Ed Levine, Founder, Serious Eats
The Journey of a Serious Eater
The story of Ed Levine’s perilous quest to build his hit food media brand Serious Eats.
As a teen, Ed Levine learned that in order to survive, he would have to rely on his wits and perseverance.
By the time he was 15, Levine had lost both his parents to illness and would soon be adopted by his older brother, who was 11 years older, and his brother’s wife. Acclimating to this new life would bring about tremendous challenges. Not only would he have to tackle the world without his parents, but he was also in uncharted territory when it came to learning how to reconnect with his older brother as his father figure.
“Once you learn that you can take that kind of punch, which is not insubstantial, and that you have to figure out a way to keep going, that turns out to be a useful thing to have learned about yourself,” Levine says.
“You know, survival instincts are essential to starting a business … My survival instincts were honed in those experiences.”
The persistence and instincts Levine developed as a teenager have taken him far—after a late-career pivot, he’s become one of the most recognized names in food writing. Levine has authored books, frequently contributed his opinions and knowledge to publications like The New York Times, and founded the wildly popular food website, Serious Eats. What started as his humble food blog eventually earned him an induction into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America.
Not a bad resume for a guy who didn’t get his first piece of food writing published until he was in his 40s.
It All Started With A Suggestion
Early in his career, the idea of having passion or a genuine love for one’s job were foreign to Levine. He held a degree in music, had some experience writing about jazz and pop music, but had found himself in an unsatisfying role at an advertising agency. At the suggestion of his wife, literary agent Vicky Bijur, he tried his hand at something that would be just for him and that he would enjoy doing.
Having always been passionate and opinionated about food, Levine found inspiration in one of his favorite books, A Food Lover’s Guide to Paris. According to Levine, what he loved about the book was that it compiled great profiles of people who made food, not only chefs, but also other artists such as chocolate makers and bread bakers. After realizing that there was no book like this for New York City, Levine took it upon himself to create it. Despite not having any prior food writing experience, New York Eats was published in 1992, focusing on non-restaurant food in the city.
Riding on the success of New York Eats, food-writing assignments came calling for Levine. He soon began contributing to publications such as Gourmet Magazine and The New York Times, where he would become a regular contributor for about six years, and ventured out into other mediums such as radio and even television.
“I loved telling stories in all media. … You name it, I did it,” Levine says. “In the early days of AOL, I had a content area called New York Eats on AOL. I was working with Prodigy. I was just doing whatever I could to be able to tell my stories and opine about food.”
Levine found himself busy contributing to all the different platforms and even published a follow-up book titled New York Eats (More) in 1997. And yet, food writing was still not his full-time job. Although his name was well known in the business, he was still working as a media consultant while writing about food on the side. Deep down, Levine felt something needed to change.
“I was doing pretty well, but I was always at the mercy of my editors,” Levine says. “So I longed to, sort of, control my own fate, both creatively and financially.”
For $100, Levine put a down payment on his new career.
With aspirations of controlling his own future, Levine launched the blog, Ed Levine Eats, in 2005 for a mere $100.
According to Levine, this idea rose out of the ashes of a failed project for MTV that was to compete with the Food Network. The knowledge he gained from the failed venture, paired with his desire to have some control over his writing, gave him the courage to try his luck at his own website.
Feeling “emancipated” by this new endeavor, and with hopes of doing something much bigger, Levine says he got caught up in the “startup fever” of 2005 to 2006. With the future of publishing trending to online, Levine wanted in.
Recognizing a future where he could have a full-time career doing what he loved, Levine raised a seed round from friends and family that amounted to between $600,000 and $700,000. With that, Serious Eats was born in 2006 and Levine became a full-time entrepreneur at the age of 52.
During the launch of Serious Eats, Levine says, he was both “willfully naïve” and “naively optimistic.” He felt that the website would be self-supporting and self-sustaining within a year, which was hardly the case. And the seed money that he raised? It was gone within six months. Soon, he found himself always needing capital and was constantly raising money, never seeing beyond a two-month run rate for the company.
The survival instincts that helped him through his early life, and his “refuse to lose” attitude helped to keep the company afloat for years. Despite the site’s consistent rise in popularity and intermittent profitability, Levine says they were always struggling.
“I was like Sisyphus. I thought the boulder was all the way up the hill and then it would roll back down,” Levine says.
