July Memo - Chapter 4

July Memo - Chapter 4

Maxwell Ryan
Jul 21, 2014

JUNE 2014 Stats

The Kitchn

12,500,000 (record for 2014) up 9% from May
up 77% from June 2013

Comscore rank: 15 of all Food Sites

Apartment Therapy

down 9% from May
up 4% from June 2013

Comscore rank: 11th of all Home Sites


Visiting IKEA last month, I was amazed at how organized and inspired all the folks I met were – not in a “I just drunk the Cool Aid” way, but in a thoughtful way. They were excited about their work. All of them seemed to have digested the mission and values of IKEA and made them their own in their own way. While Ingvar Kamprad may have been the founder, the biggest thing he has done for his company is to instill it with a mission and values that are being carried on, EVEN THOUGH the way they work, what they design and where they sell has totally changed over the years.

When Ingvar started IKEA at the age of 17 in 1943, he sold matches and then pens to neighboring farmers in Smaland. Furniture came later. His original innovation was an efficient mail order business that used the local milk truck (which visited every farm each day) to deliver items to his customers. The milk truck was reliable and safe, and at 17 that was all he could afford. His original concept was that he always aimed to sell people what they needed in their homes at a price that they could afford. To be certain that he knew what they needed or that his products were good enough, he visited his customers at home, asked questions and saw for himself.

Out of this came a culture of constant innovation, improvement and STICKING to the needs of the customer.

When my brother was in business school he told me that he was taught that when you solve a real problem for someone, you have a real business. Everything else is shaky.

On my second day at IKEA I visited the Billy Bookcase factory about three hours north of the main offices. Run by a family that’s been working with IKEA since 1952, they have been making the Billy for decades. Among the many things I saw and heard, two data points stood out.

One: Billy has been redesigned over a dozen times since it’s inception to make it better or address weaknesses that they either weren’t aware of or couldn’t solve using their existing technology at the time. Even a simple bookcase that looked identical could be improved over time, and all of the changes originated with visiting customers at home and gathering feedback.

Two: Billy costs the same this year as it did in 1980. Working together, IKEA designers and this family company have been able to improve Billy while keeping the retail price the exact same over THIRY FOUR years. This is a remarkable feat, because life is not cheaper now than it was in 1980, and, as a result, the bookcase has grown into an international business all by itself.

Which got me thinking. Ingvar Kamprad doesn’t know how to build a bookcase, nor does he know how to run the modern machinery that make these bookcases now. It’s COMPLICATED. What he does know is how to keep everyone focused on the goal and how to remind them of how a bookcase fits into it AND has to keep changing in order to KEEP fitting into it.

1. Leadership

Which got me thinking about what it means to be a captain, leader or a good manager of people. This applies to me, but it also filters down and applies to everyone else in different ways.

On a ship, the captain can’t actually make the boat move, nor can he cook for the team or even always tend to the steering wheel. The true value that the captain brings is in constantly knowing the direction the boat needs to sail in and the stars it needs to follow. A good captain keeps his (or her) eyes fixed on the destination and steers around bad weather and takes advantage of good.

Leadership is about always knowing what’s next, which isn’t always that easy to do when you’ve either achieved your basic goals, the sea changes, or you get so caught up in the day to day that you forget the big picture.

So here’s our big picture, and it’s not so much about being a business or a media company as it is about taking a position of leadership and being a company where the goal is a process: to consistently improve our work, keep our reader’s needs top of mind and not get overly caught up in the specific things we are making each day.

2. Connect. Curate. Inspire.

At Apartment Therapy and The Kitchn we have always been curators and connectors, helping people make their homes and life at home better. We connect people with problems to people with solutions. Our role is inherently social in that we are agents of change, lighting fires for people and helping them source, find, do, think about and get things done.

We are not retailers. We are not designers. We are not manufacturers.

What we provide is information in the form of words, recipes, instructions, photographs, videos – anything that will help point the way to getting inspired, getting it done or inspiring others.

We are not limited by style, location or even price point (though we know our readers are generally younger and price point sensitive).

We have a perspective, however, that is youthful, healthy, optimistic and for doing the right thing whenever possible.

We believe in a good life, that we can improve our lives and that the effort is worth it.

3. Excellence

While I’ve always been ambitious and aspirational, I’ve had a very uneasy relationship to the word excellence. Perhaps this is from having bad experiences with it being tossed around during my school years, or thinking that excellence was a top of a mountain or a place you reached or a perfect moment you achieved. To me, excellence was a blue ribbon that one person in the class got and all the rest wanted or didn’t care about.

Visiting IKEA I saw excellence in a different light. Excellence to them means always trying to meet the needs of their customers and doing it in specific way where they meet certain requirements around function, price, environmentalism, etc. For them excellence is a constant pursuit and it’s always tied to knowing their customers better than anyone. And since the world and the customer is always changing, they are always going to be changing. Excellence is never thinking you’re done.

