From design blogger to designer of a multi-site empire

Apartment Therapy founder Maxwell Ryan turned his one-man blog into a media force. But he still obsesses over site traffic

Our series What Do People Do All Day? takes a look at the work life, lunch habits, and downtime of people across different industries.

Name: Maxwell Ryan
Title/Company: Founder and CEO, Apartment Therapy
Years on the job: 15
City: New York

When Maxwell Ryan launched Apartment Therapy in 2004, it was a one-man operation. “I wrote all the posts, sometimes 20 a day,” he says. But as the site grew from design blog to bigger design blog to a full-on media company with 100 employees, including a sister site, Kitchn, his role evolved with it. In 2010, he handed over the editor-in-chief titles to two of his top freelancers, and for the past four years, he’s been focused on his duties as CEO. 

“I used to think I worked all the time, and I did, but now it’s really different,” he says. “I remember being able to put on my headphones and listen to music and write. Now I’m much more with people all day long. I haven’t put on those headphones in a couple of years.”

That’s not to say his work is without creative purpose and fulfillment. “The original idea was about helping people with their homes—it was about problem-solving,” he says. In recent years, “I realized I had a new problem, and that problem was, ‘How do I design a company that can thrive and survive?’ And that had to do with people and org charts and clarity of mission. It was like, I had to declutter the company and create focus and alignment and all of these things that are basically—they’re managerial, but they’re really high-level design problems.”

Below, Ryan takes us behind the curtain of his workday. 

I get up at… 6:15, before my daughter, make a cup of coffee, and sit in my living room and read. That’s a really precious half hour. Right now I’m reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer, who lived through the rise of Hitler in Germany. It’s the book to read if you want to understand that period, and I’ve been reading it because I’m worried about our president. At 8 o’clock, I drop my daughter to school and go to yoga practice.

Ryan’s perfect workday includes a quiet morning to enjoy his coffee and a sushi lunch from Dean & DeLuca.

I spend my commute… listening to The Daily on headphones. I have a bicycle and a Vespa, so I don’t take the subway. 

The first thing I do when I sit down to work in the morning is… check the traffic from the previous day. Traffic is our lifeblood. It’s not just a representation of what we’re publishing, it’s also a representation of how much Google is either screwing us or being nice to us. We recently got hit with another Google algorithm shift—it took us down 20 percent overnight. Now, the first thing I do when I get to the office is walk around and visit with everybody. I think it’s nice to connect. It could take five, 10 minutes.

The thing most likely to break my focus… anybody coming in, wanting help with a problem. I’ve had to train myself to step back and think, Is this a problem I have to solve, or can I just support them, turn them around, and have them go solve it?

I always have a tab open to… The New York Times or Washington Post. I’m not a big, active reader of other websites or home sites or kitchen sites or even blogs. I’ve never really been that type of person.

I can waste a lot of time on… Wikipedia. I’ll go down a rabbit hole. Not every day, but if there’s something going on in the news and I jump to Wikipedia to look up that person, I find I start to track through all the relationships that Wikipedia allows you to follow.

The sites I avoid are… Instagram or Facebook or that whole time-wasting area. I haven’t looked at Instagram in weeks. I don’t eat enough of my own cooking, perhaps. I just… there’s not enough time.

My meeting schedule is… packed. I like to sit in on all the major meetings. I feel like that’s my job, like the headmaster of a school—I like to visit all the teachers in their classrooms.

Last time I daydreamed in a meeting was… this morning. I usually daydream about the book I’m reading. When you get up and read at the crack of dawn, a little nugget stays in your head and percolates throughout the day.

I eat at my desk… every day. One of my favorite things to do is go to Dean & DeLuca for sushi and drill through the news to see what’s happening in the world. That’s my relaxing lunch. 

My inbox is… at zero before I go to bed. That’s my policy. I used to have an assistant, but she graduated to another role in the company, and I didn’t rehire for the position—and that has made my life so much better. Because what assistants do is they help you communicate with more people, and then you have more communications to answer. So now I find that my email is much more under control. 

My Slack pet peeve is… people just create too many channels. There’s a lot of clutter. I don’t jump into the “everybody” Slack channels very often. I’m very service-oriented, and if I see a problem or a question, I can get sucked in fast. I’m direct messaging throughout the day instead. 

My preferred email signoff is… Best, M.

Last time I napped at work was… never. Do people really do that? My days are pretty busy, and I’m pretty wired to them. It wouldn’t even cross my mind.  

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