With the stress of his finances finally reaching its peak, Levine decided to put Serious Eats up for sale in January of 2015. At this time, the site was garnering great organic traffic, around 7 million to 8 million unique views a month. According to Levine, the site had almost been purchased over a half-dozen times over its lifecycle, but nothing panned out. However, in June of the same year, the business was finally acquired by Fexy Media.
The sale of the company allowed Levine to pay his investors back most of their money and also helped to provide some financial security for he and his wife’s retirement. But more importantly, it allowed him to continue to work in a job he was passionate about—something that was far more important to him than money, and the very thing he risked his future on when he took that leap of faith in 2006.
Today, Levine continues to manage and be the “overlord” of Serious Eats and has written a new book, Serious Eater: A Food Lover’s Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption. Due out in June of 2019, Levine says his book focuses on his startup experience and provides a perspective into the world of entrepreneurship that is rarely seen in many of today’s business books.
“The business press is consumed with either mega-successes or mega-failures,” he says. “ Serious Eats story is a story that is part of the 99.9% of the stories people don’t read about when it comes to startups.”
Ed Levine’s Tips for Startup Survival
When Ed Levine started Serious Eats in 2006, he was 52, an age when many begin to think about their plans for retirement. But he saw a different future ahead. Taking all the knowledge he had gained over the past few decades, from all his different jobs, he finally felt he had found a career that he could enjoy and feel passionate about.
But considering he was starting his new business this far along in his professional career, failure wasn’t an option for Levine. As a result, his success could be attributed to his “refuse to lose” attitude and “sheer stubbornness,” qualities he feels are requirements for entrepreneurs. These are three of Levine’s tips for helping your early startup survive.
- Dive in.
Levine says that although there are many brilliant business books out there, none of them can really prepare you for what is to happen to you for when you start a business. And although business plans are good for helping to raise capital and for having a good starting point, according to Levine, they are “by definition works of fiction.” Future pivots may or may not happen, but the important thing is to start moving forward. You can read all the books you can to help prepare you, but in reality, no one knows what is going to happen until you get started.
- Learn to scout talent.
To help Levine compete with bigger publishers, he had to hire writers to produce content for Serious Eats. Great content. He knew he couldn’t afford to hire well-established writers, so he became really good at scouting talent. That’s another skill he feels is very valuable for entrepreneurs. But it’s not just finding talent that matters, it’s retaining talent. For Levine, he offered his small staff something he felt they couldn’t gain anywhere else, which was the freedom to create and to have access to people in the industry. It’s a formula that he felt helped his employees thrive and, on average, stay with the Serious Eats for five years.
“All you can do is create this environment that’s electric, that just fills everybody’s souls with energy and passion, because that big companies can’t often offer.”
Money isn’t the only thing talented people will work for when it comes to choosing a company. Finding the unique characteristic within your own company will help in attracting and retaining great employees.
- Define your own measures of success.
According to Levine, everyone has to define success for themselves when they start a business. That’s something that he feels he didn’t quite understand when he first started Serious Eats. And success doesn’t always have to equate to money. It can be in other areas that help the company, its readers, or employees move forward outside of the workplace walls.
“, I was going from party-to-party that were for books and companies that were started by Serious Eats alumni, and that’s a fantastic feeling,” he says. “That you’ve given people their wings.”
Interview by Nathan Chan, feature article reprinted from Foundr Magazine, by Nick Allen
- Why Levine published his first book, New York Eats, while working his day job at an ad agency
- How the book kickstarted Levine’s career as a food writer
- The various media platforms, from TV to radio, he experimented with to expand the way he told stories about food
- How Levine’s desire to control his own fate creatively and financially inspired him to launch his first blog in 2005
- The journey to bootstrapping enough money to launch Serious Eats
- Levine’s struggles with making Serious Eats consistently profitable
- Why knowing the limits of your (and your partner’s) tolerance for risk is critical
- The financial and emotional costs associated with bootstrapping a business
- How Levine’s childhood experiences contributed to his “refuse-to-lose” mentality with Serious Eats
- How Serious Eats organically attracted up to 8 million unique visitors per month and was eventually sold in 2015
- Why the startup mantra of “fail early and often” didn’t apply to this 52-year-old digital entrepreneur
- A sneak peek into Levine’s book Serious Eater: A Food Lover’s Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption, which captures the unspoken side of starting a business
- Why Levine believes the most important business lessons can’t be learned without starting a business
- How Levine defines success
- Final thoughts on what it took to build a tribe of people who are passionate about food
Full Transcript of Podcast with Ed Levine
Nathan: The first question I ask everyone that comes on is how did you get your job?
