This episode is sponsored by Clariti.
Welcome to episode 378 of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork interviews Tessa Arias from Handle the Heat about the unique ways she monetizes her business as a food creator.
Last week on the podcast, the Food Blogger Pro Experts shared their best advice for getting the most out of Q4 as a food creator. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.
Monetizing as a Food Creator
Today, we’re really excited to share this conversation with Tessa! She’s a professionally trained chef, cookbook author, and blogger behind the site Handle the Heat and a big proponent of diversifying your income streams as a food creator.
In this episode, you’ll hear how she sells both physical and digital products on her blog, her best tips for those who want to start selling digital products like courses, why she doesn’t want to rely entirely on ad revenue, and more.
Tessa’s story is so inspiring, and she offers some really insightful advice for other food creators in this conversation. If you’ve been looking for some unique ways to monetize your business, you won’t want to miss this episode!
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- Why Tessa decided to launch her food blog
- How she narrowed down her content focus and landed on her niche
- Why she focuses so much on diversifying her income streams
- How she sells physical and digital products
- Her best tip for those who want to start offering digital products
- What tools she uses to run her online course
- Why she decided to expand her team
- How she manages her weeks and optimizes her time
- Handle the Heat
- Shop Handle the Heat
- The Magic of Baking course
- Sur La Table
- Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
- Run Like Clockwork
- Follow Tessa on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest
- Join the Food Blogger Pro Podcast Facebook Group
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 the Clariti waitlist 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!
If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for interviews, be sure to email them to [email protected].
Transcript (click to expand):
Bjork Ostrom: This podcast is sponsored by Clariti, that is C-L-A-R-I-T-I.com, and really the name says it all. The purpose of Clariti is to have a clear and straightforward tool that allows you to have clarity, that’s where the name comes from, into areas of opportunity for improving content on your blog and managing those projects along the way. What we found was for many bloggers, ourselves included, there either wasn’t a great system at all to manage projects or find areas of opportunity, or it was Google Sheets or Airtable. Which those are really powerful tools and those are awesome tools and if you’re good at using Google Sheets or Airtable and connecting all of the different elements that you need, more power to you. I think that those tools are incredible.
Bjork Ostrom: But what we wanted with Clariti was to ease the burden of some of the more technical considerations that go into hooking all of that information up. With Clariti, what we’re doing is we’re bringing what we consider to be some of the most important information for publishers and bloggers into the same place. Clariti brings in WordPress metadata, how long your post is, what the links are, external, internal links, alt text within images or images that are maybe broken. We bring all of that information in. We bring in information from Google Analytics so you connect your Google Analytics account, your Google search console account.
Bjork Ostrom: All of that information comes into one central spot and from there you can use Clariti to find opportunities. Maybe you want to improve the number of links that are coming to a certain post. Just this morning I looked for Pinch of Yum and we have some new posts that we’re actually not linking to. So I made a note and I was like, “Oh my gosh, we need to link to these new posts that we’ve published within other posts,” and I wouldn’t have been able to on my own just think of that or check on that if not for that being surfaced within Clariti. You can find those opportunities, but then you can also create a project around those to then make sure that you can check back and say, “Great, here’s what I need to do.” You can create tasks within that project and you can work through that to make sure that you improve that piece of content or that area of opportunity over time.
Bjork Ostrom: This is the key piece with it, is you can take notes along the way. You can look back three months, six months, a year from now and say, “Hey, that was an improvement that I made. Did that have an impact? Great, if it did, what are some other ways that I can do that in other places on my blog to continue to optimize and improve?” What we found is, especially for people who have been blogging for a certain number of years, a huge part of what you need to do is not only think about new content, but continually maintaining and optimizing your existing content.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s been fun to see Clariti grow as we’ve talked about it and shared it with other publishers over the last year or so. Just last month we had 60 bloggers sign up to start using Clariti. If you want to check it out, the best way to do that is to go to clariti.com/food, that’s C-L-A-R-I-T-I.com/food and podcast listeners can receive 50% off of your first month if you go to that URL. Again, it’s C-L-A-R-I-T-I.com/food. Thanks to Clariti for sponsoring this podcast.
Bjork Ostrom: Hello, hello. You’re listening to the Food Blogger Pro podcast. My name is Bjork Ostrom, and each week we show up here. We meaning me, somebody I’m interviewing, and the team that helps to put this podcast together, the Food Blogger Pro team. We show up with an episode of the Food Blogger Pro podcast and the reason we do it is because we want to have these interviews, these conversations, and sometimes it’s just me sharing thoughts or ideas, but usually it’s an interview with somebody who’s doing creative things in the world and finding success in a certain way. Sometimes success might mean doing something they really love, learning something new. It might mean financial success, but the goal is to surface nuggets, little pieces of information and then share those with you. We focus all of these conversations in this unique niche of people who are publishing content online or building businesses online in the world of food.
Bjork Ostrom: Today we’re having a conversation with Tessa Arias and she’s going to be talking about how she’s grown Handle the Heat through the years. That’s her blog, that’s her brand, that’s where she has built her business. She’s going to be talking about the process that she went through, the different evolutions that she went through, and what she’s learned along the way. Specifically, one of the things that I found really interesting was an event that happened in her publishing career, in her blogging career that caused her to step back and think a little bit about diversification and what she did as a change based on that event in order to de-risk the business a little bit. To diversify it and diversifying also is de-risking. She’s going to be talking about why she did that and now the difference in her business on a day-to-day basis. What does that look like and how did those changes impact her business?
