Enthusiasm un-Curbed

Questions for Lockhart Steele, New York real estate blog founder

Dec.December 02, 2008 03:45 PM

If there’s a new condo planned somewhere in Manhattan, chances are Curbed.com has been tracking its progress.

But the site — a blog focused on New York City real estate and neighborhood news, founded four years ago by Lockhart Steele — is hardly just a cheerleader for the industry. Instead, Curbed tracks price “chops” with glee, and offers up renderings for its readers to critique plus floor plans for them to dissect with abandon.

Headlines on the site are emblematic of its playful and often snarky take on real estate and neighborhood issues. A few from late last month include “Hipsters May Freeze Asses Off in Burg Park After All,” “Mercedes Benz Says Two Trees Will Open in Hell in 2011” and “Floorplan Porn: Puttin’ on the Ritz, Then Ditching It.”

In Steele’s introductory post on Curbed in May 2004, he wrote: “New York City is the self-described real estate capital of the world, but even to those spending the $1 million it takes to buy an ‘average’ apartment in Manhattan — or those dropping $2 million to, you know, get that second bedroom — the rules of the game can be obscure, and good information hard to come by.”

Since then, Curbed New York’s coverage has expanded to include Brooklyn real estate and neighborhood trends, and has included original reporting on Williamsburg waterfront development, regular market reports from appraiser Jonathan Miller, and — among some of its oddball stories — coverage of a cat killer prowling the streets of Woodside, Queens.

Curbed’s network of sites now includes 10 blogs — in addition to Curbed New York, there’s Curbed San Francisco and Los Angeles; in the same three cities, meanwhile, there are Eater and Racked, sites devoted to restaurants and retail; and Gridskipper, a travel site recently peeled away from Gawker Media — that Steele says attract about 1 million unique visitors a month.

A little over a year ago, Curbed drummed up $1.5 million in financing to expand and add staff members. Since then Steele has focused on building the Curbed brand and largely handed over regular blogging duties to staffers. The company recently relocated its headquarters from Desbrosses Street to larger digs in Cooper Square.

In an interview with The Real Deal, Steele declined to comment on whether Curbed is turning a profit or attracting new investors, though he remains upbeat about the network’s future despite the softening real estate, retail and restaurant markets. He also held forth about what it’s like to go from being a blogger to a businessman, future plans for the network and how he expects his creation to make him a gazillionaire.

One of your investors, Brad Inman, said last year in a New York Times article about Curbed, “Nobody’s free of the dark shadow of a down market.” The three foci of Curbed media — real estate, restaurants and retail — are all seeing softness in the market. How is Curbed positioned to ride this out?

Brad’s right, of course. A down market is hard for everyone. But a couple things play to our advantage. First, we’re small and digital, which means we don’t carry the printing and distribution costs that print does. And second, especially in real estate, we’re still looking at an industry that spends the lion’s share of its marketing budgets offline. In a tougher market, I think we’ll see folks move more marketing money online because, in short, it’s cheap and it works. Operators are standing by! No, really, they are.

You’ve got a presence in three markets: New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. How are the West Coast markets faring compared to New York?

From a traffic perspective, Los Angeles has always been a robust second city for us, and now does about half the traffic that we do in New York, across the board. San Francisco, which was our last city to launch, is also our smallest city, but it’s seen significant growth this year. In terms of how they’re faring from an economic perspective, it’s been interesting to see how the cores of each city, say, Santa Monica to Silver Lake in L.A., and Pacific Heights to the Mission in San Francisco, are much like the core of Manhattan: highly desirable real estate that has come off the highs of 2007 but still holds up quite nicely. I wouldn’t expect either market to crash in value any more than I’d expect that to happen on the Upper West Side.

How much more traffic does Curbed NY get than Curbed in other cities, as well as Eater and Racked?

It’s about half as big in L.A. as in New York; in San Francisco, it’s about a third of New York. Eater’s our second-most trafficked property — in New York, it’s more than half the size of Curbed’s traffic. And Racked, our newest site, is creeping up on Eater. We also acquired Gridskipper, one of the Web’s best-known travel blogs, from Gawker Media this year. It’s our smallest site, but also one of the most fun, with an intense focus on map-based coverage.

Any plans for other cities?

We’ve been trying to get Chicago out the door for a while, and had hoped to do so this fall. But ultimately, it didn’t seem to be the ideal economic climate for capital expansion. Hopefully, when the smoke clears, we’ll make it happen.

Is Curbed profitable? If not, how far away from profitability is it?

We don’t comment on our financials, but I am authorized to say that the lights are still on, and we’ve recently procured a microwave for the team.

Do you miss blogging?

Oh, definitely. I still get in the blog trenches now and then, and as time allows. I hope to blog more on Curbed in the future. The interactions that it allows, especially with our readers and tipsters, is the best part. You haven’t lived until you’ve spent a morning with the inbox for the Curbed tipline, which may contain anything from a reader rant about Park Slope strollers to an incisive analysis of the East Harlem real estate market. For the brokers out there who think everyone who reads Curbed is another broker, our audience is actually 85 percent consumer. One thing that I know for sure: Our readers are a lot smarter about real estate than I am. This is a good thing.

What is your pitch to national advertisers?

Totally depends on the advertiser and the category. We’ve had national advertisers — among them, American Express, Nokia, Volkswagen, Gap, and, coming soon on Racked, Victoria’s Secret — come on board for all sorts of reasons. For instance, Amex wanted to reach a restaurant-loving audience in core urban markets, so a cross-buy on Eater and Curbed seemed intuitively obvious to them. The NBC show “Lipstick Jungle” ran a splashy campaign last spring when it debuted, on Racked, because it’s our one site where the audience skews female.

What can users expect Curbed to look like a year from now?

The site itself will probably look much the same, but where things are changing is we’re going deeper. This fall, we launched the Curbed Marketplace — our take on a listings system with some cool twists, like the ability to drop a blurb about an apartment listing into the blog flow of the Curbed home page. We call these QuickListings. We’ve got a lot more we’d like to do in the Marketplace space for other sites; for instance, a job board on Eater. And I’d like to see our neighborhood coverage get even more robust.

Will Curbed make you a gazillionaire who rules over all media?

Interesting. How did you know?


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