This episode is sponsored by Clariti.
Welcome to episode 422 of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork interviews Liz and Paul Madsen from Zardyplants.
Last week on the podcast, Bjork chatted with Cheryl Malik. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.
Why Success as a Food Blogger Isn’t Linear
Liz and Paul Madsen started Zardyplants in 2018 as a way to share their favorite plant-based comfort food recipes with readers. Over the last five years, they’ve worked together to grow the site (and Paul now works full-time for their business)!
Liz and Paul share more about the early days of Zardyplants, and how their processes and business have changed over the years. They have really practical advice about the importance of reinvesting in your business, being strategic around the types of recipes you create, and what to prioritize as a beginner blogger.
This is a particularly valuable episode for beginner bloggers but is also a great listen for any content creator trying to define what success looks like for you and your brand.
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- About the early stages of Zardyplants, and what it was like starting a blog as a couple.
- How they’ve balanced working full-time with the blog over the years.
- What the division of labor is like between Liz and Paul.
- The benefits of having a side hustle.
- How and why Liz and Paul have transitioned the type of recipes they’re creating over the years.
- How they approach keyword research.
- What growth on Instagram has looked like for Zardyplants.
- About their photography and videography equipment set-up.
- Why they chose to prioritize video as part of their growth strategy.
- Their history with, and strategy around, sponsored content.
- The importance of reinvesting in your business, and what they would recommend paying a premium for as a beginner.
- What advice they’d give to beginner bloggers.
- What success looks like
- Google AdSense
- Canon EOS 80D
- Aputure at B&H Photo Video
- Canon EOS R5 C Mirrorless Cinema Camera
- Adobe Premiere Pro
- Filmic Pro
- Jeremy Giffon
- Follow Zardyplants on Instagram and Facebook
- 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 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!
If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for interviews, be sure to email them to [email protected].
Transcript (click to expand):
Bjork Ostrom: This episode is sponsored by Clariti, C-L-A-R-I-T-I. And I kid you not, I was going to record this half an hour ago, but I was in Clariti and realized there’s an opportunity for Pinch of Yum that is a project we should move forward with. So I created a video, communicated it with the Pinch of Yum team and said, “Hey, we should move forward on this and really get to work cleaning this up.” In our case, what I had done is I said, “Hey, show me all of the posts in the past year on Pinch of Yum.” And then I sort ordered that in reverse order by page use. So I was looking at pages that on Pinch of Yum, in the last year, got zero page views. And I realized we have a lot of really thin, not valuable content and it’s important to clean that up.
In our case, we’re going to delete a lot of that content. And we should have done that a long time ago, but we just didn’t get around to it. And it wasn’t until I was using Clariti that I realized that that was something that we should have done. I was able to see that. It’s a lot of old giveaway posts and things like that. So we’re going to move forward with that and clean up Pinch of Yum. And that’s what Clariti is for. It’s to help you discover that actionable information to create a project around it, and either you can follow the project or you can assign it to somebody within your team and then track the impact that that has by making notes or seeing when you made those changes over time.
We bring all the information in from WordPress, Google Search Console and Google Analytics. You hook it all up and then you can sort order and use Clariti, kind of like a Swiss Army knife for your content. So if you’re interested in checking it out, go to Clariti.com/food, Clariti.com/food, and that will get you 50% off your first month. Thanks to Clariti for sponsoring this episode.
Emily Walker: Hey there, this is Emily from the Food Blogger Pro team, and you’re listening to the Food Blogger Pro podcast. Today on the podcast, Bjork is interviewing Liz and Paul Madsen from the blog, Zardyplants. Liz and Paul started Zardyplants back in 2018 as a way to share their love of plant-based comfort food with readers. Since that time, their blog has seen really tremendous growth. They now have ads with Raptive, and have over a hundred thousand followers on Instagram. But that journey has not always been a straight trajectory, as they’ve seen ups and downs, especially on social media, which I’m sure a lot of people can relate to.
Liz and Paul share a lot about the early days of Zardyplants and how their processes and business model have changed over the years. They share about how their photography and videography setup has changed and improved. They share about practical advice for reinvesting in your business and being strategic and intentional about the types of recipes they’re choosing to share on their site. It’s a particularly valuable episode for our beginner food bloggers out there, but I really think it will resonate with anyone in the food blogging space as they share their honest journey of food blogging over the last five years. So we really hope you guys will enjoy this episode, and I’ll let Bjork take it away.
Bjork Ostrom: Liz and Paul, welcome to the podcast.
Liz Madsen: Hi.
Paul Madsen: Hi. Thank you.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, when we have dual interviews, the best would be if you could do a unison sentence. “Hello. Thank you for having us on the podcast.” It’s always so hard when you have two people at the same time. So great to have you here. Really excited to talk to you about your story, your journey. And you guys are in this really cool spot where you’ve got some awesome traction with your site and it’s this income producing business, and you’ve done that over the last five years or so. So let’s rewind the tape a little bit, and Liz, maybe you can start and talk about 2018 when you said, you know what, we’re going to start this thing. What was your mindset when you first got started? Did you know you wanted to build it into a business?
Liz Madsen: Yeah, I think definitely we went into this thinking, well, it’d be kind of cool to share our recipes. But at the same time, we really want to make some money and we know that we see others doing this in the field right now, and there are different ways to monetize, and maybe we can get something going if we put our two heads together.
