376: Organizing and Running Large-Scale Virtual Events for Creators with Stefani Pollack

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A person cooking in front of a laptop and the title of Stefani Pollack's episode on the Food Blogger Pro Podcast, 'Virtual Events.'

This episode is sponsored by Clariti.

Welcome to episode 376 of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork interviews Stefani Pollack from The Bake Fest about organizing and running virtual events.

Last week on the podcast, Bjork chatted with Yvette Marquez-Sharpnack from Muy Bueno in Part Two of our From Blogger to Cookbook Author series. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.

Organizing and Running Large-Scale Virtual Events

As food bloggers, we spend a lot of our time working by ourselves, and it can often feel isolating. So how can we connect with other bloggers and build relationships with brands we love?

Enter: The Bake Fest! This virtual event for bakers features online baking and business classes, product demos, and more, and it’s a great place to build those connections with other creators and companies. In today’s episode, we’re chatting with Stefani, the founder of The Bake Fest, all about why she decided to start running these virtual events, how they work, and more.

Her next event, The Bake Fest Holiday Edition, will be on Saturday, October 8, 2022, so be sure to check it out and get registered if you’re interested in attending!

A quote from Stefani Pollack's appearance on the Food Blogger Pro podcast that says, 'Knowing that you brought people together in a way that wasn't previously possible and just gave them this experience of community and connectedness and learning — I mean that's everything.'

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • How Stefani became a food blogger
  • Her best tips for growing on Instagram in 2022
  • How she helps creators grow their Instagram accounts
  • Why she decided to launch The Bake Fest
  • What to expect at The Bake Fest Holiday Edition
  • What tools and apps she uses to run The Bake Fest
  • How she promotes The Bake Fest and encourages signups
  • What lessons she has learned running virtual events


About This Week’s Sponsor

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

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

Sign up for Clariti today to receive:

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

You can learn more and sign up here.

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

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Transcript (click to expand):

Bjork Ostrom: This podcast is sponsored by Clariti. That is C-L-A-R-I-T-i.com. And Clariti is really the hub for you if you are a blogger or a publisher, if you have a website. It’s really the hub for you. The place for you that allows you to better organize your portfolio of content and it’s all in one place. So maybe you’ve been manually keeping track of your blog post in a spreadsheet or project management tool, or maybe you’re not sure if the optimizations you’re making, so you make changes, but you’re not sure if those are actually moving the needle. Or potentially, I know this is true for us in our team, you’re spending hours manually organizing what to update or keeping track of it in this massive spreadsheet, and it’s just overwhelming. Or maybe you’re just too overwhelmed to start. That’s why we built Clariti.

Bjork Ostrom: We wanted to have a tool that brought all of the most important things about publishing and blogging into one place. And right now that includes WordPress data, Google Analytics data, and Google Search Console data. And what we do is we bring that data in and we centralize it. So you can look at a specific piece of content and you can see all of the different components. Traffic. You can see information about keywords. And then you can see the information about that post itself. And there’s really two areas of Clariti. There’s the ability to filter and understand your content. We call that area Explore. So it’s a place for you to look holistically at your content and say, what does it look like? You can easily slice and dice and get a better understanding of it. And from there, you can create projects to improve your content.

Bjork Ostrom: And sometimes people say, “What do I do when I get in? What is the first thing that I should focus on?” And it’s a really powerful tool, but sometimes it’s helpful to give some simple examples. And I have actually five here. And I’ll talk through each one of these. And for anybody who does sign up for Clariti, you can try these out as your first ways to filter and create projects. So number one, inbound links, meaning are you having links to new pieces of content that you’re publishing from other old pieces of content? This is an area for Pinch of Yum that we could improve on. We just published a bunch of really awesome how two articles, and we need to go through old posts that reference those or that could reference those and include links that point to that new piece of content. Because right now we’re not linking to that new piece of content anywhere. And Clariti really quickly surfaces any pieces of content that don’t have inbound links from other places.

Bjork Ostrom: Number two, broken links. Sometimes we publish a piece of content and five years pass and there’s a link within that piece of content that’s now broken. It could be an internal link on your own site pointing somewhere that maybe you’ve changed the URL or removed a post, or it could be somewhere else. It could be an external link. You can easily look through broken links within Clariti and create projects to fix those up.

Bjork Ostrom: Number three, labeling your content. Now within WordPress, you can create a category and categories are usually going to be public places within your site that somebody can go and look through the different pieces of content in that category. But sometimes it’s helpful internally to label content. An example for Pinch of Yum is we’re labeling every piece of content that has step-by-step tutorials in it. You could also label sponsored content versus editorial content. So you could quickly go back and see, great, in this last year, how many pieces of sponsored content did I do? Or how many sponsored content articles do I have in general?

Bjork Ostrom: Number four, find a post that has a missing meta description. The meta description is an important piece to include because it’s a suggestion to Google for what they should show or what it should show when somebody searches for a keyword and it shows a result. Now, Google doesn’t always show that meta description, but it’s best practice to fill that out and sometimes we forget to do that. So you can look through all of your content and see any pieces of content that are missing a meta description.

