262: A Food Blogging Journey – Freelancing, Ads, Working with Brands, Catering, and Writing a Cookbook with Mary Cressler and Sean Martin

Listen to this episode of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast using the player above or check it out on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

An image of a table with a camera, sunglasses, and a compass on it and the title of Mary Cressler and Sean Martin's episode on the Food Blogger Pro Podcast, 'A Food Blogging Journey.'

Welcome to episode 262 of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork interviews Mary Cressler and Sean Martin from Vindulge.

Last week on the podcast, Bjork chatted with Bruno Bornsztein from InfluenceKit on how to understand the value of your sponsored content work. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.

The Journey of Food Bloggers 

Mary Cressler and Sean Martin have done it all: they freelanced, they worked with ad companies, they worked with influencer marketing companies, they catered, they wrote a cookbook –– all in the pursuit of finding what it is that they like to do.

This conversation with the Vindulge team will inspire you to think about your own journey and dig deep to figure out the way you want to run your blog. There’s not a “right” way or a “wrong” way to run your blog; this episode will give you some ideas to help make your blogging journey the best it can be for you.

A quote from Mary Cressler’s appearance on the Food Blogger Pro podcast that says, 'It's been this slow process of getting in there and doing the work, learning what we like and what we don't like, and then helping that evolve into what we actually want to be doing.'

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • How Mary and Sean started to work together
  • How they transitioned to working on their own thing
  • What it was like to establish their niche
  • How Mary decided to focus on her own blog over freelancing
  • How they started working on sponsored content
  • How they monetize their blog
  • Why it’s important to understand your data (and how to gather it)
  • Why their email community is so important to them
  • How they decide to spend their time
  • How all of their content works together
  • What connectional intelligence means
  • How they wrote a book proposal and pitched their book


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

Transcript (click to expand):

Alexa Peduzzi: Welcome one and welcome all to yet another exciting episode of the Food Blogger Pro Podcast. I’m Alexa, and I just wanted to take a second to welcome you here. We are so excited that you decided to tune in today, and we really think you’re going to enjoy this episode. Today you’ll hear from Mary Cressler and Sean Martin from the blog, Vindulge. They’re going to talk about a ton in this episode. Let me just get that right out in the open. This is a jam packed episode. Mary and Sean are the epitome of the word hustle. In this episode, you will hear about their journey, basically the evolution of their blog.

Alexa Peduzzi: You’ll about Mary’s freelancing, about putting ads on their site, working with brands, catering, writing a cookbook and so much more. I think this is just a really great example of what it looks like to do it all, to figure out what you really like and what you really want to be doing, and more importantly, what you don’t like and what you don’t want to be doing. It’s a fascinating interview, and I think you’re really going to like it. So without any further ado, Bjork, take it away.

Bjork Ostrom: All right. We have a double guest. Whenever we have a double guest, I need to make sure that I’m directing my questions and statements. So first, I would like to say, Mary, welcome to the podcast.

Mary Cressler: Thank you so much for having us.

Bjork Ostrom: And Sean, welcome to you as well.

Sean Martin: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Bjork Ostrom: This is going to be a really fun conversation for me because I would consider both of you to be friends along our journey of business building. That actually started… if we rewind the tape, back to Mexico, and I feel like I can still put myself back in this place where it felt like it was a really nice night. We were coming from Minnesota. It just felt like this ultimate escape. We’re making drinks, there was the pool, and I remember connecting with you both and talking a little bit about your story. Mary, if possible, take yourself back to that moment at that conference, where were you thinking that you wanted to go at that point? Did you have a clear idea of what was next and the business and the blog and what you wanted to build? If you can take yourself back to that conversation.

Mary Cressler: You mean besides just to joining the lovely sunny air-

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Mary Cressler: … and the nice breeze. That was Wonderful. Gosh, we were just talking about that. I think it was 2014 or ’13. I’m not sure. But yeah, at that time I was transitioning from writing almost exclusively about wine as both a wine blogger and a freelance writer to including much more food into our content. Sean was starting to get involved. We were working on recipe development together. When we went to that conference, I went because there was speakers, you guys included, that I really wanted to learn from as well as get away with the family. But I really wanted to try to get myself a little more focused, a little more organized. I was on the path to using my blog as a business. I was on the path. I wanted it to become a business. I had a vision of writing a cookbook at the time.

