2015: A Year of Change

In October 2013, I sat down on the floor of my apartment next to my best friend, Anh, and decided I would start a business while watching “Grey’s Anatomy.”

I had no idea what I was doing; I had no clue the scope or span of what a LLC or a W-9 or an invoice really meant for my new venture. All I knew was that Meredith and McDreamy were on the outs again, and I was formalizing a working business relationship with my uncle, William Bishop, who owned Bishop Enterprises to do his social media for his company.

At the time, I did social media for a city lifestyle publication, and I was pretty good at my job. So I knew I definitely could do social media for my uncle, but I had no idea what was in store for me as a business owner.

Fast forward two years and a few more episodes later, I’m sitting at the desk of my home office in my new home, listening to my favorite Christmas piano album as I type on a laptop purchased for this thriving little business. This year alone, I met the needs of eight (8!) businesses, consulting on event planning, designing websites, writing brand standards and developing social media strategies for clients in the Ozarks, central Missouri, Ohio and beyond.

In February, I developed and designed a website for Mike Luebbering Construction, adding website development to my stable of services available to current and prospective clients. In July and August, I worked alongside my first retailer, Etsy shop Linda Kay’s Creations, to develop a fully functional digital portfolio of her handmade creations.

In September, I met and fell in love with the hogs of Circle B Ranch, a Berkshire humane hog farm an hour from my door. John and Marina joined two other clients to become the third Checkmate ongoing social management client. The ranch also served as my first food-based brand, letting me explore my passion for food writing outside of the publications I write reviews for and into the world of food marketing.

And in October, an old friend from college reached out to connect me with Claudia and Carol Ball, owners of Diet Center of Cincinnati. I was given the task to build their social marketing strategy from the ground up, developing brand standards, writing a formal website review and an all-encompassing social media strategy on both a monthly and yearly basis for the brand. The weight loss center became the fourth Checkmate ongoing social management client to close out the year.

It’s been a busy year, full of punny tweets, engaging Facebook posts, click-worthy social advertisements and increasingly well done graphic design images, all created for Checkmate Consulting clients in mind. I’m developing my skills at a rapid pace, and I’m calling my dad, another small business owner, every time I don’t know what to do. I’m getting better as we go along.

And in 2016, “Grey’s Anatomy” will still be on ABC, Bishop Enterprises will still be a client and Anh will still be my best friend, serving as a trusted adviser when I ask how much is too much. We’ll see what the year and Shonda Rhimes brings.

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When everything works

100115_01.jpg-page-001I am a lucky duck.

Almost a year ago, I sent an email to the editor of Feast Magazine. I had started spotting on the Midwest regional publication on my foodie feeds on social media, covering a wide variety of food-related news in Missouri’s major metro areas. But then, I spotted an article on the magazine’s Feed that discussed a Columbia pie shop that I had previously covered for Inside Columbia.

It was the first time I had seen Feast cover anything south of I-70, and it became obvious that the magazine was breaking into the central Missouri food news market. I knew they would probably head south eventually, so I emailed the editor of Feast Magazine a pitch for my freelance services once the magazine decided to start covering Southwest Missouri’s thriving food scene as well.

A week went by, then two, then three … and I didn’t hear back. I assumed I wouldn’t, and then out of the blue, the magazine’s digital editor Sarah emailed me asking if I would cover the opening of a new restaurant in Springfield. I knew it was probably a paid test — if I did well, they’d ask for more. If I didn’t, my byline would be on the website only once, and my article would live only for as long as Sarah wanted it to. But then I submitted an article I was proud of, a day before deadline, and Sarah kept emailing me back. She kept sending me story assignments. She kept praising my work, and thanking me for always meeting deadlines.

A few months of this happy banter went on, and in March, I was contacted by the publication’s print editor Liz to do a long-form feature story on a Springfield restaurant for the magazine’s June issue. I happily accepted the challenge, and my piece was featured in the award-winning issue.