Bjork Ostrom: And number five, find any content that has more than one H1. And H1 is a header. And best practice for H1s is you generally just want one of those, but sometimes we forget about that. We’re editing a project or editing a post, and we add an H1 and technically it should be an H2 or an H3. So with Clariti, you can quickly filter to see and say, hey, show me anything that has more than one, like two plus H1s. And you can create a project to say, go into these pieces of content and change those H1s to H2s or H3s. So those are just five examples of ways that you can quickly use Clariti and see value from it. If you’re interested in signing up and becoming a user, Clariti is offering podcast listeners 50% off their first month by going to clariti.com/food. That’s C-L-A-R-I-T-I.com/food to receive 50% off your first month of Clariti. Thank you to the Clariti team for sponsoring this podcast.

Bjork Ostrom: Hello, hello. This is The Food Blogger Pro Podcast. My name is Bjork. Today we were having a conversation with Stefani Pollack and she’s going to be talking about how back in the day, way back in the day, especially in the internet age, she built a site called Cupcake Project. There’s a great story behind why she started that and how she really got into the nitty-gritty details of building a site, found success with that, and eventually pivoted into an agency or evolved the number of businesses she had to also include an agency. So she was running two companies, Cupcake Project and an agency around Instagram and Instagram growth. And between the Cupcake Project and her business partner Scott, who has an Instagram account called GrillinFools, they have over 1.5 million followers. Cupcake Project itself has 912,000 followers, which is at the time of this recording, really incredible. So there’s a section where we talk about the start of Cupcake Project.

Bjork Ostrom: We also talk about her digital marketing agency focused on Instagram growth and what she’s seeing as successful ways to grow a following on Instagram right now, and some tips and tricks on what she’s seeing really working well. And then we’re going to talk about an online virtual event that she has called The Bake Fest. And she’s going to be talking about how she pulls that off, what it looks like, the tools they use to run the event. And we’re going to talk about ways that people could do something like this even if you don’t have a big following, and how to be strategic about business and business decisions and how to decouple the idea of a following from building a business. And that’s not always something that you need. So there’s a lot of different angles that we hit here in this podcast interview. All really interesting things, and I think there’ll definitely be some nuggets that you’ll get out of it and apply within your own business. So let’s go ahead and jump into the interview. Stefani, welcome to the podcast.

Stefani Pollack: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah .we’re going to be talking about your work with The Bake Fest, but before that, I want to hear a little bit about when you first started online. And it was before blogging and community building and online events were what they are now. They look very different. So take us back to that moment, that first blog post that you published.

Stefani Pollack: Sure. I started blogging, like you said, a really long time ago in 2007. And what it was was that I had some good friends who were talking to me about a wedding. Their wedding that was coming up. And they were talking about cupcakes and how expensive it was going to be for them to have these cupcakes at the wedding. And so I was like, “Well, I’ll Bake the cupcakes for you.” But I had never baked cupcakes a day in my life.

Bjork Ostrom: But you’re like, can’t be that hard, right?

Stefani Pollack: I’m like, these people are going to say no. So then they said yes. And I’m someone who takes things pretty seriously and so I was like, “I better get really good at baking cupcakes if I’m going to do this for someone’s wedding.” So I started baking cupcakes every week for nine months leading up to their wedding and let them sample all the different flavors. And then I started this blog, Cupcake Project, purely as a way for them to leave notes about which cupcakes they liked and didn’t like.

Bjork Ostrom: Oh, funny. That’s awesome.

Stefani Pollack: Yeah. That was the whole beginning of everything. And they were the only ones who were reading it. And my early comments were just this cupcake is an A on taste and an F on presentation. Things like that.

Bjork Ostrom: And that was in 2000-

Stefani Pollack: Seven.

Bjork Ostrom: Seven.

Stefani Pollack: Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: And so did you have an idea of, okay, the wedding’s going to happen and at that point I’m going to stop publishing these online? Was that the culmination of the Cupcake Project in your mind, or did you know that it was going to continue on and be its own thing?

Stefani Pollack: A few months into it I realized that it was going to be more than just their wedding. Once I saw people were starting to read it, I got really excited and I got really into it and I started trying to research how can I make this grow. Not necessarily to become my full-time business as it ended up becoming, but just to see how many people can I get to look at this and what can happen?

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. And so you have a few different things in the works now. So you started that and very quickly, what I’m sensing is that you’re somebody who once you dig into something, you’re really going to dig into it. So cupcakes, right? You just 100%. But then within that, the sub-project underneath that was like, “Oh, I’m publishing stuff online. I’m starting to get engagement. Let’s get really into that. How can I figure out how to do that well and grow that?” And from that, you’ve had success in multiple areas. You have almost a million followers for Cupcake Project on Instagram. You have the blog itself. But you also have two other areas. A digital marketing agency as well as a virtual event. So can you talk about in your online event community ecosystem what the different components of it are?

Stefani Pollack: Yeah, sure. So it all started with the blog and then it grew into the social media, like you mentioned. And then when my social media blew up my Instagram, when I had hundreds of thousands of followers, I started to get a lot of questions on how do you grow on social media. And so I teamed up with a fellow blogger in the grilling space. He’s @GrillinFools, Scott Thomas. He helped me to get to where I was. And so the two of us together started Build Digital Marketing. And what we did is we were offering classes on teaching people how to grow on social. And then that quickly changed because what happened was we were teaching people how to do it and then they weren’t doing what we told them and then they were complaining. And so we’re like, “We don’t have the time to do this. It’s frustrating.” And so what we started doing was just managing social media for people. We’re like, “We’ll take this off your hands. We’ll do it. We know you don’t have time to do it because you’re doing 500 other things.” And so we started doing social media management, specifically on Instagram.

Bjork Ostrom: What are you finding now that works well for growing an Instagram following?

