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The Business of Blogging

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Three hustling bloggers and social-media mavens divulge the truth behind what it takes to be an influencer.

By Sarah E. Ashlock

Meet three of Texas’ most beloved bloggers: fashionable Dani Austin (@daniaustin), foodie Jane Ko (@atasteofkoko) and destination jet-setter Chelsea Martin (@passporttofriday). These three influencers recently gathered at Grizzelda’s—a little slice of the tropics on Tillery Street that’s fittingly been dubbed by some as East Austin’s most Instagram-worthy happy-hour hot spot—to divulge some secrets to their success. With a backdrop of banana-leaf wallpaper and blush-colored décor, they nursed frozen margaritas and slowly, sip by sip, revealed the behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating a digital lifestyle and the path they forged to create a career that, at least for the majority of young women, is seen as a modern-day success.

Chelsea Martin (@passporttofriday) #letsgosomewhere

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: These ladies work. This 20-something trio spends 40-plus hours a week hustling in order to maintain the appearance of an effortless digital presence. Always on the go, these ladies are constantly scouring the state of Texas and beyond for the next trendy destination, café or stylish ensemble.

Before Martin was posting photos of her stay at a seven-star hotel in Dubai or of the sailboat she ventured out on in Croatia, she worked as an assistant wedding coordinator through college. One semester, Martin decided to study abroad. She caught the travel bug and, upon her return, asked her dean for advice on how to incorporate that passion into a career. Soon enough, Martin found herself intrepidly starting her freelance travel-advisor enterprise.

“When I was 10 years old, I remember [my mother and I]were in Hawaii, sitting on floaties and talking about how we wanted to travel. Our dream would be a Travel Channel show,” Martin says. “It’s kind of fun to see these dreams [you had]when you were smaller come true.”

Part of Martin’s success as a freelance travel advisor relies on sharing vibrant, dreamy photos on social media and her blog, all of which helps further establish her credibility as someone who knows what makes for a world-class vacation. Martin titled her blog Passport to Friday.

“I started it mostly as a business-travel blog, just your passport to the best day of the week, to a better life,” Martin says, clarifying. “For me, it’s more [about]the people that I attract, people who are looking for a getaway that’s going to enhance their life.”

Each influencer relies on speaking to the millennial generation, the population that makes up the majority of their audience. During the course of the last few years, an uptick in travel has been documented, in huge part because of 20- and 30-somethings, with 72 percent of millennials choosing experiences over purchases, and 97 percent of millennial travelers posting on social media.

“I think that’s what’s great about millennials too, is they’re into experiences,” Martin says.

Instead of simply going to the one-size-fits-all honeymoon resort, millennials desire a one-of-a-kind travel experience.
Jane Ko (@atasteofkoko)#forkyeah

Not only is #travel popular, but so are #foodie ’grams. That’s where Ko comes in. She has been blogging for the past seven years, cementing herself as one of Austin’s most established food bloggers. After earning a degree in nutrition with a minor in business from the University of Texas, Ko took a different approach than what one might have expected her to pursue with her degree. Her love of food and business-savvy steadfastness is what initially led her to launch A Taste of Koko.

“I loved how [blogging is]predominantly a women industry,” Ko says. “I loved how these women were really inspiring and made something for themselves.”

A Taste of Koko gives Ko’s readers insider details on Austin’s ever-changing and innovative food culture. Her 38,000 (and climbing) loyal followers on Instagram can’t get enough of her flat-lay photos, food photos shot from the top down. Ko identifies that technique as her signature style, noting it’s ideal for giving a full view of not only a dish, but also a restaurant’s aesthetic. From duck confit and rosé at Toulouse Cafe and Bar to lemon ricotta pancakes at Josephine House, Ko has solidified herself as a food-photo-culture mainstay.

“People, even friends, will always tell you what you can and can’t do. When I started my blog in 2010, my friends told me it was dumb. When I launched a food crawl at South By Southwest in 2014 and had over 10,000 people sign up in one week, local media friends told me to shut it down,” Ko confides. “Starting your own business, whether it’s small or big, is the most rewarding thing you can do for yourself. Listen to others, but do what you want to do. Be who you want to be.”

This foodie’s influence stretches beyond Austin. Ko travels to cities throughout the world—from Taipei to New York City, from Miami to Mammoth Lakes, Calif.—documenting her journey and racking up blog clicks and photo double taps along the way. One might call her the millennial female version of Anthony Bourdain. Ko’s impact as an influencer continues to grow as she expands her social-media collaborations. Currently, she’s partnered with companies ranging from IKEA to KitchenAid.

