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Vicky Gu’s recipe for creating content users want to consume

Vicky Gu ⚈ Founder and Managing Editor ⚈ Currant

Thanks to the internet, foodies worldwide are connecting beyond culinary capitals. Entrepreneurs like Vicky Gu are a big reason why. As Founder of the food media collective Currant, she is changing the narrative and contributing to a more equitable food future.

Discover how Vicky defines demand generation, her journey to starting a global food publication, and her inspiration for entrepreneurs hoping to realize their ideas.

What’s your story and how did it lead to you finding your passion?

To rewind back to the beginning: I grew up in a Chinese American household in Dallas. When you think about the food you ate growing up, it’s just what you ate. I had a great mix of homestyle Shanghainese food, Texan steakhouses, and fast food joints after sports practice.

I studied culinary culture in Copenhagen with a researcher from Noma’s Nordic Food Lab. That experience blew me away. I never approached food in such intense ways—both viscerally and cerebrally. We read scholarly articles on lactose fermentation, foraged in the woods, and debated chef activism before it was a hot topic. It was an exhilarating ride.

After that, I interned in technology in San Francisco and saw how the tech world approaches issues. I was exposed to design-thinking, and using design to concept better food systems. That was when I learned to think more systematically.

Before moving to New York, I worked at Health and Human Services in public health communication. Thinking about the impact big-picture issues have on individuals and families was formative. In DC, where I had studied finance and international business at Georgetown University, there was a farmers market on campus. I started to see the roots of organizing around food. I started volunteering and learning to build something from the ground up.

I've worked in New York for several years, starting for a food and drink consumer product company, where I managed brand marketing campaigns, design production, and partnerships. During that time, publications like Bon Appétit were in their prime, and I went to one of their podcast tapings. I just dove into that world. Not just media, but design and community. Incorporating different media to tell stories about something that's visceral and instinctual for everyone—food.

What was the impetus to start Currant? When did you say to yourself, “This is happening”?

In 2018, I noodled on my first piece for Currant. I don't even think it's live on the website anymore. I was so embarrassed and took it down. There's not a creative outlet studying business as an undergrad, so I subscribed to Adobe Creative Cloud. When I got to New York, everyone was expected to know how to use creative tools, no matter where you work. Being in marketing, I had an opportunity to dabble in creative more.

I applied to the Adobe Creative Residency and pitched Currant. It was just a concept. I knew, even if I didn’t make it, that I would still do it. That pushed me into putting thought to paper and actually visualizing it. I didn't get the residency, but I had something better—a start.

It's hard. Especially working full time. You want to invest more time but you have blind spots where you lack expertise. Thankfully, I found out my neighbor was a creative director starting his own studio. It’s something that would only happen in New York City! He was so gracious and ended up doing the initial logo, branding, and design concepts. That really kicked it into life. That was the moment where I felt that we had something. After that, I took it and ran with it.

“I just dove into that world. Not just media, but design and community. Incorporating different media to tell stories about something that's visceral and instinctual for everyone—food.”

How do you define demand generation? Is it something that you think about often?

All of the time. I think about metrics a lot. It’s a tussle between getting the right eyeballs on your work, while also considering: “How do we make ripples coalesce into a larger wave at the right time?” For example, we don’t put too much influence on our featured voice’s social media following, but it's still a metric we factor in and track.

You need to know what makes the most impact to create a more equitable system, and how to shape how people engage with your content. This can shape user habits. Things like clicking a link they wouldn't have previously, exploring a recipe in an unfamiliar language, or new catchphrases. That’s a big part of what we're trying to do.

Demand generation is education. It’s creating the language in real time, which is also what makes it very challenging. Especially if what you're doing is new, like telling food stories in deeply integrated, multi-disciplinary ways. It's harder for people to feel compelled to look at something new. A lot of what we do is teach people to spend less time passively engaging on social media and more time actively engaging with each other.

Fast, fun facts with Vicky

  • Oh, I love my mornings.

  • You just can't replace stuff like new Nordic food. And for something basic, just a really good mint chocolate chip ice cream cone.

  • Comfort food is for sure Shanghai. What excites me in food is a little hard to pin down because I’m easily excitable. Nordic. Mexican. Israeli. Middle Eastern. Californian. Japanese. Korean. Nigerian. I don’t think I have a favorite.

  • You can’t make me choose. One word: sweet-savory.

  • Right now my food vibe is mellow. I'm just making food that I know will comfort and nourish me.

How do you find people who are relatively unknown so you can elevate emerging voices in food?

The way we feature voices speaks to our team’s expertise. Sarah Cooke, our Lead Feature Writer and my editorial partner, spearheads that and does most of our interviews. Liza Pittard leads research and community, and is into the art and archival spheres. Clare Lagomarsino is a brilliant designer, who deep dives into funky, new artistic endeavors.