Ed: How did I get my job running Serious Eats? Or, just how did I get my job as a food writer, or?
Nathan: Yeah, how’d you get your job … How did you find yourself doing the work you’re doing today?
Ed: So, I was basically … I think I wrote my, I actually wrote my first piece of food writing was actually a book I wrote in 1992, which I did because I hated my day job which was at a advertising agency. My wife, who is also a literary agent, suggested that I need to do something that was just for me and that I would enjoy doing.
So, I really loved this book called The Food Lovers Guide to Paris. What I loved about it was that there were these great profiles of people who made food, not just chefs. So, chocolate makers, or bread bakers and I realised there was nothing like it for New York and I was very passionate about food and very opinionated about it, even though I’d never written anything about it. I’d written a lot about pop music and jazz before that. So, I came up with an idea for what turned out to be my first book, New York Eats, which was a guide to non-restaurant food in New York.
All of a sudden, much to my surprise, I became a food writer. The New York Times did a big story on the book. The writer Florence Fabricant, who actually still writes for The Times Food Section, called me the Homer of Rugelach. Rugelach is this Eastern European cookie, sort of butter cookie. Rolled butter cookie. Then all of a sudden I became a food writer. So I started getting assignments from Gourmet Magazine, and then I ended up contributing to The New York Times for five or six years. I would do these big pieces on iconic American Foods like pizza, or hamburgers, or hotdogs. They would get a lot of attention because they would give me a lot of space in the paper.
Then from there I did a food radio show. I mean, I love telling stories in all media. So, I did a New York Eats television show eventually. Did a follow-up to that book called New York Eats More. I did a bunch of short form radio pieces called New York Eats. You name it, I did it. It was like I had, in the early days of AOL I had a content area called New York Eats on AOL. I was working with Prodigy. I was just doing whatever I could to be able to tell my stories and opine about food. So, eventually that led me, because I also had a background in media consulting creating brands on television. Specifically on cable television. So, I worked for a company that developed the look and feel, the original look and feel of MTV, and Nickelodeon, and Nick at Nite.
So, I was doing a lot of media consulting and then I was doing my food writing on the side. I was doing pretty well but I was always at the mercy of my editors. So, I longed to sort of control my own fate both creatively and financially. So I started a blog at the cost of $100 called Ed Levine Eats in 2005. That came out of the ashes of a failed … I was developing a competitor for the Food Network for MTV Networks and at the last second they pulled out. So, but I had learned a lot about the web in developing that business plan. So, I started a blog and I just felt emancipated. It was like this is so great. At the time everyone was saying as I talk about in the book, “Oh, blogs are the future of publishing. Magazines are going to go out of business. Newspapers are going to go out of business. Everything is migrating to the web, all the ad money is migrating to the web.” So, I got caught up in the start up fever of 2006 and 2005. That lasted, as you know, until the great financial melt down.
So, it was sort of the I was in the epicentre of the web 2.0 world. I just became convinced this was the way I was going to attain financial security doing what I loved and I would have no more gatekeepers in my life. So that was sort of the impetus for starting Serious Eats. It launched in December of 2006. I raised some seed money, not a lot, because like all first time entrepreneurs you have to be willfully naïve and I was. And naively optimistic as well. So, I just launched and without just thinking that we would become self-supporting and self-sustaining within a year. I think I had raised, I don’t know, six or $700,000 in seed money, which of course I blew through in six months.
So I was always raising money. I write in the book I was always/never raising money. I never had more than, I don’t know, maybe I had two months run rate at the most. So I was always raising money and it was entirely in friends and family. There was no institutional money, there was no VC money, all VCs said, “You know, you haven’t proved the concept. Come back when you’ve proved the concept.” Of course, what I need after a while was if you prove the concept why would you go to a VC because that’s the most expensive money you can get.
