BLOGGING AND BRANDING – BRAINSTORM

Start Blogging, Start a Business, and Build an Authentic Brand

Bestselling author and successful entrepreneur Emily Schuman of Cupcakes and Cashmere on building a thriving business.
IMAGE: Getty Images

Some months ago I published a post about commonly misused words. Several hundred thousand people read it, so it was reasonably popular, but as with most posts, in time the views slowed.

Then one day, seemingly out of nowhere, tens of thousands of people read it.

I did a little digging and learned that all those readers came from one small link in a post called “Links I Love” on the fashion, food, and lifestyle inspiration blog Cupcakes and Cashmere. That’s far and away the most readers an external link has generated for one of my posts, including tweets from people with millions of Twitter followers.

So I did a little more digging and learned that Emily Schuman has done what countless other people have not been able to do: start a blog, create outstanding content with a unique voice and an authentic point of view, build a large and vibrant community, and turn that blog into a successful business. She’s partnered with retail brands, written a bestselling book, Cupcakes and Cashmere: A Guide for Defining Your Style, Reinventing Your Space, and Entertaining with Ease, will release her second book, Cupcakes and Cashmere at Home, this May, and later this summer will launch a line of products.

So I asked Emily how she did–and does–it.

Tell me where the idea came from, what you were doing at the time, what your hopes were.

I started my blog in 2008 as a purely creative endeavor. I was working in online ad sales at the time, which was a good job, but didn’t provide any sort of outlet for creativity or cover any of my passions, which are fashion, food, beauty and home decor.

I didn’t have any specific goals or ambitions, other than to document ideas and create simple content that I enjoyed and perhaps a handful of others would appreciate. Over the first six months I noticed a slight increase in traffic, which led me to think I might be able to earn a little extra income to supplement my normal salary.

Early on, what challenges did you face and what mistakes did you make?

One of the biggest challenges I faced early on was trying to do everything by myself, rather than delegating or working with other skilled people. I’m not tech savvy, so when my site would crash or I wanted to add a new feature I would spend hours looking up tutorials and sloppily coding pieces into the backend of my site… which would often make things worse.

I eventually turned to people (specifically my then boyfriend, now husband) to help find support for the growing site. Thankfully he worked in the digital media space and called in a few favors, but I definitely learned you can’t build or run a successful enterprise singlehandedly.

How did you differentiate yourself in such crowded space?

One advantage I have is longevity. I started my site when blogging (specifically fashion/lifestyle) was still a nascent area of media, so the fact that I’ve been doing it for over seven years has provided a little bit of legitimacy. I’ve also evolved over time, so rather than focusing on the same content I’ve tried to diversify and expand on the categories I cover.

A lot of the readers have grown up with me, so there is a very personal connection we share and they relate to a lot of the experiences I’ve showcased (like getting married, buying a home, having a baby) that provide a more authentic experience than simply sharing pretty photographs.

Lastly, consistency is key. I haven’t missed a post in seven years, so readers know there will be something new each morning… and I’ve heard from a lot of them that they love starting their day with a cup of coffee and reading the latest post.

Tell me about your overall theme, “aspirational meets attainable.” Intuitively I get it, but I would think striking that balance is tough.

This has been the core idea of the site since day one primarily because I wasn’t making a lot of money–so my goal was to create a lifestyle that felt elevated without draining my bank account. (A lot of this stemmed from my experience at Teen Vogue where I was exposed to a mix of amazing designers and media that was semi-relatable but simply out of reach.)

As my business has grown and I’ve been lucky enough to increase my income, I’ve worked hard to maintain the tenets of the “attainable” tone, primarily through the data we’ve collected. We know the price points readers respond to, we know the retailers they prefer… so while not every piece of content will resonate, we make sure most of what we put out is in line with what people expect to see and makes them feel comfortable.

There are a lot of blogs that suddenly change their tone or content once they begin to grow, but I feel a big part of my long-term success is built on knowing the audience and not straying from the core messaging.

How do you decide on your topic mix? You have food, clothing, household items, career advice, fashion…

Every topic is based on something I’m passionate about, but we also have a set editorial calendar to make planning easier. This has evolved and been refined over the years, based on audience response, but we look at it kind of like TV programming (i.e. Monday = Fashion & Decor, Tuesday = Food & DIY, etc.)

I think consistency and knowing what to expect on a certain day gives the audience a sense of comfort.

You make your living with your blog, which means partnerships and advertising. A great offer from a potential advertiser has to be tempting, even if it isn’t great for your brand or your audience. It’s always tough to turn away revenue.

