March 2019 Memo: Destinations Not Exporters

published Mar 1, 2019
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Dear Team,

Two months ago in my January Memo I promised a transformation in the company that would take place over the course of this year. That has begun with the identification of our weaknesses in brand, mobile and diversity of revenue. It has begun with the stripping down of priorities and the application of constant focus on our objectives that pull us through each week, month and quarter. But there is something missing. OKRs alone will not transform this company, and I can tell from the pace of work and our collective energy level that business as usual is still largely in place.

Entrepreneurs, by their nature, like to work alone in tight, closed loops, and that’s what I did for a number of years at the beginning when we were just a few people. Back then, while the product was crude compared to what we’re capable of today, it was also raw and clear in its connection to audience and in the service it was delivering. As the company grew, I felt it was my duty to let go of that control and delegate as much as possible to talented people would would drive their departments forward and take us to the next level.

To a large extent that has happened, but it created a new problem. We are a talented organization that has had many successes and put up with our fair share of battles, but we’ve grown like a wild garden, with a number of talent centers, each pushing along their product and doing their best to align to a greater shared vision. There has been no clear coherence. We’ve been throwing stuff against different walls.


Because there’s been no leader to constantly expound on the vision, to give notes and direction and make sure that we were not only rowing in the same direction, but aiming higher than anyone thought he or she could aim. Yes, I’ve done this to a certain extent, but I haven’t been deeply connected to the task for many reasons. I have been averse to conflict, desirous of keeping people happy, and not entirely sure of the path forward because I couldn’t feel it. I have been disconnected from myself on a fundamental level and overly cautious as digital media got increasingly complex.

Since last year when my mother passed away and I had to deal with real financial hardship at Apartment Therapy that I hadn’t had to deal with in a long time, things slowly have begun to change. Transformation has to come from within and since January I’ve felt it in a very real way. It is time for me to step up into a new role in which I truly guide the company as a unifying single point of leadership. It is going to mean staying deeply connected to the overall vision of Apartment Therapy Media and making sure that everyone else does too. It is going to mean more conflict as we break bad habits and reshape the way we work and things we are working on. It is going to mean that most of you will be inspired on a level that you haven’t experienced before and some of you may be miserable, but in the end of the day it is the company that is the most important thing and it will be transformed, allowing it to Own the Home.

We Are a Destination, Not an Exporter

The first big thing we all need to understand is that we we are in the business of making and distributing only four products each of which represents a unique destination:

(Image credit: Maxwell Ryan)

This is what we do. This is it. Everything runs into and out of these four points and they are our touchpoints with the world. We have not been thinking this way and they have not been taken care of properly.

Because of the disaggregation of the web and the proliferation of referral sources – Google, Facebook, Pinterest, Flipboard, etc – we’ve abandoned our homebase and chased our audience all over the web, playing into the hands of those referral companies that want to control and monetize our audience rather than send us traffic or help us build our company. We need to think differently. We need to make our four products destinations that deliver real value that cannot be found anywhere else on the web. We need to rebuild our company around stronger frontpage and inside pages that are useful and represent our own world and our own vision. We have to cease being merely a content producer that makes great things and then exports them like Irish children, rarely to return home. We will never win this way.

Does this mean that we won’t distribute our content? NO, of course we will, but we will do so from a stronger base – a mother ship that is where all the action truly is and not just a cloud based archive of old stuff. When people are directed back to our site from another platform they will experience something that makes them want to stay, engage more and return directly often.

To see how big this problem is (and it’s not ours alone), think about how you consume content on the web. There is “snacking on content” and there are “destinations.”

There is a great deal that you run across and snack on as you bounce around looking for instruction, information, inspiration or a shop. Broadly speaking, news and content sites have all been sucked into this web of aggregation and promiscuous consumption. And then there are the destinations, the places you go to because that’s where the action is and you don’t want to go anyplace else. Instagram is a perfect example. You’re on the train, you’re killing time and you want to see what’s going on in your Instagram world, so you click on the app on the front of your phone and spend the next twenty minutes in Instagram World checking out your friends as well as the other websites you like that publish there (Note: Instagram content can’t be found anywhere else. You have to go there for the experience). And you get all you need, because in order to compete in this new world we’ve created more and more surfacy content that can be easily enjoyed by simply looking at a picture and reading a few words. We’ve all been playing their game.

