How an engineering student accidentally started a thriving science news site
Hüseyin Kilic grew Interesting Engineering into a media behemoth with over 15.5 million social media followers.
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Hüseyin Kilic had no ambitions to operate a media business when he opened an account on Blogspot in 2011. In fact, he barely had any concept of what a media business was.
At the time, Kilic was a university engineering student and occasionally traveled to his hometown in Turkey to help his father run an internet café. “Customers could rent a computer on an hourly basis,” he told me. “I would sometimes play games with the customers, but after some time I grew bored.” He wanted to improve his English language skills, and it occurred to him that he could do so through blogging. So he launched one at interestingengineering.blogspot.com.
Today, Kilic readily admits that he had no idea what he was doing. Whenever he read an article that he enjoyed, he simply copy and pasted the entire thing onto his blog. “I wasn’t trying to steal other people’s work,” he said. “I was just reading this content, I liked it, and I wanted to use my blog to feature it. I was treating it like a notepad.”
It didn’t take long for Kilic to get bored with the blog, and he pretty much abandoned it when he went back to school. “I had midterms and I had to study a lot,” he said. “I was a hard working student.” Another four weeks passed before he went back to his father’s internet café. When he logged into his Blogspot dashboard, he was shocked to see that the site was getting over 1,000 visits a day, mostly from Google. “After that, I was interested in learning more about this — how people came to the web page, how I can convert it into money.”
Kilic fell down an internet rabbit hole where he learned about things like SEO and Google Adsense. He quickly realized that, while plagiarizing content was frowned upon, he could summarize news and then link back to the original source. As he incorporated more and more of his learnings into the blog, its audience growth accelerated.
Flash forward 10 years, and Interesting Engineering – which I’ll henceforth refer to as IE – is one of the most popular science news publishers in the world. Not only does it generate millions of visits on its website, but it also has massive reach across platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. And while Kilic built the business through ad-funded content aggregation, he has ambitions to publish more longform journalism and place it behind a subscription paywall.
How did a Turkish college student with no journalism experience and a shaky grasp of English accomplish such a feat? I recently interviewed Kilic about IE’s journey from a one-person blog to a full-fledged media company that employs dozens of people and reaches millions of consumers worldwide. Let’s jump into my findings…
Riding the Facebook wave
Kilic made two consequential decisions in the early days of running IE.
The first was that he signed up for a Google Adsense account. His earnings were relatively small at first, but with the low cost of living in Turkey he was able to hire a few English-speaking freelancers who helped dramatically increase the site’s article output.
The second was that he launched an accompanying Facebook page. His timing was perfect, in that this was the era when Facebook, eager to get publishers addicted to its platform, began heavily promoting their page content within the Newsfeed. With IE’s penchant for aggregating viral science news, its stories performed well with Facebook’s algorithm, which led to astronomical growth. “Every page was growing at that time,” Kilic recalled. He started engaging in content swaps with other larger page owners where he’d share their content in exchange for them sharing his. “I remember that at one point we were getting 30,000 new followers every day.”
As traffic grew, so did Kilic’s earnings, some of which he used to hire even more freelance writers. He paid people via a Paypal account connected to his father’s bank account. In 2013, he graduated with his engineering degree. “I entered university as a poor student because my family situation was very bad,” he said. “But when I graduated, I was the richest student of the university, and everyone was talking about me.” Kilic compared it to being a YouTube star. By that time IE’s Facebook page had over 1 million likes.
One might assume that Kilic would immediately embark on a full-time career of running IE, but he didn’t even consider that as an option. “I didn’t think I could create a future with the blog. There was no industry in Turkey for that, especially in my home town. Even in Istanbul I couldn’t find people.” Military service is compulsory in Turkey, and Kilic knew he’d be shipped off to a place where he didn’t have regular access to the internet. “I left everything to my Nigerian friend. I paid him and a couple freelance writers six months of salary, and I told them I’m going to the military and there will be no internet. Everything is on you. Take care of this blog.” He also gave the login credentials for Google Adsense to his sister, and he called her every day to ask about the earnings.
Those earnings did drop while he was in military service, but the strategy at least prevented the site from losing momentum. When he came back, he took over running IE while resuming his search for a job. “My idea was that if I could get one year as an engineer and run IE part time, then after a year I could quit my job and focus on IE full time.” That way, if IE later failed he at least had the relevant experience that would allow him to find another engineering job.
Kilic did end up finding a job — as an engineer at a Jaguar factory in the UK —but he didn’t last long. Within six months, IE’s Facebook engagement shot up even more, and Google Adsense started paying out 10X of what he had been earning from it while in Turkey. Up until then, he had still been routing everything through his father’s bank account, but he decided finally that it was time to move back to Turkey and formally establish a company.
Given his inability to find talent in his family’s hometown, this meant renting office space in Istanbul. By 2018, IE had two full-time editors, and Kilic slowly began building up a team. Even in a major city with millions of people, this proved difficult. “I was very bad with management.” People would often suggest their own friends to fill roles, and in Kilic’s rush to fill positions he made several bad hires that didn’t pan out. Eventually, his hiring and management skills improved, and by the end of 2016 he felt that he had a reliable team in place.
