When Hero Brown launched Muddy Stilettos for “affluent fun-loving women outside London” looking to make the most of their free time – her aim was simple: “To find cool stuff that was going on, and tell other people just like me.”
Almost ten years on, and what began as a blog on a free WordPress site is now a premium digital lifestyle platform covering 25 counties – from Warwickshire down to Kent, Oxfordshire to Cornwall – generating content that has attracted a reported 252,000 subscribers.
Furthermore, this, in turn, is attracting revenue from local and national advertisers ranging from Waitrose, Tide and Joules to Bicester Village, Luxury Family Hotels and Beauty Pie.
Brown, ex-deputy editor of Red and former editor and deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday Magazine, who is Muddy Stilettos’ founder and editor-in-chief, first had the idea to launch her own thing around the time she was planning to relocate from London to Buckinghamshire to raise a family.
“At first, I found it difficult to find things to do,” she says. “I knew there was lots of good stuff out there, but just couldn’t access it. I thought, I’m just going to have to find it myself.”
Initially, her output comprised blog posts put out every couple of weeks. But though she started small, she was clear-sighted and business-focused from the get-go. “From day one, it’s always been about the reader,” Brown explains.
“I might have only started out with ten or so readers, but I was talking to them and thinking about what they want and how to offer something different.”
I knew there was lots of good stuff out there, but just couldn’t access it.
A friendly voice
Because it began as a blog, it began with – and still has – a direct voice.
“I talked to readers direct, like talking to a mate. I didn’t have to think too hard about audience, it was for people like me – between 30 and 55 in the main, mostly women (though men like the hospitality and pub reviews), probably with kids, mainly professionals,” she continues.
“The way I write has always been quite humorous and a bit naughty. Like Red magazine, but a little drunk. Once I could see people were signing up and sticking with it, I knew I was onto something.”
She also took an early decision to keep editorial celebratory – which means not running negative reviews, Brown adds: “If I have an experience I don’t think is very good, I won’t trash, but I also won’t write about it.”
If this sounds a bit ad hoc and random, think again.
By 2013, Muddy Stilettos was making money from advertising.
A year later, Brown began adding counties – recruiting journalists with national media experience who lived in the county they come on board to write about. She now has 20+ such journalists as county editors on her staff.
More recently, she introduced the Muddy Stilettos Awards – which is now run county by county, with local businesses voted for by local readers. Then last autumn, she launched Weekend Escape – a new channel that capitalised on the popularity of its hospitality coverage among readers both out of London and those within in search of escape.
Muddy Stilettos is, she says, “all about curation, all about quality, and all about the high level of trust of its readers.”
“I’m not an expert on Hertfordshire but have an editor based there,” Brown explains, likening it – partially, at least – to a McDonald’s approach.
“The burger must be the same across all counties, with the sense that each editor is curating the right experience for our readers,” she says. “Our editors do have their freedoms. But we also have lots of editorial meetings and share lots of content, and I have access to all the sites and keep control that way.”
Looking ahead, plans are afoot to add a further dozen or more counties to the muddy footprint, to extend The Indie Store – a platform on Muddy Stilettos conceived to promote local independent traders in the run up to and just after Christmas, to launch a new best schools awards scheme, and to assess the potential for some form of subscription offering.
“At the moment, we are an ad model and successful with it, but like everybody, we are looking at ways to diversify revenue streams,” she says.
Muddy Stilettos has succeeded where other digital ideas have floundered through a mix of obsession – for quality content, beautiful design, stubbornness, sweating it out and copious coffee. Perhaps most important, however, is having a constant eye on end-user value.
Because you’re wasting your time, Brown advises, if you’re not doing something unique.
You can hear Hero Brown being interviewed by Ciar Byrne on a recent episode of The InPublishing Podcast, which was sponsored by Acorn Web Offset, the Yorkshire-based specialist A5 and A4 magazine printer.
This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.