This blog post is sponsored by GoDaddy. All experiences and opinions are my own.
Ten years – TEN YEARS, that’s how long I’ve been blogging. I seriously can’t believe that it’s been ten years since I started A Taste of Koko and far this little blog has come. January 2010 I bought atasteofkoko.com on GoDaddy and little did I know that I would start building my personal brand and grow that domain into the brand that it is now.
SEE ALSO: How I Started My Online Business
If you’re new here – hi, I’m Koko and I run A Taste of Koko – Austin’s top food and travel blog featuring the hottest restaurants and weekend getaways. A Taste of Koko has been voted best local Austin blogger by the Austin Chronicle in 2018 and 2019 and has been featured in O Magazine, InStyle Magazine, OWN TV Network, and The New York Times. I’m also the author of Koko’s Guide To Austin, a pocket-sized guidebook to Austin.
I never imagined that A Taste of Koko would hit a decade – A DECADE. When GoDaddy reached out to me this year, everything just came to full circle and I had the pleasure of working with them to share my story of how I built A Taste of Koko.
Upon popular request, I also set up a Q&A session on Instagram stories for you guys to ask me any questions (business or personal) and I’ve answered them down below!
1. How did you get started?
This is the number one FAQ that I’m constantly asked:
I started A Taste of Koko in college when I was getting my degree in Nutrition at the University of Texas at Austin. It was 2010 and this is after I had switched from Biology Pre-Med because I realized I wasn’t going to become a doctor but I also didn’t want to become a dietitian. I was inspired by a couple of bloggers that had their own websites and I wanted to have the same for myself.
I googled, “how to built a website”, and bought atasteofkoko.com on GoDaddy in March 2010, and built the website on a platform called Blogger (I moved to WordPress a couple of years later).
A Taste of Koko started as a baking blog originally – I loved making baked goods in the college boyfriend’s apartment, so much so that I even launched a macaron baking business for a couple of years (macaronsbyjane.com also purchased on GoDaddy).
I had a readership of zero and I’m not sure why I kept going. I received an invitation by a restaurant in Austin to come over and dine and that was the beginning. As a college student who spent all of her time in the dining halls and Wendy’s 99 chicken nuggets, dining at a restaurant was a big deal.
Writing restaurant “reviews” in 2012 was how I started getting readership for A Taste of Koko as I was the first restaurant blogger in Austin. Since then I’ve covered hundreds of restaurants and shot thousands of photos.
Why did you start your blog?
Two very different questions.
I started my blog simply because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life at the time, but I felt like this was something that nobody else was doing. It was also something that I could fully own–I could shoot content, write on it, and it didn’t matter if it didn’t do well because it couldn’t be measured up to what someone else was doing.
At that time I really liked baking, so I did a lot of baking recipes. I really enjoyed trying out recipes, shooting the photos, writing about them, and sharing it all on the internet. Back then Pinterest was a big social media platform for bloggers, so I had a lot of early success on Pinterest which allowed me to really grow my brand.
Then I started dining at local restaurants and that’s when I discovered my why. I discovered that I really loved meeting local restaurant owners and chefs. One of my fondest memories was at this restaurant called Haddington’s. I became pretty good friends with the chef and he would let me sit in the kitchen, on the counter, and eat from the pan (which was totally not health department approved). And that’s how I really fell in love with the industry. I realized how beautiful food could be and got to know the people that create it and the inspiration behind that, and that’s when I started sharing these stories.
2. How do you balance personal and business?
I don’t! I know that there are many people in the world that have great work-life balance, but it’s just something that I’ve always struggled with.
When I think about this 10-year journey, there are a lot of sacrifices I’ve made as a social media influencer that I think my audience doesn’t realize. I think the biggest sacrifice that people don’t know (because I don’t really talk about it) is that I haven’t had a great dating history (hey I said I would be as honest as I could in this Q&A). I always felt more gratified with my work and my business that I just chose to put all of my time there. I’m also naturally attracted to people who also love their work. And when you get two people who both work a lot, they just don’t spend a lot of time together.
But now after 10 years, I kind of realized that I’m working 80 hours a week and not spending time with friends – isn’t normal. A childhood friend of mine texted me one time and she was like, “What do I need to do to see you? Do I need to open a restaurant?” It’s sad but it’s probably true. My priority has always been local restaurants and while I love the industry and the city of Austin, I’m going to start trying to have a personal life.
3. Any advice for someone who wants to do what you do?
The number one thing I ask people who want to do what I do is: what is your why? Why do you want to become an influencer or blogger? I think with 99% of people I talk to, it’s because of the money. But a lot of people don’t realize that very few creators actually make a lot of money, even though they might look like they do. Or, people see the life that I live online and think, “Oh she can work as little hours as she wants, she travels four times a month, she gets to go to all these beautiful destinations, and go to all these amazing restaurants.” But the thing that people don’t realize is, that’s what Instagram is. It’s about showing the highlights of your life. Nobody wants to see the sad moments or the times when you’re alone, or maybe when a project didn’t go well.
