Conversation with Carolyn Cope, Founder & Publisher of Umami Girl
How to Start a Media Business with Kohlrabi & Marmite
January 24, 2018
1. What is your business?
I’m the founder and publisher of Umami Girl, a multimedia company centered around our women’s lifestyle website. We focus on family, food, home & adventure, and we seek to inspire and inform women who want to make every day a little special. In 2008, I created Umami Girl as a food blog and a resource for people who were looking for mostly healthy, mostly vegetarian recipes. Over the years, the site grew to cover a wider range of topics, and since mid-2017 we’ve been in an exciting period of expansion and rebranding that will culminate in some big developments in the second quarter of 2018.
Umami Girl makes money three main ways. We have sponsored content where a brand pays Umami Girl to create a recipe using an ingredient or to review or promote a product. You can see an example of this in my post for Watercress Pesto Pizza. The sponsor was B&W Growers, a specialty leaf farm.
The second source of revenue is good old-fashioned banner advertising. We work with an agency called MediaVine that was started by bloggers for bloggers, and they sell advertising space by aggregating blogs. The third source of revenue is affiliate marketing. We link to products on Amazon and also through rewardStyle.
If we link to an Amazon product from a blog post and a reader clicks through, Amazon will pay Umami Girl a small percentage of sales made to that person for 24 hours. For example, my vegetarian gravy recipe is made with a touch of Marmite, a spread primarily sold in England. Many Americans aren’t able to find Marmite in their local grocery stores, so a link to Amazon.com can be helpful. RewardStyle also pays a small percentage to affiliates, but it’s more of an agency, and it represents retail companies like West Elm or Etsy. These brands are becoming more relevant to Umami Girl as we increase our focus on interior design.
2. What made you decide to start your business and/or switch careers?
Beginning in college, I made a series of decisions with the goal of broadening my horizons. At the end of this course of action, I ended up at a large law firm practicing real estate law, and I had a two-year-old daughter. Having a demanding job, a husband with a demanding job and a toddler — while each great in its own way — created an intensely miserable period for me. At the same time, I was spending a lot of time while “working” looking at food blogs (new at the time!) and talking to my friends about them. I finally decided that I wanted to stop expanding my horizons and just do what I wanted to do.
All at once I quit the law firm, started Umami Girl and volunteered to become a drop-off point and coordinator for a community-supported farm. Volunteering for the farm was a key part in getting Umami Girl off the ground. Because I was giving co-op members an unusual assortment of vegetables each week, I was fielding questions like, “What do I do with kohlrabi?” In those early years, I published recipes for the co-op recipients, which helped me really understand the target audience.
3. Was there one moment that gave you the confidence that this was a good idea?
Working for the community-supported farm was my first moment knowing that Umami Girl was going to help people. Being able to give people easy and delicious recipes for unusual produce made them happy, and it made me happy.
My confidence jumped a couple of years later when I published one of my most popular recipes, vegetarian gravy. The recipe has all of these umami-heavy ingredients, it’s really delicious, and it requires Marmite (mentioned earlier in the interview). The recipe gets a lot of attention every year around Thanksgiving and Christmas, which results in a lot of website traffic at a time of year when advertising is particularly lucrative. In a small way, that recipe has really improved thousands of people’s lives. It has been really valuable for vegetarians who want to enjoy the full Thanksgiving or Christmas experience but not eat a meat-based gravy.
Moments like that are so silly, but they are also weirdly fulfilling to me. I’m not changing the world in any profound way, but it is motivating and satisfying to make people happy in small ways by improving life around the margins.
4. What obstacles did you face in getting started and thinking of yourself as an expert in a new setting?
I went from being a professional in a licensed industry to an owner of a website in a brand new industry. In 2008, food blogs were just getting started, and the idea of being a professional blogger was brand new. When I first launched Umami Girl, I felt knowledgeable about food and cooking because of a lifetime of having loved and paid attention to it, but “expert” was a tough word for me. I don’t have any restaurant cooking experience, but I had culinary training from what was then the French Culinary Institute. Ultimately, I felt a lot more comfortable when I realized that a blog can be useful specifically because it’s not about restaurant cooking. You can be an expert in home cooking without ever having cooked in a restaurant, and that’s totally fine.
As far as the other elements of the business, I didn’t have any coding experience or anything like that. There’s this whole technical aspect to running a website that I definitely did not feel like an expert in, and I still don’t. Luckily now I’m able to hire expert help.
