2012 Review: The Business

posted by Jeff | Monday, December 31, 2012, 11:36 AM | comments: 0

It has been a yearly tradition for me to use the new year as an excuse to look back at how my accidental business is doing, and I was dreading it this year. For the first time since, well, I guess for the first time, I didn't pay that close attention throughout the year. Perhaps because last year wasn't good, I expected more of the same this year. As it turns out, it was a relatively good year in terms of things I could control.

I delivered one minor and one major version of POP Forums this year, and the audience for that is really growing. As an open source project, I don't make anything from it, but it's easily one of the most satisfying things I do. I was really stoked to build a mobile version of it, with minimal hassle. It's headed toward 5,000 downloads, and I'm glad people are getting use out of it.

The bigger project I delivered was a new version of CoasterBuzz, the first in about four years. It was long overdue. The new version runs on the MVC framework, and it's the lightest and easiest to maintain code base I've ever had for the site. It's also the fastest, with pages being rendered in half the time of the previous version.

Traffic to CoasterBuzz was essentially flat in terms of visitors, reversing the trend from last year where there was a decline. Page views were technically down slightly, but only because they're not measured the same way now. The newer forums allow you to load more posts into a page without going to a new page. There are other features, in the amusement park and user profile pages, that work similarly. That's not as good for ad views, but it's definitely a better user experience. The new site definitely stopped the bleeding from last year, and because it's so much more search engine friendly, the percentage of visitors who are totally new is through the roof. I get so much more organic search traffic now. Next year, I have to figure out how to keep them coming back.

PointBuzz had a fairly awesome year, including one day that I think was our biggest ever. Considering we haven't changed the site much in years, beyond Walt's awesome home page evolution, that's not bad. Of course, a lot of that has to do with some new ride Cedar Point is building, but I'm not complaining. As I start to make some progress on v11 of the forums, it's time to build a new PointBuzz as well. Because we're about community and photos (and video at times), we need to figure out a way to better organize our photos. I do have some ideas.

My science project that I called "Server Metric" got a solid start when I spent a weekend diving in and making it a real viable product. It's basically a simple app that dashboards data in a fairly platform agnostic way, so you can see in a browser a snapshot of information. It more or less works, but I've found some performance problems to work through. They're not hard problems, just things I need to spend time on. The other part is building the commerce part, and that is less fun. The rules around handling credit cards are somewhat strict, and I certainly don't want to store any account numbers myself, but the API's and systems of the processors that handle it for you are kind of brittle and a pain in the ass to integrate with. I often wonder if I'll ever make it a real product. If not, I'll be disappointed in myself, but at the same time, it has been useful as a playground for trying new technology.

The bad news this year is that ad revenue overall was down another 10%. That's better than a third, like last year, and I can attribute most of the shortfall to Federated Media, my primary ad provider for CoasterBuzz. They basically delivered almost no value this year. Combine that with reporting problems that Google clearly had, but would not admit to, and honestly it could have been much worse. Having Cedar Point announce a new ride really minimized the damage by driving PointBuzz traffic. There is also an effect caused by the mobile version of CoasterBuzz, which accounts for 17% of traffic. It's harder to monetize that with ads at the moment.

I'm proud of myself for tightly controlling regular expenses this year, but I spent liberally on replacing a lot of hardware. My laptop was over three years old, so I replaced that. That actually wasn't a big deal, because I sold the old one to a friend, and the new one, a 13" MacBook Air that I love, wasn't all that expensive, even tricked out. I did not replace my desktop computer, or Diana's laptop, both of which are about three years old. I'm not sure yet what I'll do next year with the other old stuff.

The big expensive purchases this year revolved around replacing my video camera. I finally sold my HVX200, after more than six years of great service. The last thing I shot with it was a great interview with Cedar Fair's new CEO, Matt Ouimet, and I was pleased with it. I think by the time I bought wireless stuff and microphones and other accessories, I probably spent nearly ten grand on it back in 2006, though I made up a little over half of that in some easy freelance gigs that year. I suppose in overall audience attraction, and the related ad revenue, it probably paid for itself by the time I sold it.

I replaced it with an AF100, which is smaller, lighter, better quality, and most importantly, can use a wide array of lenses, including my SLR glass. That thing makes gorgeous images. I didn't have to spend nearly as much on it, either, though I took the opportunity to buy a better tripod and some related gear. It took some doing to learn how to shoot run-and-gun video, but I think I've got that figured out. It will be great for the filmmaking I've talked about doing for years as well. I don't have any real plan for recovering the cost, however, since I'm not really looking to gig with it. Meh. So this year the business takes a loss, but it was financed on 0% offers, so it was worth it. Like my open source project, video interests me, and income matters less.

Looking to the next year, obviously PointBuzz is long overdue for a refresh. If things go as easily and smoothly as CoasterBuzz did, that will be awesome. The hard part will be a better way to handle photos. And the best part of this year will be the opportunity to cover the launch of a new roller coaster, for the first time in six years. I'm glad I'm around for it... I think this one will be as special as Millennium Force was.

I'm not sure what else there is. I haven't thought much about it. I hope to have a new forum version out early in the year, but that's it. I guess when your business is your hobby, you tend to be free of big constraints like planning!


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