 #outfitoftheday

Whether you’re hopping on a plane to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, or catching up with your girlfriends over drinks at Uchi, one thing’s for sure: You’ve got to wear something you love. Fashion blogs are often the entry points for readers foraying into the blogosphere, and one of the most popular style websites might just be Dani Austin’s. Austin started as a YouTuber about four years ago while studying physical therapy at the University of Texas.

Dani Austin (@daniaustin) by David Heisler Photography“[Posting on YouTube] stemmed from insecurities, really weird phases in my life that I went through [during]adolescence and not having an older sister to guide me through a lot of those things,” Austin discloses.

Through her video channel, she shared her experiences and advice about college, friendships and dating with both her teenage- and college-aged viewers, building up a loyal following along the way, subscriber by subscriber.

“I didn’t know you could actually do YouTube as a career,” Austin says with a laugh.

She soon realized that she could, indeed, do that very thing. While she was still a sophomore in college, agents and managers contacted her after a couple of her videos resulted in 20,000-plus views during the course of just a few months. Much of this instant success had to do with Austin’s natural, congenial on-camera talent and down-to-earth personality, but it was also due to her focus on the back end of things—the business side of things—like understanding algorithms.

Six months after starting her channel, Austin had grown her subscriber base to 75,000, signed with a manager and was headed to Los Angeles for the summer to intern at a media company and collaborate with other YouTubers at YouTube Space LA. After returning to Austin (the city, that is) to continue school, Austin kept recording, never hit pause and, to this day, continues to grow her digital empire.

“I kept on creating content in my dorm room and at the sorority house,” Austin says. “YouTube wasn’t really a thing in Texas, at least not in Austin, [but]in Texas, I always felt more grounded than in LA. I’d rather be happy, doing what I’m doing, maybe not as big or growing as fast.”

When Austin began her senior year, she launched a fashion blog and online jewelry business.

“By that time, everything was so innovative, there were so many influencers and everyone was doing it, everyone had a camera. It was so hard to grow at that point,” Austin says. “It was so competitive.”

Expanding her social-media presence and consistently posting timely, on-trend blog content pushed Austin into bona fide influencer/social-media-celebrity territory.

 #hustle

While Austin, Ko and Martin connect readers and viewers to three very different industries—fashion, food and travel—they share similar experiences of growing their businesses and have likeminded advice to offer the next generation of aspiring influencers.

All three women note the virtue, first and foremost, of patience. Martin explains it took about six months to really get her company off the ground.

“I always tell people you have to pay your dues,” Austin adds. “I can’t tell you how many free collaborations I did for a year. … It took probably a year and a half before I made a dime. Like, when you get an internship in college—[which are]rarely paid—you do it for experience and to get your name out there.”

Another key characteristic new bloggers must develop is a thick skin.

“People on the internet can be so mean!” Austin exclaims. “I’ve always gotten mean comments. I’ve gotten used to it. I think what really gets me sometimes is whenever people take my words and twist them. … My faith is a really big part of my life. I have to remind myself daily of what is important to me and what really matters. Otherwise, it’s so easy to get caught up in the opinions of other people, and [this]would be a really hard job.”

The most common misconception and stigma these women are up against is the myth that they’re in this business to get free stuff.

“Too many people are blogging for the wrong reasons. What they see—that we have these glamorous lives on Instagram—[makes them]want these free vacations and they want these free products, but free doesn’t pay the bills,” Ko says.

She suggests before anyone seriously considers joining the influencer ranks that he or she first asks, “Why am I blogging?”

Pennies must be pinched when launching a digital career.

“Blogging is very expensive and you need to make a really big investment up front, whether it’s in travel or whether it’s in paying for meals,” Ko says. “I’ve spent more on food than I’ve ever spent in my seven years of blogging just because, right now, time is something I can’t buy, so I need to get as much content as I can and push out as much content as I can.”

Martin echoes Ko’s statement.

“I’ve never gotten paid to do anything travel-related,” she says. “When I started my blog, I was traveling already 250 days a year and that’s why I started my blog, for a creative outlet.”

Since Martin was detailing her travel experiences for readers throughout the world, she would receive questions like, “I see you’re in Mexico. Tell me, where should I go?” Advising travelers has been instrumental in Martin’s ability to work for herself full time.

“Because I’ve started luxury-travel advising, I’m still paying for my flights and everything, but if I know I’m going to be somewhere, if I want to go somewhere, I can reach out to hotels and usually get a discounted rate,” Martin says.

Austin views these expenses as an investment.

“I can only shoot clothes that are in stock, so when the clothes go out of stock or out of season, then I have to go find new ones,” she says. “But it is an investment. I can tell when I increase the quality of my cameras or have better inventory to shoot [that]it really does benefit me. … Especially working with brands, I started investing in their product before they ever sent anything for free. They see how passionate you are about their brand and then they reach out to you.”
While self-employment offers many perks, like a flexible work schedule, for instance, there’s no doubt that those who want the esteemed title of “digital influencer,” must hustle, and hustling means almost never clocking out. Ko was on three conference calls before arriving to Grizzelda’s and still had work to do after this reporter’s interview.

