In an effort to understand the magic ingredients that make up the recipe of creating a successful blog, I went out in search of successful bloggers that have formed popular, profitable websites. The fruits of that search turned up two big names in the blogosphere – Vitaly Friedman of Smashing Magazine, and Joshua Topolsky of The Verge.
Writing is such a personal, private thing. On the other hand, the act of blogging is such a public and transparent thing. When you put the two together, you have this highly visceral, raw act of casting ideas out into the Internet.
It’s hard to imagine that those ideas could ever grow into something highly successful, popular and dare you hope – profitable?
There are a lot of very cool stories out there about how some of the world’s most popular blogs and websites got started. Look at the story of Arianna Huffington. She began her online writing career with a website called Resignation.com, where she burst onto the scene calling for the resignation of President Bill Clinton. From the founding of The Huffington Post in May of 2005 to its acquisition by AOL on February 7, 2011, Arianna and her team of journalists established one of the most popular news blogs on the Internet.
Then you’ve got a site like the Daily Beast, founded in 2008 by Tina Brown and Barry Diller. It eventually grew and merged with Newsweek to become the “online home” of Newsweek Magazine. Then there’s the story of Darren Rowse, one of my favorite bloggers, who quit his job working as a laborer to try and earn a living through blogging. He founded b5media in 2005 with fellow bloggers, he founded the extremely popular site ProBlogger, and openly admits that today he comfortably earns a six-figure income through blogging.
So, what’s the secret to creating a successful blog? How do certain sites do so well, while so many others fall by the wayside?
Why I Turned to Blogging
According to WordPress.com, there are over 60.6 million WordPress.com hosted blogs across the entire world. That’s right. Million. There are over 100,000 new WordPress sites created every single day. It’s difficult to get an accurate picture of just how many websites are created on the Internet every day, but if just the WordPress stats are any indication, the number is massive.
Much like Darren Rowse, I turned to blogging more out of necessity than anything else. We were due to have our first child, my wife would no longer be working, so we needed income. I attempted to buy and sell antiques on Ebay to make extra income. That effort was moderately successful – I did manage to establish a Powerseller status with 100% positive ratings – but the work was enormous and the resulting profit was miniscule.
So, I turned to a passion that I’ve had since I was just a kid – writing. I’ve always had an overwhelming love for the written word, and the joy created by a well-crafted sentence. At the time in 2006, I didn’t think it was possible to really earn anything by writing, but I started doing it online just for the joy of it. I loved crafting articles, and if I could earn a few pennies in the process, all the better.
My story was a long road of countless late nights writing blog entries and articles for peanuts, and an endless search for newer, better-paying clients. Of course, there was also lots and lots of coffee. Probably too much coffee.
Fast forward to 2012. I now write for one of the top technology blogs on the Internet, I am an editor and writer for an educational technology site, and in 2009, I founded by own blog called TopSecretWriters – my first endeavor independently publishing my own work, which would provide no immediate income in return at the start.
No – TopSecretWriters was different. It wasn’t work. It was less about making money, and more about having lofty goals and ideas to share that I am passionate about. It was my way of tossing my message in a bottle into the vast ocean of the Internet, hoping that someone would eventually read those words, and that it might inspire them to bring friends.
Today, I would consider myself to be a moderately successful blogger. I earn a comfortable income writing for others, and my own site is what I would consider to be an on-the-rise new blog, on the cusp of breaking through into that magical area of financial self-sufficiency. It’s an exciting time.
Considering that I’m about halfway up this mountain that so many before me have climbed, I decided to take a breather and take a closer look at those explorers that have come before – co-founders of their own websites that are wildly popular today. Both of these writers are passionate about the work they do, and they both lead websites that nearly everyone reading this article will recognize.
I am speaking of none other than Vitaly Friedman of Smashing Magazine, and Joshua Topolsky of The Verge.
Both of them have agreed to give us a little bit of insight – and dare I say some inspiration – into what it takes to create and grow popular and extremely successful websites on the Internet today.
The Verge – Editor in Chief Joshua Topolsky
The Verge is listed around the web as one of the top 10 technology blogs out there. It is unique in that it covers not just tech news, but focuses holistically on the entire culture of technology and science in the world today. Its rise to fame has been astonishingly quick – the site was only founded in 2011 and began making it on the top 10 lists shortly thereafter.