When I was finishing my tour of the Billy factory, I found myself thinking about the family who owned the factory and who had hosted me on this tour. What they were doing was much bigger than making bookshelves in a building in Sweden, and they knew it. They had been in a partnership with IKEA for over sixty years pursuing the same goal and they had learned and changed so much that factory owners from other parts of the world now visited them to see how they worked.

When I asked them what would happen if the Billy Bookcase stopped selling, they were not worried. They would make something else (and they would make it better than anyone else). Their excellence wasn’t in bookcases. Their excellence was in how to make things our of wood really, really well. That’s something much more exciting to get out of bed for each morning.

I like this approach and I like it for us, because it is inherently social and it aspires to connection with others as opposed to creating some version of the world that is only in reference to oneself.

4. Our Product Range

So what are we makers of?

We make two things: content that sits inside of posts and the software or delivery system with which it reaches our readers. Simply put, one is the nicely designed bookshelf and the other is the catalog and milk truck that gets it there. Unlike print media, we have to always be thinking along both lines, and improving both every day.

Editorial Range

On the editorial side our job is:

  1. Evaluating all of our content
  2. Improving the good to great ones
  3. Removing those that underperform
  4. Designing new content that meets our readers needs even better

To do this we need to be devilish in measuring all the posts we publish and brutal in our assessment of what is and is not working for our readers. We need to use all of our software measurement tools (GA, Parsley, Curalate, etc), monitor email and comments, and - I’d like to initiate – home visits as well. I want to start regularly visiting our readers at home and finding out what they love and don’t love about our sites.

Editorially we also need to always be thinking about our “content range”, which is similar to IKEA’s expanding into whole kitchens after furniture, and recently moving into paper products for the holidays. The range is very important as it is the only way – if you are doing other things well – to grow your usefulness to your readers and your business. Your range is the broad front on which you meet your customers’ needs.

I have talked about this already and both teams are looking at expanding their content range. We’ve already expanded a great deal, but there are still new categories, new editorial products and international readers to consider.

Our excellence will be measured in how good a job we do in staying in touch with our reader’s needs and continually meeting them.

One example here is moving into clothing and fashion on the Apartment Therapy side so that readers have guidance in finding great basic elements that extend from their home style. Another example could be developing rich City Guides on The Kitchn side so that readers know what markets and restaurants to visit to learn more about good food.

Technical Range

On the technical side our job is similar, but much more wide open because so much of what is happening right now is dependent on reader’s devices and never been done before. We need to:

  1. Measure the effectiveness of our technical products (galleries, feature towers, email, etc)
  2. Improving the good to great ones
  3. Removing those that underperform
  4. Design new products that meet our readers needs even better

This is a particularly exciting because I think it’s a huge growth area and we are perfectly poised to discover what our readers need more than others.

Our “technical range” extends from how our posts are written, to how they’re displayed, to how our readers interact with them and share them after. It focuses on the movement and discoverability of the items that the editorial team puts together.

For the past two years we’ve been engaged in “unlocking our content” through work on image archiving, page design and search. The next phase that we’re about to enter is “empowering our community” through providing more tools for our readers to interact, share and store our content. An example of this is creating a notifications system for comments so that you know when someone has replied to you (Ramin’s on this right now). Another could be a forum for reader questions which allows them to be answered by other readers 24 hours a day, the best of which we pull to the front page.

Beyond this phase, I have been aiming to return to “database building” which would focus on organizing the pieces of our content in ways that were more useful to readers, such as photo galleries of specific rooms, product and store databases what would tie relevant posts together and form useful hubs around this content so readers could find things more easily.

But right now I would say that any specific ideas beyond the present are all up in the air. What we need to do next is check in with our readers and have a system for knowing how excellently we are doing that goes far beyond monthly uniques (though it will be tied to it, I'm sure!).


With this memo I want to ask all of you to think about what you’re making and how you determine whether it is doing a great job. I’m going to ask Janel, Faith, Scott, Chris and Alena to think about how to take the feedback we currently receive and present it during our quarterly reviews in August. Then I want us to take that and add to it over the next six months so that we’re moving forward with a strong sense of what is really useful to our readers and what they use, read or refer to again and again.

By the end of this year I want the whole full time team to all have a sense of the range of what we make as well as how it all performs for our readers. Then we’re going to fit our new ideas together with what we’re learning to craft really strong new editorial and technical products that will surprise and delight.

I am going to personally oversee this, and I’m also going to test a number of home visits to see what can be learned the old fashioned way, just like our friends did in 1943 and still do to this day.*

Thanks for reading through this lengthy memo, please send any feedback, and speak to you next month.

Best, M

IKEA just released a new web based report, called Life At Home, which is something we would be proud of. It features data (focused on morning activities) from roughly 1,000 respondents from each of eight world cities: Berlin, London, Moscow, Mumbai, New York, Paris, Shanghai and Stockholm. You can view it here:


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