How Maxwell Ryan Channeled His Passion for Learning to Grow Apartment Therapy and The Kitchn into Brands that Foster Nurturing Home Environments
10.20.17 Personal Development

How Maxwell Ryan Channeled His Passion for Learning to Grow Apartment Therapy and The Kitchn into Brands that Foster Nurturing Home Environments

By: Jon McDonald

The Crunch: Good teachers are passionate about learning, and during his seven-year career as a schoolteacher, Maxwell Ryan was a keen pupil himself. One thing he learned was that his best students invariably came from “good” homes. He also learned that what made those homes “good” wasn’t their price tag but the love and self-respect that was nurtured within them. When loving parents raised their children in cared-for homes, he realized, good things happened. Today, as Founder & CEO of web brands Apartment Therapy and The Kitchn, he spreads that same simple message to millions of loyal readers: Home is where the heart is, and when you put a little love into it, you can make yourself into the person you’ve always wanted to be.

After Maxwell Ryan left teaching and started a home design consultation business — that a few years later became Apartment Therapy — he happened to be working with a couple who was trying, unsuccessfully, to start a family. Going through their home space one day, he discovered that their bedroom was dusty, dingy, and cluttered. He was concerned enough to offer the couple some advice.

“I told them, ‘I’m not a doctor — but I don’t think your bedroom is supporting you,'” he said.

Photo of Apartment Therapy and The Kitchn Founder Maxwell Ryan

Maxwell Ryan, Founder of Apartment Therapy and The Kitchn, believes that maintaining a good home environment can lead to a better life.

Apartment Therapy and its partner site The Kitchn are built on the idea that purposeful home organization can help people reach their goals. The sites encourage people to turn their homes and kitchens into places of inspiration, where they can go to feel nourished — in both body and spirit — and ready to meet new challenges. More than 20 million monthly visitors get more than content on home design and home cooking — they also get a chance to make themselves into better people.

That’s anything but a glib observation. As a teacher, Maxwell saw that dynamic play out time and time again in his students.

“When I was teaching, I visited my students at home,” he said. “And, over and over, I noticed that the kids who did well in class came from the best homes. It really stood out to me.”

“And by ‘best,’ I don’t mean rich versus poor — that was not the issue,” he continued. “My best students lived with parents who — regardless of income — put energy into maintaining their homes and keeping them organized and tidy. That’s an act of love, and I think it means more to student success than the best teaching in the world.”

Seeing this correlation between home organization and academic success in his students, Maxwell began thinking about how it applied to his own life. “I realized that — just like with my kids — the way I kept my own home impacted my own potential for success.”

That was his breakthrough, and what Maxwell and his team strive to accomplish at Apartment Therapy and The Kitchn today is still based on that thinking. “The way we organize our homes and live within them is fundamental to our success in the world,” he said. “And as individuals, we control that. It’ll either help us or hinder us.”

Turning an Insight About Good Living into His Life’s Work

Still teaching, Maxwell began to yearn for a way to apply what he was learning from his students — and about himself.

“During that time, in the late 1990s, I started reading about business,” he said. “And I started to feel this feeling of freedom and newness and freshness about the business space.”

One of the books that inspired Maxwell during this transformational period was Growing a Business by Paul Hawken. In the book, Hawken argued that modern business was a facilitator not only of social but personal change. A successful business idea grows from deep inside a person and is part of that person’s unique identity.

Screenshot of Apartment Therapy homepage

“I decided I wanted that for myself,” Maxwell said. He had no formal training in interior design — just some piecemeal experience working for a designer, contractors, and in-home renovation between and during college stints. In 2001, he left teaching and started a new life as an “apartment therapist,” a home design consultant seeing clients in New York City.

By 2003 he had started a weekly email distribution list, which, with the help of his brother, morphed into the first version of Apartment Therapy in 2004. The Kitchn launched the following year. By 2008, companion sites devoted to parenting, technology, and green decorating were up and running — as were five additional localized versions of Apartment Therapy.

“That’s when I stopped seeing clients,” Maxwell said. “I was doing two things at once, and my life was simply not scalable. It was a scary time because blogging was not a profession to me. The joke was that bloggers worked from home in their pajamas.”

Embracing Challenges: How to Cultivate Innovation and Growth

In 2012 Maxwell consolidated his properties and relaunched under the two brands that operate today. Since then, Apartment Therapy and The Kitchn have seen explosive growth, with traffic at The Kitchn increasing more than 200 percent over the past two years. Together, the two sites currently generate 51 million monthly page views.

As his organization matures, Maxwell continues to draw on his experiences as a teacher for insights into how to manage growth without stifling creativity.

“It’s almost like everything I learned as a teacher is reiterating in running a company,” he said. “A lot of the best work you do in the classroom is around group dynamics. The harmony of the classroom is what teachers think about, and how the lessons go deepest.”

A book that has been important in that regard is L. David Marquet’s Turn the Ship Around, which focuses on encouraging a leader-leader workplace environment, where department managers have responsibility for making many of their own calls.

“We’re doing it and doing it well, and it’s separating us as a company,” Maxwell said. “It’s the key to getting everyone moving at a pace that outstrips the competition and continues to serve our clients in novel ways.”

Building Verticals to Deliver Deeper Dives into Relevant Content

Along with growth and a shift in corporate organizational focus, Maxwell and his team face a marketplace that simply won’t stand still.

“Social is the big driver now — people are everywhere except on our front pages,” he said. And his team excels at customizing content to match the distinct ethos of each social site.

“We’re not a site that just publishes 20 stories a day anymore,” he said. “It’s like, we’re a yellow giraffe on Facebook, a pink giraffe on Pinterest, and a blue giraffe on Instagram — we’re still a giraffe, but different.”

Screenshots of Apartment Therapy and The Kitchn on social media

Apartment Therapy and The Kitchn have adapted their content to a variety of social channels, including Instagram.

They’ve also discovered the advantages of deploying content in verticals — going more in-depth, not broader, to serve readers’ passions. Back in 2012, the two websites were the primary vehicles for content delivery, and, because each appealed to a single monolithic audience, some content categories would receive minimal treatment because others tended to attract larger audiences.

“With social, where we’re going — quickly — is deeper in a number of niches — deeper than we would have gone five years ago because we wouldn’t have been able to find a meaningful audience around the content back then.”

Apartment Therapy launched a real estate vertical and has plans to launch verticals for wellness and parenting in the coming months. “It’s taught us that we can build around a smaller audience because those readers are super-passionate,” Maxwell said. Supported by distinct social footprints, verticals allow the team to go deep to find readers — and advertisers — without diluting its brands.

Earning Audience Loyalty Through Meaningful Engagement

“Business is the place where I can learn, grow as a person, and perform the best service for the most people,” Maxwell said. So the team continues to learn and to adapt to change.

There are plans to launch a hybrid site — a hub that in 2018 will begin to syndicate custom content to Apartment Therapy, The Kitchn, and social platforms. This new way of organizing creation and distribution acknowledges the shift away from website front pages and the imperative to remain flexible and able to deliver content where audiences want it.

Maxwell believes that’s the best way to position Apartment Therapy and The Kitchn as providers of “passionate content that really connects with people over the long term — that’s what we do, and that’s the difference between just informing people and building lasting communities.”

It’s worth it because of the simple conviction that continues to drive Maxwell and his team: Home is where the heart is, and good homes make good hearts.

“If we could all just pay a little more attention to our homes,” he said. “If we could spend a little more time with them, learn a few new tricks, fix them up — I’m not talking about decorating because decorating is shallow — but the design in them, the health in them, the warmth in them. We would all feel so much better.”