Stefani Pollack: Now it’s all reels. I mean all reels all the time. It’s video. You just have to do video. And what’s different now, which is so different from when we started, when we started it was a lot of repurposing viral content and that was what was working super well. And now it’s original content that does so much better than viral content and video and stuff that isn’t overly produced. It’s just natural.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. It’s interesting to contrast that against what I think a lot of people have as a vision of Instagram, which is a really polished, almost perfect photo that you’re publishing. This is … I don’t know. Six, seven years ago. You would know better than I would. But it also feels like there’s a little bit of a hangover of that. It’s almost like I would imagine if it’s a high school friend that you haven’t seen for eight years and you come back to it and you’re like, “Wait. You’ve totally changed. You’re not the same person that I knew in high school.” For better or for worse. I think it depends on who you ask. Feels like Instagram’s very similar where if you haven’t been in it, your idea of it was what it was five years ago, you’d come back and you’d be like, oh my gosh, this is a completely different platform. So within reels, you said original content, meaning you as the creator or whatever your creative looks like are going in and you’re creating a reel and you’re not trying to find another viral piece of content or some meme that you’re repurposing. You’re just going and authentically, genuinely recording you and then maybe doing a little bit of editing, keeping it tight, and then publishing it as a reel. Is that essentially what you’re saying?

Stefani Pollack: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. When I said original content though, I meant as opposed to being a curator.

Bjork Ostrom: Got it. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Stefani Pollack: I think curation was really working for people and now it’s let’s come up with something and it doesn’t have to be … Yeah. It just can be really, really simple and raw and that’s it. That’s what does well.

Bjork Ostrom: So if it’s simple and raw, what is the thing that’s attracting people to it in your opinion?

Stefani Pollack: I think it’s real. I think real reels. Things that are relatable, right? So anything that somebody can look at and say, “Oh yeah, I can do that,” or, “Oh yeah, I’ve experienced this.” That’s going to win people over.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Do you find that with the clients that you work with, it’s a hard transition if they’ve had success in a previous version of Instagram or do you feel like people are pretty nimble and willing to make the change?

Stefani Pollack: I think it’s a very hard transition because a lot of brands don’t have the wherewithal, the ability, the budget to be creating content. So all of that. So getting brands on board to the content creation piece of it is tough.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. That makes sense. Well one more question on the agency side of things. So builddigitalmarketing.com. What does that look like for you in terms of an ideal client? Because I’m sure a lot of people listening to this would be like, that sounds really, really great to have somebody helping me think strategically about growing my Instagram account. Would you have somebody you’d say like, hey, ideally here’s what we’re looking for for somebody who might work with us?

Stefani Pollack: Yeah, I think it has to be somebody who has already established themselves in some degree. We work with a lot of small businesses, is our main clients that we work with. But it’s got to be somebody who’s willing to be flexible, willing to either give us content that they’ve created and let us finesse that content and work with it or willing to turn things over and say, “Okay. You run with this and you create the content for us.”

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Cool. So on a day-to-day basis … Well that was Build Digital Marketing. So Instagram focus, and you have the Cupcake Project. And then you also have the Bake Fest. Can you talk a little bit about that? We’re going to dive a little bit deeper onto that in a little bit.

Stefani Pollack: Yeah. So the Bake Fest grew out of the pandemic. So what was happening in the pandemic specifically … All throughout, everyone, but the baking community that I was dealing with is that nobody’s getting together. And there were normally a lot of different baking shows, baking events that were happening throughout the year where bakers could meet up with brands, could meet with each other, could get inspiration, learn new techniques, tips and tricks, all of this stuff and that just wasn’t happening. So I got together in an Instagram chat with a bunch of my Instagram baking friends and we’re like, “What can we do? How can we do something to bring everyone together?” And my friend Darren Fox actually had this idea. He was like, “Let’s have a virtual event.” And so him and I teamed up and created The Bake Fest. And The Bake Fest is a virtual event for bakers at all skill levels and along all topics. So a lot of baking events are just for cakers or just for cookiers. They’re very specific if you’re in that world. But this is beginners to advanced level and it’s hands on baking classes. And then it’s also baking business classes. So people who want to grow a baking business can take classes there. And then there’s opportunities to network and opportunities to meet brands and all of that good stuff.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. It’s almost like … My father-in-law’s a doctor and he has these continuing education courses or classes that he has to take and sometimes they’re in these great locations and you’re able to travel and go there. But I think they also do digital versions of it. And I think a lot about that for our space. We don’t have any requirements necessarily if you’re publishing content online. But I think the idea should still apply around continuing education. How are you continuing to evolve your craft, get better at it, make sure that you understand it? And it sounds like that’s what this is, where it’s not only baking-related content, but also here’s classes and content for you if you’re in the business of baking. It’s both of those things.

Stefani Pollack: Exactly. Exactly. It’s business and the baking classes together. So we didn’t know actually who our audience would be when we first started. We just threw the idea out there and it ended up that 60-something percent of people that attend our events are small business owners in one respect or another.

Bjork Ostrom: So for you personally, you have these three different areas of focus that you’ve described, three different businesses. How do you split your time between those? What does that look like for you to load balance in a day between … Because with any single one of them, I would assume you could spend a lot of time on it.

