BEHIND THE BIZ // AIDA MOLLENKAMP OF SALT & WIND

AIDA MOLLENKAMP

 

AIDA MOLLENKAMP // SALT & WIND

Aida is a food expert, avid traveler, on-camera host, and author. She has worked as Food Editor of CHOW.com, as the host of the Food Network show, Ask Aida, and the Cooking Channel show FoodCrafters and authored Keys To The Kitchen cookbook. She currently hosts the TasteMade digital series, Off Menu, and runs the food travel website Salt & Wind.

How did you come up with the concept behind Salt & Wind?

Salt & Wind came out of my passion for food and love for travel. After a trip to Cuba last year, I realized how much travel inspired and invigorated me – that I was overflowing with ideas and stories every time I’d return from a trip. My favorite life experiences – from culinary school in France to working at a B&B in Italy – have been through the lens of travel and food. Once I looked at editorial through that lens, I realized no site spoke to my passion and I decided to create a site dedicated to the subject.

Once you knew you wanted to launch Salt & Wind what steps did you take to make that a reality?

We’re less than a year old so we’re still in the process of making it a reality. My background in financial consulting means I’m a detail-oriented planner so I crossed every “t” with regards to business planning. Once I conceptualized the creative, I put that on the backburner and started researching the feasibility, in every single sense. My fiancée works at a tech startup as a Director of Product Development so he’s been key in advising me about product-market fit.

Here are the major steps we took prior to building and launching the site:

Media Consultant: I worked with a brand and media consultant to come up with an initial vision for Salt & Wind from determining our mission to our ideal reader.

Reader Survey: Speaking of the reader, I wanted to ensure that my established audience would want to move in this new direction. So, we conducted a reader survey with our newsletter subscribers to understand and cater to their interests. Our newsletter subscribers are some of my most dedicated readers yet I was launching Salt & Wind to include them and also grow beyond them. That meant we wanted to take into account their interests but also look to a wider audience.

Business Canvassing: My fiancée insisted that I do Business Canvassing and I was super anti it at first. Being foremost a creative, I felt that analyzing the feasibility of the business would be a total buzzkill. Honestly, this was a really frustrating step because it points out the flaws and holes in your ideas and I wasn’t wanting to hear any negatives. The exercise made me accept that there would always be a lot of unknowns (something I’m not inherently comfortable with) and to just forge ahead. This has now become a step I revisit as I learn more about the business. The books Value Proposition Design and Business Model Generation were infinitely helpful though I used EdisonPlan.com to actually complete the canvassing.

Business Docs: As an outcome of the Business Canvassing exercise, we created a Media Kit and a Pitch Deck (both of which we update monthly). If you’re in New Media, I’d say you have to, at the very least, create those two documents because they’ll force you to hone your story and are useful when pitching brands. That said, we recently decided to bring in a business consultant to help formalize financial projections and a business plan. We’re at a point where we need to know how to grow the site and can’t answer any of that until we know how to best monetize.

Execution Of The Site: Once we had the concept of the site down, we went through all the standard site launching steps from logo design to trademark applications and web design. I worked at CHOW when it transitioned from a print to an online magazine so I had a lot of ideas in this arena. My personal blog, aidamollenkamp.com, lived on WordPress, but here we created a site from scratch so that we could customize the mobile experience. On my personal site, mobile traffic was just under 50% whereas it’s over 60% of our traffic on Salt & Wind, which I look at as a reflection of our audience as well as the fact we built a better mobile experience.

What lessons have you learned along the way?

To lean into your strengths and get help with your weaknesses. I know, this seems so obvious, but when you’re running a small business, it can be tempting to do everything yourself. The reality is that having people help you early on can really make a huge difference as they’ll help relieve stress and be more vested as they grow with you and your business.

Continue reading for the rest of the interview!

PROPS

What has surprised you about starting & running this business?

The friendships I’ve been able to create through this business are amazing. There are just so many like-minded, equally passionate people doing this work and I love getting to meet them all. From our team members to people I meet through travel and brand work, it’s been a major bonus. It’s also a surprisingly supportive environment — most people who I have met have a “rising tide, all ships” mentality toward our industry and it’s really refreshing.

Do you have a daily routine or certain rituals you do?

I travel about 50% of the time so I have sort of two lives: one on the road and one at home. When I’m at home, I have a lot of work to get through (catching up from my last trip and preparing for the next) so I have to be pretty regimented. No matter what else I have going on that day (from writing to food styling to on-camera work), I try to always do the following:

Coffee: You don’t want to be anywhere near me if I haven’t had coffee. If there was a term for being hangry related to coffee? Well, that’d me.

