Mar 7, 2018
Welcome to episode 008 of the Blogger Genius Podcast. My guest is Mary Anne Kochenderfer from the blog, Mama Smiles.
Mary Anne has been a blogger for nine years, has four children, and is currently homeschooling three of them. Here she shares how to be a successful mother and blogger.
In this episode we talk about how she turned a creative outlet into a business, why she thinks it's a good idea for her kids to see her working, plus, her thoughts on admiration vs. jealousy.
Intro: [00:00:04] Welcome to The Blogger Genius Podcast brought to you by MiloTree. Here's your host, Jillian Leslie.
Jillian: [00:00:11] Hey everyone. Today I am here with my friend, MaryAnne Kokendurfer from the blog, Mama Smiles. And I have known MaryAnne for a couple of years and it's really fun to connect with her, and I'm excited to have her on the show. Welcome, Mary Anne.
Mary Anne: [00:00:30] Hi, it's great to be here.
Jillian: [00:00:32] OK so let's talk about Mama Smiles. First tell me about what your blog is.
Mary Anne: [00:00:43] The central focus is about finding joy in everyday parenting. And for me everybody's going to find that in different ways.
Mary Anne: [00:00:53] The things I love about being a mom are having time with kids, like learning, creating, traveling and just exploring new things, so that's what you'll find on my blog.
Jillian: [00:01:09] I want to know how you were inspired. But let's go back. So you are an educator. You have a Ph.D. in education. This is what you live in breathe.
Mary Anne: [00:01:22] Yeah, well my Ph.D. is actually public health, but it was like arts programs for kids with PTSD. So it's still very education focused. And I do have a Master's in Education from Stanford so. OK. And I'd say yes I'm an educator.
Jillian: [00:01:37] And you do have a bunch of kids.
Mary Anne: [00:01:41] Yeah I have four kids. My youngest is 5, and I have an 8 year old, a 10 year old, and an 11 year old.
Jillian: [00:01:48] Can you share the story of how you started Mama Smiles?
Mary Anne: [00:01:53] Yeah. It was almost an accident. I would say I was home with two little kids and anyone who's had two kids knows that that life can get very exhausting. And I was looking for a way to focus. And I really wanted kids. I mean I was one of those women who really really want kids. I was like How is this. You know I need to I need to enjoy that. I can survive it. Yeah.
Mary Anne: [00:02:21] And so I was looking for a way to focus on the things I loved about being a mom with little kids. I didn't start intending to create a business but that is what it's turned into.
Jillian: [00:02:43] Can you share how it has evolved? So you started it really as an outlet.
Mary Anne: [00:02:51] Yeah it started as an outlet. I would say it still is because I derive so much joy from actually writing something and publishing it.
Jillian: [00:03:01] What do you mean by that?
Mary Anne: [00:03:05] I've come to realize I value community and I'm really lucky. I mean I have a really great local community. But I do value that that has expanded into global community.
Mary Anne: [00:03:27] I work from home and so much of what I do is really valuable, like feeding and clothing and cleaning. But it all gets done within 24 hours.
Jillian: [00:03:38] Yes.
Mary Anne: [00:03:40] On my blog. I get to write something and it's creative and it makes me think and then it stays done.
Jillian: [00:03:53] That's so interesting. I get that. I find that blogging for me gives me enough distance so that I can then reflect on what's going on in my life.
Mary Anne: [00:04:10] Yes. It's like that social awareness. And I feel like it's a constant re-evaluation of what matters to me and why.
Jillian: [00:04:20] So you start this blog, and you're writing about what you're doing with your children.
Jillian: [00:04:27] Yeah. Then when did you say great, this is a business and I could really think about it as a business?
Mary Anne: [00:04:34] I don't think I even realize. I was such a naive beginning blogger.
Mary Anne: [00:04:41] I was just, I need a creative outlet so I created an outlet. Blogs are amazing because you can have zero startup costs. Right. And I started reading blogs a few months before. It's like, I could do this. And so I started writing.
Mary Anne: [00:05:00] And then at a certain point, companies started contacting me and then you start to get the ad revenue, and it's like OK now, and my kids started getting older. So I'd been kind of focused on being home when they were little, and that I really wanted to continue to be home. But I have this education. Like ok, I don't want to like throw all the education out the window and spend my days doing only mundane things.
