413: Lessons in Burnout, Persistence, and Creativity after Ten Years of Food Blogging with Maggie Zhu

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A blue graphic of a person sitting on a rock and looking out across a landscape with the title of Maggie Zhu's episode of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast, 'Lessons in Burnout, Persistence, and Creativity.'

This episode is sponsored by Clariti.

Welcome to episode 413 of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork interviews Maggie Zhu from Omnivore’s Cookbook.

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

Lessons in Burnout, Persistence, and Creativity after Ten Years of Food Blogging

Maggie Zhu has been running Omnivore’s Cookbook, a food blog all about modern Chinese cooking, for over ten years. That’s a very long time in internet years! She’s had incredible success growing her site during this time and just recently wrote her first cookbook.

But this success didn’t come without some struggle. Maggie has navigated intense periods of burnout over the last ten years and has learned that outsourcing and prioritizing her creativity are key to helping her overcome these phases.

This interview is honest, raw, and thought-provoking, and we really hope it resonates with you as much as it did with us!

A photograph of Chinese Chicken Dumplings on a plate with a quote from Maggie Zhu's episode of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast, "The key is to be persistent."

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • About how Maggie got started as a food blogger over 10 years ago.
  • What it was like for her to work a full-time job while growing her food blog.
  • What her goals are for her blog, and how she works through the comparison trap.
  • How she limits burnout after blogging for 10+ years.
  • Why she prioritizes outsourcing certain tasks for her business, and how she determines what to outsource.
  • Where she finds people to join her team.
  • How she approaches creating Chinese recipes for a Western audience.
  • Why it’s important for her to find a creative outlet outside of her blog.
  • What advice she has for someone in the early stages of food blogging.


About This Week’s Sponsor

We’re excited to announce that this week’s episode is sponsored by our sister site, Clariti!

With Clariti, you can easily organize your blog content for maximum growth. Create campaigns to add alt text to your posts, fix broken images, remove any broken links, and more, all within the Clariti app.

Sign up for Clariti today to receive:

  • Access to their limited-time $45 Forever pricing
  • 50% off your first month
  • Optimization ideas for your site content
  • An invitation to join their exclusive Slack community
  • And more!

You can learn more and sign up here.

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

Blue graphic with the Food Blogger Pro logo that reads "Join the Community!"


Bjork Ostrom: This episode is sponsored by Clariti, that’s Clariti.com. And I’m going to give you a really specific example of how you can use Clariti if you sign up today. And that is poster page specific tracking of changes that you’re making. And you can use the notes area within Clariti to make a note anytime that you make a change. An example of when you’d want to do this, let’s say that you’re switching over some of your YouTube videos to be AdThrive or Mediavine video players. You want to make sure that you’re tracking to see when you look back three months later, the change or the impact that that had. And personally, what we’ve noticed as we’ve worked on content is like you forget. If you don’t have a system, if you’re not making a note of that somewhere, you’ll forget.

And so within Clariti, there’s the ability to leave a note anytime that you’re making a change or improvement on a piece of content to allow you to go back and see how that change impacted things. There’s lots of other ways that you can use Clariti, but I thought it’d be helpful just to give a really specific example. If you want to see what those other ways are, you can go to Clariti.com/food to get 50% off your first month. Again, that’s Clariti.com/food to get 50% off of your first month. You can start taking notes on the changes you’re making and explore all the other features. Thanks to Clariti for sponsoring this episode.

Emily Walker: Hey there. Welcome to episode 413 of the Food Blogger Pro podcast. This is Emily from the Food Blogger Pro team. This week on the podcast, Bjork is chatting with Maggie Zhu from Omnivore’s Cookbook. Maggie has been running Omnivore’s Cookbook food blog, all about modern Chinese cooking for over 10 years now. That’s a super long time in internet years. She’s had lots of success growing her site during this time, and recently wrote her first cookbook, the Chinese Homestyle Cookbook.

In this interview, Bjork and Maggie are chatting about lots of topics that come up frequently when you’ve been blogging for as long as Maggie has. She chats about what it was like for her to work a full-time job while growing her food blog right at the beginning. What her goals are for her blog and how she works through the comparison trap. And how she’s limited burnout after blogging for 10 plus years. She also shares why she’s decided to prioritize outsourcing certain tasks for her business and where she finds people to join her team. Maggie has really great advice for someone who’s just starting out in the early stages of blogging, and it’s a really honest and thought-provoking interview that we know you’re going to love. So I’ll just let Bjork take it away.

Bjork Ostrom: Maggie, welcome to the podcast.

Maggie Zhu: Hi. So nice meeting you.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it’s fun to connect here because you are somebody who’s been in this world, in this space doing this work for a long time, 10 years, a decade. I feel like once you go from single digits to double digits with the content creation world, that’s when you know that you’ve been at it for a long time, especially in internet years.

Maggie Zhu: Yeah, I know. It’s like forever.

Bjork Ostrom: We were talking about you have cat and I feel like cat years or dog years, they talk about dog years, seven years for every year. It kind of feels like the equivalent in internet years needs to exist, like three years for every year in the internet. So it’s like if you’ve been doing something for a decade that’s like the equivalent of 30 years in another job.

Maggie Zhu: I feel like I’m so old now. Oh God.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, exactly. We are establishing our place as the senior citizens of content creation world. But the benefit is have … and we chat about this a little bit before we press record. You have experience with the ups, the downs, the positives, the negatives. Once you’ve been at something for a long time, it gives you exposure to a lot of different experiences. And that’s one … we’re going to touch on some of those things today. You talked about burnout, you talked about delegation. We talked about seasons of tracking analytics really closely, and then seasons of not being tied into that as much. But with any conversation like this, I always like to start at the beginning to hear about what it was when you first started. So if we roll the tape back a decade, 2013, what mindset were you in when you were starting and just getting into it?