Bjork Ostrom: So one of the things that’s always so interesting in a scenario like that is to navigate that in a partner relationship, significant other, spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever it might be. And sometimes there’s one person who’s super excited about it and then one person who’s kind of skeptical. Sometimes both people are kind of skeptical but interested. And occasionally, both people are like, “Hey, this is going to be awesome.” So Paul, can you talk a little bit about those early stages? What was that like? And was there one person between the two of you who’s really like, we got to do this, we got to make it happen?
Paul Madsen: Well, I think that fluctuated a lot. Wouldn’t you say, sweetie?
Liz Madsen: Yeah.
Paul Madsen: Some days I felt like I wasn’t sure where I was going with this, from a logistical perspective. And other days I was really gung-ho about learning new video and photo stuff. And I think some days Liz was really happy to be doing new recipes and stuff. But other days, you ran out of spoons and we had to take a little break.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. There’s this great little chart, and people should be able to see it if they just Google, what success looks like, and we can put it in the show notes. But to paint the picture, it’s like what people think success looks like and it’s like a straight line that’s up into the right. And then it says-
Paul Madsen: And it’s unlike that at all.
Bjork Ostrom: And then it says, “What it actually looks like.” And it’s this really squiggly line that’s kind of generally going up into the right, but it feels like there’s all of these twists and turns. And it sounds like, Paul, from what you were saying, that was really what it was like. There were some days where it was like, oh my gosh, this is awesome. And then other days where it was like, oh, this is kind of a drag and this is really difficult. Is that true?
Paul Madsen: Right. But as long as you work through those things, it does continue to go up into the right. So I’d say we’ve done a pretty good job of making it through those bad days.
Liz Madsen: They come and they go.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Can you talk about what that was like? Because my guess is there’s a handful of people, a lot of people, probably all of us, to some degree, who listen to this podcast and they’re like, you know what, this is really difficult. I don’t know if I should keep going. I don’t know if I’m going to get traction. I don’t know if I’m going to make it. And you can either say, I’m going to hang it up and not do it, which isn’t always bad. There’s other opportunities, there’s other things you might want to pursue. Or you can say, I’m going to stick with it. What was that like, Liz, to stick with it, to persevere? Can you talk about your mindset that you had, especially when you were working hard and, from a monetary perspective, you knew that, hey, this could be a business, but you were doing a lot of work and in those early years, my guess is you weren’t getting a lot for it? So how did you continue to push forward and stick with it?
Liz Madsen: Pure optimism, which is coming from a pretty pessimistic, realistic kind of person. I was trying to remain excited about the opportunities that I saw, that I saw other creators quitting their full-time jobs, which I always was having kind of a miserable time at mine. And I kept, oh, if I could work from home, if I didn’t have to commute, if I could work kind of based on my own schedule. The ironic thing here is I still have a full-time job.
But there were all the times that I was kind of lowering my head and thinking, this kind of sucks or I wish this part was better, why is it so hard to keep up with everything? Which is actually kind of a normal thing to be in this business, I think, because I just tried to lean into the things that made me really happy about it and think, how would I feel if I wasn’t doing this right now, if I wasn’t planning all these recipes, if I wasn’t sharing them on social media and on my website? Would I feel good about that, so I could pursue other things or would I say, gee, I really miss that? I tried to think of it that way.
Bjork Ostrom: And what you’re saying is you would miss it. It would be something that you’re doing that you really enjoy. We talk about that on the podcast occasionally, this idea of different types of incomes, it’s just not monetary income. But the work that we do gives us lots of things. It creates challenges, it creates learning opportunities, it creates community potentially. It creates autonomy. Even if it’s not complete autonomy in our schedule, it’s autonomy to build a thing under our own willpower and with our own direction and our own vision, which is a really good thing. It’s like art in a lot of senses.
So talk about that, what that looks like. You alluded to this, Liz. What does a day-to-day look like for you? Because you’ve built up this wonderful thing, we do this intake, we talk about stats that you’d be willing to share and you said, “Hey, we’re at the point where we’re getting 200,000, 250,000 page views. You have a hundred thousand followers on Instagram. I think for anybody starting out or even years into it, it’s like, wow, that’s really incredible and also is a really significant achievement and creates significant income. It’s the equivalent of what would be a full-time job for a lot of people. So talk about what day-to-day looks like for you in terms of balancing that. You alluded to this, you have your full-time job, so how do you balance those things? And at what point, for either of you, have you said, hey, this is when we’re going to make the switch? We’re just going to focus on this full-time. Liz, maybe you could talk about it. And then Paul, you can talk about it as well if you have thoughts.
Liz Madsen: Sure. Yeah, actually Paul is technically full-time with the business. I’m not.
Bjork Ostrom: So one of you is.
Liz Madsen: Yeah. We’re working on that. But his day-to-day definitely looks different than mine. So mine looks a lot more of I’m focusing on my work stuff in the morning. And then as the workday starts to wind down, I’m able to get in my own stuff. If I take a lunch break, I’m usually testing a recipe, probably won’t photograph a recipe during the middle of the day because gee, that seems to take a lot longer, a half-hour recipe turns into a three-hour recipe, especially if you’re filming it at the same time as photographing it, like we do. When I get to take those breaks, I try to do some of the more, I can leave this any time work like working on writing or something like that. So I’m not able to time block as much as I would like, but I am taking those PTO days and using them on the blog.
It’s a lot of grinding, but at the same time, I am lucky that I currently do work a remote job, and my coworkers are pretty flexible. They know I have the blog. They actually really like it because as a marketing director, I kind of have skills that I can transfer to and from the blog. So I can’t necessarily just take the whole afternoon off and do recipes, but I do have a bit more flexibility. I don’t have a rigid, I have to work 09:00 to 05:00 at this building that’s an hour away from my house.
