Taking on the world: Q+A with Nic Granleese and Ben Morgan
Internationally, Melbourne has come to be seen as a hotspot for contemporary architecture. Behind the architecture that contributes to the reputation is a thriving architecture culture that continually promotes, debates, discusses and celebrates the built environment. As well as fostering highly talented architects, Melbourne is also a hotspot for innovative architecture start-ups. One such innovation is Bowerbird, an architect to journalist matching system which is helping promote Victorian and Australian architecture on the world stage.
Behind Bowerbird are two hardworking and big thinking entrepreneurs, Nic Granleese and Ben Morgan who are changing how architecture gets published. Recently they sat down for an interview to discuss their journey and future plans
Michael Smith – Starting from the beginning, how did Bowerbird come to be?
Nic Granleese – Well Bowerbird, as a concept, started five years ago now. It really began life as a PDF document. I had just gotten into architectural photography and I was trying to figure out how the media worked, so I went and interviewed a range of different journalists. I asked them, “How do I submit a project to you, what do you need, how does this all work?” And their response generally was, “If you can come back to me with all of this content pre-prepared, in some form of document like a media kit, then it’s much easier for them to publish the story.”
So version one of Bowerbird was literally a PDF document, or a Google Doc, where we would paste in some thumbnail images and some text.
The next part of the problem was, who do you contact? I had a spreadsheet, like every architect does, with a handful of journalists, with some email addresses in there. And my question was, “Well, we’re in an online world now, how many publications actually exist?”
And so I did a little bit of research myself and realised there was lots. And maybe we were missing out on opportunities by not really approaching all of these different websites and blogs and then not really knowing ‘Why is one blog different to another?’, ‘What’s the audience size?’, and so forth. So, that led to version two, which was Media Map. now
The original concept was, “Can we map out the entire world’s architectural media, so that we can get our heads around who we can send projects to?” And that was all built on WordPress and essentially held together with sticky tape. But it worked and we released it. We had really early stage customers; people like Tandem Design Studio, who have backed us from day one. Within a couple months we realised we should probably rebuild the entire thing. We spent fourteen months figuring out how to code properly and actually building a professional app. And that was released in June 2016.
MS – So Ben, when did you get involved?
BM – It was 2014, and Nic and I had been hanging out, talking about various things to do with architecture and innovation. I got to know him initially through his photography, but we reconnected over his project, Websites for Architects, which was, I suppose, his first foray into the world of startups.
We actually did a podcast together, which never saw the light of day. It would be amazing to listen back to sometime. We never even edited them in the end because Nic had already, started on MediaMap at that stage.
Basically, Nic’s whole idea around MediaMap was really attractive to me as a journalist. It is really really hard to find good architectural content. You basically used to have to troll through architect’s websites. This wasthe days before Instagram was a thing, so it was genuinely hard to find leads. And what a lot of journalists were doing, whether they’d admit it or not, was going onto the big architecture websites that had a lot of content submitted from users, some of them up to 10 projects a day.. A lot of journalists were going there to find content to put into print.
It was really hard to find original content on your own. So when Nic suggested, “Hey, we’re going to create essentially a database with projects where journalists can find new stuff to write about” I was like, “Yep, I’m on board”. I think I went pretty aggressively and said, “I want to work with you.”
NG – Yeah, he approached me with this little, beautiful document saying, “two heads are better than one”.
MS – Nice.
BM – It’d be fun to dig out all of those old docs.
MS – One of your recent successes was partnering with the Victorian Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects, for their 2017 awards program. How did this work?
NG – We worked with the Victorian Chapter of the AIA in 2017 for their State Awards. There are about two hundred projects that were submitted into that awards program. The idea was that the architecture practices who are entering awards have endless content. And one of the reasons why you enter awards is because you’re generally trying to either raise the profile of architecture generally or you’re trying to get that individual project recognised. So it’s just a really good match.
We would partner with each of the architects that come through. They’d build a media kit. We’d import that from their awards entry and then the Institute was able to do a media release with all of those projects.
It was about acting collectively to be able to raise the profile of those individual architects. And that went really well.
BM – There were literally hundreds of stories told through that process, many of which would likely never have been discovered by international journalists without BowerBird and the Vic Chapter working together.
NG – To put that in perspective, what would normally happen is that maybe five stories would be published. You might have something in The Age, you might have some local media cover it. But what this whole process did was activate the members themselves to run out to journalists to say, “Hey, we’ve got this project. It’s in the awards. Do you want to publish it?” I think that was a big win.
BM – And there was a real spike in the international media, we of Melbourne projects being published, because the content was so easily accessible. That was always really nice, to see that you’re having an impact on a global scale with regard to promoting Victorian architecture.
Now, the people who’ve come on board are continuing their media throughout the year. So they’re adding more projects. For the journalists, there used to be a huge spike of content at the awards time and then it’s actually hard for the rest of the year to find new projects. Well, what Bowerbird’s done is bring people in who are continuing to use the platform throughout the year. So the content’s there for journalists, and we’re just starting to see the ability of the app to drip-feed content throughout the year.
MS – It seems that Melbourne has become a hot spot for architectural startups. Between Bowerbird, Larki (3d surveying) and Coincraft (practice management software) there is no shortage of entrepreneurs looking to inject new ideas into the practice of architecture. What do you put this down to?