Jillian: [00:05:25] Right. Right. Right.
Mary Anne: [00:05:28] Not to undervalue those things at all, because they are the essence of all of our lives.
Jillian: [00:05:34] Right, but I do think again and in all honesty, once you have a child, and you've got four, nobody is applauding you for packing the perfect snacks.
Mary Anne: [00:05:50] No, and it's a bizarre experience to go from being this high performing person, yes, to being treated as almost a nobody which devastates me that that's how we treat mothers. And and that was another piece of it.
Mary Anne: [00:06:08] There was also a kind of I hope that people can see my blog and see some of the things that stay at home mothers do with their kids, that nobody realizes are happening.
Jillian: [00:06:23] Can you give an example?
Mary Anne: [00:06:23] Well just things like the value of having a parent there taking her kids on a walk or a care giver.
Mary Anne: [00:06:33] It doesn't even have to be a parent. I just want caregivings to be more valued.
Mary Anne: [00:06:39] I hope that people can recognize what an impact they can have on the life of someone, who really has that kind of hands on attention.
Mary Anne: [00:06:50] Because I think we don't realize all that goes into raising children.
Jillian: [00:07:02] And one thing I think about is, I talk to bloggers all the time and there's a similarity. Especially mothers, which is it is hard to be working like we used to work before we had children, and blogging is an opportunity to be home and be entrepreneurial, and to set your own schedule, so you can put as much or as little as you want into it. But that it is a way to carve out something for ourselves.
Mary Anne: [00:07:36] And I think it's healthy for my kids because they see that I am working and they see the benefits of that.
Mary Anne: [00:07:45] I mean if you think back like 100, 200 years ago mothers were working and children were seeing their mothers work. And then we went through the phase like in the 1950s, mothers were reduced to only the housework and the cleaning and the cooking, and again I never undervalue those things. Those are the things that keep us all alive right.
Mary Anne: [00:08:10] But those women still had brains, and I felt like that got lost, like they almost weren't allowed to and this created the happy medium of like still recognizing intellect, on at least on some level.
Mary Anne: [00:08:32] I think it's really important for children to see their parents working.
Jillian: [00:08:35] I do too.
Mary Anne: [00:08:37] I mean luckily my husband has a job where they can go see him at work too. But it's really unusual for children to be able to see their parents working.
Mary Anne: [00:08:45] I know that's like a post industrialization phenomenon. Children used to see their parents working.
Mary Anne: [00:08:52] And and I think when they see us working, it helps them understand why they need to contribute positively to the household. Why they need to be responsible members of the household. And when they can't see us working, they don't really understand because they go off to school or daycare. And they are given responsibilities there. But it's still primarily like child centric. And I think that's because that's all they know.
Mary Anne: [00:09:21] They think that we go off and play at work all day.
Jillian: [00:09:24] Like for example, I'll be doing a craft post or recipe. And my daughter is watching me climb on my kitchen chair so that I can take a photograph of whatever I've made, and she sees the mess, she sees what goes into it. She sees the magic.
Jillian: [00:10:00] She sees everything and she participates because she'll be in some blog posts and I will pay her to be in blog posts. It breaks it down for her. Like this is what work is.
Jillian: [00:10:10] The truth is when you're a blogger it is a lot about that kind of stuff. Like yeah, there's the glamorous fun stuff and there's some crappy stuff, but the truth is it's not magic. No. It's a lot of work and I like my daughter to see that.
Mary Anne: [00:10:33] And I think it's going to help our kids go into the workforce having had that you know, fly on the wall view, and even participate in what goes into a job. And that's been the highest cost I feel like of industrialization for families.
Mary Anne: [00:10:57] I think it's so important for children to get a view of what a job is.
Jillian: [00:11:01] And I would say an entrepreneurial job.
Jillian: [00:11:10] The fact that we could make these little businesses from our homes, and really chart our own path. We don't have bosses telling us what to do. It's like. Well today this is what I want to do, or this is the direction I want to grow my business.
Jillian: [00:11:29] And that can be scary. And it does take somebody who is motivated.