Mary Cressler: I wanted to learn, develop the resources I needed, whether it was business skills, photography skills. We were barely starting to talk about videography at that conference, I remember. And I wanted to learn about videography. We hadn’t incorporated any of that into our blog at the time. So I think at that point, I really wanted to just meet people hands-on that I could learn from and get some of those skills that I wanted to help grow our business. I was envisioning having a business as a full time. I had a lot of things in my head and it was just starting to brew back then.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, I think it’s reassuring to hear those stories because sometimes what can happen is, in the world of businesses that are content driven, whether that be a blog or Instagram or YouTube, there is a section of those that have the story of like, “Hey, I was just doing this as just some random people looking at it, and then the more I did it, it grew and it became this thing. Then I was like, ‘Oh, I need to learn how to do this and do a better.’” I think there’s inspiration in that in that it’s people who fell into a business and then developed those skills and the expertise that was needed to develop that. I think it’s equally or maybe even more inspiring to hear people who say, “I was doing this thing and I knew that I wanted to do it and I knew that I wanted to do it well, and so I intentionally pursued that. And here’s how I intentionally pursued that and the things that I did.”

Bjork Ostrom: It feels like that is your story in that you can rewind the tape, you’re back at this point and you say, “This is the thing that I want to do, and I’m going to intentionally learn by going to conferences, by listening to podcasts, going through courses, things like that.” We are at this point now, five, six, seven years later where you’ve achieved some of those things and you’ve achieved those together, but in your own individual right as well. Sean, if you rewind the tape, do you remember at that point what your involvement was and did you know that, as we get into talking about your book like, “Hey, if we’re going to publish a book, we’re going to be working on this together.” At that point, how much of it was a co-venture that you knew that you’re going to be building something together, each of you in your own areas of expertise?

Sean Martin: Yeah. I think at that time… I mean, I remember this very vividly because for me, I was working at an insurance company at the time, and that was my first engagement with the food creating community. Whereas in the past I had seen it as Mary worked and went to trips and focused on getting content up, I was more on the side, looking from afar, maybe helping with a few things here and there, maybe helping with some recipe ideas. It really woke up in me this idea that Mary and I have always had of trying to work together and causing me to really ask myself, “Is this it? Is this the thing we’re going to do together? What does this mean to my primary career at the time?” I think was a big launching point for me to see other people who are doing this as a business, who are earning income.

Sean Martin: But at the same time it really forced me to start down a path of, “Yeah, this is what we want to do together, whatever that is.” I mean, we learned a lot in that couple of days, but it was the catalyst that brought me to where I am today, where I no longer conflicted with a day job. This is our full time career. We’ve done multiple things. We try things, some things work, some things don’t. It was that point that it really woke something up in me.

Bjork Ostrom: As a side note, I would like to let you know that learned something from my conversation with you that night, which was, our umbrella insurance level was too low. I remember so specifically coming out of that where you’re like, “Yeah, it’s not going to cost you much to go from… ” I forget what it was… “one million to three million. You really need to do that.” I remember going home, it’s that night or the next day I emailed our insurance person. I was like, “Yeah, can we?” And they’re like, “Oh yeah, that’d be easy to do.” That’s a very distinct takeaway, so thank you for that.

Sean Martin: I love it.

Bjork Ostrom: Do you remember… Sean, I’ll start with you. You had talked about, from this conference, some really important takeaways. I’m curious to know what those were. Sometimes they’re tactical, but sometimes they’re inspirational. It’s just being around other people who are doing something, seeing how people are doing that, or even just seeing that as possible, that four minute mile idea. But I think a constant through line that I hear is people having experiences with other people, with a group of people, that they come out of being a changed person or having a changed idea or their framework being rearranged as it relates to their work and their career. It sounds like there’s maybe some of those things for you at that conference. For those who are like, “Ooh, which conference was this?” It was a onetime food specific conference that isn’t in existence anymore, otherwise we’d love to recommend that, but do you remember what some of those things were, even if it was the spirit of the work as opposed to just the tactical things that you could implement?

Sean Martin: I definitely remember. I think first and foremost, it was seeing most of the attendees there with their partners. I think that was really eye opening to me because I didn’t really understand the food creator space prior to this outside of Mary’s specific platform, and seeing just the diverse group of people who came as couples or business partners really, really energized me to see that this can be something we do together. That was one piece. I think also, tactically, it made me realize how much I need to learn. We talked a little bit about video, a little bit about monetizing, a little bit about SEO, pre SEO, being so focused. We talked about business coaching and then I connected because I thought, “Yeah, I have some of these backgrounds that might be applicable as we go through this journey.”

Sean Martin: I’ve been an executive at a company, I’ve been part of sales, I do other things, but I think the big things for me were seeing other people who were there with their partners and feeling a sense of, “There’s a lot I need to learn and prioritize and understand what Mary’s vision of the journey is going to be.” That was the biggest thing. Mary has spent 11 years curating this content and there was a lot of respect from my perspective on “What is this journey going to look like? And also supporting ”What does that vision going to look like?”

Bjork Ostrom: Mary, when you think back to that point, you were already in the process of envisioning what that change would look like as you started to maybe switch from more… would you consider freelance writing or work within the industry, but not necessarily your work? How would you describe it at that point?

Mary Cressler: Sure. At that time, I wasn’t really making, I think, much income as a blogger. My income was primarily from freelance writing.

