Maxwell Ryan, a former design-focused teacher, started Apartment Therapy in 2001 as a New York-based consulting service, hoping to share advice on how to redecorate homes.
Over the past 16 years, Apartment Therapy (and eventually, its sister site Kitchn) would experience the common ups and downs that come with running a blog. The two sites now reach 30 million people a month, but only after overcoming many obstacles.
Apartment Therapy weathered through the housing market crash thanks to attentions shifting from disappearing print publications to the growing world of blogs; the new generation’s passion for sharing details of their lives over social media certainly helped, too. As millennials started buying homes and customizing both their decor and their cooking skills, Apartment Therapy and Kitchn guided them without condescension.
Here’s how a small, one-man shop turned into two successful sites.
Going local and nearly selling out
The New York Times referred to Ryan in 2004 as “part interior designer, part lifestyle coach.” Since launching Apartment Therapy as a “web log” that year in partnership with his brother, Ryan had taken to writing daily pieces relating to home decor and style. Oliver Ryan, Maxwell’s brother, was friends with people like Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, who were starting to get into the business of blogging and monetizing posts on the web.
Back then, Ryan would highlight a new set of mixing bowls or share tips on how to furnish your teenager’s first college dorm room to help them stand out at school, writing in between meeting with his consultancy’s clients. By 2008, with editors in six cities across the United States (namely San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Washington, D.C. and the original New York coverage), Ryan had leaned on freelancers to help grow his posts and content.
He saw two different models when it came to blogging: “you either went local, like Curbed or Gothamist were doing, or you went into different, specific categories.”
With six editions of Apartment Therapy essentially running at the same time, Ryan and his wife at the time decided to launch Kitchn in 2005. Kitchn would focus on recipes, food culture, kitchen design and how food related to the overall home experience.
“If people don’t cook ever, then they don’t come home,” said Ryan, “no matter how well their home is designed.”
Ryan believed, at the time, that going wide on a blog’s focus rather than diving specifically into one category was the way to be successful. But with essentially 11 sites, between the localized versions of Apartment Therapy and niche sites on food, parenting and environmentally related home issues, things had become complicated.
2008 was a complicated time in general. The housing market crash was in full effect, which had ramifications on the debt/lending industry. A deal with Scripps to buy Apartment Therapy’s properties was moving forward until it was called off in September 2008; Lehman Brothers, a global investment banking firm, folded the following Tuesday.
With the U.S. stumbling toward financial recovery, newspapers and other forms of printed media were also shutting down. As the media industry shifted online, the space itself started to evolve. Social media platforms started popping up; Twitter launched in 2006, while Facebook started in 2004. Chris Phillips, vp of sales, says that in the early days of Apartment Therapy, people didn’t want to put pictures of their homes online.
“When we were doing house tours 10 years ago, people were cautious about showing their face or they were wondering why people would want to show off their homes,” said Phillips.
Between previous generations, who valued the “third place” and the idea of outdoor locations, bars and coffee shops, the younger generation is currently having a “hearth moment,” according to Phillips.
“There’s a refreshed interest around the home and home cooking that’s propelling us right now,” he said. “Your home is your trophy, an expression of your personality, and by sharing it you’re sharing the center of your life.”
Taking the shelter category by storm
After refocusing its scattered websites into two main destinations, Apartment Therapy and Kitchn, and hiring Phillips, the home and food sites were back on track toward success.
“It was really in 2013 and 2014 that Kitchn just went bananas,” said Ryan. “Search traffic was crazy, and the site doubled Apartment Therapy in traffic in no time.”
While the sites were growing in traffic, revenue and staff numbers weren’t growing as fast. Because Apartment Therapy Media was still operating under a lean, startup mentality and with few actually trained employees, a change needed to happen.
Up until 2015, most of the writers for the site started as readers and fans; few people had any writing experience and there was no set structure in place to help it grow as a business. After its CFO quit, Ryan hired Richard Greco, who pointed out that Apartment Therapy had grown beyond its original startup culture.
“A lightbulb went off,” said Ryan. “We were ready for that.”
Ryan gives his team a lot of credit for the success of the site, but he also knows the benefit of being a brand that’s been around for more than a decade. Apartment Therapy “tends to be at the top of people’s minds,” said Ryan.