Stefani Pollack: Yeah. It’s really tricky. And I’m not going to say that I’m the best at it. I’m someone that goes whole hog in whatever, one thing at a time. So I would say that I spend probably 75, 80% of my time on Bake Fest right now because it’s the baby. It needs the most attention. It’s the one that I’m growing. The Build Digital Marketing runs itself. I have a great team, so I work with my team and make sure everyone’s on task, onboard new clients, things like that. But it doesn’t require that much effort. And Cupcake Project is there. It’s earning passive income from the ads that are on there, but it’s not a top priority. It’s a money maker, but it’s not something I have to spend a lot of time on.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. And what is that like for you as a creator but also as a business owner? Because I think anybody listening to this would look at what you have going with the Cupcake Project where you have years of experience, you have almost a million followers and I think that would be so desirable for people. And they’d say, “I would just spend all of my time trying to build and grow that thing.” And you probably could spend all your time building and growing it. And I can relate with this too, as I personally or collectively with another person, have ideas that want to pursue. And part of it is strategic decisions around business, but a huge part of it is where are you being pulled as a creative and where is your energy going? So what does that decision-making process look like for you when you have a really good thing and then you also have a good idea and you know that that good idea could be great and you also have a good thing. And how do you balance between the decision-making of which one do you focus on?

Stefani Pollack: Oh, it’s a great question. And I think you nailed it. I think for me, it’s where I’m going to derive the most pleasure. I learn the most new things from. For me, just learning is what motivates me. Learning and trying new things and making them work. So I think that by running this virtual event, it’s just so exciting to me. It’s something completely new. I love community building and this really is an opportunity to do that. So it’s really what drives me more than anything else right now.

Bjork Ostrom: Learning is acquiring a new skill. They talk about the idea of being in … I think they call it flow. A state of flow. Does that sound right? The guy that … He has a really long last name and I can never pronounce it right. Holly … Oh, I’m not even going to attempt. But he does a lot of research around flow. And it’s this idea of when you’re doing work where time passes quicker than it usually does. And I think of myself in high school. I took a photography class and we had a dark room, which feels like I grew up in 1920.

Stefani Pollack: So long ago.

Bjork Ostrom: It just seems like it was so long ago and in a lot of ways it was. But I just remember going in and developing photos and feeling this state of flow where you lose track of time. Could come out and it feels like I was in there for 20 minutes and I was maybe in there for two hours. But just how great it is when you’re doing work that feels like that. Where it engulfs you and you get lost in it. And I think it’s inspiring for me to hear you talk about that because as creators and business owners, part of the decision making is business decision optimization, but a huge part of it is optimization around the work that you’re doing and finding work that is the best fit for you on a day to day basis. And it sounds like in a lot of ways you’ve done that with The Bake Fest. So when was the first event? Sounds like Covid pandemic was the launching point for it.

Stefani Pollack: Yeah. So our first event was May of 2021 and we did one May of 2022 and now we have our third event coming up on October 8th.

Bjork Ostrom: Got it. So talk about that. Let’s talk about it first from an attendee perspective. So I’m somebody who’s going to attend this, what can I expect? And then let’s talk about it from a behind-the-scenes perspective. How do you actually pull it off? So for somebody who’s interested in attending, what can they expect and what does the logistics of a virtual event look like?

Stefani Pollack: Sure. I think a lot of people expect one of two things when they go to a virtual event. They think it’s either going to be just a Zoom meeting because that’s what they’re used to, or a lot of people do virtual events in Facebook groups. So people are expecting a Facebook situation. But ours is nothing like that. It’s very immersive. What happens with our event is when you log in, it’s a single login and you see a splash screen that shows you everything that’s happening throughout the event. And we have four classes that go on at the same time, so you can pick which one you want to attend, and you don’t need to decide in advance. So you just show up and if you don’t like it, you can pop into another class. Whatever you like.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s like a conference where they’ll have sessions. You have four different rooms.

Stefani Pollack: Exactly.

Bjork Ostrom: You might sit in on one for a little bit and then decide, hey, I’m going to go to a different one.

Stefani Pollack: Yeah. And you can even hang out in the hallway just like you would at a conference, because we have little networking tables that pop up with video chat. So you can hang out there and be at the video chat and talk to people there if you’d like. So whatever you want. And then we have a virtual marketplace, which is basically the vendor booths that you would see if you went to a live event, right?

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Stefani Pollack: So they’re literally pictures of tables with little chairs around them and then you can see from the chairs how many people are at each table. And then when you click on it, it opens up and you can talk to the vendor, ask questions, get to know them, and then we have shopping discounts from everyone that’s participating. So it’s a great place to do some holiday shopping.

Bjork Ostrom: Cool. That’s awesome. So an example of a vendor, can you talk a little bit about what that would look like? So that’s somebody from a company. And you can maybe … If there’s certain vendors that you work with. Sitting at their computer, but when you log in, it looks like they’re at a table and you can go and click and then you just be in a … Is it Zoom? A Zoom conversation with that vendor?

Stefani Pollack: Yeah. It’s like Zoom. It’s like a video chat and there could be up to 10 people in there with you. So all asking questions, interacting. So for example, Bob’s Red Mill is the sponsor, so they’ll be there and it’ll pop up and you can talk to someone from Bob’s Red Mill if you have a question about your gluten-free baking or whatever. You can ask them some questions.

Bjork Ostrom: Cool. Oh, that’s great. In the classes, you said focus on baking or the art and skill side of baking, but also the business of running brick and mortar, online, all of the above. How wide is the business side of things?

