On running a collaborative blog and embracing unexpected early success with Ashlee Gadd of Coffee + Crumbs

Ashlee Gadd bounced between in-house jobs before she decided it was time to spend more time with her family and focus more on pursuing her writing and photography career. So she went out on her own, first as a freelancer and now as the founder of the collaborative blog Coffee + Crumbs. I connected with the self-taught writer and photographer this month to find out more about what it’s like to run a site like Coffee + Crumbs, and to learn what’s next for this multipassionate entrepreneur.

 

When and why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?

Oof. I never, ever set out to be an entrepreneur. I don’t even think of myself as one now, to be honest. In college, I wanted to get into advertising but that never really panned out for me. I did in-house marketing for three different brands—an independent film production company, a wellness resort and a boutique hotel—before finally going out on my own as a freelancer.

When I made that decision, I had two goals in mind: One, I wanted to spend more time pursuing writing and photography and. two, I wanted the freedom to (mostly) stay home with my kids. I worked for myself for about two and a half years before launching Coffee + Crumbs, but this venture feels different because now I manage a small team of people instead of only managing myself. Honestly, I just fell into this. It was not pre-planned or a lifelong dream. I believe God led me here, and I’m so grateful, because running Coffee + Crumbs really is my dream job.

 

How would you describe the work you do?

Is this a safe place to admit that I’m still perfecting my elevator pitch? Usually when people ask what I do, I tell them that I run a collaborative blog about motherhood, and that our first book is coming out in April. If time allows, I tell them about our podcast, our shop, our writing course, etc. And that I also have a photography business on the side, but I’m currently not devoting much time to that right now.

 

What does a day in your working life look like? 

I work three mornings a week, so on a “work” morning, I have a babysitter for the first chunk of the day. Before she arrives, I am usually running around my house like a crazy person trying to get everyone dressed and fed. I reheat my coffee four times before finally giving up and just brushing my teeth. After I pass the kiddos off with hugs and kisses, I head to the coffee shop to set up my “office” before attempting to cram eight hours of work into four hours.

On a given work day, I am doing any of the following: checking e-mails in four different inboxes (so many e-mails!), working on my next Coffee + Crumbs essay, posting to social media, making decisions about upcoming projects, editing essays for Coffee + Crumbs, reading submissions, working on the book, gathering credit card statements for my bookkeeper, preparing podcast talking points, planning our book launch party, promoting a giveaway, putting together the next month’s editorial calendar, getting feedback from a focus group on a new product we’re launching next year, etc. Most of my energy the past few months has been dedicated to the book but I never ever run out of things to do.

What hats do you personally wear in your business and where do you have support from someone else?

Right when we started working on the book, I began removing hats. The biggest hats I’m still wearing are the book (edits, design, launch, etc.), the Coffee + Crumbs editorial calendar, social media, finances, our Patreon account, collaborations and partnerships and all things related to our shop. We are currently working on a 2017 calendar and Coffee + Crumbs coffee mugs. We’re also working on a new membership program set to launch in January and I am heading that up as well. 

Specific hats I currently have support with are the podcast, giveaways, newsletter, photos, Twitter, blog content management and bookkeeping. All of the writers help with brainstorming, promoting and reading submissions as well—everyone is essential. I could never do this without them! Also, my husband edits the podcasts, publishes each episode and fixes anything that is broken on our website. He is our biggest champion. The next hat I am looking to remove is social media. I will be so happy when I’m not in charge of that anymore.

 

In the early days of your business, what were your biggest challenges, real or self-imposed?

I think my biggest challenge in the very beginning was how quickly we grew. When I launched Coffee + Crumbs, I assumed we’d start off with a dozen readers and that we’d grow from there, slowly and organically. I did not expect posts to go viral right away; I did not expect millions of pageviews right off the bat. The number of eyeballs on what we were doing brought a lot of pressure with it. I felt the weight of so many people reading, and of my name being attached to the project. I started getting dozens of e-mails a day from people asking to republish content, asking how to submit to Coffee + Crumbs, asking how brands could advertise with us. I was nearly eight months pregnant at the time, and it was a lot. I was filled with gratitude for the overnight success, and also filled with an overwhelming fear that I would never be able to keep up with everything.

 

How did you overcome those challenges?

When I first reached out to my initial team of writers, I was super clear that my expectations were low. I didn’t have money to pay anyone, and I simply asked for one essay a month. But when we had almost 3 million pageviews in the first eight weeks and my inbox blew up, I knew I needed help. I sent an SOS e-mail to the writers, and from that point forward, we started working as more of a team. I opened a new e-mail account for submissions, gave everyone the password, and we all started managing the e-mails together.

I also had to simply let go. I’m a perfectionist at heart and perfect was no longer an option. Occasionally essays had typos. Occasionally it took me six weeks to return an e-mail. I slowly learned to give myself grace and to ask for help when I was drowning, especially at that point in my pregnancy. I had to. 

What drives you to continue giving your time and energy to your business, even when it’s hard? Put another way: what’s the motivation behind what you do?

I have four answers: the readers, the writers, my children and God.