Paul Madsen: And then that’s where I come in and I do a lot of the behind the scenes stuff like constructing the blog posts, doing all the filming, doing all the editing, a whole bunch of other stuff that keeps the operation going so that Liz can have as much time to focus on her cooking.
Liz Madsen: And then you deal with all those scary Search Console errors.
Bjork Ostrom: Which everybody can relate to.
Paul Madsen: I’ll have a scary one every week or so.
Bjork Ostrom: Right when you start to feel relaxed is when you get some new random requirement from the Search Console. So you said, Liz, you’re a marketing director. Obviously there’s some skills and frameworks and just ways to do your work that apply and crossover. Paul, what were you doing before switching over to the blog full time? And then was that a hard decision to say, I’m going to jump in and do this?
Paul Madsen: Well, I wouldn’t say it was a hard decision because I was randomly let go at my previous position due to, I shouldn’t badmouth any people.
Liz Madsen: Mismanagement.
Paul Madsen: Mismanagement, let’s leave it at mismanagement.
Liz Madsen: Yeah, and you were a graphic designer before.
Paul Madsen: I was a graphic designer, but graphic designers these days are made to play many other roles, so I was already working with film and photography well before I jumped into Zardyplants. And I honestly would have to say that even though, like we were talking about earlier, the line is all squiggly and stuff, I really feel that with blogging, the line has been moving right far more than with having been in the workforce.
Bjork Ostrom: Sure. Can you explain a little bit more about that? I think it’s an interesting perspective.
Paul Madsen: Well, I mean, I’m working for myself now. Any mistakes I make are mine, but also all the successes are mine. So I can put my all into it and I’ll get fairly compensated for it. Whereas with some of the employers that I worked for, I would never get any recognition for any successes I made, but would get plenty of recognition when I made any mistakes. I have to say that blogging has been a far more enjoyable experience.
Liz Madsen: I agree. We don’t exactly have bosses to answer to. I mean, we’re all slaves to the algorithms.
Paul Madsen: Well, I answer to you my love.
Liz Madsen: Well, I answer to you too.
Bjork Ostrom: You’re your own bosses. Lindsay and I talk about that, being accountable to each other. But yeah, your point, Paul, I think is a good one. And there’s multiple sides to the coin anytime that you’re doing career changes. And one of the, it’s just also different sides of risk. There is undoubtedly risk with corporate job or kind of a traditional 09:00 to 05:00 job in that it’s kind of a single point of failure. If there’s budget cuts or mismanagement or whatever and a position is eliminated, it’s not like you have multiple sources of income as an example. It’s one of the things that I think is really great to point out even for people who are building and working on their blog.
And this is a perfect example of it. It actually came from Intercom, which is like a chat tool that a lot of businesses use. They had a podcast, I was listening to it once, and they had somebody come on and they talked about the importance of a side hustle as a security net. And they talked about it in the context, not even as like you should really work on this and it should become your full-time thing. But they talked about it in the context of having a thing that you do that produces income in the margins of your day. So if there is ever a scenario where you are let go or something changes within the company or you just get completely burnt out, that you have this thing to fall back on and that brings you income but also has the potential to kind of scale up. So you were working on it 20 hours a week, 15 hours a week, and now suddenly you have 40 hours a week or 50 hours a week, depending on what your schedule is, you can scale that up and hopefully, to your point, Paul, see the associated revenue with that also scale up.
So for anybody listening, I think it’s an important reminder, even if it’s a few hundred dollars or whatever it is, it’s still really helpful to have that as a little bit of a safety net. It sounds like, for you, Paul, that’s what it was where this job goes away and instead of having to scramble and find another one, what you do is you’re like, great, I have this thing we’ve been working on. I’m going to focus on this full time. So when was that change and what was that transition like when you started working on Zardyplants full-time?
Paul Madsen: Well, I think that was shortly before we began.
Liz Madsen: No, it was six months in.
Paul Madsen: Really? Six months in? Sorry, I get all these timeframes.
Bjork Ostrom: It is amazing how quickly all that stuff fades. So point being, it was relatively early on for you and you said, you know what, we’re going to focus on this as a full-time thing?
Paul Madsen: I would admit that at least for the first few months it was a little scary. I mean, we were not on Mediavine or AdThrive or Raptive as they are called now. We were on Google, what is Google’s ad source?
Liz Madsen: AdSense.
Paul Madsen: AdSense. And despite getting a few thousand people in certain months on them, we only made a little less than a hundred dollars on them.
Liz Madsen: We never got that payout.
Paul Madsen: No, we never got that payout at all.
Bjork Ostrom: It didn’t hit the threshold.
Paul Madsen: But I kept working on it, and things kept improving. And you really just got to push. One thing I’d like to mention about something you were talking about earlier, about whether or not you should proceed with it or not, going through with your business is that it’s not necessarily a yes or a no thing. You can have a vision for your business. And while it might not originally be what you planned it to be, you could be doing something entirely different. So one thing we wanted to talk about today is that we originally got into this being more about whole food, plant-based, no oil recipes. And at first we saw some pretty good success with that. We had a few vegan cheeses that were popular that were pretty close to whole food, plant-based, no oil. There’s that mozzarella, I believe.
But we started doing things like getting keyword research software. And so, instead of basing it off our own perceptions of what’s popular or what’s trending, we were able to get some more evidence-based research done. And we said to ourselves, these whole food plant-based terms aren’t having a whole lot of volume according to this software, but things like vegan garlic noodles and vegan cheeses and seitan Phillis, those have really good volumes. We should make some more recipes based on that. So while we really enjoy eating whole food, plant-based, we also have an audience that is really captivated by some of our more indulgent recipes.