Stefani Pollack: Our holiday event on October 8th, we have seven classes. So in our big events in May, we had 40 classes so we were able to cover a lot more topics. This one we do have quite a bit on holiday baking. So we’ve got amazing cookie decorators showing cookie decorating and cake decorating. And then we have some easy holiday recipes if you want just some simple, great, perfect basics. And then we have business classes like how do you raise your prices? Supplies are more expensive now. Can you raise your prices? And how do you market on social media and grow your business? So all that kind of stuff as well.

Bjork Ostrom: How do you do the virtual side of the baking classes? Is it somebody who’s in their kitchen and has multiple cameras?

Stefani Pollack: Yeah. So they have two cameras. So you can have a closeup on the food and you have their face. And then we send all the materials in advance so that participants can print out and buy the stuff that they want if they’re going to participate live. And a chunk of our students do participate live. And what’s cool is that with the technology we’re using, we can bring them up onto the screen. So if they want to show what they’re doing to ask a question, they can show the instructor, write what they’re working on. But if they don’t want to watch live, then they can do it with the recording after the fact.

Bjork Ostrom: Cool. Is there a producer person on site doing the camera switching? It’s a really detailed question, but I’m curious how that works.

Stefani Pollack: No. We don’t have a producer person. We just have two cameras going the whole time.

Bjork Ostrom: Oh, I see. That makes sense now. Going the whole time. So you can see. So it’s not like somebody switching back and forth.

Stefani Pollack: Yeah. Now what we do have … I mean if you’re getting technical about things, we do have hosts for each class and they’re actually actors and they’re amazing. And so they keep the class moving, keep it fun, and they are the ones that are managing the comments and stuff for our speakers that they don’t have to read the comments and everything like that.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s almost like at a typical conference you’d have an MC, but it’s like that person just the whole time. So they’re doing commentary. I would guess it’s for the baking-specific ones, not necessarily the business ones or even for the business classes?

Stefani Pollack: For all of them. They’re there because we don’t want … When you do an Instagram live or something and the person is staring at the screen trying to read the comments the whole time we don’t want them to have to do that. So that’s what our hosts do is they handle the comments and bring people on the stage to ask questions.

Bjork Ostrom: Cool. That’s great. So let’s talk about the behind-the-scenes stuff. How do you do all this? Is there a platform that you can use for virtual events?

Stefani Pollack: There are a lot of different platforms actually. There were so many that came out during the pandemic. So we ended up going with Airmeet, which we’re really happy with. It’s a great platform. We were lucky … I don’t know if listeners have heard of AppSumo, but AppSumo has these amazing deals for entrepreneurs. And so we got a great deal from AppSumo on Airmeet. So that’s a platform that we use.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome. Yeah. AppSumo is great for these mega discounts on a platform. A lot of times it’s lifetime deal and if you can find one for a platform you’re interested in, it’s usually great to cash in on those. So Airmeet, does it do everything? It processes the payments, it lines up the attendees, it allows you to email? Is it everything in one?

Stefani Pollack: When we first got Airmeet, it didn’t have the ability for someone to purchase a ticket through Airmeet. They’ve since added that but it doesn’t do everything we want it to do. So there’s so many different tech pieces that have to be done to make the conference work that we just keep coming up with. Luckily my husband’s a programmer so he can help with all this stuff, but we use Eventbrite for ticket sales, we use Mailchimp for email, and then we have a bunch of zaps and zaps just connect everything together so that it all can work.

Bjork Ostrom: Can you talk about what Zapier is at a high level? Not that you’re necessarily the one hooking those up, but maybe you are. But how does that work and why is it helpful in a situation like this?

Stefani Pollack: Zapier is this … I don’t quite know how to describe it. Basically what it does is it connects a bunch of pieces of software together. So we use it in a bunch of different ways. So let’s say you buy your ticket on Eventbrite, then Zapier will do … It puts your information into a spreadsheet for us. Then it puts your information into Mailchimp so that you’re on our mailing list and it tags you with somebody who’s purchased a ticket. Then it connects to Airmeet. So Airmeet knows you have a ticket, so you can have an Airmeet login so that you can get to the event. So it just connects everything together to make it run smoothly.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it’s really incredible when you start to get into it, all the different things that can happen where even email, you could … If you have an email, you could forward it to Zapier or Zapier could look to see if it comes in and that can pull information and bring it into Slack or whatever it might be. So it’s a really powerful tool. And then how about on the marketing side? Where are you finding people to sign up for this? Is it through Cupcake Project? Are you working with other influencers to promote it? And then the other piece that I’m curious about is how do you know how to price an event like this?

Stefani Pollack: Those are two really good questions. The first question about how we get people to come. So interestingly, my audience at Cupcake Project, even though it’s really large, I’ve had a very difficult time converting these people into coming to Bake Fest. Because like I said, a lot of my people that come to Bake Fest are small business owners. And the Cupcake Project people, I think are largely home bakers. And they could learn a lot at Bake Fest, but I think they’re just not seeing it as something they want to invest in. So they’re not my biggest audience, interestingly. What we do is that the people who are speaking, we kind of treat as influencers. We pick people that are really high profile, that have huge audiences, and we give them commission on sales or pay them extra to sell. And so that ends up working really well. So most of our attendees do come through our speakers and through our brands that are partnering with us telling us about it. And also just media exposure like you’re doing here.

Bjork Ostrom: Podcasts.

Stefani Pollack: Podcasts.

