Jonathan Butler, of Brownstoner & Brooklyn Flea - 9.7.11

Jonathan Butler, of Brownstoner & Brooklyn Flea - 9.7.11

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Maxwell Ryan
Sep 27, 2011

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What: Apartment Therapy Design Evenings
Who: Jonathan Butler, Founder of brownstoner.com and the Brooklyn Flea
Attendance: 300 - Full Up!
When: Wednesday, Sept. 7: 6:30pm - 8:30pm
Where: ABC Carpet & Home | 888 Broadway NYC

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Apartment Therapy Design Evenings - September 7, 2011

Kick-Off Presentation

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This month, we started the evening with one presenter as part of our "warm up" series. Esin Arsan, a Turkish designer who graduated from Pratt's Industrial Design program, presented us with her "Within 3" coffee cup design.

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Esin's inspiration for this product comes from several places. First, the culture of drinking coffee in Turkey is very strong. The coffee is thick and rich, and when finishing a cup, it is tradition to read the coffee grounds - as Esin states on her website, "Fortune telling by reading the grounds left after drinking Turkish coffee is an inseparable part of the pleasure and conversation associated with coffee in Turkish and Middle Eastern cultures."

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In Esin's design, she combines the beauty of this tradition with her concerns about endangered species throughout the world. As you drink from the cup time and time again, the unglazed silhouettes of the animals become darker with darker, representing both the positive symbolic meaning of animals in the fortune-telling tradition, as well as the strength of the animal's unfortunate future possibilities of extinction.

You can learn more about Esin and her work on her website: //www.esinarsan.com.

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Main Presentation

Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan:
Our Design Evenings are often about design, but more and more we're broadening out to other aspects that are related to design and the design community. Tonight is an example of that.

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Jonathan Butler is the founder of Brownstoner.com and the Brooklyn Flea. Brownstoner.com is Brooklyn's leading blog, focusing on topics like real estate, renovation, and restaurants. Launched in October 2004, the site currently attracts more online traffic than all the Brooklyn newspapers combined -- about 250,000 readers and almost two million pageviews per month.

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The Brooklyn Flea launched in Fort Greene in April 2008 and expanded to Williamsburg earlier this year, spawning a standalone artisanal food market called Smorgasburg in the process. The Flea has become the biggest and most-lauded outdoor market in New York City and, according Travel & Leisure, one of the four best in the world.

Jonathan has received honors from the Municipal Art Society, Historic District Council and The Citizens Union for his work in community building and preservation. Prior to starting Brownstoner, Jonathan spent a decade as a journalist, venture capitalist and real estate investor. He has a BA in History from Princeton University and an MBA from NYU's Stern School of Business. He currently resides in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn with his wife and two children.

1:1 with Jonathan Butler

Tonight we're going to talk a lot about designing a life. I remember when I met you Apartment Therapy was a design service on Franklin Street. We were near Totem, which was a fabulous store that you were actually running at the time. Tell us a bit about when you started brownstoner.com and how you did it under that name as you didn't want your boss and co-workers at Merrill Lynch to know what you were doing.

Jonathan:
I started on Wall Street right out of Princeton, and I hated it. So I went into journalism to write about Wall Street, then I went to grad school to find yet another way to get away from finance. I'm the first in four generations to not be an architect - I traveled back to finance time and again to make money, but then I would go and pursue what I really love.

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One day, I walked into Totem and asked them for advice on how to get into design and if they had any pointers. They needed help so I actually started working in the store while in grad school. My final project at Stern (NYU Business School) was to write a business plan for them. We ended up raising $250,000. It was great to put my finance background to work in the design world, but I also knew that I didn't want to work in a store.

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The great thing about Totem was that they promoted good, modern design at a time when it was becoming popular again.

Maxwell:
Was it American, Swedish modern?

Jonathan:
It was really a mix. Their focus was getting good design out to the masses, which was something I could really get behind.

So after working there I went back to finance again, as my first child was on the way in 2002 and I felt the need to make money. At this point, though, I had already started brownstoner.com. As it started to grow, I was asked to speak at conferences and on radio shows. I remember I went to speak at a real estate conference and told my boss at Merrill Lynch that I had an appointment. I went on stage with a wig and sunglasses so no one would recognize me! And they didn't.

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The next time I wasn't so lucky. I spoke on the Brian Lehrer radio show (http://www.wnyc.org/shows/bl/) and, although I didn't use my name during the interview, when I was done my Merrill Blackberry buzzed with a text saying, "your secret's safe with me, mr. b". I freaked out - I was 3 months from getting my yearly bonus, after which I was going to quit, and I thought this was the end. But when I got back to work and got called into my office, all my boss said was, "It's no problem, I have a lot of hobbies as well." He didn't realize how big this website was or what I was doing with it.

Maxwell:
So were you writing at work?

Jonathan:
Oh yeah. I worked in a trading environment so I had two screens. I angled one away from my co-workers so I could write my articles on that one. No one had any idea.

