Maria Gureeva is the founder of Earth of Maria, a recipe website with a focus on flavourful vegan comfort food for busy people. In addition to her own blog, Maria is also the author of “Earthy Vegan Eats”, a cookbook containing more than 60 of her own vegan, gluten-free recipes suitable for all cooking levels, which is due to be published later this year. As a digital entrepreneur working primarily with social media to promote her business, Maria possesses first-hand knowledge about the challenges faced by female entrepreneurs online, and the skills that are essential to grow a business in the digital world.
Aside from her venture, Maria is a student at University of Oxford where she is finishing her BA in History at St Hugh’s College. She says that creating Earth of Maria has allowed her to balance her time better between academics and creative pursuits, which, in turn, taught her to manage her to think about her work more strategically and to prioritise her tasks.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I’ve always been rather entrepreneurial as a child and teenager, I never did well in an environment where someone told me what to do. By starting my own business, I laid a foundation for my life by myself. Around 6 years ago I went vegan and that brought me into a whole new world, forced to expand my creativity with food. I was using instagram to find new recipes, and, before I knew it, I was creating my own ones. After high school, I took a gap year during which I worked in Tesco for a while, and also did a management and tax consulting internship in Japan. This gave me an insight into the corporate world, and, even though the trip itself was amazing, it ultimately taught me that working for a corporation was not for me. I wanted to do something more risky, like entrepreneurship. This was when I thought that have this passion for cooking, passion for photography, and for writing, which could all combine well into developing a website, and that’s how Earth of Maria came to exist.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship to me, above all, symbolises our ability to use our creative skills and critical thinking to solve a specific problem. Although risky, the ability to help people makes it incredibly fulfilling.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
I already knew that Instagram was a way for people to grow and sell businesses, and that idea was marinating. Eventually, I decided to give it my all while I still had time. I purchased a new camera alongside my domain name. Even though the business was quite slow at first, I never stopped believing in myself, because I knew I had passion. Eventually, the business snowballed and started growing of its own accord. Thanks to my studies at Oxford, I know that my degree is a safety blanket on which I can land if anything goes wrong.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Open mindedness has been essential – especially if you’re a digital entrepreneur, working with brands, producing content for different audiences. It is also essential to be able to respond to different trends and appreciate landscape changes. Online space is so saturated with people trying to sell their services and make themselves seen – this is why it is really important to understand your core message and the sort of person you are speaking to. In my experience, it is better to appeal to a small audience that you know is going to enjoy your product, as opposed to trying to appeal to everyone. For a time, I used to produce same-style content over and over, and when I changed that a bit, the audience immediately picked up. It is important to understand your audience and give them a clear message, you have to speak very directly to your target audience.
What is more, resilience and thick skin are just as important, especially when you get rejected, which is not always a bad thing and happens to all of us. If you are not getting rejected on a daily basis, that means you are only operating in your comfort zone and never truly put yourself out there. You should not be taking criticism and failure as a personal attack — failure is an inevitable part of success, not a reflection of you as a person.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
Definitely the creativity and the power to pave your own way. As an entrepreneur, you have infinite potential, which can be overwhelming, but which also gives you control of your destiny. You can always try something new if something else does not work out, which puts you in control and allows you to make use of your potential.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
There are so many amazing female entrepreneurs. Grace Beverly, for example, the founder of Shreddy. Seeing her journey from being an Instagram influencer to developing something so much bigger is truly inspiring. Because she also went to Oxford, it is really interesting to me personally to follow and see how she did it. I also follow Livia’s kitchen, and we have seen each other grow. Livia speaks very openly about the struggles that come with being a female entrepreneur, and it is really nice to see that I am not alone with my experiences. In terms of social media creators, I am also inspired by the founder of Half Baked Harvest, Tieghan. Her photography skills are amazing, she has developed such a unique, personal style and design that you immediately know who the photos were taken by. This truly inspires me to improve my own skills. Apart from female figures, I would also like to mention Christopher Kong from Better Nature, a company that specialises in tempeh. They’re a great example of tapping into a very specific market and focusing on one core product to drive massive success.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I would surely like to discuss how to nurture my craft, and, most importantly, how to keep it going for so long. I would like to know how they manage to stay on top of everything, and how they keep their number one spots in the business.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
I would say it is definitely the fact that my cookbook is getting published. I did not go into the business with the intention of writing a cookbook that soon. This has changed in 2019, when my publisher reached out to me and suggested a lot of ideas. Initially, I was worried about balancing my time and work, because I also had my studies and the growing business, and creating a cookbook would mean I have to test and develop a lot of new recipes and work on the photos. Eventually though, I decided to go for it, I somehow just knew instinctively that this would turn out well, also because my publisher understood my brand and its message really well. Additionally, the pandemic meant that I had more time at home to develop and test my recipes and enhance my photography skills. I am now very excited for the book to come out!