Joshua Topolsky, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Verge, agreed to sit down and chat with us about the founding of the Verge, and what he felt gave it the ability to grow so quickly, so fast.
Of course, my first question was exactly that – what made the site so popular? His response – repeated throughout the interview – was actually rather simple. His secret to success is teamwork.
“The two people that founded the site were myself and Marty Moe. We kind of cooked up the idea and co-founded the site, but we have a group. Even though we’re the founders, there’s a group of editors that were here from the very beginning that built the site into what it is.”
That’s fantastic, however, your about page also mentioned a partnership with Vox Media, was that from day one as well?
“It was originally a site called SB Nation, which is a network of sports blogs. When Marty and I brought the idea for Verge to them, we sort of decided that we needed to form a new company. That new company became Vox, and now Vox is The Verge, SB Nation, and then Polygon, which is a games site that we launched in the middle of 2012.”
Joshua told me that Jim Bankoff, the CEO of SB Nation, decided to fund the founding of The Verge, and in collaboration with him and Marty, they founded the site while also creating a new company called Vox Media.
Getting a Seed Investment Will Propel Growth
Of course, in my search for elements in the founding of The Verge that could have contributed to the rapid success of the site, my next question seemed obvious.
I asked whether the support of SB Nation meant he and Marty had outside investors seeding The Verge.
“That’s right, in the sense that SB Nation is a privately funded – venture capital funded business, and now that has grown into Vox Media. So we are privately funded by venture capital.”
Do you think that contributed to the speed that the Verge grew and become popular so quickly?
“There’s certainly no question that having an established platform and having money is always good, but we obviously had a great editorial team to start with, and we broke a lot of news early on.
A lot of these editors came from Engadget, where I was editor-in-chief. Most of the senior staff left there to start a new site. So, we had a following to start with, and it was actually kind of surprising that when we started the first site This Is My Next, we got a little bit of a groundswell from that. No money, no advertising – it was pretty much a WordPress site, very basic. We started to see pretty huge traffic on it. That was our first indication that we were on the right track, just doing something independent and on our own.
I think we brought a bit of an audience who knew us from our previous work. And, you know, I think we came out of the gate really big, and that’s thanks to the platform and the investment, and the team.
From the start, my thinking was, it’s very hard now just to start a small blog with a couple of people working at it. In our sphere, in the world of technology culture, there’s a lot of competition. It’s very hard to start something small and grow it very big in a short amount of time.”
I asked Joshua whether The Verge is intentionally very news-focused.
“Very news focused, and very culture focused. You look at our front page right now, we’ve got this in-depth exclusive piece on the design of Google; we have a piece on how scientists found this giant squid that the Discovery Channel is doing a documentary on. If you look at everything at the top of our site right now, it’s a real mixture of culture coverage, science coverage, and tech coverage. So, that’s right where we wanted to be from the get go. It was kind of like biting off a lot. We knew that we couldn’t do that if we were just starting a WordPress site and having just a few people writing for it. It would be very difficult to capture everything we wanted to capture.”
So, how did you manage to make the linkup that you needed with venture capital at the beginning?
“We knew the CEO of SB Nation. He’s a guy named Jim Bankoff, who used to be at AOL. Jim was actually the guy who was responsible for bringing weblogs [Weblogs Inc.], which Engadget was part of, to AOL when he was there. He had been working on SB Nation, and he was the CEO.
He actually reached out early on when he heard that some other people and I were leaving. Essentially, we had a conversation and we decided that this was a partnership that we wanted to get into. It was just a good fit. He understood where we were coming from, and he knew the troubles that we had had – trying to make something work at AOL, because he had been there.”
What this feedback from Joshua made clear is that there is a lot to be said for how much investment you have up front when starting a blog. While there are lots of things that can lead to success – like a great editorial team, brilliant content ideas and a beautiful layout – ultimately the principle of “money talks” still holds true in the world of blogging.
At the very least, it can dramatically improve your odds of success in a shorter period of time.
The Importance of Telling a Good Story
Still, when you look at The Verge, it’s obvious that the team there really has an edge up on the competition. The stories jump out at you, the layout pops, and the writing is high-quality and clearly carefully done. News articles are carefully researched, and the technology updates are quick and timely.
It was obvious to me, just from exploring the site, that there was a lot more to the success of the site than just a bunch of venture capital.
