How to Turn Lifestyle Blogging Into a Career: Behind the Scenes with Kit Graham

Turning social media into a full time job is all the rage. After all, breaking out of corporate America and becoming a digital nomad might just be a dream come true. But the steps to get there aren’t always clear.

Read on as the founder of NOTICE Agency, Nick Kinports, interviews lifestyle blogger and entrepreneur Kit Graham on building a business from the ground up. Today Kit’s food and travel blog The Kittchen is a media powerhouse and a full time job, and it all started as a very unusual birthday present and a side gig to a corporate career.

How to become a paid blogger

Kit Graham, owner of The Kittchen and Windy City Blogger Collective. Photo Credit: Kelly Graham

Some time ago, we got the idea like we should talk to full time bloggers and influencers that transitioned from a regular nine to five. There’s no doubt Kit Graham fits that description. Kit can you tell us a little about yourself and how you got started?

Thanks, glad to share about what I’ve built. Firstly, my name is Kit Graham and I’m the founder of The Kittchen and The Windy City Blogger Collective. Together they make up more than enough for a full time job. Both companies grew from a really simple idea I had to start documenting and sharing things that are important to me.

Two companies that are pretty well developed and all built around websites. Let’s start with The Kittchen, which is your food, travel, and lifestyle blog. When did you start working on it?

Well, to make a long story short, I’ve been blogging for about seven years. I started blogging in 2011, at a time when I was working in a pretty miserable job that I couldn’t stand. There wasn’t any room for growth personally or professionally, which was kind of soul crushing over time. I was looking for other things to do and I always have had an interest in the written word.

The original idea was straightforward. I started photographing and documenting recipes on a really basic website. Part of the catalyst for that idea also happened when I moved to a new apartment that was 5 minutes from work. All of a sudden I had 10 hours plus back in my week, so I was able to devote a lot of the extra time to a hobby. Of course when you’re starting something and it’s not making any money it’s really a hobby and not a job. I didn’t have an illusions about that and even though I didn’t love my job I kept at it to pay the bills.

So you lifehacked your week by moving close to work and saving the commute. What did you focus on to fill that found time?

I pretty much devoted myself to improving content. I knew that brands were paying bloggers to cover products and services, and I wanted to be a part of it. But I also knew that those brands want quality, and I could develop an advantage there. I began working on writing, photography, and the overall website experience. I didn’t spend a lot, but I did invest in a DSLR camera and some web design and development help.

The idea was to make the blog appear more like a lifestyle magazine that brands would be proud to show up in.

Exactly. I knew if I could produce something that’s really high quality and shows my personality it would attract brands. And sure enough after I got serious things started to happen. It was probably around the three-year mark when companies started reaching out with paid collaboration offers.

How did those brands find you?

Good question. The brand and their agencies were using Google to find bloggers. I say bloggers and not influencers because that term wasn’t really a thing. Keep in mind in 2013 and ’14 Instagram wasn’t really a thing. I think the lesson here is that if you put yourself out there, brands and agencies will find it if it fits their needs.

What was the first major paid brand collaboration you remember working on?

That’s easy. One of the first brands to reach out was Coca-Cola which was pretty amazing because they’re one of the best known companies in the world. When I read the email from my website form, I wasn’t fully convinced that it was real. After the collaboration started things started happening faster. And that was really great to see because at this point I had been working on my little hobby for three full years.

What was the assignment from Coca-Cola?

I did a series of blog posts for them over the course of a year. It was an amazing project because of the consistency involved. Typically paid assignments are very short lived or campaign driven, and this was about 8 articles over the course of a year. Which was perfect because I liked the consistency of working on a long term project.

That seems like a dream come true. Were there any challenges or learnings with your first major paid blogger gig?

Absolutely. It took me almost six months for the first check to clear. There were definitely some headaches involved that stemmed from working with an intermediary. In this case there was a public relations agency sitting between myself and the brand. They didn’t make things easy and payment was one sore spot for me.

The big lesson there was that large corporations don’t always work as quickly as you want, and working directly with the brand is best if you can swing it. At the same time, even though there were headaches working on the project, other agencies started to notice me.

After other agencies and brands saw Coca-Cola they knew you were a player. When did you decide to go full time?

