The standard image of a successful web developer probably doesn’t include a journalism degree or a fascination with interior design — but Bruno Bornsztein isn’t your garden-variety web developer. He’s more of an all-around web entrepreneur, whose home improvement/design/DIY mega-blog, Curbly, is one of the Twin Cities’ most successful startups. Equal parts content creator, developer, businessman, and design maven, Bornsztein is also a family man for whom business is only part of the story of his life. The Line sat down with him outside the Finnish Bistro in St. Paul’s St. Anthony Park neighborhood to find out how he does it all.
The Line: Bruno, you are a serious web developer, but you were trained more as a content guy than a techie.
Bruno Bornsztein: Yes, I studied journalism in college. I liked writing and sort of saw myself going into long-form magazine writing. After college I got a job doing public relations with a company that was then called Thomson West, now Thomson Reuters. Along the way I also started doing computer programming, web development, coding web sites. In 2004 I quit the job at Thomson and started working for an agency in Minneapolis called Space 150. They were building a social network; this was the time when Facebook was new, I think it had about a hundred thousand users or something like that. I was brought on as one of the web developers — I wasn’t really doing anything related to journalism, I was doing web development.
The Line: How did you learn it?
Bruno Bornsztein: I’m sort of self-taught. I had friends who wanted websites made, and I sort of went from there. I was blogging a lot at the time, and anybody who uses WordPress knows that you eventually start customizing the layouts — and that was my entrée.
So I worked on this social networking site for Space 150, and when that was finished I had some time free, and a friend of mine and I decided we wanted to build something, and we asked ourselves, what are the skills we have? Well, we know how to build a social website, because we just built a big one.
I had a background in writing and content, and also an interest in home improvement. So we decided we’d try to build a social network for people who were interested in home improvement, interior design, and DIY. That was how Curbly started; it was intended to be sort of a mini-Facebook-style thing, and it was going to be mostly user-generated content. What we found from the beginning was that it’s difficult to get users to generate either a large quantity of content or a high quality of content.
The Line: I’ve noticed that myself as I read around on the web.
Bruno Bornsztein: In fairness, we’ve gotten dome great stuff from users of Curbly. The first month we launched, one of the posts that really took off and got us noticed and linked to a lot of other blogs was a user-generated post. But that notwithstanding, in order to get enough content we found that we had to pay people to write. So that’s how, over time, it morphed into what it is now, which is more of a blog where we originate 90 percent of the content. Users still provide some content and they comment, of course, but the actual bulk of the content is generated by paid writers.
Thee are two full-time employees, me and the managing editor, Chris Gardner. And on top of that I think that now we’re up to six freelance writers. We have people who guest-blog and we have occasional contributors, but they’re the people who have daily or weekly scheduled slots. They’re all over the country, and we just hire a new writer who’s based in South Africa. We had a writer from Canada for a while and one from Israel. There’s one writer who happens to be based here in Minneapolis — she was our first writer — but aside from that everybody is from all over the place.
A Growing Business
The Line: Curbly is a notable success. You’ve had offers to buy the site, haven’t you?
Bruno Bornsztein: We’ve never had a written offer, but we’ve had some interest. I’ve had some people approach me, but I’ve never really been interested in selling. But yeah, it’s a pretty successful site. We get about two million page views a month, about a million unique visitors, and that’s just on Curbly. We have about 20,000 Facebook fans, 10,000 Pinterest followers. In our niche of DIY/design/home improvement, I’d say we’re toward the higher end of mid-size. There’s one more tier up that’s above us. But there are just so many blogs out there, and it’s hard for any blog to build an audience. We’re lucky; when Curbly started it was a lot easier to build an audience — there was just less noise.
About three years ago was when Chris started and we made a big push in terms of content, and our traffic then was about 500,000 views per month. And now we’re up to two million, so we’ve quadrupled our traffic. And our Facebook following has gone from five thousand to about twenty thousand — so it’s made a difference.
For this kind of blog people expect consistent postings every day and several posts a day — we’re now up to four a day. It makes people feel they can come back; they may not like every single story, but they want their fix, you know?
Love where you live
The Line: Does Curbly have a mission?
Bruno Bornsztein: I’m not setting out to change the world, but I do think our mission with Curbly is — well, we say “Love where you live.” I think that people express who they are through where they live, and that’s a good thing and we want to encourage that. We’re not an Architectural Digest — “look at these amazing houses.” It’s more like how you can take something you got at Ikea and put your own spin on it, put it in your room and have it express who you really are.
The Line: You’re part of a DIY trend among young urbanites.
Bruno Bornsztein: DIY is a trend that’s been really growing for at least ten years now. I think that trend goes hand-in-hand with the internet. The internet is this big platform that lets a person in the middle of nowhere talk with the loudest megaphone and reach everyone. It used to be that if you had some amazing idea about how to transform a box into a lamp, and you lived in the middle of nowhere or you didn’t write for a newspaper — if you didn’t have a megaphone — no one would ever hear about it, and that idea would be lost. Now through places like Curbly and Etsy and a million other places on the internet, these ideas can get out there.
In reality DIY is just an inherent thing people do — they’ve been making things forever. I just think that now it can reach a wider audience and people can re-shuffle and re-think other people’s DIYs. I think the internet has just amplified that.
The Line: You’ve got a number of other sites besides Curbly.
