This is the next in Accent’s series of posts that explore how online publications around the world work. Every week, we find stories about the people, tools, and ideas that are driving online journalism. Today, we chatted with David Basulto, the co-founder and CEO of ArchDaily.
ArchDaily was created in 2008 by David Basulto and David Assael and today is the largest digital magazine about architecture in the world, with offices in Chile, China, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, and Colombia. It’s famous for its comprehensive coverage of architectural events and projects from all around the globe and for the “Building Of The Year” awards. ArchDaily is also experimenting with new technologies like VR.
Everything started in 2005 from something called Plataforma Urbana, the urban platform. David Assael came to me with the idea to use the web to share information about cities with the citizens of Chile so they would feel empowered to have better cities. We were about to change our public transportation system, build the tallest tower in Latin America, use bikes more to get around—but people didn’t have any idea about all these things or realize how they related to their quality of life. We started to share this information and Plataforma Urbana quickly became super influential among decision makers. Today in Santiago the intendente (like the mayor) is super focused on the city because it’s so important to his political platform. And all of that started because of this initial idea that we could improve the quality of cities with the help of the web.
We understood from the start that some of the most important actors in a city are the architects. And for the architects to have access to architectural knowledge—libraries of inspiration, case studies, new books—is super important. I had tried to access this information, but most of it is housed in big cities like London, Boston, Milan, New York; being in Chile it was very expensive and hard to get there.
We felt the internet could help make this content available globally and for free, so we started Plataforma Arquitectura in 2006. We started publishing all these young architects who were doing interesting work, but who weren’t being featured in the traditional publications. They shared our work with their friends, and it started to grow very quickly. All of the sudden, we were being ranked higher than Spanish architecture publications from the big publishing houses in Mexico and Spain—I was in shock.
Audience: 6 mln unique users per month
Tools: custom CMS, onthe.io, Google Analytics
One day in 2008, we featured a project by a young Colombian architect and three days later he sent us an email and said that 14 publications from around the world had already contacted him to feature his work, too. And they were publications from the U.S., Italy, China, and Japan, so they didn’t even speak Spanish! They were using our website to find new interesting things, and then going through the effort to translate it and share it with their readers.
That’s when we decided to go global, which meant publishing in English. We decided to launch ArchDaily in New York, because to us it was the center of the world.
In September 2008, we landed in New York in the middle of the financial crisis. It was very strange walking around Manhattan and seeing the collapse of the global economy, seeing people walk out of buildings with boxes. It was also very empowering to start at that time because allowed for the rise of the internet-based economy.
Since then we’ve grown like crazy—today we reach more than half a million daily readers and have millions of followers on social media.
After launching in the U.S. we found out there was a website in China taking our content and translating it every day. This happens all the time when you’re doing something important or useful. We started sending cease and desist letters but never got a response, so when we finally went to Beijing for the Pulitzer Prize ceremony we asked to meet the guy behind it. He was very brainy—an architect with a masters in Computer Science who was finishing his PhD in Architecture—and he told us, “What you do is important for Chinese architects, but many of them don’t speak English—I’m doing you a favor by helping you reach them.” He reminded us that China is the fastest growing economy in the world, where construction is happening at an unprecedented pace, and therefore architects there really needed this. It took us a few years but today our Daily in China is up with a full staff operating in Beijing.
We’ve seen similar growth from other countries whose economies are changing rapidly—Brazil, India, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Turkey, and Russia—and we’re doing our best to build relationships and make that happen. At the same time, it’s very important for us to remain in Chile, because we think it’s better to be on the outskirts and have a global view than think you’re the center of the world in one of the hubs.
The team and the business model
In our Santiago office there’s about 40 people, and in total we have 65. Most of our content team is in Chile and they all work together at this very long table in our newsroom. It’s this multicultural group of people who are creating articles, developing content strategies, and looking for architecture projects. Our head of content is Becky Quintal, a Mexican-American who studied Media and Architecture at Harvard.
We also have full-time editorial teams in Brazil, Mexico, the UK, the U.S., and Beijing that produce local content. This allows us to have a somewhat centralized operation in Chile but also relate better to local needs with these satellite operations. But we are all very connected.
For a while we used WordPress, but given our scale it was not effective, so we had to spend a couple of years developing our own CMS. That means we also have an in-house developer team. Our sales team supports our commercial operations to maintain growth. We also have finance and administration teams to handle operations.
We had to innovate on the revenue side because most architectural magazines will have banner advertising and we didn’t want that. From our experiences working in architecture, we understood that having information about the materials was very important. We would be designing something and say, “What could we use for this ceiling? Remember the ceiling in this project? We should call him and ask what he used.” You trust an architect’s recommendation, and by seeing the products or materials in other projects you get inspired. So we decided to develop a product catalog for the work published in ArchDaily. After you see all these fantastic projects by the world’s best architects, you can see the products and the materials they used in our catalog, and you can request quotes online for more information. We have found a win-win for advertisers and users, providing knowledge that didn’t exist before in traditional publications.