Jillian: [00:11:38] But if you can put one foot in front of the other, like whoa you know for you it started as an outlet. And all of a sudden you have a business.
Jillian: [00:11:48] OK so let's talk about the business side of it. So you started your blog what 10 years ago... 8 years ago.
Mary Anne: [00:11:57] So I just finished my 9th.
Jillian: [00:12:01] And so I like how you said that you started to find ways to monetize almost by accident, like brands reaching out to you and you figuring out that you could put some Google ads up on your blog, and you can start to make passive income. Can you explain that journey, and where you are today with that?
Mary Anne: [00:12:23] So I actually have a very entrepreneurial little brother who had Amazon affiliate links way back in like 2000. So I think I started with Amazon affiliate links and then I added in the Google ads.
Mary Anne: [00:12:45] And then the company started offering me sponsored posts.
Mary Anne: [00:12:51] And those are still like the three main revenue stream I have and still I still mostly monetize with affiliate links.
Jillian: [00:12:59] And it's mostly Amazon or do you use other brands as well?
Mary Anne: [00:13:05] I would say Amazon is my top. Etsy I do alright with and then some ad revenue. I'm a little bit picky.
Mary Anne: [00:13:18] I could probably have more ad revenue than I have. Well, I know I could.I try to keep the ads in conspicuous.
Jillian: [00:13:28] You haven't blinged out your site with ads.
Mary Anne: [00:13:31] Yeah there are ads there. But yes.
Mary Anne: [00:13:35] And then I do take the occasional sponsored post but I'm pretty picky about those.
Jillian: [00:13:40] What would be a brand that you would be cool working with?
Mary Anne: [00:13:46] Anything education oriented, especially hands on education. Corporate banks bizarrely, but OK I think because well I am very good at budgeting and finance stuff, and apparently they picked up on that, even though it's not a topic of my blog.
Mary Anne: [00:14:10] I try to research the companies I work with pretty carefully. I mean, no company is perfect, like no person is perfect right. Right. I try to stick with things whenever I'm offered and say, OK do I see value in this for my readers? Or occasionally it'll just be a cause personally just think needs awareness.
Jillian: [00:14:39] So now how are you finding... Are you working with these... I don't know what you call them... aggregator companies, where they come to you, like a company works with a bunch of brands and then they reach out to you to say, hey we have this opportunity or are you reaching out to brands or are brands individually reaching out to you?
Mary Anne: [00:15:03] I work with TapInfluence, it's my favorite. I do work with them. They're what you're calling an aggregator. I don't know what to call them.
Mary Anne: [00:15:12] I like them because they understand what bloggers need to know to create a post. And companies don't always know, that right.
Mary Anne: [00:15:21] And they also know what blogger's expect.
Jillian: [00:15:29] I work with TapInfluence and I really like them.
Mary Anne: [00:15:37] Yeah, I think if you can get in with them, I think they're hard to get in with these days. But they are absolutely the premier to work with.
Mary Anne: [00:15:49] Then sometimes companies approach me.
Mary Anne: [00:15:53] I have done very very little reaching out to companies. I know people that it works for.
Jillian: [00:16:06] Well again it depends on where you want to put your focus. Like if you want to track down brands, you've got to commit to that. There's a lot of work that goes into that.
Mary Anne: [00:16:22] Yep and that's that's the one thing. If you're going to go in with a clear idea of what you want, then make those expectations clear. Just like that's what I want from brands.
Jillian: [00:16:36] Can we talk about video, because I really like the way that you think about it. I feel like everybody is like video it's not just the future, video is the present, if you're not on video you're screwed.
Mary Anne: [00:16:56] Yeah. And I'm not on video. Oh there you go.
Jillian: [00:17:00] But this is the crazy part, you've been able to continue building your business without doing video.
Mary Anne: [00:17:10] that's true. I have been able to continue building income streams and everything without doing video, and I'm not going to promise I'll never do video right. So I haven't gone into video. The main reason is that I prefer not to consume video content myself.
Mary Anne: [00:17:33] And then there's the fact that video is very time consuming to produce and it requires absolute silence, which you can hear. You know how many times my girls come in this room over the course of this interview.
