How a hobby website about barbecue amassed 15,000 paying subscribers

AmazingRibs built a devoted audience through its grilling tutorials and reviews.

Because I write and podcast so much about the business of media, I regularly get emails from founders of niche media companies who want to tell me about their successful ventures. A few months ago, I received an email from a guy who identified himself only as Meathead, and after reading only a few paragraphs I knew I wanted to have him as a guest for my podcast.

Meathead, who’s been writing about food on the internet since the days of dial-up AOL, started the website AmazingRibs.com almost as a lark. Flash forward 15 years, and it’s the preeminent authority on all things barbecue. It generates a healthy mix of revenue from advertising, affiliate sales, books, and paid subscriptions, and it grew its business without help from any venture backing.

I recently interviewed Meathead about writing for AOL when it was the biggest game in town, running the third most popular wine magazine, and stumbling into a website venture that made him one of the most famous people within the barbecue scene.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

How he generated $10,000 a month from AOL before most journalists were writing on the web

Meathead has been writing on the internet longer than most of us. In fact, all the way back in the 90s he made a pretty penny generating content for AOL’s food and drink section. “I forget the exact year, but it was around 1990, I bumped into this guy Steve Case, and he was launching this thing called AOL. I hooked up with him and I took over his food and drink section soon after the launch of AOL, and of course the rest is history. It turned into a profit center for me and my business. I like to tell people that, once upon a time, AOL was Facebook. They ruled the world.”

This was back when most users stayed on AOL’s portal and didn’t venture out into the world wide web, which barely existed at the time. “We brought Julia Child online for her first live chat. We were making about 10 grand a month from it. In those days, AOL paid content providers based on the amount of time people spent in your content. So we were highly motivated to create sticky content.

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The founding of AmazingRibs.com

Meathead started AmazingRibs.com almost on a whim. He entered into a bet with a neighbor over who could cook the best barbecue, but when he went to research the subject online, he couldn’t find much. The site he launched started to rank high in Google search results almost immediately, and soon after it had tens of thousands of monthly visitors. “I realized fairly quickly that we had a small business here and I started putting more and more time into it. It very quickly branched beyond ribs and it took off. We put ads on there pretty soon after we launched. It took five years before I looked at it and said, ‘you know, at this rate of growth, this is what I'm going to do for a living.’ I cut loose all my web customers around 2010 and dove headfirst into the barbecue and grilling website.”

Eventually, AmazingRibs.com diversified beyond display advertising. “It didn't take me long to stumble into Amazon's affiliate program, and I knew immediately that with backyard barbecue, people were looking for product information. The demographics are like 80% male. They're mostly in the 30 and up age group. So we started testing and reviewing and rating grills and smokers and thermometers and spatulas and tongs. And we would link to Amazon and we were always upfront about it. In the early days, affiliate revenue was about 50/50, but eventually it surpassed advertising.”

At first, it was just Meathead testing the equipment and writing reviews, but then he brought on a guy named Max Good. “He is renowned as the world's leading expert on grills and smokers. Nobody has touched, cooked on, or tested grills and smokers more than he has. We make a habit of giving away the grills and smokers when we're done with them. We never sell them. Every fire department in spitting distance has a grill or a smoker from us.”

The site expands into paid memberships

For years, the site continued to grow. Eventually, however, it hit a plateau, and a change to Google’s algorithm negatively impacted its traffic. Programmatic advertising also became more unreliable. “We looked around and we started thinking, ‘you know, we have this extremely engaged audience and they really are interested. Why don't we try to create community?’ What we did was we created a forum, a message board environment, that is the core of our Pitmaster Club. It’s a community. The rest of the website, all the reviews, the articles, the science, the recipes, all 3000 pages are free. But the paywall is for the community. The paywall is for the interaction. The paywall is for the brotherhood, the connectivity, the relationship.”

The Pitmaster Club quickly became a major source of revenue. “We have just under 16,000 paid members at $23.95 a year. We enjoy an 83% renewal rate. It’s just a cool place. People are in there and they know each other by name.” The membership consists of a mix of hobbyists and professionals. The Pitmaster Club has been so successful that Meathead is preparing to launch a new membership arm that’s even more expensive. “We are looking at a Pitmaster Club Prime and we're thinking this'll be in the $94 a year range. It will be video centric; that extra difference between $24 and $94 will underwrite the cost of doing broadcast quality video. And we want to line up some of the top pitmasters in the world and do great video and turn Pitmaster Club Prime into barbecue TV.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.