“I choose to stay up until 3 a.m. and then wake up at 8 or 9 a.m., or whenever my first meeting is, and then just power through the day,” she says. “Nobody is forcing me to do that; I’m forcing myself to do that. I’ve done that for three years now since I quit my corporate job. … Having fun feels weird to me. And that’s alarming.”

Martin, the youngest of the group, established a strict personal policy of rest on Saturdays—after the clock strikes noon, that is.

“I picked my apartment [downtown]for the sunrise because I’m a sunrise person. So, I wake up at 6:30 a.m. then answer emails,” Martin says. “When I’m home, I answer emails and I work until probably about 12 p.m., then I’ll do a workout class, take my lunch break and then, after that, it’s either meetings or more work.”
But when she’s traveling in, say, Europe, Martin wakes up in the middle of the night to respond to emails that are firing off in the States. She recently posted an Instastory asking for advice on how to rest more when you’re multiple time zones ahead of clients.

“I don’t know the last time I took a real vacation,” she shares, noting it probably hasn’t been since she graduated college.

If bloggers aren’t careful, the pressure to create consistent, quality, Insta-gratifying content can be debilitating.

“I feel a lot of stress sometimes whenever I’m trying to make everything perfect,” Austin says. “In the past year, something that’s really helped me is being transparent with people, showing them the behind-the-scenes [aspects]through Snapchat or Instastories, telling them that I’m normal and that this is a job still. Sometimes I go through hard times where I’m not as motivated.”

Austin recently moved to Dallas, where she lives in a house with two other women, peers of hers who are also in this business. About 20 percent of her partnerships, however, are still based in Austin. A month or so ago, she posted a frank, strikingly honest one-way conversation via her YouTube channel. In the video, she describes her decision to back out of a house deal in Austin in order to join her current housemates and continue learning about the influencer industry and growing her following and her brand. In short, backing out of a house in Austin was, for the girl with Austin as her last name, just one of many hard business decisions.

#careergoals

In the past decade, the blogosphere has transformed tremendously, evolving from what many viewed as a hobby to what is now commonly identified as a career. Now, there are blogging boot camps, branding workshops and food- and fashion-styling how-to videos. When blogs were just finding their footing, though, few resources were available.

Austin, Martin and Ko also have that in common: They are all self-educated, from photography to search engine optimization. Once Austin identified this field as a potential career, she started to take business classes, but says every day is another opportunity to learn.

“Any time I didn’t understand anything, I’d YouTube or Google it,” Austin says. “The biggest thing I’ve learned recently, since I’m kind of my own accountant, is managing my finances and getting people to pay out. Oh my gosh, that is the hardest thing. We have contracts, but sometimes they don’t answer, even when you follow up 80 times.”

Blogging is indeed a business, requiring not-so-glamorous duties like balancing the books. Martin recommends using QuickBooks Self-Employed, which she says helps measure tax deductions like mileage and travel. Recently, Ko learned she owes $15,000 in taxes, a sentiment well understood by Martin and Austin as well.

#instafamous

“Instagram, I think, basically made the blogging industry,” Ko says. “For me, half of my revenue comes from Instagram campaigns. Companies are not interested in advertising on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Snapchat. They’re looking just for Instagram, and now they’re paying just the same, if not more, for just one Instagram post that will be alive for like 10 hours.”

“I deleted Snapchat instantly when Instagram Stories came up because I haven’t had a single brand pay for a Snapchat story,” Martin adds. “They can’t measure it. You can’t tag the brand’s page in that.”

For influencers, Instagram offers more than Valencia filters and followers. Martin mentions she shows hotels and other brands how many times an Instagram photo was saved in order to demonstrate the benefit of advertising with content creators. For Austin, her Instagram following tends to be a little older, while her YouTube channel has a younger demographic. Only about 10 percent of Austin’s Instagram followers come from her YouTube following, she says, which she uses to her benefit, offering two separate audiences for potential brand partnership.

The future of blogging is fluctuating. Part of growing a business is delegating tasks, hiring help and devising future goals. Managing help as a 20-something blogger doesn’t come without its limitations, say, for instance, dealing with an ineffective CPA. Martin recently hired her mother as a trusted employee, and Austin employs an assistant, a social-media assistant, a photographer and a videographer for her YouTube videos. Ko acknowledges the difficulty in hiring out because she wants to be in control of her business.

“I always tell people you have to stay true to yourself and have a heart behind what you’re doing, otherwise you get burnt out really quick,” Austin says. “Everything moves so fast now, you have to be willing to adapt because what works now doesn’t work in six months.”

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