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The Art Of Creating A Successful Blog – Tips From The Pros
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 successf ul, popular and dare you
hope – prof itable?
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 Huf f ington. She began her online writing career with a
website called Resignation.com, where she burst onto the scene calling f or the resignation of President
Bill Clinton. From the f ounding of T he Huf f ington 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, f ounded in 2008 by Tina Brown and Barry Diller. It eventually
grew and merged with Newsweek to become the “online home” of Newsweek Magazine. T hen there’s the
story of Darren Rowse, one of my f avorite bloggers, who quit his job working as a laborer to try and
earn a living through blogging. He f ounded b5media in 2005 with f ellow bloggers, he f ounded the
extremely popular site ProBlogger, and openly admits that today he comf ortably earns a six- f igure
income through blogging.
It doesn’t end there. You’ve got Gizmodo, Gawker, TechCrunch, Mashable, SmashingMagazine, T MZ, T he
Verge…the list goes on, and I’m sure many readers here have their own personal f avorites.
So, what’s the secret to creating a successf ul blog? How do certain sites do so well, while so many
others f all 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
dif f icult 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 f irst child, my wif e would no longer be working, so we needed income. I attempted to buy and
sell antiques on Ebay to make extra income. That ef f ort was moderately successf ul – I did manage to
establish a Powerseller status with 100% positive ratings – but the work was enormous and the resulting
prof it 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 f or the written word, and the joy created by a well-craf ted 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 f or the joy of it. I loved
craf ting articles, and if I could earn a f ew pennies in the process, all the better.
My story was a long road of countless late nights writing blog entries and articles f or peanuts, and an
endless search f or newer, better-paying clients. Of course, there was also lots and lots of cof f ee.
Probably too much cof f ee.
Fast f orward to 2012. I now write f or one of the top technology blogs on the Internet, I am an editor and
writer f or an educational technology site, and in 2009, I f ounded by own blog called TopSecretWriters –
my f irst endeavor independently publishing my own work, which would provide no immediate income in
return at the start.
No – TopSecretWriters was dif f erent. It wasn’t work. It was less about making money, and more about
having lof ty 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 f riends.
Today, I would consider myself to be a moderately successf ul blogger. I earn a comf ortable income
writing f or 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 f inancial self -suf f iciency. It’s an exciting time.
Considering that I’m about half way up this mountain that so many bef ore me have climbed, I decided to
take a breather and take a closer look at those explorers that have come bef ore – co-f ounders 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
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 successf ul websites on the Internet today.
takes to create and grow popular and extremely successf ul 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 f ocuses holistically on
the entire culture of technology and science in the
world today. Its rise to f ame has been astonishingly
quick – the site was only f ounded in 2011 and began
making it on the top 10 lists shortly thereaf ter.
Joshua Topolsky, co-f ounder and editor-in-chief of
The Verge, agreed to sit down and chat with us about
the f ounding of the Verge, and what he f elt gave it the
ability to grow so quickly, so f ast.
Of course, my f irst 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 f antastic, however, your about page also mentioned a partnership with Vox Media, was that f rom
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 Bankof f , the CEO of SB Nation, decided to f und the f ounding of The Verge, and
in collaboration with him and Marty, they f ounded the site while also creating a new company called Vox
Getting a Seed Investment Will Propel Growth
Of course, in my search f or elements in the f ounding 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-f ocused.
“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 f eedback f rom Joshua made clear is that there is a lot to be said f or how much investment you
have up f ront 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 beautif ul 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. T he stories jump out at you, the layout pops, and the writing is high-quality and clearly
caref ully done. News articles are caref ully researched, and the technology updates are quick and timely.
It was obvious to me, just f rom 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 f elt were the top one or two things that helped T he Verge stay
above the competition? Joshua said that f unding was important, but it became more apparent during the
course of our phone conversation that what lies at the heart of T he Verge’s success is a close-knit,
highly prof essional 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 f irst big story that we
hit on and it was huge?”