Maxwell:
Nice. So you got your bonus, quit finance, and decided to take on Brownstoner full-time. Did you worry about the practicality of trying to raise a family and gambling on the website's success?

Jonathan:
I hated my job so much that I had to find another option. I left the job with about 7-8 months of money for living expenses so I had planned a bit. It was either quit or leave NYC, and I didn't want to do that.

Maxwell:
How did you know when brownstoner really hit it big? What signs did you have that you were actually making a go of it?

Jonathan:
Well, you guys (Apartment Therapy) announced us when we launched on blogspot, and then Curbed announced us as well. Those two mentions went a long way in terms of putting us on the map. And then I remember taking a week off during the holidays - my last post said something like, "what do you think will be the new hot neighborhood in Brooklyn?" When I returned I found 400 comments on my entry. I couldn't believe it, but I knew that I was on to something.

Maxwell:
So, originally you planned on brownstoner being a local blog, with the idea that you could expand to other cities (brownstoner boston, philly, etc.)?

Jonathan:
Brooklyn always felt like the perfect location. It's big enough to get a good number or readers and sell ads. People who live there really care about Brooklyn. So I decided not to expand to other cities, but to go deeper into local within Brooklyn.

Maxwell:
And that's how you came up with the idea for the Flea?

Jonathan:
Yes. It was October 2007 - I put up a note about launching a local flea market. About 80-90 people signed up to be vendors in the first hour. The response was so great that we were able to choose great vendors and be a fully-formed market on Day 1.

Maxwell:
Seems a bit counter-intuitive in terms of being simple. You decided to go offline to expand into a physical business that's a lot more complicated.

Jonathan:
Actually, it's pretty straightforward. It just takes coordination. And taste. People love the face-to-face interaction, and it also serves the much-needed function of a "town square"-like presence.

Maxwell:
How much does it cost?

Jonathan:
It's $100 for a stall. Food vendors pay a bit more. It's been the same price since we launched.

Maxwell:
And how many vendors do you have?

Jonathan:
About 200.

Maxwell:
Excellent. So how did the Williamsburg location and Smorgasburg develop?

Jonathan:
The nice thing about the internet is that it doesn't cost a lot to try different things. We tried Philadelphia last year and we couldn't even break even, so we closed it down.
When it first started, I searched my local neighborhood for a space to have the Flea. There's an empty Catholic schoolyard that no one uses on the weekends, so it seemed like the perfect spot. I used to write business plans way back in my career, but in this industry they seem pointless. Again, it's inexpensive to try things out. So I did.



Slides

slide11-edited.jpgLike I mentioned, I read Apartment Therapy and Curbed a lot and thought, hey I can do that. They eventually ended up reviewing brownstoner and that really started to get the site noticed.

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This is my house under renovation. My wife and I bought a rundown brownstone in Clinton Hill and renovated the whole thing for about $70/sq. ft. She was pregnant at the time with our second child so we didn't live there during the renovation. Anyway, I documented the renovation on brownstoner - that's basically how I started the site. It really energized the site and gave it a voice.

Maxwell:
And now you feature other people's home renovations.

Jonathan:
Yes. We have two full-time writers. We also just hired Cara Greenberg of casaCARA (http://casacara.wordpress.com/). She'll be writing for us every Thursday (the first post went up September 15, 2011). We also have a Philadelphia architect who is going to start contributing as well.

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slide14-edited.jpg2007 - We used a lot of architectural salvage when renovating our home and I wanted to promote that. So we had a "salvage fest" where 10 dealers came together to market their wares. This was the inspiration for the Flea.

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Site of the Brooklyn Flea (Ft. Greene, Brooklyn).

slide17-edited.jpgThis shows the evolution of our logo for the Flea.

slide18-edited.jpgWhat we launched with.

slide19-edited.jpgCurrent layout.

Maxwell:
Is there any secret to the Flea layout?

Jonathan:
Not really. We do have some city codes we have to follow, but that's about it. On opening day we were told we couldn't write on the ground. We had to have people set up 8'x8' booths and we had no idea how to mark off the spaces. So I went and bought 8 strips of wood from Home Depot.

slide20-edited.jpgThis is our current logo.

The food at the flea is what really makes it a bit different from other markets. We get letters from people all the time from all over wanting to be a part of the Flea.

slide21-edited.jpgOpening Day (2008).

slide22-edited.jpgVarious images of the Flea.

Close to 12,000 vendors have applied to be a part of the Flea. It takes a lot to curate the market and figure out the right balance (hand made furniture, crafts, etc.). At the beginning, we had the hardest time getting traditional antique dealers - the old-timers who don't really go online and some don't even have a cell phone. It took some searching and convincing to get those types of folks to participate. The biggest complaint after opening day was the Flea was too "craftsy", but we slowly expanded.

slide24-edited.jpg2009 - under the Brooklyn Bridget (Martha Stewart's team filmed the event)

slide25-edited.jpgHoliday Market on Lafayette Street.

slide26-edited.jpgLast two winters, indoors at the Williamsburg Savings Bank (Fort Greene, Brooklyn).

slide27-edited.jpgGetting an award from the Municipal Arts Society.

slide28-edited.jpgThe food has become so popular that we were asked to do the concession stands at Summer Stage, which we did this year.

slide29-edited.jpgThe Williamsburg site launched in the Spring of this year.