Maggie Zhu: So I actually really, really want to talk about that because this blog happened … the cause was really, really just all of a sudden, out of blue. So I’m from China, I used to live in Beijing, born and grew up in Beijing. So I didn’t really read that much blogs back then, especially I was in China and blogging is not a really a big thing there. I wasn’t familiar with it at all. Like so many bloggers, I was at this corporation job that really hated. I was just like, I really, really want to quit my job. It was kind of just like-

Bjork Ostrom: What was it that you were doing?

Maggie Zhu: Banking.

Bjork Ostrom: Okay. In Beijing?

Maggie Zhu: Yeah. So I was kind of brainstorming with my friend just, what we can do? Should we do importing? It’s like, should we do this and do that? It’s just chatting. And there’s this one day my friend is like, “Oh, we should start blogs because people talking about food and traveling and they can make money from it.” And that was the time … so I studied in Japan before where I actually learned my cooking. I used to not good at cooking at all, and I started to live in Japan. I started cook myself and had that … really get into cooking and homemade food and all that. So my friends are like, you know we-

Bjork Ostrom: This was you had moved to Japan or you’re starting…

Maggie Zhu: No, that was after Japan. I moved back from Japan, so I had this passion in cooking. My friend is like, we should share all this recipe we learn because we have just friends together. And she just mentioned it. I was like, what is blogging? I don’t know about that at all, but I was very intrigued. So I literally went back home and I googled how to start a food blog. And Pinch of Yum, I believe that was one of the top three search.

Bjork Ostrom: Great.

Maggie Zhu: Yeah, I think most of the website, I remember still, it was really kind of carved in my memories. I remember this few website I always go was like, oh, I remember this and that. And Pinch of Yum is one of the … I’ve been using over the years, and it is one of the most I followed. And literally I followed your guide to register, back then it was Blue Host or something. The super cheap one, like I really remember all those screenshots and all that. I was using your website to set off my first blog.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Oh, that’s incredible. So that was from Beijing, you were thinking, how do I start a blog? You Google it and Pinch of Yum comes up. We had walked through, you talked about Blue Host.

Maggie Zhu: Literally that day, I just started up. I have no idea, and I was like, I’m just going to register domain and all that.

Bjork Ostrom: Totally.

Maggie Zhu: I’m just going to follow this guide and just do this. I didn’t really overthink about, oh, I need to learn photography or writing or whatever. I just registered. I was like, okay, I have a blog now.

Bjork Ostrom: And now what do I do?

Maggie Zhu: I know. And I think my first recipe was a Tuna Arrabiata Pasta with a typo in the title. I didn’t know how to spell, Arrabiata. It was a horrible blue, very yellow and shooting with the point of shoot. And the blog post was like this long, just like 10 sentences. Oh, I really love this.

Bjork Ostrom: But at that point you knew that you were … that felt like a good fit. You were excited about it.

Maggie Zhu: Yeah, I was like, this is interesting. I cannot remember exactly, you have your income report back then. I think that really is pretty soon after that. But I feel like, oh, people are actually making money from this? And I was just very … so on one hand, I think I was always loved the creativity job in the past. I actually, I used to do drawing and painting growing up, as a student. But I just loved the creativity of shooting photos and developing recipes and sharing it. On the back of my mind, I feel like, oh, it would be so cool if I can make money from this. So it kind of started as a hobby because I still had my full-time job. I did this on the site for a very long time.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think what those income reports did, I would assume a lot of people listening the podcasts are familiar. But for a long season on Pinch of Yum, and we started really early on, which I think was one of the benefits of saying, “Hey, we’re going to try and figure out what it looks like to create an income from this.” And we started with, it was $20 a month, and then at $40 a month, and then to grow it.

Maggie Zhu: Right, I remember. It kind like this, and then it go out. It’s slowly and then it just kind of exploded.

Bjork Ostrom: And I think what it does is it’s kind of like the four-minute mile where there’s this story of nobody had ever ran a four minute mile and then somebody ran it. And then six months after that, three other people did. And I think what things like this do, and we’ve had our own versions of that, seeing other people do it. Is it introduces this as a reality. Like, oh, you can do it, here’s what it looks like. There’s not anything special about us, we went through the process, here’s how to build it. Like you said, there’s that how to start a food blog page. We probably need to update that. It still is Blue Host, which like you said, we would get affiliate payments for it. So people would sign up if they used that. What was great about it was, it was a really low barrier to entry, so you’re spending like a hundred dollars.

Maggie Zhu: Exactly. It was so approachable. Again, at the same time, it’s very professional. I feel like that was the key. It’s not like, oh, you just registered a free thing.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure.

Maggie Zhu: Because I feel like when it’s free-

Bjork Ostrom: You have your own domain.

Maggie Zhu: People don’t really care. You have to have a little bit of investment. I feel like that make a difference.

Bjork Ostrom: Worth noting, so any of those … I feel like you get started with what makes the most sense, what’s affordable, what you can do. Eventually what will happen, this is specifically around hosting. You’ll level up. One of the things that exists now is managed hosting. A lot of people are using this, and so we use WP Engine. And you’ll pay more for it, but it’s specifically built for WordPress as opposed to a generic host. So WP Engine, Big Scoots is another one. We know Scott the founder of that company. A lot of creators-

Maggie Zhu: Yeah. I use them. Yeah,

Bjork Ostrom: Use that. Is that who you use?