Joshua laughed a bit bef ore answering. Af ter 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 perf ect
length f or an article was an average of 600 to 1200 words, and any longer than that you would lose the
What you’ll f ind at The Verge is that while there are certainly plenty of short and quick news entries or
blog updates, you’ll also f ind a great many long-f orm f eatures of well over 2,000 words. Many of them
also f eature huge, beautif ul photos or well-created video clips.
It’s clear that – true to its name – T he Verge is staying right on the verge of the next big thing in
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 dif f erently – 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 f eature of The Verge is that it utilizes its own custom platf orm. 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 platf orm.
Joshua didn’t hesitate to point out that the Vox platf orm was an advantage, not a disadvantage,
because it allows T he Verge team to create in ways that were previously not possible in the f ormer old-
style “blog” f ormat.
“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
Joshua’s approach is actually very unique in today’s “search-f ocused” world of blogging, where bloggers
are constantly tracking their page stats and looking f or 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 beautif ul, the readers will
“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
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 f rom talking with Joshua was the importance of thinking big and
stepping outside of the box – going outside the comf ort zone. It’s certainly easy f or 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 dif f erent.
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.” T hat’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-f ounder of
the ever-popular technology blog – in f act one of the
leading web-design blogs on the Internet – Smashing
The rise of Smashing Magazine wasn’t quite as f ast as
The Verge. It was f ounded in 2006 by Sven Lennartz
and Vitaly Friedman. T he site has been a f avorite f or
web designers f rom the very start, but it also does
f ocus on other areas of technology like sof tware and
web tool reviews.
Much like MakeUseOf , Smashing Magazine has a staf f
that spans the globe and comes f rom many dif f erent
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
So, it was a real honor to talk with Vitaly Friedman about what he f elt made Smashing Magazine such a
Growing a Site from Scratch
I started the interview asking Vitaly about the f irst year that he and Sven f ounded Smashing Magazine,
and what their hopes and dreams were f or the site.
and what their hopes and dreams were f or 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 f ounded 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 f or creativity and design. IncomeDiary listed it as the 5th best income-earning blog on the
From that f irst day, to the success of 2012, what would you say went as expected, and what turned out
completely dif f erent 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
If You Build It, T hey Will Come…Eventually
Was there a lot of up- f ront investment and loss required to get that early growth started? Can you share
at what point that Smashing Magazine became prof itable, and what that f elt 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
Here, Vitaly describes a completely dif f erent path to success, not much unlike that of MakeUseOf , in
f act. No major external investment, just a couple of guys working had at building the site f rom 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 of f er start-up bloggers out there some tips and
advice about what it really takes to build a successf ul 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
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 f ew
years. What I love about these two successes is that their paths to get there are so dif f erent.
In the one case, you have a site that grew to f ame in less than three years, with strong f inancial 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 dif f erent 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 T he Verge?
When you’re talking success, and just taking these two success stories into account, it looks like there
are three major f actors.
The f irst is writing about what you love. The Verge editors lef t one place to launch a new site in a f ormat
and style that they loved. Vitaly and Sven f ocused on a niche that they loved to write about.
The second is quality. Joshua explained that T he Verge had an expert team of editors f rom day one –
of f ering a major advantage in quality f rom 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
Finally, the third element is f inding a way to be unique and new. Vitaly describes the value of getting a
f oothold into a niche of your own and then growing your position there. Joshua describes the
importance of getting away f rom the “old way” of doing things, and instead allowing yourself to get into
uncomf ortable places, to experiment with new things.
Both of these stories – that of T he Verge and of Smashing Magazine – are success stories, but what’s
important to remember is that they are also very dif f erent 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. T he only question is what you believe is important enough to write
about, and then make it happen.
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Ryan Dube is a f reelance writer and Electrical Engineer and SEO expert. His writing f ocuses
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