order to watch my vlogs they have to know who I am, know that I had a baby, or be curious about where I might be living. But I just realized that I’m doing what’s easiest because this is what I’ve always done, but strategically, I don’t think it’s working. And so I’m not sure what that means or what I should do.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. And I think a lot of people can relate to that. I also think it’s interesting, they would be a surprise for a lot of people thinking like, “Oh my gosh, you have 450,000 subscribers.” And yet trying to figure out how to connect with people.
Lauren Toyota: Who are those people?
Bjork Ostrom: It’s just an interesting look behind the scenes that a lot of people feel where maybe you have millions of Instagram followers, but you try and sell product and you don’t get any traction. Or lots of YouTube followers, and then you produce content, nobody sees it. We have these externally facing numbers, but then there’s a lot that goes into everything that happens behind the scenes on those platforms.
Lauren Toyota: Yeah. And those things really don’t matter because what I do know to be true is, another offshoot of what I was doing over the last few years was these trips. I was selling vegan holidays that were something so important to me, and I was doing this with my best friend who runs the Vegan Travel Company. And again, it’s a very personal thing, it’s not a big commercial thing where I’m selling it for some big travel company. So I think it’s a very personable thing, it’s very customized, and I’m still able to sell that type of thing. Even in this really tough climate we’re in, it seems there’s a small contingent of people who can travel and can afford it. And there’s a huge other contingent of people who can’t.
But within that core audience that’s following along with me, there are people who were very excited to A, go on vacation with me, have it be vegan, introduce their friends and family. We’ve had family members come with these people. So it’s really special to me. I don’t want to complain because what I’ve built is special, and there’s something there, and I just don’t want to lose it. I don’t want to forget about these people, I do want to cater to them, and I don’t want this to become about money and business. It’s just like, how do you do both? How do you sustain something that you’ve built? Have it be real and authentic and personal and as connected as you possibly can, and also monetize it without being a jerk?
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Well, and the other piece, and I’d be interested to spend some time talking about this, how do you do all of those things while also being fully present to your family? And I would be curious to hear your reflections as you’ve been a mom for 17 months now. What have you learned about yourself? And what would you say to other new moms or new parents who are either right in the middle of that? Maybe there’s somebody who’s listening to this and they’re ambitious and excited, but they also have a little one, and they’re trying to figure out how to navigate those two things, or maybe coming into a season like that.
Lauren Toyota: It is hard. It’s hard. If you’re self-employed, or you’re in a situation like me, or you want to get into this situation, at the beginning, you have zero support. You don’t have any government support, you don’t have any monetary support, you’re alone, you don’t have mat leave. I know in the US you get hardly any mat leave, but even in Canada, you get a year. If I continued being self-employed in Canada, I could have had all those benefits, so that’s my own fault.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. You would’ve had government supported maternity leave even if you were self-employed.
Lauren Toyota: Yeah, because I had been essentially paying myself, so I was paying into all those things.
Bjork Ostrom: That program.
Lauren Toyota: As a person, as a taxpayer. That’s just one thing. Oh my God, I wish I had something really important to say.
Bjork Ostrom: Profound.
Lauren Toyota: Yeah, something profound. It’s just so hard, and moms and parents will know it’s just survival mode, and you do it. You frigging do it, and you should be proud of yourself. All the little things that you do, you should be proud of yourself for because it’s so frigging hard to add that thing into your life. If you’ve lived a certain way for so long, and now you have this little person to care for. I do love it. I luckily never struggled with just the mental health aspect, postpartum.
I felt very invigorated by having a child, not necessarily for career or work, I shut that off. That feels very shut off, and I’m just coming back into that element of my life now. But I got to do it for him. It’s a very good motivator because I want to set a good example for him and change the way my upbringing was with my family, and give a good example. And I’m also now, I’m not with his dad, so that’s a whole other challenge too. But again, more motivation for me to make things work. And just trying to find balance with rest, and self-care, I roll my eyes because that’s literally…
Bjork Ostrom: For those who are listening,
Lauren Toyota: It’s like, “Oh, self-care.” It’s just you can’t, you have a baby.
Bjork Ostrom: I think back to, and it’s different for dads than it is for moms, so this is me just speaking from my experience. But it requires, back to that video game idea, it’s like you’re at a new level now, and I needed to reinvent my avatar in that game because I was now playing a very different game. And it’s hard because it happens literally overnight, at least from zero to one with kids. And so suddenly you’re on a different level, but you haven’t really had the time to evolve and morph into that. And I think for everybody, there’s probably varying levels of how difficult that is or isn’t to do that.