Maggie Zhu: Yeah. Big Scoots. Yeah. I love them.

Bjork Ostrom: So there’s lots of great managed WordPress hosting solutions out there, so those would be good to check out. But point being, in this early stage, you are having this conversation with your friends. You’re like, I want to start posting about recipes. We would call it a food blog, you do this search, you realize how to do it. And then you talked about this extended period of time where you were doing it as a side hustle. How long was that, that you were doing it as a side hustle? And what amount of time did that take in your day-to-day, week-to-week when you’re working on it alongside doing your banking job?

Maggie Zhu: So the first three years was really tough because I was just … that was the first three years when I was still living in China, having my full-time job. And I only do that every evening after I come back from work. Which is usually very, very late because of the long commute. So I do that at night, and then I cook on the weekend. And that was really … but on one hand, I feel like men is really, really tough because I had no time to do this and I want to do it more professionally. But I have all kinds of restrictions, like lighting sucks and I actually lived with my parents at the time, have all kinds of restrictions. My mom constantly rearranged my cooking stuff. Oh God.

Bjork Ostrom: Mom.

Maggie Zhu: It was like, “Why did you?” She’s like, “No, you have to put it there.” I was like, “Okay.” But it did give me quite some time because every day on the subway, I can read books on photography, I can just learn a lot, absorb a lot during that time. So I think the first three years, for me is like very, very slow pace to grow and trying to learn how to do it. And then after three years, I actually moved to the US.

Bjork Ostrom: What was the reason for that?

Maggie Zhu: So I was actually getting married.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure.

Maggie Zhu: Because my husband is American and I just moved here. And the first year, I did not have a working visa at the time. And I feel like the blog is doing better and better, so I think I just wanted … because I couldn’t go out to work anyway, so I was like, it was just a good time to build it. And actually, it’s interesting. So I actually Googled it, legally, I’m allowed to earn passive income when I didn’t have a work visa. So it was like, oh, this is perfect. All about passive income.

So I gave myself a year to make it be more professionally. And it just took me a little more than a year, actually, after I started to spend more time on it. And instead of my home studio, trying to do it more professionally. And I also think that it helps me really a lot by after moving to the US because most of my reader, they’re from the US. And then, I think a lot of them are from different European countries, English-speaking countries. To see people’s … actually, because I blog about Chinese food, how to cook Chinese food. Then I understand, oh, what is the western kitchen? What are the restrictions? What’s the people’s issue about how hard it is to source food ingredients and seasonings and all that? And I had a better understanding of my readers. I think that is the part that really, really helped.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, interesting. It’s all of the little nuances that you’d never think of in terms of what ingredients are available.

Maggie Zhu: Right, exactly. Yeah, exactly.

Bjork Ostrom: Or tools that people would normally have it in their kitchen.

Maggie Zhu: Right. After one year I started to see actually it gets so much better. And then I think on year five, I think I made a full income, full-time income on year five.

Bjork Ostrom: So this was like 2018?

Maggie Zhu: I was like, oh … yeah. Right.

Bjork Ostrom: And it was at that point where you said, okay, you’ve made the move to the US, you spent this year kind of focused in, trying to make it happen. And crossover from side hustle to full-time income. And then in 2018, it was like, “Okay, I’m starting to see all of the effort that I’ve put in, the result of that being the equivalent of a full-time job.” And at that point, it probably doesn’t make sense for you then to go out and look for a full-time job because-

Maggie Zhu: Right, exactly. Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: The timing of it has worked out where you do have a work visa-

Maggie Zhu: Right, because everything else I know, this is going up.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that makes sense.

Maggie Zhu: But it felt like it took me a long time. Because you feature so many guests, they’re like, oh, I made this in two years. It’s like, no, it took me way longer than that.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. One of the concepts I’ve been trying to think about is just how … and this is, everybody deals with this social media, you listen to podcasts, you get inspiration. But then also what you do is you put your story up against somebody else’s story. And as much as possible, trying to think of what we’re doing as like cross-country. And I always remember for cross-country runners in high school, one of the things they were always doing was they’re comparing themselves against themselves. Their last best score.

Maggie Zhu: For sure.

Bjork Ostrom: And I think that’s, as creators, what we need to be doing is thinking about not only, how do we improve based on our own pace or our own position? But also, how do we really clearly define what it is that we actually want? We get to make and create our own story with this. And to then release the comparison, which is really hard to do. But to say, okay, I’m on my own path and-

Maggie Zhu: I know, I know.

Bjork Ostrom: What does that mean for me? What does my ideal look like?

Maggie Zhu: Yeah, it’s actually a really a good point. Because I feel like it took me the longest. And I still don’t feel like I get past like hundred percent because when you’re on social media, you’re just constantly having … you look at what your peers are doing. People are doing fascinating things. Absolutely, I know that there’s no way that I can do everything. Because everyone has their strengths and what they’re good at. And you just pretty much look at their best work out there. And it’s impossible to be like, oh, I want to level up and be able to reach all of those achievements. It’s impossible. I think in the past few years, I sort of realized what I really want, what I really want to pursue. And I really need to stop comparing it and all that.

Bjork Ostrom: What is that? I’m curious to hear your reflections on what it is that you actually want to pursue and what you learned.

Maggie Zhu: Because you always want a better page view. It’s so funny.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, sure.

