“When you’re at your day job, and all you think about is how you are going to write your next post, it’s time to make a change.”
Lalaine had just made the most thrilling decision of her life.
Fifteen minutes prior to our phone call, she gathered the courage, walked into her bosses office, and set her resignation letter on the desk.
After deliberating over this decision for months, she couldn’t believe what she had just done.
I could sense the nervousness and excitement in her voice.
“Like, literally fifteen minutes ago?” I asked in disbelief.
Excitedly, she confirmed that this was it.
Like most, Lalaine works a comfortable day job. Her bills are covered. She’s got health insurance taken care of. Not a bad gig at all.
More specifically, she works as a dietary manager in a California hospital. You could say it aligns somewhat with her passion for food and cooking.
Passion that dates back to before she moved to the U.S. from the Philippines in the early 90’s.
Home cooked meals, she remembers, were what would bring her family closer together.
But, Lalaine is ready to throw away this cushy job in pursuit of her dream.
Sinch 2013, she’s been slowly building a food and recipe blog with Filipino-inspired recipes.
Literally, on a “whenever I find the time” basis while working her full-time job.
Fifteen minutes here. One hour there.
Exchanging parties with friends for cooking, snapping photos, and uploading recipes to her blog.
Most being an uphill battle, as she had zero tech experience and it was only made possible with the help of her daughter.
However, this is not your typical food blog.
Lalaine incorporates unreserved life stories into her recipes. She feels that people will make these meals in their home and share with their families, so letting people into her life and kitchen was only natural for her.
And this formula has worked very well.
Her income exceeded $8,000 in December 2015 alone.
A passion project that is now earning more than her full-time salary.
Now, this is NOT a story of a blogger striking it rich and making millions online. You can find these stories anywhere (and frankly, those stories are often difficult to relate to).
This is a story of one woman investing every waking moment outside her full-time job into her passion.
Leaving her in a position that most people dream of…
Should she choose comfortability and security and stay with her job, or give it all up for passion and inspiration?
To understand her logic, you must get into her head.
If she could see these returns just staying up late and on weekends working on this, what would be the return with all of her energy invested into her passion?
Clearly there are many variables at play, and there is no easy way to predict that.
One thing is certain with Lalaine…
She doesn’t want to live asking herself “What if…?”.
As one door closes, another door opens.
This is the story of Lalaine Manalo and her journey to become a full-time food blogger.
You publish a food blog called Kawaling Pinoy. Can you explain what your blog is about and who is it that reads your blog?
My niche is Filipino and Asian-inspired recipes. Although 25% of visits come from the Philippines, my target audience is Filipinos who work or live overseas such as in the U.S., Canada, Europe and the Middle East.
What is the meaning of the “Kawaling Pinoy name?
Kawaling Pinoy means “Filipino cooking pot.”
So basically, you get to cook amazing food, eat it, write about it, and you get paid to do so? Is this the life of a food blogger?
Cooking, eating and writing about food are just a small percentage of the work involved in maintaining a food blog. I spend a huge amount of time connecting with my readers via answering emails and comments, and participating in groups, share threads and social media to promote my content.
Why do you love cooking so much?
My mom was not a very good cook, but I always went to school with a home cooked packed lunch. It was a “must” when I was growing up that everyone in the family sat down to dinner together every day. I guess I grew up associating food to showing love and care.
You built this blog all while working full-time as a dietary manager at a hospital and raising a daughter through college. How did you find the time to work on your blog?
I cook and take photos on weekends when I am off to take advantage of natural light. The rest of the week, I am up till the crack of dawn writing my blog posts, maintaining my social media accounts, connecting with my readers via answering emails, comments.
I definitely missed a lot of parties in the last three years, especially during weekends when happenings happen. Not being able to cook one Saturday would have meant not having content to post for the coming week. It’s sweat and sacrifice I don’t quite mind as I really enjoy the whole process. Of course, it also helped that when I started my food blogs, my daughter was already in college and was busy pursuing her own life to need me as much.
It’s sweat and sacrifice I don’t quite mind as I really enjoy the whole process. Of course, it also helped that when I started my food blogs, my daughter was already in college and was busy pursuing her own life to need me as much.
The day we spoke on the phone you told me you just placed your resignation letter on your bosses desk to quit your job and blog full-time. What was that experience like for you?
I was scared as heck yet super excited! I mulled and mulled and mulled again over the decision for many months. I’ve worked for a company all my adult life, and I was (and still am) worried about letting go of the cushion a regular paycheck provided me. The advice of well-meaning family and friends was for me wait a little longer before making the leap, but I found it harder and harder every day to go to work with enthusiasm.