I started 10 years ago and it was a different time. Instagram wasn’t around yet, Pinterest just launched. I was the first restaurant blogger in Austin and I started building my roots really deep in the community. And it’s not like I had overnight success, which I think is what people see now, especially someone who just started following me.
My advice for anyone who wants to do what I do would be to figure out your why. Is it because you truly are passionate about food? If you want to do that, then you can start an Instagram, you can start a website, and start writing about things that you’re eating or cooking at home. But really think about your why. There are millions of creators online right now, and it’s very, very competitive.
Any pieces of advice for someone who just started their business?
Focus on your strengths and conquer your weaknesses.
Spend a lot of time figuring out the different elements of your business that you need, and try to learn those things on your own. You will thank yourself years later if you’re able to do as many of these things on your own as you can, especially if you’re bootstrapping your business. It can become really expensive to outsource things to a photographer, or a writer, or a web developer. I know it’s not easy but that’s what I did when I started my blog as a college student with a budget of zero dollars.
I Googled “how to build a website,” I saved up money, bought my own camera, upgraded to another camera (I’m on my 10th camera now), and, even though I always felt like I wasn’t a strong writer, I just started writing. I learned how to edit photos on my own, and I still edit my photos now because that’s part of my brand.
Once you start generating revenue and you need some time back, it is totally okay to start outsourcing those things to someone else.
4. How did you fund your business?
As a college student, I had absolutely no budget to fund a food blog so I worked 3-4 part-time jobs every single semester in college.
- Dipping Dots at the college football games
- Tour guide at the UT Tower
- FIG Mentor
- Marketing at the University Housing and Dining
I pretty much realized early on that I wasn’t going to do anything with my college degree so I needed to figure out what I was going to do with my life through the process of elimination and by saving as much money as I could by working these part-time jobs. I worked at different agencies and consulting firms before I started getting consistent brand work in 2014/2015 and then eventually started doing my blog full-time. I’ve hustled for the past 5 years and have been very lucky to work with 300+ brands in every single vertical (food, alcohol, technology, home, etc).
5. How do you do it all?
I used to work 70 to 80 hours a week because I honestly just loved my job, which was going to local restaurants, shooting their photos, writing about it (all of which I did for free), and building a community from scratch. I’ve answered almost every single email inquiry and DM on where to eat, things to do, and all sorts of questions because I am really focused on my community.
But I think a pivotal moment for me was when I started doing the blog full time in 2015. I was in my car and I pulled off on the side of the road, trying to take phone calls, and negotiating projects with different ad agencies and had my laptop in the car so that I could sign the contracts—I just knew that that was not okay. I just couldn’t do it all. I wasn’t sleeping; I was spending more time in hotel rooms and sleeping on red-eye flights because I was doing so many travel projects.
So some things I did were:
- Hire a talent agency: I decided to hire a talent agency (they still manage me to this day). They handle all my contracts, they talk to all the brand partners for me and handle all of the legal stuff.
- Invest in the brand: The next thing I did was make an investment in my own personal brand. I knew I needed a website refresh, so I decided to invest $15,000 into redoing my website. I did everything on my own before that, so I knew that hiring a developer and a designer for the first time was going to be a major investment for my brand.
- Taxes: Taxes are not fun but they’re part of every small and large business. Even though I’m very much type A and naturally organized, I’m not an expert in taxes and I didn’t know how to organize all my expenses. Now I have a CPA that manages all my expenses every month and calculates out my taxes at the end of the year. It has taken out a lot of headaches for me and given me back a lot of time so I’m not scrambling at the end of the year trying to pay Uncle Sam.
- Trademarking: Early on, a trademark lawyer reached out to me and was like “you need to trademark your brand because I totally see you becoming bigger than what you think you are.” Trademarking A Taste of Koko early on was very crucial to my business and I know a lot of influencers still have not done that because they don’t see their brand as a business.
Is it weird being “Instagram famous”?
I wouldn’t say that I’m “Instagram famous” but it is weird when people recognize me at restaurants or even stop me at the grocery store (because apparently it’s weird that I also buy groceries). The thing is, fame can do weird things to you, if you allow it to. I never aspired to be a public figure or a popular figure but just kind of came with the job.
