A Master Gardener at Work
How a British expat living in France has grown a thriving publishing enterprise, one thoughtful step at a time.
By Sharon Santoni
As I sat at my New Year’s Eve table at the end of 2009, surrounded by friends and family, I was happy. I knew that life was good—I was safe, and my family was doing well. But I could not deny there was a nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach. The youngest of my four children had just become a teenager, and I didn’t feel as useful as when they were little. The truth was, after being a full-time, hands-on mother for the previous 20 years—and don’t get me wrong, I loved every minute—I was bored. And being bored has never worked for me. So, as the clock struck midnight, I raised my glass of champagne and, although nobody was listening, said these words out loud: “2010 will be the year I reinvent myself.”
I was 50 years old. I had no idea what I was planning to do and, honestly, had little professional experience. Around the same time, an American girlfriend sent me the link to a blog she had started. As I read her posts and discovered other interesting blogs she recommended, it felt as if the doors had been thrown open to an exciting party going on. If I wanted, I was allowed to join in.
I was amazed by the quality of writing and the various talents of the mostly female bloggers I found online. They made me laugh, they made me cry and, above all, they inspired me to get creative. You might see where this is going. …
It wasn’t long before I made the decision to attempt my own blog, which was no small undertaking. I decided on the name My French Country Home and ventured into the world of Blogspot, where I made decisions about fonts, colors, and layout. Then, of course, I started writing.
In February 2010, two months after I made the promise to reinvent myself, I hit the publish button on my first blog post. Then my second, third, and fourth—and before I knew it, I was hooked. For over two years, I published on the blog every single day, sharing details of everyday life in the French countryside—from farmers’ markets and recipes, to antique fairs and visits to châteaux.
To my surprise, I found myself with quite a robust audience. Soon my inbox was full of readers asking for recommendations on all things French and inquiring as to whether I would take them shopping around the country. Looking back, this was the first juncture at which I thought I might be able to make an income as a result of my blog.
In 2014, I was approached by an American publisher, Gibbs Smith, offering me a book deal. Senior Editor Madge Baird had read my blog and particularly enjoyed a series I wrote about the French women I knew. She asked me to write a book on the theme. “My Stylish French Girlfriends” was published in 2015 and features portraits of French women of all ages and walks of life. I created videos to promote the book, and it went to two reprints before the official date of publication. Gibbs Smith offered me a second contract, and we published “My French Country Home: Entertaining Through the Seasons” in 2017. This title features tablescapes and recipes for year-round hosting. The books, which to my delight were well received, allowed me to travel around the United States on book tours and to speak at events, giving additional visibility to my blog and burgeoning brand.
Also in 2014, I ran my first My French Country Home Tour, welcoming a small group of dedicated readers to travel around my corner of northern France. We stayed in Normandy and spent just under a week hunting for antiques, visiting gardens, eating great food, and establishing lasting friendships. At the time, I had no idea these tours would become a regular fixture and that in the years to come the number of clients and tour destinations would increase incrementally. We now have six tours scheduled for 2022, taking guests to Provence, Burgundy, Dordogne, Normandy, Paris, and Champagne.
The blog was now a full-time occupation. The books sold well but, as many authors will attest, brought in little income. It was frustrating to be writing and publishing online consistently without generating financial compensation. No business school would ever advise young entrepreneurs to spend so much time building a clientele before pitching a commercial offer. However, looking back, I believe these first five years of the blog, spent constructing a loyal and highly engaged community around the name My French Country Home, was time well invested.
In addition to the audience for the blog, I was also amassing a following on social media. On Facebook, my audience was growing fast (it’s now three-quarters of a million), mostly as a result of posting flowers and bouquets from my garden. This positive reaction gave me the courage to try my hand at Instagram, too. And then Pinterest, which today remains one of the largest sources of traffic to our websites.
The combined audiences meant I had a monthly reach of around 2 million people. It became clear that I had a lot of eyes on what I was doing and that my readers were likely ready to accept some kind of commercial aspect to my content. The question was, what would this look like?
Affiliate selling was the new big thing at the time, but it didn’t feel like the right fit for me or my audience. I was actively looking for other ideas when I heard about subscription gift boxes. This was an idea that could work. From my position as a long-term expat in France, I have a thorough knowledge of the most iconic French brands. And thanks to the relationships I have created through my blog, I have a very clear picture of my followers (current and potential) and what interested them. In 2017, I launched My French Country Home Box, a quarterly luxury subscription box filled with high-end items, created exclusively by French brands, for women and their homes. From the start, I have curated each of these boxes around a theme, such as our most recent “Chalet Living,” as if I was creating a gift for a dear friend. Over the years, I’ve added one-off specialty boxes, such as our “Heirloom Wedding Box,” which includes a selection of gifts for a bride, and our “Advent Calendar Box,” which is very popular at the holidays. Taking on this new project meant I needed an extra pair of hands, and I hired my first assistant.
The boxes got off to a great start. I decided on a target number of 200 for the first go, and we sold out. The French brands I approached as potential partners were quick to see the advantages in working with us—not only would we place large orders with them, but we would give them valuable visibility on the other side of the Atlantic. We marketed the boxes via the blog, a dedicated box website, and social media. The initial price point was a little timid, and having no business training or any kind of mentor, I waited for a year before being brave enough to raise the price, which now ranges from $275-$305 per quarter.
