This post might not be what you're expecting, so if you're looking for blogging resources I suggest my posts on how to start a food blog or how to grow your Instagram following. Even though I started my blog just over a year ago, the story of how I got to where I am today is almost 27 years in the making. Being a full-time food blogger was never my dream (or so I thought), so I want to explain how I found myself in this crazy, exciting, amazing career.
Something to know about me is that I'm very long winded and I love to write. So this isn't a short story, but it was very cathartic to write and I hope it's helpful if you're going through something similar.
So why did I decide to write this post? Recently I've been getting a lot of comments like:
- "You're such an inspiration, I could never create that much content while also working full-time."
- "Your blog grew so quickly overnight!! How do you do it??"
- "I wish my blog was as successful as yours."
- "You make everything look so easy!"
And while these comments are incredibly flattering, they miss a big part of the story. So while I am so freaking happy with where I ended up, I think it's important to share the strain that it's put on me mentally and emotionally as well as on my relationship. Because Instagram truly is a highlight reel and there's always so much more that goes on behind the scenes.
Back to the Beginning
I've loved to cook for as long as I can remember. Literally. Growing up, the only channel I watched on TV was the Food Network and I was obsessed. I would just watch it for hours and hang onto their every word. The early 2000's were the height of the celebrity chef craze and it was just the best TV! I especially loved the fun competition shows like Chopped where you have to make an amazing dish out of a bunch of random ingredients. I taught myself to cook and bake by watching the Food Network and those influences are still very much present in my cooking today.
In fact, one of my favorite dishes I made in the last year was because I gave myself a bit of a chopped challenge. We were going out of town for a week, so I was trying to use up all the random food I had in the fridge. I had a chicken breast, a couple fuyu persimmons, and a shallot. I had never tried persimmons in a savory context but I decided I wanted to roast them to bring out their flavor. I needed some way to season the chicken so I dug around in the fridge and found some Greek yogurt and harissa paste. I marinated the chicken in a yogurt, harissa sauce because I thought the spicy harissa would pair well with the sweet persimmons. I seared the chicken in a cast iron pan, added in the shallots, persimmons, and a splash of white wine, threw it in the oven and hoped for the best. It was so freaking good that I remade the recipe a couple weeks later and put it on the blog as Harissa and Persimmon Chicken.
Something fascinating about the brains of children, is how much information we are able to absorb at a very young age but that ability diminishes over time (this is why is much easier for children to learn a second language than adults). I know the fact that I experimented so much in the kitchen as a kid is why I'm so easily able to cook now. I was so adventurous and was always mixing different things together just to see how it tasted, and now it really is second nature. I can taste a dish and intrinsically know exactly what's missing or how to balance the flavors. Looking back, it's so obvious that I had this natural talent for cooking but no one ever really noticed, despite the fact that I was cooking full meals (like wine braised salmon) at age 10. I often wonder how my life would be different if someone had recognized that talent and taken the time to help me cultivate it. Would I have gone to culinary school? Would I be a chef? Who's to say.
So why didn't I pursue cooking as a career?? Well that's a loaded question.
First things first, you need to know that I grew up somewhat poor because that's a huge part of what has shaped so many of my decisions. Now we definitely weren't destitute. We had clothes, and food, and a roof over our heads. But we really hugged that poverty line and were on food stamps for much of my childhood. I think we technically may have been considered "lower middle class" but what's so funny about those arbitrary cut off lines is that someone making a few hundred dollars a year over the "poverty line" threshold, is still pretty freaking poor!
If you've ever struggled financially, especially as a kid, you pick up these very distinct behaviors that can be really hard to shake later in life. One that still sticks with me is always ordering the cheapest thing on the menu when you go out to eat. We only went to restaurants on very special occasions like holidays or birthdays and even though I was always told to order whatever I wanted, I never did. I had this enormous guilt about letting my mom spend money that I knew she didn't have, so I would always try to order something under $10. But what's funny is this guilt applied to anyone spending money on me. I had lots of friends who's families were very well off and I'd get to go out to eat with them when we were having sleepovers or something. I remember being shocked that my friends parents wouldn't even blink when their kids ordered a $25 entrée. But I would still always try to order the cheapest thing because I didn't want to be a burden. As I've gotten older, I don't do this as much but it's still an instinct I have if I go out to eat with Kyle's parents, for example.
So at a very early age it became clear to me that when I grew up, I wanted to have money. I wanted to be able to order a steak at a restaurant or buy clothes that weren't from thrift shops. I didn't want to stress about money or not be able to give my kids things that they wanted. I thought that the only careers that you could make money at were doctor, lawyer, and engineer. So it just never really occurred to me to consider other things.
