"I have been running Cupcakes and Cashmere for five and a half years. I just turned 30. I guess I got my start by studying sociology and media studies at Scripps College in Claremont, California—I was the head of sales at the school newspaper. I would go to a cute boutique or think of a storage facility that all of the students would need to use at the end of the year, and get these places to place ads in our paper. The experience was minimal at best, but it helped me get a job after college.
During my senior year, I decided that I wanted to work at Condé Nast—I didn’t even think of having a backup plan. I looked at their journalistic integrity, the quality of their photographs, and I was just like, 'This is where I want to be.’ So I went through the magazines’ mastheads, called the LA office and said, ‘I would love to meet with the HR director.’ I didn’t have a car at the time, so even getting from Claremont to LA involved walking to the bus station, taking the Metro Link in, then the subway, then a bus, and then I walked the rest of the way. [Laughs] It was bananas how much determination I had. Even now I’m like, ‘Oh god, if I couldn’t valet my car I probably wouldn’t do it.’ [Laughs]
The day after I graduated, a really great position opened up at Condé Nast—sales assistant for Teen Vogue and Domino. My parents had driven down to Claremont to bring me back home to Marin County [in Northern California], and we stopped at Condé's LA office along the way so I could interview. I had my fingers crossed, because if I didn’t get the job, I would have gone straight to living in my parents' basement. But, I got the job.
I didn’t fit into the editorial side of things at all at Condé. My style wasn’t there yet—I’m talking Rocket Dog platform flip-flops. And I was so worried about looking like a college student that I ended up looking like a frumpy grandma in long pencil skirts and oversized blazers. I just didn’t look the part; I’ve always been more business-savvy than fashion-forward. But being there and seeing everyone in the hallways, the gorgeous racks of clothes, the Allure beauty closet, it made me step up my style game. And though I always thought my natural career progression would be on the advertising side—I saw the sellers taking people out to every meal and doing really well for themselves, and it seemed like a straightforward job—I became enamored with style. I was reading so many magazines every week, and developing my sense of what I like to wear, what I felt comfortable in.
I also knew I would get bored in sales eventually—that’s kind of where the idea started to come to me, to combine the two sides [editorial and advertising], melding my business background with defining my own editorial identity: to create a site, understand the value of it, know the demographic I reached, and then be able to monetize it. But it wasn’t until I was working in ad sales at AOL in 2008 that I got the idea for Cupcakes and Cashmere. I would get bored at work, and for fun, I'd write online restaurant reviews that encompassed the food, the décor, and the vibe. But I wanted to create an online destination that combined all my favorite things—fashion, beauty, interior design, and food. You didn’t really see all of those elements intertwining anywhere online. And, as much as 'food girls' love food and 'fashion girls' love fashion, a lot of girls share those passions.
So I designed the original Cupcakes and Cashmere. It was quite literal—I think the header was an actual cupcake and a goat to symbolize cashmere. It was absolutely atrocious. [Laughs] It’s come a long way. I had no idea what I was doing, and Googled something about HTML and back-end questions about 150 times a day. I think if you’re dedicated and proactive enough, you can really figure it all out for yourself.
I started by setting a goal to write something every day, and stick to it. It’s funny—I thought I was successful when I wrote consistently for three months. That felt great, even though my parents and husband were the only ones reading it. I just kept writing and eventually garnered a big enough audience that I was like, 'OK, I can start monetizing.' I started incorporating ads in a really subtle way.
I developed a business strategy early on, to the point where I was able to match my AOL salary and eventually leave my day job. That was the first time I sensed any hesitation from my family—when I told my parents I was leaving AOL. The timing worked out really well, though, because AOL was offering voluntary layoffs. My job was secure, but the idea that I wouldn’t have to be fired and would have a little bit of a severance package cushion made me think, ‘Why not give it a go?’ It was a nice way to gently push me off.