Bjork Ostrom: One of the things that I love about that is I think it’s a good reminder, you’re unique in that you have both a really large audience through Cupcake Project, you also have experience with an agency in building that, and then you’ve also built this event. But one of the things that I think is worth pointing out is for people who … I think sometimes people get locked in this mindset of I need to have a big following in order to create a thing online. And it’s a good reminder that there’s a lot of creative ways that you can build a successful business without first needing to build an audience. I think it’s much easier if you build an audience first and then use the following of that audience to promote something. But the point about specifically working with people with a preexisting audience and finding a way to align incentives with them to say, “Hey, if you …”

Bjork Ostrom: Whether it’s a more traditional affiliate relationship. “If you refer somebody, you get a certain percentage of the signup for this.” Or not that you’re doing this, but you could do sponsored content. You could pay somebody and say like, “Hey, if you talk about the event, we’ll pay you.” And see if there’s a return on that. So when you’re doing that, are you doing it in a traditional affiliate way where you say, “Hey, you can get a percentage of this.” Maybe depends on person to person or company to company. And if so, how do you manage that? Is that through Eventbrite? Do they have the ability to do affiliate referrals or do you have to set up another Zapier?

Stefani Pollack: So that was kind of a nightmare to set up, but we did do that for our last event. We gave a commission to the speakers and it is not built into Eventbrite. So it all had to be just custom coded, basically. Yeah. There’s zaps involved. I mean, we can give people special links and then zap it and make it all work, but it’s not straightforward is what we found.

Bjork Ostrom: And I think it’s true for so many things where you look at it and you’re like, “Hey, this is …” Even my guess is this event in itself where you have this idea and the idea is at a really high level, if you’re up 50,000 feet, you’re like, “I think this is a relatively simple idea. We want to get people together in a virtual way and do classes.” And then as you start to zoom in, and I think this is true for really almost any business, you get to 25,000 feet, then you’re like, “Okay, so we’re going to need to email attendees and we’re going to need to process payments and they’ll probably have to have a login.” And then you zoom in again and then you’re like, “And we want to have influencers and people speaking promote it.” And you keep zooming in and by the time that you get all the way down, you realize there’s all of these different elements and components.

Bjork Ostrom: And it reminds me a lot of, there’s a book called … I think I have it in here. Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon. And he has this little … We can link to it in the podcast, but it’s called The Life of a Project. And Lindsay and I often talk about it and it’s essentially a little … I’ll try and describe it. It’s essentially a little graph and it starts up at the top and it’s like, this is the best idea ever. And then as it goes on in time, it sequentially just goes down and it’s like, actually this is harder than I thought. This isn’t very fun. And then there’s the bottom dot is the dark night of the soul. And then it starts to come out a little bit and then it’s like, that’s not as bad as I thought it would be. And that actually went okay. But it’s this idea of you start out at this really high point and then when you get into it, when you get down to the details of it, it’s actually really hard. Do you feel like that applied in this scenario or did your business experience previously set you up to know that stuff is complicated?

Stefani Pollack: Oh no, it was 100% like that. I mean, with our first events, the week before we were doing dry runs, which is very important by the way if you’re going to do any kind of virtual event. And we got there and our two camera solution just didn’t work. I mean, it was just a nightmare. Didn’t work at all. The speakers were complaining, nothing was working right. And literally a week before the event we’re like, “What are we going to do for our speakers?” We had to redo everything. I mean, there’s just so many things that can go wrong. Even things with contracts. That’s so important with an event like this.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that’s a great detail level thing. Yeah.

Stefani Pollack: Yeah. And there were little things with contracts we hadn’t considered that we had to put in there that were difficult. And there’s just a lot.

Bjork Ostrom: So I found it here. I’ll send it to you and read it for people listening. The life of a project. These are the different stages. So it starts at the top, this is the best idea ever. And then it goes, okay, this is harder than I thought. And then it goes, this is going to take some work. And then this sucks and it’s boring. Then it’s dark night of the soul at the very bottom. And then it comes out a little bit and says, “It’ll be good to finish because I’ll learn something for next time.” And then the next dot, as it kind of comes back up is it’s done and it sucks and not as bad as I thought. Which I think hopefully what happens is you continue up on that and you get to a point where you’re actually really proud of the thing that you’ve built. But I think it’s good to just acknowledge for anybody starting a thing that it’s hard and it gets really hard as you get into it. For you, what is it that keeps you pushing through that? Because it has to be something deeper. There has to be some meaning behind it. And even on your Bake Fest shirt, I see Dreamer, Baker, Difference Maker. There’s something there. So can you talk a little bit about what that is for you?

Stefani Pollack: Yeah. I think what happens for me is that when the event starts, everybody’s in one room together and the chat starts flowing and people start talking about how excited they are to be there and how much it means to them. And that gets me going. And then after the event, you wouldn’t believe, I get emails from people who talk about how they were in a depression and then they came to the Bake Fest and this literally changed for them. They got so inspired and they’re ready to try something new and those two days that we were together, they didn’t want it to end. And so just emails like that and knowing that you brought people together in a way that wasn’t previously possible and just gave them this experience of community and connectedness and learning that, I mean, that’s everything.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. In the work that we do, there’s all sorts of types of income and I think sometimes we focus a lot on, just because it’s so tangible, financial income. But there’s also emotional income, relational income, difference-making income. And I think it’s important that we stay in tune with those things because a lot of times that fuel can be what really gets us through something. Like if it’s just financial, I think when you come against those roadblocks, unless you’re somebody who has a strong drive because of something in your life potentially that that’s financially related, I think eventually you’ll get to a point where that won’t be a motivator in the same way and then you’ll have to fall back on the things that are those other types of income or just mix those in as a consideration within it.