It's also important to know when I grew up. I'm on the young end of the age group for millennials, but I am definitely a millennial. I started high school in 2008 aka right after the housing crash and at the start of the recession. There was a huge push by my parents, teachers, and society at large to go into a STEM field that would pay well (especially for women to pursue STEM fields). Schools were cutting arts programs left and right and it was made very clear to us that you could never make money in a creative field.
In high school, I loved to write and I really wanted to be an English major in college. I dreamed of writing novels and being a bestselling author. But that dream was quickly squashed because my parents and other adults in my life told me that an English degree was useless unless I wanted to be an English teacher.
There were also these very specific attitudes that I encountered a lot (and I subscribed to for a time) that a something like a communications degree was pointless and a business degree is what you got if you didn't know what else to study. To this day I couldn't tell you why I ever believed those things but I did. And the irony is that now I'm an entrepreneur running my own business on social media. So both of those degrees would have been a much better fit for me than what I ended up choosing.
I also remember being convinced that I wasn't creative or artistic. I loved to write short stories and poetry. I was in almost every single school play and musical. I was even editor of the yearbook. But since I wasn't "traditionally artistic" (aka I couldn't draw or paint) I ended up getting a terrible grade in art class in middle school (literally how cruel is that???) and from then on never thought of myself as a creative person. The only class I really enjoyed besides English, was AP Biology (and again I thought my only career options were doctor, lawyer, engineer) so I just kind of accepted that I was a science person and I would go to medical school and that was that. Don't get me wrong, I loved science and medicine and I still do. I just think if the adults in my life had given more care to my creative side, I would've made different choices.
Another thing that defines the millennial generation, is that we grew up both with and without social media. It was basically nonexistent when we were in middle school (aside from Myspace lol) and didn't really gain traction until we were late high school or college aged. At this time blogs did technically exist, but they weren't really a big thing. And there certainly wasn't money to be made blogging. Facebook was slowly starting to gain popularity and become more common but Instagram literally didn't even exist when I started high school.
I didn't get my first cell phone until I was 15 and even then, it was a super basic flip phone that could only make calls. To send a text cost 25 cents EACH and calling was free only on weekends and after 9pm. iPhone's and other smart phones did exist at this point, but only the super rich, spoiled kids had them. I also have distinct and horrifying memories of taking "selfies" in the bathroom mirror with a little handheld camera because my phone didn't have a camera on it. Do I sound like one of those annoying, "when I was your age...." grandma's yet?
I've never been a big social media person. Sure, I posted super cringe worthy Facebook status updates in 2011 like everyone else, but that was the only social media I had for a long time. My sophomore year of college, my friends convinced me to download this somewhat new app called "Instagram" but I was never really a fan. I just didn't get the point of it? I had zero interest in celebrities and pop-culture or this new phenomenon of "lifestyle bloggers" so the only people I followed were people from college that I actually knew. [I kid you not, I did not follow a single celebrity, influencer, or blogger until January of 2020. Like I literally didn't know who Half Baked Harvest, or Broma Bakery, or Pinch of Yum, or any of these other huge food bloggers even were. And don't worry, the irony is not lost on me.]
All of these random nostalgic details and seemingly unrelated stories are just to drive home the point that food blogging wasn't something that ever crossed my mind as an option. I never in a million years would've imagined that I'd be building a business based on blogging and social media because this literally didn't exist as a career during the time in my life where I was deciding what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
My Backup Plan
I've done a lot of soul searching this past year trying to understand my motivations and how I got on the extremely specific career path that I did. I wanted to remember why I made certain choices and largely dismissed the things I was truly passionate about. I've always been so fascinated by how seemingly insignificant decisions can have far reaching impacts and I think so much of my journey can be traced to relatively small moments.
Cooking has always been that one thing that truly brought me joy, but I just never actually considered it as a possible career. There was a time that I did consider going to culinary school but it was actively discouraged by everyone I knew. My dream that I didn't dare tell anyone was that I wanted to either open my own restaurant, write a cookbook, or have my own cooking show (I really did watch too much Food Network). But the more I learned about how hard it is to actually be a successful chef and what a brutal career working in professional kitchens is, I realized my naysayers were probably right.
So I just always told people that "cooking is my backup plan." I can't even count the number of times I remember saying the sentence, "If medical school doesn't work out, I'll just like open a bakery or something." And then I would laugh to make it obvious I was just joking. But there was always a part of me that wanted it to be true.