I was getting 3,000 page views a month when I first started to gain traction, which seemed huge. But my husband, Geoffrey, who also works in media and has always been able to offer great guidance, told me I would need a million a month to make it work. At the time, it felt like I would never get there. But, really gradually, that’s exactly what happened within a year-and-a-half. I think you can do anything if you work at it really hard—but, in order to have sustainability, it should be an organized system and not something that you’re trying to do to be the next ‘it’ girl. It just takes a little bit of time.
My first ads were through an advertising network, BlogHer, because I could quickly go through the reports to see the average CPM [cost per thousand impressions]. Because my background was in advertising, I was able to know my worth pretty early on and I was able to see the different cuts, so I went out on my own for a while and started selling ads by myself, though I work with SayMedia now.
So I started getting a steady paycheck, partnering with a handful of brands—for example, I designed a bag with Coach in 2010 and ran their ads exclusively for two years on my site. Now I’ve been working with Estée Lauder for over a year. That partnership started because I was writing about their lipstick and nail polish, which I loved. I guess those posts got some traction, and the company reached out and said, ‘Let’s find a way to work together.’ It’s a really fantastic collaboration, not because I’m supposed to write about anything—that’s not even part of the contract. I think they really respect my vision in the same way that I completely admire everything that they’re about. It’s been a really good way of creating beautiful videos and tutorials. I am their once-a-week guest blogger, and I even took over their Instagram for a week. At the end of the day, it comes down to partnering with brands and products that I love and actually believe in.
Content-wise, everything is very thoughtful. The goal, of course, is to make it look easy and seamless. I think people look at blogs and think that we’re sitting in our pajamas writing about whatever comes to mind, but so much work goes into it. There are no accidents—from content to social media. When you are really passionate about something, you’re thinking about it all day, you’re living it, you’re breathing it.
Of course, over the years there are things I would have done differently—mostly the unfortunate outfits. [Laughs] But I am very conscious of how much of myself I expose. I share parts of myself, but not everything. Not only because it leaves something to the imagination, but also because it gives me peace of mind that people don’t know absolutely every detail about my life. It’s very important for me to open up in personal posts, and to show the inside of my space and photographs of myself, but there’s a way to open up without being overt. I never feel like I’ve been too exposed.
My favorite part about doing the site is hearing from my readers that I’ve inspired them. Because what else are you doing if you’re not out to inspire someone? I want to affect people in a positive way, whether it’s how they decorate their homes or how they deal with going on a date. When that happens, it’s the ultimate compliment.
I love my readers, and it’s kind of creepy, but I know them pretty well. I’m a little bit Big Brother-ish about it. She’s mainly between the ages of 18 and 34, she wears high and low [brands], and she’s looking for a balanced life—balancing her career, her friends, and her relationship with the things that she loves, all tied together in a pretty bow. It’s the idea of having it all—throwing an amazing dinner party with a great smoky eye, or mixing vintage pieces with Barneys. No one actually has it all—it’s a bit of a façade—but that’s what it looks like.
Now Cupcakes and Cashmere gets about six million page views a month. My husband runs the business side of things, and we have a creative designer, who helps with the content and is my right-hand woman. It’s so amazing to have team support and people to work with. I am still floored that I've been able to turn this into a full-time job. I just wrote my first book last year, and am working on my second now. I’m looking to take Cupcakes and Cashmere to the next level—it’s not just about me, but more about a certain kind of lifestyle. It’s about elevating everyday life. I’ll still be behind the aesthetic of everything we do, from flower arrangements to discussing cheese plating at dinner parties, but I don’t necessarily need to be the face of every single entity that comes out of Cupcakes and Cashmere.
I am a huge perfectionist, which, as much as people consider it a downfall, I think is a big reason for my success. But, it’s important for me to remember I’m not going to be perfect every time. You can’t be ‘on,’ spitting out great ideas, at all times of the day. It’s just not going to happen. I had to learn how to be okay with taking a step back. My state of mind is important. When I’m feeling happy, energetic, and stress-free, that’s when I get my best ideas."
—as told to ITG
Emily Schuman photographed by Emily Weiss in Los Angeles, CA on August 12, 2013.