When you’re at your day job, and all you think about is how you are going to write your next post, it’s time to make a change. Up to the last second, before I handed my boss my resignation letter, I was questioning in my head the big step I was making. Yet the minute I walked out of her door, I felt so liberated.
Whatever happens from this point forward is all up to me.
How much on average does your blog earn today and give us a breakdown of the sources of that income?
Other than December when I made my all-time high of $8000 plus, I average about $4000 to $4600 a month. 100% of my income comes from display ads.
When you say display ads, can you give a little more detail to what this means? Whose ads do you display and how did you get started with them?
The display ads will be the banner ads that show on my sidebar, header and in posts. They’re a combination of CPC and CPM. I am part of two major ad networks, The Blogger Network and Blogher and they take care of the backend stuff for me for a split of the revenue.
You’ve incorporated your family into your food blog. I find that very interesting that you talk about your daughter and ex-husband. What made you decide to do this?
People can go online and find 100 versions of a recipe. I just thought I can set my food blog apart by having a “person” behind it and not a “cookbook.”
How does it feel that your most successful article is about a recipe that you got from your ex-husband? That article alone probably has made you thousands of dollars!
Funny because when I had my now-defunct blog in 2007 and I first shared that leche flan recipe, my ex-husband and I were still “happily” married so the old article was all warm and fuzzy. When I got into food blogging again in 2013 and had to share the recipe on the new blog, I was still reeling from the divorce and, admittedly, still bitter about his infidelity.
I kinda just wrote my heart out, not thinking or considering how readers will take it. I was basically writing for myself and being true to how I felt at that time. It’s amazing how the article became instrumental to the growth of my blog. It’s my most viewed, most commented and most shared recipe. It brings the most traffic every day primarily because Kawaling Pinoy currently ranks number #1 for that recipe on Google search. Victory for the scorned woman!
Can you tell me about your experience in moving to the United States with your family in 1990? Was there a language barrier for you? How have your experiences in raising a family and moving to a new country helped you in the success with your blog?
English is actually taught as a second language in the Philippines. It’s the form of instruction in our school system and that helped a lot in my having a blog in English. I still struggle, though, and I have to go back and edit my posts many times because I would use “can” when it should have been “could” or “that” instead of “which.” etc.
I never really learned how to cook in the Philippines. I grew up with house help preparing our meals, which is the norm in the Philippines. I had to teach myself how to cook because you can only have so much Big Macs in your lifetime. Managing my own household helped with the blog because I share recipes my family have personally tried and enjoyed. I write about my own experiences, trial and errors in the kitchen, and whatever tips and tricks that worked for me.
You do something on your blog called “income reports” where you disclose the results you are creating with your blog. You say that you want it to serve as an inspiration to fellow “kababayans” (Tagalog word that means fellow Filipino, countryman, or town mate). Why is this important to you?
I’ve been awesomely blessed through my cooking blog. To this very minute as I type this, I still can’t believe Kawaling Pinoy has grown to a point where I can quit my job and carve my own path. My monthly giveaways and income reports are my way of giving back to the people (my readers) who support me. How I see it, there are thousands of cooking blogs out there and yet they choose to visit mine. And that is a big deal for me. It’s humbling to know I have inspired a few of my kababayans to follow their passion and start their own blogs.
Some people when they start blogging struggle to find their voice. Some are not confident in their writing ability or worry about being perfect. You’ve clearly found your voice, and you know exactly who you are speaking to with your blog. But, was there ever a time where you were challenged about how your content would be received?
During the first few months of my blog, writing a post took forever and a day. I wanted, as you said, to be perfect. When I finally decided to relax and enjoy the process, pulling the article together became a lot easier. I write on my blog like how I would write to my closest friend and this seem to connect better with my audience. I try to proofread my posts as much as I can. I think the quality of writing is very important in building credibility.
Without any technical experience, how steep was the learning curve for you? How did you learn how to do everything you do online and what was your motivation?
I started blogging not knowing what a blog was! I was lucky that my then-16-year-old daughter took a few classes in school on web design and Photoshop (2007 was the heyday of Myspace so she was into making banners etc) and she taught me a lot. Although she was a great help, I had to learn fast (through reading, researching) because she charged too much hahaha. Also, it was kind of difficult to ask her to edit my photos in Photoshop after I just grounded her.
