Hey Eleanor! I Started My Own Business!: A Chat with Paleo Author Melissa Joulwan

Melissa Joulwan talks business, in a non-scammy way. 
Melissa Joulwan talks business, in a non-scammy way.

Welcome to episode 10 of the Hey Eleanor podcast. This week, I’m featuring a woman who quit her full-time corporate gig to start her own business. And she’s kicking major ass.

Paleo blogger and cookbook author Melissa Joulwan influences the way hundreds of thousands of people think about nutrition. But guys, we’re not going to do another podcast on the paleo diet. Instead, I’m talking to Mel J about what it’s like to work for yourself. She and her husband David said buh-bye to The Man years ago, and learned tons about running a successful small business. We chat about how her super-successful cookbook series Well Fed changed their life, the importance of not comparing yourself to others, plus her favorite summer reads.

Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.

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I know you usually talk to people about the paleo diet, but today I wanted to talk to you about.. leaving corporate America and starting your own business. What did you do pre- The Clothes Make the Girl?

My last full-time job was as a content strategist at a large web development agency in Austin, Texas… I was responsible for the word part of the website content… sort of like advertising, copywriting and marketing writing merged together. But it’s worth mentioning that my first job was as a content strategist. I was about 23 or 24, but [working in the corporate world] didn’t sit with me well, even then. I wanted to be a personal trainer, so I quit my job and got certified. My husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, was also freelancing. And we tried to be freelancers and it was super stressful.

After a couple of years, we decided to take jobs working for other people. We worked for another agency in San Francisco for a couple years, got out of debt, and both were promoted to pretty powerful positions. We were really enjoying it, until one day we weren’t anymore. So we did it again. We quit. And it was stressful. But I think at the time… we were more running away from we were doing rather than going after something specific.

I think that is a really great distinction you’re making. I felt a little like [I was running away] when I left my job. I still struggle with setting goals. Like, What am I really trying to do here? How were you finally able to start your own thing without all those anxieties?

I think there are three things that we’re doing differently this time.

One is that I stopped thinking of myself as a freelancer and started thinking of myself as a small business owner. It’s a small mental distinction, but it made me take things a little more seriously. Which is not to say I wasn’t taking it seriously before, but thinking about it as a business makes me feel more comfortable. A freelancer sounds like I’m just going paycheck to paycheck. I’m really doing the same thing, but the mental frame made it easier.

The second things we did that we’d never done before was actually make a budget. We really dug into the ugly underbelly of our finances to look at what it would take for us to subsist. Then we looked at a step up from that: what would it take for us to live comfortably? And then a step up from that: what would it take for us to live the life we really wanted?

Previously, the budget we stuck to is the subsistence budget, which was really stressful for us because we were living freelance check to freelance check. So now that were living the life we want to have, we have money in savings… One of the things that always scared me when I was younger and freelancing was that I was doing okay, but I wanted to go on vacation sometimes. So how do we do that? How are we going to have the breathing room to spend money on something that’s kind of discretionary?

The third thins is that I make a conscious effort to not compare myself to the other people… We’re not hippie weirdos or anything, but our lifestyle is very different from the average American lifestyle of people our age. I’m 47, my husband is 50, we don’t have kids, we don’t have a 9-to-5 jobs, we rent our house.

We used to own our house and we realized homeownership is not something we enjoy. I never plan on owning a house again. We have one car and it’s pretty old. We don’t care because neither of us like to drive and we don’t identify with our car… I don’t really like to buy a lot of stuff… Once I realized [what I actually wanted], it made it easier to make business decisions. We made a conscious decision not to grow our business too much because if it grows more, I have to work more.

And I guess the fourth thing we decided is that we didn’t want to work for ourselves just to work 14 hours a day. We wanted to work two or four or zero hours a day.

See, I think that’s awesome. Because so many people thank you have to be really busy and working-working-working all the time in order to be successful. But you can set up a business that isn’t like that. PS I would like to know how to do that…

Well, here’s what we did. We made something called the scam list, which is a little bit of a misnomer because it makes it sound scammy, and it’s not. It’s a matrix of things that we genuinely would enjoy doing that could be moneymakers.

Five years ago, we started talking about what we wanted our lives to look like, because I was working corporate job, and David was, too. We didn’t want to continue to do that, but we also wanted to be able to go on vacation, have more time for creative endeavors. Exercise is really important to me and I wanted to be able to workout without keeping my eye on the clock. So we made a big list of all the things we wanted, and then we made another list of projects we thought would be really fulfilling to us AND also make some money. We continue to add stuff to that list as we think of it.

The first thing on the list was make a cookbook from the recipes is on my website. We did that, and it was really successful.

Yeah, so successful. And it continues to be successful!

I’m not going to lie, we got really lucky with our first project out of the gate. But what’s interesting is that other things on that list are also happening… This sounds ooey-gooey, but we learned so much in the last five years about how powerful it is to figure out what you want to do, and physically document it in a photograph, or a poster board on your wall or whatever. Because having it right in front of you does help you get there.

For the rest of our conversation, listen to the entire Hey Eleanor Podcast episode here.

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Huge thanks to Melissa for joining me on this week’s episode. Read all about her culinary adventures on The Clothes Make the Girl. You can find her amazing cookbook here. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, too. And just for fun, here’s why she quit CrossFit, kicking and screaming.

PS Here are the books she recommended.

Erik Larson's books = better than fiction.  |  image: amazon.com
Erik Larson’s books = better than fiction.  |  image: amazon.com
Gabriel Allon = page turning excitement!  |  image: amazon.com
Gabriel Allon = page turning excitement!  |  image: amazon.com

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Comments (4)

  • Jen S. 5 years ago Reply

    The concept of the "4 hour workweek" in motion – congrats! Very inspiring and hey – I just made some awesome sauce. love that stuff (I literally want to be buried with it!).

    molly mogren katt 5 years ago Reply

    All of her stuff is awesome! Seriously. I kind of have life envy… though as Melissa says, stop comparing yourself to others.;)

  • Sonja 5 years ago Reply

    What a great interview! I don’t get to hear fearless women talk about their lives nearly enough. Thank you!

    molly mogren katt 5 years ago Reply

    I agree, and sometimes it’s helpful to hear what’s really going on. It makes everything seem so much more doable. Or at least relatable.

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