2016 Review: The business

posted by Jeff | Saturday, December 31, 2016, 10:55 AM | comments: 0

My 16-year-running side business this year suffered, because I hit a historic low in time spent maintaining it. What can I say, other than I was distracted by the rest of life. This doesn't mean it was all bad, and in fact it was "profitable" this year. I use that term in quotes, because when it takes a loss, it's generally because I bought stuff like computers, cameras and such to support the business. This year, I did none of that.

I did some real work though, just not very much. First, CoasterBuzz and PointBuzz went all-HTTPS this year, something I've wanted to do for a year or two but just didn't follow through. Mind you, posting or reading a deep commentary on the pros and cons of virtual queueing probably doesn't need to be secure, but why not? Now it's not just the logins and credit card entries that are encrypted. There's allegedly some potential Google-juice to gain from this at some point, but that's hard to measure.

The other thing I did is finally ditch Chase Paymentech for a merchant account. It was a total rip off. While I process a fair number of transactions in the spring for club memberships, some months in the fall and winter there may be three or four at best. The fees were $35 per month before charging a single credit card. There are a ton of great options now, and Stripe had the best tooling and fee structure. Now, I pay $1.03 to process a $25 CoasterBuzz Club membership, which is 2.9% + 30 cents. Chase was 3.79% + 25 cents per transaction, minimum $25 per month, plus another $10 for the payment gateway. I waited way too long to switch.

We also brought back PointBuzz Premium, after I started using Stripe. It doesn't make a ton of money, but it's a little something for the biggest fans of the site, kind of a tip jar, if you will.

The only other thing that I spent time on was the PointBuzz database for Cedar Point history. And when I say I spent time on it, I mean I wrote the bits of code to apply Walt's design and a place for him to compile the lists. It's massive.

As for the traffic, PointBuzz had essentially flat visits, but fewer page views. Summer was soft because apparently there wasn't that much to talk about, but it picked up in the fall as people endlessly argued about what would happen with Mean Streak. CoasterBuzz actually had slightly more visits, 3% more unique visitors, but page views were down in May and September. I can't really explain that.

Club memberships took a serious hit this year, for reasons I always understood: It was tied heavily to the Coastermania event at Cedar Point. This year's event limited the number of attendees and charged for it (I'm surprised this didn't happen years ago), whereas it used to be free and unlimited. If I had to guess, this dropped memberships by around 50, so I missed out on about a grand. Coaster events in the general sense aren't what they used to be in terms of volume and popularity, so I imagine that the club will eventually filter down to the people who mostly support the site. That's OK, but those years where you had Cedar Point, Kings Island and Holiday World all doing free-for-alls were lucrative years!

I want to complain about ad revenue again this year, but the truth is that it's... changing. Google's AdSense is the first in the chain, and two remarkable things happened this year. The first is that the CPM's in general are higher, and that led to a 70% increase in Googlebucks even with about 400k fewer page views between the sites. The other thing is that Google's fill rate, the percentage of times where they actually fill the spot on the page with an ad, went from 25% to 40%. This is important because the CPM and fill rate have been going down for years. It's the first positive thing that I've seen from ads since 2010 (that was a really good year).

Unfortunately, while Google looks like it's staging a comeback for my ad revenue, we completely lost an ad provider that has been with me since the start. Burst Media was, at one time, paying out more than a grand a month. At some point it was purchased, and it paid less and less, until this year it stopped entirely. This is particularly bad on the PointBuzz side, because for whatever reason, it always did really well there (and terrible on CoasterBuzz). We've got a lot of unfilled inventory right now. I've experimented with a few providers, but they almost universally serve the worst, spammy crap, tripping Google's malware warnings. I have taken time to research replacements in the last week, but it's slow going because of the holidays and lack of choice.

At the other end of the balance sheet, it's important to note that I've reduced a ton of expenses. Moving to Azure a few years ago has cut hosting costs in half. Ditching the merchant account for Stripe was a big one this year. I'll also save on cell phone bills (I write them off as an expense since I need to be able to monitor the sites), because I recently moved from AT&T to Project Fi. Sometimes you can make money by spending less of it.

While not strictly a part of the business, I did spend time working on POP Forums a bit, porting it to the new .NET Core platform. Part of that effort has been to work on making it scale across multiple nodes. The truth is, it can pretty easily scale up a long way before it needs to scale out, as I found out with some basic load testing earlier this year. The new framework is so fast, and being able to handle 2 million requests per hour on a single box is fantastic. I'll take that! This week, I got Azure search indexing working, too. It's a great tool, but priced too high for what I need, so I probably won't use it.

It was a decent year, considering how little I cared for and fed the hobby-business. I hope the ad situation gets better. Yeah, this is all for fun, and I know that time investment in it goes in streaks, but it wouldn't be that fun if it was all without some kind of compensation. Content is a terrible business to go into intentionally. If I were to start something new, it would be something that asks people for regular, recurring revenue.


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