4 Aug 2014

A Dwarf Amongst Giants - How Speedmonkey Grew From Nothing To Something

This is an account of how I created Speedmonkey from nothing and grew it to an automotive website with a semblance of influence in the industry.

I was 41 and working as a renewables developer (still am). I'd always liked cars but didn't have an encyclopaedic knowledge of them, I mean, I knew what I liked and I could convey what I thought but I didn't know a great deal about them.

But I could write.  Spurred on by a 6-month period of unemployment and in need of something to do I'd written three novels. The first was written in that fallow, unemployed period and the others in my spare time once I'd found a job.

I'd thoroughly researched the publishing industry and spent many, many hours preparing my first novel for pitching to agents (you never send a first novel straight to publishers).  I thought the book was pretty good and stood up well to others in its genre but the answer was always a polite no or an impolite no response.  Agents receive hundreds of pitches every week and the chance of a new author getting noticed is slim.

I was getting frustrated. 300,000 words written and no-one to read them.  So I stopped - always been impulsive like that.

Then I went to the 2012 24 Hours of Le Mans. The experience was fascinating and enthralling and on my return home I knew I just had to write something about it.

I knew nothing of creating and managing websites, and still don't know much.  I researched blogs and discovered that Google's blogger was easy to use, adaptable and could be used by a techno-dumbass such as myself.

I created a blog. It took an entire evening just to work out how to make it look presentable. Then I wrote up the Le Mans trip in two parts.  Looking back the writing wasn't the best but it was passionate and I'm still quite happy with it.

The name Speedmonkey was thought up by my then wife.  She and I thought of dozens of names, most of which were rubbish and many of which already existed.  When she said, "How about Speedmonkey?" I knew that was the one.

Then a strange thing happened.  People actually read the articles - around 300 in the first few days.

I created a Twitter account.  I wasn't new to Twitter having followed relevant authors, agents and literary notables in my novel writing days.  I'd closed that account in a fit of pique.

The account got some followers and I got some decent feedback on my articles.

It felt good, actually having people read something I'd written and telling me so.  This didn't happen when I wrote books.

I wrote some more articles, I swept the internet for stories, I wrote some opinion pieces and I grew the site a little at the time.  My Twitter account grew to about 600 followers.

Then something happened. A month after I started the site I wrote How we would fix MotoGP and in an act of shameless self publicity mentioned several current and retired bike racers with Twitter accounts when I tweeted it.  Carl Fogarty retweeted my tweet with its link back to the article.

Instead of the usual 100 or 200 hits I got 8,000 hits in one evening.  Wow, this was amazing.  People not only read my stuff and commented on it but they were also saying they agreed with me, and a major personality had (sort of) backed what I'd written.

I was on a roll.  I was writing at least one article a day, sometimes more.  I was getting news from www.newspress.co.uk (still my main source of automotive news) and from trawling the web, using Google translate for Japanese and German sites and forums.

I studied SEO and made the website and articles as search engine friendly as I could. SEO is a dark art and factors that influence popularity and success in search engine results are constantly changing. I do my best but think I've only scratched the surface.

Three months after starting the site it was getting around 10,000 hits a month (aside from July when the MotoGP article gave me a hike).  Then I received two invites to media days, one from Jaguar Land Rover and one from Mercedes-Benz.

I was stunned.  I claimed no influence in the industry, I wasn't a journalist, just someone who wrote about cars I liked.  I attended the first day, with JLR, and the first car I drove was a 550bhp Jaguar XKR-S.  You can read my account of that experience here.  On the Mercedes day a week later I drove an SLS AMG, C63 AMG Black Series and S65 AMG.

I felt a bit of a fraud just being there and didn't introduce myself to anyone on either day so had no idea why they had invited me or who anyone in the press offices were.

Afterwards I wrote my first ever car reviews.  I realised that this writing lark could bring rewards in the form of cars to drive.

I wrote to a bunch of press offices introducing myself.  Many wrote back, many didn't.

I received an invite to a Renault media day in December 2012, went along and drove lots of cars.  It was huge fun and for the first time I wrote proper, judgmental reviews.  I loved the Megane 265 but didn't really rate the Twingo, and said so.

Renault didn't seem to mind and neither did the readers who liked both reviews.

Then Porsche invited me to a driving day at Silverstone. The 20 or so of us who attended were told we had been chosen to be there because we were the most promising bloggers in the automotive sphere.

Porsche could see what Jaguar Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz and Renault had seen.  Journalism was changing, not just in the automotive industry but everywhere.  Bloggers, with our amateur viewpoint but increasing audience, were being listened to by the public.  We were challenging the status quo.  Social media was giving us credence.