I was getting offered more money for projects and my website traffic was consistently going up. I had this nice flow going and at some point I just knew it didn’t make sense for me to be going to my job anymore. It was really just a point where the income from blogging on the side was pretty close to what I was making at my nine to five and we knew if I decided to devote all of my time to running my website that it would surpass what I was making in a job that frankly wasn’t going anywhere.

You say “running my website”, which is different from what I have heard other influencers or bloggers say when referring to their work. What’s driving how you talk about your business?

It’s super easy to say Instagram is the biggest thing to use as a platform and blogging almost seems like it’s secondary or not even around any more. That’s a really short sighted way to look at things and if you’re an Instagram influencer I think it’s important to realize something. You don’t own your Instagram account. Sure you can access it and update it but Instagram could turn it off at any moment, or people could just stop caring about Instagram.

When you own your own platform like a website it can become a business. You can direct people to it forever, and unless people stop using the web it’s going to grow in value. Way more people visit my website every month than follow me or engage with my posts on Instagram.

And that’s really interesting because you built that website with a lot of content over a long period of time.

Yep. It’s all about consistently creating content. The things that I see happening are more transactional Instagram influencer deals. You have to hustle to make those happen because once a post is made it’s all over. You get paid for that post, but you aren’t going to be paid anything after that until the next post.

A website is completely different because it makes you passive income. That’s basically money while I sleep every night because old content gets traffic through search. Ads are placed in those articles and the views and clicks from those ads generate advertising revenue. On top of that you have the regular sponsored content stuff from brands, which is also a great source of income but definitely not on autopilot. So with a website you have multiple ways to make money and not all of them require you to be working.

I think people underestimate blogging and they are constantly thinking, “Oh Instagram.” Start a blog, grow it. It’s going to make you more money in the long-term.

Speaking of content on your blog, there are a lot of recipes and food-focused content. I suppose it’s worth letting readers know that Kit is very much a food person.

Yes. I’m a food and travel person. It’s a mix. About 25% of the content is travel, the rest is usually food, and a lot of the food recipes are travel inspired. So, it all comes together.

How has that content mix evolved over the last seven years?

When I was working in corporate land it was definitely more food. I was trying to do travel but obviously when you work a nine to five job you’re too busy to travel. Now since I’m working for myself, I’ve been traveling over 100 days a year and covering 25 destinations a year which has been so much fun.

That’s a pretty big come up to start from not focused on travel to making it a huge part of your life. I think a lot of people have that dream because we see people traveling on Instagram all the time and get a little FOMO. Can you tell me a little bit about what the travel part of being an influencer has been like and what you like about that or don’t like about it?

I think there is a misconception that all of a sudden one day a franchise is going to pay you to travel. In 2014 I had never done it before and I was figuring out how it works. In the blogging and influencer world, in order to get paid to do something you need to start doing it and show brands your capabilities first. You need to self-fund it, because no brand is going to say, “We’re going to pay you to do travel content,” if you’ve never created any travel content before.

So, that’s really how I started. I just started traveling. One of the first things I did when I quit my job is we went to Europe for 17 days and I created a whole bunch of travel content around that. Then I just kept going with it. Some of it is sponsored, some of it isn’t. I find ways to do it that makes sense for me personally. It’s also just what I want to be doing with my time and how I want to enjoy my flexibility as I’m self-employed.

Planning that big Europe trip sounds amazing. Did you know that you were going to focus on content creation? Was it a trip to generate a base of content?

Basically. I’m pretty good at using my down time wisely when I travel. Basically, when I travel, I just have to take more pictures than anyone usually would so I can make sure that I have enough imagery from the trip. Really, I’m just spend a lot of extra time documenting what I’m experiencing. It’s not like I’m working all day every day but when it makes sense or inspiration strikes I’m at the ready. I’ll just be sitting there taking notes and working on creating the content. So, I’m creating in real time which I think makes it much stronger content.

I’m really doing the writing after the trips are over, but my notes are written in real time so I’m not forgetting the details. Content like blog articles needs to be authentic, and notes really help get those special details you can only capture from being in the place. It’s a way to generate emotions in your readers, and it makes your content better than other places that gloss over the fine grain details.

What is your motivation behind doing more travel content? I’m sure seeing the world is awesome, is there more to it than that?