Diversifying traffic and content
For the first few years of IE’s existence, it was almost entirely dependent upon Facebook for traffic; Kilic estimates that it accounted for over 70% of referrals. But then in 2017 Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s pivot away from news, and Kilic saw an immediate impact on IE’s page reach. This forced him to change his audience strategy in a few ways.
First, he began to educate himself on SEO, even traveling to the US to attend industry conferences. In a short period of time, he was able to vastly increase the amount of traffic the site received from Google.
The second was that he started investing in video. Remember, this was an era when Facebook, in its bid to compete with YouTube, was heavily favoring video posts within the Newsfeed algorithm. Though Kilic couldn’t monetize video at the time, he found that posting them helped his Facebook page continue to grow.
At first, the videos were fairly rudimentary; a company’s press team would send over tech product videos and IE’s videographers would simply splice in some music and text. But then he started scaling up the company’s capabilities by licensing video content and hiring both animators and narrators. In October 2017, IE launched a YouTube channel, which allowed it to monetize video through the platform’s partnership program.
Today, video is central to IE’s business and generates hundreds of millions of views across Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, LinkedIn, and Instagram. Many of these are short and simple, like this one about a mini dishwasher showcased at CES, but others are scripted explainer videos that go fairly deep on a specific topic. For instance, this video takes a fairly comprehensive look at the careers of underwater welders and what their jobs entail.
Facebook eventually rolled out mid-roll advertising capabilities, and videos on the platform now account for a significant portion of IE’s revenue. This has allowed Kilic to hire out more video talent; today IE’s team includes videographers, 2D animators, voiceover artists, and script editors.
IE has also begun to invest more in newsletter distribution, though Kilic admits that the company was late to the game. “We didn’t have a newsletter strategy until I moved to Istanbul in 2018. We were collecting emails” – through a signup form on the article pages – “but we weren’t sending newsletters.” By the time IE did start sending out newsletters, many of the addresses were inactive and open rates were low. So Kilic’s marketing team segmented out the inactive addresses, attempted to re-engage them, and then removed the ones that were still unresponsive. This shrunk the list by 60%, but the open rates shot up.
IE’s daily newsletter, which is called The Blueprint, currently has around 80,000 subscribers. It summarizes several stories, features a daily poll, and recently rolled out a referral program that offers merch for those who convert friends and colleagues into subscribers. You can win everything from a “charging bracelet” (10 referrals) to IE-branded headphones (150 referrals).
Today, IE’s only receives about 35% of its traffic from Facebook. Another 45% comes from search, and the remaining 20% derives from a mixture of direct visits, newsletters, and other social networks. IE’s content is also available on Apple News, though Kilic said that the company generates very little money on the platform. “A lot of people consume news on Apple News itself. They don’t come to our webpage.”
Investing in longform and paid subscriptions
For almost the entirety of its existence, IE has primarily functioned as a content aggregator, in that it generated its articles by having its writers mine scholarly publications, company press releases, and other news reports. Rarely did they conduct interviews or perform longform analysis. It also relied almost entirely on programmatic advertising. Kilic readily acknowledges that this caused a steady worsening in the user experience as the site increasingly got weighed down by ad tech.
Starting in early 2021, Kilic set out to improve both the site experience and content quality. He started by commissioning a complete overhaul of the site’s design so that it greatly reduced the number of ads a user sees. He plans to hire out staff from New York, including a director of revenue, with the goal of bringing in more high-CPM direct advertising.
He also began building out resources for longform writing, hiring two writers in New York and one in India to focus almost exclusively on this kind of content. Here, for instance, is a 3,000 word article published in December on what it would be like to live on the moon. While it doesn’t contain any quotes that were sourced from original interviews, it’s extensively researched and demonstrates a fairly firm grasp of the subject matter at hand.
Kilic wants to expand IE’s longform reporting in 2022, and he intends to fund that expansion through a paid subscription model. Though it hasn’t launched yet, he plans to roll out a freemium model – similar to the one at Insider – that places all of the aggregated content in front of the paywall and all longform articles behind it. Currently, IE publishes about 450 aggregated articles per month, and Kilic wants to start with publishing 50 additional longform articles for subscribers. That way, he can grow the subscription business without jeopardizing the lucrative advertising revenue that keeps the entire site afloat.
Kilic himself says he wants to move to New York and build out more operations in the US. I asked him why he’s planning to increase his overhead when he already has a sustainable media operation. “We are trying to invest in better, high quality journalism,” he said. “We are trying to become something cool. My goal isn’t just to earn money. I could have a very good life in Turkey right now. But my personal goal is to create a very high quality media brand in technology and science. We want to talk deeply about engineering. We want to do interviews. We want to visit plants. But it will be for a general audience. It won’t be just for engineers. It’s popular science. We’re taking the very complicated stuff and making it simple.”
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