Bjork Ostrom: It’s great interview, but before we jump into it, I wanted to give a quick shout-out to the Food Blogger Pro podcast Facebook group. You can join that by going to foodbloggerpro.com/Facebook. Be sure to check that out. And without further ado, let’s jump into this interview with Tessa. Tessa, welcome to the podcast.
Tessa Arias: Hi Bjork, thanks for having me.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, this is a long time coming because you’ve been working on your site and your brand, your business for a long time. It actually started for you, we were talking about this before we hit record, when you were 18, but had been 18 for just a couple weeks. This was something that you started early on in your life, especially relative to when a lot of people would start a site. What was that like for you then? And take us back to your mindset back then.
Tessa Arias: Yeah, my birthday is March 30th and I launched the site I think April 11th or 12th I believe in 2009. I was literally freshly 18. I remember at that time I just felt this intense craving for some sort of creative outlet, but was not getting it in school. Felt very confused about my future and overwhelmed by you have to decide your career path now and choose a major. I was starting college and it all just felt heavy and not fun and so I wanted to try. I had in the last couple of years of high school, developed a secret obsession with cooking and baking. Would come home from school and watch Food Network while all my friends were watching MTV and the Real World.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, totally.
Tessa Arias: Would read my mom’s magazines and skip to the recipes. My parents had divorced when I was in high school and I had just organically taken on a little bit more responsibility to help my mom out because she was a newly single mother, helping with grocery shopping and meals. Neither of my parents really liked to cook or bake growing up and I always loved food. I just was like, “I’m sick of the mediocre food we’re eating and I’m going to do something about it,” and that’s how it started and I figured it out. I made her tiramisu for her birthday and I started making different dishes. It was mostly just following Food Network chefs and making whatever they would post until I got to a place where I’d be watching a Food Network show and be able to anticipate what the host was about to say. What tip they were about to give or what insight. I was like, “Okay, I’m picking up on some skills,” and yes, opened a BlogSpot.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s where you started on, was BlogSpot?
Tessa Arias: Yes.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, totally. I remember I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about his story and journey and he’s now a really successful videographer. I was asking him, it was about college and I was just like, “Do you like where you went to college? Would you have done that again?” He was like, “Yeah, I feel like I had really good friends.” Then we started talking about what he did with his friends and at the time they were doing, remember Punk’d with Ashton Kutcher? It was around the same time, and they would do these Punk’d shows where they’d interview themselves. But essentially he really liked editing and now he’s a video editor, he’s in his late 30s. What I said is like, “Oh, you always had that in you, even in college when you were in business school, you were editing videos.”
Bjork Ostrom: I think what’s interesting to hear you talk about with your story is that was just something you were naturally drawn to. You were naturally drawn to watch Food Network and make a recipe for your mom, and that was something that just was a part of you. I think it’s one of the great things that we can do now is we can do work that we’re naturally drawn to if we really hustle and get after it. But what I’m curious for you is, you started your site as a hobby, was there a point in that process where you were like, “Wow, this thing that I’m naturally drawn to, that I really love to do could also be the thing that is a career for me?”
Tessa Arias: Yeah, that’s such a great insight, Bjork. What you’re naturally drawn to is probably the thing you’ll have the most success and sustainability with. Because I had started other sites when I was in high school about random things that lasted a month and then I’d move on to the next thing because it was a fleeting interest.
Bjork Ostrom: Like what? That’s my question. What were those other sites about? That’s what we want to know.
Tessa Arias: Do you want to know what my first website was when I was in sixth grade and teaching myself how to code on dial-up internet and my mom would try to call home when she was at work and the line would be busy? I’d be in so much trouble for being on the internet all day. But it was a Harry Potter fansite.
Bjork Ostrom: Love it. Here’s the thing, you could build that into a career. I mean, you see that. Obviously, you’d have to be super passionate about it. Okay, Harry Potter fan site, that was sixth grade. Was that a GeoCities?
Tessa Arias: AngelFire, was that the name of it?
Bjork Ostrom: Angel, yeah it was-
Tessa Arias: Angel something.
Tessa Arias: Yeah, it was something like that.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, yeah. I just remember my friend and I built it and we customized the cursor to have stars tracing afterwards.
Tessa Arias: Oh, great.
Bjork Ostrom: Now I want to do that on my site. Then I had another friend and I in high school, we created a fashion blog. It was way before that time, before that was even really a thing. I think it was a very natural evolution of interests that I had had. Back to your question of when did I start to see it developing potentially into a career path, I started to notice just what you described. Like, “Okay, these are natural tendencies or innate skills or interests that I’ve always had that have come together in a really nice way. I’ve kept it up for a couple years now and without seeing a ton of money or whatever,” I didn’t know what I was wanting necessarily. It was just something that I was-
Bjork Ostrom: You were just naturally drawn to continue to do it, yeah.
Tessa Arias: Exactly, it felt not effortless, but it felt like it just made sense. The longer I was continuing on, the more it felt right. Then I had a random recipe go viral on StumbleUpon, the old internet browser, and suddenly overnight I was getting thousands of hits on the site. Whereas before it was a few here and there, maybe a hundred would be at the top of a month. I was like, “Oh, okay, let’s continue this momentum. What was it about that that got all these hits?” It was a fun, innovative recipe. It was actually inspired by a Martha Stewart recipe where it was an Oreo cookie baked in a muffin tin with cheesecake batter on top. The crust was built in through an Oreo cookie and it was something novel and fun and it was a dessert.
