This article appears in the September 2018 issue of 400 Life magazine.
On a recent Monday morning in July, Lise Ode is photographing a cake.
In the kitchen of her west Forsyth County home, Ode (pronounced Oh-dee) sets up a miniature set for a photo shoot. Her subject is a four-layer, pink-painted vanilla drip cake she made over the previous two days. Chocolate buttercream frosting cascades over the top edges. Fresh flowers decorate the top. Gold specks dot the sides.
It’s a trendy cake, and Ode would know. Later that day, she posts pictures of it on the Instagram account for her blog, MomLovesBaking.com, where she curates photos and videos of exceptional, humorous, unusual and vibrant cakes, cookies and cupcakes she finds on social media.
But it is also how Ode, 52, makes money. Ode’s MomLovesBaking.com enterprise includes all the requisite vehicles of content distribution. She has the blog, Facebook page, Twitter account, YouTube channel and Pinterest board. But it is Instagram that is perhaps setting her on a course to join the newest category of celebrity in today’s media landscape: social media influencer.
Ode’s following on the platform has recently exploded, from around 2,000 followers this past October to more than 118,000. Companies and other aspiring influencers now pay her to be featured in a photo or video on her account, and the sudden growth has Ode brainstorming new ideas. Cookbooks? Courses? Memberships?
“It’s getting to be out of control,” Ode says. “There’s so many things to do.”
Planting a seed
For those who ascend from obscurity to prominence in this social media age, it often takes a combination of serendipity and calculated work to break through a saturated marketplace. After all, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube are into the billions of users on their platforms. That might seem like a big enough media world to find a place in it for some. Others might see a non-stop avalanche of consumption too chaotic to penetrate.
When Ode started her blog, she didn’t care about any of that. Born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, her family moved to Tallahassee, Florida when she was 5. Ode says her mother didn’t buy baked goods or sweets other than for special occasions, so it was up to Ode to make them. She started with brownies and cookies when she was 9. Her grandmother would get her elaborate birthday cakes. She remembers one designed like a princess with a skirt for the cake and a doll on top. “That kind of planted a seed,” Ode says. By high school, Ode was baking all the time.
Ode’s professional career varied. She got a degree in fashion merchandising but found she disliked the retail store environment. She went back to school and got a degree in graphic design, working for the National Enquirer among others. But all the while Ode was baking and often brought her recipes into work.
“I would be the favorite for a while,“ Ode says, “but at some point people would get sick of me and be like, ‘Stop bringing this stuff in. You’re making me fat.’”
Ode stepped away from her graphic design career after starting a family (she has a daughter, Savannah, and a son, Luke), but she still wanted to make some income on the side. Ode’s husband, Jay, suggested she start a blog. By then, in 2006, blogs were the upstart media platform. According to a Technorati State of the Blogosphere report, there were 50 million blogs on the internet at the time.
Ode was reluctant. “That was so foreign to me,” Ode says. “I had just gotten Facebook.” She started a cake business out of the family home instead. It was called Pretty In Pink, and Ode made wedding cakes and elaborate cakes, much like her grandmother had. She made a cake that looked like a camera, another that looked like a car.
It started out fun, but after four years Ode got burned out. The work was laborious and stressful and took over her weekends. When the family decided to move from Florida to Forsyth County in 2011, Ode closed Pretty In Pink.
The holy grail
The Pillsbury Bake-Off was started in 1949 by the Pillsbury Company. The first one was called the Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest. Grand prize was $25,000, and the rules were simple: create an original recipe using one Pillsbury product.
By 2013, Ode’s cake business had been closed for two years. She did graphic design work for Jay’s printing business but still baked. Ode had already entered the Pillsbury Bake-Off in 2004 but didn’t make the cut of 100 finalists. Still, she continued to watch it on TV. “I thought it’s impossible to get in these contests,” Ode says. “What are the chances? It’s like winning the lottery.”