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
All my mistakes have originated from me biting off more than I can chew, so to say. I mostly work by myself and obviously need to devote time to my studies too, which is already a lot. At one point though, I thought I could launch a line of physical products. I decided to give the idea a go and invested a substantial amount of money into it. Unfortunately, about halfway through the process I realised I was splitting my attention between too many different things, and I didn’t have the time to develop a line that would match my quality standards. I had to push it aside at that time, because I knew that back then, I could not do it in a way that would be satisfactory and successful. I would definitely consider relaunching the idea in the future, but this experience has taught me to focus on just one thing at a time, and, importantly, to prioritise. I used the rest of the money from the loan to buy a new camera and equipment, and went back to concentrating on the core of my business.
How have you funded your ideas?
I received no external funding, the entire project has been boot-strapped. When you are a digital start up operating through social media, the costs of the business are much lower. At one point, I took a business loan from a bank, which allowed me to fund different aspects of my activity and cover expenses such as a new camera. Other than that though, I have used my own savings to run the website. I have reinvested everything I have earned back into the business.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
Until now I have been entirely self-funded, but I would definitely consider external funding in the future when I am ready to grow my company further, perhaps to go back to the physical line of products.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
Oxford’s community is amazing – just being surrounded by so many people with so many ideas and work ethics is a truly stimulating experience. Except for that, I am almost entirely self-taught The pandemic has hindered ways to connect though – one can never really establish the same deeper connection with other people and ventures if everything happens solely online. But I hope that now that the restrictions are getting eased, it will get better soon.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
I was lucky to be a part of Oxford Garage, a community that allows founders to connect with a network of mentors, partners, investors and alumni. I have met some really inspiring people there.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
Although it was my choice to put myself out there, I still had to deal with rude and unsolicited comments about my appearance; whenever I’d post something entirely innocent on social media, for example just me cooking pasta, people would comment on my weight, make up, clothing. I think that men experience this to an extent, but young women are really under a lot of pressure and have to deal with things that people would never say to you in real life, but will on social media. They are entitled to say whatever they like, because I am quote unquote “a public person”. But I aim to focus on the 98% of my community who are so positive and supportive, but I do see how such rude comments may be detrimental to one’s business and self-esteem.
My business coach, Jenny Melrose, puts out online content focused on building a business on social media and finding ways to monetise social media following. But because she is a woman, she also receives such comments – a man doing the same would never be faced with something like that. You need to have a very thick skin, and I feel that it is important to speak out about it, but in the end, you must also accept it as an aspect of putting yourself out there as a woman.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
I personally listen to a lot of podcasts, such as The School of Greatness, Strategy Hour, and The Goal Digger. On top of that, I also enjoy the Food Blogger Pro podcast, which is great for influencers and entrepreneurs in my industry. I am also a very big fan of reading and independent research. I would recommend looking at authors from your own industry, because these are the reads that will help you build what you want. In terms of books that I personally found helpful, I would list “The ONE Thing” by Gary W. Keller and Jay Papasan and “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. I also recommend my own business coach, Jenny. If you are a digital social media entrepreneur, mastering SEO techniques is also very important, and for this I would recommend hashtagjeff’s online course.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
I think that there already is more opportunities here than in other places. My biggest suggestion would be to make more things accessible, so that awareness is raised about the resources, initiatives and opportunities that are out there in Oxford. It would be great to see more opportunities for young entrepreneurs for example in colleges and on the Freshers’ Fair.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Believing in yourself is very important, and so is the ability to stick through adversity. Getting started is the hardest part, as you go through the tough moments when you think no one will pay attention to you or that your business won’t kick off. You need to believe that it will work out first, you must be persistent even if there are negative emotions at times. You must also be open to feedback to make progress and understand your audience.
Any last words of advice?
I cannot stress this enough: the more specific you are in your purpose and the audience you are appealing to, the quicker your business will thrive. There are so many people who are not successful in the long run because they compare themselves with others and the ideas of others, and they jump between different ventures. I think that you need to somehow get closed off from distractions about what others are doing to focus on your unique own purpose and audience. This is the only way in which you can build a loyal community around your brand.