Mainstream magazines and newspapers were either dying or having to compete with us and the rest of the internet by going online and offering free content.

Many seasoned journos dislike this, some have told me so, others have ignored me and other bloggers, others welcome us and have upped their game because of us.

One in particular took umbrage with me, or rather something I said.

Chris Harris of Pistonheads and Drive fame was running a BMW M135i press car.  He liked it and didn't he let us know.  He was tweeting constantly about the thing, it was the best thing since sliced bread according to 'Monkey'.

I like BMWs but the BMW press office had singularly failed to respond to any of my correspondence.  This wrongly influenced my view of them.  It shouldn't have done but in my small mind I was miffed.  Almost all other press offices had at least come back to me with a polite, "We'll keep an eye on what you're doing," or "Come back to us when you've got more views," but BMW had said nothing.

I suppose I was getting arrogant.  I had achieved some success and thought that I was the bees knees.

Harris tweeted something about the M135i and I responded with (and this isn't exact as I've deleted it now), "They must be paying you to say that!"  It was meant in jest.

His response was massively over the top and contained much foul language. He looked at Speedmonkey and said it was "pitiful."  He did his best to ruin me by calling me out in a series of tweets.  His boss joined in and said they could sue me for defamation.

My response was to keep cool and soak up the publicity, and there was a lot.  Over the next week or so I got around 50,000 extra hits from the Pistonheads forums and other sites.

Harris blocked me on Twitter and his boss eventually left.

On this wave of publicity I carried on.  The site continued to grow.  I hold no grudge and Harris has probably forgotten all about it but it was another boost to the site. As the saying goes, any publicity is good publicity.

My Twitter account expanded and I opened a YouTube account and started filming videos of cars I'd driven on media days.  They were amateurish, with no budget and filmed on my iPhone but they were popular.

By this point the site was getting 1,000 hits a day.  Then in February 2013 I contacted the Maserati media team to point out an error on their website.  They wrote back and offered me a GranTurismo Sport for a weekend.

My first press car was a Maserati!  The review was gushing, although to be fair the car is brilliant and has few faults (one being it is so wide and has such long doors you can't get out of it in car parks).

I began to get more press cars from Jaguar Land Rover, Vauxhall, Subaru, Infiniti, Volvo and Honda amongst others.

The site was growing, not on the back of controversy but because I was writing 3 or 4 articles a day and people were reading them.

Other bloggers were asking me to host their articles because they weren't getting an audience on their own sites.  To date three people have gone on to a full time motoring journalism job after writing for Speedmonkey to gain exposure.

I was getting press cars and invites to events.  I was loving it.  I had a new car every week, I'd write about it, tweet about it, post to Facebook about it and video a review of it.  People were asking me about cars I'd driven, I was giving private (and free) advice to wealthy individuals about what sports or supercar to buy.

I was getting 4,000 hits a day on the site and a big following on social media and I was milking this as much as possible to get more and more cars to drive.

I involved my brother.  I created a spreadsheet of manufacturer contacts and we split those I hadn't had success with or contacted and we wrote to everyone.

We had success. I got Lotus' and Porsches on loan, my brother got Audis and Fords. Still nothing from BMW though, and VW were proving a tough nut to crack.

I was getting a dozen press releases a day. I was getting daily emails from agencies asking me to publish stuff on Speedmonkey about their client (most of which I ignored). Other bloggers were asking me how I got press cars and could I help them with introductions (I was always as helpful as I could but mainly gave advice on how to grow their site and profile rather than introducing them to hard won contacts).

I got a message from an insider telling me I wasn't wholly wrong in the Harris saga and that the whole office had been stressed at the time.

I was invited to (and attended) the What Car? awards, which was great fun.  I sat at a table with Jonny Smith from Fifth Gear and he turned out to be friendly, excellent company and about the tallest person I've ever met.

In the early days of Speedmonkey I'd had two established journalists phone me up and tell me all about the industry, give me the facts of life and put me in my place about my position in the automotive world (enjoy it but don't expect press cars because they belong to us, the real journalists).

Yet I've spoken to dozens more 'real' journalists since and most are perfectly accepting of bloggers and the changing market.

I also speak with others in the industry and one of the more interesting group are the chaps who deliver press cars.  Mostly they work alone, deliver the car and get a train to wherever they are going next. Some are self employed and others work for the manufacturer.  I always give the car a clean before it gets picked up and offer them a lift to the station, just out of politeness.  Some of the more salacious tales I've learned have come from them.  They deliver to everyone in the industry, from the big names and celebrities to the bloggers and junior writers on magazines.