Medical school had become my only goal and I had tunnel vision. Freshman year of college I had to choose a major that would fit with my pre-med path. Biology seemed too boring and I wasn't really interested in the non-human sciences like chemistry. So I settled on neuroscience because it covered a lot of my pre-med courses but also required a lot of psychology classes which was fascinating to me.
Looking back I have so many regrets. Neuroscience was unnecessarily intense and made my life a living hell. Not to mention, there is literally nothing you can do with an undergraduate degree in neuroscience besides going to grad school (talk about an actually useless degree). I honestly didn't really enjoy college and by the end I was just completely burnt out. Senior year was horrible and I just couldn't fathom doing this for 4 more years of school and then residency. That's ultimately why I decided not to apply to medical school (which was an excruciating decision in itself).
Senior year of college I had one more general education class I needed to take to graduate. I needed a "textual analysis" course and most people got that credit by taking an English class but I was determined to take anything but, because freshman year I had taken an English class with the most odious professor. She never gave me above a C+ on a paper and told me I was a terrible writer. As someone who had so deeply wanted to be an English major for a while, I was crushed and of course internalized the fact that apparently my writing was abhorrent and I'd clearly made the right choice by focusing on science.
So for my textual analysis class I decided on a course called "Philosophy of Food" because it sounded right up my alley and wasn't in the English department. When I say this class changed my life, I'm not kidding.
It reminded me how much I truly loved food. Not just cooking but food itself. In the course we talked about the philosophical aspects of food from historical, ethical, and aesthetic perspectives. We talked about the ethical considerations of both producing food and consuming food. We talked about how food relates to issues of race and socioeconomic status. We talked about more lighthearted things like how food can be art and the definition of taste. And then we also had a "lab" each week where we would get together on Tuesday evenings and cook dinner that related to whatever we were talking about in class and then watch a food related movie. One week we had a sommelier come in and teach us how to properly taste wine and then we drank all the extra wine while watching the movie Somm. It was truly the most wonderful, engaging class and I loved writing papers for it! In fact, my professor gave me an A+ on every single one and always told me I was a great writer. So not only did this class remind me that food was my passion, but it renewed my confidence in my writing abilities.
The class changed the way I view both food and the world. Particularly my approach to my diet and how I eat. I try to eat pretty simply in that I just eat whole foods (meaning fresh meat, vegetables, fruit, and minimally processed grains) for most of my meals. And then when I bake, I always bake from scratch so that I know exactly what's in my food. I don't limit or restrict calories but I also try not to overindulge. In general, I avoid most processed foods and anything with a lot of preservatives, but also sometimes I just really want to eat an entire bag of Lay's potato chips and that's okay! I'm pretty sure that this is technically a type of "intuitive eating" but I just don't like to label anything because labels are restrictive by nature. I highly recommend the book Food Rules by Michael Pollan if this is something interesting to you! [I also recommend literally every single one of his books].
In retrospect, it's just so obvious that food has always been my passion. I think this class is what ultimately helped guide me to where I am, but I still kick myself for not realizing it sooner.
Post College Confusion
When I decided I didn't want to apply to medical school, I just felt lost. Even though I always joked that cooking was my backup plan, I didn't actually have a backup plan! I decided to look into different grad school options and decided a Masters in Public Health with a focus on policy sounded pretty cool. After taking that philosophy of food course, I thought that maybe I could channel my passion for food into something relating to healthcare policy since food is very closely related to our health, and socioeconomic status plays a large role in what kind of food we have access to.
I figured I should move to Washington, DC if I wanted to pursue policy, so I applied to GWU's MPH program and every single job that I was remotely qualified for. To my surprise, I got offered a decent paying job and accepted to GW's part-time MPH program! So after graduation, I packed up and moved to downtown DC. On paper, everything was great.
But after my first semester of grad school, while working full time in a pretty demanding job, I realized that just wasn't the path I wanted to be on. I hated grad school and realized that policy work = getting involved in politics to some degree, and in 2017 that wasn't exactly appealing to me (maybe because the administration at the time was actively trying to dismantle the healthcare system instead of enhance it). So I dropped out of grad school and decided to just focus on my full-time job.
This was the beginning of a pretty dark time in my life. On the surface I was thriving. I had a great job in DC, I had money for the first time in my life, and was always partying it up with my friends at all the best DC bars and restaurants. To the outside world I looked "successful". But on the inside I was anxious, depressed, lost, and masking it all with a lot of alcohol. I hated my job but I felt stuck. I didn't want this to be my entire career but I literally didn't know what else to do. So I just avoided thinking about it and kept putting up this front that my life was perfect. Isn't it funny that as a society, our definition of what "success" looks like doesn't typically include mental health and happiness?
