POP Forums and the accidental entrepreneur

posted by Jeff | Saturday, October 5, 2019, 10:21 PM | comments: 0

I've spent a lot of time in the last week, my staycation week, working on the hosted version of POP Forums. The idea is that you give me money, and I'll host a copy of the forum for you. Diana asked the appropriate question about this: "Does anyone want this?" It's a valid question... I'll get back to that.

In 2000, my little hobby sites, Guide to The Point (now PointBuzz) and CoasterBuzz, were making a surprising amount of money from advertising. Those were pretty awesome days for content publishers. You could make a lot of coin without a lot of audience. It didn't even matter that everyone was doing it, either. There was so much ad revenue out there that everyone could make money in their spare time. (If only that had been something 7 years earlier when I was in college... I would not have had student loans and had my own place.) The promise of the Internet as an equalizer in all things was real back then.

As the story goes that I've told a million times, I wanted to own the whole experience, and since my sites had a forum as their core, I wrote my own, and so POP Forums was born. I figured, since I wrote it, I might as well sell it, and I did as downloadable software, $175 a hit. This was the reason that I first acquired a merchant account to collect credit card payments, and it came in handy in 2001 when I started offering CoasterBuzz Club. I made OK money selling the forum, even though I really wasn't much of a software developer in those days.

Eventually I started giving it away as an open source project, in late 2003. It wasn't until 2010 that I started also developing it in the open, hosting the repository on CodePlex (RIP). I moved it to GitHub in 2014 when Microsoft left CodePlex to die. As an open source project, it attracted enough attention to be translated into six languages, and sometimes I get someone interested who does a pull request and contributes. It's been forked dozens of times, and a half-dozen people clone it everyday. That's not a wildly popular project, but the bottom line is that some people find it useful, and that's gratifying. I would be building it anyway for my sites.

This has been my approach to entrepreneurship from the beginning: If I'm building it anyway for myself, there's no real risk to selling it because it's not a deliberate business. That's a huge cop out, for sure. You can't fail if you didn't intend to "make it" in the first place. It's also the reason that some of the arbitrary things that I've started "for the money" rarely were finished or had any follow through. It's weird, I can get into something in a day job as an objective with a team, but if it's something I'm starting on my own dime, and I don't have my head into it, it never materializes.

I vaguely remember the time when a number of web-based software packages started to become software-as-a-service (SaaS), and thinking that was nuts, but I've been working on commercial SaaS products now for more than three years. It's not nuts. Getting back to the earlier question, I don't know if hosted forum apps are something that people want, but there are a few players in the market today that suggest that it's a thing. A few are making in excess of $3 million a year, even. It's not a huge market, but it's not crowded. I'd be content to make a grand a month. It would more than pay for the expenses. 

As I mentioned, making it real is what makes it work for me. So we're planning to migrate the PointBuzz forums there as the first "customer." I know the app isn't perfect, and lacks features, but so what? If I wait for that, it will never be out there. The UI needs a fair amount of modernization, but the upside is that it's really, really fast. I'm very proud of the performance, with most pages loading in 100ms or less from my decidedly erratic connection at home. I don't know what the upper limit of scaling is, but in tests I've found that it can do 1,000 requests per second pretty easily on cloud infrastructure.

Some part of my nights and weekends will be devoted to figuring this out for awhile, but I'd like to launch it before the end of the year. I've got most of the hard parts finished... multi-tenancy, taking money, provisioning... the only big part left is recurring billing, but that shouldn't be very hard. I've got complete continuous integration environments set up already. The only quasi challenging thing on the radar is provisioning free secure certificates for customers who want custom domain names, but I'll figure it out.

My hobby is for fun and hopefully a little profit. 😁


No comments yet.

Post your comment: