Conversation with Metafilter Founder Matt Haughey
February 5, 2010
At the heart of web journalism is the opportunity to engage, respond to, and learn from the community. Successful entrepreneurs have been able to figure out what online communities want and then give it to them.
Matt Haughey was one of the first people to do that. He started the community blog Metafilter in 1999. At a time when publishing models were still very top-down — “I talk, you listen” — Metafilter was a place where anyone could share ideas, comments, questions, and links. It was a forum for all topics under the sun. Metafilter eventually spawned the popular Ask Metafilter, where people can get answers from the community on questions from “Can I donate breast milk to Haiti?” to “What rates should I charge as a new freelance photographer?”
I spoke with Haughey this week about how he grew Metafilter from a side project into a profitable venture. In our conversation, he stressed three main things: build the site you want to use, listen to the community, and stay small.
Me: How many users does Metafilter have?
Matt Haughey: About 102,000. Around 15,000 active in the last week.
Me: How many new users do you get per month?
Matt: We’ve metered it — because of the $5 sign-up fee — purposely to slow it down. Maybe like 200 [new users] a month. Membership was free up until we had about 20,000 users. So it’s grown slowly ever since then.
Me: What about readership?
Matt: It’s continued to grow and grow — about 10 percent every few months, doubling every year. My Google analytics say there are about 17 or 18 million pages viewed by 7 million people around the world each month.
Me: How does readership break down, domestic versus international?
Matt: About 6.3 million out of 9.5 million are [readers] in the U.S…We have a huge European contingent…And New York is the most popular location.
Me: Do you have streams of revenue besides the signup-fee and advertising?
Matt: That’s pretty much it…The $5 signup fee isn’t subscription revenue [since it's a one-time thing]. It’s mostly just putting a huge hurdle in front of having to deal with new users. ‘Cause it’s such a pain. The last ten years have shown that any time there’s press, like the New York Times writes something about us, 300 people sign up and then wreak havoc for a while, and then go away. [Without barriers to entry] it would just be a nightmare.
So it’s really ad-based. It’s not something I ever set out to establish. I lucked into it, being in the right place at the right time.
Me: So what does your ad revenue look like?
Matt: It’s been really successful. I’m really lucky with the way Ask Metafilter works. Every question’s about a topic that’s easy to match ads to.
The other weird thing is, ads aren’t even shown to members. Members asking about what kind of digital cameras they should get want honest answers. But non-members searching for digital cameras online get [to Ask Metafilter] in that search.
Me: When you started Metafilter, did you have an idea of who the community was going to be and what it wanted?
Matt: I originally started it in ’99 when there were only like two dozen blogs. I knew everyone who had a blog and I just wanted to start my own. In the beginning, I used to go to Slashdot a lot and thought it could be a lot better — cleaner and simpler. [Metafilter] was sort of the first community blog. The first blog with comments, really. It was just straight up about any interesting thing online you could post.
Ask Metafilter is much more task-oriented. That was really launched in response to people asking for it a lot. And I thought that wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Me: How is Metafilter different from other messageboard/forum sites out there?
Matt: Metafilter benefits from being big and old and established now. There are about a million Q&A sites now, and I think Metafilter works well because the community’s big enough that there’s a wide range of experiences — but not so big as Yahoo Answers, where it’s like shouting into the abyss. It’s still personal and people want to help each other. It’s not a giant, anonymous, humongous web portal. We have a happy medium.
A friend of mine studying to be a pilot just started joining these two pilot forums and they’re God-awful. One let this guy talk on and on about politics. It’s just pure noise. Once a month, he comes back and says, “Oh my God, I never realized how much work you do behind the scenes.”
Me: Since you have barriers to entry — the sign-up fee, the one-week waiting period, etc. — does Metafilter benefit from being sort of exclusive?
Matt: Yeah, I mean, it’s not bad having some exclusivity. It’s definitely good that we won’t just get random driveby 15-year-olds like on Yahoo Answers.
Me: Is Metafilter the kind of site that grows itself? Like Facebook or Twitter, which are both self-expanding networks.
Matt: Yeah. It’s grown in fits and starts. But yeah, it grew pretty much on its own. There would be some sort of press mentioned or event, and there’d be a stairstep of growth, and then ten percent of those 300 people would stick around.
It grew naturally over first few years. I never sort of advertised the site anywhere. It just sort of grows all the time. Just sort of randomly. I’m not doing anything to goose that or anything. Because [the site] doesn’t work if it’s big. Metafilter is actually run by me and two moderaters and a programmer. It’s really done by hand. We’re constantly emailing people, contacting people personally. It’s a ton of work and would never work if tens of thousands of more people joined. I’m not interested in it going to twitter proportions at all.
Me: So many sites have developed a space for people to organize around topics that interest them. For example, Reddit, which is mainly a site for link sharing and social bookmarking, now has forums similar to Metafilter’s. Do you think people feel a natural need online to organize socially, no matter what the website?
Matt: I think people are constantly asking for more and more features. The more time someone spends on a site, the more they want it to do for them.
I have people constantly asking me to recreate Gmail, recreate Flickr, recreate Twitter, recreate Delicious. “Can’t I just post a link instead of having to make a post about it?” “Can’t I upload photos into posts?” Well Flickr already does photos so much better, so why don’t you just go there and we’ll figure out ways to bring them into our site.
I think it’s natural for the most hardcore members of any community to request those kinds of things.
Reddit grows the way it does because they’ve got a staff of like a dozen, so they can whip out new sections pretty easily.
Facebook’s coming at it from a corporate position. It’s basically like AOL in 1997 — everything is there and there’s no need to go anywhere else. I don’t know if they’re even considering what users want anymore. It’s all about how to maximize revenue and all that crap. It’s wanting to be everything to everybody possible so they won’t have to go anywhere else.
Note: According to http://www.reddit.com/help/faq, Reddit currently has a staff of 5. According to Reddit community manager Erik Martin (who has commented below) new sections are created by Reddit users.
Me: How do you figure out what different Metafilter communities want?
Matt: When we think of new features, about three-quarters are suggested by users. We’re deliberately really slow about big things. Small things we do all the time.
Adding an entire new section of the site — like Travel Filter, [a travel-only section]: we fretted about it for years and then didn’t do it even though we built it. We didn’t want it to take away from Metafilter. But now we’re thinking of putting it back. [Because there are so many travel threads, we wanted] location-based tools, geocoding, better findability of previous questions.
Me: When did you quit your day-job and turn to Metafilter full-time?
Matt: I quit my job in 2005. For the first six years, I was running it from 6pm-9pm [after work everyday].
Me: You’ve said your advice for entrepreneurs is to avoid venture capital. Can you explain that a bit?
Matt: I have so many friends in the technology industry who are so obsessed with getting funded. And they’re confusing that with getting paid and it being money. People see it as free money, and it’s not. A lot of people obsessed with venture capital see Metafilter as a lifestyle business, but in my mind, it’s a mature business. It works really well and yet nobody aspires to do something like this and I don’t know why. Nobody celebrates just simple businesses that work.
Don’t take any money, don’t owe anything to anyone, build [your business] how you want instead of constantly being on that treadmill of growth growth growth.
Me: What makes Metafilter a success?
Matt: I’d like to think it’s intense moderation and customer service. I try to create an interesting space for people. I’ve done my best to support what’s going on [in the community] and not get in the way. I built the site I always wanted to be apart of. And now relentlessly keep up with it. It was three or four years before I even made a dollar, and six or seven years before it was profitable.