Obviously, Facebook does this and Google, to the extent that we all use search continuously throughout the day, is a destination, and there are scarily only a few content publishers that are real destinations. The New York Times on mobile or desktop is a must read if you want to seriously follow the news, Wikipedia is a go to for quick research on anything, but if you look at your phones, I would bet you out of all the apps you have loaded to your homescreen, less than five are publishers strictly speaking. Maybe none. Why? Because content can be found all over the web and we’ve gotten used to it being attached or collected up in one of our aggregation destinations. In addition, most content is rarely unique in value and publishers offer no other utility to make their sites destinations worth starting from.

To be a viable destination on the web, you have be more than a storyteller. You have to be a curator and an architect of your own world, and one that is worth coming to directly because not only do you curate, you add real feature value, like being able to share, save, comment, collect, message, organize or build.

When I began, the purpose of blogs was very simple and clear – we’d read all the stuff that was going on that day and link to it. Occasionally we’d put up original content in the form of a photograph we’d taken, some research we’d done, or a story we’d overheard, but by and large we saw our job as curating the world and making sense of all the stuff flying around the web. We made meaning out of meaninglessness and then we built on that by providing guidance, instruction and connection to resources, and the comments down below were a good 50% of our content as well. There was often more good information and activity in the comments (which isn’t to say there weren’t awful, grumpy trolls back then. There were. But we diligently banned them and courted the best commenters to keep things healthy). Simple blogs were the original aggregators, but it wasn’t fancy. People visited their entire “blog roll” to see what was going on in the world that day. That role of “curation” has been stolen away by the aggregators.

Additionally, over the years we’ve pulled back on linking to other sites and truly curating because we’ve felt a need to be original, wanted people to link to us, and also because copyright issues meant you couldn’t point to another sites images easily anymore, even if you sent them tons of traffic. In addition, we’ve focused heavily on optimizing our content for other platforms – we’ve dressed up our children better and better so that they’d do better when sent away. We’ve also downplayed the importance of our local audience, turned commenting into a problem when it was an asset, and not built any features to make it more attractive to come to our sites rather than read us on Facebook. In other words, we’ve sent all our children away, we’ve let other platforms build great web features, while our own house has been left unattended.

Starting in this month, we’re going to begin to rethink our entire assembly line of production and invest in our four products so they become destinations and the places all of our content springs from and invites back to. Our front pages (and every page is a front page) have to become so useful that people want to start their day there. We have to impress people when they walk in our door. Our inside pages have to become as useful as our frontpage and lead them back to start again. And everything has to tie together into one seamless, integrated package – one continuous user experience. We have to work a lot harder at the site level.

We will create four divisions, but each will work closely with the others in order to create one seamless experience.

(Image credit: Maxwell Ryan)

(Community doesn’t exist yet and you may note that Revenue is not represented here. That is because Revenue enters into this after these four are established and running strongly. It then infuses itself throughout the system)

And the goals of ALL of them will be very clear:

(Image credit: Maxwell Ryan)

(Note this is not a one to one image correlation. Edit and Video and Commerce will all look to Inspire, Teach and Connect, with Commerce more on the Connection side and Edit and Video more on the Inspire and Teach side).

This is our challenge: to create through our websites the tools and information that people need to make their homes their best selves. We have to connect our desire to communicate and to inspire and to teach with digital products that take it further than reading on a screen.

I want Apartment Therapy Media to be the emotional center of life at home.

To begin to think differently, there are a few things that we’re going to do right away to help us wrap up this quarter:

  1. We’ve already begun to publish month Letters from the Editor to form a direct link to our audience. The second edition goes out Monday.
  2. We’re going to launch a video Keynote Presentation twice a year (Spring & Fall) beginning with next month, April 4th, which I will host and which will present the full slate of our improvements, product and content launches. It will be a produced 3-5 minute segment that allows us to let our audience (and clients) further behind the curtain, as well as generating excitement for what we’ve done. These two dates will also be moments we push for. Right now, I see us presenting:
  3. We launched a two hour weekly Product Design Leaders meeting this week, which will fill the gap of pulling together design across the company. It will oversee fixes and improvements to make sure they are perfect as well as being a workshop where we can experiment with new things based on the input that comes in from all other departments.
  4. The first meeting of our Advisory Council, which kicks off next week with presentations from the Executive Council and will meet four times this year.

During the next thirty one days we’ll be pushing hard to reach the objectives we set out for ourselves in January. We’ll evaluate our hits and misses and reset our sights for the next ninety days. Along the way I’d like you all to think about this memo, and prepare to shift our understanding of what we make from individual posts and videos and off platform pushes to four beautiful, seamless, engaging website destinations that radiate outwards and pull people back again and again, helping them make their lives at home more beautiful, organized and healthy.

Best, M