Tessa Arias: Before I was just doing whatever, there was no focus or niche or theme to what I was doing. It was just diaries from the kitchen essentially. So I started to observe what was happening, what was getting popular. The traffic started to grow organically and eventually I started to realize there was something there and I began committing more time to it and investing more energy into it. Then it honestly wasn’t until probably four or five years in that I realized this was my career path. A lot came in that very short period of time where I decided to go to culinary school after I’d finished my four-year degree and I had-
Bjork Ostrom: What did you do in college? What was your degree?
Tessa Arias: It was interdisciplinary studies, it was the most non-committal degree. I was like, “Whatever. I just need to finish at this point, I know I want to do this. I feel obligated to get a bachelor’s degree,” which nowadays I don’t feel as necessary. It felt like society kept reinforcing like, “You have to have a college degree.”
Bjork Ostrom: For sure.
Tessa Arias: I definitely learned how to write, how think more critically and organize my workload and things like that. I actually ended up getting a cookbook deal really early on. I was probably way too young to have gotten that and to know what to do with it. But I used my university study skills and organization skills to organize my work to produce that book. The book advance was how I funded my culinary school degree essentially. Then after those two big things had happened, where I finished culinary school and I had written the book, I still wasn’t making enough money to live off of. I had a job at Sur La Table, the kitchenware store at that time.
Tessa Arias: I decided, okay, I finished my bachelor’s degree, my culinary degree, and I’ve written a book. Am I going to go get an office job somewhere now? I live in Phoenix and that’s where I was living at the time, there’s no real food media market here. Because my other thought was, “Oh, maybe I could move to New York or LA and work for a magazine or publication.” But this was the time when those all started to die off and traditional publishing was in despair. That’s what everyone was talking about, it was during the recession too. I felt like I had to manage my own destiny in a sense, and decided to give myself the summer after I’d finished all my schooling and the cookbook to focus on the blog full time. Give it my all, find a focus and if I could by the end of the summer generate enough income to support myself, then that was going to be the path I chose. That was-
Bjork Ostrom: What year was this?
Tessa Arias: 2013.
Bjork Ostrom: Oh yeah, you were just going to say it. Okay, 2013. I think what’s interesting within that is there’s a four-year period from when you had started to that point where, my guess is you were actually doing quite a bit of work on the blog itself. But also within your life, you’re going to college, you’re exploring these other areas. I think sometimes we can look at when you tell it in a story, four years can go by really quick, but that’s actually a lot of time. When you first started on BlogSpot, was it Handle the Heat at that point or-
Tessa Arias: It was, it was.
Bjork Ostrom: And it always has been.
Tessa Arias: Yes, yeah.
Bjork Ostrom: Within that span of time, did you migrate yet to WordPress or were you on BlogSpot at that point?
Tessa Arias: At some point, yes. No, at some point I migrated and it was the biggest investment I had ever made. I was terrified, I think it was $1,500, but at the time I was like, “Oh my God, this is more my rent. I can’t believe I’m spending this much money on something I can’t even touch.” But yeah, I don’t know. Looking back, I almost had a blind faith this was going to work out because I took some risks.
Bjork Ostrom: I think that’s a part of it too, to realize is you can look back on it and for somebody hearing the story, it’s like, “Oh yeah, of course that makes sense.” But when you’re in it and you are in that mindset of still $1,500 could be a lot of different things and not at the top of many lists is it a migration to WordPress. You’re having to make these risky decisions around investing in a business, or it could be rent money or it could be whatever money, fun money to do something else. You take this step back and you say, “Okay.” Was it a summer you said, or essentially a period of time to focus in.
Bjork Ostrom: What were the variables that you were looking at to say yes or no? Because I think there’s a lot of people who are in a similar phase and they’re wondering, “How do I make this decision whether to spend more time on it? And then if I spend more time and it doesn’t work out, is that time wasted? Or spend more money on it and if I spend more and it doesn’t work out, is that money wasted?” What was that like for you, if you can remember what that decision-making process was like?
Tessa Arias: Yeah, I mean at the end of the day, the success metric for me was this is my monthly set of expenses. Can I make more than that every month consistently? At the time I remember realizing as I was trying to figure out what were my next steps, what was my action plan, because just working more wasn’t necessarily going to produce results, I think I realized I needed to start thinking more like a business owner and more strategically. It was a terrifying period because I didn’t know what I was going to do if it didn’t work out financially. I remember thinking to myself, “If I’m really honest with myself, I get a lot more joy and fulfillment off of publishing dessert recipes and baking recipes and I enjoy the experimentation process and how you can see the differences much more visually when you’re selecting different techniques or ingredients to apply to a recipe versus with cooking.”
Tessa Arias: I liked cooking and so it felt like the biggest decision in the world to start to niche down a little bit more into exclusively… I mean at the time actually it wasn’t a little bit more, I was deciding to eliminate a huge portion of content that I had been creating up until that time of the savory cooking recipes and decided to only focus on the baking recipes. I realized that not only were those my top recipes, but it was what I enjoyed the most. There must have been some-
Bjork Ostrom: Relation.
Tessa Arias: Complimentary, yeah, some relation, exactly. That what I was finding the most enjoyment doing was resonating with people probably because of that. I realized almost these two contradictory ideas of I have to enjoy what I’m doing, otherwise what’s the point? I might as well go get a job and I’ll be way more stable and I’ll have a guaranteed paycheck. That had to be a part of it. I started this for a creative outlet, so I really wanted to hold steady on that. And I knew there had to be some level of strategic decision-making, looking at the data, looking at the numbers, figuring out what are my income opportunities?