I asked Joshua, what, if anything, he felt were the top one or two things that helped The Verge stay above the competition? Joshua said that funding was important, but it became more apparent during the course of our phone conversation that what lies at the heart of The Verge’s success is a close-knit, highly professional team of editors.
“I think the investment and the great editorial team is the number one thing. I mean, we’ve done a lot of things that are different and new in terms of our site design, the way we wanted to do features and the way we wanted to do reviews. That all comes from a huge collaboration among editors. In my opinion, you’re only as good as the team that you have. My goal, and the goal of every editor here was, let’s bring the best people together to collaborate.
And so, the number one thing that I am thankful for and that I think we did right is we found great people to work together. We pushed them, and they pushed us and collectively we came up with big stories and scoops and really good stuff that we put in front of an audience.”
That actually brings up a good point. Do you think that it could have been those big stories you hit on early that might have sky-rocketed your growth?
“I’m going to say that it was a combination of factors. You start to tell a story when you make something for yourself and when you put it out into the world. There’s a narrative that’s created. And I think there was a narrative about us, and people were like, ‘Hey, what’s going on with these guys? It might be interesting to find out what they’re doing.’
But then, not only having that, but actually delivering on stuff that is interesting is very important.”
Are there any early stories that really stand out in your memory as, “Hey this is the first big story that we hit on and it was huge?”
Joshua laughed a bit before answering. After he recovered a little, he explained:
“We had a big appetite for doing long-form stories, with big layouts and a big video component – really dutifully produced video. One of our first big features was called ‘Condo at the End of the World’, which was a piece about these people building survival condominiums in the middle of the desert. And, you know, the reaction to that was huge. People really got it, and the video was really intense.
That was the first week we launched I think, and when I saw the reaction to that – people saying ‘Woah, look at this layout and look at this story’, and it was shared in all kind of places. It’s then that I thought that our idea, what we had, was really going to work and that people got it, immediately.”
Long Form is the New Form
One of the long-standing “rules of thumb” in the world of blogging is that people are not interested in sitting at the computer and reading through a long blog post. The general rule was that the perfect length for an article was an average of 600 to 1200 words, and any longer than that you would lose the reader.
What you’ll find at The Verge is that while there are certainly plenty of short and quick news entries or blog updates, you’ll also find a great many long-form features of well over 2,000 words. Many of them also feature huge, beautiful photos or well-created video clips.
It’s clear that – true to its name – The Verge is staying right on the verge of the next big thing in blogging.
Joshua explained this change in strategy – going against the grain of the “old way” of blogging.
“Before that, before we started publishing these long-form, investment pieces, there was this sense that people didn’t want to read big stories, or that they wouldn’t want to read long stories, or that they weren’t interested in spending the time.
In the summer of 2011 when we launched, it was really a strong sentiment. People want it fast, cheap and dirty, right? But when we started publishing this stuff, there was an immediate, clear appetite for it. That was a big indicator to me that things were actually going to work.”
Are there any moments that you would have done differently – something that today you would consider to be an amateur mistake?
“The hardest thing has been allowing ourselves to break old habits, and let ourselves experiment more, and let ourselves get into uncomfortable places in the sense that, ‘Hey maybe this will work and maybe it won’t, but we’re gonna give it a shot because we believe in it.’ That’s one of those things that takes a little while when you’re coming from a world of, ‘Hey, you gotta crank out a post every twenty minutes.’
When you come from that world, your brain just works a little bit differently. So, something we work on every day is trying to break all those old bad habits of just straight blogging, and instead thinking about the bigger picture and the bigger story.”
What if You Could Do Anything You Want?
One unique feature of The Verge is that it utilizes its own custom platform. It isn’t WordPress-based. I asked Joshua whether that was actually limiting at all in any way, since there weren’t the library of ready-made tools available to “add-on” to the base platform.
Joshua didn’t hesitate to point out that the Vox platform was an advantage, not a disadvantage, because it allows The Verge team to create in ways that were previously not possible in the former old-style “blog” format.
“I think the platform is just a blank page. I think our platform now is just a big, open book. The trick is figuring out how to draw on the page, you know? When you start to remove the limitations, when you say well I used to only be able to do this single column blog post but now I can do these big, beautiful features; when I have a video team and I can do these sort of mini-documentaries; or I want to put a new show on our site and crank up a new podcast or crank up a new weekly or monthly video show – you start to go, man I can kinda do whatever I want.
