How Apartment Therapy and Sister Site Kitchn Conquered the Early Days of Blogging to Come Out on Top

The advent of social media certainly helped

Apartment Therapy has gone through many transformations over the past 16 years.
Sandra Rojo/Apartment Therapy

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.