NG – I think the main reason is that the quality of architecture in Melbourne is really really high. So, on a global scale, it’s known as a hotspot. I guess that hotspot jumps around the globe as different cities come into some sort of creative phase. But Melbourne has held that for a long time. And then it’s the people who are looking at that and wondering, “How do we modernise architecture?” Or “How do we use the technology that is available to all these other industries and think about what we’re doing?”
BM – There is something about the architecture community in Melbourne that I think is unique – at least in Australia. They’re very very engaged and very collegial.
I think that makes a huge difference. What we’ve ended up with is a whole heap of really vocal supporters within architecture, because they understand our story. They know that we’re coming from architecture ourselves, we’re coming from journalism, and that we’ve got their interests at heart.
NG – We’ve had some amazing early supporters. People like Breathe Architecture, Six Degrees Architects, and now some of the biggest practices in Australia are using BowerBird, including Cox Architecture and Woods Bagot.
So we’ve had all these people who saw an idea and supported it. And I’m not sure if that would happen in other places. It seems like architecture works differently in different cities.
BM – It’s something you can’t necessarily put your finger on. But we get feedback from journalists across the globe saying, “Melbourne’s doing amazing work”. So there’s definitely something going on here.
And for those other startups that are doing the same thing. I think it’s just a nice community to be a part of. Everyone is quite friendly. So when you’re launching a product within a niche, it’s a really sensible niche to go after.
MS – One of the ideas that I’ve heard you talk about previously with Bowerbird, is the idea of democratising architecture: in allowing people who previously weren’t big names to be able to publish their projects. This works to make our profession more of a meritocracy, rather than a clique of who you happen to know.
NG – Yes, this is a term that we came up with a while ago. We initially thought it was this really wacky term, like, the idea of democratising architecture or architectural media. But we really believe in this now, because we’re starting to see it happen.
The big change is, let’s say that twenty years ago there was a very small number of magazines and there was a very small number of people that could be published in those magazines. What tended to happen was, is that there was some sort of clique or there’d be the same architects getting published over and over, even though there were ten or twenty thousand architects in Australia.
What we’re seeing now is that there is an explosion of publications, but there’s also – through things like Bowerbird – access to more architects. What we’re seeing is, when we allow that really small architect who’s done their first project, something incredibly small but it’s creative. There’s a story there that otherwise would be really hard for a journalist to find as they just don’t have enough profile online to really stand-out.
What Bowerbird does is take that small project, puts it in the hands of the journalist and suddenly a much broader range of projects are getting published and covered. Our hope is that that continues so that those smaller architects get more work through that process.
BM – We see that the established architects are still going to get covered because they’re doing great work. It’s really just finding those niches particularly online where smaller practises can get a look in. Because online there’s no real limit to how much content can go up, we’re actually just increasing the size of the market at the same time.
NG – So, imagine you’re a small architecture practice, you have no idea how media works, you don’t know how to contact a journalist, you’re probably also self-conscious you’re a little bit scared of somebody judging your work and maybe you don’t think it has a story. In reality, there are amazing stories. If you’re an architect you’re probably doing something that is worth talking about.
Well, when you give these architects a structure and try to reassure them that this isn’t that scary, all you have to do is tell the story of your project, answer some questions and upload some photos. Then on the other end of that process are the journalists who are eager to hear from these architects.
Suddenly emerging architects are getting published. They get over that threshold and that snowball just keeps going and going.
That’s where we see that democratisation. Bowerbird opens up access to far more stories than we would have had in the past.
MS – Bowerbird’s about to embark on an expansion overseas into the U.S. How are you going about this process and what you hope to achieve with it?
NG – We are about to jump in to North America. We’re starting off with California and L.A. So because we are a small team, we’re going to focus on one city.
BM – It’s based on the idea that worked really well in Melbourne. We launched with a city that was really engaged, particularly in residential architecture and had a really good community. We think that L.A. sort of shares a lot of the outdoor philosophies that we have here. So I think there’s some synchronicity there with the architecture.
NG – We’re just gearing up for that. I guess that background story is that we were working with someone in our co-share office The Commons. Chris was sitting right next to us. He was working for another software company and he was from Canada. So he went back home probably about six months ago. He already knew what Bowerbird did and understood it, so there is this opportunity to try and grow Bowerbird overseas, which otherwise would have been really hard.
We have consciously thought about it and said, “Okay, maybe this is possible to jump over there, to start reaching out to architects” and that’s what we’re about to do today. We’re going to be trying to make noise and hopefully, our current users will help us spread the word so that we start to get these new architects on board. And hopefully that process of journalists finding content isn’t just Melbourne anymore, but we start to find these other hotspots around the world.
BM – Our journalists are obviously global already. So you’re talking about people all over the world that have just been using Bowerbird as a way to primarily find Australian content. So we’re just trying to have this huge impact in the U.S., in California, so that the journalists go, “Hey, there’s a whole heap of accessible content here that we can get”. With the aim of going city-to-city because we actually care about these communities of architects. We’re not just out there to make money. It’s always nice to have a sustainable business, but we’re actually out there to raise the profile of architecture in the media.
For us, we are looking for interesting areas and especially areas that may not have been covered. Now obviously we’re starting with the U.S. because it’s a big market. It makes it easier for us to grow and to reach the same ability. But in time, what we hope to be able to do is to go out into places that probably don’t get covered as much as they should be. So that could be different countries, it could also be places like regional areas where, again, there are all these projects that are kind of hidden away and aren’t really seeing the light of day.
NG – And again it comes back to that democratisation of architecture. Finding the architecture practices who maybe don’t get published as much as they should.
MS – Thanks very much for your time and best of luck with taking Bowerbird global.
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