Bjork Ostrom: So the Bake Fest, it now takes up 80% of your time and that’s a primary focus for you. What do you envision it being going forward? Do you envision it being something that you continue to spend more time on, doing more events every year? Or will it kind of be the agency where you’re able to get it to a point where it’s established and it’s running, you can build a team around it and then look for the next thing that’s inspiring and interesting for you?

Stefani Pollack: Yeah, I hope so. I hope that I can grow it to a point where I can more fully pass it off. I’m building a great team now. I have some really great people working for me. But it’s definitely nowhere near the point where I could hand it off. But that would be cool if I could. I think it’s a learning experience. Each event, I’m like, “Okay, what worked? What didn’t work? What are we going to tweak? And how can we make the next one better?”

Bjork Ostrom: When you did that debrief over the last couple times, what are some of the things that worked really well and then what are some of the things that you looked at and you’re like, “Oh, that didn’t work really well.”? Other than the cameras that first time.

Stefani Pollack: I think what worked really well were the longer form hands-on classes. At our first event, we had done a mix of shorter demo style classes and then longer hands-on classes. And on our surveys afterwards … Which surveys are so important. So on our survey afterwards, people all felt the demos were too short and just didn’t get enough out of it. So we went to all classes at least an hour long where you’re really digging in. So that was something that we learned and we’ve integrated and it’s been great. Something that did not work well was with the way we were using our sponsors. So with our sponsors and a lot of these online platforms and Airmeet has this, there’s an area specifically for sponsored booths. And we had set up these sponsored booths for our sponsors. And what we found was that they didn’t even really want to be there. They weren’t interested in being. They just wanted to have kind of an ad.

Bjork Ostrom: Interesting.

Stefani Pollack: And it really didn’t work well for the sponsors or the attendees. The attendees are like, “Why am I going to this booth?” And the sponsors are like, “I didn’t get that much out of it.” So we’ve totally revamped how we work with our sponsors and that’s been a great thing.

Bjork Ostrom: So that was the virtual booth that you were talking about before? Or is that different than the table?

Stefani Pollack: So that’s different. So what we had is it was literally almost a banner ad with a bunch of links on it that was within the event. Now we have these tables where they’re all on the same page, so it’s not like you’re … I don’t know. You’re just going to different little banner ads. But now it’s like there’s a bunch of tables and every brand that participates in our event is required to be at the event. It’s not like, if you want to come, come. We’ll put you up anyway. No. You have to be there. You have to interact with our attendees and that’s-

Bjork Ostrom: Is there a window? They have to be there for an hour at this time or are they literally there for six hours?

Stefani Pollack: It’s just two hours. They have to be there for two hours.

Bjork Ostrom: So it’s kind of a drop in meeting that they’re around, people can ask questions, there can be networking, connect with people.

Stefani Pollack: Mm-hmm.

Bjork Ostrom: Okay, cool.

Stefani Pollack: Exactly.

Bjork Ostrom: Do you know the history with Airmeet? Did that also come out of the pandemic or did that exist previously?

Stefani Pollack: It was really new when we started using it so I’m assuming it came from the pandemic.

Bjork Ostrom: How about this? For people who are like, “Hey, virtual event, that kind of sounds cool.”, anything that you’d say it is cool, but here’s some of the things that you didn’t know about running a virtual event that are actually really difficult?

Stefani Pollack: Yeah, I mean I think that it is cool. It’s great. I think everything about it is difficult. I think that you just need to realize that it’s a lot more time consuming than you initially think going into it. I did not expect to be spending 80% of my time on this, but there’s literally something to do with it constantly. If you’re going to have sponsored, between speakers and managing speakers and managing sponsors and marketing it. I think just keep in mind that it’s not a little side thing to take on. It’s a major project.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s a ton of work. Would you ever do in-person events?

Stefani Pollack: Yes. And I actually have. I ran a conference called Food Media Forum here in St. Louis where I lived years ago and it was a blast. I love that too. So I would definitely consider doing an in-person event. But what was interesting is that from our surveying, our attendee base all voted that they would prefer to keep them online. I think that they really like being able to do it at home, being able to watch the recordings. The fact that we can keep the price low. It makes a big difference. So we might do some satellite events in different areas at some point, but right now we’re sticking with online.

Bjork Ostrom: What was the reason for winding down the in person conference?

Stefani Pollack: It was attendance, was the reason it was hard. And I don’t know if it was because it was in St. Louis or what, but yeah, we had trouble selling enough tickets.

Bjork Ostrom: And what’s interesting is it seems like not an issue now online, which makes sense when you switch to something that’s online, suddenly it’s not just people who are willing to or able to fly to St. Louis or drive, but it could be people all around the world. Essentially, anybody who could access the internet, could be somebody who could be a part of the conference. Do you find that attendees are global or is it mostly certain areas?

Stefani Pollack: My former business partner, Darren, he lives in the UK. And so we had sort of tried to cater to that UK market a little bit. The problem with the internationalness of it is time zone.

Bjork Ostrom: Time zone. Sure.