After a while, I started considering medical school again because I thought that was the only thing that would fulfill me. I started looking for a new job that was in the medical field to make my application stronger and started studying for the MCAT again. Kyle was thrilled because he knew that medical school had always been my dream and he was so incredibly supportive. So I couldn't bear to tell him that I was still unsure about it. I had this deep seated fear that I was only pursuing it because I felt like it was my only option and not because I actually wanted it.
The Start of Barley & Sage
In June of 2019, I was still living in downtown DC and had just started a cool new job working in medical logistics. I had a super quick commute to work and spent my evenings relaxing and cooking in my very tiny DC kitchen and studying for the MCAT in my free time. Kyle and I had been in a long distance relationship for a while (he was in Asheville, NC) and he was flying up to DC almost every 2 weeks and staying in my very tiny house with my two roommates and three dogs. It was a lot. We finally decided it was time that he just move up here, so we started looking at places together.
There were three things we really wanted in a house; a big kitchen for me, a garage for him, and a fenced in yard for the dog. Unfortunately most houses in DC don't have any of the above for less than $5,000 a month. So we started looking farther out in Virginia and found a nice townhouse in Chantilly that we could afford and checked all our boxes. The only downside is that it stretched my commute to a little over an hour each direction. But we decided to make it work.
Kyle's job at the time was fully remote but he worked the night shift. So he worked from midnight to 8am and slept during the day. Aka I almost never actually got to spend time with him because he tried to keep the same schedule on the weekends (which is totally fair). I had been so excited to finally live with him and spend more time with him since we'd been long distance for so long, but I felt like I never saw him. I was out in the suburbs and almost an hour away from my DC friends so I didn't really get to see them either. Being the very extroverted person that I am, I started to get very lonely and even more depressed and irritable and it really put some strain on our relationship.
Those first few months were rough and we had a lot of fights about how little time we got to see each other. My weekends were spent procrastinating studying and pushing the date back for my big test. In November of 2019, he was (half) joking with me and said, "You really need to get a hobby!" And later in that conversation he suggested I start a food blog or something because I love to cook so much. I basically told him he was crazy and I didn't know the first thing about blogging. But that idea stuck in my head for some reason.
The next morning I was thinking about it during my hour long metro ride to work. I kept trying to brush it off because it seemed so silly but I started thinking about what I would even name my food blog if I were to start one. Seemingly out of the blue, I came up with the name Barley & Sage. Barley after my sweet pup and Sage because it's my last name.
Once the name came to me, it suddenly felt like I just had to do this! I quickly checked if the domain barleyandsage.com and Instagram handle @barleyandsage were available. To my surprise and excitement they both were! I immediately bought the domain (it was only $12) and created a new Instagram account "just in case" and then sat back like.....well now what??
The next few weeks are honestly a blur in my memory and I don't really know how I figured everything out. I just started Googling like mad trying to learn WordPress so I could set up a functioning website and then I realized how much I sucked at taking food photos. I stumbled across the Foodtography School website and they just so happened to be hosting a free masterclass that week. Sarah immediately became my food blog hero and inspiration and the rest just started falling into place. I remember being so freaking terrified to spend almost $500 on a food photography course because I had no idea what I was doing or even what my goal with this food blog was. But that's honestly the best investment I ever made in my life.
I officially launched Barley & Sage on December 3, 2019 and I had exactly 1 Instagram follower (my personal account lol). From there I was just kind of winging it. I had no goals of monetizing or quitting my job, it really was just a hobby and a way for me to entertain myself of the weekends while Kyle was sleeping. But it very quickly became so much more than that. I just fell in love with blogging, with my online community of foodies, and with photography. It was like all this creative energy that I had been bottling up for years just came spilling out of me.
I stopped studying for the MCAT (not on purpose, it just happened) and started entertaining the idea of what being a full time food blogger would look like. I never thought I'd actually get to that point, but it was fun to fantasize. When I got my very first paid gig (I think it was April 2020), the idea that maybe this could actually turn into something crept further into my mind.
As I fell more deeply in love with the blog, I also really started to question my sense of self and my "purpose" for lack of a better word. My whole life I'd been chasing a career that I thought was "important." Something that would make a positive impact on the world. Something that would change people's lives. And all the sudden I wanted to throw away my dream of being a doctor and for what? To stay at home and bake?? The imposter syndrome and self doubt were overwhelming.