Bruno Bornsztein: Some of them are hobbies, some are open-source projects. The only other one that’s a real business venture is ManMade DIY. It’s a site that Chris, our managing editor, felt passionate about starting, so he came to me and I said, okay, let’s see if we can do this together. So with Curbly’s backing he’s really been pushing ManMade DIY. He calls it “DIY for the postmodern male.”
It’s not intended really to be just for men, and its readership is about 50-50. But it was a reaction to this thing in the DIY blogosphere: so many of DIY and design and fashion blogs are run for and by women. They’re about make a dress or decorate your daughter’s room — there aren’t a lot that are targeted at men. Chris came at it with the attitude, I’m a man, but sometimes I like to sew, and knit, and make things out of wood. He didn’t see the things he did reflected in the sites that were out there.
The Line: I’m old enough to remember when “Do It Yourself” was almost entirely male — it was carpentry, home repair, and home improvement by guys.
Bruno Bornsztein: Chris was saying that you don’t have to be exclusively a woodworker or a car customizer — or exclusively a doily maker or a scrapbooker. You can make teeshirts, do photography, art. ManMade DIY tries to address all those things.
The Line: What is interesting is that you identify as the tech guy but your background is in content, and you picked up the tech not in computer science class but in a sort of DIY way.
Bruno Bornsztein: Yes, I started out from the technology side, though my background is in journalism. The sites I’ve created are in a lot of ways expressions of my personality. Chris does all the editing in Curbly, but I do contribute quite a bit of content. I do a lot of video and a fair amount of writing.
On the tech side, one of the projects that Curbly put out is called Community Engine. It’s an open-source Ruby on Rails platform for building web sites like Curbly and ManMade. Both of those sites are built on top of Community Engine — it’s kind of like a WordPress. That’s an area where I can focus on technology, just build this platform in a way that works for our sites, and allow other people to use it; work with other people to develop it.
The Line: You’re also an entrepreneur. What have you learned in that role that you’d like to pass along?
Bruno Bornsztein: I guess I call myself an entrepreneur by default, since there’s no other name for what I do. But yeah, I run all the business stuff. I’m in charge of selling ads, invoicing, paying writers, doing taxes, setting up our 401-K. You could say I’m an entrepreneur — or just a small businessman. A lot falls on me at the end of the day, and that’s how I like it.
There are a lot of things specific to what we did that might be applicable to other people or might not be. But more broadly, I think persistence might be a key thing. When you see a web site like Curbly that’s successful, the tendency is to say, well, they were just destined to be successful.
The Line: It was such a good idea that it had to make it.
Bruno Bornsztein: Right. In most cases it wasn’t that people got this great idea and it became a huge success. Usually there was a lot of persistent grinding for a long time before they got to the point where they could call themselves a success. And even after. Curbly’s at the point where I can say it’s successful, but there’s still a lot of persistence needed.
Here’s a good example of that. In 2010 the economy tanked. In particular, the part of the market that advertises on Curbly — construction, remodeling, homebuilding — those guys just disappeared. Our advertising dropped 35 percent. In a case like that, it’s easy to say, well, maybe this just wasn’t a good idea; we’ll try something else. But there are many cases where you shouldn’t quit — you should keep trying. In 2010 I said to myself, either this is a permanent drop — I’ll know in a year and I’ll be broke — or this is a temporary thing and anybody who is still around when it’s over will be in a good position. And that was the year I said, even though things are bad, let’s invest in the site by bringing Chris on board and doing a better job of being professional with our content.
The Line: So at a time when anybody would be tempted to pull back, you hired and professionalized.
Bruno Bornsztein: I took a risk. I financed it by doing some web work on the side and taking out a line of credit from a bank. So along with being persistent, you have to be willing to take some risks. They kind of go hand-in-hand. I mean, you can’t take risks and then give up on what you’re doing!
The Line: Where do you want to go, and take the Curbly business, in the future?
Bruno Bornsztein: We just had our second baby, and we have a three-and-a half-year-old too. We just moved into a new house. I want to continue to build a business that’s in line with my family life. I’m surprised that I don’t hear more entrepreneurs says this. A lot of them are so focused on business, and growth, and success, and mission.
I want to grow Curbly; maybe we’ll add more employees, try to expand our traffic — but I don’t want to do any of those things in such a way that it detracts from my ability to spend time with my family. For me, it’s how can we make Curbly grow in a way where I can still take my daughter to daycare and still be home for dinner and not be stressed on the weekends? And that applies to our employees too. Chris will say, hey Bruno, it’s a really nice day. I’m going for an eighty-mile bike ride. And I’m like, that’s fine.
So I want the site to grow; I want to make more money; but I want those things to happen in a way that’s sane and balanced.
The Line: I’ve heard some other successful entrepreneurs in town say something similar about balance and sanity as they build businesses.
Bruno Bornsztein: I’ve heard it too. It’s kind of like the Silent Majority view. The people you hear the most from are people who say “Eighty hours a week! Bust your butt!” But they’re just the ones who talk the loudest. I think there are a lot more people like me who say my business is important, it might have a mission, but it’s a part of my life.
A lot of times these kinds of ventures get called “lifestyle businesses” in a derogatory way. I see a lifestyle business as a good thing. Maybe you’re not Mark Zuckerberg, but you’re doing something productive, you’re maybe helping other people make money like Curbly is, and you’re also involved with your family and your community.
This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Jon Spayde is Managing Editor of The Line.