Dianne Jacob - Will Write For Food
Food blogging is a growing superniche (is that a word?) with a wide variety of niches in which a lot of people seem to be using blogging either as the focus of their business or as a tool to build a bigger business. Even if you don't blog about food, there's a lot to be learned from succesful bloggers in this space.
Will Write For Food
Dianne Jacob is a writing and publishing coach who has also done quite a bit of writing related to food, including a book about food writing titled Will Write For Food. Her site includes a blog that is clearly a powerful marketing tool. It allows her to demonstrate her expertise, connect with the fans of other writers and present fresh content to search engines that helps her standing among searchbots!
I found Ms. Jacob via a recent post about Jenny McGruther of Nourished Kitchen, a multifaceted business that began as a food blog and related newsletter. She interviews Ms. McGruther about her business and, in addition to some fascinating details that are shared quite generously, McGruther gives some advice that's relevant to all bloggers trying to build businesses:
"They need to build a devoted audience based on their specialized knowledge. Once they have a way to convey that knowledge to their readers, they need to make it very clear about what the product will do for their readers. If they outline it directly and hit a price point that provides substantial value, they’ll be in a good position."
The Amateur Gourmet
"For starters, you have to decide if you’re food blogging for business or pleasure. If it’s for pleasure, that’s fine, but that most likely means you’re blogging when you want to, about subjects that you want to, in a format that may or may not appeal to readers. You can do that (many do) but that’s not going to allow you to quit your day job. If you’re food blogging for business—meaning, you’re doing it to support yourself—you have to approach things more strategically."
Mr. Roberts has also used food blogging to build his brand as well as an impressive career as a food writer.
The Sartorialist - From Blog to Book
Scott Schuman's highly regarded fashion blog, The Sartorialist, recently celebrated its 6th year.
The Business of Fashion's Imran Amed took the opportunity to examine the business of The Sartorialist which is apparently pretty good:
"The Sartorialist had around 13 million page views last month, a 44 percent increase over the same month last year...If current traffic levels are sustained and significant portion of the advertising inventory on The Sartorialist is sold, it could theoretically make Scott Schuman fashion's first million dollar a year blogger."
Schuman started out building his reputation at Style.com and GQ while continuing to build his blog:
"Once The Sartorialist began to attract serious global attention, Schuman left these high-profile gigs behind to focus on building his own business. With his newfound independence, Schuman knew he would have to build out his own revenue streams. 'You have to constantly spread out your streams, so if one stream starts to dry up you can go on.'"
Additional revenue streams have included gallery shows with prints of his photos going for between $1500 and $4000 each, special projects with fashion brands and a book also called The Sartorialist but ads are taking the lead:
"Like other photo bloggers, Schuman also sells his images to magazines, through his agent, Jedroot. But by far his biggest (and most stable) source of revenue now comes from ad sales on The Sartorialist website. Initially, Schuman worked with Style.com to sell his advertising inventory, but has taken this function back in-house, explaining that he is in a much better position to sell the ads himself because he understands the website better than anyone else could."
Scott Shuman has taken a path that few bloggers can follow but that doesn't mean one can't learn from his example of blogging about something he loves to do and finding multiple revenue streams in order to build a livelihood:
"'You can really make a living out of this,' said Schuman emphatically. 'It's tough, but if you work really hard you can create a business, if you're smart about it and have something real to say.'"
Blogs are powerful vehicles for building brands and, once one has a potent brand, all sorts of business possiblities emerge. The following are some examples of bloggers who built strong brands and, in some cases, got book deals as a result.
Gary Vaynerchuk built his high-energy brand through daily video-blogging at Wine Library TV and has built a multifaceted public speaking and consulting business as well as gaining a 10-book, I repeat, 10-book publishing deal.
Gary was recently interviewed by ReadWriteWeb about his growing empire of activities.
If you're like me, you may find Vaynerchuk's example a bit hard to consider as an inspiration unless you slow the story down and start at the beginning. It's just too much success to take in all at once!
Another approach would be to consider dreams that might be a bit more within reach, as does Marci Alboher in this piece in the NY Times. Though Alboher is writing in the days before our current financial collapse, the bloggers she discusses remain timely examples of people who simply began blogging and built brands from there. They then went on to pursue diverse paths that included problogging and blogging for a book contract.
My own experience of problogging at ProHipHop gave me an up close look at how one can build as well as damage one's brand through one's blogging. It also convinced me that blogging to build one's brand can lead to much more enjoyable pursuits than daily blogging for a living though I definitely enjoy blogging daily. It's kind of addictive!
