The abrupt shutting down of blog hosting platform Cucumbertown, co-founded by ex-Zynga employee Cherian Thomas in 2012, has hit thousands of food bloggers from India and across the world hard. They found out a couple of nights ago that the parent company was pulling the plug on the popular service.
Over just a few years, Cucumbertown, a direct translation of the Malayalam phrase ‘vellarikka pattanam’ (the phrase signifies a fabled utopia where anything is possible), managed to draw thousands of food bloggers away from established platforms like Blogger and WordPress. It first became popular among a few influential food bloggers from India, and its userbase widened as newbie bloggers followed in the footsteps of the more established ones.
Nandita Iyer, who runs the popular and successful food blog Saffron Trail — among the most widely read food blogs on healthy vegetarian cooking in India — recommended the platform to several bloggers when they sought her advice on which blogging platform to use. “I recommended it in good faith. I had no idea it was shutting down till a mass mail hit all our inboxes late on October 18,” says Iyer, who moved from Blogger to Cucumbertown in August 2015.
Iyer’s blog, which she started in 2006, has enabled her to become an internet celebrity of sorts, with her own YouTube channel, widely followed Instagram account (23.5K followers), and marketing tie-ups with leading brands such as Philips, Quaker, Axis Bank, Tata Tea, and Lifestyle Home Center. She even employs her own social media manager.
There were a lot of features Cucumbertown offered that attracted her, and others like her. Firstly, it was a dedicated food blogging platform with several nifty customisations that made blogging and sharing recipes and images much easier. Secondly, the company was taking care of the migration of the blog from whichever platform the blogger was on, and offering unmatched technical support that biggies like WordPress and Blogger can’t even begin to offer because of their sheer numbers. It even advised users on copyright issues and in framing standard privacy disclaimers.
Cucumbertown’s designs were fresh and innovative, it had several well-designed templates to choose from, and also gave gave bloggers search engine optimization (SEO) and monetization support. “Basically, it told us you take care of the blogging and we’ll do everything else,” says Iyer.
And all of this, including the site-hosting costs, came without a hefty price tag — the company did not charge a flat rate, instead working out an ad revenue sharing arrangement (between 10% and 30% of the ad revenues). As several successful bloggers point out, ad revenues are minuscule anyway, so it seemed like a very good deal indeed. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a little too good to last long.
It probably started with the company’s acquisition by a big Japanese recipe and food network, Cookpad (some estimates put Cookpad’s market cap at $2 billion), in mid-2015. Before that, Cherian had raised an angel round from investors such as Paul Singh of 500 Startups, and then an institutional round of funding from Ludlow Ventures. After the acquisition, Cucumbertown became an independent subsidiary of Cookpad, with offices in Bengaluru and San Francisco, where Cherian is currently based. It was consistently named among ‘top startups to look out for’ lists by various publications.
FactorDaily reached out to Cherian with an emailed questionnaire, but is yet to get a response.
Bloggers are bewildered by the sudden decision — apparently taken by Cookpad — to shut down the service altogether. In an email written to users on October 18 (and subsequently shared on a Medium post), the brand said: “We have a difficult announcement to make. It’s with heavy hearts that we let you know Cucumbertown as a platform will be discontinuing its services and will be fully retired by March 31, 2017. We worked hard to make food blogging a livelihood through our platform but the stakeholders could no longer see a sustainable business around it.” It went on to say that backend and tech support would be provided to users till March 2017, helping them migrate their blogs to other services, while monetization support would end on December 31, 2016.
The technical support attracted many bloggers, like Aparna Balasubramanian of My Diverse Kitchen, who admits that the technical part of running a successful blog is not her strong point. “I used to be on Blogger and migrated to Cucumbertown about a year ago when they contacted me and asked if I wanted to migrate. I agreed mainly because it provided many more features than Blogger without me having to figure out a lot of things around tech and design that were not really up my street,” says Balasubramanian. “It had the complexity of advanced sites hosted on WordPress without me having to bother about plugins, SEO etc. Coming from Blogger, it was a big plus.”
Now, bloggers like her and Iyer are having to figure out ways to migrate their popular sites without losing out on revenues and users, and it is a bit of a challenge, involving identifying a new design platform (such as WordPress), buying a hosting plan if the blog is self-hosted (with server-hosting services like GoDaddy, Bluehost, or Amazon Web Services) and figuring out SEO, ad revenues and other monetization efforts.
The lesson here for bloggers is, perhaps, to not hand over the controls to new platforms — no matter how efficient and helpful they seem, or how well they feed your dreams about anything being possible.
Update: Edited on Oct 20, 2016 at 6 pm to add a line reflecting that FactorDaily has reached out to Cherian for his reaction via email.
Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.