The current version of CoasterBuzz launched a year ago today. Time sure flies. There was a lot of soul searching leading up to that time, and much since, trying to figure out what the point of the site was to me, in the personal sense.
When I started it in 2000, it was mostly because Guide to The Point (now PointBuzz) was too limited in scope, and despite its success, I wanted to do something with a more broad focus. I was motivated half by the programming geekery, and half by wanting a coaster site that met my needs and wants. A year and a half later, it was almost breaking even to cover hosting costs, then I got dropped by DoubleClick. That inspired the club, which turned out to be good for everyone and saved my ass. By 2006 or 2007, I wasn't even sure why I did it other than habit. My indifference was showing in terms of traffic as well.
Then last summer I realized that the site had satisfied a number of different desires for me. First, it was a sandbox for me to mess around in professionally. It offers unrestricted freedom to try anything I want in terms of programming. Second, it's a chance to use my media skills to build an audience. Third, it has always enabled me to buy hardware, software, cameras and such to create more. When I've been between jobs, it has also kept me eating. And finally, it still does what I started it for, it keeps me engaged in a hobby I care about.
I was embarrassed by how old and fragile the site had become, so I made an effort to replace it. Since then, I've more or less been able to adapt it quickly and little by little. There have been about a hundred code check-ins in the last year, not counting changes to the forum app (another 70 check-ins there). I'm still dealing in a somewhat aging code base when it comes to the forum, but overall I've been able to make changes in a solid development environment.
I slipped into indifference a bit over the winter, which was also bad for traffic. I wasn't updating enough or engaging. Fortunately, getting married and laid-off, within days of each other, energized me to make a serious effort to turn it around. It's not like I had any larger agenda at that point!
It paid off. Compared to the same month last year, visitors are only slightly up, but page views and pages per visit are up 44%, time spent per visitor is up 19%, and new visitors are up 20%. It's a thrill to look at the analytics and see all green numbers. The site served more than 1.2 million ads in August, which isn't bad considering club members don't see ads at all. Most of the numbers are up compared to August 2007 as well, where there were more visitors, but they spent significantly less time on the site.
The end result of all of this is that I'm at least paying my mortgage through my own means. It's not a lot of money, but it feels good to be doing this and not collecting unemployment. Since I started keeping track of the time I put into it, I figure that I make about $22 an hour, and that's working a fraction of what I would at a typical day job.
So what are the lessons learned so far? There are many.
The biggest lesson is to do what makes sense for you and your audience. Yeah, I had to drink some 37signals Kool-Aid® for that one, but it's true. There was a time when I spent way too much time thinking about what other sites did and whether or not I should emulate those. These days, there really aren't any other sites, at least, not any that do things quite like I do. I've focused on delivering stuff that made sense, and that has served me really well.
The other thing is to pay attention to your numbers and measure anything you can. If you build some shiny new feature, see what the impact is. Sure, I've seen traffic spikes every time someone announces a new ride, but where do sustained increases come from? They come from specific new features, and you can see it on the graph. That's vindication that you did the right thing.
A more recent revelation, last week, in fact, is that using your "eyeballs" for good feels better than any other gains you make. Getting involved with the GKTW fundraiser felt good in every way. And it's not a "look what I did" thing, it's a "look what other people did using my facility" thing. If you have the attention of a large group of people, point them toward a cause now and then. They won't disappoint you.
It's hard to say what's next for the site. I'm anxious to get back to a day job, because I think it goes a long way toward stimulating my brain. The development side of CB is largely a solitary activity. I'm crossing my fingers that the MSFT phone screen tomorrow goes well!