These trips that I’m taking should be pleasurable. I know travel writers are often so focused on the work they can’t actually enjoy the experience. In the end, I’m trying to help people enjoy their holiday and I’m creating trip itineraries that could potentially be somebody’s vacation. I take that really seriously because most people don’t get to take as many as I do, and each one needs to be as close to perfect as it can get for that person. Hopefully my content helps them make that decision. Generally I like to focus on positive experiences. There are places I’ve been that I didn’t enjoy, and I just didn’t write about it.

make money by blogging

Seeing the Lavender in Sault. Photo Credit: Kelly Graham

Your photography is beautiful. What equipment are you using?

I’m using a DSLR and currently I have a Canon EOS 60D. It’s perfect for a lot of different situations and an all-around good performer. There are definitely better cameras out there, but when I’m traveling I’m on the go walking 10 miles a day and I just want a lighter camera. Fancier models tend to have more weight and it’s just not feasible.

That said, I also just bought a Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II. It’s really popular with bloggers right now because of its small size and it has Wi-Fi. It is a nice alternative to using a DSLR when I am on the go.

Let’s get back to food a little bit because a bit part of what you do is very recipe-focused, and you’re actually a pretty accomplished chef I would say based on what I’ve seen. Tell me a little bit about how you approach the food component of blogging.

Thank you! Recipes have been the backbone of the website since it stared. It really began because my friends and family wanted my recipes. This sounds weird to say out loud, but my friends and my husband gave me a blog for my birthday seven years ago. That’s really how The Kittchen was started. I guess in a way they were doing it for themselves so they could steal my recipes. And it still is the backbone. It’s what makes money and what helps drive traffic to the website for that ad revenue I mentioned earlier.

From a mission perspective, I just want to create food that you would want to feed your family. There’s no specific choices or themes. It’s not all really healthy, it’s not all vegetarian, and it’s not all indulgent. It’s just honest-to-goodness-your-family-is-going-to-like-these-recipes that I love, and I stand behind. I’m inspired by everything, from what I find at the farmers’ market, the things I find in restaurants, and the foods I discover while I’m traveling. Yesterday I was working on recreating a meal that I had once in France. So, thematically it’s a worldly spin to it I guess if there was any spin to it at all.

Maybe we could say approachability is part of your brand?

I do want it to be approachable. I’m not going to tell you to use crazy appliances you probably don’t have. I want recipes to be easy to accomplish. I’m all about finding shortcuts for people. I want families to have a nice meal at the end of the day. I grew up eating, my mom made us dinner every night and I like to think I’m helping to continue that tradition even in this world of a million screens at the dinner table.

So, your mom is part of the inspiration behind the way you approach the food content or just the meal in general. I think that’s pretty cool.

Yeah. Just the idea of family sitting together at dinner and sharing a meal at the end of the day; that’s definitely how I was raised and the inspiration behind a lot of what I do because I want to see families, other families doing the same thing and hopefully with my recipe.

Well, I think it’s a good picture of what your business looks like today. So, let’s talk about tomorrow. What are you focused on for the future? What are you thinking about? Where do you want to be in one or two years?

I think for me the big focus for the future is going back to the blogs. Having passive income is an amazing and empowering thing, and I want to continue developing that platform.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in Instagram and growing that, but as I said before it could be gone in a few years and all that time would be wasted.

Do you think Instagram has a shelf life?

I think that there’s a lot of very bad behavior happening on Instagram in terms of users misusing the platform. I think overall search engines like Google are a safer investment when you think about things that will generate income in the future.

Does that mean you plan to reduce the time spent working on your Instagram presence in the near future?

I play the game, I do Instagram, I use all the major social media platforms. But I’m also always asking myself, “Okay, how can I do what I’m doing better? And how can I create more traffic for my website and therefore more income?” For me it’s been creating high quality content for the website and working on SEO optimization that has always paid off. Other than that it’s really being selected in brand partnerships that I’m taking and trying to create really unique and inspiring content.

A lot of brands want Instagram to be a part of the marketing mix today, and they need social media influencers to pull that off. As long as brand partnerships are interested in Instagram, I’ll be there. But I’m never going to lose focus from my number one priority: The Kittchen website.

travel for money

Piedmont. Photo Credit: Kelly Graham

You talked about advertising and passive income on your blog. What does that structure look like? How do you implement the advertising model in the context of your website?

It’s actually such an easy answer. There’s a company called Mediavine. They’re an ad server. So, what they do is they place the ads on my website for me. I have code inserted into my website and they handle the bidding and the placement. They cut me a check every month, it’s really easy.

So, basically you just focus on getting the traffic.