Our team comes from multidisciplinary backgrounds and aren’t tied to a single sector or industry—it’s how we discover things that aren't mainstream yet. What we publish is a reflection of our interests, passions, and creative yearnings.

What’s worked well for Currant that other entrepreneurs should learn?

We throw spaghetti at the wall—but in smart, strategic ways. We listen to ourselves and the industry to figure out what makes us unique, which takes space and time. You need to set boundaries and give yourself time to listen to your own voice. That can be hard to do when you feel like you're missing out, but it’s so important.

What also works is co-creating with your community, and welcoming them into the process. We used integrated surveys within Mailchimp and learned so much. It was lovely to pitch what we as a team were excited about to our audience. You can't just try something and only consider how you feel about it. You have to think—did it work? Is it worth investing in?

What hasn’t worked well? What mistakes should other small business owners avoid?

My biggest mistake is getting so hung up on doing something perfectly that I delay or never do it. Especially at the beginning, when the stakes are lower. Demand generation can be the most fun, playful, and delightful space to experiment and see what resonates.

“Demand generation can be the most fun, playful, and delightful space to experiment and see what resonates.”

Has building a community and getting people to think about food differently been easier or harder than you expected?

Both, but I'm leaning towards harder. It’s been difficult asking people to show up as themselves in a digital medium. After 2020, I am a huge proponent of being offline more than online. However, I see lots of potential in digital organizing. What we're trying to figure out is what kind of digital organizing brings joy?

However, it's been great getting to see people resonate with our content. It's been so unexpected and encouraging to get positive feedback from media publications, entrepreneurs, and nonprofits that personally inspire us. But it’s all undergirded by a lot of labor.

Your content runs the gamut from interviewing experts like Dr. Emily Contois to your adorable, modern rendition of, If You Give a Kid a Cookie. Where does your team find inspiration?

As an artist, designer, or creative, you're constantly inhaling the inspirational work of others. I’m not online all of the time, but I try to use my online time well.

The beauty of living in New York is there’s always inspiration. I can't tell you how many random pictures I've taken on the street. It's not to create an Instagram. I'm happy creating a private album just to remind myself of the inspiration.

Solitude, meditation, whatever anchors you spiritually—that provides the foundation for the creative gears to start spinning, but not recklessly or frenetically. When you're prone to create, you just have so much energy. It's better to channel that energy into something attainable, measurable, and functional. I’m thinking about making sausage. Literally. It’s taking these tidbits of weird inspiration and making them into something cohesive. Replies to our email newsletter make my day. An email goes out to a bunch of people, but then one missive comes back and speaks to something you wrote thanking you for doing what you do. Nothing can replace that.

“When you're prone to create, you just have so much energy. Channel that energy into something attainable, measurable, and functional.”

What is your elevator pitch for Currant right now?

There’s big growth ahead. We’re establishing ourselves as a reputable, credible, fascinating, bold publication and community. It was pretty much just me for a year or two before I could build a collective. We've jammed as a team for months and I’m really excited for what’s to come. We're thinking about more immersive multimedia features. We're looking at open-source data, innovation models, the future of distributed communities, and pulling inspiration from tech and media consulting. We're ambitious, but not in a hurry. We're at an exciting place with a lot of uncertainty, but also a lot of potential.

What advice would you give a small business owner who wants to get people excited about their business?

Be honest and be yourself. At the start of a project, your idea is your baby. It’s the fullest representation of you that it will be before it evolves into something tamed by society’s boundaries.

We live in a digital-centric world. So it helps to think through how your communications work together so you can be known in a more holistic way. This also helps your audience to know you in a more integrated way, creating a better business relationship.

What speaks to your viewers? What are their concerns? What are the burning desires of their heart? Don’t just ask so you can get them to click on something. Listen. Figure out what they want to hear and bring it to them.

What’s your biggest piece of advice for entrepreneurs?

This sounds intuitive, but figure out what you believe in. What’s your anchor? Also, believe in yourself. Be humble, not modest. That’s the balance I’m learning how to strike.

When you're looking to start something new and you feel that fire in you, run with it. Never lose sight of why you started, because you will vacillate between feast and famine. But that has to be supported by your community. I don’t know what I would do if it weren't for my team. Surround yourself with good team members, but also friends who keep you in check. At the end of the day, relationships are the most sustainable parts of your business. Relationships will last when other things fall away. People will still be around, and they will be excited to champion you.

Lastly, give yourself boundaries. It forces you to be very honest with yourself when you're restricted. Restraints breed creativity. I love it.

Published: January 27, 2022

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