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Dara Pollak knows better than anyone: Don’t let Instagram run your life. Because it can, and it will—especially if you’re a food blogger. It’s easy to get obsessed with follower counts, likes and shares, and the instant the algorithm changes, so does your business model. “I used to be really wrapped up in Instagram,” the blogger behind The Skinny Pig says. “If something didn’t do well, it’d stress me out.”

Pollak didn’t want to be too dependent on any one medium, and her continual work to redefine what it means to be a food blogger is the reason behind her longevity. The Skinny Pig has been around since 2008, surviving the days when everyone with a cell phone was suddenly a food blogger, which is even more impressive than the 90,000 Instagram followers she’s amassed at @skinnypignyc. So naturally, we turned to her to find out how she’s navigating a digital world where algorithms are constantly changing and the market is crowded, and what you can do if you dream of ditching your nine-to-five (or nine-to-nine) to be your own boss.

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1. She Started It as a Side Hustle

As tempting as it is to flip your desk and moonwalk out of the office one day, resist the urge. Pollak stresses that it takes a while to build a steady, loyal following online, so she started The Skinny Pig as a side hustle while maintaining her day job at a digital sales company. While there, she tried to absorb as many sales skills as she could—how to pitch, how to write a deck, how to follow up with potential leads—all things that became invaluable when she eventually made the leap (six years after she started blogging!) to working on The Skinny Pig full-time.

2. She Had to Be Scrappy (and Do Work For Free) 

Pollak uses the traditional moneymaking methods that most bloggers employ—sponsored posts and website ads, primarily—but in recent years, especially after Instagram’s algorithm changes reduced her organic reach, she’s started doing more recipe development for brands, as well as marketing and branding work for restaurants and hospitality groups. “I was already taking photos of food, so why not offer that to restaurants?” Pollak explains. “At first, I was giving them away for free—in the beginning, you have to do that a little bit—but I got to be a good photographer, so I started charging for it.” Similarly, her 90K following was proof she knew how to grow and engage an audience, giving her just the résumé she needed to help restaurants build their presence.

3. She’s Had to Be Patient About Her Paychecks

It’s easy to look at a sponsored post and think, “I wish I could just snap a picture and get paid for it,” without realizing the work that goes into styling and shooting just the right image to get people commenting. And don’t forget all the work it takes to actually get paid afterward. That was a surprise Pollak faced when she first started doing sponsored posts.

“You might make $1,000 off a post, but you’ll be waiting 30 or 60 days—maybe longer—for that money to come in, which can be a bit of a learning curve,” Pollak explains. When you’re trying to budget, know that you may not see a penny from those three sponsored posts you sold in January until the 31st…of March. Or April. 

4. She’s Upfront About the Reality of a Restaurant’s Goals

“Be clear that it takes time to grow a following,” Pollak says, which can apply just as much to you as it does to any restaurants you manage, if you go that route. “I’m bigger on engagements and sales—maybe their following isn’t growing as much, but they’re getting more people in the doors.”

Sometimes a company will view hitting 50,000 followers as a benchmark for success, Pollak says, but if most of those followers come from all over the world, it doesn’t impact their bottom line as much as creating a super-engaged fan base—something you can develop over time by crafting a brand’s unique voice and aesthetic. It’s something Pollak encourages with her clients and is applying to The Skinny Pig itself.   

“I’ve moved away from just posting food to Instagram,” she says. “One of the main reasons people originally connected with me was for my voice and sense of humor, so I’m posting more memes and silly things. I’m losing followers, but I’m not trying to be a food porn account. There are enough of those.” 

5. Blogging Has Taken a Back seat to Brand Management

These days, most of Pollak’s income comes from her marketing and consulting work, which provides a steadier income than the feast-or-famine that comes with sponsored posts or hoping you have big traffic wins that can boost the money you make from ads on your site. She’s also looking at other ways to put her writing skills to use, working on a collection of essays for a potential nonfiction book.

“Some of the essays I’ve written for my blog have really resonated with people, so I want to expand on that,” she says. Books, blogs, Instagram posts, ads—no matter how the medium evolves, there’s one thing Pollak knows for sure: It’s the story you tell that matters, regardless of the platform.

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