Liz Madsen: I think that was one of the keys to our exponential growth for a while there. I want to get that back. It comes and it goes. But something that we really leaned into was seeing what recipes our audience really went crazy for and trying to replicate those more. I’m still going to do the recipe I want to do if I want to do it, but I also want to get a lot of positive feedback for the recipes that I’m doing. So I’ll say, oh, they really liked this mushroom recipe. Let me try some more mushroom recipes.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that’s great. I think this is a little bit of an abstract thought, but I’ve been thinking about this idea of video game design. Stick with me on this. But we all are video game designers, and what we’re designing is the video game of our life. We’re defining the metrics that we consider to be successful. We’re figuring out the landscape of the gameplay. And I feel like it can be applied just to your life in general. Essentially it’s like what’s important to you, but it can also be applied to our businesses.
And there’s a spectrum for content creation. And for some people, they will say, I am in this because what I want to do is create content that is as close to possible as what I’m interested in, what I’m inspired by. I don’t care if it ranks, I don’t care if it has search volume. And then there’s the other side where people would say, I’m just purely looking to grow page views, metrics like traffic, and so I’m going to get really good at keyword research. And so you can pick, you can go into it. And then there’s a sliding scale. It could be anywhere in between. And like you said, Liz, you can create recipes that are inspirational and you can also create recipes that are more scientific in terms of looking and analyzing the data around it to say, I think there’s an opportunity here. I’m going to go after this keyword or this recipe.
And I think the important thing for all of us as creators is finding the balance as we’re designing our game that gives us the most, and that allows us to continue to show up every day and to create and to be inspired and to enjoy the work that we’re doing, but also, if the intent is to create income from the work, making sure that you are aware of that and tracking that as another metric within the game. So how have you found that balances as you’ve looked at doing recipe development and making sure that you’re getting what sounds like a little bit of the inspiration that might not be traffic driven? But then also looking at potential traffic sources and making sure that you are able to get those as well?
Liz Madsen: Yeah, it’s a lot about looking at my analytics on social media, looking at my analytics on Google and seeing what are the most popular recipes that people are going after, and then using that as a jumping off point to do a brain dump in a Word doc and just start listing off different ideas and different thoughts. And then taking that list to my keyword research tool and seeing what’s out there, are there some terms here? Maybe they’re not the best terms, they don’t have the highest volume, but I think my audience will like them. And then balancing that with, oh, well, I got to do this recipe that’s a low competition with a high volume because why not? I think I can do it. It’s a great term. I’m going to go after it. And if people don’t like it, well, I’ve got this other thing next week that they will like.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, and so the process, if I can say it back to you, is starting by saying, hey, let’s look at what currently exists and what’s doing well within your current portfolio of content and saying, okay, I see this specific recipe is doing well. From that, iterating off of it and saying, what are some other ideas kind of in this category that might be kind of similar? Like, okay, this worked before. Let’s brainstorm things that aren’t the same but kind of similar. You have a long list then, after doing this brainstorming. And then taking that into a keyword research tool, KeySearch, Ahrefs, Semrush, is there one that you prefer or use?
Liz Madsen: We use KeySearch.
Bjork Ostrom: Okay. So taking that into KeySearch. And then obviously, with any of those tools, they’re not exact, they’re just estimates, but using that kind of general guidance from those tools to say, out of these 20 ideas that I came up with, it looks like, based on competition, how much other content there is out there, and search volume, how many people are actually searching for it, that this is an opportunity that I could go after? And what’s exciting about that is it allows you to kind of play the numbers game, and this is all too easy, the math is too easy with this. But let’s say you look at it and you say, my goal is to publish a thousand pieces of content. And from each one of those pieces of content, get a thousand page views a month.
So then you’re suddenly it’s like, wow, you can start to play the numbers game and see that’s like million page views. And it’s not that easy, by any means. And that’s a lot of content. People aren’t able to easily produce that amount of content. But you can start to see how those numbers inform the decisions that you make around the outcome that gives you a certain outcome for traffic and balancing that with the inspiration piece. You talked about that exponential growth period. Was that when you felt like that process was really locked in, that keyword research process, creating new content, that content actually did get the traffic that you thought it would be? Is that kind of what it looked like?
Liz Madsen: Yeah, and I was referring to especially the time when we really grew on Instagram. Because our initial strategy with Instagram when we had no followers was to just kind of start interacting with people and try to post consistently and hone our content and grow our community from there. It wasn’t really working. We had only a couple of thousand followers for the first two years or so.
And then at one point, I think January of last year, we had 9,000 followers. And then by October or November we had a hundred thousand followers. And I think that part of that was jumping on Reels when they were really being favored by the algorithm and trying to iterate around the best specs on those videos, like this kind of angle, this kind of opening shot, this amount of duration. And then also going off of what I was talking about, oh, they really like this garlic noodles recipe. What other delicious, shiny noodles can we do? Or they seem to really like garlic and mushrooms, which is great, because I like garlic and mushrooms, so let me see what other types of these recipes I can go over. And I guess I could point to a handful of recipes and say these ones were the ones that got me to that point. But I also think it was a lot of consistency and keeping my ear to the beat and trying to follow it.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s consistency, it’s curiosity, it’s art, it’s analytics, it’s kind of all of those things wrapped into one. You had mentioned earlier, Paul, that you’re doing the video. Can you talk about what that looks like? Because, Liz, are you doing the recipe development and then being like, “Here’s how you’re then producing along with Paul who’s shooting and editing? Can you talk to that, Paul, a little bit, or Liz?
Liz Madsen: I’m the hands and he’s the cameras.