As with many bloggers in this category I receive dozens of advertising opportunities each week, almost all of which I don’t accept.

However, the advertisers I do work with are a natural fit for the content we’re producing; you wouldn’t see me driving a Hummer in a post.

That’s not one of the advertisers I’ve turned down, but I have had offers from companies who clearly have never read my blog and have offered a lot of money to integrate a product into the site, regardless of whether their audience was even remotely aligned aligned.

You get dozens and often hundreds of comments on every post. Why do you think your audience is so engaged?

I don’t mean to sound redundant, but consistency and authenticity are the key elements to building an engaged audience.

The readers have built an emotional connection with the site and ultimately they look at it as more than just some text and words. I’ve had people approach me on the street and say, “You’re Cupcakes and Cashmere,” rather than calling me by my name, so there is sometimes a disconnect between the brand and myself… but either way, the connection is real and they relate to what I’m creating.

You’ve published one bestselling book and have another book in the works. How have you leveraged your online presence to offline products and ventures? And do you have a longer-term strategy?

My second book, Cupcakes and Cashmere at Home, comes out on May 19 and I can’t wait to share some of my favorite interior design and entertaining tips.

I’ve been working with a licensing agent for the past two years to explore and expand retail opportunities with the brand and we’re actually launching a new product line this summer. I can’t say more about it yet but it is within one of the main categories I cover on the site. We’ve locked in two large retail partners (one is brick/mortar online, one purely e-comm) and we’ve been in the process of developing two other product lines within another category.

The long-term goal is to establish a successful line of branded products that benefit from the blog but are a stand-alone business.

Say I meet you in an airport lounge, find out what you do, and say, “I’ve always wanted to start a site on (my passion.) Any quick tips you’d give me, and common mistakes to avoid?

Tips:

  • Be patient with your goals since success will most likely come slowly, if at all.
  • If you’re creating original content, be prepared for it to consume a lot of your time.
  • For areas that you’re not skilled in, find great collaborators.
  • Get a basic understanding of the digital media landscape. Learn about analytics, do some research on advertising, and be able to speak about your audience value.
  • Be authentic and learn to differentiate yourself. Most likely the category you’ll cover is overly saturated with content, so you need to find a way to make your work stand out.

Mistakes to avoid:

  • Sacrificing quality over quantity. Your audience will be built on trust and the entertainment value you provide. If your quality slips, so will they.
  • Taking every offer that comes your way. At first it’s very tempting to accept offers from an advertiser, but ultimately, it degrades your credibility if you become an advocate for anyone willing to pay you. Be selective.
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THE BEST BUSINESS, AND THE WORST

Map: The Best And Worst Countries For Business 2014

Forbes’ annual ranking of the Best Countries for Business grades countries on 11 different metrics, including property rights, innovation, taxes, technology, corruption, freedom (personal, trade and monetary), red tape, investor protection and stock market performance (click here for complete coverage). This year Denmark returns to the top spot, where it ranked three straight years between 2008 and 2010.

We enlisted mapping firm Esri this year to plot the top 25 and bottom 10 countries on an interactive world map that allows users to scan through the countries and access basic economic data by clicking on a country name (see below). Europe dominates the top 25 with more than 70% of the entries. These countries score well almost across board on trade and personal freedom, as well as innovation and corruption. The Asia-Pacific region landed five locales on the list with the U.S. and Canada making up the final components of the top 25. The U.S. ranks No. 18 this year, down four spots from 2013. It is the fifth straight year of declines for the world’s largest economy.

African nations make up 60% of the bottom 10 with high levels of corruption, red tape and taxes registering as major issues. Guinea, which is at the center of the Ebola breakout, brings up the rear at No. 146.

 

MULTIPLYING BOTH PEOPLE AND PROFIT

Concur.

It has been my personal experience that profits wisely shared with Wise Employees only serve to multiply profits.

 

Why The Container Store Pays Its Retail Employees $50,000 A Year

Kip TindellAP/Mark LennihanThe Container Store founder and CEO Kip Tindell.
Despite starting out with just a $35,000 investment in 1978, The Container Store founder and CEO Kip Tindell has grown his business to one that has 67 US locations and rings up annual sales of nearly $800 million.

 

Equally impressive is the fact that he’s done all that while paying his retail employees nearly twice the industry average.

 

According to Tindell’s book, “Uncontainable,” the average Container Store retail salesperson makes nearly $50,000 a year compared with what the Bureau of Labor Statistics says is a national average of just above $25,000.

