An interview with Henry Lane Fox, CEO of The Browser

The Browser is a website that food, drink and kitchen garden lovers who want to stay up to date with news, views, interviews and trends in these lifestyle sectors cannot afford to miss. It was launched in 2009 to bring together the old US Browser and Five Books websites together, in order to create a global aggregation, curating and linking website of “writing worth reading” from all over the world’s best newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs and reviews. From lifestyle to art, politics, history, science, religion and sport: if an intelligent article has been written, The Browser will find it and ensconce it into its stable of goodies.

The site currently boasts 300 000 readers, of whom 60% are in the US and 15-20% are in the UK and as many as 50 000 – 60 000 people, myself included, visit the website every day or even several times a day. Approximately 25% of readers view The Browser on mobile devices.

I ensure that if any of the updated articles, blogs, features or interviews refer to the work that The Foodie Bugle is doing, I Retweet the information to all our followers.

For example, you might find garden writer Arabella Lennox-Boyd choosing her favourite garden design books, David Lebovitz picks his most influential dessert recipe books or you could find a link to essays about clamming in Vermont, the future of global factory farming, the science of food, cookbooks as literature, fruit genetics or the latest wine producing, buying and tasting opinions. The site creates, collects, curates and shares: the concept may sound simple, but the hard work behind the scenes must be relentless.

I contacted the Chief Executive Officer of The Browser, Henry Lane Fox, to try to understand the inner-workings of the website and to try to pin down its inherent appeal and its undeniable success.

Henry explained that The Browser team comprises of three primary editors (of whom one is Bob Trevelyan, an ex-BBC editor) who scour worldwide media on a daily basis to ensure that the best writing is featured.

“Our visitors are intellectually curious and they tend to be quite high-brow, more scholastic readers, who appreciate longer, more in-depth articles with greater detail and research. We value full and challenging pieces, written by quality writers who are truly knowledgeable about their subject,” Henry explained.

Prior to arriving at The Browser Henry worked with his sister, Martha Lane Fox, and Brent Hoberman as one of the original six founders of www.lastminute.com. I asked Henry to what extent working at Lastminute provided him with the knowledge, contacts and skills he needed to preside over the growth of The Browser. He replied:

“Yes, I would say that my work at Lastminute undoubtedly did help. It was there that I gained insights into marketing, technology, business development and team building. Above all, when you set up a new technology start-up, you need to establish a really great core team. We have a lead editor and then very good, educated and thorough generalists. This has kept the team fresh. I think this is a key feature of our success.”

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The Browser team are, predictably, inundated with very good article submissions every day, but there is hope if really experienced food and drink bloggers who follow The Foodie Bugle wish to participate.

“There is total fairness and democracy at The Browser: it is a level playing field. Gone are the days when bloggers were regarded as secondary in quality to professional journalists. If we come across excellent writing we wish to include in our website, it is irrelevant who the source is. In fact, our readers increasingly appreciate new and unusual sources and the Blogosphere can provide that,” Henry said.

Recently The Browser launched its iPhone App, pitched at a subscription price point of just 69 pence for a month’s subscription, and the iPad and Kindle subscription options are in the pipeline. The website does have private funding but is working through a variety of advertising and subscription fee led revenue drives to monetise the value it adds. Henry explained the business model:

“Firstly, The Browser adds value to the readers’ experience by aggregating, curating and linking a very wide range of material in just one place. Secondly, it adds value to publishers by ensuring that targeted traffic reaches published work in a systematic and focussed manner. Thirdly, it also adds value to advertisers by providing a very well-read, informed, core group of loyal readers on one site. It therefore stands to reason that the value of the work we do at The Browser should be monetised. This market is evolving every day and the mind-set of media consumers is changing too. We need to convince all three groups of our added-value, and through a variety of mixed subscription and advertising revenue streams ensure the growth of the website.”

I asked Henry whether being a Lane Fox, the son of The Financial Times gardening writer and academic, Robin Lane Fox, and brother to Martha, who is the UK government’s digital champion, has been a help or a hindrance in his career, and he was quite coy:

“That is a good question but I am not sure either way. I am really good friends with Martha, she is a great sister to have, but I do not think people think about my family background very much. My activities here are driven more by hard work, the dedicated team I have around me and the constant drive to pursue and collect only the very best content the web has to offer. I don’t really think my name has influenced things either way to any great extent.”

I had time for one final question: in the prestigious Portland Street location of The Browser office, where do Henry and his team go out for lunch, shop for food, drink coffee or go out after work?

“I am afraid that we work such long hours we just eat sandwiches at our desks. Much to the consternation of my wife and children we have to be constantly open to web traffic and communication, there is very little time to relax. I thoroughly enjoy my work, but it means that long lunches are a rarity.”

So you heard it here first: the team that is busy bringing together treaties on Greek Yoghurt, the last supper at El Bulli, Savoy Cocktails and how Buckingham Palace stocks its wine cellars, eats sandwiches at the coalface.

To let them know just how grateful foodies are visit www.thebrowser.com or follow them on Twitter: @TheBrowser. If you find a very interesting article you think they should feature, remember to type #browsings after your Tweet message and link. You can follow Henry Lane Fox @henrylf.

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