I had already been struggling with this lack of purpose and direction ever since I decided not to go to medical school. That was all I had cared about for so long and I had been so deeply lost ever since I graduated from college. I was working a good job in a career that had pretty good upward mobility. It's something I could have stayed in comfortably for years and made a great salary. But I just didn't know if I wanted to be a logistician forever. It just didn't feel right. That's why I had started studying for the MCAT again. It just felt like medical school was the only real career option I had and that's what I had set myself up to do. But that just didn't feel right either. I just really couldn't figure out if I actually wanted to be a doctor.
I was also struggling with the fact that Kyle's career goals put us in a uniquely difficult position. He was in the process of applying to be an active duty pilot for the Air Force. If you don't know much about the military, being active duty means that you will be moved to new duty stations (bases) every 2-3 years for the entirety of your career. Being in the military also means that you give up a lot of control over those big life decisions. You give up the right to decide where and when you're moving to a new place. All of this means that if we wanted our relationship to work out long term, it would be very difficult for me to have a typical career. My whole life I had operated under the assumption that I needed to be a strong, independent woman who would never sacrifice anything for a man. And that was being challenged by the fact that there are sacrifices I would indeed have to make if I wanted to be with him.
So the blog was this thing that I could do from anywhere, regardless of where we had to move. It's something that would allow me to work from home and be a stay at home mom when the time comes. Basically, it solved all my problems. But then I was worried that I only wanted to be a food blogger because it seemed like the "easy" solution and maybe if I was single, it's not actually what I would want to do?
I support every woman's right to do whatever the hell they want with their life and I think that's true feminism. But for me, this brought on some major soul searching because the brand of feminism that I was fed growing up led me to believe that I was just wasting my life and opportunity if I wanted to choose having a family over a career. I felt like a bad feminist for wanting to put my relationship first and just follow Kyle around the country for the next 20 years. I also felt like giving up my corporate job would mean I'm not ambitious or driven and that choosing my relationship and having a family made me weak. I even thought Kyle would have less respect for me if I wasn't a career woman. I've since realized how wrong that line of thinking is, but it took me a while to get there.
In January of 2020, Kyle found out that he had been accepted to be a pilot!! So we were told that in the next couple months, he would receive his official start date for flight school and we would be moving to one of 4 possible locations across the country. We were both so excited!! Him for obvious reasons, and me because that would give me the opportunity to quit my job and explore whether or not the blog is really what I wanted to focus on. For the first time in a long time, I was full of hope and optimism about the future.
How the Pandemic Changed Everything
Like many people, in March of 2020 I was told to work from home for the next two weeks, thinking it would just be two weeks. I ended up fully working from home from March to September. Kyle's dates for flight school were indefinitely put on hold, so we were stuck in the DC area for the foreseeable future.
This is the period of time when my blog saw the most significant and dramatic growth. Obviously I was working from home 40 hours a week but my schedule was completely flexible and I also got to cut out two hours of commuting every day. Meaning I was baking and photographing new things every. single. day. I was pouring over Foodtography School lessons over and over again and practicing my butt off! The summer of 2020 I started to land more and more clients and my Instagram account started growing like crazy. With each new client and each new follower, I got more confident that being a food blogger was what I was meant to do. It felt like I had finally found my purpose. I signed up for Advanced Foodtography School and just kept learning and practicing as much as I could.
In September I started going back into the office 2 days a week and in November I started going in 3 days a week. This was tough because suddenly I had a lot less time to work on the blog, but I was still home enough to get a lot accomplished and I was nothing if not determined to make it work.
Long story short, I really benefited from the pandemic. In fact, I've struggled with a lot of shame and guilt over the fact that my business performed so well during a time when so many people were suffering. People were losing their jobs, losing their homes, and losing their lives. Meanwhile, I was honestly thriving. Restaurants shutting down and quarantine restrictions meant more people than ever before were cooking at home and turning to food blogs for recipes. Sourdough bread had quite the moment early in the pandemic and I happened to have a ton of sourdough recipes on my website and Instagram.
What's hard to explain to people (and also feeds into my imposter syndrome) is that, while working hard is incredibly important, some portion of success truly just comes down to dumb luck. I just so happened to start a food blog that heavily focused on sourdough recipes a few months before a global catastrophe forced people to stay home and start making sourdough bread.
I'd also be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that there is a certain degree of privilege involved as well. The fact that I had a good paying job all throughout the pandemic (as did Kyle) and the flexibility to work from home was a HUGE privilege that allowed me to invest the necessary time and money into growing my blog. Food blogging and photography is not cheap and the adage "you have to spend money to make money" is very true when starting a business.