Paul Madsen: Oh, yes. Well, I mean that has changed throughout much of our career, I guess you would say. When we first started we had just purchased a Canon 80D, which I think it was about 1400-
Liz Madsen: It was like a beginner to intermediate camera.
Paul Madsen: Yeah, it’s not a Rebel T6 Canon.
Bjork Ostrom: Kind of the entry level one. Yep.
Paul Madsen: It’s not a cinema camera certainly, but it did pretty good with the photos at first, even though we were just running a $100, 50 millimeter from Best Buy, which by no means is the best lens out there. And then what we had for lights were two $50 Amazon basics box lights. But I don’t regret buying those things. They were really good for me to learn some more advanced techniques. We actually got some pretty good videos out of that. We had our vegan mozzarella that had a fantastic poll that went pretty well on Pinterest and Instagram when we posted it. But then towards the middle of our time together, we got two 4K cameras, a Lumix G7 and a Sony Alpha 6100, I think it was. And what we did is that we had two different angles to film from. We could get side shots and overhead shots at the same time. And then I was running the Canon 80D to get photos. And things kept improving from there.
Liz Madsen: We did upgrade our artificial lights because at the time we lived in a very, very dark apartment with basically no natural light whatsoever. So we did spend some cash to upgrade our artificial lights, which helped tremendously. I do think lighting is an even bigger part of the equation than the actual camera.
Paul Madsen: If I were to do it over again, I would get the lights first and then the higher end cameras later.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, lighting is so influential in terms of the outcome of what you’re getting, what are the lights that you ended up getting? Do you know what kind they are?
Liz Madsen: One was an Aputure, about a thousand dollars, something like that from B&H Photo Video. And then the other one was a similar model of it. Do you remember what the brand name was?
Bjork Ostrom: We can put them in the show notes too. The important piece and the thing that I love about that is you start with what you have. And I would say for anybody listening, even if you don’t have any gear, what you do have is, my guess is, a smartphone of some sort that has a camera on it and it has this video on it. And one of the most popular Pinch of Yum YouTube videos was done with a camera phone, top down, Lindsay making a recipe.
The other thing, I have a friend, he’s been a producer on Netflix documentaries and has worked with all of these startups to do their video. And I was asking him some questions about just light, specific for this podcast recording. And I don’t have it up right now, but I have this window, people who are watching video would be able to see, I have this window to the right, which is natural light, and then I don’t have anything to the left. And I’m like, “What kind of gear could I get to balance that?” And he just went and got a white piece of board, like a white board and he is like, “Here.” It was probably like three bucks. But the point is, start with what you have. And then as your business grows, reinvest that money if you can. It’s like one of the greatest ways to grow your business is just continue to reinvest to get these better pieces of equipment, maybe to bring somebody on in a part-time capacity to help. Reinvest back into the business and level up over time.
And it’s so fun to hear in your story doing that. We started with this entry-level camera. We started with these Amazon basic lights and then we bought these thousand dollar lights, which are really incredible. I’m guessing you can dim them and different color temperatures and all of those things. But what it allows you to do is match your skills and expertise with the amount of money that you’re putting into the business. You don’t want to buy a $10,000 Red camera when you’re just starting out.
Paul Madsen: No. And it’s not just on money constraints. I mean, if you buy one of these cinema cameras, which we currently have a Canon R5C, you now need to learn about log footage and-
Bjork Ostrom: Right. Exactly.
Paul Madsen: And all these other things that are going to make the whole thing more complicated.
Liz Madsen: And then you have other issues like, we finally got a camera capable of 8K in December. And then we found out that we didn’t have the ram to actually edit.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, totally. And what’s great about 8K is, and would be curious if you use it this way, if you are using it, is you can shoot a really wide shot and then you can edit in and still have it be really high def even though you’re editing in. So it’s not like if you’re shooting in 10K, in 1080, your 1080P and you edit that in, suddenly it’s going to be grainy, it’s going to look different. But if you shoot in 4K or 8K, you have so much editing ability then to play around with the footage and how it looks. Are you shooting in 8K right now or did you not?
Paul Madsen: Well, I’ve recently upgraded my computer, so we’ve started again filming in 8K. My Adobe Premiere Pro does not crash every time I look at the 8K footage.
Bjork Ostrom: Which is nice.
Liz Madsen: But up until this point, we will say that even the two 4K cameras that we were working with before were the lowest 4K, 30 FPS, and they were crop frames, so we weren’t getting very much quality out of that for what we had. So this new camera is a full frame. We are getting 4K, 60 FPS or 120 frames per second or something like that, and then we can edit that in still, and we’re still having pretty good quality. So the intention is to go with the 8K, but we have to work through the bottlenecks first.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it’s one of those. I feel like the world of remodeling your house is similar where you’re like, “We’re just going to put in a new oven.” And then it’s one inch too big, so then you have to get new cabinets, and then it’s new countertops and all of these kind of trickle down things. Technology, I feel like a lot of times works the same way. So how do you think of video in the context of what you’re doing from a business perspective? Obviously that’s an important piece of the puzzle. It allowed your Instagram to grow quickly over a relatively short period of time. Are you looking to work with sponsors to help compensate that or do you just view it as like, hey, we want to grow knowing that we want to have a presence on these different platforms? Can you talk about the maybe business perspective and business mindset that you have as you approach content creation and where the different sources of income are coming from right now?
Paul Madsen: May I?
Liz Madsen: Sure.