And then, Liz emailed me in July to ask if I would be interested in writing a feature on a hog ranch just outside of Springfield: Circle B Ranch. I was a little overwhelmed at first — I’m about the farthest thing from “country” as possible. I had no idea there were even different types of hogs. But I did a few quick Google searches, fell in love with the story’s concept and accepted the challenge.

I scheduled an interview and farm tour with Circle B’s owners during a week I had taken off for a staycation. I spent an afternoon exploring the grounds, and I spent a couple of hours getting to know John, Marina, their dogs and their philosophy on how to humanely and naturally raise hogs. I meet a lot of highly competent people in my various jobs, but John and Marina glowed with pride and passion when they talked about their farm and their products. It made writing 1,500 words about this exceptional couple and farm easy, and I had too much fun describing the hog heaven in my feature.

I submitted the feature a day before deadline, and I got nothing but praise and clarifying comments from Liz. We smoothed out a couple of wrinkles in the copy, and together, we polished the feature to make it something we both were excited about.

Then it all started happening.

Marina and John not only became my friends, they became Checkmate Consulting clients after I submitted my final draft (per my editor’s approval). Then Marina told me that an award-winning photographer had stopped by the farm to take photographs. Then Marina told me that a camera crew and Catherine Neville, the publisher of Feast, was going to visit the farm. So I knew my feature was going to get a wrap-around spot on FEAST TV, a monthly program on food and food lifestyle in the Midwest that accompanies the magazine.

And on Sept. 30, it all came together beautifully.

I checked the Feast website, expecting to see some of the magazine’s October issue roll out, and I saw it. I saw Big John and two happy hogs on the cover of Feast‘s October issue. I’m not sure exactly how many people subscribe or read Feast every month, but I would guess somewhere between 150,000-200,000 people pick up the publication each month. That many people were going to see my story on Circle B Ranch. That many people were going to see my name in print — all at once.

I’ve been published a lot of places; I’ve written a lot of words. But when I saw my feature on the cover of a publication that I truly, truly respect, I was humbled; I was floored — I was excited.

I can’t imagine a more deserving brand to get this kind of recognition than Circle B Ranch. I’m so happy for them — and I’m so grateful for the opportunity for my story to be shared on such a huge, wonderful platform.

I’m a lucky duck? No, I’m a lucky pig.

 

What I learned at the Ozark Empire Fair

I’m a product of privilege.

My parents were both raised in lower middle-class families. My grandmother was a single mother for most of my father’s life, working two or three jobs to provide everything she could for my dad and his two younger siblings. My mom was one of four, who laughed their way through a gettin’ by childhood on my grandpa’s police salary job. My Gran was a stay-at-home mom who worked to the bone supporting the north Springfield chaos.

But another element of my parents’ upbringing is similar: both sets of my grandparents taught my parents over and over again the importance of education. So, they got married after dating all through college, and they packed their bags and my dad arrived in Kansas to attend law school at Washburn, and that English education degree my mom earned became their only source of income for three years. They scrimped and saved, and my dad graduated from law school with a job offer in hand. They were headed back home.

Nearly 30 years and a pretty large house later, my parents are affluent. I was raised in an comfortable, upper middle-class home. We took vacations every summer that weren’t a stretch, zooming around the country in an overstuffed mini van. Dad took me to England for 11 days without blinking an eye. Mom bought basically whatever designer handbags were in vogue at our Midwestern Macy’s (but they were always on sale).

modest

But in the midst of the bills always being paid, the pantry always being full and a nearly spotless five-bedroom existence, my parents were teaching me to work really hard for what I wanted. And one of the ways they did that was lining up my first job: wiping down tables for 10 days at the Ozark Empire Fair when I was 13.

You see, I wanted an adorable, so cool light blue iPod mini. They were just the absolute coolest when they came out in early 2004. But my birthday was a painful five months away, and it was the only time of the year my parents would make a big purchase for me. But I wanted an iPod!!

So, my dad asked his good buddy Greg Stephenson if his 13-year-old goth/emo/misunderstood teenage daughter could work at one of his concession stands for a few days at the fair. He gave me a chance. And I busted my, well, you know. I wiped down tables and refilled napkin holders and took out trash for 10 days in 100 degree heat. It was not glamorous — quite the opposite. But I was handed $275 in cash for 10 days of work, and the next day, my dad took me to Best Buy and I walked out with my iPod mini. I worked for what I wanted.

