N.B This is the unedited transcript of the interview.
Can you introduce yourself?
Yes, Sir. My name is Vitaly Friedman. I was born in 1985. 10 years ago I moved to Germany and studied computer science informatics. Then through typography I kind of dived into book design and did some freelance design first. Then we jumped to writing about web design, then finally in 2006 founded Smashing magazine. I’m still there. I’m still the Editor and Chief there.
You built a ridiculous archive, a ridiculous resource, for web designers, hackers, people that want to learn about the new things on the web, correct?
I hope so. The thing is, we didn’t think about it that way because we were just thinking about creating something that we both could use. We just wanted to create something that we could use as designers ourselves. There was no resource to tap into all in one place. We thought, “Okay. Let’s create one.” Of course, over time, this has grown.
Now how do you determine what to publish?
I’m a fan of two things. I’m a fan of creative skills and I’m a fan of organization. It’s very interesting to see how both can be combined to create a very interesting and effective workflow. We actually plan two weeks ahead. For example, I know exactly what will be published in a week or so. There’s a lot of playing going on behind the scenes. We’re working with many writers and many, proofreaders and expert panel reviewers and so on just to make sure that we have more or less a perfect schedule for the next two weeks.
We use Google spreadsheets and all our proofreaders have access to it. Whenever we do some changes to plan, everybody knows, “Okay. This article needs to be done. This part here is to stay,” which means it needs to be proofread until then and reviews need to be done or finished on them as well.
How did you go about building the team in Smashing Magazine? I know you have a lot of contributors and writers on-board. Initially it as just you and your friend, correct? Then how did you grow it to where you had people willing and begging to be part of Smashing Magazine?
It’s a long story really.
We’ll cut the story. What did you learn from that?
What I can tell you is a crucial point, one event I think 2008 we launched a guest writer contest. We invited people to contribute. Then we gave away Apple Mac Pro. It actually helped us drive professional contributors, to us.
We also gained a couple of guest writers at this point, later actually, but the main point for us a year and half ago was when we decided to move away from that and move to inviting writers. We have all the invites on the system right now. If people want to write for us, they need to pass a couple of really huge barriers for that. Most of the time we come to writers and ask them to write for us.
The catalyst was this competition for the Mac Book.
Yes. It’s helped a lot, actually not the competition itself because we didn’t get many good writers right out of that but it kind of drove attention to us and to the content and that were actually hiring writers and we’re working as writers.
If I came to you and said, “I want to do what Smashing magazine has achieved but in a different space. I want to take a similar approach to Smashing magazine but write about fashion.” What would be a good business model?”
Good question. I think if you really emphasize the quality of your work and you consistently work on that for say at least half a year, at least a year, then you will find success. You will find people who will come to you and who respect you for what you do. For example, I see a lot of people, a whole lot of people, who are try to set up their blog or magazine, whatever it is. Then a couple of months later, maybe just a month later, it’s done. It’s gone. It’s not up there.
There’s nothing being done but if you really said, “I’m in fashion. I want to create a magazine about that. I want to publish let’s say once a week,” then go ahead and do it at least a year. Commit yourself to doing it at least a year. After a year you’ll see if it works or not but you have good chances that if you find a nice niche, then it will work out for you.
The ebooks you sold, why did they not live up to expectations?
That’s an interesting question. Maybe it’s because books are quite difficult. We tried to do different things. We try to create ebooks specifically with exclusive content. We try to create ebooks, which basically reduces the content that we already published but without advertising and that’s better prepared for ebook reading. It was really interesting to see. If you have exclusive content, it doesn’t sell better than if you’re just reviewing the contents you have but right now we’re in a position where we can say, “ebooks are okay but it doesn’t really bring as much revenue as we hoped it would be bringing us.”
What’s the ratio between advertising and ebook? What percentage? How much advertising?
Our ebooks are really small.
Less than 10 percent?
Let’s talk about perception and how people maintain an image of Smashing magazine and how you're going about changing that and why you want to change that as well. Is that challenging? In the sense that you launched something. Now you’re trying to do something different?