Bjork Ostrom: That was freelance writing about food or about wine, probably specifically?

Mary Cressler: Mostly wine. But yeah, some food in there, but it was primarily wine.

Bjork Ostrom: Yep. I think that is a really small point, but as people think about what it looks like to develop in a career around a thing that you’re passionate about and interested in, I think one of the best ways to do it is similar to how you did it, which is to start not by building a site and saying, “This is going to be my thing. I’m going to have this business and that’s all that I’m going to do” but having that first step be transitioning closer to the thing that you are most interested in, but maybe it’s not your business.

Bjork Ostrom: From what it sounds like, for you that was freelance writing and producing content about wine, four other outlets alongside the work that you were doing for Vindulge and your content. Can you talk about how you started to make that transition? Because I think that’s one of the things that people are often curious about is, what does it look like to make that switch from working on somebody else’s thing, whether it be your business or your industry or not, and then transitioning into the point where you’re doing this as your full time gig, what does that transition look like and how did that go?

Mary Cressler: Sure. At the time as many blogs, mine started in 2009. I’ve seen a lot of changes. A lot of people who have been following blogs have seen a lot of changes. I was actually using my blog for a time, a long time ago as a place to actually house some of my freelance writing. It was almost like a portfolio of my freelance writing. I would write original articles for my site. We would have recipes, article, there was a ton of stuff, and I would actually have a place that I would house those freelance articles I was publishing. It was almost like a portfolio.

Mary Cressler: Then as I started to develop more recipes, as we got into food, really, as we started to use it as a place to bring people for the food and then they would stay for the wine, we would create recipes with wine pairing. That’s when I started getting significant traffic. That’s when I started realizing, “Oh, I can start generating income from my blog and not just freelance writing.” I wasn’t making-

Bjork Ostrom: Why do you think that was that… Can you talk through that shift? Because I think that’s a pretty substantial change and there’s probably some learning that happened in going from wine forward to food forward, and then it’s like, “Come for the food, stay for the wine.” Maybe it’s how we all hang out anyways. What was that transition like and what did you learn in that process that you still fold in as a strategy today?

Mary Cressler: Man, I think there’s a couple of things. I think food is a much bigger world. People need to eat, not everybody drinks wine. Also, wine can be a tricky subject to write about. A lot of ways can be written about maybe aren’t so interesting. I tried to find ways to make wine a little more accessible and a little more interesting by talking about food. But I think when it came to, how did we start getting traffic for our food? We just landed in on the niche that we are passionate about and wrote about it well, and we started getting traffic because I think it was the specific thing we were talking about, which is for us is barbecue and grilling recipes. It was the food, people were attracted to the food, and I think the fact that we started talking about pairing wine with food genre that isn’t associated with wine very often, it just sparked people’s interest.

Mary Cressler: Once we started getting that traffic for this specific content, we found our niche within the food sphere by writing about grilling and barbecue pinch, starting to do it well. I think that-

Sean Martin: We thought I was well at the time.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, everybody’s story always where you look back at three years and wish that you knew what you did now.

Mary Cressler: Exactly. It was then that I started getting enough traffic to partner up with an ad company and starting to see the ad revenue come in. Then I started working with companies on sponsored content. All of these things I was hearing about other bloggers doing, sponsored content, getting ads, it was starting to happen to me. I was starting to see that, “Oh, wow, this is not just for these ”really big bloggers.“ This is starting to happen.” It was starting to happen for a lot of people at the time. Just witnessing that, and I think Sean seeing that and starting to see income come in, income that was more than my freelance writing articles. I would get paid once for an article that would take me hours, if not days to research and write, and I get paid once.

Mary Cressler: I’m starting to see now that if I write a recipe for my blog, that’s evergreen. I can see the revenue come in over and over for that. Once I made that connection… “I can spend my hours writing freelance articles or publications and get paid once and never see any more money from that article or I can start focusing on creating content for my site that will live on there forever and continue to generate income for me.” Making that association made me realize, “Okay, this is where I want to spend my time is building my blog and developing content for my blog that will always be mine.”

Mary Cressler: I still continued to freelance write. I think I was still freelance writing occasionally. I was writing a lot back then, and then over the last couple of years, really just pick and choosing the publications where I was most passionate about, really wanting to contribute to. Also, I mean, part of my own internal rationale for freelance writing is I always knew I wanted to write a book and I know a lot of editors, and people will tell you, if you want to sell a book, you need to be able to prove that you can write. It was also a way to stay relevant, I think, within that world and that side of publications to show that I was still actively freelance writing, knowing that that could be useful when it came time to both write and sell a book.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Yeah, there’s something about the credibility that comes along with a known entity publishing your words that you can say, “Hey, XYZ site is a site where I’ve published content before.” And/or magazine or whatever it might be that lends some credibility to your work beyond just having your own blog or website, which is, there’s also a validation that comes along with that and having a social following and having a content that looks and feels cohesive and a specific niche, but I can see definitely how that would be a beneficial thing. Can you talk a little bit about… I think ad networks, people understand that that’s pretty closely correlated to traffic and if you get to a certain point, you can start getting enough traffic where you can apply to ad networks, and a lot of people have goals of “I want to get to a point where it can apply to a Mediavine or AdThrive or work with a company like Sortable,” all of these ad networks that exist in the world.