“We have a ‘first mover’ advantage, since we were so early to this space and explored a category other blogs weren’t able to develop,” he said. “A lot of other blogs, like Denton’s Gawker or Henry Blodget’s Business Insider, didn’t care back then about the shelter category. We understood it because we were fans of it.”
A hands-on approach to sales
Over the last two years, revenue for both sites have grown tremendously; Kitchn has seen an increase of more than 200 percent, and Apartment Therapy has grown by 100 percent.
A lot of their revenue comes from direct sales (“our value comes from being an independent site,” said Ryan, “so we can work directly with a client”), and a majority of their direct sales are for custom, native content.
“Our clients recognize our expertise in branded content,” said Phillips. “We go beyond what the rest of the market offers to create custom videos and deeply integrated programs.”
Recently, Apartment Therapy Media decided to double its office space in order to accommodate more studio space and a studio kitchen for photo and video production; both editorial and creative service teams will use the space to continue creating the quality of content that readers and advertisers have come to expect.
“Modern publishing means you can’t operate in siloed departments,” said Phillips. “We’re focusing on cooperation and coordination between editorial, sales and operations teams.”
Phillips and his team encourage clients to be on set with everyone so they can approve or give feedback right away. Some of the campaigns they’ve made for brands like Land O’ Lakes, Sherwin-Williams, Target and Arm & Hammer are occasionally made as white-label content the brands can use beyond Apartment Therapy and Kitchn.
He also encourages a hands-on approach from his sales team and creation team.
“We live with these products and brands,” he said. “We’re creating a campaign for an ice cream brand coming up, so I ate that ice cream last night. There’s an intimacy we want to bring out to our readers from these brands.”
Other sites in the shelter category frequently bring props when they show up for a photoshoot at someone’s home to make sure the house fits into their overall style, according to Phillips.
“We’re here to raise confidence and lift up what people are actually doing,” he said. “Society has moved past a Martha Stewart level of perfection. Now, we want to focus on celebrating what’s achievable and beautiful.”
Building a community
With selfies on every corner of social media these days, it can be hard to remember a time when that wasn’t the norm. Thanks to fun filters, lenses and comment sections, Apartment Therapy Media’s approachable personality encouraged its readers and fans to connect with them beyond just its websites and share the ups and downs of their homes, kitchens and lives.
Aside from being in comScore’s top 10 lifestyle home and lifestyle food categories, respectively, Apartment Therapy and Kitchn have seen huge growth on social media. Video views across both sites have increased by 429 percent and 463 percent year-over-year including on-site, Facebook and Instagram Stories. Apartment Therapy’s Instagram followers grew by 98 percent and Kitchn’s grew by 78 percent year-over-year.
Custom content revenue, created by teams overseen by Phillips, for Apartment Therapy is up by 65 year-over-year, and pre-roll revenue on videos is also up by 72 percent year-to-date for both sites.
By streamlining processes over the last two years especially, Apartment Therapy Media is now able to save more money by putting it back into the company. The recent hire of Susan Kaplow as its chief content officer will help to keep its focus on track.
Ryan, who has approached everything with an experimental perfectionist’s eye, sees room for improvement now that the sites are on more solid ground than ever before.
He sees opportunities in growing a real community on his sites, where readers can save content they’re interested in without using Pinterest, and where they can connect and learn from each other.
“It’s more than just being able to create a marketplace to monetize peer-to-peer selling,” said Ryan. “Readers should be able to arrange our content in a way that’s useful to them.”
Another opportunity for growth is in the analysis and review side of its editorial process.
“We have readers who live on social or search or on our sites and newsletters, and everyone online has seen the growth of the web thanks to social,” he said. “What we haven’t done is create longterm value around what search would seed into.”
He pointed to the New York Times-acquired Wirecutter blog that reviews and tests products for its readers that, at the end of the day, “help people,” he said.
“People used to keep magazines to refer back to useful articles,” said Ryan, “which is sweet when you think about it.”
“Everyone thinks their apartment is too small or that they don’t know how to feed themselves,” said Phillips. “By having an honest conversation with ourselves and our readers, we’ve become the mindful choice for people online.”