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How Do You Make a Living, Mallory Ortberg?

Noah Davis talked to the Toast co-founder about the site’s success, negotiating a raise, and her future position as a "benevolent wizard."
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(Photo: Mallory Ortberg)

(Photo: Mallory Ortberg)

Mallory Ortberg is the lead voice of the Toast, a site she co-founded along with Nicole Cliffe after the two met online while writing for the Hairpin. (Publisher Nick Pavich is the third member of the founding team.) Each member of the trio owns equal parts of the venture, which boasts more than a million unique visitors a month and has quickly become profitable by their definition. Ortberg, who is also the author of Texts From Jane Eyre, talked to Pacific Standard about the financial benefits of being a founder, arguing with her colleagues about a raise, and her future position as a "benevolent wizard."

What were you doing before you launched the Toast?

I had worked for an academic publisher for a few years, but I quit to write full time. There was a six-month period, from the time I quit the academic publisher to when the Toast became my big thing, where I was mixing and matching a lot of jobs. I was working at Gawker, the Gloss, and a couple of other places. I cobbled that together to make enough work to pay the bills. For three weeks, I worked at Yelp. I was one of the worst employees. I quit that to take another job that I never ended up starting because we launched the Toast.

Did you always want to be a full-time writer?

Definitely. Once I realized that was an option I was super excited about it. It's been great to actually make that happen.

What made you leave the publisher for writing?

I had been writing on the side. I was doing the weekend editing gig at two places in addition to my full-time job. I wasn't getting paid much at my full-time job to begin with so once I realized that I was making almost as much on the weekends, I decided to quit. I could pay rent and not go into debt. I had spent a couple of years building up writing on the side, at first for free and then for a little bit of money here and there. It was finally enough steady work that I could do it financially.

Then why did you go to Yelp and the other job you didn't start?

I had a friend at Yelp who knew I had just quit my job but said it was easy, good money. I said yes, and then within a couple of weeks, I got a job offer writing somewhere full time. I had been hoping that I would be able to do that and the Toast, but they made it clear that I couldn't do the Toast if I was going to join them. I figured that I'd have other opportunities to write for cool companies in the future but this might be my only chance to start my own. I was lucky enough to have the money, business partners, ability, and time to give it a try.

The Toast ramped up pretty quickly, reportedly making a profit within the first couple months. What does that mean?

Nicole still doesn't take a salary. I have been trying to convince her to take one for a while now. Nick just started taking a salary probably eight months or a year in. I was getting paid from the start because I was the only one who didn't have any money to put into the company, and I was the one who was quitting my job in order to be the primary content-maker. Our definition of profitable was "Do we have more money at the end of the month than we spent?"

Is the Toast your only income?

Pretty much. I write very occasionally for other places but that's not super frequent. I've been making my living from the Toast for about a year and a half.

That worked out well.

My rent is pretty low. I don't have a lot of expenses. I'm not raking in cash hand over fist, but I do also own my portion of the company, so that's a huge part in addition to getting paid. I have a financial stake in how well this company does. That's really cool and really worth it.

Starting your own thing is one of the few ways where writers might make a bunch of money.

I absolutely would not mind getting rich off of it. I would welcome getting rich. The independence is different. There's not a big boss who I'm beholden to. We get to make our own decisions about the rate at which we want to grow and the kind of stuff we do and don't want to talk about. It would be great if some day the company was worth a significant amount of money and we were able to sell it. That would be cool. I would like to have a bunch of money from making something successful. I would really enjoy that. I would have a lot of fun with money.

You also wrote a book. Did you get an advance?

I got an advance. It was fun. The book sold really well, which was also really exciting. Hopefully I'll make more money than just the advance. I've been able to put that aside. In the last year, I've been getting paid but I haven't been getting a 401k or a pension. It's strange. In some ways, I'm like a freelancer and in other ways I'm not. I have a steady income. I'm paid by my company. But there's not the same big benefits package. I'm in an in-between zone where I have to think as a freelancer about my own financial future and making sure that I'm thinking ahead. It's easy to just think about paying rent, especially if you're in your 20s, but that's not the only thing that can happen.

Would you like to write more for other places? Have you done more of that recently?

It's stayed pretty steady. It's always fun. The places that I have been able to write for have been pretty cool. Part of what is great about the Toast is that I have a great partner in Nicole who I can ask about how to direct a post or if something is funny, but there's so much creative freedom. It's not like there are a lot of things I want to write about but can't. I can always just pitch it to myself and then accept it.

Freelance is fun but I don't feel a desire to do it because I'm at a place where I have a lot of freedom to talk about what I want to talk about. I spend so much time writing that I don't have a lot of time now. I'm sure a couple years down the road when we're able to hire an amazing full-time stable of writers, which is the dream, and I am a distant, benevolent wizard who pulls in a bunch of money for having invented the Toast, I'll periodically grace the New York Times with op-eds about my opinions. But that day is definitely not here yet.

And the Times doesn't pay that well, either.


Was there a time when you were worried about the financial side of writing?

Definitely. Writing is not always the most sustainable way of making an income. In the six-month period between leaving my full-time job and starting the Toast, there were times when I wondered what the goal was and if I would be able to make it.

Do you worry about money now?

Less so, certainly, because the Toast has become enough of a success that I don't wake up and think, "What if it explodes tomorrow?" But there are things I think about in terms of stability and long-term goals. I think it would be weird if I didn't worry at all. I don't think about getting out of writing as a profession, though. That's not something that comes up.

How do you decide what percentage of the revenue pool goes to you versus the writers or other expenses? Have you received a raise?

I got one about a year in. It was really fun. We talked about that for a while. I'm doing the majority of the writing for the site, so it was something that I had to make a case for. We're all looking out for each other's best interest, but I had to show how many pageviews I was getting, and show the growth.

We've always had a monthly freelance budget. We added to that when we started the Butter. It's just a matter of looking at where the money is coming from, what we can afford, what is something that maybe doesn't make money back right away but is still valuable, and that whole thing. Now we pay Roxane and we have a full-time managing editor, so we have more salaries to pay. Our expenses have gone up. We're trying to balance it out with our income. Figuring out what we want to add has been a cool part of the process.

How is the revenue growing?

Traffic has been going up. We've been able to get pretty cool ad deals. That's gone well for us. 

How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.