By 2018, it became clear that my business was growing and could no longer be handled by two people, so I hired a third employee. I also found a local company with warehouse space we could rent to store and pack our boxes. At this point, we were shipping over 600 boxes each quarter.
This growth coincided with my realization that the blogging world was also growing, changing fast, and getting awfully crowded. I wanted to explore an alternative communication channel, one that would take my brand beyond the image of a blog and would lead to more revenue opportunities. And thus My French Country Home Magazine was born in January 2019. We originally created the bimonthly publication as a digital one, but our readership was quick to let us know via emails and messages that they wanted a print version. So in May 2019, we launched in print. Our readers were right. At 132 pages per perfect bound issue, printed on heavy paper and published six times per year, our magazine embodies our brand and is a product our readers are proud to collect and display.
Starting a print magazine was daunting, perhaps more than any other step to date. It’s true that we had an existing audience to sell and market to, but nevertheless I entered the arena wearing a blindfold.
A magazine is a large, hungry animal to feed and maintain, and I was on a steep learning curve. I had to learn quickly how to source photos, hire writers, master page design, and find a wholesale distributor. At the same time, there were still online and social media properties to manage, boxes to promote and sell, and subscribers to attract.
That said, the magazine is an important element that has added credibility to our brand. As the editor of a magazine, I am taken more seriously than I ever could have been as a blogger. And print is a platform that elevates our content and enables me to showcase talented French artisans and endless aspects of this beautiful country—from châteaux to gardens to gorgeous interiors and renovations. We are lucky to have enlisted some of the best photographers around, meaning that our readers get as close as possible to visiting the Hexagon from the comfort of their armchairs.
It comes with its challenges. We are in the unusual position of being a business and publication based in France with 80 percent of our audience and clientele living in the United States; 15 percent in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; and only a small portion in Europe. As such, we are at the mercy of currency fluctuations; we buy in Euros and sell in U.S. dollars. And it hasn’t been easy to generate awareness among potential French magazine advertisers that we can be a viable way to promote their brands to a U.S. market. Last year, we hired a Public Relations company in Paris to inform French brands about us, and that’s beginning to pay off. Several brands are now knocking on our door to offer commercial collaborations and inquire about advertising. The subscription box also helps, as these partner brands understand they can now double their exposure to our audience by adding print advertising to their engagement with us. The third big challenge is subscriber delivery. Current delays within the United State Postal Service (USPS) mean we have an indecent number of customer support emails to answer and a significant number of replacement copies to ship. We have yet to find the best solution to this problem. Yet, despite the hurdles, we are creating and distributing a beautiful and well-received magazine that strengthens our brand and increases our revenue opportunities.
ENJOYING THE BLOOM
I’m sometimes asked what I love the most about my work and business, and I would say it’s that each element of our brand has grown organically and that all the individual pieces form one beautiful, coherent ecosystem. The faithful audience I built during those initial years has been our guiding light. They let us know very clearly what they like and don’t like—and we can see this, too, in how they navigate our content platforms.
The most recent addition to our ecosystem is the online My French Country Home Boutique, which we launched at the start of COVID-19. When I realized that our travel tours planned for 2020 would not take place because of the pandemic, we pivoted and created an online boutique wherein we sell individual products similar to those in our subscription boxes. Of course, shopping was popular as a pandemic pastime, but the boutique continues to play an important role now. Since we launched the Boutique on our box website, monthly visits to that site have increased sixfold.
And that is the way it goes. Our different products and plat.forms come together to form an ecosystem in which each part feeds the others. The magazine promotes the subscription boxes and tours. The box, which includes the magazine, encourages subscribers and attracts potential advertisers. Our tours enable us to demonstrate our deep and authentic knowledge of France, thus encouraging those clients to subscribe to the box and magazine. The online boutique deepens our relationships with French brands and encourages clients to return to our sites often. Our e-newsletters provide another opportunity to connect with our audience and always provoke a spike in site visits and sales. Social media is vital at every level in terms of creating an audience and community. Whatever happens with our box, magazine, blog, or tours is systematically conveyed, echoed, and amplified on our Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest properties. And the cycle continues.
The audience that first found me when I started my blog has remained faithful and grown steadily. My team has grown, too. It now comprises eight people, half of whom are full time. Like our brand elements, each one has an important role to play.
I love my multifaceted business as if it were my fifth child. I love that it’s mine, and that I don’t need anyone’s permission to make decisions or take risks. I love to watch it grow and see the successes. And I love that—at the age of 62—I’m pioneering “senior entrepreneurship.” I have no idea where the next few years will take us, but bolstered by the support of our audience and the dynamic energy of my team, I feel confident that there’s still a lot of fun ahead. So to that 50-year old me, who nearly 12 years ago raised her glass of champagne and promised to reinvent herself, I smile and whisper, “Be careful what you wish for.”
Sharon Santoni is founder and publisher at My French Country Home. Born in England, she has lived in France since her early 20s. The gardens she tends around her 200-year-old home in northern France reflect her roots: rambling English-inspired beds mixed with formal French parterres. Connect at email@example.com.