Maggie Zhu: Because I always keep telling my husband, I was like, “Long time ago, many, many years ago, I was like, if I earn 10 grand per month.” I think it was something like that, I would be like, “I’m just going to quit, like retire. Because it’s enough.” I’m just going to be really low-key and do stuff. Obviously that never happened. You just always be like, “Oh, this person just released the book. Yeah, maybe I should do that too.” And they’re like, “Oh, these people, they’re working with chefs and they’re doing events.” There’s just so many things you can do to boost your business, just to be … because I think at some point, really the money is not money like … money never really the goal. It’s never about chasing the number.

I was like, “Oh, I want to earn this amount of money.” Or, “Oh, I want to get rich or anything.” I think it’s a competition, like you said, with yourself. Because you strive to get better. Because I kind of feel like it’s a part of like, you have to have some sort of personality to be good at this. Because you always want to-

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, right. It’s a huge … totally.

Maggie Zhu: You want to re-improve things, to provide a better service, to provide a better product. And it gave you your own satisfaction of this space, like a circle. That you work very hard to improve it and you get really good feedback. It’s like, wow, it’s worth it.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. It’s interesting. I was just having a conversation via text with Lindsay the other day. I sent her a text and just said, “Hey, how’s your day going?” Or something like that. And she just talked about this idea of essentially exactly what we’re talking about. She’s like, “I feel like I’m in this head space of feeling like everybody’s doing awesome stuff and I want to do awesome stuff. And yet, we also have our two girls and we want to spend time with them and the tension of the things of normal life that we’re needing to get done.”

And one of the things that we started talk about, and it’s a concept I’m trying to develop. And I’ll pitch it to you and you let me know if it makes sense. But I’m calling it life soup. And it’s this idea that we all have the ability to define the ingredients in our life soup. And one of those is our work, like entrepreneurial pursuits. There’s also health, there’s family, there’s friends, there’s spirituality, there’s all of these things. And all of those are ingredients in life soup. And what we need to do is say, here’s how much meat I want to have in my life soup or tofu, if you’re not using-

Maggie Zhu: For sure. Yeah, yeah. I totally agree. Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: And if work is the meat and you double it, suddenly you might be in a position where you have too much of it. But to acknowledge that and say like, my soup ingredients aren’t going to be the same as somebody else’s soup ingredients. And what tastes good to me isn’t what’s going to taste good to other people. And sitting in that truth and saying, and I’m comfortable with that. And not that our soup ingredients never change. Two years from now, it might look different. But as a recipe developer, does that analogy resonate?

Maggie Zhu: Yeah. And it’s hard. It took me forever-

Bjork Ostrom: It’s super hard.

Maggie Zhu: And I feel like now I kind of getting to that point, but not still not quiet. Because you asked me like what does it really mean? What is the goal? Because for me personally, I think the best thing about this job, food blogging, is that it gave me the freedom of flexibility of my time.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, totally.

Maggie Zhu: And this whole purpose is then I have time to do something else, to relax when I want to or to connect with my friend or do different things.

Bjork Ostrom: There’s somebody I follow on Twitter, and by follow, I mean I go occasionally check the Twitter account, so I’m not active on Twitter. But he was talking about this idea that they need to have … a lot of people in the finance world talk about net worth, like that as an indicator. He said they need to have a net worth equivalent for time, flexibility, and freedom. If you could quantify that, that would be something that would be really interesting to track.

And I’ve thought a lot about that as a type of income that our work can give us. How much flexibility and freedom do we get? And like you said, it’s a huge benefit. But the hard part is, there’s not a real good way to track it. And even if you are tracking it, personally, it’s not externally tracking it.

Maggie Zhu: No.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s not like you look at somebody’s social media following and you see they have a huge social media following, and you see they have huge flexibility and freedom. They might have a huge following, but are also tied to their work in a way, that feels like they can’t disconnect. So if you figure out a way to track that, let me know.

Maggie Zhu: Yeah, I will think about that. That’s so interesting to know about.

Bjork Ostrom: But you are at this point, and it’s worth acknowledging where a lot of people would look at what you’re doing and the success you’ve had and be like, “Oh, I so badly wish that I could get there.” So you have millions of page views that you’re getting to your site, you have a cookbook, you have an established social media following. When you look back at your journey, what were the things that you felt like not only allowed you to keep going when it was hard, especially in those early years. But what are the things that helped you from burning out once you got into year seven, year eight, year nine, where you had been doing it for a really long time?

Maggie Zhu: So I think it does help that … so one thing is that I think you just have to keep doing it no matter how much or how little every week. Because I still remember the magic number of blog posts is like three posts per week or something. There’s some discussion about how many you should be posting, and there are people doing five, there are people doing like how many numbers. And I just remember that I never really … I think for me, two to three post is really ideal. At this point, I’m pretty much doing actually one or two. I know I just need to keep doing this.

The key is to be persistent. When you don’t feel like it, you still have to … I always try to do something. I don’t really give me hard rules about, oh, if I’m not reaching three, I’m a failure or something. I think you kind of have to be not too hard on yourself. Because what happened was in the past, was I really, really passionate about a project and I work a lot, and then I burn out for a month. I was like, oh no. This month I just completely cannot work at all. I feel one thing that I found during the years are just like you need to set a pace that you have to be realistic about your pace. Like exactly how much you can do. It took me, I feel like years to figure out how much I can do and not overdo things.