So, I just kept going along and our audience kept growing. We were intermittently profitable, but we were always struggling. I was like Sysphus I thought the boulder was all the way up the hill and then it would roll back down. I borrowed a lot of money, and of course as many of your listeners know it’s really hard for a small business to raise money actually. To borrow money it’s actually impossible without personally guaranteeing it. So I ended up personally guaranteeing a lot of money. Which, of course, my wife was not thrilled about. Because we got up to, I don’t know, over half a million dollars.
There were, I would say, a half a dozen times that I thought that we were going to be sold. This is all in the book, right. The book is called Serious Eater: A Food Lover’s Perilous Quest For Pizza and Redemption. So, it was perilous because we were always running out of money. I was always going to my investors and saying, “I just need a $100,000 and then we’ll be fine. Or whatever you can give me.” My late brother was the first investor in Serious Eats so it sort of put a lot of strain on that relationship too.
So, I think one of the things that your listeners should understand is starting a business, bootstrapping a business, does not come without a very specific set of costs and risks. The risk is not financial. The risk is as much emotional and psychological as it is financial. I write in the book that when you fall in love you don’t ask the person you fall in love with what their tolerance for risk is. Right, it’s just not something that’s discussed. But when you start a business you quickly find that people do discover in the hardest ways possible what their tolerance for risk is.
You know, the story of Serious Eats is just, like, I just refused to lose. It’s like we almost sold it, as I say, a half a dozen times to big companies. Discovery, American Express, you name it they all came a calling because we were … For a few years we were the next big thing. We were called the future of food media, we were called the gastronomic super site, we were called all these things. Then I realised that good press does not … A bank does not take good press as collateral for a loan. So, you know, I just managed to survive, but barely, for eight years. Just by someone asking me, “How’d you persevere?” I think the reason I persevered was because I identified so much with the site and I thought if Serious Eats went down then I would go down.
So, my desire for financial and creative freedom and control quickly became this albatross around my neck. So, I promised my wife at the end of 2014 that if we weren’t self-sustaining by January of 2015 that I would put the site up for sale. There were a bunch of people that wanted to buy it. Unlike other times someone made a non-binding offer that became a binding offer. So in June of 2015 it was sold.
Nathan: Are you able to share how much?
Ed: No. I really don’t want to talk about how much.
Nathan: Okay. That’s all right.
Ed: But, it was enough to pay my investors back, like, 90% of their money, which given that they had all kissed that money goodbye a long time before that they were happy with. They also got stock in the new company. My wife and I made enough money to cushion our retirement, you know. Because I was, when I started Serious Eats I think I was a 52-year old first time digital entrepreneur. So, when I sold Serious Eats in 2015 that meant I was, what, 63. So it was providential that we were able to sell it. I’m really proud of what we were able to do.
I’m still running Serious Eats now, but without the stress that comes with having to worry about the chequebook. It continues to, I think, be a great website. I think the best food website in the world. A great source of recipes and food advice for people all over.
Nathan: Incredible. What a story.
Ed: Yeah, it’s a rollercoaster ride. The book is, The Perilous Quest is a rollercoaster ride. One of the things I turned out to be good at, which I think is a really valuable skill for entrepreneurs is I was pretty good at scouting talent.
First of all, because I couldn’t afford to hire established talent but one of the people I hired was this guy named Kenji Lopez-Alt who wrote a book called The Food Lab, which is probably one of the four or five best selling cookbooks in the US of the last 10 years. So he wrote the forward for the book, it’s a very beautiful forward. He wrote that it reads more like a carefully crafted novel than a real person’s life. It’s true, it’s a weird … It was a wild ride.
When I first got the book contract and I talked to a friend of mine and I said, “You know, I think it’s going to be a prescriptive business book.” He said, “Why? The subtitle should be how not to start a business.” But, you know, you don’t know any better. You get caught up, especially there are certain periods of time all over the world where start ups in a certain area seem like low lying fruit. Like, “Oh, anybody can do a start up.” And everyone’s saying there’s so much money out there waiting to find companies to invest in. As I say in the book, the only people who tell you that are people who don’t need money.