From Side-Hustle To Career
December of 2020 is when things really escalated. I grossed over $10,000 from the blog (before taxes and expenses lol) and felt like I was truly living the dream. My business was growing everyday and showed no signs of slowing down. But at the same time, my mental health was starting to decline again because I was overworking myself. I was still working my full-time job, but at this point I was putting in over 40 hours a week on the blog too. All I could think about and talk about is when I'd be able to quit my job and do the blog full time. Kyle and I had talked it over and agreed that it didn't make sense to quit my job while we lived in the DC area, so I would quit my job once we found out when and where we'd be moving for his flight school. I bugged him almost daily about whether he had gotten any updates about when he would get dates because at this point it had been a full year since he'd been accepted into the Air Force.
Now just because I had finally started making money from the blog and felt confident that this is what I wanted to do with my life, doesn't mean the imposter syndrome, self doubt, and internal struggle magically went away. Even now, I really struggle with the word "influencer." By definition, I am indeed a social media influencer (brands pay me to promote their products with hopes that my audience is influenced to make purchases based on my recommendation). However, influencers have become a subject of such ridicule and disdain.
People love to say that influencers are lazy and entitled and don't want to have a real job. Meanwhile these [mostly] women have built a very impressive industry that is worth billions of dollars and social media is where brands now spend the majority of their marketing budgets. It can be incredibly hard to reconcile the desire to do this kind of work and the desire to not fall into that category. It makes me question myself and my motivations that I would give up my dream of medical school or an impressive corporate career in order to chase something that many deem extremely trivial and insincere?
Every time I post a story on Instagram about not working for free and why bloggers and influencers need to charge what they're worth, I get a slew of hateful messages in my DM's saying, "If you want to get paid, get a real job!" Or "No one owes you anything, brands shouldn't have to pay you. You're so entitled." And it's so incredibly upsetting and discouraging because I know for a fact that myself and most other bloggers and influencers (at least in the food industry) work so incredibly hard and are the farthest thing from "lazy and entitled."
So this internal struggle over whether I really want to pursue a public facing career and continue to make money as an influencer has been ever present in my decision making. However, thanks to this absolutely amazing and supportive community, and my endlessly supportive partner, I've decided it's worth it. But it is still something that starts to affect my mental health if I focus on it.
The Turning Point
The turning point in my transition to start blogging full time was a bit of a slow burn, but culminated in me having a very intense anxiety attack, a big fight with Kyle, and then me sobbing uncontrollably on the kitchen floor about pancakes. Yep, pancakes.
This happened in the beginning of March 2021. For a while I had been struggling with whether or not I should quit my job. I knew the blog had so much potential and I was consistently landing bigger and bigger clients. But our rent was $2500 a month so I just couldn't justify giving up my [very good] salary. I was determined to hang on until we found out when we'd be moving for Kyle's job.
About a week before everything blew up, I found out we were being required to go back into the office full-time. This would also mean going back to spending almost 12 hours of my week just commuting to and from DC. I was already barely hanging on to my sanity working in the office 3 days a week. I was working about 80 hours a week, barely sleeping, and hadn't taken a break in months. I realized that I had to choose. I either had to step back from the blog a bit so I could focus on my real job and not lose my sanity. Or I had to quit my job and go all in on the blog. But the problem is we still didn't know when we'd be moving for Kyle's job. Our lease was up in June of 2021 and we were being told he might not get a start date until October of 2021 at the soonest (which is literally insane given how long we've been waiting already). We just couldn't afford for me to quit my job if we were still living in the DC area for almost another year. But I didn't want to take a step back from my business after working so freaking hard to grow it to that point. I had poured literal blood, sweat, and tears, over $20,000, and thousands of hours into this business and I just couldn't imagine taking a step back at that particular time.
I was also recently offered a cookbook deal (I'm honestly still in shock) and even though I'm still not sure if I want to accept it, there is literally no way I could write and photograph a cookbook while working in the office 5 days a week. And while I would receive a substantial advance for writing the book, it wouldn't be enough to pay my rent in DC for the 5 months of full-time work it would require. When I was a kid, I dreamed of writing a cookbook one day. It was one of those dreams I had honestly forgotten about because I never in a million years thought it would happen. So knowing that I had to pass on this opportunity was absolutely killing me.
The stress and anxiety of not knowing when we would be moving, or even where we would be living past June, coupled with not knowing when I could comfortably quit my job and the fact that I was about to start working 5 days a week in the office with zero free time meaning I would have to pass on opportunities like cookbook deals, was making me physically sick. I couldn't sleep. I didn't eat more than a couple bites of food for almost a week. I couldn't work on anything for the blog or for my clients because I was just so utterly exhausted, anxious, depressed, and uninspired. One night I finally had a full on anxiety attack.
