Interview: How Freshome Dominated A Niche And Made 12M Pageviews Monthly
Freshome.com a well-known architecture and design blog gets about 12 million pageviews, 4 million of those unique a month, has over 500,000 FB fans, dominates the Technorati list and is an inspiration oasis for articles on Forbes, CNET or Yahoo News.
We interviewed Mihai, founder and blogger of freshome, to ask him about how he got the blog started, the techniques he used to expand the blog’s readership, how he got ahead of the competition, plus tips and advice he has to share with new bloggers today.
Can you give us a bit about your background, and what led you to blogging?
I went to The Electronics and Telecommunications College and left it after the first year. I now run freshome.com, a design-focused blog, which I started during my first year in college. After a few months the website started to grow and I’ve decided to focus full time on it. That was in 2007, when I was 20.
How did you come up with the idea of your blog?
I wanted a dream house, so I started checking out different sites for inspiration. I started finding different ideas for furniture and interior design stuff and I noticed that the guys running those sites were actually doing it as a business. I thought hey, I could do it too. So it all started with me trying to imagine my dream house.
I really didn’t knew how it should look, so I was trying to clarify that. The idea was to identify what I wanted to fill it with and how much that would cost. For example, if I knew that my entire dream house and all the stuff in it would cost $200,000, I could then devise a step-by-step plan on how to obtain that. I could have my dream house!
You could say that I wanted to construct my own ‘Dream House’ board, but Pinterest didn’t exist back then, so I created freshome instead. At first I thought about just having a local folder on my PC with all those pictures, but that wouldn’t work because I couldn’t access it from any other place, so that’s why I did it online.
How did the blog fare at first? Was it profitable right away?
Well, yes. We did make some money in the first month. Something like 2 dollars. I know, that’s not that impressive! The second month, we made 50 dollars.
What can you share with us about building a blog?
Hmm, thing is, the Internet is so much more useful than most people realize. The information needed to create something like freshome or any other online business is there for anyone. You just need to find the right questions. After you find out what those questions are, type them in Google and start sifting through the information.
Typing ‘how to increase my blog’s traffic’ or ‘how to monetize my blog’ in Google actually works! Yes, you’ll find some bogus info, but if you put the time in, you’ll find somebody out there who is answering your question. It sounds simple because it really is. That’s how I grew.
I first ran a WordPress site, with little to no optimization. Then I found out more by just continuously asking the right questions.
Weren’t you scared of never catching up?
Nope, I don’t think like that. That thought didn’t even occur to me.
What’s your daily routine now for running the site?
The site isn’t on auto-pilot. I carry the weight for different updates, ad optimization and sales. I don’t see anyone replacing me yet. There’s no fixed schedule, I couldn’t say how much I work daily, but I would say it’s more than a normal 9 to 5 job.
Techniques for growth
How did you get traffic at first?
Most of the initial traffic was coming from search engines. I quickly implemented analytics and saw that. I also posted on digg and StumbleUpon. Slowly, Google started indexing me. Somebody searching for ‘blue furniture’ might stumble onto freshome, although I was only on page 5 or 6 of the search results.
Could you share other techniques you used?
Yeah, I started optimizing my Google Adsense, and introduced it to my interior pages, not just on the homepage. Noticed where the CTR (click-through-rate) was biggest and focused on those areas. Changed the ad colors and ad dimensions to improve the overall CTR.
I just kept my eye on what my analytics told me. Besides that, I started learning SEO and applying some on-page optimizations for better search traffic to my individual articles.
What do you think about new bloggers practically copying the ad placement, dimensions and colors from a big player in his own niche i.e. emulating the entire site? Since the big player has already done the required research or hired somebody else to do it.
Yes, that’s somewhat of a usual practice. Tested ideas tend to work, so that’s one route you could take. But don’t forget to do your own tests and adjust accordingly after you’ve started emulating someone.
You’re not a native English speaker. Why not create a local blog with the same content?
That’s an easy one. I just wanted to aim an international market. There’s no sense in limiting your audience!
When did you get your ‘aha-I’m-onto-something-big here’ moment?
I was away on vacation for 10 days, about 6 months after starting the site. That was the first prolonged period of time that the site wasn’t updated. When I got back, I saw numerous e-mails from readers, asking me if I’d quit. That’s when I saw real potential.
As for turning it into a business, I guess you could say freshome became more than just a one man blog the day I started working with my current Web Chief Editor, Lavinia Patrascu. She contacted me after being a reader for some time and asked me if I needed help. That was about 2 years into it.
What did freshome have that got ahead of other similar design blogs?
I would say it’s our modern, contemporary style. We only present houses that we love and know are part of that specific architectural niche. It’s similar to music or clothes. If you like a certain brand or listen to a specific type of music, you’re usually loyal to that. You don’t easily switch to something else. The architectural and interior design world is similar.
Our users love our contemporary, modern style. That’s how we grew that core, loyal user base. I think that’s also why the site is a success. Ever since the beginning, I’ve posted only stuff I personally like. I went with my guts. And then other folks seemed to like the same things I liked, so they became readers.
Starting a blog today
If you were 20 again, would you start over in this space, today, in the midst of the fierce competition?
Well, I think I would need much more resources than I did in 2007 (when I initially started). For me, I would say, starting then meant I had perfect timing – blogs were gaining authority. If you started a blog back then, you didn’t have to worry about mobile versions, tablet versions, profiles on dozens of social networks.
Nowadays, running a blog requires you to be present on a large number of sites, having original content, commenting, responding to e-mails from readers, running different profiles on social networks. That’s a lot of work.
You can do it if you have a solid budget. If you don’t have money to invest, at least make sure you have a great team, made up of people who can help each other.
So to answer your question, no, I wouldn’t start over. Today there are better opportunities, especially in the mobile world. It wouldn’t be wise for me to invest in blogging today when you have areas in which those resources would be put to far better use and enojoy a faster growth. I always try to find a rising industry.
Let’s say you do start afresh, if not an architectural/interior design area, what niche would you write about? And how would you promote the site?
For a specific niche, I’d need to do some research first. For promoting the site, I’d pretty much use the same arsenal I’ve used before. Networking would be a big part. I’d try to comment, message and e-mail all the big players in my chosen niche. Those people are the ones who can help you grow, because they already have the ‘eyeballs’ you need. Building that inner circle of powerful blogs and publications is crucial.
If your readers are looking to my for automated solutions, please note I won’t recommend any. Long term, they all fail. Don’t try tricking the search engines or your readers. You’ve got to be real. If you want to build a real brand that is!
Also, about the niche… I’d like to point out that, if you’re doing your job right, most niches can be profitable. What matters is reporting relevant news, doing it daily, with an original voice and being patient.
Last Word Of Advice
Any last thoughts? Any advice for our freelancers who would like to start their own business?
Well, if you’re a freelancer wanting to become an entrepreneur, start with a ‘transition business’. For example, if you’re a designer, you can easily stop selling your time for money and instead go to themeforest.net, where you can transform your skill into a passive income by creating and selling themes. That’s one example of a ‘transition business’.
All freelancers need to think about transforming their specific skills into a business. Some freelance writers might start a blog, that would come natural. Some designers might go into product creation or product design and start a design agency selling those services. A coder who knows iOS could work with a designer and create a cool app. There is no magic formula to attend to. You just need to make the most out of your own individual skills acquired in your freelancing career.
Images courtesy of freshome.com.