Bloglovin, a prettier take on RSS and Tumblr, gets Betaworks investment

When Mattias Swenson, Patrik Ring and their three co-founders first decided to launch a startup out of high school, the plan was to work on it for a year and then move on with their lives. Growing up in Stockholm, they said, they didn’t know of anyone else who gave up university for entrepreneurship.

But more than five years later, they’re still at it. And their startup Bloglovin, which is something like a visual RSS reader meets  Tumblr for the entire blogosphere, is poised for a new level of growth.

New York-based Internet company Betaworks is announcing today that it, along with former Glam CFO and Microsoft executive Bruce Jaffe, is making a “significant” investment in the startup. Bloglovin is a Stockholm-based company, so Betaworks is not obliged to submit a Form D financing note and publicize the amount of the investment. But the companies said the funding is meant to accelerate the growth of the product, including its mobile presence. By the end of the year, they said, the company could add about five more developers and, potentially, a monetization-focused hire in New York.

Initially launched in 2007 as Bloggkoll (which is Swedish for “to keep track of blogs”), the startup was intended to help fashion enthusiasts monitor content on their favorite blogs without going through the tedious process of opening up dozens of bookmarked websites. Now, the company said it has about 1.4 million members worldwide and 2.4 million monthly unique visitors, who use the site to follow blogs in a range of areas, from fashion and food to photography and interior design. Like an RSS reader, Bloglovin’ aggregates content from a number of user-selected blogs. But it only surfaces blogs when they have new content and, importantly for its audience, it displays the content in visually-compelling ways and allows them to participate through “likes.”

Betaworks: we look for engagement, design

“The category is something that makes a ton of sense for us at Betaworks. I see Bloglovin as an example of where social is getting really deep within a vertical. It’s also an example of the design sensibility that we are very interested in building upon,” said John Borthwick, CEO of Betaworks. “We look for engagement at Betaworks and there’s real engagement here.”

The founders said they first played with the idea of launching an online community for bars – “we could get free drinks,” quipped Swenson. But after noticing that some fashion blogs were generating more traffic than their print counterparts, they changed their direction and targeted fashion blogs.  Their first attempt, however, didn’t go over so well with the ladies behind the blogs.

“They bashed it,” said Swenson. “We have very honest girls in Sweden.” (Incidentally, he added, one of those girls ended up not only inspiring Bloglovin’s ultimate product, she become Swenson’s girlfriend.) Despite a slightly bumpy early start in Sweden, the site launched internationally as Bloglovin in 2010.

It came on to Betaworks’ radar about six months ago through Jaffe, whose wife is a Bloglovin “power user,” the company said. As they learned more, Borthwick said they were impressed that the bootstrapped-company (which has taken only a $200,000 seed investment from a Swedish media company) had built such a broad and engaged audience of publishers and bloggers. The average user follows 37 blogs, the company said, and half of the monthly unique users are on the site twice a day. Aside from that, they said the site is already breaking even, supported by a combination of display advertising and sponsorship packages.

The trend in visually interesting content

“There’s this idea that, in aggregate, the fashion blogging world is very disruptive to the existing fashion publishing industry, but there are issues on the fashion blogger side … and the user side,” said Sam Mandel, head of corporate development for Betaworks.

Bloggers face challenges building their audience or keeping up with the latest technology and platform; and users, for the most part, don’t have a simple and optimized way for consuming content across a fragmented set of blogs. Bloglovin, he said, built a product that addresses both audiences and, over the past few years, has integrated itself into the community. For example, the company’s Bloglovin Awards event earlier this year was well attended by fashion bloggers and received positive coverage from the community across the Web.

As the rise of Pinterest and Tumblr show, there’s increasing interest in socializing around visually interesting content. But those platforms could also give readers of blogs new ways to follow publishers of their favorite sites. Bloglovin’s founders believe that other social media is more complementary than competitive because traditional social platforms don’t give publishers the same kinds of control as blogging platforms, and different social media environments tend to favor the sharing of certain kinds of content over others. But traditional platforms do give publishers control over how their content is shared on other platforms. The fashion community has been very supportive of the platform. But as Bloglovin expands into other categories, it will be interesting to see how other publishers respond to the automatic sharing of their content in a new aggregator environment.

As they continue to build out the product and try to build revenue, Swenson they’ll focus closely on mobile. The company’s new app, which they expect to launch in June, aggregates and optimizes content from a user’s selected blogs.

“We’ve always been quite interested in mobile. Blog reading on mobile [devices] hasn’t gotten the adoption it’s had for other social networks,” said Swenson. Just about five percent of traffic to fashion blogs comes from mobile, he added, even though the image-heavy, low-text content is “almost made for mobile… it’s almost like Instagram. It’s quite straightforward.”