Bjork Ostrom: I think the sponsor content piece has a little bit more of a mystery box for people. As you started to see more sponsored content related work for your content in your blog, in your brand, was that content that you were pursuing actively or was that content that was coming in, and at what point did you notice that start to happen, where you’d get brands who would work with you and would have a budget to also pay you? Because I think a lot of people wonder how that starts and what that’s like when you’re getting started.

Mary Cressler: Sure. I think I went… I mean, we can both share this because the way it evolved, I started working with some of those… I don’t know what you call them, the intermediary companies like CLEVER and some of those other companies that you see what offers are available and you could apply for them in some cases. I would apply for something that looked like a good fit, and I would get it or I wouldn’t get it. Sometimes they would say, “Hey, we have this offer for X amount of dollars and this is what we want you to do. If you agree to these terms, we’ll see if it’s a good fit and then you get the job or you don’t.” There’s also other ones that would reach out directly, sometimes through these same companies, “Hey, Mary, I think you might be a good fit for this based off the content you write, do you want to work with us?”

Mary Cressler: I started doing sponsored content that way. Then eventually I started realizing, “I actually really want to work with other brands. I don’t want to just work with what’s available on these sites, that don’t always feel 100% right. I want to work with these brands.” I started reaching out directly to those brands. Although I will tell you, I’m not the most confident when it came to directly reaching out to brands, but I’m married to somebody-

Bjork Ostrom: Said everybody everywhere.

Mary Cressler: Exactly.

Bjork Ostrom: Really relatable.

Mary Cressler: But I have many married to somebody who has great skills at doing that.

Bjork Ostrom: You’re probably experienced that you talked about with sales and insurance and probably an area that you’re familiar with, which I am curious to ask you about in a little bit, but, Mary, finish your story. You realizing that it’s not the sweet spot for you, but maybe more so for Sean. Was that something at that point then you passed off to him?

Mary Cressler: Yes, that was probably the first thing I passed off to him because he was excited. He’s like, “Why don’t we work with this people, and these people, and these people? Have you reached out to them yet.” I’m like, “I don’t know. Because I’m scared.” But Sean wasn’t, so I’m like, “You do it then.” Sean started reaching out to brands in a very natural way and finished that. Because Sean, I think, has really taken it to where now we do more direct work with brands.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Sean, I’m sure people are really interested to hear what that’s like. When you took that over, what were some of the first ways that you started to do that and how did you get that train moving, so to speak, to start that process and to make those connections?

Sean Martin: One of the first things I did was try to understand in this creator space, “What are the different mechanisms of working with brands?” So that I knew how to spend my time. There was obviously the sponsored content, there was affiliate income, which may or may not be directly related to the brand or storytelling. Then at the time, this idea of brand ambassadors. I tried to first learn about each of the programs, and then I set a brand vision board. Working with Mary, we thought about like, “Who are we?” This is one of the first times where I think we sat down and said, “Where are we now and where do we want to go?” When it came to working with brands, I just wanted to say, “Who are some of our visionary brands that we wanted to be a part of” before we even reached out to anybody or even some of the people we worked with in the past.

Sean Martin: Then using some of the resources I’ve had, using social media as an example, I would either reach out to some of these third party agencies and seek out the work. I would reach out directly through Instagram or their websites or LinkedIn to find who their brand ambassador program leads or affiliate leads are. I think LinkedIn is something we don’t talk about enough because there’s a lot of professional resources, I think, that are just laid out there that for people to reach out-

Bjork Ostrom: Can you give an example?

Sean Martin: Yeah. On the LinkedIn front, in reaching out to one of our beef sponsors, just knowing who the different people are. Not even reaching out, just going through their executive team and how people are connected with each other, if you write down who the chief operating officer is or who the CFO is, you can start laying out a map on paper of who you might need to reach out to that’s ultimately the decision maker. I think what I have found in developing my network with other creators, I think people get intimidated at no. I think what they may not realize is the people that they’re reaching out to… let’s just say it’s the person monitoring their Instagram account, the brand’s Instagram account, they’re actually not the decision maker. So your gatekeeper is their social media coordinator.

Sean Martin: You need to get to the person who controls the dollars. That’s the path I took to find the right people. Then once I found the right people, I would put out our pitch usually via email. We have a media kit, we have rate sheets, we have some of the things that I think would be standard, but I wouldn’t even send that in the beginning. I would really start with, “We think we’d be a great fit, and this is why.”

