Culinary Instructor Marcia Smart Tells How She Grew Her Business in the Online World

December 13, 2021
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In today’s episode, we have Marcia Smart with us and she is going to talk about her journey from taking her culinary education business into the online world.

You will also get to hear how starting with a simple strategy for getting set up allowed her to validate her course ideas, the ways that she has grown her email list to over 10,000 contacts, and how she diversifies her revenue stream with multiple options for people at all stages in her business.

YouTube: Marcia Smart
Facebook: Smart In The Kitchen
Twitter: @Smartinthekitch
Instagram: smartinthekitchen
LinkedIn: marciasmart
Pinterest: smartinthekitchen


In this episode, you will hear...

… Marcia’s story before joining the online space and what inspired her to go online.

… Marcia’s journey from taking her culinary education business into the online world.

… how starting with a simple strategy for getting set up allowed Marcia to validate her course ideas.

… the ways that Marcia has grown her email list to over 10,000 contacts.

… how Marcia diversifies her revenue stream with multiple options for people at all stages in her business.

… the importance of building a community for your online courses. 

… how Marcia structures her online course memberships and how she raises the price tactfully.



Jeremy Deighan
Hey, everyone, thanks for checking out the podcast today. We have Marcia Smart from Smart in the Kitchen, who is a culinary instructor and a cooking writer and an entrepreneur and just a plethora of titles of just awesomeness that she has created along the way in her journey.

And I'm very excited to have you here today. Marcia, how are you doing?

Marcia Smart
Very good. Happy to be here.

Jeremy Deighan
Yes, definitely. I'm excited for you to be here too. I can't wait to hear your story. And just talk about the courses and the passions that you love to talk about.

And just kind of hear about how you got into this world and how you've created courses and has have built revenue and income from online business.

Before we get into that, if you wouldn't mind just taking a moment. And just give us a little bit of background about yourself and what you were doing before you got into the online space. And then how did you get to the online space?

Marcia Smart
Sure. So I really honestly never thought I would be in this online world. And I worked after college in New York as a health writer for Parenting magazine. And I've always loved food and cooking.

So I kept wanting to get food writing assignments are work at magazines like food and wine. And realize I needed to go to culinary school to do that. So I left New York, and went back to California where I grew up and went to cooking school there. I did a six month professional program.

And then, you know, returned to that world of magazines. And I was a food writer for Sunset Magazine, Cooking Light, and other magazines for years. But after cooking school, I always taught cooking on the side, I never realized how much I would love it.

So at my school, we always had visiting chefs that will come do special classes. And I would always volunteer to assist those chefs because you learned so much that way.

And then I taught a six week basics course at my cooking school in the evenings. And just realize how much I loved those moments of people who were nervous about cooking or sort of overthinking it or stress them out.

And then they had this experience cooking themselves and realize, like a light bulb went off, they realized, "Okay, I can do this. This isn't stressful, it doesn't need to be complicated."

So here I am, over 20 years later, and I'm still teaching cooking classes just in a very different format.

Jeremy Deighan
Awesome, very cool. It's awesome to hear that there was a passion that you enjoyed something that you love to do. You went out you made it happen. And you know, two decades later, you're still working on that.

And that's very motivational and exciting to hear. So you were teaching these courses. Now when you said earlier that you had a six weeks basic course, this was an in person event that you were teaching?

Marcia Smart
Yes. So that was in person. And for years, I've taught in person cooking classes. And really in 2019 it was kind of the height of my in person business.

I taught in person cooking retreats in person cooking classes several times a week for groups of friends for birthday parties for corporate groups, I would teach kind of general sign up classes where people would show up and have a hands on class. And my market is really busy.

And working moms who are you know, putting dinner on the table for their families. It needs to be quick and easy and pretty, generally healthy. And I'm trying to teach them how to do that in a way that makes sense for busy moms.

So once COVID hit I had never heard of Zoom before, had never taught an online class. had never heard of these people that I ended up really learning from during that time, like Amy Porterfield and Stu McLaren, those people were strangers to me at that point, which seems so funny now, because I've spent hours and hours of my life probably almost a year at this point listening to their teachings.