The publication has a really unique business model
We receive a lot of submissions from architects, and our team curates them. They’re also always actively scouting. We always ask ourselves, “Can this project add value to an architect?” Whereas traditional paper publications need to look beautiful so they might overlook very good projects that don’t have quality photos, we know architects can see value even if the photos aren’t great. Because of that, ArchDaily presents a wide range of what is happening in the architecture world, from public projects with very, very tiny budgets but a very big impact to projects that present a certain kind of material innovation that can be applied at large.
The team also creates content. They’re very connected the architecture world, so they have a very good overview of what is happening, and some of them are actively participating in workshops and seminars. For example, Nico Valencia—who’s focused on Latin America—is participating in a workshop on bamboo architecture in the jungle of Ecuador. Because of our global perspective and reach, people across the world get to know about something that before might have been limited to Latin America.
Building of the Year
We started with this idea almost immediately when we started with Plataforma Arquitectura. At the time we were only publishing one project per week, but now that we publish 20 per day it’s important to recognize the best ones at the end of the year.
We decided we’d let our community vote to choose the winners. Year after year, we have seen this methodology work because it is very decentralized and the results are diverse. For sure, there are star architects with fantastic buildings, but there are also unknown architects from Southeast Asia or Portugal building their first project who are worth knowing. This collective intelligence that we have helps filter through these thousands of projects. Last year we had a “Building of the Year Award” for each of our local publications, as well as a global one. We’re thinking about how to do it better next year—because it’s becoming so big, we’re struggling with how to make it global while still recognizing the local.
We have been lucky to partner with brands to make this happen; this year we were with Saint-Gobain, the largest construction material manufacturer in the world. They saw a match between what we want on a global scale and their global branding efforts.
VR and the experience of a building
In the last two or three years Oculus Rift and Google have made big advancements on making VR available, and 360° cameras are becoming much cheaper.
Why is this technology important for us? We had to step back and ask ourselves: What is architecture? This question has many answers, but I think that one of the biggest ones is that it’s an experience. You go into a building and you experience something, you feel something. To share that experience has been a challenge and for centuries it has been done in the same way: through architectural drawings and then through photos. Now some people are doing videos, but when we have the possibility to create a 360° immersive environment, we get what’s closer to replicating an actual architectural experience.
During the past few months our team has been traveling around the world, visiting interesting buildings and capturing them in 360°. We also went to the Venice Biennale and captured many pavilions, not only to show the projects, but also to show the architects that they have a new way to share their work.
ArchDaily has partnered with Samsung to explore the potential of VR for architects
We started this company as two architects with no formal training in how to run a business. We did everything out of instinct and passion. In the beginning when there was only two of us this was fine, but now that we’re 65 people working from 5 different countries, being the CEO is a more complex job.
We didn’t have a formal media training either, but I think that allowed us to do things that were perhaps strange for journalists, like our revenue model. Plus, our architectural backgrounds have served us well, because it goes beyond creating buildings—it’s a way of thinking that lets you understand and address problems from an outside perspective. I constantly apply tools from the architecture world to what we do. For example, every year we do something called “Less is More,” where we remove things from the site and clean up interfaces and processes to make them more clear. That comes from a desire in architecture for form to follow function.
Metrics and goals
It’s very important that we have a clear mission. We want to improve the quality of life of the next three billion people who will move into cities by the year 2050, providing the inspiration, knowledge, and tools to the architects who will face this challenge. That is a bit abstract, so we translate it into a yearly strategy. Every year, David Assael and I work with our team on the strategic plan, objectives, and action plans—along with metrics to measure them. Then we get together with all the ArchDailiers from around the world at a yearly retreat in Chile to go over the plan.
As for tools, our CMS provides us with certain metrics and we also use Google Analytics, but we have gotten so big that we’ve reached a limit with those tools so we’re working with a Ukrainian company that provides analytics for media platforms, called onthe.io. They provide us with useful daily metrics so we can see how the content that each author creates performs on different distribution platforms and in different languages.
ArchDaily wants to inform people during the period of rapid urbanization
We’re very lucky to have been born in this era of the internet, but also in the era when cities have become the biggest challenge of mankind. Today more than half of the population live in cities and this number is only accelerating—75% of world population will live in cities by 2050. The issue is, where’s that growth going to happen? It’s not going to happen in North America or Europe. Most of developing countries are going to see new cities of tens of millions of people that today do not exist, and they really need this architectural knowledge. For us, it’s super important to be part of this process.
There are many issues related to urbanization. How are we going to establish more effective relationships with the people that we’ll be living with? How will we manage things such as income disparity when the poor are living right next to the rich? What different kinds of networks are we going to use to relate to our city, like Uber, Airbnb, or Tinder? It’s also important how we’re going to develop the architectural side of this new future. A lot of developers have this abstract global view that the future should be tall glass skyscrapers, but maybe it is more sustainable to use the local techniques and identity of each architecture scene.
That’s why we have set this very ambitious goal for ArchDaily. It’s great that we can’t achieve it in just a few years. This makes the people who work at ArchDaily feel like they’re part of something big that will help build the future.