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Smorgasburg

slide34-edited.jpgBeer concession stands is a good business to be in (good profit). We're having an Oktoberfest Beer Hall under the Manhattan Bridge arch in DUMBO on September 16th.

Maxwell:
So with all of this, it's clear that this is definitely a very personal, family-oriented business. How is it running your website and the Flea and balancing that with family obligations?

Jonathan:
It's great in the sense that if I have to see my kids' play during the day, I can be there. But on the flip side, when you have your own business it's hard to shut off.



Q&A

Question:
How long did you plan your business before launch?

About one hour.

I created brownstoner.com when I was bored at the office. Well wait, maybe it took a little longer. I had to buy the name first, and then I had to create my first post. Honestly, I didn't plan it as a business, I just needed something else to do.

My partner in the Brooklyn Flea is Eric Demby. He came on board one day after I posted about the Flea. He used to be the Communications Director for (Brooklyn Borough President) Marty Markowitz. Again, there's very little downside in this business. You can try things easily and if they don't work, you try something else.

Maxwell:
That's definitely true of blogs. I didn't know the market was fairly easy as well.

Jonathan:
The key is that we have a niche. Many others have tried to start a Flea and didn't succeed. We really curate who sells at the Flea, and that has made the big difference.

Question:
What's it like having a business where you get so much feedback?

At first it was hard because it was a lot more personal, and I took things personally. I've written only a few posts that I probably shouldn't have, but overall, I'm used to the feedback now, good or bad.

In the last couple of years I started an "open thread" on the site for folks who just wanted to chat about anything, not directly related to the posts. I found that there were a handful of people who would hijack posts and just go on and on, so this forum gave them a place to chat about whatever they wanted. I took it down a while ago and man, that was a huge thing.

Maxwell:
Do you have a lot of email to read?

Jonathan:
Yes. In fact, I've had a tormentor for about four years. He goes by the name of "The What".

Question:
I'm curious - so many people start blogs that go nowhere. What's the secret?

You have to remember that I started in 2004, when there were very few blogs out there. And at the time, there wasn't one about Brooklyn at all. Also, I got two existing blogs that were quite large to link to me, which was huge.

I think the important thing is not to expect instant success. I started it so I could have something to do besides my day job, which I hated. Is started calling Merrill Lynch my "venture capital" money. By the time I was ready to go for it and monetize, I was ready. I had passion, and I just needed the volume, which came thanks to mentions on other large blogs spreading the word.

Maxwell:
People like new things. You were the first blog about Brooklyn, and you posted a lot. I think it's also safe to say that if you're doing it for money, people can tell. Passion comes through loud and clear if it's there. Also, it's far better when you stumble upon a really great blog. If you're going to announce your blog to the world, be ready to back it up and continuously post.

Question:
As another business school misfit, I definitely feel a connection with your story. Do you think earlier business ideas may have worked if you could have cultivated a community and following around them like you have with brownstoner and the Flea?

I did try a similar model by starting a newsletter when I was a journalist (1995). The internet was really just starting so that wasn't really an option. So I wrote the newsletter, printed it up, and stuffed envelopes. It was called "Butler's Academic Journal", which contained snippets of data for Wall Street folks. But then I got a scholarship and didn't have the time to keep it going, so I shut it down. I really enjoyed it and probably would have kept it going if I had the confidence to do so, but I didn't really know what to do with it at the time.

Maxwell:
Again, I think this is a good example of starting something because you love it. If the passion's there, the audience will follow.

Question:
Thanks for being here tonight, your story is very inspiring. My question is about Interior Designers & Architects in Brooklyn - what is your relationship with them?

Besides the "Directory" that we have on the site, I don't really have a direct relationship with them. We had some interiors postings but haven't really focused on them in a while.

Maxwell:
Is the directory for real estate listings and vendors? Is it self service?

Jonathan:
Yes. You can put up an ad and even have a full page if you want.

Maxwell:
Has it grown?

Jonathan:
Gradually. We launched about a year or so ago. People really have a sense of trust with the listings, so hopefully it will continue to grow. We're also looking to grow our personalities on the site - as I mentioned, we have two new contributors who will be featured, and we're looking to add more.

* Congratulations to the three winners who received a brownstoner t-shirt! *

• Special thanks to Kayne Elisabeth Rourke for transcribing our Meetup!
• Special thanks to our volunteers, Georgie Hambright and Amy Patrick!
• Images: Apartment Therapy

Thanks to our host and sponsor, ABC Carpet & Home!
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The evening's wines are graciously donated by Sokol Blosser Winery!


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