So once COVID hit, and I have one part time employee, and things just started slowly dwindling in my bank account. And I started to kind of panic and wonder if my business was over, if I would return to food riding, if I would ever be teaching, you know, in person classes again.

And we were actually halfway through our six week basics course at that point, and had a group of students that had paid a lot of money to be a part of this course. So I had heard about Zoom. And this was very early on in pandemic days.

And so I started doing free classes on Zoom, once a week, and I would send out the invitation and the link to everyone on my list, and I have about 10,000 people are dead at that point on my list, and the first 100 people to respond, got a spot because I didn't have a big robust Zoom account at that point.

These were all free classes, I just wanted to help my, you know, community, my people. And we will talk about what to stock in your pantry, what to do with that once you had it, how to make really delicious, simple comforting meals from home.

So I ended up during this time taking Stu McLarens course called Tribe, all about memberships. And I really wanted to take what I was already doing, and make it a membership, make it more organized.

And also I had to run my business. So I needed to see if there were people willing to support this online membership moving forward. And I remember when I sent out that first email and thought no one would want to pay for it and started getting those emails back from people that yes, sign me up for a monthly membership.

And I remember just putting my head down on my desk and crying because it was such a relief that like there was kind of a light at the end of the tunnel. So that was my first foray into the online world it was a membership. I run it through Kajabi.

I have about 300 members and we cook together monthly now on Zoom. And then I have a whole membership site with a video library of knife skills basics and, you know, pantry essentials and how to stock your kitchen with, you know, recommended equipment.

And it's been really, I love those people, it's been really amazing, just having that income to rely on. And then in the midst of all of this in the past couple years, I've launched several courses. So I have three mini courses that are cooking classes.

So I have a fearless fish class, which is a week long class about cooking fish. I have a sheet pan supper class, which is all about easy, simple dinners where you're only cleaning one thing. I do a lot of fun cocktail and appetizer classes in summer.

And then my big course now is called the Smart meal plan formula. And it's basically how I pull off dinner night after night after night. And it's a five week course it's only offered twice a year. And then when that course is over, I really invite those students to stay with me in my membership because it's always open for new members.

But the people who get the most out of it are the people who've already sort of cooked with me in some capacity because they know that they're going to learn they know they're going to find out about recipes that they will make again and again and again. So that's sort of the gist of everything.

So I started out with just a blog called Smart in the Kitchen, which is on WordPress. And then two years ago, I added this second website called Smart in the Kitchen School, which is my online cooking school.

Jeremy Deighan
Okay, awesome. Yeah, this is a really cool trajectory that you had and I'm gonna pick apart some of these pieces and go over them with you because I think you went over a couple things that are really intriguing.

First of all, the niche. I want to say that this is a great niche because I know from hearing my wife talk about cooking for the family, that finding you know, easy to prep and create healthy meals can be very time consuming and stressful, especially the day in and day out of having to cook for the family and figure out, what's everyone going to eat, and what are we going to eat differently.

So this is really cool, I enjoy this. So I'm going to make sure when I get off this podcast, I go to your website and send it right to her and say, "You need to go sign up for this class, you'll love it. "

So the first thing that I noticed that I thought was really cool is that you started off kind of simply. Alot of people, and you know, I talked to hundreds, of course creators, and I've had dozens on the podcast. And I know from experience myself and from others that a lot of people will have an idea.

And they'll go straight into the course creation process. They'll start, you know, getting cameras and lights and all these different things and editing and putting together the curriculum and trying to put all this stuff together.

But what I noticed about you that I thought was great. And what I recommend for most people is you kind of started a little more simply, you started with the Zoom classes. And you said, "Let's try to do some free zoom classes," which is kind of a way of testing to see if there would be a market for this online. Would you agree with that?

Marcia Smart
Absolutely. And I can tell you that I learned so much from that, like I looked back at recently, at one of those first classes I taught on Zoom, which was, you know, pasta class. We made cacio e pepe and we made another really simple pantry pasta. And I was cooking behind me at my stove, using my computer as the camera in front of me.