You have to start to get into the mindset of how do you sculpt that? If you could do anything you want, it can be very chaotic when you don’t know exactly what you want to do or how you want to do it. I think a lot of our past year of launch has been building our structure and how to make each page really beautiful and valuable.”
Joshua’s approach is actually very unique in today’s “search-focused” world of blogging, where bloggers are constantly tracking their page stats and looking for ways to boost those stats. Joshua says that he decided to throw that whole mindset out the window, and return to what many would view as the old-school magazine-editing approach of, if you build something interesting and beautiful, the readers will come.
“From day one, my number one mandate to everyone has been, don’t chase page views. Don’t chase what you think people will like, chase the stuff that you think is really cool. Go after that. We’ve trusted our instinct a lot, and our instinct has been right a lot. That gives me a tremendous sense of excitement about going forward.
I’ve just found that if you have a team that you trust, and everybody is working together, you can make assumptions, you can make calls where you might be nervous in other situations. You can say, hey lets go with our gut on this. If you think it’s good, let’s run it. Let’s tell the story. That’s been really great for us.”
One key message I kept hearing from talking with Joshua was the importance of thinking big and stepping outside of the box – going outside the comfort zone. It’s certainly easy for bloggers to get into the daily routine of making posts and sticking to a site design that everyone says is “right”, but Joshua’s message is about being different.
It’s about standing out and doing things that make people look at you and say, “Wow, check out what this blogger’s up to.” That’s when the magic happens.
Smashing Magazine – Editor-in-Chief Vitaly Friedman
I was very excited to have an opportunity to chat with Vitaly Friedman, the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the ever-popular technology blog – in fact one of the leading web-design blogs on the Internet – Smashing Magazine.
The rise of Smashing Magazine wasn’t quite as fast as The Verge. It was founded in 2006 by Sven Lennartz and Vitaly Friedman. The site has been a favorite for web designers from the very start, but it also does focus on other areas of technology like software and web tool reviews.
Much like MakeUseOf, Smashing Magazine has a staff that spans the globe and comes from many different nationalities and religions. The site has been ranked across the Internet as one of the top 10 tech blogs, and easily one of the top 10 web design blogs in the world.
So, it was a real honor to talk with Vitaly Friedman about what he felt made Smashing Magazine such a smashing success.
Growing a Site from Scratch
I started the interview asking Vitaly about the first year that he and Sven founded Smashing Magazine, and what their hopes and dreams were for the site.
“To be honest, we didn’t have any big plans or ambitions when we launched the site back in 2006. It was all a random experiment. We hadn’t really planned anything at that point. I didn’t have any hopes or dreams or fears about the site, it just felt like something we did on the side. Something that didn’t really matter much.
I still love this feeling of creating things that aren’t perfect, aren’t quite right, aren’t permanent. It gives me a reason to go and change them, optimize them, improve them, make them different. I used to be a perfectionist, but I don’t strive for perfection any longer — it’s meaningless.”
Smashing Magazine was founded in September of 2006, and three years later in 2009, WebDesignDev voted Smashing as one of the top 30 web-design blogs, and in 2012 Daily Tekk listed Smashing as one of the top 10 for creativity and design. IncomeDiary listed it as the 5th best income-earning blog on the Internet.
From that first day, to the success of 2012, what would you say went as expected, and what turned out completely different than you had imagined?
“Well, since we didn’t have any expectations, things ran quite smoothly, to be honest. We had ups and downs of course, but it was a matter of doing the right thing properly. It has always been very important for me to create something tangible and valuable for designers and developers to use. Just like I learned so much from the numerous blog posts back in 2002-2004, I wanted to give back, and I wanted to create something that would help me in my daily work as a freelancing designer as well.
What I didn’t know is that at some point we’d take a very different editorial route, moving from ‘pop/masses’ articles like ‘50 Fantastic Grungy Wallpapers’, to a respectable, professional publication in which every article goes through a number of reviews to make sure that it meets the high quality standards that we set for our publication. It surprises me how things have changed over the years, and I am truly proud of this change.”
If You Build It, They Will Come…Eventually
Was there a lot of up-front investment and loss required to get that early growth started? Can you share at what point that Smashing Magazine became profitable, and what that felt like?
