Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Colleen Lanin, the founder and editor of TravelMamas.com, one of the world’s most popular personal travel and global lifestyle blogs. We don’t manufacture a product or sell services, per se. Rather, we share stories and tips that make travel easier and more enjoyable.
Our mission is to help parents connect better with their children and the world around them through travel and beyond. Most of our stories focus on family travel but we also cover kid-free vacations like romantic retreats and girlfriend getaways. We also share stories about life at home because the fun doesn’t have to end once the bags are unpacked.
Travel Mamas generates revenue through:
- Ad network sales (ads served to readers based on their preferences)
- Affiliate sales (purchases and bookings made through links for which we receive a small commission at no extra cost to consumers)
- Sponsored blog posts and social media shares (for which I receive payment from brands and destinations)
- Book sale royalties
Over the years, I’ve also earned income from paid public speaking appearances, hosting Twitter parties, teaching blogging classes, media campaigns in which I represent travel brands on TV and radio, and starring in destination TV ads with my family.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I originally launched TravelMamas.com as a platform for my book about how to travel with babies and young children, The Travel Mamas’ Guide. I had signed with an agent who suggested I get some articles published in magazines and launch a blog.
Back when I launched Travel Mamas in 2009, we bloggers hadn’t really figured out how to generate revenue yet.
Eventually, I wound up self-publishing the book. After all, although editors expressed appreciation for my writing voice, they felt that readers wouldn’t pay for such a book because, ironically, people can easily find travel tips for free on blogs. Now, the blog is way bigger than the book!
I had been taking writing classes for about 10 years as a hobby before I wrote my book. I intended to write an article for submission to a parenting magazine about how to travel with babies and stay sane, but I just kept writing and writing. Eventually, I realized I was writing a book and not merely an article. I really wanted to create the book that I could not find when I was planning my vacations as a new parent to my firstborn child.
Thankfully, launching a blog takes very little initial capital investment. A lot of bloggers think they should not spend any money on their blogs until they start earning an income from their efforts. But what other business would you expect to succeed without spending some money?
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Before launching TravelMamas.com, I hired a professional graphic designer to create a Travel Mamas logo and design the overall look of the website. I wanted a playful look using pink, lime green, and turquoise as the brand’s colors with a luggage tag as the logo. Then I hired a web developer to implement the designs.
Within my first few months of blogging, I received not one, but two Cease and Desist letters from lawyers representing other family travel blogs who felt the name “Travel Mamas” was too similar to their brand names. A year later when I started making television appearances as a family travel expert, I received another Cease and Desist -- this time from a “travel expert” who sometimes made media appearances. Although I brainstormed many other names, my book agent and I decided that “Travel Mamas” was worth fighting for. So, I had to hire a lawyer to respond to the letters and file for a trademark. It was an expensive and stressful process, but worth it in the end.
Back when I launched Travel Mamas in 2009, we bloggers hadn’t really figured out how to generate revenue yet. It was still such a new medium. There were no “influencers” then and Instagram was yet to be invented. At that time, I earned income through freelance writing projects, direct ad sales for sidebar advertisements, and sponsored blog posts.
Describe the process of launching the business.
In TravelMamas.com’s first year, a total of fewer than 19,500 people visited the site, with about 96,000 page views for the whole year. Now, Travel Mamas reaches an audience of over 2 million unique visitors per year and we receive 200,000 - 350,000+ page views every month.
I have always kept my business expenses fairly low and have never taken any investments or loans beyond a business credit card to support my business. Over the years, I have invested in:
- Graphic design and photography services
- Blogging and writing conferences
- Online courses
- SEO (Search Engine Optimization) consultations and analysis
- Photo editing, e-newsletter, and SEO software
- Technical support
- Website upgrades and redesigns
- Paying contributing writers and virtual assistants
- Travel expenses for stories
I have made a profit from Travel Mamas since year one, but that profit was very small for the first several years. Thankfully persistence has paid off!
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
My primary method for attracting readers is via a strong understanding of SEO. I use a software program (SEMRush) and spend a lot of time analyzing keywords to improve the rankings of Travel Mamas’ content in web searches. In the beginning, however, I was mostly guessing at how potential readers would search for the stories I was writing.
Most of our traffic is organic, which means I do not spend a lot of money on traditional advertising methods. I have paid for ads on Instagram, Facebook, and Google over the years -- but very little overall.
