Photos By: Nicole Kestenbaum, Photographer & Blogger at Lipstick & Brunch
The thing I love most about working in a creative industry like blogging is the people you meet. Driven, hard-working and innovative are a few words that describe each and every blogger I’ve met in Houston. There’s a uniqueness that sets creatives apart from most people I know. Maybe it’s found behind camera lens or computer screens, conjured in late nights and early mornings when the world is asleep and it’s just us trying to make things happen for our art, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Sugar & Cloth‘s Ashley Rose has been the confused millennial, overworked waitress, full-time employee/full-time blogger, a 5 a.m. alarm setter, and most infamously the girl who sold her things on Craig’s List to make her DIY studio a reality. The best part? I get to call her my friend.
I recently started a chapter of The Blogger Union in Houston, after being approached by blogger Paola Mendez of Coral Gables Love and mentor/author Nikki Novo. The Blogger Union is a monthly meet-up, giving bloggers a space to share their knowledge, learn and support each other. My favorite element of the group is its focus on kind collaboration over competition. Blogging, depending on where you are, can be a catty bubble of superficiality built on fake fans, exclusive event invitations and a slew of insincere Instagram and blog comments. (Yep, I said it. I’m talking about the people who leave the “Like it!” and “100%” comments on often heartfelt posts…don’t do it!) To kick-off my first monthly workshop, I couldn’t think of a better person to invite than Ashley.
Ashley was the very first blogger I met in Houston. We went for manicures, got really weird neck massages in the process and talked about my day job… which ultimately led to me talking about my side job, Cup of Charisma. She had invaluable advice and with good reason. Ashley has been named Editor’s Choice for Best DIY Blog by Better Homes & Gardens, a Top DIY Blog to Follow by Yahoo!, a Top 10 Instagram Account to Follow by Huffington Post and Design*Sponge, and a guest pinner for Martha Stewart Living. She’s been featured on the Every Girl, Glitter Guide, Houston Chronicle, Today Show, and the list goes one. I can brag all day but I have a point to get to, so check our her notable press here. She continues to inspire and motivate me with her amazing work, so I am so glad she was able to share her knowledge and invite us into her studio space.
If you missed our meet-up, I’ve rounded up a few of my favorite points.
Small Beginnings Can Have Big Results
One of the most remarkable things about Ashley’s journey with Sugar & Cloth can be found in perhaps the most unremarkable of places, a restaurant in League City, Texas. I’ve heard the story of how Sugar & Cloth began about seven or eight times since the day I met Ashley. No matter how many blogger conferences I attend or sidebar conversations we have at events, it’s a narrative that never gets old to me. Originally from West Virginia, Ashley had a graphic design college scholarship… a full ride to be precise. During the course of junior year, she decided that college life and the path she was on wasn’t for her. After quitting school, moving to South Houston, and waiting tables, Ashley still was trying to figure out her next steps. Sometimes signs reveal themselves in unconventional ways—Ashley’s sign was in the form of tartar sauce. After an irate customer fought with her over condiments, she knew it was time to start to pave a path that would not only lead to an exit sign from waitressing, but ultimately lead the rest of her life. “I knew I had to put something out there for it to come back to me,” Ashley says. She thought “this will open up a door at some point.”
She didn’t imagine the blog would exceed the eyes of her family, but it was a start that opened doors, led to jobs and ultimately led to her self-employment.
“When You Have Something You’re Really Passionate About, It’s Easy to Work Towards”
If you’re a blogger or a creative entrepreneur, this is no secret. Many of us show up to work at our 9-to-5 jobs (which can still be creative and very fun if you’re lucky) but daydream about that article, painting, podcast, book, blog post, etc. that we’re coming home to. I listened to an episode of Millennial that I felt to be so relatable recently, where Megan Tan (the podcast’s creator) woke up to her obnoxious alarm at 3 a.m. to churn out another podcast. The reason why it struck me was because it was MY alarm… the same unsettling noise I wake up to at 4 a.m. most mornings to write this blog, edit photos and submit freelance articles. If you’re having this same epiphany, I hope you realize that it’s OUR alarm. It’s in inconvenient but welcomed distraction from the mundane grind that gives us edge and adds color to our lives, sometimes at the cost of our energy and free time.