Tessa Arias: At that time something fell into my lap, that’s what it felt like. Looking back now, I realize I had actually been working towards something happening for a while, where a local advertising agency was testing out an idea of basically funding YouTube channel creators to create video content that they would then pitch to their roster brands to do sponsored videos for. This was way ahead of its time and they were paying me a set fee per YouTube video created, that if I created for a month it would pay for my living expenses. So I signed a deal with them. At the time, I just wanted to make something work and I needed that income. Looking back now, I signed away probably too much, naively.
Bjork Ostrom: Sure, as we all do.
Tessa Arias: As we all do, yes.
Bjork Ostrom: With any first agreement or contract that we do, yeah.
Tessa Arias: Totally. But it was cool because it gave me not only the financial resources to continue forward, but it gave me almost an external set of organizing principles of, okay, now I know I have to create this many videos a month and I have the data from a professional advertising agency that they’re reporting back to me, showing me how these videos are performing. I did that for, I believe a year was the contract term. And by the end of that first year, the other income streams, sponsorships, advertising income, I think I was on BlogHer at the time, started to pick up. So I was able to-
Bjork Ostrom: For those who aren’t familiar, earlier advertising agency, I don’t know the state of BlogHer right now, but similar to what people talk about for AdThrive or Mediavine now.
Tessa Arias: Yeah. But I do remember, what was the other one? Not BlogHer, there was another advertising agency that went out of business and I never got my final paycheck at the end of the day. I just felt crazy and I remember thinking at the time, none of my friends were pursuing anything like this. I was the only one. They’d all gotten corporate jobs or gone to school. It felt very risky at the time. Looking back now, I’ve had the most ability, the most consistency. All my friends who went the corporate route have dealt with layoffs or companies shutting down or finding out their male colleagues are earning twice as much as they are with the same level experience and degree. I’m just so grateful that I ended up choosing this path.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it’s one of the things that I don’t think is talked about enough, which is even just in the side hustle capacity, entrepreneurial pursuits I think sometimes are put in the bucket of extremely risky. I think they can be to the point of investing money early on and the potential of that not paying off or investing a lot of time, that not paying off. But I also think once you get to the point where you are able to prove that out, let’s say it’s side hustle income or full-time income, there’s a certain level of stability that brings if you have a full-time job and you have side hustle income behind it. That’s a huge amount of stability if you get laid off, you have this thing that you can then focus on and ramp up if you need to.
Bjork Ostrom: But also to your point, you can have control over your thing and within that you can diversify. I know that’s something that you’ve done within your business. You started to look at other avenues of revenue creation, you have advertising, we have sponsored content. But I know you’ve also started to look into products or education almost. Can you talk a little bit about when that mindset shift started to happen or even when you started to focus on that within your business?
Tessa Arias: Yeah, great segue. I think when that paycheck didn’t come through, when that advertising company went out of business was when I realized, “Oh, that’s really scary.” All of my income for the most part is connected to this thing. I can’t control Google’s algorithm changes or social media algorithm changes. I can do my best to be proactive and keep up to date with what’s happening and best practices. But I had a really terrible experience years ago of receiving a Google manual action for improper recipe formatting. Basically it was something to the effect of I was using a really old formatting tool for my recipes and somebody could have added in content, like SEO Black Hat content on the back end of the formatting tool, but wouldn’t present on the front end.
Tessa Arias: I had no idea how to do that, I was not doing that. But my Google traffic went basically in half in a month’s time after receiving that manual action. It required for me to go through and at that time I think it was about 700 recipes to manually convert them over to a new recipe plugin. It was such an old tool that there was no mapping or automating of that process. It took about six months. For that period of time, the income stream I had relied on, dried up basically.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, which was the advertising revenue.
Tessa Arias: Exactly. I realized it could be very risky to put all your eggs in one basket and focus entirely on organic traffic that you don’t have control over and advertising income. You don’t have control over that company, how much they’re paying you, how much advertisers are paying. We’ve seen this with the pandemic. Maybe it will fluctuate with the inflation and everything that’s happening right now. The economic instability is something that I just figured, you know what, I can’t control enough of this for me to want my entire business to be based on this, so I want to diversify my income streams. It’s taken a lot of work and it has at times felt like maybe I made the wrong decision because I don’t have 10 million pageviews a month like some of my colleagues do, who have spent a lot of their resources on SEO and bolstering their advertising income.
Tessa Arias: But I feel so much more diversified. My ultimate goal is to get to basically income from advertising being a third of my pie chart, income from physical products another third, and income from my digital products final third. That way it feels like we’re on a steady stool where it’s balanced. The physical product side started with self-publishing a cookbook, and then the digital product side has been courses and online teaching of just getting in deeper into instilling baking knowledge, sharing the science behind baking, taking all the content that has always performed really well for me and diving in to a whole other level in a paid online program format.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, I think that’s super smart. I think about what we do as business owners, part of it is investing and we have income that we’re able to produce, whether it be W2 income, 1099 income or business income that comes in. Then we have a decision, what do we do with it? Do we invest it back into the business? Do we invest it in stocks? Do we invest it in real estate? There’s that question. I think there’s also the same question for time. Where do we invest our time and what do we want to focus on? With all of those, you have this expected return. But the piece that I think that’s interesting to hear you talk about is also building in risk as a variable. I don’t think a lot of people spend enough time thinking about that. To do an investing analogy, you can have stocks and bonds, bonds aren’t going to return you as much, but they’re going to be a little bit more stable and so there’s less risk there.