The next morning after only sleeping for about 3 hours, I had to work on a pancake shoot for a client that was due that week. Now I've made pancakes a thousand times before. I'm very good at making pancakes. But for some reason I just could not get these pancakes to work. I kept either burning them or flipping them too hard so that they made a mess. Nothing was working and I just absolutely lost it. I was sitting on the floor sobbing my eyes out because I was so stressed and exhausted and this pancake shoot had to happen that day because there was literally no other day I could do the shoot before it was due.
Kyle came downstairs and offered to try to help me make the rest of the pancakes. I calmed down a bit and went to go clean myself up and he started making pancakes. When I finally stopped crying, I came back into the kitchen to find a stack of perfect pancakes. They were tall, fluffy, evenly sized and literally perfect. So of course I immediately started sobbing again because I didn't understand why his pancakes were so much better than mine. Amazingly I managed to pull it together and do the shoot and the photos turned out great. But you could say that was a bit of a low point.
That's when Kyle and I realized that we really needed to sit down and have a chat about what the future was going to look like because it was very clear that I couldn't keep going on like this.
Something that I also think isn't talked about enough, is just how hard relationships are. There's this fairytale that's portrayed to us that when you're with the right person, everything should magically be easy. But that's just not true. Kyle and I have known each other for almost 10 years and I've been madly in love with him since we first met (even though we weren't dating for those first 7 years lol). He is my person. He's my best friend and the person I would do anything for. And 90% of the time our relationship is easy. But despite all of that, there are days that I don't want to have to take his needs into consideration. I've had so many thoughts about how I would handle situations differently if I was single. Because I always thought that I should never have to compromise on anything for a man. But that's a problem because healthy relationships require compromise.
So we ended up in this horrible fight about what the future looked like. He wanted to just keep waiting to make any decisions about moving and quitting my job until he was finally able to get a start date for flight school. But I wanted to make a decision about where we'd be living once our lease was up in June immediately because I couldn't take waiting anymore. I was so sick of basically putting the blog on hold because the Air Force wouldn't give us any information. But this job is his dream, his number one life goal, the thing he's been working towards for 15 years. So who am I to say that his dream is an inconvenience for me? Who am I to say that his dream was standing in the way of my own?
But at the same time, he's watched me work myself to the bone for the past year trying to build Barley & Sage into a profitable business. So who is he to tell me I have to take a step back and stay with my safe corporate job so we can afford to pay our DC rent while we wait to move?
No one needs the specific details of that conversation but it was rough. We even talked about if we should break up because it didn't seem like we could find a solution that worked for both of us and let us both follow our dreams. After literal hours of horrible, emotionally exhausting conversation, we'd made basically zero progress. The only thing we decided is that we did want to stay together and figure out a way to make it work for both of us. But trust me when I say that was the least fun conversation I've ever had in my entire life.
The next morning I was laying in bed stressing about all the client shoots I was already committed to and would have to now cram into just two days a week and suddenly a solution came to me. It was a little drastic but also made perfect sense.
The other big detail to note is that Kyle is still working his horrible overnight job that pays well but he absolutely hates. He never planned to stay with that company for so long, but since his flight school had been put on hold for over a year, he didn't have a lot of other options. His job made both of us pretty miserable but again, our rent was $2500 a month and the covid economy is still a thing.
So my thought was, what if we both just quit our jobs, break our lease early, and move out of DC? What if we find a cheaper place to live (preferably near home) where I can focus on the blog full time and he can find a random job to entertain himself with for a few months until flight school finally starts? He's a big golfer and used to spend his summers working at a golf course and absolutely loved it and he hasn't really been able to play golf at all in the past two years with his overnight job. So I suggested he just get a job working at a golf course for the time being. The beauty of moving somewhere cheaper is that we just wouldn't need to make as much money to live comfortably and our savings would go a lot farther if we needed to use them.
After I told him my idea, he agreed almost immediately. We wanted to move back to Asheville, NC because that's where we're both from and we love it, but it's gotten so expensive to live there that it isn't a whole lot cheaper than DC these days. We settled on Greenville, SC because it's only an hour from Asheville but significantly cheaper. I also went to college in Greenville so I know it well and it's just a great, small city that has an awesome food scene (obviously the food is important)! Being in Greenville would also allow him to spend a lot more time with his family for the next few months because once he's officially active duty military, coming home to visit will be a lot more difficult.