Yes, it’s been very challenging. I’m talking with many people. It’s kind of what I do. Every single time I’ve talked with them and we start talking about Smashing Magazine one of the first words that come to their mind is design roundups. This is true because this is what we started with but the thing is that we have developed Smashing magazine so far over the last three years, it’s completely different right now. For me personally if you think about 50 beautiful designs, that’s not always helpful because they don’t say much about the design process.
You basically just go with pictures, which don’t say anything. At the beginning we did. It drove us a lot of traffic. Probably also this was the reason why we got popular at the time with css effects and stuff like that. Over time, we understood that we also have responsibility for the community. We changed the whole format of the Smashing magazine but the problem was we still had this image for doing roundups in 2006.
Basically if you start something new, you always need to be aware that even years after that, maybe five, six, seven years after that, if you are successful and still have what you started with, people will remember that. I don’t want people to see Smashing magazine as a magazine for roundups because we are much more than that, but it’s really difficult and challenging for me and for us as a brand to change that right now.
Tell me about the scene behind Smashing magazine. I understand that you have these creative breakouts. First of all, for those listening now how beneficial is that for their company or their start-up to have these creative breakouts?
I think they’re extremely important. I think we have come to the point where people, our co-workers, are encouraged to have side projects. It helps a lot.
In what way?
Meaning that they’re really getting creative besides what they’re doing for Smashing magazine. It’s not like they’re doing what I expect them to do but instead they’re really encouraged to propose their own ideas, their thoughts and their interpretations of certain things. They’re really playing the game. It’s not like they are building stuff and then it’s done but they’re really playing the game. They want to improve things. They want to be a part of it.
It’s really important to make sure that we have a team in general. There’s a manager here in the company that says that it’s important to have a team, which really works nicely together where people can interact, where they can get creative both in terms of the work they’re doing but even behind that and beyond that.
How many people visit Smashing magazine every day?
It depends, of course. What I can tell you is that we have I think 11.6 million view a month. It’s about 6 million a week.
How do you get to that level where Smashing Magazine’s at where people are returning to your site frequently?
It’s a very simple formula actually. You just need to be consistent. You need to deliver a relevant and quality product. People who know me know that I’m not always a pleasure to work with, that I’m a perfectionist. I’m paying a lot of attention to small details and to making sure that things are right. Just recently I read an article about Carl Myer I think who suggested this idea of relentless high-end quality. I like this idea lot because this is what I’m standing for.
When I create something or produce something even when an article’s published, there is my name behind it. I want to be proud of it. I want to be proud of every single detail in it. I want people to see it and appreciate the work that’s been done for that. Again, consistency’s crucial. I think if you want to create something, you want to build something really good, and then you need to take time. You need to be patient. You need to be consistent.
Commit to six months, one year. Just get it done. Even if you go further and publish a statement and say, “Okay, guys. I’m doing it for one year. Here’s what I’m going to do. Here is why and how I’m going to do it,” then people will respect that. They’ll appreciate your honesty and your sincerity. Then maybe they will get back to you or maybe they will want to join you on whatever it is. I think that’s really, really important and often underrated.
I definitely agree with you about the point about being really consistent and yes, stick it out for a year.
This really drives me crazy because I see many people who want to do things. They have excellent ideas but then when it comes to execution of those ideas, they get distracted or other things come into play. You need to take that idea when you have it, frame it, make it work, make it alive and make it real. Actually, there’s a big difference between just an idea and a big, successful project.
When did you start realizing that you were onto something?
It was actually I think 2009 maybe. Yes, 2009.
Three years later.
Yes. Three years later I realized that what we were doing has an impact. That people are reading us. That we had a responsibility for people for web developers and web designers in the community to actually rely on us. We have useful information and relevant information. We promote best practices. They would come to us because they know that what you write is at least of a good quality.
When did you focus on it with all your heart? When was it a full-time endeavor?
Actually it was back in 2007 or 2008, the end of 2007 when we realized that we could actually earn money with advertising.
How do you negotiate with advertisers?