Bjork Ostrom: I think looking at the elements that you talk about, what’s so smart is it’s not just looking at revenue. Because to your point, maybe it would make sense in the short term to maximize revenue by trying to get more and more search traffic. But it’s also about risk and how do you account for risk in that equation and to make sure that diversification is in place, which is a great way to combat risk. What have you learned that’s been most helpful in that process? You talked about the cookbook, you talked about educational courses. If you were to go back and you were at that point where you’re just in advertising revenue, what would you do first? What would be the thing that you feel like has been the best ROI on your time or money?
Tessa Arias: I think the digital products is the easiest way to get started creating something to offer directly to your audience that you have more control over. You can provide an amazing experience for members of your audience who are interested to go deeper with you, to get more access to you, to learn how you might do something uniquely compared to just following a recipe. It’s fulfilling in a different creative way for those of us who create content. We’re already experts at that for the most part, we already know that process. It’s just tweaking it slightly to be able to offer more of an experience to your audience and figuring out what it is that they might be willing to invest in and what does that look like.
Tessa Arias: Whichever way you choose to go with developing a new income stream that’s something that you are offering, I would just say get ready to do a lot of experimenting. It’s like the recipe creation process where it requires a lot of iteration, brainstorming, looking out and seeing what’s done well for me in the past. What are people asking about, what’s a format that I feel confident and comfortable in? If you love reading and writing, then creating a video course might not be the best action for you because it’s not a natural fit for your personality or your skills or strengths. Just thinking a lot, spending as much time on the development process as far as the idea, validating it, speaking to your audience. Then I would always recommend if you’re pursuing creating some sort of digital offer to do a live version where you can get live feedback from a test cohort of people. People who go through it maybe at a lower cost.
Tessa Arias: For example, my first online course, The Magic of Baking, started as a Facebook group that people clicked on a PayPal link to pay $100 bucks to join. I did live streams from the Facebook group. I had originally called it the Science of Baking Course or something like that. I realized so many of the people who joined were aspiring food entrepreneurs and that was not the market I was trying to get after. So I had to come up with a more fun-sounding name that would appeal to a wider demographic of people who were just interested in it as a hobby. You learn a lot and without having to invest, as you were saying, too much time or money into building out a course or buying the software to do so, or filming a bunch of videos, start with the most lean, lightweight thing that you can because it’s going to change. And that you have to be adaptable in that process and flexible to listen to the feedback that you get from your audience.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome. It feels like such great feedback for any product, whether it be a digital product, a physical product like software, anything that you’re doing as quickly as possible, how can you get it in front of people to get their feedback to shape what it might eventually be? Or for you to quickly let an idea die that you thought was awesome and that everybody’s like, “This isn’t super helpful.” It’s almost like you have this block of wood, which is your idea, and the only way that you can sculpt it into something that’s valuable is it feels like everybody has these little… I’m building this analogy on the fly. Everybody has these little carving knives and they are the ones that shape it. You have an idea of what it could be and you’re presenting it, but it’s really the feedback from other people.
Bjork Ostrom: The other thing that I think is so great about that story is using what you had and not creating some complicated thing. Facebook group, PayPal link, Facebook Live. Just because it’s easy to do doesn’t mean that it’s not valuable. I think sometimes people get confused like it has to be this really complicated thing and there has to be all these components to it. It’s like, “Oh man, it just start with what you have and what you know how to do and get it in front of people as quickly as possible.” What did that evolve into? Because my guess is maybe Facebook is still an element of that now, but you probably have a platform that you’re using now and what does that look like because I think people are always curious about the functionality of something.
Tessa Arias: The Magic Baking course was actually something that got put on the back burner up until recently. It’s become more of a focus again, for me. What you just described is something I have to constantly remind myself of because I’m always veering off and overcomplicating things or investing so much time and energy into something that was not the right set of ideas. But the course, once I had done the live version, gotten tons of feedback, I had interviewed people who participated one on one, sent out surveys after every section of the course and learned a bunch, I created the basic outline of the course content after that point. Taking the live format, turning it into more of a recorded format and did another version of it live again, but with the recorded content. Just so I could again, have the feedback and gauge the interest level and see where people were dropping off. Then I refined it once more, the content, before I hired my developer at the time to build into my WordPress site the course on LearnDash. Huge mistake.
Bjork Ostrom: Okay, why was that?
Tessa Arias: I regretted intensely.
Bjork Ostrom: LearnDash, I forget what they would call it, but it’s an education management system. If you have a course you can build it on LearnDash. What did you learn about learning that as a solution?
Tessa Arias: First of all, it tanked my site speed because it was so much more. And to have people logging into your site basically creates some complications. I did this again when I launched a membership offer last year where I built it on WordPress and regretted it so intensely. What I’ve realized is I don’t have the tech skill. I don’t have a Bjork, I don’t have somebody that I can immensely trust to build something out or who can speak developer and know that what the developer’s saying is the right call or that the reason it’s taking 45 hours for them to finish this is legitimate or not, things like that. I don’t like managing the tech side of things and when it comes to your WordPress site, you want to keep it as lightweight as possible because chances are you already have a ton of photos and recipes and blog posts or one day you will, if you don’t yet.
Tessa Arias: It just created a lot of complications and made it really difficult, for example, to distinguish between the free content and the paid content when it was all housed in the same place. Eventually, I made the move onto Kajabi, which is where the course moved onto. We actually also moved my membership offer over there as well. That way it’s all a closed system. If something happens with that server, it doesn’t affect the main site server and vice versa, so there’s a little bit more stability. But also when you use a tool like Kajabi, there’s a bunch, Teachable, Thinkific, there’s so many digital learning tools where you can host your content now. It’s like they figured it all out. They have-
Bjork Ostrom: And that’s exactly what they’re built for.