Mary Anne: [00:17:46] But really, it's just that it's not my favorite way to consume content. I think the majority of people do seem to love video. I don't know if they always will, but that does seem to be the preferred majority right now. One thing that I think people forget is that blogs often reach niches of people, and I'm not completely convinced that my niche loves video. Most of my readers are not big screen families.
Mary Anne: [00:18:22] I think we all, myself included, use screens sometimes. OK. But it's more like carefully selected screen time. As a mom reading blogs, I can read a blog and my kids mostly ignore the fact that I am reading a blog. I can't watch a video without them wanting to watch the video too.
MaryAnne: [00:18:50] And I just I don't think you need to do something until it makes sense to you personally, like you don't have to do it, just because everybody else is do it.
Jillian: [00:19:01] I love that because the next question I was going to ask you is given that you have been at this for nine years, what advice would you give somebody starting off?
Mary Anne: [00:19:18] Pick something that you are passionate about, and that you can enjoy working hard on, that will be personally rewarding to you to work on for an extended period of time.
Jillian: [00:19:33] And then how do you deal with the fact that you're online and you're in communities of other bloggers and you're see what they're doing, and you're seeing their Instagram and their videos and how you navigate what is right for you and what isn't? Do you find that challenging?
Mary Anne: [00:19:54] I was literally raised to be a misfit. That was actually my mother's goal, was to raise misfits. That was frustrating as a teenager. But is the greatest gift to my adult. Being comfortable being yourself.
Jillian: [00:20:17] Do you ever struggle with that, when especially if you're consuming other people's content who are in your space?
Mary Anne: [00:20:27] I think it's really important to look at them and allow yourself to admire them. That it's OK to look and say wow, that person is amazing. You don't have to look and say, wow why am I not that person? That's been kind of life changing for me.
Mary Anne: [00:20:49] No I say, I can like that person and I can just admire them and enjoy the fact that I can admire them, like we can do that with celebrities right? I mean, I can look at an actress and say, wow she's so talented and she's so beautiful.
Mary Anne: [00:21:03] I think we need to let ourselves do that with the other people in our lives.
Jillian: [00:21:07] I really like that because it's so hard. I understand that there are evolutionary reasons for this, that we are so self-absorbed. So I don't mean that pejoratively, I don't mean that as like a criticism of us, yet but we are so self-focused that when you're a blogger, one of the hard parts is you are home mostly by yourself. Even with kids. But it's not like you're going to an office, and it's hard not to get up in your head, and look around and see what other people are doing, and think, oh my God that's not me or I'm not doing as well. When the truth of the matter is is it has nothing to do with you.
Mary Anne: [00:21:51] Right. I mean it doesn't help anything. Yes so for example you know I just moved into this beautiful house. I was in a very dark condo and it made photography so frustrating. Now there are bloggers who conquer that problem with lights and sets.
Mary Anne: [00:22:13] And I didn't. I could have conquered by investing in a good light. And so I can either be like, oh my life is so unfair or I could look at all the things, all the tools I do have, what I can do and focus on what I can do, or I can problem solve. You know buy the lights, or eventually move somewhere where there is lighting.
Mary Anne: [00:22:38] But it's OK for people to have things you don't have, and it's OK for people to excel at things that you don't excel at. I think that's exactly how we make space for ourselves, is by being different and I think it's all about... you can look at them and you could admire them, and you could learn from them, but that kind of jealousy slash putting yourself down never helps anybody.
Mary Anne: [00:23:09] I mean it doesn't help them either. You're just hurting yourself and it usually has a neutral effect on them. Why harm yourself right now in terms of social.
Jillian: [00:23:20] Again, as we're reading in the news, social media can be a good thing and also a destructive thing. Like how do you think about social media when it comes to your business?
Mary Anne: [00:23:35] Yeah. I think social media is a tough one because it can be a 72 hour a day job if you let it be.
Mary Anne: [00:23:48] I just think I think blogging happily is all about deciding where you're going to focus your time, what matters enough to you to invest time, money, resources into, and then focusing on those areas and accepting that you're going to just let some things fall through the cracks.