One thing I realized, you can’t be the master of all trades. Anything beyond my skills, I just outsource. For example, I spent months trying to figure out how to make an ebook. It’s time I could have used developing a recipe or answering a reader’s email. Eventually, I decided to save myself the grief and hired somebody to make the ecookbook (digital cookbook) for me. $180 for a 20-page ecookbook is nothing to sneeze at but so worth the investment. Outsourcing the ecookbook freed me to work on what I am good at, which is cooking!
What is the hardest part about what you do as a blogger?
Hard to believe as I talk too much but I am actually painfully shy. I am the person you find in a party sitting in a corner watching everybody dance. The hardest part of blogging for me is connecting and maintaining relationships with other bloggers. I have a handful of blogs I visit on a daily basis but I never leave comments because I am
Where do you come up with your recipes? Do you have any particular process you go through before publishing them?
Inspirations come from memories of food I enjoyed growing up, from cookbooks, other blogs in my niche, Pinterest, Facebook. I call my mother a lot for ideas. One of my best ways of learning a new dish: I go to the market every week for groceries. I spend a good few hours strolling the aisles and talking with fellow shoppers about their favorite recipes and prep tips. We have a Mexican grocery a few blocks from our house and I learned at least a dozen recipes just from asking other customers.
Have you ever had a recipe that just bombed with your community?
Yes, BBQ pork ears. And this was a recipe I thought was going to be insanely popular.
How have you grown as a person through your blog?
Oh wow! Great question. My blog created a brand new me and that is without exaggeration. For one thing, my blog was launched during a dark age in my life. I was newly-divorced and at the same time, empty nesting as my daughter was in college and was more into spending time with friends than with mom. After 20 plus years doing the same type of job, I was also getting burnt out at work but was afraid to make a change. My blogs gave me something to be excited about again. They sort of re-purposed me.
If someone told you that there is way too much competition with food blogs, and you are just lucky because you started early, what would you say?
I do believe there is an element of luck involved but I don’t agree about “too much competition” hindering the growth or success of a food blog. I had my first blog in 2007 when there was but a handful of food blogs and that first blog never saw more than 10,000 page views in its two-year existence. Kawaling Pinoy launched in 2013 with thousands of blogs already before it (and after it) and yet I’ve had better success with it than my 2007 blog that had far less competition.
What is your secret to taking nice images for your recipes?
I always take pictures with natural light. I don’t shoot after 2:30 PM as I am not yet adept at working my camera in different light settings. I invested on macro lens, and bought and read a good number of food photography books. I am still struggling with the food photography but much better than when I first started.
What is one thing every food blogger must be doing?
Making sure the recipes are solid. There is nothing more aggravating than spending money and time on a recipe that doesn’t work.
What is the most exciting thing that has happened to you as a blogger?
Being able to own my own business!
Does anyone ever reach out to you to send you products to promote or review? If so, what kind of things have you gotten for free?
I’ve been offered a few items but I had to refuse each time. I want to promote products I believe in. I would be very uncomfortable giving a negative review to somebody who just gave me a free product so I would just end up lying, claiming I loved the product when I didn’t.
With around one million views on your blog each month, can you give us a breakdown of where your traffic comes from?
75% of my traffic comes from search (Google) and the other 25% are social referral and direct traffic.
With 75% of your traffic coming from search, how did you learn to optimize each post, and what is your process for SEO each time you publish a new post?
I am not really technically inclined and don’t know much about SEO optimization. I just try to write as engaging as possible and provide useful content. However, I do use Yoast (WordPress) SEO plug-in where I add a focus keyword and meta description for my posts.
What did you do to get traffic when you first started?
Looking back, I think my initial growth in traffic was more of a stroke of luck than anything. I launched my main blog (Onion Rings and Things) in October 2012, and Kawaling Pinoy was just an afterthought. Bluehost (the hosting I started with) allows as many domains as you can add in the hosting plan I had so I thought since it wouldn’t cost me anymore than one, I might as well have two blogs.
I was busy building content on Onion Rings and Things, so I kind of pushed Kawaling Pinoy to the sidelines for about 3 to 4 months after I launched in January 2013 with about 4 to 5 recipes. However, I noticed that the 4 to 5 recipes I had ranked on the first page of Google search and were bringing in traffic (I was up 10K page views in May from 53 in January). The site was growing faster than the other blog I was focusing my energy on and inspired by the growth, I diverted my focus and built on Kawaling Pinoy instead. I posted regularly, 2 to 4 recipes a week.