And also there’s so many burns out and all that in between. And I think one thing I realized early on was to have a team. Because there’s just so many things, so much you have to do. Any little things that you can outsource. Because every little thing, they take a little bit of your brain power away. They just take a little bit energy away and there’s like a thousand things you’ll have to do. Everybody knows that if you blog. And outsource as much as you can. To find out the budget, like the task, I feel like there’s a balance. I remember really early on, when I was just earning very little money. Even it was little … when it was even not really a full-time income. I remember I started to hire a little help here and there, because I realized that I cannot do everything myself. I’m just going to burn out. So rather to have less myself, to let people help me, so I can keep this going. I think it really helped that I never really stopped doing this.

Bjork Ostrom: The persistence piece, I feel like is important. And one of the things that … I don’t know if we’ve really talked about on the podcast, but is a really good point, is trading to the degree that you can. Trading … well, so much of what we do is, it’s all trading. We build a following and we trade some of the attention of that following for ad revenue. We trade some of the attention that we have on social media to get brand recognition.

One of the things that you acknowledge that I feel like is important to point out is we can also trade money for head space or clarity of thought or freedom. And even if it’s those small things, oftentimes you’re getting tangible benefits, even just psychologically by saying, I’m going to bring somebody on and pay them a hundred dollars a month to do whatever it is. To check my DMs on Instagram or something like that. Money really is energy, and I’ve heard people talk about this.

Maggie Zhu: It is.

Bjork Ostrom: What we’re doing is, it’s almost like electricity. We’re getting this in, and then we can decide what to do with it and we can direct it towards-

Maggie Zhu: Exactly.

Bjork Ostrom: Somebody who can help us. We can direct it towards a bank account, where it’s kind of this stored energy. But to think about that, not as just money, but to think about it as energy that we can direct and influence and impact. And it sounds like you did that in the early stages. What were some of those early tasks that you had people help with? And talk about your journey with getting help and how that’s been impacted?

Maggie Zhu: It was really basic things, like uploading the blog post to WordPress, have a very basic spreadsheet, have all my content. I always thinking about … it’s funny. It is something I do every time I have major burn out. It’s just like, okay, I feel like I cannot do this anymore. I started to think, I’m going to list all the tasks that I hate to do and see what I can outsource and what I can afford. So I think uploading blog posts and social media and stuff, so I figure out some workflow because the help I had at the very beginning was very, very basic. So they’re not going to help me write a caption or anything.

But I do keep everything in one file. You have this little file, work file of this as a post. What are keywords? This is captions. What do you do when I give this to you? Someone will upload this to WordPress and Facebook, Pinterest, like blah, blah, blah. So everything helps. Just this, it just saved me so much time to do those little job after getting the post out. And later on, I had help in the kitchen to help me clean up and do prep and all of things. Like really help with me shooting videos and everything.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. How did you find those people in the early stages to help upload a blog post or people that could provide kitchen help.

Maggie Zhu: That was hard. It was pretty hard at the time, hiring VA from overseas. So I did think I tried out one VA services, which actually did not work out. It’s always, I think, online. Eventually, I think it was recommended by some friend, a blogger friend.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure.

Maggie Zhu: The person I’m still keep working with. But I did use different sources. They’re like VA posting website, where you can hire all those oversea. People based in Philippine or India and all that.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure. Yep.

Maggie Zhu: I tried quite a few things.

Bjork Ostrom: I feel like that’s the solution is doing it and then figuring out what works and doesn’t work. And in anything that I’ve done, the quickest way to get to the best current solution is to try and figure it out and try and do it. And inevitably what you’ll learn along the way is what works and doesn’t work.

Maggie Zhu: Yeah, exactly. And also you have to hire different people from different platform. And then I think I use … at one time I used Upwork to find a copy editor and a copywriting for little project things. And then I use Craigslist to hire help in the kitchen. Because that’s where all the restaurant work at. It’s like different-

Bjork Ostrom: Sure.

Maggie Zhu: It’s so funny because there’s one time I post this something for social media on Craigslist, oh my God, like a hundred spam mail. I was like, this is terrible. I’ll never do this again. Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: So many people reaching out, I can help with social media, but it was these automated bots that were … yeah.

Maggie Zhu: Yeah. It was terrible. I was like, yeah, hires for social media, you have to be on social media to hire them.

Bjork Ostrom: The idea … you had mentioned this kind of briefly, but it seemed so obvious, I’d never thought of this. But if you’re looking for somebody to help with kitchen stuff, one of the best groups of people would be people who are familiar working in kitchens. Whether it’s a commercial kitchen or a restaurant, like that being a skill. And I’m sure there’s really tangible things that people can do that-

Maggie Zhu: It’s really, really easy, I think in a way. Because restaurant work is so hard, like whole kitchen is … so literally one of my working benefit is like a very chill environment.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, right. It’s not like there’s this intense turnaround that you need to get a meal out or angry customers-

Maggie Zhu: Exactly.

Bjork Ostrom: Who are going to be mad if something’s not right.

Maggie Zhu: Yeah. And usually, I guess depending on where you live. But usually you can pay a little bit more than restaurant.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure.

Maggie Zhu: Because restaurant wage is very, very low. And depending on the skill set you want, for me, there are different levels. But only for the very basic things. Even if you have someone to just wash your dishes and just do a very simple prep work. Help you get your kitchen organized when you’re shooting and pulling out a hundred plates, that just help a lot. That’s like a person I cannot live without. Always, wherever I move, we move quite a bit in recent years. But this is the first person I actually need to immediately post advertisement to find.

Bjork Ostrom: Is somebody to come and help-

Maggie Zhu: Local.