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On Thursday of this week, I’ll be returning for my 12th summer at the Ozark Empire Cafe. And over the years, that white envelope full of cash has meant so much to me. It’s been the money to pay for a passport for my first trip to France (that I paid for 100 percent myself). It’s been Starbucks runs for my freshman year of college. It’s been clothing money for my big girl job interview. It’s paid for a couple of Justin Timberlake concert tickets. And this summer, my husband is joining me at the cafe so we both can earn money for a trip north at the end of the month to visit friends in Iowa.

But for me, working at the fair is more than the cash at the end of my last shift. I learned making change at the fair to be self-sufficient, to go above and beyond and to ask questions when you don’t know the answer. I learned to work with a smile and try to be positive, even when you’re sweeping up trash. But most importantly, I learned to work really, really hard.

Refilling ketchup bottles and wiping down counter tops over and over again taught me not to try, but to do. You work through the long days with a smile. You believe you can do anything because you can. You take on a couple of double shifts because you can do it, and it’s only as hard as you think it is.

But for me, it’s a yearly reminder that I’m not too good to restock a cooler.

Building relationships and working hard makes you a successful employee, business owner and manager. And I’m really proud to put on a ball cap again and head to the fair to wipe down tables and take out trash.

DFTBA: Don’t Forget To Be Authentic

In July 2007, I stumbled upon a video of a guy with nerdy glasses singing a song about the very-near release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I was 17 years old, and Hank Green sang and charmed his way into my heart as both a Harry Potter fangirl and a social media user longing for community.

And that day, I became a Nerdfighter.

Nerdfighteria is an online community co-lead by two brothers: New York Times best-selling author John Green (author of a little book called The Fault in our Stars) and his little brother, Hank, who just so happens to run a conference called Vidcon that hosted more than 10,000 Youtube creators and community members last year. These two guys began as just brothers vlogging back and forth to each other each day as a simple video diary to reconnect as siblings. But along the way, they developed an online community with their Youtube channel that I not only did but actively wanted to be a part of as a consumer of digital media.

Their many successes, from CrashCourse to DFTBA Records to blockbuster movies and both scoring interviews with President Barack Obama, showcase how to keep momentum going once you go “viral.” But, in my mind more importantly, these two brothers show how forging communities and being in the community business generate success inherently. These brothers model that by being true to your personal and professional values and forging and authentically building communities, those communities will become loyal and do what you kindly ask. I pre-ordered all of John’s books because I liked John, not because I liked the synopses or the covers looked cool. I wanted to know what my friend on the Internet, John Green, had written — just like how I buy pizza from a pizza shop because the owner is snarky on Instagram and buy my favorite cookies at a local bakery that shares baking tips on Facebook.

I spend dollars to support communities and brands that connect with me.

John in his speech above at this year’s Youtube #Brandcast, a TED-esque infotainment event designed to court traditional mainstream advertisers, talked about how young users are demanding connection and engagement online. Consumers aren’t just buying, they’re looking for brands that talk back, that build communities and enrich lives.

Millennials and Generation Z kids are looking for brands that are authentically engaged in the culture of young consumers, and as marketers, we have an obligation to drop the act and to begin building online communities behind our brands. We need to stop pushing and start pulling; we need to stop selling and start connecting.

If there’s a currency for this next generation, it’s authenticity. We crave it, and we make our purchasing decisions because of it.

Now, I’m 25. I’m one of the so-called original Nerdfighers, one of the first 1,000 subscribers that started watching in 2007, and Hank and John have retired those camcorders that recorded their first vlogs. I’m not a senior in high school, I’m a social media professional (really), and John and Hank employ 30 people to help create the videos, events and projects they love. Their videos have been viewed more than a billion times. Almost as an afterthought, they’re making (a lot of) money doing what they love and being who they are, engaging authentically with their followers daily on Youtube, Twitter, Tumbly and even Snapchat.

