Last year, Helena Faustin nearly doubled her annual income — all thanks to a side hustle.
In her day job, the 35-year-old is a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurse living in Freeport, New York, making $105,000 per year in salary. In her off hours, she's spent the past four years running That Nurse Can Cook, a food blog where she details recipes and posts cooking videos.
Initially, it cost Faustin about $700 in groceries, ring lights and other production materials to launch That Nurse Can Cook. Last year, the side hustle brought in $117,000 from YouTube revenue, brand partnerships and e-cookbook sales, according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It. Faustin, who plans, films, edits and promotes all of her content herself, brought in more than $25,000 from That Nurse Can Cook in June 2021 alone.
But the monetary value is far from the only benefit for Faustin, a mother of two who says her blog gave her a sense of control while working as a nurse during the peak of the Covid pandemic.
"I felt like I was going to work really and truly out of necessity," Faustin tells CNBC Make It. "You have bills to pay, you have mouths to feed and the work has to go on no matter what. I said to myself, 'Gee, if I could have more autonomy over my life, I'd be able to make a lot more decisions for myself and for my family.'"
But That Nurse Can Cook's success didn't come overnight. Faustin's passion for cooking – and hustling – have been stewing for more than 20 years.
Initially, Faustin inherited a love for cooking from her mother, a Jamaican immigrant who taught Faustin how to make meals like ackee and saltfish in their family kitchen in Brooklyn, New York.
When Faustin was nine, her mother sent her to neighborhood markets where she learned to distinguish and bring home different ingredients. At age 15, Faustin says, she started more closely observing her mother in kitchen, then asking to join in.
"[My mom] didn't always have the patience to teach," Faustin says. "[Jamaicans] cook off of instinct, so I would say, 'How much garlic powder should I put in?' And she would literally look at me and say, 'Use your judgement.'"
Faustin never imagined her family recipes would become lucrative. Instead of pursuing her culinary passions, she went to school, got good grades and became a NICU nurse.
"Anyone out there who is a first-generation American and are born to parents who are immigrants, we were always raised to crave stability," Faustin says. "They always taught us to go to college and get a degree. So for me, I couldn't envision a career in cooking."
Learning the business
Nursing did bring stability: Over the years, Faustin's annual salary has risen as high as $126,000. The food blog idea came from her personal life. In 2018, she started posting photos of her Jamaican-style dishes on Instagram, and the interest from friends and family was immediate.
Still, there's a big difference between racking up Instagram likes and becoming a regular content creator — so Faustin spent hours researching trends, equipment and recipes that might connect with her intended audience.
"I had to learn ... how to create content that resonates with people," Faustin says. "In the beginning stages, I had a lot of growing pains, a lot of trial and error."
She looked to other content creators to learn how much – and simply how – other influencers made money. She bought tripods, ring lights and updated her iPhone, then began pitching to other brands, hoping to network and collaborate.
When Covid drastically changed her day-to-day nursing work, she found her mind frequently gravitating away from the hospital and back to her family. She wanted to earn money without spending even more time away from home.
That's when another food blogger suggested that Faustin write her own e-cookbook. Now, Faustin's two e-books – which focus on 30-minute recipes and "extravagant meals with sides," respectively – represent a major portion of her monthly revenue: Last year, she made $71,333 from e-book downloads, compared with $39,030 from brand collaborations and $7,523 from ad revenue.
Faustin says her side hustle helped her be more present in family life while improving her mental health. But running a business while maintaining a full-time job comes at a price: her free time.
"When I first started this side hustle, I legit was so passionate about seeing my dreams come true that I did not stop," she says. "I literally worked every single day that I was not working at the hospital."
When she's not on her feet at work or at home, she's emailing, researching and grocery shopping – which, at roughly $600 per month, is one of her business's only expenses. There are days where her content doesn't perform as well through social media algorithms as she hopes. She says she wants to hire an employee to delegate tasks that take her away from content creation.
Faustin also still has long workdays as a nurse, but the success of That Nurse Can Cook has allowed her to cut back on hospital shifts. She currently works eight 12-hour shifts per month, down from a previous high of 13 such shifts.
She doesn't envision quitting nursing anytime soon, she says. But one day, she hopes, That Nurse Can Cook will offer her the stability to choose between the two roles.
"You do not have to either sit behind a computer or work a traditional nine-to-five in order to have the life that you want," Faustin says. "If you have a talent, harness that talent, learn as much as you can from it and monetize that thing."
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