Sean Martin: When it comes to working with brands, we really like a relationship that’s built on mutual opportunities to grow together, because I think early on we experienced the brands that wanted the quick hit and they wanted to see the numbers for a blog post. It takes months if not a year for that to connect with Google and see that longer term investment. It was a combination of things, The other piece is not being afraid of the “no.” I always look at it as, “It’s not a no, it’s not right now.” There’s a lot of other-

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. What were the pieces within that? If you were to surface two or three things that were the variables of success, the repeating pieces of the relationships that ended up being successful, say brand ambassador relationships, was there some type of through line with those really closely aligned, was it a person that you connected with at a certain level within the company? Was there ever a point where you were like, “Now I feel pretty confident that this will be successful because of this.” Anything that you could surface, that you could pinpoint?

Sean Martin: Yeah, absolutely. First, we understood our data. I can tell you what our demographics are, our average income, what our buying habits were based on some affiliate work we have been doing for years. I could go to a brand targeted with, “Here’s our age, here’s the average income.” a brand like yours in which we’ve done affiliate work, we’ve done $15,000 in annual sales. It became about approaching that brand through multiple sequences. There’s the introductory email, but really understanding our data so we could qualify whether we’re a good fit together. I would rather early on hear from a brand, “Yeah, those are great. We love all those details, not really though our target right now.” I move on to the next brand and I’m okay with that. I think understanding data was number one for me.

Bjork Ostrom: How did you get that data? Where were you pulling that in from?

Sean Martin: Everywhere I could. Diving into Facebook demographic data, looking at some of the Google analytics, even though it’s really basic in terms of basic demographics. Interestingly, when you join these agencies, each has their own “algorithm.” When working with the agencies, I also took a few of them to look at how they were projecting some of our demographics and tried to reconcile those with some of our own data.

Bjork Ostrom: Yep. These would be agencies that are working with you to do sponsored content and they are compiling for their own connections, what the demographic of your site as well as multiple others would be?

Sean Martin: Correct. Then the real focal point is our email community. Polling them every year. We do an annual survey of our email community. “What are you doing? What are you buying right now? What are you reading? What are some of the things you want to know about?” That to us is our super fan base. Those are the ones who come back over and over and over, who we almost envisioned, who we’re writing for. By having some of that data, I can say, “Our readers, our email community ask for the following.” That also helps me find what brands I need to reach out to so that I don’t spend time on something that no one’s going to listen to.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s really smart. What do you use to conduct that survey? Obviously you send out the email, but then probably some type of tool to do the survey?

Sean Martin: Yeah. We use SurveyMonkey. You have to use the paid version if you get more than a hundred respondents, which is fine, and I think it’s very valuable. The way you ask the questions I think is important. You want to make sure you keep it simple. We keep it to 10 questions, but SurveyMonkey has been the tool that we have used for now.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that’s great. Mary, at what point… we’ve talked a lot about the blog, your success with the blog, transitioning that away from just doing freelancing to focusing on the blog more as ad income and sponsored content built up as traffic built up, but then there’s multiple other pieces of the pie that are a part of your… for each of your business building story. At what point did you realize that there’s some other areas that you might want to focus on and in some other businesses that you want to build, when did that come into play?

Mary Cressler: I think the first one that we ventured out into was the world of catering and competitions, and I would blame Sean for that because he had the idea of buying a 16 foot mobile smoker. At the time I thought, “This is crazy. If we do this, it has to pay for itself.” Sean basically looked at me and said, “Challenge accepted.” We started doing just pop up events. I think personally, we wanted to know, “Hey, we’re doing these recipes, we’re getting feedback from our friends and neighbors, but is this food really good?” We wanted feedback from strangers basically. That took off. Before we knew it, we were getting asked to cook at wineries for big events. We realized, “We don’t know if we have the capacity for this. We don’t know what we’re doing.”

Mary Cressler: We worked with a few different local mentors who are chefs and restaurateurs, and lo and behold, we started a catering company and had no idea what we were doing in that first year, but within that first year, I would say by the end of that first year, we had been written up in a publication here in Oregon about the top wine country caters, and we were one of the five they wrote about in that magazine. That was a pretty great honor. From that, we started getting asked to do more and more events. For me personally, that was not my end game. I did not want to go back into the world of food or the world of restaurants or catering. Everybody kept asking us, “When are you going to get your own restaurant?”

Mary Cressler: I would say, “Whatever, I don’t want a restaurant.” We jumped into that world and it’s became this sister branch of Vindulge, and we’re still doing it, not as frequently, but again, I think for me, it became this source of credibility. We are cooking for lots of strangers in large events and we’re doing it successfully. I think it became something that gave us confidence, gave us the realization that we know what we’re doing. We’re actually creating really good products and it helped us decide what we actually want to be doing. That paved the way for us to move out.