I connect with Hank and John, and there are hundreds of thousands of other Nerdfighters who buy products, attend shows and support financially and with their voices the projects that Hank and John lead. They have their own empire — forged organically from a place of love authenticity and transparency.

But the vlogbrothers’ success is also a caution for old-school marketers trying, desperately, to be cool. If traditional brands don’t start forging digital communities like Nerdfighteria, they will lose relevance as fast as you can say “DFTBA.”

Quite the mouthful

I love writing about food.

It’s one of those things that comes really naturally to me. From identifying the spices in a Bloody Mary to picking apart the texture of a pastry with adjectives, writing down half-hazard notes on paper between bites is one of my favorite ways to spend a meal.

And thankfully, FEAST Magazine agrees.

I’ve been serving as a contributing writer for the regional food culture magazine based in St. Louis since December. Last fall, I pitched the digital editor that I could serve as the Southwest Missouri regional writer for the publication’s presence, The Feed. And one bite, one article at a time, I’ve taken on quite a mouthful with the publication. In five months, I’ve submitted eight articles — eight — to the publication. That means I photographed, produced, wrote and fact checked around 4,000 words about meals my husband and I enjoyed together. Read my published articles here.

And next week, I’ll be submitting a 1,500-word feature to be included in the magazine’s June issue about a restaurant and chef I’ve come to respect.

So between my full-time job at Springfield Public Schools, my thriving small business and two ongoing freelance opportunities with two regional publications I love, I’m spending a lot of time in front of a keyboard, at a desk. It’s wonderful to be so gainfully employed, believe me, and I would never complain. But for the sake of myself and my family, I’ve decided to start prioritizing the time that I spend at a desk.

Last week, I made the decision that Checkmate Consulting will not take on any more clients.

My small digital marketing agency is thriving — In the past four months, I’ve actually taken on two additional clients. I designed my first website for a company, and I began serving as an ongoing social media consultant for a well respect Springfield non-profit. My weeks are packed with working lunches and evenings spent working on the couch next to my husband. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s a lot of time working. Last week, I clocked in right about 60 hours total. That’s a lot of time spent logging hours and not living life, and sometimes, I make the decision to put my multiple obligations over my own needs.

But that’s not the only decision I made.

Last week, I also made the decision that I will not accept or pitch any freelance assignments from any publication in the month of May or June.

My husband and I bought a house that we love, and we close on May 5. We also have out-of-state weddings on May 8 and 16, and we move out of our apartment and into our home Memorial Day weekend. Plus, I’m heading to California to see a dear friend May 1-4, and my first graduate school course begins and ends in June.

I have a really bad habit of taking on too much and not giving myself enough time to enjoy the moments between shifts. And this May and June, I’m giving myself permission to honor my need to take long naps and long walks, while still giving my job and graduate school the attention they deserve.

Because while I do love to write about food, I love making it with my husband more.

The importance of milestones

10376071_10152665276482321_8660667789596877900_nI began working at Springfield Public Schools in December 2013. On my first day, we had 8,972 Facebook likes. A couple of snow days later, we had a few more than 10,000. And in forecasting 2014, I made a big goal: to reach 15,000 Facebook likes by the end of the year.

On Jan. 1, Springfield Public Schools had 10,231 Facebook likes, and I worked tirelessly all year promoting, posting, sharing and commenting on our Facebook page to reach that number. I developed a solid strategy of consistently quality content that was applicable to our followers, and I got to work. We inched our way to that 15,000 number; I celebrated some milestones along the way.

But on Thanksgiving, I knew there was no way we could make it.

On Dec. 31, we had 14,910 Facebook likes. I was crushed that i was so close and yet so far. I was so close! I felt like a failure — like no matter how many hail mary social media strategies I could come up, they’re just weren’t taking off. I wasn’t getting the shares or the organic engagement to get those final likes. I was focusing on the numbers and nothing else.

But thanks to a few snowy evenings, on a cold Sunday evening, six weeks into the new year on Feb. 16, we finally reached that 15,000 number. I was so excited! Finally! And then two snow days in two days, we pushed over 16,000 in a snap. It made me realize that no matter how good you are at your job, sometimes, it takes elements outside of your control to shine and to soar.