Julia Angwin - Stealing MySpace
I just finished reading Julia Angwin's Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America and it's a great read, especially if you're interested in the power games of big media players.
Topics of interest include the birth of MySpace via a company full of sp@mmers, the infighting that plagues so many media companies both new and old, the slowness of Viacom and the quickness of News Corp in dealmaking as an extension of the big bosses' approach, the many and changing reasons for the ongoing poor performance of MySpace on the front end and the inherent difficulties and dangers of running a radically popular web publishing platform.
Though Stealing MySpace focuses on the behind the scenes maneuvering and the big business news, I'm discussing it here at This Business of Blogging because it got me thinking again about the fact that, on the web, the notion of publishing has changed radically and that the term "user-generated content" remains problematic in so many ways.
I do consider social networks to be web publishing platforms and MySpace is an excellent example of how such platforms offer a pro/am mix of web publishers that undermines the concept of user-generated content. If you think about it, this blog is an example of user-generated content because I use TypePad as a tool to publish This Business of Blogging. Yet, this blog is also intended as a professional web publishing endeavor or, at least, a project heading in that direction.
So, while the term "microblogging" gives blogging status to Twitterers, who are basically using a public form of instant messaging with social network components, and therefore expands the concept of blogging, the label ofuser-generated content limits the mental frame of those considering social networking in relationship to web publishing even though some MySpace accounts are important digital publishing sites for major bands, among other users of the service.
What's also worth considering is the merging of web publishing and marketing on such platforms as MySpace and not just on member pages. Widgets are an excellent example of the blurring of the lines between and the transformation of both marketing and web publishing. iPhone apps are an example of related developments in mobile publishing.
At this point, for many readers immersed in this new world of digital self-publishing, these points may seem obvious but I think underlying principles should be simple and are always worth reconsidering. If one considers the difficulties of print publishers in transitioning to the web, one sees they are often resisting or even disparaging the simpler truths of our complex existence and that's one reason they're dying even faster than is necessary.
More generally, I've often stated or heard someone state something simple that relates to a deeper paradigm only to hear others treat it as an obvious thought. But what is so often revealed by the actions of those who claim to have a keen grasp of the obvious is that they've misunderstood or discounted what they claim to be obvious and so undermined the effectiveness of their work. For such reasons I consider the simple and obvious to almost always be worth using as tools to reconsider one's actions whether in business or in everyday life.
Though Julia Angwin doesn't really dig into such topics in Stealing MySpace, it is a good read and wraps things up around May 2008 with MySpace's CEO, Chris DeWolfe, finally in full charge of the total business (p. 261), a reminder of the inherent difficulties of running an entrepreneurial endeavor inside of a larger corporate entity, whether Intermix or News Corp.
It's also a somewhat poignant ending to this account of MySpace's early years in light of Chris DeWolfe's outster as CEO from MySpace.
Jessica Livingston - Founders At Work
Jessica Livingston's Founders At Work: Stories Of Startups' Early Days is a really excellent book of interviews with founders of key technology companies that helped build the web, from Apple to PayPal to TypePad, making it also an oral history of the creation of an infrastructure and tools for web publishing.
Many of the interviewees are programmers who became entrepreneurs and belie the cliches regarding everyday programmers' communicative abilities, though Joshua Schachter of Delicious does talk kind of like a machine and Philip Greenspun, cofounder of the defunct ArsDigita, explains why most programmers are conditioned to be unlikable commodities.
Since my web projects typically involve off-the-shelf services with html I can tweak, I haven't gone through the process of learning to work with programmers on web projects where they hold the key knowledge cards nor have I worked with offshored workers. However, I do have some limited experience of working with programmers on mobile projects and I'm convinced that building positive relations with key programmers is crucial to survival in web publishing. On a related note, the more you know the better because programmers will test your knowledge and do tend to propose solutions that they are capable of implementing as opposed to the best solution.
On the Need for Flexible Business Models
There are many aspects of Founders At Work as a whole worth discussing but one that's relevant here, even for someone starting a basic blog, is the fact that many of these companies started with a particular development focus or business model or general plan for making money that was discarded as more solid opportunities emerged.
Such opportunities were often indicated by customers and potential customers who were sometimes initially ignored before the founders could make the adjustment, which is not to say that these founders were necessarily obstinate. The most promising possibilities for true entrepreneurial endeavors are not always obvious because they're new to the world or new to the individuals involved.