And I had no idea that every time I turned around, the audio was totally cutting out. And people had no idea what I was. So I learned so much from that hands on experience. And also I think people were much more forgiving. Because of that I was trying to provide something I was sending them.

So many recipes, bonus recipes, things that might help them. So they were all really appreciative of me sort of not knowing what I'm doing initially. And I've just realized that there's nothing you can't google and ask a question.

And I've learned a lot that way I signed up for anything I could, that was free at first just kind of trying to learn about teaching online and cameras and lighting. But I really didn't want to spend a lot of money investing in equipment, like you said, because I kept thinking this was temporary.

So I can tell you now, this part of my business will never go away. Because, for instance, last night I taught in September and January, I do these kitchen reboot seminars. So I'm trying to teach people what I really do in my kitchen to organize and refresh it for a new school year or for, you know, your New Year's resolution.

So in one of my kitchen reboot seminars, I asked everyone where they were tuning in from. And I was almost in tears. Looking at all the responses. It was New York, Boston, DC, like rural Texas, California, Arkansas people, I had the chills looking at these responses popping up.

Because for so long, I kept sort of stewing over the fact that I wanted to reach more people, I would have friends reach out to me and say, "Can you come to Boston and teach a cooking class? Can you come to New York," because they wanted to do with their friends what I was teaching here in Houston, where I live, and it was just I have three kids. It's not, it wasn't feasible for me to be traveling all over the country teaching cooking classes, the return on that investment was not there at that time.

So teaching online is a way for me to reach a lot more people. But it's also a very efficient use of my time. Because in an hour, I can teach a cooking class with three to four quick and easy recipes. And people always say like, "We're going to be here for forever. I can't believe we're going to get through all of these recipes."

And then they realize how easy they are because we're getting through them so quickly. And they can either cook along with me and ask questions in real time. I'll tell you my online classes when I originally developed those I did I thought that they would just be plug and play like independent study.

You'd think people would watch them on their own. But I've realized that there's always some component of either community or outreach that's important for making your students successful in the course.

So whether it's a private Facebook group, or whether it's q&a through Kajabi, or emails, or having like a Zoom kickoff, a couple Zoom check ins or q&a is I've realized that those are important to me, because I don't want people to feel like I'm just selling this package course and then sink or swim, you're on your own, either watch it or don't watch it.

I really want them to feel successful. Because if they are successful in the course, they're much more likely to tell their sister or their mom or their neighbor, like, "Hey, I took this meal planning course. And it totally changed my approach to cooking dinner." And then I might get another student and I have a ton of word of mouth referrals like that.

Jeremy Deighan
Yeah, it's super important that that community that accountability building is great with these types of products. Because, you know, you can find a lot of information online courses are great, because it gives you kind of a step by step order to follow.

But when a course has that community aspect, that outreach, the accountability into it, it just raises the value of that course, so much more. And like you said, people are more intended to finish the course see success, and like you said, tell others. So that's a really, really important aspect.

And how great are online courses? I mean, my favorite business model is digital products. And I've been talking about this for 10 years now. The fact that you can create something and put it online and serve that to people is just so powerful, like you said, you can reach more people, you can reach a global audience, it doesn't even have to be in the United States, you can be teaching people in different countries.

And it's such a good supplement to your business. Because now, it doesn't have to be the only thing in your business, it can be a part of your business. So you can go teach, maybe an in person workshop to some people, and then give them a digital course to review when they get home.

So they can, you know, maybe they learn and saw you doing it firsthand. But maybe they didn't remember everything. And they can go home and pull up your course and say, "Okay, this is what she was talking about, I can rewind, I can, you know, look at these different aspects of this video and see how she was doing this with her hands."

So it's really, really awesome. And I love talking to you about this. This is one of my favorite topics. And I'm glad we're speaking on this. The next point that I had written down here that I wanted to ask you about, is when you started promoting your courses, in the beginning, you mentioned that you had 10,000 people already on your list.

Now this is going to be where it might be a little different for some people who are just starting out and growing their audience and growing that list. It sounds like you already had people on your list that you could start promoting to. So my question is, how did you get those people on your list?