Meditate: I use the Headspace app to help me meditate because I have a really busy mind.

Brain Games: Truthfully, I’m not sure how well all these brain games work but I figure it’s worth 5 minutes a day to get me to do something aside from work. I use the Elevate app, though I sometimes just play Scrabble or read instead.

Move: Again, with the emphasis on health, I’ve committed to moving daily. When I’m home, I try to workout 6 times a week so that I can let it slide a bit when I’m traveling. And, no matter where I am, I try to walk a few miles daily.

Reach Out To A Friend Daily: Since I became an entrepreneur, I’ve realized it becomes dangerously easy to focus only on work. Having had a few friends get really sick this year made me realize that, no matter how much I love my job, I have to make time to keep in touch with my nearest and dearest.

What hardships/obstacles have you had along the way?

Financial hardship: Look, going after your passion is neither cheap nor easy. I decided last year that I’d reinvest any business earnings back into the business in order to make it grow. That means that for almost 20 months now, I’ve had no salary. It can be seriously trying but it also helps you re-evaluate your priorities.

Business/Creative Balance: Being the founder of Salt & Wind means that I have to act as both Editor In Chief as well as CEO. So I’m often playing devil’s advocate with myself to weigh the business or editorial strength of my decisions. It can feel a little frenetic but it gets easier with time.

Work/Life balance: I’m sure it’s apparent by now that the work-life balance thing has been a struggle. I’m not a workaholic but being an entrepreneur can certainly tempt you to become one. A big piece of it for me was learning to turn off my work brain so that I can enjoy my personal life. The meditation thing has helped my mind to wander less so I’m in the moment a lot more, which leads to a lot more happiness overall (seriously, it’s scientifically). Also, I now plan one day a week where I do not work.

What do you wish you would have known going into this?

Well, if I could crystal ball it, I’d like to know the best way to grow and monetize the business. This is something you’ll never 100% know until it starts to happen so you have to be comfortable with trying and failing at a lot of different things. Growing a business is a very iterative process and you have to be agile enough to try something and move on if it isn’t working.

What have you found works for you as far as organizing your business and time?

I would have liked to have stumbled upon Joy Cho’s book Creative Inc. a lot earlier because it has a lot of practical info from apps to business management.

For organization, I use Asana to set goals and our team pretty much is addicted to Slack (it has cut our emails down by almost 90%). Personally, I love putting pen to paper so I always have paper products around, such as this weekly planner from Darling Distraction, your GSD Master List (I love it!), and a fun notebook.

On a daily basis, I try to keep to a few routines. I start off the day looking at email and social but limit it to 1 hour at the start of the day and 1 hour at the end. I then compartmentalize my week so I have large blocks of time to focus on one task be it food styling and photography, writing and editing, or business dealings.

How do you plan out your content?

We plan our content one quarter at a time. Because we have a mix of travel and recipes, we have to make sure we have content for specific holidays or destinations (for example, ski areas when there’s snow). About 80% of that content ends up on the site on the day we schedule it then we schedule 20% that’s evergreen so if another story comes in, we can move content around as needed.

Highlight of your career so far? Low point?

I’ve had a handful of highlights that have provided validation of my career. Getting a TV show was surreal, especially since I was in my mid 20s when it first happened. I had always wanted to write a cookbook so publishing Keys To The Kitchen was a big one for me. As for Salt & Wind, our biggest accomplishment has been the validation from the various brands who have wanted to work with us despite the fact we’re not even a year old.

Having my television show, FoodCrafters, cancelled was by far the lowest point for me. It was my dream show and, no matter how amazing the making of it was, it was super hard to have it end. My agent broke the news to me over the phone and it took my breath away in a way that felt like a breakup — I was silently crying on the phone and he just said, “we’ll talk later.”

Looking back, what would you do differently?

I wouldn’t worry about having everything figured out. When you’re starting a new business, there’s such an emphasis to know things –know if there’s an audience, know if there’s a product-market fit, know how you’re going to grow. But you just can’t know all of that until you just go for it.

Best advice you’ve been given? Any advice that you’d give other entrepreneurs?

The best advice I’ve been given was early on in my editorial career when my Editor In Chief always told me to create for yourself and you’ll find your niche. It seems cliché but when you write or create for yourself, everything is more authentic.

Advice I’d give others is to be cognizant of keeping your personal life healthy. I feel fortunate to have an amazing network of friends and family who have supported me, even when I’ve gone MIA and deep into a work blackhole. Now I try to find a day each week to spend time with family and friends and not do work, even if only for a few hours.

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Photos by Christopher Kalima