Paul Madsen: So a critical point of us deciding to go hard on video was what we noticed going on on Pinterest as well as on Instagram. But for a while now, and still to some degree right now, a lot of platforms were focusing on video content. On Pinterest, for example, our images barely reached a few hundred people and a few saves. But we have multiple videos that have thousands or even tens of thousands of shares on each of them. And that’s not only getting us traffic from Pinterest, but it’s affecting how Google looks at our pages. And the pages that are being shared a lot on Pinterest, Facebook and elsewhere, those are some of our top posts. We rank one to three in a lot of those posts that have done quite well. So that was one of our core aspects for going for video. It certainly helps that we are in a really good place to work with brands and work with other entities to also cover the cost of those cameras because they were quite a bit. But it certainly played a big part in us getting control of a lot of SEO terms.
Bjork Ostrom: So idea being that, or the belief is, the social signals around a piece of content going back to that original source, like on Pinterest as an example, being some type of indicator to Google around that being a quality piece of content.
Liz Madsen: I mean, we all know that there are hundreds of ranking factors. But something that, I don’t actually know this for a fact, but I do know that it seems that the more organic traffic we bring in for a piece of content, it also happens to be a piece of content that’s doing well on social or has a lot of those pins or social shares or whatever you want to call it.
Bjork Ostrom: And it’s that world of, somebody who’s mega analytical, data person could probably get into some type of way to test it and to figure out if that’s actually happening. But usually what we have is anecdotal evidence and we have to use that anecdotal evidence to say, okay, this did really well in Pinterest and is performing well in organic search, is that causing it? Maybe. Is it correlation? Yeah, for sure. There’s that correlation there. And if it happens repeatedly, that correlation becomes stronger and then that becomes some type of indicator.
The hard part is knowing, is it just a piece of content that really resonates with people? Maybe it’s the photos, maybe it’s the video, but the point being all of these things are happening on the web and we don’t know how they all interplay. So what we need to do is we need to look at the things that we feel like are connected and make assumptions based on that and try and reproduce it. And it sounds like, to some degree, you’ve been able to do that. You’ve been able to reproduce it and say like, we’re seeing these things do well in these places on social, and anecdotally we see a connection to the search performance of those. Does that sound accurate?
Liz Madsen: Yeah.
Paul Madsen: Yeah.
Bjork Ostrom: Well, one last piece with that, to put a bow on it. It sounds like the purpose, from a video perspective at this point is to build a strong social presence. And also, it sounds like still traffic or page view focused in terms of where you’re directing that. Are you working with sponsors or is it primarily like, we want to focus on getting people back to the site?
Liz Madsen: We have worked with sponsors twice. And we didn’t get much out of it the first time because we didn’t know to bargain for ourselves or to negotiate or whatever.
Bjork Ostrom: Which is, I feel like, everybody’s first contract with a brand. Just excited to have the potential.
Liz Madsen: Yeah. But I’m never working for an Amazon gift card ever again.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Totally. Been there, been there.
Liz Madsen: Then the second time I did negotiate. And then when things got to the last minute, and not really on our part, I then asked for more because it was so last minute. It was right during Thanksgiving, so I said, “This is already a time when we feel really overwhelmed. It’s in the middle of Q4. Things are happening. This has got to be worth my time. And I don’t want to feel, while I’m doing the shoot, I hate this, I hate this, but I already agreed.” So that one was a much better experience. I feel like I could even raise my price more. But at the same time, we did what they asked. They were pretty happy with us. And we’ll probably be going back to them again this fall.
And also, we do want to make an effort to reach out to more places. We’ve had places reach out to us. There have been some gifted types of things where they have sent us stuff without an expectation of anything in return. But I’m also not going to do stuff for product. And I don’t really like that there’s an expectation that bloggers should be working for product or for exposure because you’re not really getting much exposure from being shared on their jobs and it doesn’t pay the bills. Money does.
Bjork Ostrom: And it almost takes one or two times through that to be like, oh, this actually is a lot of work. It feels very different to do that work when it’s for somebody else as opposed to on your own. It’s one thing to just do the work, but it’s another thing to do the work and then have somebody looking over your shoulder a little bit. It’s like, oh, this doesn’t feel good. And in order to justify that, I feel like compensation has to be such that it feels appropriate and everybody’s level for what that is is different. There’s some people who just hate that idea and so they’ll potentially work with sponsors but just always quote a really high price because they don’t want to go through the hassle of doing it. And other people, it’s not as big of a deal or maybe like working with brands a little bit more.
So out of all the things that you’ve done over the last five years to get to where you are, what do you feel like have been the most helpful? What would be the things that you’d go back and you’d say, we’d for sure do this? And then is there anything that you’d go back and say, we probably wouldn’t do this, knowing what we know now?
Liz Madsen: I’d say getting those artificial lights, the better ones, was a great move because that helped us realize, hey, lighting is more important than the lens.
Paul Madsen: I’d have to say. You can’t change the fact that you’re in a dark space really easily, so you should invest your money into that first. Really, it helps you hone your craft, which having a good core of high quality content is really something you should probably focus on first because it’s not a one-to-one thing, as you were describing. You might be doing good on Pinterest, but it might not just be because of Pinterest. It could be that a fan of yours is on Pinterest, sees your food, and they’re randomly a student at a university and they put an article on their university website about some really good vegan recipes to start helping the environment with. And then now you have a link back from that university, and that helps you. So it’s really a diverse and complex thing. But getting yourself out there is one of the key things I would say to navigating that complex space.
Liz Madsen: I agree. Yeah, I think-
Bjork Ostrom: Go ahead, Liz.