I'll keep most of the stories to myself but some are fit for public consumption.  Jeremy Clarkson is apparently one of the nicer people to work with, he makes the drivers a brew and personally drives them to the station.  Other journalists are less polite and hardly acknowledge the drivers' presence. One magazine left a piece of bodywork, which they'd managed to rip off, on the back seat of the car.  Many journalists leave phones and other pieces of kit in press cars.  One magazine borrowed a car for a week and at the end of that week had driven precisely zero miles in it.

I was invited to a VW media day towards the end of 2013.  I would drive the Mk7 Golf GTi and GTD.  I missed the media day, realising at mid-day on the day that I was meant to be there, yet I was sitting at my desk, working.  I apologised to VW and was told I wasn't the first to do this - phew!

The start to 2014 had been tough for various reasons and Speedmonkey took something of a back seat for a while.  I continued to write but it was not at the same rate and was without the energy I'd previously put into it. I was grateful to the bloggers who sent me their articles to publish on the site, and to my brother and other writers who attended media days and wrote reviews for the site.

The viewing figures suffered but not to a great extent, it was still at 2,000 to 4,000 views a day and the various social media channels were still growing.

It was only really a month or so ago that I started to put some energy back into the site. I hadn't had a press car in some time but had a Jaguar F-Type Coupe booked in and that seemed to coincide with a re-emergence of my interest in writing (and recording videos).

During that time some fantastic people on social media and in real life were incredibly supportive. They may not have known it but they helped a great deal.

Now, August 2014, Speedmonkey is 2 years old and has had 2.6 million hits. I have 4,500 followers on Twitter, over 1,000 'likes' on Facebook and more than 700,000 views on YouTube.  The site and the social media accounts are thriving and I have great and established relationships with most of the press teams of automotive manufacturers.  BMW has even responded to my brother and I will attend a VW media day in September.

The site is still an amateur effort. Almost a hundred people have written for it and none have been paid. I still produce 5 or more articles a week, I still get to drive amazing cars and get invited to fantastic events.  I still work full time and write about cars and motorcycles in the evenings and weekends.  I still enjoy doing what I do.

Many people have asked me over the past 2 years how I have done it, gone from nothing to something, and my response is always the same - hard work, perseverance, passion, an ability to write and a desire to improve and further yourself.  Having an encyclopaedic knowledge of cars is not required, although it helps.  I have to do a lot of research - which takes time.

Oh, and keep everything in context and don't take yourself too seriously.

I think my writing has improved over the past 2 years.  My audience has certainly grown.  In this time the journalistic side of the automotive industry has changed beyond recognition.  Proper journalists recognise and (mostly) respect us bloggers. Car manufacturers and others within the industry have certainly done.

Feedback from social media has told me that people like my honesty and my unwillingness to produce articles purely on the back of press releases. If it's rubbish or boring I'll say so. I have no commercial interests in the car world and Speedmonkey reflects this.

The world is changing and print media is shrinking.  Websites are the new magazines because you can read them anywhere on almost any mobile device.  Some magazines will survive but some will fall by the wayside, victims of their own recalcitrance and unwillingness to change with the times.

People will read blogs and they will read Car, Autocar, What Car, Pistonheads, Jalopnik and the rest. Established titles are all working out how to make money in the modern world, with some success, and as a result real journalists will get paid, which is good.

Speedmonkey is a marginal title but it IS a title with a following, often passionate. I am proud of what I've created and I'm proud of the community of which I am now a part.  I'll probably never be a 'real' journalist but that doesn't matter. My job pays the bills and Speedmonkey supplies (some of) the thrills.

Things like throwing a pre-production Volvo V60 Polestar round the Top Gear test track, driving a Radical SR3 around Silverstone, taking my son for a drive in a Morgan 3-Wheeler, going to Geneva as a guest of Castrol and having a Porsche Boxster S on loan for a week would have been beyond my wildest dreams dreams a year or so ago but now they are a regular reality for which I am grateful, and which I've worked hard for.

I'm not going to write or publish anything else until the end of August. The summer holidays are always quiet and I need some time off.  Volvo will lend me an XC60 D4 for a week, which I'll be driving to France.  I'm looking forward to discovering just how good the first of Volvo's in-house engines is since its divorce from Ford.

Oh, and I'm looking forward to meeting various people from Twitter at the Wilton Classic & Supercar event in August who won tickets via a competition that Castrol (the headline sponsor of Wilton) ran with Speedmonkey.

Back in a few weeks.  Cheers all, and thanks for reading Speedmonkey.

Matt Hubbard

My son and I in a Morgan 3-Wheeler