So, it was an amazing, amazing journey. I don’t regret any of it. But, it didn’t come without cost. People should understand that they … One of the famous truisms about start ups is, in entrepreneurs, is fail early and often. But that wasn’t an option for me. 52 is not early. There wouldn’t be an often because if Serious Eats failed nobody was going to give me money for another venture. Not at that age, not with no track record. So, I had to make Serious Eats work. It was a sheer refusal to lose that I had inside of me. I didn’t even really know it. I didn’t even understand that, that’s what I had until somebody in 2010 or ’11 said, “Oh, congratulations on Serious Eats. It’s really great.” I was like … I said to them, “Well, thank you.” I said, “Well, I really like to win.” He looked at me, because he was a banker, and he was like, “You know what, that’s bull. Everybody likes to win. It’s the people that refuse to lose that drag their businesses across the finish line.”
I thought wow, that’s a distinction with a difference. Because he’s right. Who doesn’t want to win? It’s like, no I was put on this earth to lose. It’s like, it doesn’t work that way. But, there is a sheer stubbornness in refusing to lose that I think is required of a lot of entrepreneurs and they don’t know it when they start a business. Because, all they do is read about the unicorns, and this is where the business press comes in. I don’t mean to knock your magazine, or whatever. It’s like the business press is consumed with either mega successes, or mega failures.
So, what that leaves out is the 99.9% of other businesses, of other startups that are neither mega successes, or mega failures. This book and Serious Eats story is a story that is part of the 99.9% of the stories people don’t read about when it comes to start ups.
Nathan: I love that.
Ed: It’s like, “Oh, yeah, you’re … Everybody’s a unicorn. You can have a billion dollar valuation.” It’s like, I write in the book to raise money, as you know, I’d say, “You know, within three years we were going to be at $40 million in revenue.” It’s like, are you kidding? But you have to say that to get the money.
One of the things I always say is that business plans are by definition works of fiction. They just have to be plausible works of fiction. You know, the people that are going to lend you money have to suspend their disbelief. It’s like what creative people ask when they write a novel, or a movie, or you watch a television show. If you’re going to give into that show, or that novel, or that movie you have to suspend disbelief. You have to create an environment which allows the viewer to suspend disbelief.
It’s really the same thing with a business. Because nobody can tell you what’s going to happen. Think about all the pivots. Think about something like Slack, right. Slack was started by Stuart Butterfield who started Flicker with his now ex-wife. He started Slack as a multiplayer video game platform.
Nathan: Crazy, right?
Ed: Think about that, okay. It did not work as a multiplayer video game. But either Stuart or somebody else figured out, “Hey, it could work as an intra office communications tool which a lot of people can be on.” Now, Slack is worth many billions of dollars.
By the way, did Stuart Butterfield plan that when he started Slack? Absolutely not, I’ve never talked to him. I think I’ve met him once. But, that’s just the way things go sometimes. For people to think that things are going to go according to plan when they start a business, the only people who say that have never started a business. I don’t care how big the business is, or how big you want it to be.
One of the things I realised is I really was just trying to give myself a job that I loved. So, to do that I couldn’t say how much money the business would gross, or would sell for because nobody would be interested in investing money so that I could have a good job. You know what I mean? It’s like, “Yeah, we’d like you to have a good job, Ed. Here’s $500,000.” Doesn’t really work that way.
So, there’s so many lessons to be learned in starting a business. There are so many lessons to be learned that you can’t learn without starting a business. You can read every business book in the universe, and there are many of the me that are brilliant. It still will not prepare you for what’s about to happen to you when you start a business. For people who think, “Oh, I read this book. I know what happens.” It’s like, no you don’t. Just talk to people who have started businesses.
When I started Serious Eats I had a bunch of partners who turned out to be not very good partners. Sort of stabbed me in the back. Then I ended up meeting this woman named Meg Hourihan who started Blogger with Evan Williams who’s gone on to found Twitter and now Medium. You know, there’s a great book, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, called Founders At Work.
Nathan: Yes, yeah. By Jessica Livingston. She’s been on the show.
Ed: Okay. So, Founders At Work had the story of Blogger. They ran out of money so many times that Meg and Evan were having such fights that he sort of said, “Okay, fine. I’ll just do this on my own.” Then he would sleep in the office and, of course, what they thought Pyra Labs, which was the company they’d started, was going to be turned out not to be what they ended up selling. Which was Blogger. They sold the whole company. But it was really just the first blogging platform, and it was Google’s first acquisition. I don’t know what year that was.