Mary Cressler: About three years ago, we moved out to Oregon Wine Country on a five acre hazelnut farm with a barn that we are now renovating to make way for an event space. We’re building a kitchen in there so we can do classes and events, and we’ll slowly be transitioning the hazelnut trees into other crops. I think it’s just been this slow process of learning, getting in there, doing the work, learning what we like, we don’t like, and then helping that to evolve into what we actually want to be doing and what we envision doing.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. What were some of the things that you realized that you did like and then what are some of the things that you realize you didn’t like, and how did you evolve as you realized those things?

Mary Cressler: I think just by getting in there and doing, it’s very quick. You learn what you do like doing and what you don’t like doing. I loved the community that we created. I love cooking for people and the look on people’s faces when they’re like, “Oh my God, this is so good. How did you do it?”

Sean Martin: But…

Mary Cressler: But what I didn’t like was, I mean, we have young kids, we have nine year old twin boys, and so this got started a few years ago when they were younger. I did not like working those long, intense hours on weekends and evenings and being away from my family during the time and summer. Most of these events are… it’s a summer based industry for the most part. I want to be enjoying summer. I don’t want to be chopping onions all day prepping for an event. I realized it was just taking away from the time I wanted to be with my family.

Mary Cressler: Also, going back to that evergreen content, our blog was getting really good traffic for us at the time. Good enough traffic where I’m like, “I’d rather be here creating content for the blog than at these events,” where again, you’re getting paid once for something that is one time and then it’s over. I think Sean would have a different answer, but for me that was what I liked and didn’t like. I realized we can still do the things that I love doing without having to have tons of public events.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. It’s interesting. I feel like there’s some analogies. For a long time, Lindsay would do workshops, which have that same general feel of one time, it’s not recurring, you’re not producing content that lives online, but there’s this weird intangible of kind of an energy that comes from being with people in a shared experience and seeing people experience something that you’ve created, which we can’t really do online. There’s this balance for people who do both of those things to figure out, “How do I balance this? How do I get just the right enough amount of these in person experiences while also building something that is scalable and continues to pay over a period of time?”

Bjork Ostrom: Sean, I’m interested in your take on it. My guess is that you would lean more towards some of those catering events and in person events despite the fact that it’s not something that’s online and in lives forever.

Sean Martin: Well, I am the extrovert in the family, and I think in many ways it fed my soul because I’d be out in a crowd doing all that service work, prepping and getting the food out, walking through the crowd.

Mary Cressler: You love it.

Sean Martin: I do love it. Anytime I’m like, “Hey Mary, we need to prep 18 gallons of barbecue sauce,” she’s like, “Yeah. Well, who’s coming over to help you?” But for me too, it was an exercise in prioritization. I mean, there were many times, to be transparent, where we would get into fights about like, “What is the most priority right now?” It’s not even just about the businesses. It forced us to really sit down formally and have business plan meetings so we could say, “We’ve got time here, but not here. Where do we spend that time? How do we balance?”

Sean Martin: First of all, we have no regrets about how we’ve gone through the process. And I think if there’s anything I want to highlight, going through your creative business growth is such a personal experience. You may not have kids, you may have kids. You may be married, you may not be married. You may be in another country. I think when people are asking for the path to success, one of the things we talk about is it’s got to be your path to success. I think we needed to experience the insane busy-ness that was the catering company, being parents, being a couple, running the blog as a business, and forced us to pause and say, “Where do we need to spend our time and build that perspective” where I think we’re better at that now. That was a big lesson learned for me.

Bjork Ostrom: Is there anything to this move that you’ve made, you have this land, you’re converting this barn that you have, you’re going to be able to host events almost as a middle ground where you’re still doing these in person events, but there’s a certain scalability when it’s the thing that you own and the place that you are that there’s some repeatability to it, or what is the evolution of where you are right now in regards to in-person and online? I’d be curious to know the snapshot of where that is right now.

Sean Martin: I think you articulated it perfectly, because I think what we have learned, especially over the last year, is that all of what we’re doing is connected. Whether it be creating recipes or sending out some unique email community only content, now what we’ve been leaning into more is virtual and video live engagement, has all come together. I think that having the space allows us to have and build something that works for us in terms of how we create content. It also came from what are our readers and local partners we’re looking for, which is a space. They love the idea of coming out in small group settings and having a demo on how to grill steak, or maybe it’s a business to business transaction where we’re like, “Hey, we’ve got some connectivity to a lot of great photographers and videographers in the area. We have the space, how do we create a maker space where people can come out and we can rent out the space.”

Sean Martin: It’s become, I think, part of our community. I’m big into this concept of connectual intelligence where you use your relationships to… there’s ways to authentically help other people that ultimately helps you.

Bjork Ostrom: Can you talk about that real quick, that term? I feel like it’s worth doing a quick dive into what that is, connectual intelligence.