“Fame” situations that happened to me:
- 2010 – within months after I launched the blog, the Mutual of Omaha was traveling throughout the U.S. and chose to feature me as an aspiring entrepreneur of 20 years old
- 2016 – my home was featured in InStyle & O Magazine thanks to IKEA
- 2016 – flown to Los Angeles to talk about my home on the OWN TV Network (Oprah Winfrey Network, she wasn’t at the studio but we breathe the same air so that count right?), thanks to IKEA
- 2015 – face of Miami tourism for New York Times (this is still a pinch-me moment)
- 2017 – featured in Austin Monthly (this was a big deal for me because I was hardly getting any love from the local media)
- 2017 – featured on the front page of Port Lavaca Wave (this one brought me to tears because this is the little town I grew up in and my dad’s coworker dropped off a copy of the paper on my Dad’s desk and he called me)
- 2018 & 2019 – voted as the best blogger in Austin by the Austin Chronicle
- 2019 – selected as one of the voices of New Mexico tourism
- 2020 – GoDaddy reached out to me for their ICONs project. I was over-the-moon that a brand I’ve supported and loved for 10 years that was essential to my blog had reached out to me.
- 2020 – GoDaddy reached out to me in April to ask me if I’d like to share my story of how I built my brand!
I am so grateful for all of these experiences and recognition throughout the years!
But really, if you stop me for a photo – my mom (if she happens to be visiting me) will proudly be taking pictures of you taking pictures of me.
6. How did COVID affect your business?
When COVID happened in mid-March, the biggest thing that was happening in Austin was South by Southwest. SXSW is very crucial to my business because so much advertising happens there. When it was canceled, thousands of people lost millions of dollars including myself. I had 8 contracts lined up for SXSW. I had a couple of contracts for March and April as well and we lost all of them within a matter of days. It was really scary because as a small business owner you don’t know what you’re going to do. But I think for me, the biggest shock was how much the community was hurting.
Thousands of creatives lost their jobs, and on March 17th restaurants were mandated to close. That’s when my heart just broke. Hundreds of business owners and service industry workers were reaching out to me asking me for help. Reading their messages and emails broke my heart.
I think I spent like two days just crying because I was so overwhelmed with the amount of hurt that was happening in the community. But because my brand is so tied to the community and I have a very close relationship with the City of Austin, I knew I had to do something. That’s when I thought of the quote:
With great power comes great responsibility.
I reached out to my good friend and publicist MYLK Collective and we launched Hundred for Hospitality. Our goal was to help provide 100 meals a day for those laid off in the service industry and help restaurants in Austin that were affected by COVID-19 by paying these restaurants for the meals so that we can start putting money back into the local economy. Our grand goal was that we would do this for one week and my plan was to fund the first couple of days myself, and hope that we would raise some money to cover the rest of the days. But you don’t really know the strength of your community until you ask them.
I started talking about Hundred for Hospitality and money just started pouring in. It was not something that we expected. We needed $3,000 for the first week, and we surpassed that goal in two days. We also started building a list where any http://armodexperiment.com service industry person who was laid off could sign up for meals, and originally there were like 50 to 100 people who signed up. But by the end of the program we had over 800 people that signed up. We extended our deadline three times–we were only going to do it for one week and we ended up doing it for 40 days up until May 8th when restaurants were fully allowed to reopen.
Hundred for Hospitality ended up raising $15,000 and we donated 100% of that back into the restaurant economy and were able to provide 4,000 meals.
I also launched Hire A Creative – over 200+ featured on the website and got 20 creatives hired within the first week.
** I built both Hundred For Hospitality and Hire A Creative on GoDaddy’s Website Builder within 24 hours.
7. What keeps you going?
I’ve pondered this question a lot and have talked to other people in this space, and I think the reoccurring thing that’s said is, even though addiction is such a negative word, that’s really the only way I can describe it. I’m addicted to my work.
When you work and you get success, you just want more and it’s a snowball effect. The more I put into this brand, the more restaurants I visit, the more photos I shoot, and the more content I put online, the more my brand is growing and the more the community wants. And that’s what keeps me going.
What also keeps me going are the little moments like when I visit a small food truck and I do a cute Instagram video about it, and then I find out three weeks later that after I came in, they were sold out for the week. Or knowing that with restaurants in Austin I’m filling a percentage of seats every night, whether it was before COVID, during COVID, and I’m hoping after COVID.
It’s meeting these restaurant owners, seeing their passion, learning why they started their restaurant, and what it really means to be in the hospitality industry. I feel so privileged to be part of that. I only play a very small part of the restaurant industry here in Austin–I’m just here to storytell. I’m here to spotlight local restaurants, get people excited to eat there, and keep the city growing.
How do you stay inspired?
I think I would answer this question differently depending on what life stage I am in because now that I’m 31, I feel like I’m a completely different person than I was when I was 29 or 25. Currently, I’ve been taking a lot of time off—since I turned 31, and since the blog is 10 years old—which is why my answer is completely different now than if I was asked this question last year.