Liz Madsen: There’s something that you mentioned earlier, reinvesting in your business. Although it was scary and hard at first, I think I took about a month and a half to convince to get that R5C camera because it was so expensive. I think he had to convince me every time there was a big expense. But reinvesting in our business has been the thing that really helped move the needle forward. And we started getting much better quality content out there. In the beginning I kept thinking, how do we get a crisp image? No matter how many times we take a picture of this and it looks clear on the screen, it just looks grainy or fuzzy or just not as clear. And how did all these people do it? And it just comes with practice. You can’t do it immediately, so that skill takes time to get there. But if you can reinvest as you get the resources to do that, it’s going to help propel your business forward and then you’re also going to feel like, I just spent like $8,000 on B&H, I better learn how to use this thing.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s motivation for sure.
Liz Madsen: It forces you to really get into it. And he’s learning all these techniques about editing and filming to make up for that.
Bjork Ostrom: So much of it is, two things that come to mind when you talk about that. One is, in the world that we are in, the product that we are selling is content, it’s images, it’s writing, it’s recipes. And if you are selling a pen or a pencil, what you’re trying to do is create the best pencil possible. You’re trying to figure out how can you make this pencil awesome. In our world, the thing that we are selling, I say it in quotes, but it’s really what’s the product, is the content. And the most obvious way that that content manifests itself or that product manifests itself is in the images, it’s in the video, it’s in the writing, and it’s in the recipe, if you’re creating food content.
And the better that you can get at creating a product that is good in those four categories and then learning the multipliers of the tips, tricks, hacks, whatever it is, in the world of digital content, like what platform’s doing well? Instagram Reels. Okay, let’s focus on that. But it has to be really high quality video. It has to be a really good recipe, and if there’s writing to support it, that has to be really good as well. If you can figure those things out and maximize each one of the variables in that equation, you can have a lot of success. And it sounds like that’s what happened, especially in that period of time where you locked it in, you started to upgrade your equipment, you got better quality product that you’re creating, and you aligned it onto a platform that was experiencing a lot of growth and a lot of attention with Instagram Reels. And that resulting in growth, which is really cool to see, whether on Instagram or on Pinterest or any of these kind of video-based platforms.
Liz Madsen: Definitely.
Bjork Ostrom: The second thing that I think is important to point out in that story is intentional resource allocation. And the resources we have are time and money. We can kind of dwindle it down to those two things. And you can allocate that differently. And in your case, Liz, saying, you know what, I’m going to keep my job. My guess is, and you can let me know if this is right or wrong, that allowed you to allocate some of the money resources differently because you had the ability and the safety net of your job to say, we’re going to invest into the business. It’s nice because it’s a business expense, tax-deductible. But also you don’t need that money in the moment, so it allows you to invest and continue to build the business.
And over the long run, what you’re doing is you’re building momentum not only in your own skills and abilities, which is one of the best investments, but also in this business. You’re growing a business and that’s a really valuable thing. Does that feel like an accurate reflection of the last few years as you have thought about both your time and also money and how you’re investing it?
Liz Madsen: Yeah, completely. There are definitely missteps along the way. Things that didn’t serve us. I mean, talk about things that didn’t serve us, not paying for good hosting upfront. Those first few recipes that we had that did really well broke our site.
Bjork Ostrom: The site went down because you didn’t have scalable bandwidth.
Liz Madsen: And then the hosting provider wanted us to upgrade, and they did that to us several times. We decided to move to a better host.
Bjork Ostrom: Where are you right now?
Liz Madsen: Bigscoots, and we love them. They’re perfect. So that’s what I would’ve started with at the beginning. Again, spending that money when you don’t have any coming in. Those first three months we were with AdSense was terrible because we didn’t have any income and we had spent money on the camera and only a little bit on the lights and a few props here and there, but it felt terrible because we weren’t making any money with it. So we said, we only need basic hosting. For a while, we were going at it without a recipe card. Paul was trying to learn schema. That was kind of messy.
Bjork Ostrom: Lesson learned.
Liz Madsen: Lesson learned. I think if you have your ear to the ground in the communities now, a lot of bloggers will tell you the same story. You can use your phone at first, totally. Find a window with light if you can, but then spend some money on hosting because you don’t want your site to go down. That’s not the point.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s one of the things, and we had that same story. We got started with Bluehost, we switched to Media Temple and then WPEngine. But one of the things that we’ve noticed is, and I’d be interested in your thoughts on this. As you’re starting out with any of those tools, it sounds like hosting would be one of them. Pay premium for hosting to get started. Would you say the same for the lights? Would you say, if you can, pay premium for the lights or pay premium for cameras? Having gone through that evolution along the way in multiple different categories, I guess the question is, where would you pay premium to start versus where would you go entry level to start to allow you to kind of get into it without a huge investment?
Paul Madsen: I mean, it depends on your situation, of course. If you are in a house that has all the natural light, you might not need lighting. But when it comes to actually creating the content, I would have to say light for both film and photography are probably one of the most important things. And you could build up your camera repertoire much later on. In my research, learning new techniques and whatnot, I’ve seen a lot of other professional camera men and women, and they have huge collections of cameras and stuff. They started out similarly to me having something like a Canon 80D, but now they have all these other cameras and they just kind of casually pick whatever camera they want to use for their project. So I would recommend not being daunted by all of that. You have to start somewhere.
Liz Madsen: Honestly, if you’re starting with an iPhone 14, they’re really great nowadays. Definitely better than the cameras that were out there when I first started. And actually, I mean, for six years, I had an iPhone six. I’m not the person that upgrades their phone when a new one comes out. But if you need to get a camera or something like that, I would start with a phone nowadays. And I believe there are great digital courses out there for how to do iPhone food photography and videography, and there’s really great tips and tricks out there. You can download apps that are better than the standard app that comes with your iPhone, Filmic Pro is really great, and edit on InShot or whatever.
