Millennial Media Moguls: Danielle Finestone
Disclaimer: Danielle and I are first cousins and have known each other our whole lives
Millennial Media moguls is a series of interviews with millennial entrepreneurs, young people who are making a living in jobs that didn’t exist a generation ago. Creating unusual jobs for themselves that seize on the new opportunities of the twenty-first century economy.
Though also a part time employee of Yelp and sometimes a social media consultant, Danielle Finestone makes the bulk of her income from her Instagram page. Danielle is the owner operator of ToFoodies; a page which depicts delicious food from all over Toronto. ToFoodies started as a passion project of hers only 3 years ago born out of her love for Toronto night life.
After years spent in the industry, a year ago Danielle quit her full time job at a major record label to take on ToFoodies full time. In that time she has made enormous strides toward growing her brand with currently over 72,000 followers.
Nathaniel: So start at the beginning. How did ToFoodies start?
Danielle: It wasn’t a straight path that brought me here, although it seems that way in hindsight. I did my undergrad at Ryerson in the Radio and television arts program. My specialty was in studio television since that’s what I wanted to go into. I interned like crazy — every summer I had a different internship that opened me up to everything going on in the entertainment industry in Toronto. I interned at Yelp, MTV, Sony Music Canada and the Marilyn Dennis Show, and each one of those introduced me to a lot of people in different sides of the industry.
N: Would you say your education played a big role in setting you on the path you’re on now?
D: Getting an education really helped me learn the language of the industry and really opened a lot of doors for me. But a lot of my education was in these internships as well, it was everything put into practice. If I wasn’t doing it, I was watching someone else do. I really sought out the internships I really wanted.
N: What kind of internships were you looking for?
D: Well I thought ‘wouldn’t it be cool to be Paul the intern one day on MTV?’ And then I got an email from Ryerson where a lot of companies post their internships and applied for the one at MTV.
N: You mentioned learning the language of the industry, could you expand on that?
D: Just the terminology and the technical stuff — about cameras and how they all work together — knowing those things really helps. I’m a one-woman operation, but so many times in media you’re working with a whole group of people and it’s going to be way easier if you all call things what you they’re actually called and understand who everyone is and why they’re there.
N: At what point did you get the idea to start your own Instagram page?
D: I was freelance writing for a blog called Shedoesthecity which started sending me out to a lot of events. I enjoyed the food events the most and was getting to know people from across the industry and I thought ‘what if I had my own outlet?’ That way I can keep attending events but for me. At the time it seemed like a pipe dream, I wasn’t looking for it to overtake my other work but I started it anyway.
N: So you hadn’t planned on it one day becoming your full-time job?
D: No, I was still working the job I got right out of school so it was it was a labour of love more than anything, a passion project that was really my own, to see what I could do outside the framework I was in currently.
N: How much of a time commitment was that at first?
D: The first year it was very much in my peripherals, just a couple posts a day and reposting a lot of other people’s stuff so not a lot of time out of my day. Not a ton of original content. It really took off after I got to 10,000 followers, that was when things really accelerated. Somewhere along the way when I would get pitched to come to an event I suggested I could cover it for ToFoodies. Sometimes the PR people I knew had already heard of it and that’s how I started integrating more original content.
N: So how much of it now is original content compared to reposts?
D: We’re at around 50% original content, sometimes more.
N: So if someone was aspiring to do what you do, or something like it, would you suggest to them to take the kind of path you did? Getting an education and interning?
D: I think getting an education is important. Because it teaches you habits. Even simple things like deadlines and keeping a schedule, to collaborate with other people and just exercising your mind, which are all really important. I also feel real life is very important, it’s one thing to learn in theory but the reality can be different from company to company. I like my journey because I learned a lot in school and saw the execution of that in the real world and working at a Fortune 500 company. Having that base allowed me to be able to go off on my own like a lot of people I looked up to and having set myself up with positive examples.
N: So what changed after you hit 10,000?
D: That’s where I started getting reached out to for paid campaigns. After a year was when I started taking it more seriously and putting in more original editorial content, which meant going out to events — whether that’s restaurant openings, food festivals, regular festivals with food or anything else and covering it specifically to represent ToFoodies.