Our readers are the best. Full stop. I honestly think part of what makes Coffee + Crumbs an amazing space is the community of people who read our words. We have experienced such kindness, grace and encouragement in our work. The comments, shares, iTunes reviews, e-mails—all of it. I do not think I would fully believe we are fulfilling our mission of encouraging mothers if so many people hadn’t taken the time to stop and tell me so. Our readers make me want to show up, even when I’m tired. It has been incredibly humbling to hear over and over again that we are making mothers feel known and understood.

The Coffee + Crumbs writers have become a little family, and that’s one aspect of this gig I didn’t necessarily expect. This group is a constant source of encouragement, hope and positive energy in my life. We show up for one another and we pray for each other. I think writing together consistently and vulnerably has grown us closer as friends, even though many of us are stretched across the world and only talk online. These women work incredibly hard to foster meaningful art—they make me want to grow Coffee + Crumbs into the best version of itself. I love them so much.

My children are a great source of inspiration to me. I believe writing, especially the type of writing we do at Coffee + Crumbs, begins with noticing the tiny stories unfolding all around us. My kids have taught me so much about myself—about love, about fear, about sacrifice and wonder. I love that someday I will be able to give them this collection of stories. Sometimes I play our Coffee + Crumbs podcast in the car and Everett says, “Mommy is that you on the radio?!” I know that next April, he will think it’s “so cool” to see his name in the book. I love being an artist in front of my kids, and reminding them that it’s important to use the gifts God puts on our hearts to make something beautiful for the world.

Looking back, I can see all kinds of little signs that led me to this point, to this work, to Coffee + Crumbs. Even since launching this site, God has shown up for every moment of doubt, for every insecurity, for every fear. This work has been affirmed and validated by Him 100 times over. And honestly, that is the greatest motivation behind my work—to know that right now, this is the gift He wants me to use and this is the place He wants me to use it. I find great delight and peace in that.

 

Let’s talk about failure. How have you learned to deal with failure in your life as an entrepreneur?

Failure, more than anything, usually teaches me something about my own expectations, which are almost always too high. I try to take failure as an opportunity to learn something about myself or about the process, but that’s not always easy to do right away.

 

How do you define success?

Well, I will tell you one thing: if I defined success by money, I would have quit this gig a long time ago. Success, to me, is finding joy and fulfillment in the work you are doing. Maya Angelou once said, Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it. I would agree with that.

Our mission at Coffee + Crumbs is to encourage mothers, and so long as we are meeting that mission, I believe we are successful.  I always tell my writers that I do not care about pageviews and Facebook shares. If an essay that we write encourages one mother out there, I consider that a gigantic success.

 

What’s the best investment you’ve made in your business or self-development so far? 

Over the past year, I’ve gone away on a few “writing retreats” where I hole up in a hotel by myself for 24 hours. Everything I wrote for the Coffee + Crumbs book, I wrote at that hotel. I think it’s so important to give yourself space sometimes. I have two young kids and all of my work—writing and business tasks alike—takes place in small increments. Five minutes here, an hour there. Even though I have a couple blocks of hours each week, that time is rarely enough to get myself in a good groove. But sitting alone on a hotel bed in a silent room with an entire night ahead of you: that is priceless. I would love to do this once a quarter—to write, to plan, to dream, to set goals and give myself the space I need to think without children begging for more goldfish crackers.

 

What is your long-term vision for Coffee + Crumbs, and yourself?

My long-term vision for Coffee + Crumbs is that we will continue to find creative ways to come alongside women and encourage them in their mothering. Eventually, I’d also love to build an app and host in-person events and writing retreats.

 

What advice do you have for women who are working hard to get their business off the ground and are concerned it’s not actually going to amount to anything? You know, that they’ll have to go get a "real job.”

You asked me earlier how I define success and I think women trying to get a business off the ground should start there. Is the goal of your business to replace an income? Is the goal of your business to help others? Is it to be creative while earning some extra cash for your family? All of those goals are very different and will require different metrics. But, like I said above, I think if you are finding joy and fulfillment in your work, that is work worth pursuing, because it will certainly amount to something, even if it’s just to yourself.

Also: find your cheerleaders. I could list my A-team for you right now, the people who have come alongside me over the years and said over and over again: Keep going. Those people are worth gold.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers or any requests you have of them?

Well, since you asked, if you love the work that Coffee + Crumbs is doing, there are a few ways to support us:

  • You can sign up to be a Patron. Our Patrons pledge a set dollar amount per month to contribute to the mission of Coffee +Crumbs. This also keeps our site ad-free. You can donate as little as $1 a month and as much as $10 a month. There are rewards for the $5 and $10 Patrons.
  • You can leave us an iTunes review! We work really hard on our podcast and when people leave us reviews in iTunes, it helps more people see us.
  • You can share our posts on Facebook, which is the easiest one ever, and actually makes a really big impact. Our earliest success came from posts going viral on Facebook, but now that the algorithms have changed (and changed again, and changed again), most of our posts do not get seen there anymore. If you have just two minutes to spare, heading to our Facebook page and sharing a post helps us a ton!

Also, we are launching a new program in January to empower women to pursue creativity alongside motherhood. It’s going to be a year-long journey, and we are SUPER excited about it. You can learn more about The Year of Creativity here.

 

Where can my readers find you and connect with you online?

They can find our collaborative blog at Coffee + Crumbs and check out our podcast HERE. We're also on Instagram and Facebook. I also have my own blog and am on Instagram as well. 

Photo credits: Sarah Maren Photography and Lee Brown Photography.