Before school in law, Cheryl Malik started 40 Aprons, a food blog that is now earning $18,000/month. In only 12 months, her blog income grew nearly 4000%, and traffic increased 1300%. But before achieving these, she had to overcome big stumbles and committed many mistakes. Learn from his failures!
Hi Cheryl! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?
My name is Cheryl Malik, and I’m a law school dropout, cupcake bakery deserter, burlesque troupe leaver-behind, and general quitter. My true background is in publishing: I worked as the editor-in-chief at the literary magazines at my high school and in college, and that was what I always, always wanted to do. You know, when I “grew up.” But I was told that industry was going away (And it kind of did), so I went to law school instead. Obviously.
I knew almost instantly law school wasn’t for me, so, armed with a useful philosophy degree, I worked through strange potential career path after strange potential career path, working as an employee in music and audio sales, then starting a burlesque troupe, cupcake catering business, vintage clothing sales, vintage clothing TV producer, then settled in as a digital marketing and web design freelancer.
The one constant the entire time was the food blog I’d started right before law school: 40 Aprons. I’d started the blog as a creative outlet as I entered a notoriously dry, uncreative, and challenging process, and it grew slowly along with my writing, marketing, and photography skills. In the last year, I discovered my true niche and voice, and in 12 months, my blog income grew nearly 4000%. My traffic increased 1300%, skyrocketing from 71,279 page views in January 2017 (The tipping point at which my blog’s traffic was already increasing, having found my niche and started giving it my all) to 1,059,834 page views in January 2018.
That means my blog has grown my income double or triple what I was making at my last agency job, depending on the month. We’re working on a food blogging & photography coaching program to help other food bloggers find success. In addition to that, my long-time dream of starting a design and marketing agency focused on food bloggers, restaurants, and food brands has finally come to fruition: my agency Layer Cake is active and taking clients! Our passion is creating digital experiences that are worthy of the food they feature, and we’re anything but a churn-and-burn conveyor belt-style agency. We become a part of each client and take on the business as our own; this, in conjunction with my experience in the food and food blogging world, is what makes us special.
I’m also a mother to a toddler with one on the way, so there’s a lot of teetering and waddling going on in our studio right now.
How did you build 40 Aprons? Which is your business model?
40 Aprons grew slowly; my focus was not on my blog as a business for many years but was more of a hobby. After something like 7 or 8 years, teetering on the edge of total burnout from agency life, I realized that it was time to take all the energy and skill I was applying to my clients at work and give my blog my all. We moved into a new house, and I quit my job, half-jokingly worried that we’d quickly default on our mortgage. Instead, this new focus on my blog as a business paid off in spades, and my traffic, and, consequently, revenue grew rapidly.
My business model is pretty simple: I make most of my income off of display ads shown to my visitors, so the more traffic I have, the more revenue I make, typically. It gets a bit more complicated than that with seasonal RPMs (revenue per mille - the money I make per thousand impressions of an ad), but that’s ultimately what it comes down to. I also freelance as a food photographer and digital marketer, sell products related to my blog, make affiliate income off of products I recommend, and work on sponsored posts with various companies.
In December 2017, all of these elements added up to over $11,000 in income. January 2018’s income is closer to $18,000, thanks to seasonally high traffic and product sales. My ad revenue in January, despite year-long RPM lows, was over $13,000, a number I simply couldn’t have fathomed a year prior.
Which are your marketing strategies to grow your traffic?
My number one and most important marketing strategy to grow my traffic is my focus on consistent, high-quality content. I pay very close attention to the content I produce that performs the best and prompts the greatest engagement, and I identify what links these recipes, what makes them similar. I boil those qualities down to their simplest and use those traits to inspire me for future posts.
Aside from my focus on content, I make sure to learn best practices for each of the platforms used for promotion. We focus heavily on Pinterest, as well as high-quality lead magnets to consistently increase our list, and I try to be quite active on Instagram, always following what the platforms publish as the best practices. Facebook… I just can’t with Facebook. I do, however, run a couple related groups, one of which is growing quickly and is very active.
I also make sure there’s a solid SEO foundation for every post I write, focusing on logical searching rather than exactly what SEMrush.com or Google’s keyword planner says. I use Pinterest’s search population frequently for realistic searching and find that works very well for me.
What were the biggest challenges you faced and obstacles you overcame?
The biggest challenge for me has always been, and still is, giving 40 Aprons my absolute focus. Because it’s enjoyable and has always been my passion, it always was pushed to the back burner for me. And today, client work and deadlines always come first, but I have to remind myself: all of this is a reality because of the blog. That should be my #1 focus always!