N: At what point did it become more than a passion project and you began to see doing it as a career?
D: Well my first paid campaign was for Winterlicious. It’s two weeks a year when there’s discounted special three-course meals at various restaurants in Toronto. Interac reached out to me about a contest they were having, because they were one of the main sponsors of Winterlicious, and how they wanted two posts for pre-promotion telling people about this contest. That was when I negotiated my first paid post.
N: What was that process like?
D: I was dealing with a PR firm that Interac contracted with and they reached out to me. The first email said they had a budget and then I asked around and asked ‘well this is how big my account is. How much can I ask for?’ and did some digging and we arrived at a figure. But now I work with an agency and they negotiate on my behalf.
N: In terms of digging around, did you know other people who had been working on similar platforms?
D: It wasn’t so much other people doing it, it was more asking my friends who had gone into PR ‘how much would you pay for the kind of services I was offering?’ I don’t want to under-ask but I also don’t want to over-ask since I was still new to the game. I had literally never done it before, but I didn’t want to come across that way.
N: Where does the advertorial content fit into what you’re trying to do?
D: Advertorial keeps the lights on. I try to think of it like a magazine, which is a standard I try and hold myself to. I mean, if you open Vogue you’ll see advertisements, sometimes that ad is made to look like an article but Vogue is still Vogue even though they have ads. Those ads will be in line with what Vogue is about. I’m lucky enough to be in a position to be able to say no sometimes, whereas when you first start out you want to just say yes to everything. Sometimes I will work with a certain group and sometimes I won’t depending on what the project is because it all needs to fit into what my audience is looking for, it’s a lot of trial and error because I wouldn’t want ToFoodies to be a pay-for-play space.
N: Could you have every post be a paid post?
D: Maybe, but that’s actually a big red flag a lot of the time for companies who are looking to place their products, because if you have a page that’s just a different brand every day, this beer today, that beer tomorrow, it isn’t really authentic, they are always looking for an authentic voice.
N: If you’re always getting paid then you’re just an advertising platform right?
D: Exactly, and that’s not what I want to do. I went to the Wayhome music festival just as media. I probably could have worked harder and gotten someone to sponsor me or give me a per diem but that’s not what I went for. I paid for most of my own food and wrote about it, because that’s what I love doing. The beauty of it is getting paid to do things I would do for free. I mean it takes time to go to the event, take the picture, do a write up, edit it do the caption so it’s great to be compensated for that. On the other hand I get a lot of emails and I have to prioritize.
N: In terms of screening out what you’ll do and what you won’t do, do you have specific buzz words or certain things that are just automatic deal breakers, or the opposite?
D: I am still the master of my own inbox, some emails come in and I just file it and say this is editorial. Sometimes I’ll get an invitation and RSVP right away because it’s good editorial or I’ll need to call someone about it. If I get a feeling it’s advertorial or there is a mention of a budget, I flip it to my agency and they take it from there.
N: How long have you been with this agency?
D: A year and a half. I started with them while I was still working full-time, when I really needed help since I would get emails during the day I couldn’t answer because I had a full-time job, I only quit that job a year ago, right before Labour Day 2016.
N: Do you think that’s where more jobs are headed going into the future?
D: I feel like social media and the internet in general democratizes everything. There’s nothing stopping you from starting an Instagram page, there’s nothing stopping you from starting a YouTube page, you have to just do it. You have to put in the grunt work though. I worked for free a lot, I interned a lot, but I always saw it as a means to an end, because it’s good to be valued for your time but you have to invest in those skills.
N: Seems to be working out for you?
D: So far so good! But honestly I don’t have a 5 or 10 year plan cause maybe Instagram won’t be a thing in 10 years. I’m trying to firm up my business and diversify, I definitely want to have a YouTube channel and maybe I’ll get more TV appearances and video content. It’s all about just pushing forward, whatever that may be. I value being a freelancer who can do what I want to do and acknowledge that I’ve spent all this time building up a following which might just go away one day. But when I see things like Vice massively expanding their video production at the expense of other departments, I feel like that’s a good track to be on.
N: Where can people find you?