Ode resolved to enter again. She spent months testing recipes. This time she got in. And though Ode didn’t win the contest, her participation gave her a jolt of inspiration. “I realized that, well, maybe I have some authority now,” Ode says.
So, in December 2013, she created a blog. For the first year, in 2014, Ode gave herself a project: she would make every Pillsbury Bake-Off winning recipe, 52 of them since 1949 — one a week. A web designer set up her site. She bought a used Canon Rebel camera for $250 and some artificial lighting. She created social media accounts.
And so on Jan. 7, 2014, Ode published her first post: “No-knead Water Rising Twists - Recipe #1 of 52 Grand Prize Recipes in 52 Weeks!”
The formula for the post would look familiar to fans of recipe blogs. Ode went step-by-step through the recipe, with an anecdotal introduction and zoomed-in photos of the process. Posts followed for Orange Kiss Me Cake, Starlight Double Delight, My Inspiration Cake, Open Sesame Pie.
Ode’s blog grew slowly. “The first year I didn’t have many followers,” Ode says. “Maybe 10.”
But she was persistent. Her photography improved, which helped with her popularity on Pinterest. In the blog’s second year, in 2015, MomLovesBaking.com was getting 30,000 monthly views. That benchmark helped Ode connect with an advertising network to place ads on MomLovesBaking.com.
Then Ode hit upon the holy grail: a viral post. She’d just recently attended a workshop for food photography in Minnesota and soon after received a commission for a sponsored post; Ode would get paid to publish a recipe using a company’s product. Ode made a chocolate turtle poke cake: caramel poured on a rectangular yellow cake with chocolate frosting, chopped pecans, chocolate chips and extra caramel drizzle on top.
Using tips from the workshop, Ode’s photo “was one of the best pictures I had done,” she says. She pinned it to Pinterest, posted it on Facebook, and the hits started coming.
“That picture it’s still sending me traffic,” Ode says.
‘Living the dream’
Media’s rapid evolution can test content-makers. Ode has been up to the task.
In the blog’s third year, in 2016, Ode was just getting comfortable with photography. Then video became prominent. Ode hired a blogging mentor who recommended she focus on growing her Facebook audience. The account eventually got up to 50,000 followers but mysteriously stalled.
No matter. Ode shifted her focus to Instagram this past October. Ode says it’s her favorite social media platform, a perfect combination of Pinterest’s curating prowess and some of Facebook’s connectivity in a visual-centric format.
Ode also discovered Instagram’s efficiencies. She posts five to seven times a day. With over 100,000 followers, Ode can charge $500 to post one picture with a company’s product in it, as opposed to the effort of a full blog post. Ode does shout-out posts too; she charges $55 for a photo, $125 for a video. And as her number of followers increases, so does the price. But Ode says she is careful about what companies she works with. Their products must fit her brand. She emphasizes bright colors, fun, “things that are pretty,” and wacky concepts for kids.
Up until now, Ode has been everything to MomLovesBaking: writer, photographer, videographer, editor, graphic designer. But that is changing. She recently hired an assistant and brought on seven new contributors to the blog, a group of family and friends who will write on other lifestyle topics like parenting, DIY, Christian living. That should free up time for her to focus on the next phase of MomLovesBaking. She hopes to develop online courses for cake decorating and growing an audience on Instagram.
It’s all come so far from Ode’s first days into MomLovesBaking. Early on, when she told people she was a food blogger, Ode was met with blank stares. “I had to really explain it, and explain it again,” Ode says. “I still felt like they didn’t understand what I was doing.”
But Ode does. To her, this moment now makes sense. Her study of fashion, her experience with graphic design, the editing at the National Enquirer -- it all gave her the tools to create MomLovesBaking. “Everything I’ve done over the years has pointed me in this direction,” Ode says.
At the center of it all remains the food. Baking, Ode says, has always been a way for her to connect with people and express love. To her, the best part is giving her work away and seeing the smiles. She finds the act of baking therapeutic, too.
And if she can make money doing it? Even better.
“I’m just doing something I really enjoy and making money at it,” Ode says. “That’s living the dream.”