In terms of challenges within the industry, there is so much content now, and it can be difficult to stand out from the crowd. It took time for me to do this, and I’m still working on it! But given the sheer volume of food blogs these days, it’s challenging for almost everyone to separate themselves, develop a recognizable style, and drum up a loyal followership of people who really relate to what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.
It wasn’t until I really narrowed down my niche, and then narrowed it further by analyzing the content that performed best with my audience, that I was able to feel successful on this spectrum. Now that I’m established in the niche and know very well what works and doesn’t work with my audience, I’m working hard to pump out the content that my readers want, whilst integrating a voice that resonates with them (Thankfully, that’s my regular voice, but I include my more family-oriented perspective these days) to continue to grow a presence. I want my site and content to be more than a random recipe found on Pinterest; I want it to be a collective, a voice, more of a destination than a chance stop along the way.
Which are your greatest disadvantages?
Not to sound too much like a cheesy interview, but I’m a bit too ambitious. I pursue too many ideas. I come up with ideas for new businesses or projects regularly and want to do them all! This, combined with my inability, or perhaps refusal, to say no to anything, can frequently lead to my being worked beyond my bandwidth. The reality is I have the opportunity to have a balanced life focused on family, experiences, and my passion. I apparently work very hard to sabotage that!
Thankfully, within my niche, the things that might be considered disadvantages in other niches are irrelevant. Almost all of us have kids, for example, so we’re all starting from the same baseline, developing recipes with toddlers hanging off our legs, furiously editing at naptime. I’m grateful for the community in so many ways, but this is definitely one of them: we all share a perspective and a goal. While this could be viewed as a disadvantage, I find it incredibly inspirational and community-building.
In that sense, too, it’s important to share that I don’t view my peers as competitors. The Internet is abundant in every sense, and I relate more to the (very loose, in this application) concept of the Blue Ocean Strategy here. In other words, a new recipe doesn’t detract from an existing recipe, it simply creates continually new space for consumers to explore.
That said, because my niche is very defined, it can feel very “whoever gets to it first” when it comes to products, especially cookbooks. As soon as one person writes a specific cookbook, like paleo Indian food or the paleo Air Fryer, it feels to me off-limits to cover, or at least less effective. How many of each cookbook do we really need?
During the process of building & growing 40 Aprons, which were the worst mistakes you committed?
40 Aprons is so old, you can witness every mistake or total lack of skill or knowledge like layers of fossils. For a long time, my photography was absolutely atrocious, and in the beginning, it didn’t really matter! Today, food bloggers consistently produce magazine-quality photography, but a decade ago, cell phone shots were a-OK. That, of course, changed, and I tried to adapt to it.
And then, of course, there was the creative titling, naming things “So Nice They Named It Twice” rather than what the dish actually was. Again, back then, people weren’t searching on Pinterest for recipes (Because Pinterest didn’t exist!), and priority was always, always given to mega food sites, so on top of it being less visible, there were simply no real resources to learn best practices.
The biggest mistake, though, would have to be my tendency to keep 40 Aprons always idling in the driveway, burning fuel and resources but not really going anywhere. I saw quick growth after I gave it my all, but, to be fair, I spent many years learning the skills that allowed me to do so.
If you had the chance to do one thing differently, what would you change?
I would have learned food photography early! Not only is it just loads of fun, visually advertising your work has always been important. I wish I’d been confident early on that I could learn it and simply gone for it.
Apart from mistakes, what are other sources of learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?
There are so many fantastic resources for food bloggers these days! My food blogging & photography coaching program gets my highest recommendation, because of all of the one-on-one time and resources you get from me and my team, along with the access to ask me anything about whatever you need during that time. We’re very thorough with our recommendations and homework, teaching best practices in unique scenarios and designing homework and tasks to support bloggers’ individual goals. The program is still in its infancy, and we’re working to develop it off of what we learn coaching individually with all that one-on-one time into a formal, interactive group program. Because of that, I highly recommend food bloggers get on board now! If you’re interested, get in touch and let me know by clicking here.
Aside from the food blogging coaching program, I highly recommend my eBook Improve Your Food Photography Almost Instantly for, well, improving your food photography almost instantly. The book is a great balance between theory, food and prop styling, practical tips for better inspiration and shots, editing, and style development.
And if you’re looking to start a food blog and need resources, check out my article How to Start a Food Blog. It covers pretty much everything you need, from hosting and domains names to photography gear.
Where can we go to learn more?
Check out my blog, 40Aprons! I promise my recipes are pretty great. You can follow me on Instagram @40aprons, on Pinterest, or on Facebook. If you’re interested in my food blogging & photography coaching program, shoot me a message here.
If you want to learn more about my restaurant & food blog design agency Layer Cake, check out our website here. We’re a brand-new startup and would love to chat about how we can help you really learn your brand, reach more people, and provide an incredible user experience.