 

In an interview with Business Insider’s Jenna Goudreau, Tindell says the secret to the company’s high wages is what he calls “the 1=3 rule,” meaning that one great employee will be as productive as three employees who are merely good.

 

As a result, Tindell feels he gets ahead by receiving three times the productivity of an average worker at only two times the cost.

 

“They win, you save money, the customers win, and all the employees win because they get to work with someone great,” he tells Business Insider.

PROFITS AND THE PROPHETS OF PROFIT

My daughter is young and has recently had a few new jobs. These are her first jobs (entry-level) and we are letting her work some during her gap year between graduation and college. She was not allowed to work during the time she was homeschooled and prior to graduating High School.

(This is the way my parents did it as well, although I was not homeschooled. That is to say that I was not allowed to work a real job, except during the summers, before graduating High School although on the weekends as I got older I would often sneak off on my own and work secretly without them knowing of it.)

Anyway, that aside being what it is, my daughter has recently held a job at a deli preparing food. At the close of each business day any food not sold must be disposed of. And so they do. By throwing it away like garbage.

Now I fully understand as both a business and a health matter that any food that might be rotten or unsanitary in any way must be disposed of in this way. But what about the food that has simply gone unsold during the day’s normal business operations?

Many employees have written to the owner of this particular establishment asking, even begging, that this food not be disposed of meaninglessly but rather be donated to public shelters or to the homeless or the poor.

The owner’s answer to these requests has, so far at least, always been along these general lines, “I pay for the food and pay my employees to prepare and sell the food for a profit, if I give the left-over food away for nothing I make the same profit as if I just throw it away (that being none) so it is easier to just throw it away.”

Now I fully understand that as businessman this can be a somewhat complicated and even tricky issue for several different reasons. First of all, you have individuals, people who could easily work to make the money to buy their own food but choose not to harassing you all of the time for “free food,” especially at closing time. Many people nowadays feel as if they are owed something and will happily beg and live a life of outright dependency simply because they can, not because they must or should. They wish to be a consumer of society only, and never a real producer. How do you avoid encouraging or promoting this disastrous habit (and it is a disastrous and malignant habit – both individually and societally) by giving away free food to undeserving recipients?

Secondly you might very well end up with several organizations vying for your leftover food, and how do you determine who is truly needy or in the most need. (This might be the organizational equivalent of the undeserving individual, or it might simply be an honest contest between equally needy or equally responsible organizations.) Indeed nowadays you might even inspire bad publicity from one organization or another offended that you chose another cause over them in their quest to obtain your leftover foods.

Third, as a businessman (or as anyone who has ever started-up or run their own business or company) I know that there is the simple but sometimes daunting logistical problem(s) involved – how is this left-over food distributed, to whom, where, and when?

Finally there is the liability issue. Suppose some of your donated leftover food is consumed by someone who becomes ill, and regardless of whether it can be reliably and scientifically established that your organization was at fault, or not, you might still face a lawsuit or at least the threat of one at some point in the future?

Now, as I said above I am fully aware of the difficulties involved in giving away free and left-over food in this manner. I happen to agree that all of the points I addressed above are valid concerns and worth consideration. They are all liabilities arguing against the giving away of free and left-over food at the end of each business day. (And since food is an immediately perishable item it is difficult to store and properly retain, it is not like simply putting paper products into inventory. Food must be used and used quickly, or it will be wasted. Therefore it has a very short-lived half and shelf life.)

However, all of that being said and true, I am nevertheless both a Cristian and a Capitalist. In either case I do not believe in or find it to be a good business or personal or economic or even spiritual practice to needlessly waste perfectly good resources (even if those resources have a very short useful shelf-life).

And to be perfectly honest there are viable and workable solutions to each problem I listed above. You could rather easily (though it may take some time and experimentation) develop a relationship with reputable non-profit organizations that assist and feed the homeless, the helpless, the poor, the wounded veteran, or the medically disabled. You could develop contractual agreements with such organizations that state that they accept any left-over foods at their own risk and that you are free of liability.

(An unnecessary risk you say, and not worth the effort? Well, anyone who works with food knows that sooner or later, either through the food itself or through the employee handling it, you will make a customer or client ill, possibly even, though no fault of your own – such as undetected infection at a processing plant – kill someone with the food you serve. Tragic accidents such as those occur all of the time handling food, and although people don’t like to even honestly and realistically consider the idea, it is true. Sooner or later, whether the food be sold or given away as free leftovers, someone will be made sick or worse by consuming it.)