But if you read that book those stories in that book, and of course I didn’t read the book until I’d started Serious Eats. They would’ve given me pause. But, you know, Meg really … Because Meg had started a business she was invaluable to me. Even though she didn’t end up staying in the business longer than six months, or a year. She got a small piece of equity, and we’re still friends to this day. When I sold the business she made some money. She obviously, when they sold Blogger they made a fair amount of money. Of course, then, Evan’s now got richer and richer.
So people just have to understand that they’re all rollercoaster rides. Maybe mine was rougher than most.
Nathan: Why do you think that is?
Ed: You know, I think because I was too … I identified with Serious Eats too much. That I was Serious Eats, and Serious Eats was me. So, once that’s your point of view it just makes every bump in the road that much bumpier. Also, there’s another thing. Nobody will say this to you, all those unicorns you read about, Mark Zuckerberg wanted to do one thing more than anyone else. He didn’t want to connect everyone in the world. He wanted to make a lot of money. If you didn’t believe it then, you certainly would believe it if you ever watched that movie and you’ve ever … If you notice what’s happening now.
I don’t have that gene. I’m not willing to screw people to make money. I’m just not. That’s how I’m wired. People should understand that how you’re wired, and what your experiences are before you start your business will play a role in how your business evolves, and where it ends up. So, the idea that all these people, oh they didn’t want to make … You think Steve Palmer wanted to create something super useful to the world? No, Steve Palmer wanted to make a tonne of money. Guess what, he did. So, people are fooling themselves if they think otherwise. That’s just the reality.
So you’re asking why do I think it was a rougher ride for me? Because that’s not how I roll. It never was before I started Serious Eats, and it’s not now. That’s not good or bad, by the way, that just is. It certainly would have made it easier if I was more focused on money. I don’t know how to use Excel to this day. Okay, so I mean.
But, I couldn’t be prouder of Serious Eats. It’s a great website, it’s given birth to so many people’s careers and it’s a beautiful thing. It was the most unexpected pleasure, and people can read about this in the book. Because the last chapter is sort of called The Day in the Life of the Serious Eater 2018. I was just going from party to party that were for books and companies that were started by Serious Eats alumni. That’s a fantastic feeling that you’ve given people their wings. I just didn’t know that before. It’s the source of my greatest pleasure, really.
All these Serious Eaters out there, I think I added up … Staffers have written like 10 books. Contributors, or columnists and that number becomes 25. You notice I didn’t say, “And all these people have gone on to establish multi-billion dollar companies.” Doesn’t really work that way. But, that’s not how I measure success.
Nathan: How do you measure it?
Ed: I measure it like have I created a environment that allows people to do their best work. Then have I given birth to many people’s careers, and I talk about this in the book, right. How you measure success is a really important part of starting a business. So, I measure it like I created something that millions of people find useful. Even essential to their lives. So that’s a great feeling.
Now, for a lot of people that wouldn’t mean shit. I get it. But for me it’s really important. It was essential. Everybody has to define success for themselves when they start a business. I don’t think I quite understood that when I started Serious Eats.
Nathan: Yeah. So, I have a few questions for you, Ed. You’ve been incredible. I haven’t had to do much work here, but I’ve been diligently taking notes. We have a little bit of time left. So, one thing that you said that I’ve never hear anyone say before, which I find quite interesting, is that developing that tolerance for risk. You don’t know what it is until you start your business. That is totally true. Because, I was thinking of myself even starting this particular company and the amount of risk that I’ve developed over time.
I’m curious, what kind of tolerance for risk did you have when you started and did it change over time? Is it really high?
Ed: Yeah. It’s a very good question. So, in the book the first chapter, the first few chapters are devoted to my childhood. So, I lost both parents to illness by the time I was 15. So, at 15 I found myself without a home, and without parents. So, my oldest brother and his new wife adopted me. So, we found ourselves in uncharted territory pretty quickly. I think that experience honed my survival instincts, and sort of maybe gave me the ability to take on more risk. Because from a very early age I had to rely on my wits. I had to learn to even connect to my brother, who all of a sudden became my father. Who was 11 years older than me so he didn’t … I didn’t really know him, right. He’d left the house for college when I was seven or something. All of a sudden it was like, “Here’s your new dad and mom.” It was like, hmm.