Stefani Pollack: Yeah. I mean it works and people do come from all over the world, but the majority are in the US simply because of the time zone. Because we have people coming from Australia and they have to be up at 3:00 AM if they want to participate in it.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that makes sense. So I think to go back to the idea … And a couple of the things here that I want to point out with your story, your entrepreneurial journey that is inspiring to see is number one, I think continuing to pursue the thing that is drawing you and I think in Big Magic I think was the book, she talks about this idea of the muse. And the muse is this thing that visits us. But if you don’t move on it, eventually it goes to the next person and the idea kind of leaves and it feels like this is an example of that or the Bake Fest is an example. There’s a window that you’d be able to do that. You took action on it, you moved forward, you were able to build this thing that didn’t exist and now potentially thousands of people are impacted by it.

Bjork Ostrom: So this idea of being able to continually evolve, really appreciate. The other thing that I think is important to point out is just this idea of it’s hard. And we have some friends that we’re talking to that are thinking about starting a business in the wedding industry and I feel like a little bit of a downer whenever I interact with them, but I’m like, “This is awesome. I love the idea. Also, it’s going to be hard.” I feel like that’s a through line that that comes up. And I try not to be too much of a downer, but just this reminder of the life of the project idea. But if you were to go back and talk to yourself, knowing what now about being an entrepreneur, building businesses, building a following online, what would you tell yourself as inspiration or insider information to put in your back pocket moving forward?

Stefani Pollack: So going way back, I made some major mistakes with my blog and that I would definitely-

Bjork Ostrom: You and everybody else. Right.

Stefani Pollack: I know. So then that’s the main thing. If I had known. One thing that when you talk about following your passion and just going with what you want to do, after a bunch of years on the blog, I got tired of cupcakes. I was like, I cannot make another cupcake. And I switched my blog and I started putting all this stuff that wasn’t cupcakes on my blog and that was the beginning of the downfall of Cupcake Project. It was like Google loved me as this cupcake expert. So if I had done things, looking back, I would’ve kept Cupcake Project where it was and then started something new at that time when I was looking for something new.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it’s interesting. That goes back to that business versus creative poll decision. And I think everybody listening to this, especially everybody within a certain niche can relate and be like, “Oh my gosh, yes.” After however long you are focusing on this thing, you’re like, I need to do something else. And what you said that I think is interesting within that is not to say no to that, but potentially to look at ways to approach that without it being within this certain brand. You could do that, but maybe do it somewhere else. Because the value of a niche and an extreme focus is significant. It’s just cupcakes. That’s what it is. It’s the name. But it also is hard then because you’re like, “Wait. I have all this momentum. I don’t want to start from zero with a new thing.” But I think it’s wise and insightful. Anything else that you would include if you have that conversation with yourself?

Stefani Pollack: So what else? I think hiring out earlier on. I think probably a lot of people talk about that. Finding the things that you’re not good at and getting other people to do them. Or even if you are good at, having other people do them to free up your time to spend on the next thing is huge. And I think that’s a lesson I’m still trying to learn. I still tend to do things myself when I think even though it costs money, I think just spending the money so that I have time to do other things is a big lesson.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. It’s almost like resources. Resources could be time, it could be money, it could be your brain space and you’re always spending that and it’s just a decision of do you want to not spend time and actually spend money or not spend money and spend time. And it’s hard to make those decisions and to know when that’s right. And especially to your point, when you’re good at it, it’s oftentimes easier to do that. So some great pieces of advice there. Wrapping up here at the end, the Bake Fest. I’m sure there are people who are listening who’d be like, “Hey, this is awesome. I want to not only check out this process, see what it’s like, but also learn whether it be baking related things or kind of the business side of things.” What’s the best way for folks to learn a little bit more? We’ll link in the show notes as well. And then sign up if they’re interested.

Stefani Pollack: So thebakefest.com is our website. We have all the information on there. And I didn’t mention it. You had asked me about pricing and our other events were priced at $150, but this holiday event is $15. So it’s a no brainer. To me, it’s such a cheap price that we’re hoping that people will want to come and check it out and be a part of it. So yeah, so we’re keeping the price as $15 as long as we can. It’s a limited time price, but it should still be when you guys watch it or listen.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that’s great. And like I said, we’ll link in the show notes. Otherwise people can just go to thebakefest.com. Stefani, so great to talk to you. Thanks so much for coming on the podcast.

Stefani Pollack: Thanks for having me.

Leslie Jeon: Hey, hey. Leslie here from the Food Blogger Pro team. We really hope that you enjoyed this episode of the podcast. Before we sign off, I wanted to quickly mention something really cool that all Food Blogger Pro members have access to. And that’s our tools and resources page. So if you’re logged into Food Blogger Pro, you can access this by going to the menu bar at the top and clicking on tools. And you’ll be taken to a page that has all of our different tools and downloadable resources that can help you stay organized and moving forward on your blogging goals. So just to give you a quick sneak peek at some of the downloadable resources we have, we have an SEO checklist for you, a social media checklist, a brand email template. So if you want to pitch yourself to brands for sponsored content, we have an email template that you can just use and customize for you and your blog.

Leslie Jeon: It’s so awesome. We also have a blog post checklist that you can use when writing your posts, an email marketing workbook, an image size checklist and more. There are just so many fantastic resources that you can download to your computer and just reference whenever you need them. And you always have access to these as a Food Blogger Pro member. So if you’re not a member yet and you want to join to get access to all of these right now, you can do so by going to foodbloggerpro.com/join and you’ll be able to learn more about our membership and join the community. That’s all we’ve got for you today though. Thanks again for tuning in. We hope you enjoyed this episode and until next time, make it a great week.

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