Tessa Arias: Exactly, exactly. And if you get one that handles the payment processing as well, then it all becomes somewhere that is much easier to manage. For me, it was easier to manage the analytics of the course when it was in a separate platform because I could look at the finances, I could look at our members and not have to run any figures or do any math or create any dashboards just to get a basic overview because it was all kept nice and separate in this other ecosystem. Then if something goes wrong, we can reach out to the customer support of that software tool and figure it out from there.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that’s one of the great things about all those solutions now is they’re so custom built for things like a course on baking. It’s like, “Great, here’s how you can arrange it. Here’s an area for commenting if you want it, here’s payment processing,” and you’re not having to build that all on your own. I think if I’m remembering right, you maybe have it set up this way where you have it on a sub domain where it still looks like it’s connected to your site when you were to look at the URL. But technically it’s a different domain, like you said, a different server. It’s all managed somewhere else.
Bjork Ostrom: I’m curious, from a business owner perspective, on a day-to-day basis, you now have different revenue sources, different “products” within your business. One would be content that’s monetized via advertising or sponsor content. You have the product division like you talked about, and you have courses, you have content that you’re selling to people. How do you think of dividing your time on a day or a week basis? Are you intentional about doing that like, “Hey, every Monday I’m going to focus on this thing and Tuesday is this.” Is it more week to week? What does it look like for you, because I think people are always curious to know how do people do all this stuff?
Tessa Arias: Yeah, I’m happy to talk about my week-to-week, but I also definitely want to disclose I don’t do it alone, I have a team. That’s something, looking back now, I’ve thought a lot about this recently, as the complexity of business has grown and now we’re trying to find simplicity again and find elegant solutions to all of these different elements. What I realized was as you grow different income streams, you have to grow a team that can attend to the income stream. Otherwise, it just falls back onto your plate and becomes additional work for you and it’s not sustainable. If you know you might want to pursue a digital product or a physical product or whatever it is, working towards being able to hire somebody, even if it’s just a contractor or somebody part-time, and eventually maybe you find a full-time person who can help to manage that specific revenue stream or offer or sets of offers, that’s how we can scale.
Tessa Arias: Because otherwise it’s really not sustainable, especially if you get COVID or have a family to take care of or you have other responsibilities in life and you cannot be working all the time or even just for mental health. That’s something I’ve realized and has been reflected in my team’s growth over the last couple of years. Because when I launched my cookbook, it basically broke my business. It sold out overnight, everything that I had set up, the influx in customer service requests, the warehousing issues that came up of so many orders coming in so quickly, I had to hire my first full-time employee retroactively instead of proactively. We all have our own different roles and responsibilities and we just click up for our project management and tracking everything. For my own personal time, I do like to time block. Typically, I’ll have general rules that I don’t usually take calls on Fridays. But because I’ve been traveling, today’s Friday I knew I wanted to take time to chat with you.
Bjork Ostrom: Exception, yeah.
Tessa Arias: I don’t typically take calls on Wednesdays or Fridays. Those days are spent more towards content creation. If I have a bunch of videos to be on camera for, like TikTok or Reels or things like that, I’ll try to knock out all of the filming all the intros in a day where I’ve gotten dressed and done my hair and makeup. Just trying to think through how can I be the most efficient with this one thing? How can I batch it? How can I time block? I’m really a fan of Deep Work by Cal Newport as well where-
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. I’m looking up at my bookshelf. I have that book somewhere, but I haven’t read it yet. What were the biggest takeaways for you from that book?
Tessa Arias: That book, basically the thesis of it is we are moving towards a different economy where creative work and expert work is what will be prized because so many things are being automated or outsourced or transferred into a technological solution. He comes at that from an interesting perspective in that regard. But the concept that we can take away from it, I think, is the more deep work sessions that you can create for yourself in a calendar year, the more likely you are to create massive results. For example, for him that looks like highly prolific academic papers published, writing books, teaching university-level courses. The amount of work he’s able to produce while still having a family and a life is remarkable. It’s definitely something that yeah, I want to listen to as someone who’s been able to walk the walk.
Tessa Arias: But a deep work session, basically my interpretation of it, is you start out maybe just a half hour or an hour and you expand your capacity to be able to work and focus on one thing at a time. It’s work that’s more intensive, it’s not answering emails or scheduling pins or things like that. It’s more creative intellectual work that requires your full attention. You turn off all distractions, even disconnect from the internet if you can, or at the very least put everything in do not disturb mode. You basically turn off the outside world and focus only on the thing at hand. And the amount you’re able to get done is remarkable when you do that, which makes sense.
Tessa Arias: But when I first started, I would give myself two hours to maybe write the outline for a new course or something like that. I would complete it in 45 minutes because I would just get into that flow and that rhythm. And it feels so much more enjoyable at the end of the day when you’ve had at least one deep work session. You feel so much more accomplished because I think oftentimes and I’m still very guilty of this, we can float between Slack and project management notifications and email and text and Instagram and TikTok. And by the end of the day you have nothing to show for it and you don’t feel productive and you feel scattered and you’ve not allowed yourself to dive deeply to create anything of meaning. So I try to follow that. I mean, I’m not perfect by any means, it’s hard, it’s very hard.
Bjork Ostrom: Part of what’s hard too is when you do have a team, sometimes part of that is making sure that they have what they need, and if somebody’s blocked that they can get unblocked to keep moving forward on it.