I also use unpaid social media to draw in readers. I find that the most loyal Travel Mamas’ readers follow and engage with me via Facebook. Meanwhile, Pinterest is the best social media platform in terms of gaining blog pageviews. Twitter draws a bit of traffic, too. Lastly, Instagram is the favorite of brands and destinations, but I’ve found it’s the least likely to convert to actual click-throughs.
Additionally, we offer a Travel Mamas e-newsletter, which I try to send out monthly. Many bloggers sing the praises of newsletters because it is the only way to reach our audiences without relying on someone else’s platform and algorithm. However, open rates are typically low for newsletters, and click-through rates are even lower.
My book is the only product that I really sell to consumers, beyond recommended affiliate products. The Travel Mamas’ Guide is available for purchase through Amazon and Barnes & Noble online. While I appreciate every book purchase, royalty payments make up my smallest revenue stream. This is partial because CreateSpace, the online self-publishing platform offered by Amazon, takes such a huge portion of profits.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The pandemic was particularly tough for brands within the travel space, blogs included. In March 2020, Travel Mamas saw its traffic drop drastically after the lockdown announcement in the U.S. Thankfully, consumers are itching to travel again and now our numbers are up about 263% over this time last year -- nearly to pre-Covid levels.
As primarily a family travel blog, our traffic is cyclical, with page views peaking in July each year. Then, as kids head back to school in the fall, our traffic goes down. It rebounds after the winter holidays when people start to plan trips in the new year. Every year until 2020, Travel Mamas has grown between 12 - 56% year over year. I’m hopeful that this growth pace will return.
When I first launched TravelMamas.com, my kids were just 1 and 4 years old, respectively. Now that they’re teenagers, I do think about the future of my beloved blog. In the years to come, I may hire more writers and start to work primarily on editing, marketing, and securing paid campaigns instead of writing most content myself. I have also considered seeking a venture capital investment someday so that I can grow the business beyond what I can manage on my own. Or, I may eventually decide to sell the website and brand. Only time will tell!
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
When I first started TravelMamas.com, I honestly didn’t really understand what a blog was, and I learned a lot of lessons the hard way. In fact, I was so clueless about blogging, I initially used old-school Dreamweaver software instead of the gold standard blogging platform, WordPress. After a few months of blogging and then attending my first blog conference, I hired different web developers to transfer my site to WordPress. This made my job ever so much easier!
Because I struggled so much when I first started blogging, I decided to pitch teaching blogging classes to the University of California San Diego Extension and San Diego Writers, Ink. I wanted to make it easier for new bloggers to launch their own blogs and navigate the ever-changing world of social media. I created my own curriculum and wound up teaching in-person blogging classes for five+ years. The saying “If you want to master something, teach it” proved true for me and I’m so glad I took on this endeavor.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
My favorite tools for blogging include:
- WordPress (blogging platform)
- Adobe Lightroom (photo editing software)
- Canva (graphic design tool)
- Mailchimp (e-newsletter service)
- QuickBooks (bookkeeping software)
- Performance Foundry (technical support)
- TweetDeck (Twitter management program)
- UNUM (Instagram editor and planning app)
- Fiverr (affordable freelancers for hire)
- Excel (for my editorial calendar)
- MediaVine (ad network affiliate sales program)
- CJ.com (affiliate sales platform)
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I love listening to the How I Built This podcast, hosted by Guy Raz. He interviews well-known entrepreneurs like Howard Schulz of Starbucks and Joe Gebbia of Airbnb. It’s inspiring to hear their origin stories and learn how they built their dreams into successful businesses.
Some of my favorite books about writing include:
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
- On Writing by Stephen King
- A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves (my former writing teacher)
- The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.
- Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Anyone interested in starting a blog should seek out a blogging class at your local university extension program, community college, or writing school. The learning curve will be much lower than if you try to go it on your own, believe me!
New bloggers should also seek out conferences where they can meet with like-minded people, learn useful skills, and make potential business contacts. My best teachers have been other bloggers that I’ve met during press trips and at blogging conferences like TBEX (The Travel Bloggers Exchange). Often, it’s the conversations between sessions or over meals that have been the most helpful.
My best advice is to never stop learning! There is always something new to learn about all of the elements it takes to run a successful blog like writing, photography, affiliate sales, and social media.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I am not looking to hire anyone at the moment, but I may want to add additional writers to our team within the next couple of years.
Where can we go to learn more?
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