Marcia Smart
It was a process. I started my list with 100 people that I added that were friends. When I first started teaching cooking classes, I would send out an email to a bunch of friends and say, "Hey, I have a class on Friday, about you know what to serve for a dinner party."

And so it's not stressful, and whatever it was, eventually, it got to be so many emails that I put them in a spreadsheet. And then I was like, "I need a real email help with this list." So I went to MailChimp. And then I launched a blog.

So my blog was really a great way for me to grow my list because I post a free weekly meal plan every Sunday, every Saturday or Sunday. It's usually Sunday, because it's really, it's really what I'm planning to cook for my family for the week ahead. So that meal plan kind of gained momentum, and people would sign up for my list to get the meal plan.

And then I also post recipes, easy recipes on that blog. I'm so overwhelmed at the moment that I am backed up with recipes I need to post and haven't been posting them very regularly. But the one thing I really do religiously, is post that meal plan every week so people know they can use it.

They can you know use it for inspiration. They can follow it, you know recipe by recipe if they want. So, every time I also taught a cooking class like I just did this here in Houston. I didn't In personal event, and taught a cooking class on grilling, and I put out a sheet of paper with a pen, and tell people if they want to sign up for my newsletter, we will add them. So I get emails organically.

Then, once I started building this second site, this Kajabi site, my email grew so much faster with that site than it ever did on my WordPress site. And I think that's because of list builders.

So what I originally did as list builders were these free little recipe ebooks. So I would put together one for the holidays, that was like easy holiday appetizers and desserts. And you'd get 24 recipes that were simple with beautiful photographs. And I've written mags, you know, recipes for magazines and newspapers for years.

So I know how to write a recipe in a way that people can follow. So those really kind of took off. Then I added a quiz, it's called What Kind of Cook Are You and it's kind of, literally when I first did it, I didn't even do it, thinking it would be a list builder, I kind of just did it because I thought it was fun.

And at the end of the quiz, I direct people to either certain recipes to my membership, or just to my Kajabi site for free resources. So between these different list builders and free webinars that I host, so I've only had a Kajabi site for a year. And in that year, it surpassed my WordPress site by I think 2000.

So I have on my Kajabi site, which was super organic to begin with, like I just sent an email to all of my MailChimp people and said, "Hey, I'm starting this membership, if you would like to sign up to learn more, or if you want to be on the list to hear when it launches," and then, you know, they added themselves to my list.

So I'm really surprised how quickly that Kajabi site has grown. I think that's mostly because I did have a group to begin with it opted in. But also, I think the list builders and learning about list building, and really paying attention to where your people like where your ideal audience is spending time and going, you know, meeting them where they're at.

Like my people, my audience, they don't understand these marketing terms. So they've learned in the last year. Like if I called something a list builder, they would be like, "What?

They're predominantly not well reversed in this online digital world. So like, for instance, someone asked me the other day, "What's a digital course?" Because I was selling, you know, this course I had created.

And I had to stop for a minute and realize the way I was explaining it wasn't making sense to my audience. So instead of calling it a digital course, I started calling it a five week online class. And that made much more sense to them.

But anyway, back to list building, it's just constant. My one actual struggle now is I've had this list that I've marketed to and you know, I've sold to for a long time now, I need to be careful that I'm reaching out and finding new people. Like I'm broadening my reach a little bit. And so that's kind of the next step for me.

Jeremy Deighan
Now I wanted to also ask you about the membership. So, from the free zoom classes and from your list, you were able to start promoting this membership. And like you said you had 300 members in this membership.

What all does that membership entail? So what are they getting in? Is this a monthly recurring price? Or is it a yearly recurring price? Or what is the structure of that membership?

Marcia Smart
Okay, so it has changed a little bit over time. So when it first launched, before I had my Kajabi site totally built and knew how to use it, I offered a founding member price to 100 students. I didn't want to take more than 100 students because of my Zoom capability at that point.

So the second I got 100 members, I kept it until I could finish this Kajabi site. Originally, I only was charging month to month because I wasn't sure if I was going to continue with the membership.