Honestly, I am loving life and I feel like my audience can see that all over my Instagram. I started waking up early at like 7:30 or 8:00 at the latest and I’ve been going on runs and just enjoying the morning air. Before this, I would spend 80 hours a week in my room on my laptop answering emails, writing content, responding to DMs, and working from 10am all the way to 3am. It was non-stop and it was a grind.
Now, I have been going out to restaurants with old friends I haven’t seen in awhile or people that I haven’t had the time to connect with and doing fun things around Austin, and I think I’m so lucky to live in such a beautiful city and be part of it. And I always took that for granted. Every day I go out, whether it’s to eat at a restaurant or visit a plant shop or go hiking or swimming, I’ve been getting inspiration from that. It’s actually really great to have all this personal time. This is so new but I’m here for it.
8. How do you eat all that food?
I don’t eat all the food! I know that on Instagram it looks like I’m ordering a lot of food but most of the time, restaurant owners just get so excited when I come to visit and they want to use the opportunity to showcase their entire menu. I also like to be generous and I’m like hey, I’m happy to shoot some food photos for you that you can use for your website or social media or marketing. And I usually have at least one person if not two people with me which people don’t see because I’m doing front-facing IG stories talking about me being at a restaurant, and then there’s this photo of me sitting at the table with all this food. So don’t worry, it’s definitely not going to waste! Luckily I have a lot of hungry friends who are always happy to take leftovers home.
I also work very closely with the Central Texas Food Bank. I’ve been a donor for the last couple of years and it’s been very important to me to be able to help those who can’t put food on the table.
9. Advice for new young homeowners?
I’m definitely not a homeowner expert but I’ve talked about it a couple of times briefly on the blog and Instagram. I always knew early on that I just wanted to stay in Austin. Whether or not I was gonna stay forever, I felt like real estate was such a good investment.
Originally my goal was to live in California (that was always my goal growing up) but then I fell in love with Austin. My blog is so tethered to the city and I just felt like I was going to stay. So luckily in 2014 when I started looking at the market, it was a great time to buy and I decided to bite the bullet. As a young millennial at the time, it was a very scary thing to have to kind of put on your big girl panties and be like, alright, I’m going to do this–I’m going to have a mortgage, I’m going to maybe find roommates, I’m going to start furnishing. If the dishwasher breaks you can’t ask the landlord to fix it; you are the landlord and you have to fix it.
If you’re looking to buy in the city of Austin, the real estate is very expensive and is very different from what it was five years ago, even two or three years ago. But if you think you are going to stay in the city, then my advice would be to think about where you want to live, and think about how your lifestyle is. For me, I knew I wanted to be close to downtown because that’s where most of the restaurants are and I like that lifestyle. So I chose somewhere that’s in East Austin that’s close to downtown. It’s also kind of a midway point between South Austin and North Austin. Another thing to think about is where you’re going to work. If you’re going to work at Dell, then you probably don’t want to live in South Austin and have to make a one hour commute in traffic every single day. Or if you’re working downtown and you don’t want to buy a condo, then maybe look a little further like in East Austin.
SEE ALSO: IKEA® Bedroom Makeover For Under $600
10. What’s next?
I like being very much in control of my life and I think that comes from me building my own business. So a few years ago, when I broke up with boyfriend number two of my lifespan, I kind of went through a midlife crisis (I’ve gone through many midlife crises in my short years of living) and I went to see a psychic (no really, I did).
She was $300 an hour and I completely wasted all of my money on this psychic because I had just met somebody on a dating app—I shouldn’t have even brought him up—and we spent 45 minutes talking about this guy and whether or not he was going to be the one. At the end I said, “this is not what I wanted out of the session. I need to know if I’m going to be okay in life. I run my own business, what do I do next? What if I’m wasting my time with this whole thing?” And she literally said one sentence:
“I’m not worried about it, you’re going to be fine.”
I think the thing I learned from that is, I believe in the universe but I also will take my own life into my hands. I believe if you do good things, good things will happen. But I don’t know what’s next. Last year when I self-published my guidebook, Koko’s Guide to Austin, it was the biggest and hardest thing I ever did. I locked myself in my house for six weeks to write, photograph, and edit the whole thing and then got it printed locally here in Austin.
After I wrote that book and it sold out, people were like, what’s next? And I’m like, I just birthed a book! What else can I do? I’m kind of taking some personal time right now and I’m like, you know what universe? I’m going to let you take me for a joyride. If you don’t want me to work as many hours, I’m here for that. I’m going to try my best to really, really not work as much and maybe just let loose a little bit. I just want to have some fun and be happy!
Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below!