How Living Cozy leveraged product reviews to build a successful ecommerce business
Founder Ash Read explained how he built up search authority in a crowded content niche.
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Ash Read remembers the first commission he ever earned on his product review blog: £9.37.
By that point, Read had been running LivingCozy.com — a website dedicated to household products — for about six weeks and didn’t have much to show for it. “There were multiple weekends where I sat writing about chairs and bar stools on a Saturday morning and wondered what I was doing,” he told me. He earned the commission when a reader clicked on a link to a bedding brand and made a purchase. “If you break that £9.37 down over an hourly rate for how much I'd put into the site, it really wasn't worth it,” he said. “But it gave me this belief that there was something here and that it could make money. That £9.37 felt way more amazing than receiving my paycheck at the end of the month, and even though it definitely wouldn't pay my mortgage or bills, it really spurred me on to keep going.”
This was back in mid-2020, a period when Read was still pulling information from other websites to populate his product pages. But as his traffic grew — mostly via Google searches — he started receiving inquiries from direct-to-consumer brands to see if they could send him products to review. This not only allowed him to produce his own original content — which supercharged his ranking in Google search results — but it also gained him access to special affiliate links that paid out much higher commissions than he was used to.
From there, Living Cozy saw explosive growth, eventually reaching 350,000 monthly pageviews and $15,000 in monthly revenue. By 2023, he employed an entire team of freelance reviewers and had direct relationships with the world’s largest home product brands. In August of this year, he sold Living Cozy to an undisclosed buyer.
How did Read manage to break into such a saturated market category that was already dominated by much larger websites? In an interview, we talked about his introduction to direct-to-consumer products, his clever use of search keywords, and how he coordinated the shipment of large pieces of furniture to reviewers all over the world.
Let’s jump into my findings…
Getting to know the direct-to-consumer market
Read spent most of his career in marketing and discovered early on that he had a knack for copywriting. After stints at various agencies, he got a job in 2015 as a content producer for Buffer, a social media scheduling tool. As he moved up within the company from writer to editor, he started to amass skills in building an audience, especially through SEO, and in his six years at Buffer he grew its traffic from 750,000 to 1.5 million visitors per month.
During Read’s tenure, Buffer launched several tools specifically designed for direct-to-consumer companies. D2C brands, for the uninitiated, basically bypass all major retailers and sell products directly from their websites; if you’ve bought a Casper mattress or a case of Soylent, then you’re probably familiar with how they work. “[D2C companies] were at the cutting edge of social,” recalled Read. “They were wanting to try our new features, and they were always wanting to push the product and test the limits of what Buffer could do.”
Read grew fascinated with D2C brands because of all the extra legwork required to drive awareness of their products. Most were incredibly adept at optimizing social media ads, especially on Instagram. They also offered up generous affiliate links that paid out much higher commissions than what you would find with Amazon or other e-retailers. In fact, some websites that were entirely dedicated to reviewing and recommending D2C products were generating upwards of seven figures in revenue.
During his research, Read realized that there wasn’t really a way to stumble across a D2C product unless it was recommended to you. Remember, they purposefully didn’t sell through retailers, so you couldn’t simply browse through an index of these products. “The only way I was really discovering these brands was when they would advertise to me on social media,” said Read. “So I started a spreadsheet, and just every time I discovered one of the brands through ads, I would put it in the spreadsheet with a few details like where they were located and what products they sold.”
Eventually, Read decided to release his database online. He had been playing around with a tool called Webflow, which made it easy to build websites without any coding skills. “It was in the middle of the Covid lockdowns, and there wasn't a lot going on, so I put it together over a weekend.” The website was called Home Supply, and Read tweeted it out when he was finished. “It got a really good response. It wasn't like viral, but there were probably like 10 or 15 people retweeting it and several messaged me to say it was cool. And that kind of made me feel like there must be something there and it's worth spending a bit more time on.”
But first, Read needed to find a better name for his website. After plugging in several domains, he discovered that LivingCozy.com was available for $500, so he bought it. With the new URL in place, he was ready to get started. “I kind of sat down and was like, well, if I'm going to build this, I need to get sustainable traffic.” A simple directory of D2C brands wasn’t going to cut it; he needed to start populating the site with real content.
Developing a content strategy
Rather than focusing on a broad range of direct-to-consumer brands, Read wanted to specifically zero in on household products like furniture and kitchenware, mostly because he’d recently moved and needed to furnish his own house.
There was only one problem: that niche was already extremely saturated. Thousands of websites ranging from Apartment Therapy to Better Homes and Gardens exist to recommend household products, and by 2020 they had over a decade head start on building search authority.