But when I launched Kajabi, I realized I loved the membership. I loved cooking with these people, I was developing real relationships with some of them and you know, getting to know them. And there are definitely some members naturally that are more involved than others.

But once I launched the Kajabi site, I offered a discounted yearly membership and a monthly membership. I love it when people join for a year because you don't worry about their credit card number changing and having to reach out to them or remind them to update their card. I give them I think originally when I first launched, I did a 10% discount to join for the year.

Now I've realized that's so valuable to me that I give them a 20% discount if they join for the year. The benefit to joining month to month for them is they can cancel at any time.

If you join for the year, I say you're in for the year. But I've refunded two people who reached out to me for you know different circumstances and didn't want to continue for the year, I'm pretty understanding, because I know what my life has been like during 2020 and 2021. So I'm understanding.

But the membership includes some videos of the whole video library on the Kajabi site. So there's a separate whole Knife Skills course, for home cooks that every member is gifted right away. I am going to start selling that course in an evergreen funnel. That's on my list for, you know, next to work on. But I haven't set up that funnel yet.

So it's just basic knife skills for home cooks. There's like a dozen things on there that I teach them how to cut and chop more efficiently. And then I gave them recipes that pertain to that ingredients. So an onion tart or carrot soup or whatever it is.

Besides that I originally was having a videographer professionally film, three recipe lessons per month, but I realized that my members valued the Zoom classes with me much more than they did those professionally filmed recipe videos.

And those recipe videos were expensive to film. It's a crew of people that does, it's amazing. And they turn out so beautiful because there's awesome lighting and audio and editing and music. But it just wasn't a big return on my investment. Because people weren't watching them, I noticed.

So you can see in Kajabi your analytics like how far people have gone in the course and what they're watching. And I realized there was a very small percentage of people watching these videos that I'd spent so much money on.

So now as luck would have it, my videographer who owns a local production company in Houston. She is on maternity leave so I told my mom I'm taking four months off of these videos, and I'm going to reevaluate how, you know, if we're going to continue with them.

And so we've continued that conversation every time I have a monthly zoom class. Someone will ask about it, ask when they're returning. But I realized it's only 10% of students, that's not a very scientific number, but it's a very small percentage of students that seem to miss or care about those videos.

So moving forward, my membership will be a monthly Zoom cooking class. I teach three recipes in that Zoom class every month. Then I send three bonus recipes that are related to whatever we're cooking and talking about. Then I also share with them discounts on any other courses that I teach in my business.

So if I'm teaching a one off cooking class that you can sign up for online, my members usually always get a 50% discount on everything I teach. So I try to give them kind of little extras and perks and behind the scenes information on what's going on in my business.

So they feel included. And then there's also a private Facebook group, and community that I might need some help with my Facebook. It had a bunch of activity early on, and it's sort of died lately. So we need to I need to keep the conversation going there.

Jeremy Deighan
Yeah, I think that's just the Facebook algorithm. It changes, like, it's just crazy. Sometimes it's going so good. And then other times, it's a ghost town. I go through it too.

But that's really cool. So it also sounds like, okay, so you have your membership. And I just want to make sure that I got this right. And then you mentioned that you have some mini courses, like your fish course, your sheet pan course, and etc.

So those courses are standalone courses that people can just buy without having to be a member?

Marcia Smart
Yes, so anyone can buy those, and I market them on my WordPress blog, I'll market them on Instagram, I'll market them, you know, through my Kajabi list. And usually what I found works for those courses is I'll do four days in a row.

I usually do it at you know, mid day, lunchtime, central timezone, so around 12 o'clock Central, and it's an hour class, and then I share a recording with any student in that class.

Then at the end of the week, I send them one last email with all of the recordings in one email, all of the recipes again, and then we you know, I answer any questions by email all the time that people have.

Jeremy Deighan
And then these are the courses that you were saying earlier, if someone is already a member in the membership side of it, that they would get a discount on?