And it’s not that before it was good and after is bad, or before it was bad, and after is good. It’s just, it’s very different. And that transition takes a long time, and I feel like I can relate to you when you say 16, 17 months is where you feel like you’re coming back up and feeling like, “Okay, what does this look like now?” And appreciate you saying, “It’s just hard.” And I think that could be the best thing that anybody who’s in that could hear right now, which is, it’s hard and it’s okay to say it’s hard, and it’s okay to say that it’s difficult. And it doesn’t mean it’ll be difficult forever, but just in that season, it is difficult. And that in and of itself can be a really welcome thing for a lot of people to hear. Validating.
Lauren Toyota: Yeah. And in acknowledging that it’s hard that you don’t have to have a solution anytime soon. I’m such a solution oriented person and I want solutions, and I’ve had to just relegate myself to being like, “There’s no solutions.” Get through the day, do what you can, use that eight hours he’s at daycare as best you can. But some days, in fact, a lot of those days, it looks like doing no work, maybe sending one email. But again, that’s the benefit of things being slow right now. There’s so much trust you have to put into just being a solopreneur, like you’re saying, if you add children and family into this, that requires so much more trust. And that is a challenge.
I’ve prepared for this though, I didn’t take having a child lightly, and it wasn’t by accident. It was definitely intentional and on purpose, but it’s only because I felt like I reached a place in my life spiritually with my age, just everything. I am a little bit older, so it’s like, “I can do it now.” It was a challenge that I wanted. Everything else seemed a little bit boring. It did, and I thought, “What’s the rest of my life going to look like? It’s going to be frigging boring if I don’t have a child.”
Bjork Ostrom: And then you’re like, “This is not boring.”
Lauren Toyota: It’s not boring, it gives you so much more purpose. And I like when you said it’s not that before was better, it’s not. Now is better. Now it’s better, and it’s harder, but it’s better because it’s harder, for me. Honestly.
Bjork Ostrom: Yep. That’s great. There was a video, I forget which one that it was that I was watching, but when I saw that we scheduled the interview and was getting ready for it, and I was watching it, and you’d said something, and I just started laughing. Point being, it’s so great to be able to connect with you, who you are, so dynamic. The content that you create is so fun and so engaging, and people in general, they would like it, but especially people who are in a similar stage of life. So as we wrap up, Lauren, where can people connect with you, follow along with what you’re up to? Maybe check out the membership if they want to see what that’s all about and explore that? We’d love to link to all of those things.
Lauren Toyota: Yeah. Please link to the membership, but definitely you can check out lots of the free content on hotforfoodblog.com, and then Instagram, and YouTube, and TikTok, if you’re on there scrolling. I’m there. And then I do share my personal life and I’ve started, like you were referring to, sharing some of my mom life experiences on my personal YouTube channel, which if you just look up my name, Lauren Toyota, you’ll find that on YouTube and Instagram, and all the things. The membership is called EAT. IT by Hot For Food. The traveling I do is with the thegetawayco.com. So we will be announcing my trips for 2024, and they’re vegan holidays that are all planned for you, so that’s another thing.
But the motherhood thing is interesting because I want to share that, and that seems like as a creator, a logical place to go, but I’m trying to do it just so gently and carefully because it can start to be very TMI and exploitative, and I don’t want to become a mom blogger. But I do think the relatability of me in general naturally follows this new part of my life, so I have to share.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it’s who you are, and that’s what you do is share about who you are and what you’re doing. And so I found it’d be helpful, and fun, and entertaining, and I’m sure others will as well. Lauren, thanks so much for coming on. It was great to check in. We’ll have to do it again sometime in the future.
Lauren Toyota: In another seven years.
Bjork Ostrom: We’ll do it every seven years, how about that?
Lauren Toyota: Sounds good, thanks Bjork.
Emily Walker: Hello there, Emily here from the Food Blogger Pro team. We hope you enjoyed listening to this week’s episode of the podcast. Before we sign off today, I wanted to mention one of the most valuable parts of the Food Blogger Pro membership, and that’s our courses. In case you don’t already know, as soon as you become a Food Blogger Pro member, you immediately get access to all of our courses here on Food Blogger Pro. We have hours and hours of courses available, including SEO for food blogs, food photography, Google Analytics, social media, and sponsored content. All of these courses have been recorded by the Food Blogger Pro team or some of our industry experts, and they’re truly a wealth of knowledge. We are always updating our courses so you can rest assured that you’re getting the most up-to-date information as you’re working to grow your blog and your business. You can get access to all of our courses by joining Food Blogger Pro. Just head to foodbloggerpro.com/join to learn more about the membership and join our community. Thanks again for tuning in and listening to the podcast. Make it a great week.