Bjork Ostrom: When you have a shoot day. Yep.

Maggie Zhu: Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: Yep. What does that look like specifically when they come in? Do you have directives for that person? Here’s what we need to do, can you get started on this? Or for the most part-

Maggie Zhu: It’s pretty easy because it’s like, you give them the recipe and I have all the ingredients ready. I also have people who actually help with shopping, but I find out I really need to do the shopping myself. Because you need to know which vegetable to buy is prettier.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, yeah. Okay, that’s important.

Maggie Zhu: So I usually have recipes prepared and I tell them, oh, these are the things I want to shoot. And they usually know how to … it’s like, okay, they started to prep things. I always tell them all the ingredients in their individual bowls, and just very basic things. People, they really pretty much know what to do.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure.

Maggie Zhu: They just do the simple preps and get my stuff ready and help me sometimes move around my equipment and just clean up afterwards.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, and that stuff is so incredibly helpful. One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about is what are all of the things that I do in a day, that it wouldn’t matter if I do them or not. And there’s a lot, I do a lot of stuff in a day that doesn’t matter if I would do it. It still needs to get done. It’s still important. But it doesn’t matter if I’m the one doing it. And as content creators, I feel like part of our job is to, as much as possible, be trying to get rid of the stuff that doesn’t matter if we do it and have somebody help with that. And do as much of what we can do, that does matter if it’s us doing it.

Maggie Zhu: Exactly.

Bjork Ostrom: As an example would be, if I can shave off eight hours of Bjork isn’t essential to this work type of work, and we fold in another podcast. And so then we’re doing two podcasts a week. Whoa, that’s a huge win.

Maggie Zhu: Exactly.

Bjork Ostrom: I should probably think about that. But somehow I’m in my email for two to three hours a day.

Maggie Zhu: I mean, it is hard. For me, one of the things I always wanted to outsource was video editing. But I just can’t because I feel like every time I try out some … I’ve tried quite a few services and individuals and professionals, I just feel like the flow is not me. I feel like I have to look through it, and I know exactly what clip I want to use. It’s just like … and the music and everything. Because at the time when I write down everything, it was like, oh, I need this and this and that. I already finished editing. So that’s just never worked out. It’s so hard.

Bjork Ostrom: And some of that stuff, I think there’s a spectrum for creators for each type of medium in regards to how much of their fingerprint they want on it. The idea of having somebody write for you, for some people would be like, “No way. I can’t do that.” For others, they’re like, “Oh my gosh. So nice to have somebody come in and write.”

Maggie Zhu: I know. I tried it. I tried it before, for a while. That was a very serious burnout. I seriously had burnout at the time. I think I did hire someone to write blog posts. And later on, a few years later, I have to go back to rewriting.

Bjork Ostrom: And maybe worth acknowledging too, I feel like there are seasons where you need to step back from something and then come back into it. We’ve done that and experienced that, I know Lindsay has as well.

So speaking of writing, I’d be interested to hear you talk a little bit about when you approach a recipe, how would you describe your recipes? I know you have a tagline, but I’d just be interested to hear in your own words, kind of your approach to recipe development, and the genre of recipes, the category of recipes that you’re creating.

Maggie Zhu: So pretty much it’s all mostly Chinese food. I do a little bit more creative fusion and different cuisine. But mostly it’s focused on Chinese food. And I try to make my recipe very, very clear. I wanted to be very … that everyone can follow, no matter they’re familiar with Chinese cooking or not. Because I had experience of … because I actually learned cooking not from my parents, it’s from recipes. And I had experience of reading different type of recipes and some are really, really confusing, that I couldn’t follow. And I’ve followed really nice recipes, really clear recipes.

So to make me feel like, oh, when I write, I want people to exactly know what they’re doing. I even described the size of things you are cutting. Not just the shape, but the size. And my recipe tend to run a little bit long. I feel sometimes it feel like, man, this look intimidating because it’s so long. But I feel like if I don’t describe it really well … because Chinese cooking, the longer I’m doing this, I feel like it’s actually kind of complicated. So there are certain things … and also I observe people cook. I have friends, or even when I have help in the kitchen, usually they’re not from China. And I observe people cook and how they follow recipes. Like wow, I cannot believe you slice it this way. I was like, there’s so many ways you have to … thin slice ginger. There are slices like paper. I was like, no, you cannot slice like that.

It’s interesting to … over the years, I feel like, this part, I really need to make it clear. Or I need to use an image or I need to create a video. All things combined, I want people to able to follow it as much as they can and with very little confusion.

Bjork Ostrom: So in some of your recipes, you’re including the English, but then also the Chinese name for it. Is that a search consideration? Would there be people who are-

Maggie Zhu: No. Yes and no. So the ones that have Chinese are those dishes that are from China. Actually, I know they have this name. Because there are dishes that are American Chinese takeout or a little bit more like, oh, I wouldn’t say creative. But there are dishes that are not that traditional.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure.

Maggie Zhu: So only the very, very traditional ones has Chinese, because I just want people to know we have this in China.

Bjork Ostrom: Got it. It’s almost like a little bit of a branding consideration around something that’s considered more authentic. Versus a little bit of a spin or fusion or whatever it might be. Got it.

So as you approach content today, one of the things that you talked about, and I think it’s a really valuable conversation, is this idea of burnout. You talked a couple times about these seasons of burnout. My guess is that somebody’s listening to the podcast and they’re either in that season, maybe they’ve been in one. Or if not, there’s probably pretty good chance that they’ll experience one if they continue to show up every day, do the work. Inevitably, it just is overwhelming, it feels like there’s so much that we have to do. And we’re also operating in this space of social media, which I feel like doesn’t necessarily help.