Now, I’m almost to the point of doubling our Facebook likes since I became employed at SPS. When we reach 17,800 Facebook likes, I’ll hit that milestone. Because when you push yourself to be better and to do better, you become better. I could be happy with our numbers; 16,159 Facebook likes is nothing to be ashamed of for sure.

But if I stop pushing myself, then I stop getting better. And when I stop improving, then I fail as a communicator, strategist and connector.

4Cs to success

 

For more than a year now, I’ve been working for a school district, surrounded every day by educators. I’m in and out of classrooms, sitting at lunch tables and coffee tables with teachers, principals, administrators and innovators who are questioning fundamentally what learning means. I’m a journalist within and without in education, constantly gleaning little bits of insight from some of the most talented educators in our nation.

I’m a part of the learning process for our students, and I never took an education class.

Along the way, in the midst of dozens of formal interviews with educators and hundreds of conversations over left overs in the district’s break room, I’ve picked up a few education and learning buzz words that really resonate with me personally and professionally. Particularly, the 4Cs for 21st century leadership really apply to my life as a social media professional.

Communication. Collaboration. Critical Thinking. Creativity.

In every work place, in every industry, communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity should be a driving force. Here’s how I use them professionally in social media and as a communicator for a large nonprofit.

Communication
So much of what I do every day depends deeply on communication. Over simple lunches and breaks between meetings, I communicate my short-term and long-term goals with my supervisors and brainstorm my crazy ideas with my co-workers who push me to not to ever settle with my content on social media. But more fundamentally, I make an effort every day to respond to email quickly and promptly. I respond to my supervisor my tentative plans, and I over communicate (sometimes) my roles to empower people to make decisions based on my plans without consulting me directly. A quick “Done!” email can be reassuring and a quick pop by an office can be empowering. We’re all in this together, so we should all be on the same page.

Collaboration
One of the most exciting things I’ve been doing at work lately is #ImagineSPS. It’s an initiative and intensive focus group that’s brought a lot of community members and departments together to reimagine what learning looks like at the elementary level in our system. Our communications team has been doing the promotion materials for the event, and I’ve been live tweeting the meetings — people have been joining in and following along on Twitter our evolving conversation at #ImagineSPS. But it’s more than the engagement the brand is getting on social media; it’s the work I get to do alongside some incredible educators who care a lot about our kids and the way they learn. I’m collaborating with our choice program, our elementary operations guys, alongside IT and some great people. It’s a coffee-fueled mess of awesome, and while I fake my knowledge of 21st century learning, I’m actually learning about innovation and education from some talented people while they learn about how we can collaborate with fellow educators across the nation (!) through social media. We’re working together to make positive change in our meeting room and around the world.

ImagineSPS

Critical Thinking
I’m pushing forward to meet some pretty intense social media goals for a couple of upcoming events, and to really push the boundaries of what I’m capable of, I have to sit and really plan it out. For every major event, I write out intensive promotional pipelines with dates, times and tentative content plans for each post. I have to sit down, headphones in and think it through. But when I have it done, it’s so important to me that someone else just gets an extra set of eyes on it. It’s not for permission or approval; it’s for me to have that pressure on to do better, to be better at my job. I need that criticism and critique to keep pushing me forward.

Creativity
Of all the Cs, this is the hardest for me. I’ve never been a visual person; I struggle with illustrating a concept without words. But one of my co-workers takes my words, literally, and transforms them visually. Kasarah made the above graphic from a piece of advice I gave her about considering fine-tuning her graphic designs skills. When you learn something new, it’s not a transformation — it’s an evolution. You’re becoming a better version of yourself, and being around creative people like Kasarah helps me to be better, they help me to be more creative, to take risks and try. You’ve got to try before you can do.

I’m learning about learning, and I’m learning how to be a better social media professional, writer and marketer as I learn how our students can be better 21st century thinkers. I guess my freshman English teacher was right — Once you stop learning, you stop living.