Bjork Ostrom: One of the questions that I have for you, knowing where things are at, where you do have a team, but you’re also continuing to create, is how do you balance the maker manager role? Because you have a team, you want to be available to that team, help that team, but you’re also still creating in a way that you need to make space for that.
Tessa Arias: Yeah, it’s challenging. It’s been probably the steepest learning curve for me as far as managing a team of full-time employees, especially where there’s constant oversight. Not constant oversight, but there’s constantly things that come up of maybe they’re waiting on you to finish something so that they can move on to the next step, or they have a question about something. At the end of the day, going through some sort of for me, team management business processes, systems, driven type of course or reading a book on the subject or hiring somebody to help facilitate the organization of all of that so you have SOPs documented, you’ve created videos on how to accomplish certain tasks. You basically set up the organization of the business so that anyone coming in can operate independently once they’re trained and they’re not having to ask you a ton of questions or interrupt your day or your work as much.
Tessa Arias: For me, one of the biggest challenges in that, even when I got to that point where that was set up pretty well, was the guilt I would feel when I would be working on something that’s maybe a recipe where when the recipe’s baking, sometimes I’ll read a book or have a phone call with a friend or something. That process feels a little bit more luxurious, a little bit less nose to the grindstone. Or when I was thinking in the creative design work of what’s the future of the business, what projects are we going to work on, that doesn’t always look like work. Sometimes it looks like taking a walk or getting on the whiteboard or doodling or something so you can allow for those ideas to come up. I struggled a lot with knowing other people were working on all these computer tasks and giving me such great work while I was just floating around and doing something more creative.
Bjork Ostrom: How did you work through that? What did it look like? What is the mental tool in your tool belt that you equipped yourself with for that?
Tessa Arias: It took a while. My first realization was that I felt guilty because I was having such enjoyment of the work I was getting to do with my time freed up from some of the administrative work, which I don’t enjoy. But that doesn’t mean my team members that I hired to do that work, they love it. They love having that, that’s why I hired them and I have to remind myself of that. They get a ton of satisfaction and joy from their work and they also know they’re invested in the success of the business because we have a clear vision, we know where we want to head. They know that that requires for me to be able to have time and a white space to think about that and dedicate creative energy towards it. It’s not a linear process, it’s not something that I can necessarily time block all the time. They appreciate that and we’re all a team and so we all support each other. That has taken some time to grow into and it was worth the effort.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think that’s for me at least a relatable concept. This idea of, it’s almost like if I’m enjoying something too much, then it’s probably not work. And if it’s not work, then I’m not contributing and who knows why that exists within our mind? But I think it does, it’s there. So much, I think, of development as a leader or a business owner or even as a high value contributing team member is self-awareness and starting to understand yourself, communicating and communicating well with your team. Those are all new skills that we have to develop along the way. None of us are coming to the table with those, so we’re having to figure that out as we go.
Tessa Arias: Oh, totally. My entrepreneur friends and I always talk about how entrepreneurship and business ownership is the most unexpected course in personal self-development. It requires you, “Oh, this person’s doing this,” and then my comments and it’s triggering me and I have to figure out what that is. What’s that bringing up for me? It forces you to confront a lot of things and to up level your communication and examine your emotional reactions to things in a way that I don’t think would maybe come up quite as much as it does in entrepreneurship.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. What does the makeup of your team look like? You’ve mentioned a couple different team members and what does that look like?
Tessa Arias: Yeah, right now I have four full-time team members. My first that I ever hired, Hailey came on when she was 18, fresh out of high school as an intern. She worked with me for a summer and she actually moved up as a contractor. Then in 2020, I was able to hire her full-time. I had always wanted to, but it wasn’t until the success of my self-published cookbook launch where we sold out so quickly that I was like, “All right, I’ve been telling you I’ve been wanting to hire you. Now’s the time, please help.” She was my first hire and her current role is as brand manager. While she was working for me in a contractor position, she actually went to school for graphic design. So she does a lot of that work for the business and she has a strong social media skillset. Those are the two roles that she manages. She’s been wearing a project manager hat, as well. So eventually I’d love to hire a project manager or an operations manager or something to help with the day-to-day.
Tessa Arias: But we also have Emily, who’s my community manager. She initially started part-time, quickly realized within about two months that it was a full-time position, so she moved on up last year. She started by taking over the support emails for our product offerings and then responding to blog comments and social media comments, which was a big learning curve for both of us of how to outsource and delegate that. The trick I realized is for her to test recipes before we publish them and only provide feedback for me.
Bjork Ostrom: Sure, so she has familiarity with them.
Tessa Arias: Exactly, and she actually helps now to write the blog post because she knows people are asking questions on or what people tend to have confusion about, which has been amazing because it’s not that responding to comments always takes a ton of time. It’s more that it’s a huge mental exhaustion for me at least. It sucks a lot of energy for me. She got promoted to community manager and with that we hired Kirsten who is an admin now, and she’s working on what Emily was doing on more of the day-to-day administrative work, managing communications. She’s responding to some comments now as well and just helping with the back-end organization of things. Then we also have Audrey currently, who’s my culinary manager. She’s a former pastry chef. She’s been helping to retest all the old recipes that had hideous photography so we can re-shoot them.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s great. Any advice for people who are looking to hire or work with their first team member?