“To be honest, we didn’t have any investment at all apart from the time investment for writing the articles and publishing them online. We started out without advertising, because we had no idea that someone would be interested in what we did. But then, as we saw more and more traffic coming in, we added Google AdSense ads to at least cover the traffic costs. It worked pretty well quite quickly.
Because we had no huge costs and worked as a two-and-a-half-people-team, everything was quite straightforward. It was only in late 2009 that we finally founded a company and hired people to work on our Smashing Books and eBooks. Smashing Magazine itself became profitable around 8-12 months after it went live.”
Here, Vitaly describes a completely different path to success, not much unlike that of MakeUseOf, in fact. No major external investment, just a couple of guys working had at building the site from the ground up. This is almost a direct example of the scenario Joshua described above as a “very hard” task.
What the story of Smashing Magazine reveals is that the job isn’t impossible – it just takes longer, and it requires a big dose of drive, motivation and perseverance.
Is there anything you would have changed about how you managed the website through the years? Were there lessons learned that you would love to go back and do better?
“I don’t regret my decisions, and I think that growing traffic in the very beginning was the absolute right decision to make. We did have a very weird and unpleasant reputation for a while due to that. Quality control, proofreading and the editorial guidelines weren’t quite developed yet, which caused a quite strange phase in the evolution of the site. With the history of the site and the poor level of grammar, the articles did feel a bit… personal and humane, but it didn’t help us in building a good reputation, so I might want to revise that phase in our history.
I would also not take too many projects at once, and would prefer to work on just a few projects to make sure that they are done/built properly. It’s really very important. Also, make sure that you learn how to give up full control over your work. At some point, you’ll realize that you can’t do it all alone, and you have to learn to communicate your values and your philosophy. It’s not as easy as one might think.”
Are you able to offer start-up bloggers out there some tips and advice about what it really takes to build a successful website like Smashing Magazine on the Internet today?
“There is no magic recipe for that. I believe it’s often a matter of writing about something that’s important to a group of people at the right point in time. If you are an expert in your field, you already have something to say, so this could be your niche to write for. Don’t be afraid to go niche, that’s a fantastic opportunity to start something small that can then grow into something bigger.
And don’t think about actually building something huge and successful. Care deeply about your little creation, let it flourish and grow slowly, curate it, and you will see that it will reap fruits that you could only hope for. You just have to care and put your heart into your creation. But, the chances are that it won’t work at all if you see it as a job or as work. You have to be personal, honest, authentic, transparent, and write about what you love doing. Then people will find you, and they will come back to you.”
The Secret Recipe of Success
Smashing Magazine and The Verge are two of the best success stories on the Internet over the last few years. What I love about these two successes is that their paths to get there are so different.
In the one case, you have a site that grew to fame in less than three years, with strong financial backing and a crack editorial team. In the other case, you have a website started out by two guys as a labor of love, that eventually grew to become rated as one of the highest-income tech sites online.
Two widely different paths to a place of success that countless bloggers and website owners out there are envious of. So what are the common ingredients in the recipe of blogging success? What are those key elements that brought more and more readers to both Smashing Magazine and The Verge?
When you’re talking success, and just taking these two success stories into account, it looks like there are three major factors.
The first is writing about what you love. The Verge editors left one place to launch a new site in a format and style that they loved. Vitaly and Sven focused on a niche that they loved to write about.
The second is quality. Joshua explained that The Verge had an expert team of editors from day one – offering a major advantage in quality from day one. Vitaly described evolving Smashing Magazine through an awkward stage of growth into a place where published pieces that go through several stages of review.
Finally, the third element is finding a way to be unique and new. Vitaly describes the value of getting a foothold into a niche of your own and then growing your position there. Joshua describes the importance of getting away from the “old way” of doing things, and instead allowing yourself to get into uncomfortable places, to experiment with new things.
Both of these stories – that of The Verge and of Smashing Magazine – are success stories, but what’s important to remember is that they are also very different stories. They reveal that regardless of the path you take, success comes to those that – in Vitaly’s words – write about something that’s important to a group of people at the right point in time.
Now is always the right point in time. The only question is what you believe is important enough to write about, and then make it happen.
Want to write a long-form feature for MakeUseOf? Email Erez.