The founders of Pinch of Yum and Food Blogger Pro coined a great term that I think about a lot: “Expert Enough.” It means that as a blogger you only need to be a few steps ahead of whomever you want to teach and that’s good enough. And sometimes that’s actually really great because you can still remember what it was like to know less. It helps you avoid the “curse of knowledge,” where you are so expert that it becomes hard to understand how people could not know what you know. Part of the joy of being just a few steps ahead is that I’m constantly learning.
5. Were your family and friends helpful or obstacles in launching your business? How so?
There’s no way I could have started and grown Umami Girl over almost a decade without the enthusiastic support of my husband (and without his major contributions to the family income!). He is so supportive, in fact, that I am sometimes tempted to rely too much on him for positive feedback. I have to be disciplined about doing market research and developing an honest understanding of what Umami Girl’s actual audience wants and needs.
Some of my close friends are also enthusiastic Umami Girl fans, and just like with the co-op members in the early days, it helps to keep real people in mind when trying to produce content to suit our audience. I also could not survive without the wonderful community of women around me who are all working hard to balance interesting jobs with life and family obligations. We all help each other out logistically and emotionally as much as possible, and that’s invaluable.
6. What are some of your current challenges?
Working from home with older children can be hard. I really don’t need, or even want, to be actively involved with what they’re doing at every moment. I want them to be on their own solving their own problems, obviously with my supervision. Now that Umami Girl is taking up 40+ hours of my time, it has been a bit of a tough transition for them. I run my own company partly because I like the flexibility to be around for the kids, but it gets hard when my work time collides with their home time. I do hear every once in a while, “We miss you.” Even though I’m right there in the house with them, being occupied with work becomes a tough balancing act.
7. What would be your biggest piece of advice you would give to yourself ten years ago?
My advice to myself would be to take charge of making things happen. When I first launched Umami Girl, I spent a lot of time working hard on the small things and trying to get noticed. My goal was for people to come to me. There was this idea that if you were talented enough, a book deal or a brand partnership would find you. Now, I’m not sure if it is me or the current climate or both that have changed, but I am working actively to promote the company and build my own opportunities. Even though it can be scary putting myself and my brand out there, it’s much more powerful to take the lead.
8. Do you use social media for marketing your business?
Social media is critical for my business, and it is by far our biggest type of marketing. I have an assistant who does the bulk of our content sharing because that’s a labor-intensive process. For a while, I was doing it all myself, and that was a little bit crazy. For my business Pinterest is a huge source of traffic, so we use it a lot, both for sharing Umami Girl content and for curating other people’s content. That way people who follow Umami Girl on Pinterest get to see lots of cool stuff — not just ours.
Umami Girl has a Facebook page that we share pretty much all our content on, and we do share other people’s content there as well. Umami Girl has an Instagram account, and even though we don’t have a huge following, I use it a lot. Instagram is much more geared to sharing your own content.
We still use Twitter to some degree. I use it almost more as a consumer these days though. Early on, Twitter really helped me get a lot of business opportunities, and make a lot of connections that I still have. But it was so different back then. It’s less of a small, real community now. I am focusing on YouTube now, and we are working on producing a lot more video content. Video is a big part of the future of Umami Girl.
9. What are your hopes for your business for the next five years?
My goal — which I’m actively working toward in the current rebranding and expansion — is to grow into the role of manager, publisher, and editor of a multimedia company that produces a much bigger volume of lifestyle content for women. It’s been fun and rewarding hiring contributors and experts this past year, which has allowed me to begin shifting from day-to-day content production on my own to working with a team and overseeing more moving parts.
I want to expand the reach, influence, and content that Umami Girl puts out into the world. And a big way of doing that is by producing much more content and different types of content that relates to the way women live. One of the main reasons the company is called Umami Girl is not just for the taste of umami. But also to me, it’s always meant the little something extra that helps you find the best things in life. It’s exciting to make more of those little things accessible to more people as we grow.
10. Are you willing to serve as a mentor to others interested in your sector?
Absolutely! I’ve been both mentee and mentor in the past, and it’s rewarding from both perspectives. I’ve learned so much from generous mentors that I feel a strong obligation to pay it forward. But mentoring is a great way to learn, too — it’s a win-win.
Date of Conversation: July 13, 2017
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