Luckily, Read had built up the SEO skills at his day job that would allow him to tackle this problem head on. He started by plugging hundreds of keywords into SEO-oriented tools that measure the level of search demand for each term. Through that method, he began to identify keywords that had relatively high volumes of search but not much high-quality content dedicated to them. “There are certain things that I looked for in those opportunities,” he explained. “First I looked for the freshness of the content that's currently ranking on that results page. If it was more than a couple years old, then there was a really good opportunity to get in there and take that spot.”
The quality of the content also mattered. “For instance, if it’s ranking because it's on a high-authority domain like ApartmentTherapy.com but it's maybe like 300 words and it hasn't been touched for a couple of years and there's not any real expert insight,” he said. “I was essentially like looking for those opportunities where a fresh site could rank and then just tried to publish as much content as I could.”
Given that Living Cozy had no traffic, Read didn’t have the clout to request products for review, so he had to settle for simply pulling information from publicly available sources. “If I was creating a furniture guide, I would just list maybe like 15 direct consumer furniture brands and use information that's already available on their website, and then as the site started to get a little bit more traffic, I would reach out to people that worked at these brands — or, if possible, the founders of these brands — and ask them for comments about how they launched, what makes them unique, and why customers love them.”
In fact, these founder interviews provided a crucial way for Read to attract links — and therefore search authority — to Living Cozy. “You'll quite often see that brands have a press page [on their websites], and it just has all of the reviews and all of the interviews that their teams have done. And that's kind of how I prioritized which brands to reach out to — because I kind of assume that if they have a press page, they are focused on getting press coverage, and they're going to be more willing to do interviews. And then as soon as I'd published the interview, I would just send it over to them and just kind of say, ‘you know, any chance you could link to it on the press page’? And nine times out of 10 they would, because they like to share their coverage.”
Establishing direct relationships with brands
The first several months of running Living Cozy were a real slog, with Read spending plenty of time wondering if he was wasting his nights and weekends working on it. But gradually, the site’s pages began to rank in Google results, and by December 2020 it was receiving around 30,000 pageviews per month.
By mid-2021, Living Cozy was generating around 100,000 views per month and was starting to send a significant number of clicks to product websites. Early on, Read installed Skimlinks, a tool that aggregates affiliate links from thousands of brands, and once he was armed with enough data showing he could actually drive sales, he began to reach out to brands to establish a direct relationship.
This had two main benefits. The first was that Read could convince these brands to hand over custom affiliate links that paid out much higher commissions than Skimlinks — a request they were happy to grant to websites with a proven track record of driving sales.
The second benefit was that Living Cozy now had enough clout that companies were willing to mail it their products for review. Given that Google was starting to punish publishers that merely aggregated review copy from other websites, Read needed hands-on reviews if he hoped to maintain his rankings in search results.
But this posed a problem for Read. “I'm based in the UK, and none of these brands ship over here. So I needed to find a bunch of reviewers from the US who could help me with these pieces. And it was also challenging because if you find one really good reviewer, they can probably review one, maximum two, sofas before they just don't have room for it anymore.”
Read quickly amassed a network of writers who had review-writing experience, and he built out a framework for how each review should be formatted. “We’d include all of the details that people want to know when they buy. It was also important that they’d take photos, because it's really important to have original photos in product reviews since it's another signal — not just to Google, but to people reading the content — that you have actually got your hands on these.”
Armed with original reviews and better affiliate links, Living Cozy’s traffic and revenue exploded. By 2022, Read was generating 150,000 page views and over $10,000 per month. By 2023, those figures had more than doubled.
By that point, he had already decided that he wanted to sell Living Cozy. “It's something that I was thinking about for probably 12 months before it actually sold.” He knew from research that he could sell such a site for anywhere between 20 to 50 times his monthly profit. “So I had a kind of calculator built in a spreadsheet where I would just update the revenue and profit figures every month and that would spit out various multiples of what the site could be worth.”
In early 2023, he reached a revenue milestone that would likely translate into a good selling price. “I loved running the site, it was great to build, but I also think at a certain point it's just worth taking chips off the table and then kind of figuring out what to do next.” After all, Living Cozy was still largely dependent on Google search, which could be extremely volatile in how it changed its rankings. “There's AI looming, and I also think Living Cozy is a really high quality site that the right buyers could pick up and continue to scale.”
In September 2023, Read announced on Twitter that Living Cozy had been acquired. “The internet is flooded with content and Living Cozy managed to stand out by doing things the right way and taking no shortcuts,” he wrote in his announcement. “I’m proud of what the site has achieved.” In just three years, he had managed to elbow his way into an extremely crowded market, and in doing so he showed that a single content creator with virtually no resources can take on some of the largest publishing behemoths on the web.