Marcia Smart
Yes, exactly. Or any of my larger courses. So my meal planning course that you know, has a VIP level, and then it has a watch on your own time less expensive option that doesn't include Zoom classes. Which, interestingly enough, only one person joined at that level last time everyone else prefered the more expensive Zoom class level.

So my members get 50% off of that VIP level and get to come to all the Zoom classes and be a part of it because I want them to feel like my memberships pretty inexpensive. My founding members joined at $20 a month. I'll never raise the cost of their membership.

Then the next sort of time I really pushed membership, I raised the price to $27 a month. And I told those people that I would never raise the price of their membership. It's always open for new members. And I'll get people trickle in slowly.

But when I do my next big push, I'm raising it to $29. But I really don't want to go above $30 a month for the membership. I want to keep it as a low cost item to kind of stick around and cook with me on the regular and be able to be a part of my community without a huge financial commitment.

Jeremy Deighan
Yeah, definitely. I mean, that's, you know, memberships is all about following that turn rate and just hearing you talk about paying attention to your analytics, I'm sure you've got that sorted out of knowing where your price point is going to be where people might not stay or drop off and trying to find that sweet spot.

But I really enjoy your business model because it sounds like you've created multiple streams of revenue. So instead of just relying on one course or maybe just on the membership, you have kind of different varieties that you can offer different people.

A yearly subscription, a monthly subscription, you can buy individual courses, you have your five week course. So it sounds like you're diversifying your business model. And I think that that's just brilliant.

Marcia Smart
That was something I learned the hard way during COVID, that I had this one revenue stream that was in person cooking classes. And when that went away, my revenue stream went away also.

So I've also realized that those in person cooking classes take a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, it's like set up and shopping and making the recipe packets and cleaning up after the course, spending time with people.

It's a big time and money investment. So I raised the prices for those now that we're doing some in person events here and there. But my cost for ingredients has also gone up because of inflation. So the price of those I raise.

So they're sort of my higher ticket experience. And then I want to always have a lower price point, also, so that there's ways for different income brackets or, you know, people who are wanting to learn about cooking to be able to experience my classes.

Jeremy Deighan
Yeah, that's totally awesome. Because you're gonna find that some people are at different stages in their life.

Maybe they don't have a lot of money to invest right now. And they're okay with, you know, doing a cheaper option. But then six months or a year down the road, or two years down the road, they might say, "Look, I've been taking these courses from her, they're amazing. And I really want to take it to the next level, let me invest in to the higher price tier."

So I think that's just totally cool. I think you're doing some amazing stuff. And just in the next, you know, couple years or five years, where would you like to see your business?

Marcia Smart
That's so interesting, because I was just having this conversation with my husband. Because we were talking about these, you know, he's learned a lot about online courses through, you know, what I've been talking about for the last couple years.

And I really would like to continue always teaching in this format. So in five years from now, I'd love to still be teaching online, I don't know if I'll have the same digital course offerings or if they will evolve over time.

But it would give me the flexibility to be able to visit my kids in college at that point, or take time off in summer to travel that in person event schedule is really grueling and ties you to one place. So I love that flexibility that digital courses provide.

Jeremy Deighan
Yeah, and who knows, maybe in five years, we'll be doing courses virtual reality, or maybe you'll be a hologram standing in someone's kitchen.

Marcia Smart
That sounds great. I'm all for it.

Jeremy Deighan
Oh, very cool. Marcia, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. This has been amazing here in your journey and all the great things that you're doing with your business.

Hopefully this gives some other people out there listening some really cool ideas that they can implement in their own courses in their own business.

So if people wanted to find out more about you and what you've got going, where can they do that online?

Marcia Smart And it has everything that we offer from quizzes and free guides and recipe packets to information about my membership.

So I would love to answer any questions that your listeners have too and they can find me at smartinthekitchen on Instagram and I answer every DM myself.

Jeremy Deighan
Nice, very cool. Well, I will make sure that I definitely as always post those links in the show notes for today. And so just stick around till the end to get that link where you can go find those.

And just thank you so much for coming on today. I appreciate your wisdom and I just hope that you keep having that continued success in the future. And yeah, we just we thank you for being here.

Marcia Smart
Thank you so much for having me.

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