I think lighting, hosting are the two places I definitely would invest first, a good recipe card because going at it your own is not helpful. You got to have the schema that Google can read to get the information off your recipes. A good host, a good, fast theme. You want your speed to be fast. And then courses, actually, as you can afford them. I think courses have the biggest ROI. And I’d research the courses first or being part of a membership or something like that that has actual actionable steps for you to take from other seasoned food bloggers.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it’s amazing. I was thinking of this tweet that I recently read from somebody who’s an investor. And he said, “If you’re at all money oriented,” his name is Jeremy Giffon, G-I-F-F-O-N. “If you’re at all money oriented, you can more than easily outrun the first decade of stock market compounding by using your capital to build something.” And then he said, “Time in the market is a dangerous idea for high agency individuals.” I think of that with you guys as an example, where you’re high agency individuals, you’re people who are motivated. And as you think of how you’re investing, one of the things that we’re doing, if we’re thinking of it from a monetary perspective, investing into building a thing is one of the best things that you can do.
So kudos to the two of you, and also to anybody listening who’s doing that, who’s building a thing and investing not only in the thing that they’re building, but also in themselves and the skills and abilities that they’ve learned along the way. Because that’s a piece of it too. It’s not just building a thing, but it’s also thinking about how am I personally evolving my skills, my abilities along the way? So as we close out, would be interested in any single piece of advice that you’d give people. Or maybe, one of the ways I like to frame it up occasionally is, if you were sitting with yourself five years ago, six years ago and you were going to give yourself advice, what would that advice be? Paul, I’ll start with you. And then we’ll go to you, Liz.
Paul Madsen: I would learn Prepare Pro as quickly as I can, and I would try also learning how to handle social media better. I was really shy originally, but now I’m a lot more outgoing. I handle a lot of the talking with fans and stuff. And you’ve just got to get out there. That is my number one advice. Get out there. Don’t be afraid. Just get to doing it.
Bjork Ostrom: Love it. Jump in. It’s a little bit of exposure therapy, you get in, you experience it, you realize maybe it’s not as bad as you thought it was. Get up, do it again the next day. Love that. Liz, how about you?
Liz Madsen: I would’ve started trying to learn about SEO sooner. I wanted to ignore it because it seemed very daunting and confusing. And for the longest time, I didn’t understand what keyword research was. I said, “But I don’t understand. What are you researching? What is a keyword?” And it took me six months. And then I had joined a mastermind, which was the best thing that I did early on, is join a mastermind of more seasoned bloggers. Don’t know how I got in, but I joined.
And one time I just got up the courage and I said, “Can someone please explain keyword research?” And so the host just hopped on KeySearch and started showing me what it was. And that made a huge, huge difference in doing that. And then that kind of launched me into the world of, okay, well, how do I write better? And not just write what I think people want, but what they actually need. It doesn’t help to just write about how excited you are about the recipe more than it helps to say, “This is how to actually make the recipe. Here are my tips and tricks. Here are some ingredient substitutions if you’re allergic to nuts or whatever.” And just learning that catapulted me into, I’m always learning, always reinventing, and this is helping my business grow.
Bjork Ostrom: Love that. And the thing that I think is so great about that is not just thinking about what do I want to do? And you can produce content in that way. It’s not a bad thing. But if the goal is, reach, engagement, connection with other people, also thinking about what resonates with other people, what are other people looking for, and being aware of that. I think that’s great. If people want to follow along, see what you guys are up to, what’s the best way to do that?
Liz Madsen: We are @Zardyplants everywhere.
Bjork Ostrom: Awesome. And I didn’t get to ask, ZardyPlants, what’s the quick background with the name?
Liz Madsen: So my name is Liz, and my mom often called me Lizard, growing up. And she shortened it to Zardy, because that was cute. And my brother, in his infinite cleverness, said, Zardy pants, Zardy pants, like smarty-pants.
Bjork Ostrom: Totally.
Liz Madsen: And then I was vegan and I was searching for a blog name and I didn’t want to just say, oh, blank word and blank word. So I said, what about Zardyplants?
Bjork Ostrom: Love it. It’s like a callback to your brother kind of poking at you growing up?
Liz Madsen: Exactly.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome. Love it. We’ll link to that in the show notes. Make sure people check that out. Paul, Liz, thanks so much for coming on.
Paul Madsen: Thank you.
Liz Madsen: Thanks so much for having us. Appreciate it.
Alexa Peduzzi: Hey there, Alexa here. Thanks for tuning into this episode of the Food Blogger Pro Podcast. We hope you enjoyed it. And if you are sitting there thinking, man, someday I’m going to start my own food blog. Or maybe you’re sitting there thinking, I just started my food blog and I have no idea what to do next. Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. We actually have a free ebook just for you, and it’s called The Food Blogger Starter Kit, and it’s full of different resources just to help you along the journey as you’re getting up and running with your very own food blog. So you’ll get access to our free course, all about setting up your food blog, some of our favorite podcast episode recommendations, some tips about plugins and photography, and then just some other ways to continuously learn and get a tiny bit better every day.
If you’re interested in downloading that ebook for free, just go to foodbloggerpro.com/podcast-start, and you can download it right there for free. We’ll have a link to it in the show notes as well, so you can easily click on that there. Otherwise, you can just go to that URL, foodbloggerpro.com/podcast-start to download that Food Blogger starter Kit PDF for free. So we’ll see you next time. Thanks for tuning in again. And until then, make it a great week.