Maggie Zhu: I try to limit my time. Like seriously.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, mental complexities of social media plays into some of the burnout stuff. What have you learned in those seasons? And then coming out of those, that has allowed you to continue to show up every week and every day?

Maggie Zhu: I feel like one thing I’ve discovered over the years is that, that’s very personal, like that’s for me. I think this is different for everybody. But for me is, I think I cannot just do one thing. By one thing, I mean, just food blogging. I have to have some sort of project going on the side to keep me … because I’ve been doing this so long, it’s so business focused. It’s less about, oh, I had this nice dish in a restaurant. I really want to recreate it. I just want to talk about it. It’s more like what my reader want and what my readers need. ICO, doing the research. There are just so many business decisions that is involved that actually keep your blog growing. But I need a little bit something else to get my creativity outlet.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that’s great.

Maggie Zhu: Over the years, I try so many different things. Sometimes I learn photography, but actually I learn not from food bloggers. I go to different seminars. It’s like landscape or portrait or whatever.

Bjork Ostrom: Awesome.

Maggie Zhu: I just feel like you have to do something. I take on project, I did fashion a little bit. I went out … it was actually related to a job. I got to know from some fashion bloggers, and I realized that, oh, I really love to shoot for them. They’re so pretty. No matter how I shoot it, the photos just come out so nice. So I started to advertise like, oh, I can shoot for you. So I did a little bit project here and there for fashion shows and all that stuff.

For me, for those things, I do not earn money at all. It’s cost me time and money to do that. But it’s such a interesting way to learn things, to connect with interesting people and keep my creativity juice running, I think. Over time, it can be different things. But for me, it’s like I have to have something. When I feel like I couldn’t really … I feel like I reached to a stage, I cannot really … how to say it. Express my creativity through my business anymore. Because I cannot just like, oh, today I want to try a new different type of food photography style. Because I feel like I just cannot do that kind of thing anymore. So I have to try out on somewhere else.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that’s great. I was listening to this podcast, it’s actually one that I’ve recently started listening to, it’s called, We Study Billionaires. But they do interviews with these successful business owners or investors. And this most recent one, which we can link to in the show notes, was with a guy named Jason Karp. But he talked about, he’s a really successful hedge fund guy, investor. But he was like obsessive about work, and it started to have these really serious health implications for him. And so he went to see a therapist and some other kind of specialists. And one of the things they said is, we require you to at least two hours a day do something that isn’t productivity related. And he talked about how hard it was for him, but also how beneficial it was.

And it kind of ties into that life soup idea where, okay, if I’m missing a key ingredient. Let’s say, creativity in what we’re doing. If I’m not getting that from my work, and if that is salt and it’s not in my life soup, that’s going to taste really bland. It’s going to be really different. And so how do I be aware of that and say, I’m willing to reduce one of the ingredients that’s maybe … there’s too much of that in order to put this other ingredient in. Was that intentional?

Maggie Zhu: Yeah, I think it’s also tied into what we talked about earlier, that there is the balance of your time, your energy, and your money. And I was saying the flexibility of this job, a part of what I want is that when I want to do something else, I want to do a totally different photo shoot project or whatever, or networking or hang out with friends. I have the ability to do it. I think this is a part of this whole balance that I’m trying to create.

Bjork Ostrom: And it’s also … I’d be interested in your thoughts on this. Because I think one of the things that exists for us is, my guess is … and correct me if I’m wrong on this. My guess is that one of the reasons that you can do that now is because you didn’t do as much of that for a season. That you were really focused, you were in building mode.

Maggie Zhu: Oh, yeah. For sure.

Bjork Ostrom: And what’s hard to know is at what point do you start to release a little bit and say, “I have done this. I have built this. It is self-sustaining.” To some degree, it’s not like you can completely step back. But it doesn’t need as much coal in the engine of the train to keep it going. But it’s also scary to make some of those shifts and changes because you’ve been doing it for so long, it’s helped you get to a point where now you can have some of that flexibility. Was it hard for you to maybe downshift in some ways or refocus?

Maggie Zhu: Yeah, it was hard. It was tough. I think because there was one time like years ago, I had this major burnout. By major burnout, I mean, everything’s keep going. But it took me a year to come off that. Like I was still cooking and doing … like I was doing everything. The blog was never affected.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure.

Maggie Zhu: But at that time, I have to really hire out a lot more. I feel like there is a part of the contents that’s not me anymore. I feel really bad about that, but I lot of the time I was like, no, I cannot … I just can’t. I was drinking a lot, have drinking issues, all that. And was like-

Bjork Ostrom: Sure, sure.

Maggie Zhu: But it took me a long time to … but then I also realized … but at the time, when I was outsourcing all kinds of stuff, afterwards I realized, oh, these are the things I need to take back. These are the things where I express my creativities. But those are the things that someone else need to do it. It was a really long process for me to understand. I feel like now I’m at a much better place-

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that’s great

Maggie Zhu: For that balance.

Bjork Ostrom: I think it’ll be encouraging for people to hear that. I think in my conversations with creators, I think it’s a really common thing to experience that. And to wonder and question, should I keep doing this? Is it the right fit for me? I really like that idea. It’s almost like in college, I remember I went to the allergist and he’s like, we’re going to need you to essentially remove everything from your diet. And then slowly add things back in-

Maggie Zhu: Right, right. Yeah, add it back. Yeah, yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: To see what you’re allergic to.