Mary Anne: [00:24:06] So unless you want to really throw a lot of money into it and hire an entire team, and supervise that team, and that's not the kind of blog I run.
Jillian: [00:24:14] So what platforms are you on or do you think are important for your business?
Mary Anne: [00:24:24] I think they evolve constantly. I am on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook. I'm on Google Plus, but I don't know how beneficial it is.
Mary Anne: [00:24:35] I happened to have a pretty big following there. I ran with it as I was an early adopter. I think Google Plus is mainly useful because of its links to Google. It is most well organized social media site I've ever seen. People haven't gotten to it.
Jillian: [00:25:00] So what about your business today are you most excited about?
Mary Anne: [00:25:11] As you know, I've got three girls who are homeschooling, and I've always had an education focus on my blog, and now with them home, it makes it a lot easier to just kind of like delving into that aspect of it more.
Mary Anne: [00:25:23] Ok, so I'm excited about that. I have a couple of products and ebooks I'm hoping to release in 2018 and I'm excited about it.
Jillian: [00:25:38] What are they. Are they about homeschooling?
Mary Anne: [00:25:41] They're about kids activities. Yeah. They're about hand-on parenting. I hate dividing into like homeschoolers versus non-homeschoolers because so much of the stuff I do as a homeschooler I did without homeschooling. It was just hard to find the time for it. Or like it can be a summer activity if your kids go to school. I am not a fan of like just mommy wars in general. I think there's room for all of us at all. I'm so much for cooperation and mutual respect than competition.
Jillian: [00:26:24] Yes I'd love that. Yes. OK. So if somebody were to be starting a blog today, and I know we've kind of touched on this, knowing what you know now, what would you say they should focus on, or do, or think about?
MaryAnne: [00:26:49] Some of the best advice in terms of getting started that I've heard. I can't take credit for this, is the idea of creating an avatar for your ideal reader. Like thinking, Who do I want to reach? And then what do they want to read about? How do they want to consume this content? Are they going to watch video, or do they want to want more written tutorials? And then where will I find them and how do I connect with them?
Jillian: [00:27:18] And a lot of times, and I've said this before, our avatars typically are similar to ourselves.
MaryAnne: [00:27:25] Yes I agree. I mean that's the beauty of the InternetYou can find those people whom you connect with. Actually that was one thing when I started blogging. I did a lot of crafts with my kids and none of my friends in real life at the time were very crafty. Like they would come to my house and their kids would do this stuff with my kids, but they just did not get why I thought this was cool.
Mary Anne: [00:27:51] I moved across the country and they're still life friends, they're amazing amazing mothers. But it was so refreshing to meet other women who understood why I thought cutting out cardboard was awesome.
Jillian: [00:28:03] And that is the wonderful thing again about blogging and the Internet. You can not just be craft blog. You can be a toilet paper roll craft blog and you can find your tribe.
Jillian: [00:28:48] I think that is one of the most powerful things about what we do. Not to be afraid to go niche, to niched down.
Mary Anne: [00:29:00] And I am a probably broader than would be recommended if I'm trying to maximize income streams. But yes there is a lot of room to niche down.
Jillian: [00:29:11] And also the one other thing I would say is this idea, like for you, having been at this for nine years, us too, we've been at it forever, is to allow your blog to evolve over time, that it can grow with you.
Mary Anne: [00:29:28] And another piece of advice would be to pick a name with room for evolution. Mama Smiles is could mean a lot of things.
Jillian: [00:29:41] Yes I agree. I absolutely agree with that. Where if you say my blog is toilet paper roll crafts.
Mary Anne: [00:29:51] Then you're stuck with the toilet paper rolls.
Jillian: [00:29:53] If it's Toilet Paper Roll Crafts for 10 Year Olds. You're kind of screwed when your kid turns 11. So I love that.
Jillian: [00:30:02] So MaryAnne, where can people find you? How can they reach out to you and see what you're doing?
Mary Anne: [00:30:09] Now you can find me on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram as Mama Smiles, and I'm always happy to hear from readers, other bloggers. I'm very happy to connect with you.
Jillian: [00:30:24] Well thank you so much for being on the show.
Mary Anne: [00:30:28] Thank you for having me.
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