I just focus on traffic. Mediavine actually helps me. They used to help me a lot in terms of the basics around getting more traffic through content. They have a brilliant and supportive community behind them as well. They’ve really turned the whole industry on it’s head, because for a long time it was Google’s AdSense product which did not pay very much to independent publishers online. But Mediavine is paying really well. Comparatively I think we’re making, what I would make on AdSense in a week, I’m making that amount every single day from Mediavine.

What do you need in order to be supported by a company like Mediavine?

There’s a threshold of traffic you need and they do screen applicants, so it isn’t for everybody unfortunately. The good news is you can build up that traffic and then find partners like Mediavine willing to work with you and help you take the next step. It’s really been a game changer because people are making way more from ads than they ever were before, and the advertisers benefit as well by being shown on sites that are more personal and niche-based.

If you were to go back and do it again, is there anything that you would do differently or some key advice or tips that you might have for somebody who’s setting out to become an influencer in 2018?

Every blogger, myself included, thinks about what we would do if we could do it all over again. The lesson for me is that it took years of experimenting and figuring things out. I think blogging is a really special business model that’s a bit different for everyone. One thing I wish I could have done is focus on better content right away.

There’s a lot of work that goes into writing blogs. I think it’s tempting for influencers to start on Instagram. Creating Instagram content is much less intensive. A blog post takes me about eight hours and requires writing, coding, and photography skills. Taking pictures that look good on larger computer screens and not just the screen of a phone is a real art that I’m still learning.

There’s so much material on the web today and so much of it is super high quality. You really have to come to the table with your A game to stand out. There’s also a lot of noise out there, especially in Instagram. We’ve all seen influencers that just love taking pictures of themselves who think they are famous, but they’re not actually creating content that’s helpful to anyone. They’re not answering questions that people have and I think if you are out there creating quality content that answers questions people have in their lives, whether it’s how to decorate their home or what to cook for dinner or where to go on vacation, I think you’re going to be successful over the long haul.

Another lesson from my career in blogging: Consistency, consistency, consistency. That means creating content regularly, and taking really high quality photos, because photos are what sells the whole thing. You can have a great article and if it doesn’t have a top notch photo with it, it’s not going to do as well.

Are you watching any new social networks or up and coming online spaces to help get a bigger following and grow?

As blogger, I always watch Pinterest really closely. Pinterest has an enormous power for driving traffic. If you’re a blogger, you should be on Pinterest and you should be taking it seriously because I have personally seen others go from zero to a ton of traffic just based on Pinterest alone.

I will say Pinterest has made a lot of changes in the past year which has hurt a lot of bloggers. Again, that just goes back to having to play the game on all platforms because you never know what change could affect you. So, if you put all of your efforts into Pinterest and the changes hurt you, you have nothing else to fall back on. But if you’re using every platform actively then one change in one platform will only hurt you so much. You still have the others to fall back on.

Other than that I think it’s always been Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Those have been the big ones I think they’ll continue to be the big ones and I just always keep an eye out for algorithm changes and how my content is shared in each. Offline is a different story, and I think there are plenty of spaces where bloggers can tune in and get support.

getting paid to post pictures

That’s a really great segue because your other venture is called The Windy City Blogger Collective. Tell me a bit about that.

I started it in 2014 with a small group of bloggers in the Chicagoland region. Brands were starting to reach out to all of us, so it made sense to get together and talk about that. There weren’t really events because the industry was so nascent, and we just wanted to feel networked. My friend and I started a happy hour that got really popular and all of a sudden, Windy City Blogger Collective was born.

What I do there is I try to create content to help people start their blogs, to make their blogs better, and to turn their blogs into real businesses. I also have a weekly newsletter that goes out to all the bloggers in the group. So, it’s just a little local community that helps you progress to becoming a full-time blogger. I’ve also put together a 101 piece on how to become a professional blogger, so readers should check that out if they are interested.

Thanks for taking us behind the scenes of your fabulous full time blogging life Kit!

Whether it’s working to become an Instagram model or figuring out a unique content formula that unlocks how to become Instagram famous, our interview series is here to help you take the next step. Be sure to read our other articles covering working in fashionbecoming a brand ambassador, or starting a brand ambassador program and launching your next big business idea on social media.

Did you enjoy reading our behind the scenes interview on how to become Instagram famous? Know an Instagram influencer with a great story that we should talk to? Let us know on Twitter @lonelybrand.