Maggie Zhu: I feel like that. Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: And it feels like the work version of that.

Maggie Zhu: I feel like … because I was also outsourcing a lot, like I said, writing and all kinds of stuff are like, this is just no good. After a while, I’m taking it back.

Bjork Ostrom: And if people can’t afford to actually outsource, you might just consider not doing it. We know people who-

Maggie Zhu: It’s not that expensive. But also, I was trying to find really cheap help on Fiverr and stuff. It’s so cheap. You can actually do it really, really cheap.

Bjork Ostrom: We have a global market, and you can find people for certain things, depending on what it is-

Maggie Zhu: Yeah, for sure.

Bjork Ostrom: At an affordable rate. That’s great.

So how about for people who are in the beginning stages now. Let’s say they are in that year one, year two, year three. They’re interested in building a following online. 10 years from now, it’s definitely not going to look … somebody’s journey starting today, in 10 years from now, isn’t going to look the same as what yours is, or ours is, where we started 10 years ago. I think we all know that. But I’ve never been more optimistic about the ability for somebody who’s creative, motivated, willing to show up every day.

Maggie Zhu: Oh yeah, for sure.

Bjork Ostrom: To create something in the world that’s impactful and that’s also can potentially be life changing for them. So what would your advice be as a seasoned vet?

Maggie Zhu: Oh my God. So hard

Bjork Ostrom: For somebody who is in those early stages, for how they can find success.

Maggie Zhu: I think you really just should learn a lot from others, successful people. Be yourself at the same time. I know this is super hard, actually. And the most important thing, I feel like you just need to do it. That is my, really, the biggest advice. Because I have friends who wanted to do this for the longest time, they’re like, “Oh, I’m practicing my photography. The blog will be up in a few months.” I’m like, “No, no, no. It need to start today.” Also, people from not just food blog, for different things. But I feel like if you want a blog about something, you just need to it be out of there. So people can criticize, you have a feedback. And then you can only improve it, but keep doing it. You can never like, oh, I’m just going to … I actually go for a few seminar first before I even start. That will just never work.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. It’s almost like trying to grow a plant in the basement. It’s like, if it never sees the light of day, it’s not going to be able to grow. And I think the same is true for our creative work or our businesses, or…

Maggie Zhu: For sure. And I think for now, if you’re starting now, you’ll just need to try out different things. I mean, it’s always hard at the beginning. You have to work a lot, you have to … I feel like everything, you have to do it yourself by yourself once. If you don’t know how to do it, you don’t know how to outsource it, you have to understand it. And then during this journey, you can find out what is your strengths. Because some people, they’re really good at social media. Like for me, it’s like I only focus on SEO because this is my strengths. And there are so many different things that you can focus and make your content unique and standing out. And there’s also different ways of making money because traffic … I mean, of course, food blog, you always want traffic. I feel like now there are so many different ways of building new brand, building a product. So I think you just need to try it out.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. And I think what will happen inevitably too, and I’ve found this with our work. Is as you try it out, you’ll figure out where’s that sweet spot for you? Where’s the lane you want to be in.

Maggie Zhu: Yeah, for sure.

Bjork Ostrom: And sometimes it’s not as a blogger or an Instagrammer, and it’s a programmer or it’s a photographer.

Maggie Zhu: Yeah, I think so.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. But you don’t know until-

Maggie Zhu: Right, exactly. I think it’s one of the biggest things that actually I really love about food blog is that it’s just opened so many doors. You learn about so many jobs that you didn’t even know exist. Sometimes I feel like, oh, what if one of these days the blogging just doesn’t work anymore? I feel like it won’t be working forever. Maybe some days it’s going to slightly decline or whatever. But I feel like, oh, I have all those skills. I actually know there are other things I can do.

Bjork Ostrom: Yes, totally. What you’ve done is you’ve developed a craft. And that craft is applicable in many different areas, whether it’s-

Maggie Zhu: Exactly.

Bjork Ostrom: Fashion photography or styling or all of those things that you know can be applied in other ways, which I think is great. Maggie, if people want to follow along with you, keep up with what you’re up to, make some of your recipes, any of that. What’s the best way to do that?

Maggie Zhu: I’m most of the time, of course, go visit my food blog, OmnivoresCookbook.com and subscribe my newsletter. That’s where I actually write my weekly newsletter and I reply my reader’s email.

Bjork Ostrom: Oh, nice.

Maggie Zhu: And I’m on Instagram mostly. Do not contact me through Facebook or Pinterest or whatever. I never check those.

Bjork Ostrom: No Pinterest messages will be sent.

Maggie Zhu: Instagram, you can DM me on Instagram.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. That’s great. And I really love that the newsletter focus. I think it’s one of the things that often gets-

Maggie Zhu: Oh yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: Neglected in this space is a really intentional, focused newsletter and-

Maggie Zhu: Very important. Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: Also love the idea of that being a place where you have some of those conversations.

Maggie Zhu: One of the hardest thing every week’s, like what I did this week that I can talk about? It’s like, I need to write about something. But that’s where you connect with your readers, when you actually want to announce something. That they will respond. So, very important.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s great. Maggie, thanks so much for sharing your story. I know it resonated with me a lot. I think there’s a lot of other creators and bloggers who are going to get a lot out of it. And excited to follow along with you as you continue to build your following and continue to build Omnivore’s Cookbook. So, thanks for coming on.

Maggie Zhu: Well, thank you for inviting me. It’s so much fun talking to you.

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.

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