So, once you learn that you can take that kind of punch, which is not insubstantial, and you have to figure out a way to keep going. That turns out to be a useful thing to have learned about yourself. Survival instincts are essential to starting a business. How you develop those survival instincts I think you develop them in many different ways. My survival instincts were honed in those experiences. I mean, it’s like I had two options. I could crawl into a ball and go into a closet. Or I could figure out a way to just put one foot in front of the other and move forward. I certainly wouldn’t recommend that as training for starting a business, but it turned out that in part I think I developed a tolerance for risk in that experience. Because I had to depend on my wit, so.
Also, I was really bad at having jobs. I was terrible. The worst. I don’t suffer fools well, I hate hierarchal structures. So, like I worked at record companies, and I’d get fired or laid off. The same thing with ad agencies. So, again, it’s like I learned to depend on myself to find work, to find consulting clients, to get writing assignments. So you become … It becomes sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of how do you develop your tolerance for risk. It’s like, I didn’t make a decision I wanted to lead a risky life, right. But stuff happened. Then, I think partially as a result of the things that happened I developed a tolerance for risk. I just thought that that’s the way everybody rolled. I don’t think that’s true.
Again, I’m not advocating this as training for starting a business. But I think I’ve answered your question.
Nathan: Yeah, you have. Thank you. Curious around traction with Serious Eats at the point that you were able to sell it in 2015. How many unique visitors per month
Ed: Let’s see, when we sold it I think we were probably up to seven or eight million uniques a month.
Nathan: Wow, that’s great.
Ed: And it was all organic, right. None of the traffic was bought. People used to ask me what our SEO strategy was, and my answer was always, “We put up great shit and we hope people find it.”
Nathan: How good’s that.
Ed: So, we’ve gotten more sophisticated since then, and the company that bought Serious Eats is actually very sophisticated about it. But at the time it worked. Because we were putting up great shit.
Here’s something. We were … You know, Seth Godin wrote a great book called Tribes. What I didn’t realise, what I was doing when I started Serious Eats is I was building a tribe. I was building a home for people who were passionate, discerning, and inclusive about food. It was like a clubhouse for those people, an online clubhouse. People turned out to want that. I didn’t do any market research before I came up with that, I can tell you that. That was my writing voice.
So, if you read New York Eats, which is out of print. Or you read the new book, the writing voice is passionate, discerning, and inclusive. It’s conversational, and it’s welcoming, and it’s all these things. Used to be on our homepage we had our little sign that said, “Welcome Serious Eaters.” It was like we were building a tribe of Serious Eaters. It turns out that it was millions strong. It’s like one of the dedications in the book is, “For the Serious Eats Tribe at world headquarters and our community millions strong who taught me that anything, and everything is possible with the aide of hard work, a good idea, and a little luck.” I think that’s true for a lot of businesses.
By the way, all those things won’t ensure your success either. There are plenty of business that had all those three things and still fail. I know that. So, I consider myself incredibly fortunate.
Nathan: So, talk to me around the monetization part. You said that for you it’s … And I can resonate with this. It’s just about finding and doing work that you love. You never used Excel, still don’t. So how did you end up … I guess, building a business besides having a significant monthly user base or a tribe that made your business attractive to eventually be sold. What did you do to monetize? Was it just ads, or?
Ed: Sure. So, it was ads. And if you think about it, and I talk about this in the book, in 2006 Facebook was barely selling ads. Google was selling ads to get high up right in their search results. You could buy keywords, right. But, Facebook I think it started selling ads in 2004. When we launched in 2006 it was selling … It’s in the book, but I think it’s in the 10s of millions of dollars. Today, I believe Facebook sells 12, or last year or the last year that’s anyone’s counting definitively it sold $12 billion. 12 billion. With a B.
Nathan: Yes. Crazy.
Ed: Okay. Not only that, between Google, and Facebook, and Amazon, and these are not new statistic is anybody in digital publishing they get, I think, more than 80 cents of every new digital advertising dollar. And probably more than 60 cents of all advertising dollars. Just think about that.
Ed: It’s insane. So, but in 2006 it was like, “Hey, all the advertising is migrating to the web.” Blah blah blah. I had all these statistics in my business plan. We launched with American Express as an advertiser. It was like, how hard could this be? Then it turned out that it was really hard, and it got harder, and harder, and harder and just think about today. I mean, the guys who own Serious Eats have a good strategy, and they’re employing all kinds of things. A path to purchase, and because if you talk to any publisher, no matter if you’re Conde Nast or you’re The New York Times advertising is not going to be the be all and end all of your business.