Ashley talked a lot about blogger guilt—personally, I think we’ve all been there. There’s always more time you could have been pinning, commenting, engaging, pitching brands, planning posts, etc. You’re a human being, albeit Type-A, and you’re most likely spread thin. Over-exhausting yourself for your blog may actual do more harm than good. “As long as you know you’re doing the best you can do and giving it as much attention as you can while still living a semi-healthy life then I think it kind of all comes together,” Ashley says. “There are always the ‘what ifs’ but at the end of the day it’s just an element of ‘do you feel happy with what you’re doing’ and you kind of just figure out how to make it work.”
When Ashley did finally decide to go full-time, it wasn’t because she was at a job she couldn’t stand (she had moved on from waitressing). It’s because she continued to do what she was passionate about (spread incredibly thin) and realized that if she were her full-time employer, she wouldn’t want an employee who’s heart wasn’t fully there.
The Struggle is Real
Nothing is as perfect as it is on Instagram or in a blog post. Thankfully, Ashley does a REALLY great job at demystifying her journey and transparently sharing the struggles she experienced to go full-time. At one point in her career, she was scavenging her studio for things to share on Craig’s List. “It’s never going to be easy,” she admits.
Here’s the Deal When Working with Brands
Working with brands can be a gray area for many bloggers. Ashley stressed the importance of evaluating if the product would be valuable for readers at the end of the day. While doing things for a quick buck can seem of interest to new bloggers, staying true to your voice and opinions is one of the most valuable tools. It’s also important to be honest with your readers about what’s a partnership and what’s not.
“Don’t allow [brands] to put too many words in your mouth that aren’t your own,” Ashley says. “There’s an element of gracefully standing your ground.” As Ashley stated (before a relentless fry tried to sabotage our Q&A), “you’re your only advocate and you have to stand up for what you feel you deserve.”
One of the most hilarious things mentioned during this entire talk was the repercussions of accepting free items in exchange for reviews. Do you want to be the person who accepted a free cake for a post or event and is forever indentured to tagging that brand on Instagram? Uh, no. While the example is extreme, I feel every blogger can relate. (I’ve had first-hand experience as the girl who was asked to write a “review” on a six-pack of gifted macarons last year.)
Other key takeaways on partnerships:
Just because a brand can’t work with you now, doesn’t mean they won’t keep you in mind for later. Send those media kits and pitches!
Ashley’s rule of thumb: when creating a sponsored post, keep your costs a 10% of what you’re being paid.
Don’t be the person that makes it “okay” for brands to not compensate bloggers. Know your worth and stand your ground.
Is it Really All About Numbers? Spoiler: The Answer is No
After Sunday’s meet-up, I was reading a thread in a Facebook group for bloggers that infuriated me. Admitting to receiving around 1,500-3,000 page views per month, a young blogger was asking this unnamed Facebook community how much she should charge for a post. People began to say $30 was “pushing it.” Here’s a small confession: I worked with a brand on large-scale partnerships before that matched a two-week 9-to-5 salary and I didn’t have 100,000 readers to do it. Did that brand care? NO. Why? Because they liked the high-quality content I delivered. I’m not saying every partnerships will be the value of your typical paycheck, but you can find the rate (the common amount I hear is most often $200-$500) that works for you.
Ashley may boast of a huge social media following, but she still feels that she is a small fish in the national DIY pond. While I think she is in a wonderful place with Sugar & Cloth, the truth is that she still competes for MAJOR campaigns against major talent. If a brand knows you deliver the best content around, it doesn’t matter where you have/haven’t been featured and how many readers you have. According to Ashley, some brands are specifically interested in your content, storytelling and design. She encouraged everyone to come to the realization that content is king and it’s not all about numbers. In a world where bots and fake followers are filling the influencer market, can you blame brands? Sometimes a quality picture or post IS worth a thousand words. (Check out Cool Photo School to learn how Ashley gets those awesome images.)
Contributing? Show Them What You’re Made Of
I keep myself pretty busy outside of Cup of Charisma. I write for Miami.com, the Miami Herald newspaper, Huffington Post and LAPALME Magazine. I also apply for freelance writing gigs at the same rate I applied for colleges my junior year. Teen Vogue, InStyle, The Every Girl, Hello Giggles, and 1,000 other publications have my pitches waiting to be read in their inbox. I’ve questioned this effort, especially when my pitches are landing me nowhere. Why should I strive to put out content for others when I have my own site to focus on?
Ashley has contributed her DIY projects and blog posts to tons of online sites for bylines, with good reason. She reminded us all that one of the best ways to gain an organic readership is to contribute to various sites that may appeal to target readers. Most importantly, we shouldn’t just be contributing… we should be giving our absolute best. If we’re exposing ourselves to potential readers, shouldn’t we make it worth their while so they come back?