As for encouraging unnecessary and counterproductive dependence in the lazy and slothful, that will require a policy similar to that of determining the best organizations to work with in distributing the leftover food. You don’t want to give your leftover foods to the lazy and irresponsible but to the deserving, hard-working, truly indigent, and responsible end-user. But that can be done.

Finally, as regards the logistical problem(s) you can insist that anyone that takes the left-over food do so at their own expense, that they provide their own pick-up and transportation services so that this does not eat into your own profit or disrupt your own business operations. The risks might seem great at first glance, but each problem is soluble and just to be honest all of life and all of business is, by very nature, risk. Modern people might not like to hear that, they might do all they can to flee risk or to mitigate risk (and mitigating truly reckless risk is always wise, mitigating all risk always foolish) or to simply avoid risk, but the truth remains business and life itself is risk. That’s just the way life works. Many modern people don’t like that fact but it still remains, and will remain for the foreseeable future, a true and unavoidable fact. Business is risk. Life is risk.

Now let me return to the fact that I am both a Christian and a Capitalist.

As a Christian I am in no way in favor of unnecessarily wasting resources, especially resources that given our current national and world economy people are both in desperate need of, and which are perishable and not immediately replaceable or retainable (to many at least). As a Christian I do not want to encourage dependency but personal productivity, and the useful and vital employment of each individual’s particular talents. That is one reason we exist as human beings, to make best and most productive use of our individual human and God-given talents. Yet I am also fully aware by both simple observation and personal experience that individual people fall on hard times, become injured or ill on occasion, or become faced with some problem (sometimes unwittingly, sometimes through no fault of their own) that they cannot solve alone. That is exactly when charity is most needed and most effective. Therefore it behooves the Christian businessman, or any businessman, to remember those salient facts of human existence. And to assist others whenever and wherever and however they can. This is not only a business matter, it is a moral matter.

As a Capitalist I am also acutely aware of this Truth – the injured or ill man, the needy man, the indigent man, the man who yesterday or today was down on his luck or awash in unfortunate circumstances may very well tomorrow be the successful man, the profitable person, the businessman, a potential partner, or even a wealthy client or customer. Capitalism feeds itself in this way, as it should, for it is not a static and self-consuming economic system (when functioning properly and when properly applied) such as socialism, but a dynamic and vital system that continually makes millionaires of paupers, and sometimes paupers of the wealthy. Therefore as a Capitalist it is a reckless and entirely self-defeating act to ever senselessly waste vital and useful resources; especially much needed resources that perish quickly. Resources that could save and rebuild lives. Just to be honest to waste food is an entirely anti-Capitalistic idea because contrary to the current and popular misconception of Capitalism as a purely profit-driven (in the low sense of the term) and inhuman mechanism (it is definitely not) it is always actually an entirely voluntary exchange of free human motivations and drives seeking both best self-interest and the best self-interest of the other in commercial and social exchange. For if your client and customer always remains indigent and poor and ill and incapable then he is also too indigent and too poor and too incapable to purchase your own products and services. Especially your best products and services. In other words the poor client or customer is not a good client and customer, whereas the wealthy client and customer is a good client and customer (in a business and commercial sense). Therefore the Wise Capitalist seeks communal and mutual Profit, not just individual and personal Profit. The True and High Minded Capitalist is like the True and High-Minded Christian, he knows that the better off is the Other Person, then the better off is he himself. And it will always be that way. The profits lay in the margins of advantage between the Self and Other, not in the separating disadvantages between the self and the other.

Therefore my conclusions in this matter are that it is both a senseless and anti-Capitalistic act to dispose of and waste food such as my daughter’s employer and business owner does, and an immoral and un-Christian act to do so.

This is not even to mention the obverse of the equation: the possible enormous public relations advantages that might be gained by being widely known as a responsible, morally-driven, and socially beneficial company or corporation as well as a highly-profitable one, both now and in the future.

I am writing this article therefore, and this is far from all that might be said on the issue (as a matter of fact this might even become an Interactive Essay on the issue, and perhaps it should), so that currently operating companies and corporations can take a good and honest look at their own operations in this regard. Are you needlessly and senselessly wasting valuable customer, human, and property resources merely because you have a misguided conception of both Capitalism and Profit, or merely because you fear risk in making and developing your True and Foundational Profits?

Because if so then I say to you, my friend, “there are profits, and then there are Prophets of Profits.”

Be not a slave to mere profits, but rather a Great Prophet of High-Profits. And you will discover that as a result not only you, but the whole world will thrive.

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