That’s why everyone’s moving to subscription models, to modified pay walls. They’re selling things, they’re doing event … You know what I mean. It’s like it’s a whole different ball game now.
Nathan: Yeah. I agree. You know, when I spoke … Recently we interviewed the founders of Refinery 29. Big media company. Same thing, that you just can’t rely on just that one old model.
Ed: Yeah. And, by the way, those guys have hundreds of employees. Even with the layoffs. I met those guys, they were one of the companies that I talked to about buying Serious Eats. I don’t know what their endgame is. I don’t know what any content driven endgame is that doesn’t involve charging people for content. I don’t. What did they say? I’m sure they have a great story. You know, in many ways they built a really good business. But, I don’t know that it’s a sustainable business because of the conditions of the ad sales market.
Nathan: Yeah. That’s the thing. So, they’ve diversified quite heavily.
Ed: Yeah. They have no choice. Because, you know I never had more than 10 or 12 employees. I remember walking into their offices like, “Who are all these people? And what do they do?”
Nathan: So, let’s talk about, kind of like, you’ve built this … And still, you’ve built this incredible place and tribe for people to understand where to go to eat.
Ed: It’s really what to cook. I started it as a where to eat site, then it evolved. That was my pivot. You know, now if you ask someone in the States, “How do you know how to cook a roast chicken?” They’ll tell you, “Oh, I just type into Google ‘Roast chicken Serious Eats’.” That’s the highest compliment we can get paid. But anyway.
Nathan: How did you produce a lot of content if you had a small team? You said you produced good shit and hoped that people come, or that … Just yeah.
Ed: So, what I did was I offered people something that they couldn’t find a lot of other places. Which was freedom, and access because of my experience as a mainstream food writer. Again, it was some luck and some … I’m pretty good at identifying talent. Before I was in food I was in music, too, before I was in advertising. So, I was pretty good at finding talent in both the jazz and pop worlds. But, so that’s what I did. As I say, whether it was a combination of luck or skill but I found a lot of people that really loved having the freedom to create and gave them access to people. Gave them jobs with … Well, in the beginning I didn’t have many jobs to give. So, I would just pay them per post. But eventually I had enough money to hire … I think when we sold Serious Eats there were probably 12 full-time employees.
But, it was always a struggle. Because also what happens, as you know, is when you develop talent other people know it. Other people with deeper pockets than you. So it’s like how do you fend those people off? So, all you can do is create this environment that’s electric. That just fills everybody’s souls with energy, and passion. Because that big companies can’t often offer.
Nathan: I agree.
Ed: So that’s what I had to do. Because I didn’t the money to do it the other way. Really, people stayed a long time. The average stay for a Serious Eats employee is like five years.
Nathan: That’s great.
Ed: Which in 2019 is a pretty mean feat.
Nathan: It’s cool. Well, look, Ed, I’m super mindful of your time mate. This was incredible conversation. I could keep talking to you forever. You’ve got an incredible story.
Ed: Well, thank you.
Nathan: So, we have to work towards wrapping up. Best place people can find out more about yourself and your work? That’s question number one, then question number two … Please, yeah. Let’s start with that one.
Ed: Yeah. So, that one they can log onto SeriousEats.com. To hear a lot of the story that you just heard and more they can pick up a copy of Serious Eater: A Food Lover’s Perilous Quest For Pizza and Redemption, which is about to come out like June 11th in the States, and is available for pre-order on Amazon.
Nathan: Amazing. The last question was is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you wanted to share, or any parting words?
Ed: No. You know, I actually really enjoyed our conversation. I hope I don’t sound too negative. Because I really wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take something out of you, you know. But I’m incredibly proud, and that was my definition of success as I say. It’s like, I wanted to be really proud of what I created. And the fact that so many people took flight under the of Serious Eats, and that we were able to bring the Serious Eats ship into a safe harbour.
That’s my definition of success. I hope it’ll be other people’s too. Because, there’s no experience quite like starting your own business. But, you just have to be prepared for many things that you don’t … That there’s no way to prepare for, so. Anyway.
Nathan: Amazing. Well, look, thank you so much for your time, Ed. It’s been an absolute pleasure mate.
Ed: Yes. Thank you.