Tessa Arias: Yeah, I would say similar to everything else we’ve talked about today is start small. Unless you maybe have a corporate background managing people or a previous role in leadership, it’s a huge learning curve. It’s a skill set I don’t think anyone is born with necessarily. There’s some of us who pick it up more easily than others. But I would say start tracking your time. It’s such a pain in the butt, but start looking at where you’re spending your time, because it’s really hard to lie to yourself when you’re looking at a spreadsheet of all the time you’ve been spending in responding to blog comments or emails or whatever it might be. Start to highlight all the time that you’ve spent on things you don’t want to be doing. This idea actually comes from the program Run Like Clockwork, which was the program I took to learn some of these skills. But-
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, I have a friend who did that. Michael-
Tessa Arias: Mike Michalowicz?
Bjork Ostrom: Michalowicz, yeah.
Tessa Arias: Yeah, he’s amazing. Amazing author of tons of incredible books. But the program basically instructs you, don’t just hire somebody because you think it’s going to sound good. Like, “Oh, social media manager,” or, “Oh, whatever.” You have to have the data to support it because that time tracking is not only going to allow you to see what kinds of tasks you’re going to want to transfer to that person, but how much time it takes you. You double that because you’ve been doing it for a long time, most likely or you know exactly how it’s done because you’ve created the process. It’s going to take somebody else longer at the start. Then you have a rough job description and how many hours it’ll take. You can look and see, all right, what’s going great for something like this? Facebook groups can be a great place to figure that out and start to write a job description.
Tessa Arias: But I think the number one thing is before you’ve gotten that far, before you’ve even started to think about hiring somebody, is to capture all the processes for those things that you know you might want to delegate. It takes the initial time investment of looking to hire somebody, it cuts it by half. If you’ve already got, okay, this is how I schedule a pin, this is how I respond to this comment, this is how I would answer this kind of email, whatever the thing is that you might want to delegate to somebody, having either a written process or we really to use Loom, which allows you to record the screen of your computer so that you have all of that documented for that person to come on and hit the ground running basically. Where you’ve got their training materials already, you are not having to do it as they’re on the job basically, which I’ve found just makes it much more streamlined.
Tessa Arias: Then I would say looking at success metrics, I think that’s what I’ve observed is really important is when you’re a small business, it can be difficult for people to know what success looks like in their role. Assigning some metrics or responsibilities to them and growing that over time.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s great. Three pieces to pull out from that, that I think are really helpful. One, time tracking. Tracking your time, and then looking back and saying, “What are the things that either I don’t want to be doing, or maybe I want to be doing them but I’m not that good at them.” Those being potential options for somebody to come in and backfill. I think the great piece that you talked about doubling that. If you’re able to do it in 10, it’s maybe a 20-hour position because you’ve been doing it for a while probably. Then making sure to document it. I think that’s so important. Loom is a great tool. If people haven’t used that before, be sure to check that out. But some type of SOP that people have that they’re able to use and apply right away.
Bjork Ostrom: I think the other piece that’s worth pointing out within that is starting small. You had talked about that before, but I think sometimes we feel like we need to be an expert when we get into something, but sometimes we forget it’s a new skill, which means we’re not going to be good at it, which means that we’re going to be starting at zero and we’re going to get better. The best way to get better at it is to start as early as possible. It’s like product development too. You get feedback to learn about it and the sooner you start, the better you’ll be a year from now, two years from now if you’re looking to continually improve and level up.
Bjork Ostrom: Then the last piece that I think was really great was metrics. Giving people something to say here’s a metric that’s valuable and impactful for the business, and here’s how you know if you’re doing that thing well and how you can track that. That’s great.
Bjork Ostrom: Tessa, I feel like there was five different things in here that we could do another hour-long podcast on, but we don’t have enough time, so we’ll have to schedule another time to chat some more. I think obviously, 13 years of doing something creates a wealth of knowledge, so really appreciate you coming on and sharing that. If people want to connect with you, Tessa, see what you’re up to, maybe check out one of the classes that you have or courses that you have, where’s the best place to do that?
Tessa Arias: Yeah, on handletheheat.com is the mothership, and if you wanted to check out any of my offerings and get some inspiration of maybe what you might like to create for yourself, the shop page has all of our current offerings, which is just in the main navigation. Then I’m probably most personally active over on Instagram, which is just @ Handle the Heat.
Bjork Ostrom: Cool. Tessa, thanks for coming on. Really appreciate it.
Tessa Arias: Thanks so much for having me.
Alexa Peduzzi: Hey there, it’s Alexa, and thanks for tuning into this episode of the Food Blogger Pro podcast. We hope you enjoyed this episode and we hope you got something out of it, some nice little nugget that you can take and apply to your own blog or business.
Alexa Peduzzi: I wanted to let you know that we actually have a free download. It’s a pdf all about monetization. One of the main reasons why people want to grow their food blogs, grow their online businesses, is to make an income, is to make money from doing what they love to do. We actually have this ebook, it’s 100% free to download. Speaking of monetization, it’s free. It talks you through 16 different ways that you can monetize a food blog. We’re very familiar with things like display ads or sponsored content or affiliate marketing. But there are so many other ways to monetize a food blog and in this ebook you’ll learn about 16 of those ways.
Alexa Peduzzi: It’s a great ebook, one of our favorites and one of our most popular and like I mentioned, it’s free for you to download. If you’re interested in downloading this ebook, you can go to foodbloggerpro.com/podcast-guide and you can just put in your name, your email address, and you will get that ebook for free. Again, that URL is foodbloggerpro.com/podcast-guide, and you can download it right there for free.
Alexa Peduzzi: All right, thanks for tuning in again. We will see you next time, next Tuesday and until then, make it a great week.