In June 2013, I started doing my monthly giveaways even though I was barely making enough to cover the costs of maintaining the blogs. I tried Pinterest but realized my type of recipes don’t do well on this social platform because my target audience is more active on Facebook. In July 2013, I had less than 50 likes on my Facebook page. I invested on Facebook ads and had them running until I hit 5k. It cost me about $100 to $150 but worth the investment. It is easier to grow when you have 5000 people sharing and liking your content than 50. Also, I thought a higher number of likes gave my Facebook page validation. People are more likely to “like” a page with 5K likes than 50. My growth from 5K to 30k has been organic.
How big is your email subscriber list, how often do you email them, and what do you use it for?
I have 4,908 email subscribers. I use my mailing list mainly to notify subscribers of fresh content on the site. I have set it up to blog broadcasts, email is sent I soon as I publish a new post. I also set up a follow up series, first one is sent out immediately after they confirm, with link to download the ebook plus tips on how to navigate my site; the second goes out when they’ve been subscribed for 6 months with suggestions on popular recipes; and last one after one year thanking them for their continued support.
How long did it take to make your first dollar? Is there an interesting story there?
During my first months, I was making .28 cents to $2 every day and I was very excited. Then one day a bigger page shared one of my recipes and I had more than usual traffic. I made $26 in Google Adsense in one day and it confirmed to me that it is possible to make a living blogging. $4,500, which was my goal amount, felt insurmountable so I divided it to 30 days. $150 a day was less daunting.
If someone said “consistency is everything with content,” how would you respond?
I can’t agree more! There was this blog I used to read regularly but her new posts were sporadic, often weeks from the last. I would visit her blog and there will be no posts for days so I just stopped. After 6 months, I received an email update about her recent post and for a second I thought the email was spam because I forgot all about her blog! I mean, it’s like having guests. Why would people visit your house when you’re not always home? Why would they drop by to see you when they don’t know if or when you’ll be there?
What blog post are you most proud of and why?
Ginisang Munggo with Sotanghon. I wrote this a few months after the leche flan and I discussed in detail about my finding out my ex had a child with another woman during our marriage. I was writing and it suddenly hit me, I was no longer hurting! I realized by forgiving, I have devoid that person the power to hurt me.
Where do you see the future of food blogging heading?
I see the start of more new food blogs. Consumers will be buying less and less cookbooks, and food blogs will replace these magazines and cookbooks as their go-to source for dinner inspirations.
Was there ever a point in this journey where you felt like giving up? If so, how did you break through?
I don’t think there was a moment where I felt like giving up because I was very fortunate to see consistent growth in traffic and income year to year. Also, I really enjoy blogging and the whole process doesn’t feel like work.
Top three favorite online tools that you use…
Photoshop, Tailwind, Canva
One book that was pivotal to your success…
Who inspires you?
My mother. She’s the strongest woman I know.
What is one thing that irritates you that is happening in the blogging world…
Other sites copying and pasting recipes word for word and using photos without credit. I wish they understand the amount of work involved.
What’s your biggest piece of advice for new bloggers?
The financial reward during the first months (or years) are so pitiful, most blogs fold on their first year. You gotta love it, live it and be passionate about it because your only compensation on the first few years would be the joy of doing what you love it.
Imagine there were one million dollars on the line for the person who can give the best online marketing tip of something that is working really well in your business. You’ve got one shot at it. What would you tell everyone?
If everything was taken from you and you had to rapidly build your blog from scratch, what would you do to build an audience?
Build my Facebook page.
What is your vision for the future of this blog?
I am envisioning my blog to be the ultimate resource for Filipino recipes. I am working to include kitchen tips and cool tools. I am looking into including videos as well.
Closing thoughts from the editor…
One of the biggest stories I hear people say is that they don’t have the time.
Dig a little deeper and what I find that they are really saying is that they are not excited enough about what they are doing to find the time.
We make time for the things that we love.
Lalaine had a choice.
She could have come home from work and watched TV or scrolled Facebook on her phone. Instead, she chose herself. She chose her dream.
She didn’t get stuck on the idea that she was only making pennies when she first started. She celebrated every moment of it.
Without the pressure, she was able to have fun with it and fully express herself.
We’ve all heard the saying…
“Do what you love and you will never work another day in your life.”
The key is finding and focusing on that one thing and giving it your all.
Want more interviews like these?
Your feedback is essential for me to keep this going.
Let me know one “ah-ha” moment you had in the comments below. And if you enjoyed this interview, please help me by sharing this on Facebook.
MORE INTERVIEWS: How One Woman Blogged Her Way to a $20,000 Per Month Ornament Empire