Sean Martin: Connectual intelligence is built on the emotional intelligence model, where several authors have talked a little bit about empathy and some of the other aspects of emotional intelligence and how that works when you start expanding that to business to business relationships. For example, we write about grilling and barbecue. I might know a great creator, like chef Billy Parisi, who does these amazing, doughs and breads. We want to do a great piece on grilling pizza, but we don’t want to do a dough recipe because that’s another thing that we reach out to this creator, we say, “Hey, can we work together on a project? And let’s broadcast this collectively and put out some content together.”

Sean Martin: Or maybe it’s, I’m working with a brand and they’re not a great fit, but I know this other creator would be a great fit, so I do virtual introductions to connect the people based on the relationships that I’ve built over time. So it wins for everybody. That’s the concept in a 50,000 foot level, and where we envision, in some part, using our space so that we can use it as just like maker space.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome. I think a great example of not giving up an idea, not sitting down and saying like, “We’re exhausted. Catering is a ton of work. It pulls us away from our family essentially on every night that we want to be with our family, weekends, holidays, whatever it might be.” But instead of giving that up, saying, “How can we surface the things that are most important to us from this? How can we filter out the things that are the negative side of this? And then what does that new version of it look like?” It seems like you guys have done that over the 10 plus year experience that you have evolving your brands and your businesses where you’re continually making that evolution, which is really inspiring to see.

Bjork Ostrom: One of the things, Mary, you talked about at the top of the podcast was six, seven years ago when you’re at this point of starting to work on your own ventures more, you said, “I know that I want to someday publish a book,” and I’m literally holding a book published by you and Sean in my hands, what was that process like? Was it similar to what you had expected it to be six years ago, seven years ago, eight years ago, as it was a seed of an idea and what did you learn in the process of publishing a book?

Mary Cressler: Yes. I don’t know what I thought it looked like back then. I just knew that I wanted to write a book. I think most writers at some point want to write a book, whatever that book is in their minds, but it evolved for us into a cookbook. I knew where my strengths are and I knew where my weaknesses were, and so I knew if I was going to publish a book, I needed help. So I started doing the research on “What do I need to do?” I knew at the time, I needed a strong book proposal if I was ever to write a book. I know there’s lots of free resources out there, but at the time I think I got the book actually from that conference, but it was Dianne Jacob’s book on Will Write…

Bjork Ostrom: Will Write for Food.

Mary Cressler: Will Write for Food. At the time, so Dianne was going to be a speaker at a wine conference that I wanted to go to. In order to go to that conference, you have to win a… Long story short, I went to this conference because Dianne was there, and she was doing private coaching at that conference, one-On-One half hour sessions. I told her… well, actually back up. I think more important than that was, I spoke with somebody else about a year prior, said, “Hey, I want to write a cookbook someday.” This is a publisher that worked for UC Davis press, which doesn’t do cookbooks, they do more academic style books, so I said, “I’m not pitching you. I just want to know. What should I know? I want to write a book someday. Just tell me what to know. I’m not pitching you.”

Mary Cressler: He said, “Oh, well, first thing you need to do, you need to get a following. You need to get some local press. You need to get published. You need to do… ” He gave me a checklist. I’m like, “All right, let’s do this.” Within that year, I pitched our local news station. I said, “Hey, I got this recipe, can we cook it on your show?” They said, “Yes.” So we started doing cooking segments on our local news station and we still do to this day. Continued with the freelance writing. I went off the checklist, started working on our numbers, getting our numbers up.

Mary Cressler: Now, flash forward to the conference where I meet Dianne Jacob, I asked her, I said, “I have this idea. I have a lot going in my head. I want to write a proposal, but I don’t know where to start. These are the things I’ve done to get to where we are. I’ve done XYZ. Here’s the checklist. I’ve done the checklist.” She looks at me and she says, “Less than 1% of book proposals become books or books. Less than 1% of cookbooks become cookbooks. And I can help people get to that 1%.” I said, “Do you think we have a chance?” She said, “You know what? I think so.” We work together. Dianne helped… she coached us through the proposal writing process, which was not easy, but I need that. I needed that accountability.

Mary Cressler: I had so many things going on in my life. My kids were… I don’t know, five or six years old. I needed somebody to hold me accountable for going through the steps of the book proposal process. By the end, we had a very large, what, 60 page book proposal. Then got connected with an agent and started pitching our book. But by the time that happened, I think we had basically checked off all the things. By the time we were pitching it out, we got several publishing companies interested in the idea. But for me, it’s like your whole idea, that 1% infinity it’s… I did one little thing at a time. This was not an idea that I had and then months later I had the cookbook. This was something I had brewing for years. I knew it was going to take a long time to get the book I wanted, that I pictured in my head.