It’s a dark hole. The thing is we have an advertising team where my colleagues take care of that. I don’t know it, how exactly it works but most of the time we have a certain rate card, which clearly states, “This is what we have to offer for you. Here you go. Just figure out what works for you. Maybe we can negotiate a bid,”.
I think it’s also crucial to understand that if you’re working manually with advertisers, it’s much, much different than if you are using automated services like Biso ads. For us, we haven’t tried Biso ads but what we can state from numbers that manually it’s much, much better.
Because you build a relationship with them. We’re calling them. We are Skyping with them. They know exactly what they’re working with. We’re more flexible in terms of which kind of advertising we can offer. In the end they’re ready to pay more money if you are ready to talk with them directly and really discuss what they need and how we can help them.
You said you’re a perfectionist. How do you set that standard within the culture?
This is a huge, difficult process actually. This is why many writers hate me personally. I’m the big devil. Before an article gets published, it’s always been reviewed by at least two independent experts from our experts panel. The experts panel is a forum of I think 80 plus invited professionals from all over the world. They’re also getting paid for their reviews. What they do basically is they fill in a questionnaire and give us some feedback about the article before it gets published.
They also need to rate the article for one to five stars. If an article gets let’s say two and a half stars, it doesn’t get published. The threshold for us is 3.5 stars. Only those articles that get 3.5 stars are getting published. Whenever you see an article in Smashing magazine it means that it was proofread first. Of course, it was proofread. It was also reviewed by experts who actually know their stuff because we invite them as well.
How does a starting writer who wants to build a platform like Smashing magazine get an expert panel?
This is tough. It takes some sort of reputation or at least to be known in the community to do that, but, of course, they also need resources for that because our experts are getting paid as well. I think there are many people, many excellent, talented wonderful folks out there, developers, designers, who are doing this that who nobody knows. It can be a friend of yours. It can be a neighbor. It can be a person you worked with on some project. If you’re really sure that this person knows his stuff and he can help you in assessing the quality of an article, then here you go. This is the candidate.
What advice do you have for those that want to be part of the Smashing magazine network? They want to write. They want to contribute. They want to be a part of that community. How do I join? How could I sign up for their writing as well?
You always have good chances if you’ve already written for Smashing magazine but you also have good chance if you just write consistently or say once or twice a month maybe once a week whatever works for you, you know your stuff and you have certain ideas to share. The important thing is that you care about design, about web design, about web development, that you want to spread the wisdom, spread the experience you have collected over time. You are a part of the community because we, of course, want to have quality blogs. We’re supporting them. We’re driving traffic to them, but also if they want to be a part of us, they will also need to make sure that the quality guidelines that we have and the editorial guidelines that we have are followed by them as well which is why this term of quality it comes up over and over again. You need to be good. You need to be consistent. You need to know what you’re writing about.
People that have applied and you’ve turned them down, what are the main reasons?
We have many requests that basically do roundups like lists and photography showcases and stuff like that. That’s not what we’re looking for. What we are looking for especially right now is, for example, case studies where people actually write about their experiences on certain projects. Here is a project they had. Here is the client they had. We started with this year. We developed it over time. These are the decisions we made. These are the decisions we rejected for some reason. These are the tests we conducted. This is how we conducted them. Then here are the results.
Personally I think it’s very interesting to see what the process is behind all the design decisions made from the very beginning to the very end because this can be really interesting. Actually, unfortunately I don’t see many designers or developers doing it, really documenting the process that explains the process.
Many members of our community can benefit just from mutual exchange of these ideas or the process behind the workflow.
Just one note about saying no. I think that saying no is very important. All the time I get requests, “Would you like to do this, what do you think of this, let’s do this.” Most of the time I just write a short reply saying no. You need to focus and really focus on what you’re doing. Even at the beginning, just right in the beginning, if you start out with doing random stuff, just doing fairness to everybody and so on, it won’t work.
You need to be a dictator by following your vision, following your ideas. I’m not a big believer in just doing what your readers want. I think you need to do something but you need to have such a strong vision that the readers will understand that what you’ve done the right move. I think it’s a different feeling there. I think it’s a better one.