The only downside to this entire thing is that it's temporary. We will have to move again in about a year once Kyle finally gets his new duty station, but that's always been the ultimate plan. But living in Greenville for the next year will allow me to focus on Barley & Sage full-time and grow it as much as I can! I have so many big plans and I'm confident that I can be in a place where I'm running a profitable business on my own before we have to move again. However, this plan also gives me the opportunity to fail. If it turns out that I can't actually do this and it's too hard to make a consistent income, then I'll be able to move on to something else knowing that I gave it my all and there was nothing holding me back from putting in 110%.
After we made that decision, I immediately felt lighter. I was suddenly so happy and excited and I felt like I could breathe again. Until that moment I didn't realize how deeply depressed I had been and for how long. It also gave both of us renewed faith in the strength of our relationship that we were able to figure out a solution that would work for both of us.
What the Future Looks Like
I have no idea what the future holds for me or my business and that's terrifying. I'm officially a full-time, self-employed blogger and I have no idea where my next paycheck is coming from. But I do have some things I'm very excited about!
I have a number of courses I've purchased that I either want to go through again, or haven't even started yet because I just haven't had the time. So I'm very excited to shift to doing all my client work and blog work during the day like any normal job, and then spending my evenings and weekends working my way through some courses!
- Go through Advanced Foodtography School again
- Go through Artificial Light Academy again and actually practice!!!
- Lightroom Magic (haven't started yet)
- Retouching Food Photography (haven't started yet)
I'm making a lot of changes to the blog and my growth strategy now that I have time to focus on the nitty gritty details more!
- I'm hiring a virtual assistant that will help me with my Facebook and Pinterest strategy so that I can drive more traffic to the blog and hopefully make some passive income from ads.
- I'm updating the SEO in all of my old blog posts and also updating my recipe cards to include metric measurements in addition to US measurements.
- I'm going to prioritize keyword research and niche down a little more because being so stressed and overwhelmed has made me just go for what's easy.
I also really want to get into more restaurant photography when I'm in Greenville! There are some amazing local restaurants in and around Greenville that I know would be so much fun to shoot for and would be another great source of revenue.
I still don't know if I'm going to end up writing a cookbook (I'm still in talks with the publisher), but I'm just so happy that it's actually an option. I actually have the ability to say yes if I want to.
Something very anecdotal that keeps happening and giving me confirmation that I'm on the right path, is that whenever I make a huge decision or investment in the blog I tend to see an almost immediate ROI.
- About a month after I finished Foodtography School ($500 ish), I landed my first paying job for $600.
- A week after I signed up for Advanced Foodtography School ($1500 ish), I landed my largest paying job up to that point for $2,000.
- About 3 weeks after I decide to spend almost $6,000 updating all of my photography equipment (camera, lenses, lighting, backdrops, etc.), I landed a brand deal for $15,000.
- Literally 2 days after Kyle and I decided to quit our jobs and move to SC, a huge client reached out to me and we signed a deal for $20,000. Which is enough money to pay my rent and bills in SC for the rest of the year.
Again, this is completely anecdotal and I've done a lot of very hard work between each of those stages of my business. But to me it's proof that in certain scenarios, high risk really does equal high reward and investing in your education and your business is absolutely necessary.
Nothing in this post is meant to scare you or discourage your from following your dream. I just wanted to paint a realistic picture of what it took for me to get here and how complicated my journey has been. I want you to know that it's hard, but it's worth it if this is really what you want. And if you're struggling, you're not alone.
If you ever have any questions or just want to chat, feel free to send me a DM on Instagram or email me directly at [email protected]
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Thank you very much for writing this veeeeery long post and for telling your story with all ups und downs. It was so inspiring to read. I am sure that your both dreams are coming true.
I’m following your Instagram account for some month, I love your pictures and your style of writing. I didn’t try to cook or bake one of your recipe so far, but I will!
All the best to you, your partnership and your business.
Allie Hagerty says
I've been a follower of yours ever since I stumbled upon Foodtography School and found you thru them. I so appreciate you sharing this story, as it really resonates with me.
Just wanted to say thank you and keep up the amazing work. You are so genuine and your personality really comes thru in your recipes, blog posts, and social media.
It took me a while to get here, but reading this, especially the background and what you should do and growing up with less money is definitely relatable. You have 100% earned your career, lots of people want to do something drastic or feel like you did, but they don't put in the effort. Watching your blog grow has only made me more hungry to succeed like you...there's room for all of us! Also, so happy to hear about you and Kyle having more time together, beautiful twist!!
Thank you for sharing Kyleigh! Loved reading all about your journey. Wish you allll the best & success you deserve it.
Thank you for sharing your story! Very inspiring. Wishing you a ton of success.