The ability to adjust to an unknown reality is a trademark of many of these highly successful founders that Livingston interviewed and a few striking examples are especially worth considering. Though I refer to flexible business models what is key here is flexible thinking and acting regarding business models whether or not your initial business plan indicates such possiblities.
Philip Greenspun: ArsDigita
Philip Greenspun relates that he was creating software tools in the mid '90s to facilitate a website with a discussion forum about photography (pp. 318-19). He wasn't planning to build a business but saw that many other webmasters were struggling to set up such services, as well as registration and ecommerce, and made his software tools available for free as an open source product.
Eventually he started getting contacts from corporations who wanted to pay him large amounts of money to set things up and so was born the business model of offering free or low cost open source software packages and then monetizing those products through paid services.
Max Levchin: PayPal
Max Levchin's PayPal service was initially launched for Palm Pilots and he got funding for the company with a plan to continue to develop for mobile devices (pp. 5-6). But the website that they developed as a demo kept attracting folks who were trying to use it while the mobile users soon peaked. Soon Ebay sellers were trying to use it for their needs and Levchin says the initial response was to turn them away!
Eventually he and his cofounders recognized that these folks could be customers. They focused on the website and eventually ended the early version of their mobile offering and became an incredibly successful service.
Business Model Flexibility
Such examples recur throughout the book and often involve people launching with one approach and, ultimately, taking a different approach based on encouragement from users and/or potential users. This is a somewhat different issue from listening to and observing customers to develop particular features. That's also very important but having a flexible business model is about being willing to change one's preconceptions and sometimes even leave behind what one knows best.
Google is an excellent example of a company that began with a focus on search, monetized that with contextual ads and then eventually used that technology to develop an ad network. Later they began to develop services that went beyond search, such as Gmail, that also became quite popular. But as Gmail creator Paul Bucheit points out, many of his fellow employees resisted the idea of Gmail because they felt that Google should continue to focus only on search.
Though Gmail also presented different technical issues, it has become a strong platform for deploying search and contextual ads. Google's moves into news and book scanning can be also be viewed in terms of search and ad opportunities but could be considered moves into web publishing as well.
But I'm Just a Blogger!
You don't have to be going for venture capital or even writing business plans to benefit from these tales of tech startups. For example, my most successful blog, ProHipHop, began with a general focus on hip hop business news across industry sectors. While that attracted attention, I eventually realized that hip hop marketing was where hip hop's broad reach could be most readily observed and focused on that aspect.
Focusing on hip hop marketing at that time allowed me to interest more people involved in hip hop business while also affording me an opportunity to reach out to marketing professionals in other arenas. Though the twists and turns of the ProHipHop saga undermined that development, having an openness on a thematic level offered me the opportunity to build a much stronger relationship to a much larger audience.
Unfortunately, I did not take such a flexible path to monetization and so missed out on what now would clearly be the most profitable path to building ProHipHop. In the early days, as now, the majority of ProHipHop's income came through ad networks which allowed me to focus on news gathering and writing while the networks focused on ad sales.
Periodically I would receive contacts from folks who wanted to advertise on my blog but I didn't have an ad server and wasn't really able to effectively meet people's needs. Though the launch of Blogads appeared to offer a solution, for a number of reasons which included a confusing interface, Blogads never emerged as a successful solution to individual ad sales.
Rather than biting the bullet and stepping further outside of my comfort zone by tackling the ad server issue, I continued to focus on the things that I wanted to pursue and turned away from potential customers' requests that would have required me to find and work with someone who could take care of the technical issues involved with ad serving which, when all is said and done, were not exceptionally large problems. That was probably one of the worst decisions I made during ProHipHop's early years.
So, during that time, my thematic flexibility was successfully implemented but I dropped the ball on the key survival issue of monetization. I will return to lessons learned at ProHipHop but, for now, my main point is that holding on too tightly to what one believes is the correct path or being unwilling to expand beyond one's comfort zones can undermine one in the long run.
Even the Worst Drag Queen Can Find an Audience
Being flexible is just one aspect of success and the startups chronicled in Founders At Work had the potential to go under even after finding the right business model. The reality is, while many experience launching a project and receiving only blank looks and disinterest, the bigger danger is in getting enough encouragement to convince yourself that you're on the right path when you're only pleasing a handful of people.
Of course, sometimes a handful of people is all you need but that's a topic for a future post as we continue to explore flexible thinking and web publishing.
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