Mary Cressler: I knew we could have done it. I could’ve self-published, but I don’t know how to publish a book. I know the resources are out there on the internet, but I wanted somebody else to do those steps. I didn’t want to do it on my own. I wanted a team. By taking those little steps, one thing at a time, and even with Dianne, we would do one part of the proposal per week or per two weeks. It was enough to just take one step at a time to get to the point where we were a few years later.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Gosh, I feel like that’s such an important reminder to anybody who’s trying to achieve any goal. Lindsay and I watched… there’s this movie… it was called Brittany Runs a Marathon. One of the scenes there is, she’s starting to think about maybe wanting to run and she has no experience running and she steps outside and she whispers to herself, “Just one block.” I think some of us need to remind ourselves of that. It’s not publishing a book and then getting overwhelmed and saying, “Oh my gosh, I can’t do this.” It’s that checklist, it’s those micro goals along the way to help you achieve that big goal, and I think your story with the book is a perfect example of that. It’s called Fire + Wine” 75 Smoke-Infused Recipes from the Grill with Perfect Wine Pairings.

Bjork Ostrom: And what a great way to wrap up both of your areas of expertise and interest to be able to publish this together. We’ll be sure to link to that in the show notes. I’d be curious as we wrap up here for each one of you to talk through… this has been a long journey for you and you’ve learned a lot and you’ve had a lot of success and you’ve learned a lot of things along the way. For somebody who is maybe in the earlier stages of their story in getting started, maybe it’s year one, maybe it’s year three, but in that first chapter, so to speak, I’d be curious to hear each one of you talk just briefly to that person and give them some encouraging words of things that they can keep in mind as they look to find similar successes to what you guys have had. Sean, I’ll have you start and then, Mary, you can end.

Sean Martin: Sure. I think for me, one of the things that was very important was for me to recognize that the journey you’re about to go through is your journey. It’s great to benchmark and look at others around you who are successful, but goal setting and working within the capacity that you have, being okay with meeting those goals, because our journey has been 11 years in the making and I’ve only been a recent part of that. For example, quitting my insurance career, looking back, I realized the greatest frustration I felt was not having left sooner, not giving myself the leap of faith to take and give the time. But that’s our journey, and not everybody might have the opportunity to do that right off the bat. I think it’s just saying to those who are listening, it’s your journey and it’s great to benchmark, but be okay with what your journey is. Know that the things are going to tweak and change and you’re going to have to make your adjustments, and that’s okay too. That’s a big eye opener for me.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s great. And I think a super important reminder. Mary, how about you?

Mary Cressler: I would say, just celebrate little wins. I mean, celebrate the really seemingly little wins because those little wins are actually really big wins, whether it’s getting accepted to an ad network or developing a skill, like finally learning how to use your camera and getting better at your photography or producing your first video, even if you think it sucks, which it probably will the first time you do it, all of ours do, but celebrate it, celebrate those little wins and to start building your community. If you’re surrounded by people who are not in the writing or blogging industry, you might not get the support that you could be getting from people within the industry.

Mary Cressler: Find community whether it’s going to a conference and meeting people or joining a Facebook group, there’s lots of great Facebook groups with truly supportive bloggers, or joining something like Food Blogger Pro. There’s so many great people that you can throw questions at, or, “Hey, I’m thinking of switching my newsletter list. What are you guys using?” I think just having that community is so, so valuable. There are so many amazing people in this community. They’re so willing to just cheer you on and support you, give you advice, share resources, and so I think finding that. Those people can help you celebrate all of your wins too. I think just slowly building up those skills and building up your confidence and… I think community is a huge part of our success and our growth. And just learning things just one step at a time, don’t try to tackle it all. It’s too overwhelming. Just learn one thing at a time.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s great. I know that people who listen to this will feel that from you, as you guys have come on, shared your story, a ton of insight and actionable items as well, some inspirational items as well. Like I did in the intro, I’ll say goodbye to each one of you individually so you don’t have to talk over each other. Sean, thank you for coming on the podcast.

Sean Martin: Thank you for having us.

Bjork Ostrom: Mary, thank you for coming on the podcast.

Mary Cressler: Thank you so much.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it was really a joy. Thanks.

Alexa Peduzzi: And that’s a wrap on this episode of the Food Blogger Pro podcast. Thanks again for tuning in today. I just love Sean’s quote from the end of this episode where he said, “The journey you’re about to go through is your journey, and yet it’s important to learn from others and to experiment with what has worked for other people, but ultimately it’s your journey.” I just think that is such a good reminder, especially for creatives and entrepreneurs and business owners like ourselves. We hope you enjoyed this episode. I know I did. If you have any feedback or thoughts or comments about this episode, you can go and comment on the show notes for this episode at foodbloggerpro.com/262. That’s just the number two, the number six and the number two. We hope to hear from you. If you have any suggestions for an upcoming episode of the podcast, feel free to email us. It’ll go right to me at [email protected]. We’ll see you next time, and until then, make it a great week.

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