At The Crossroads

I think I’ve had enough, with work related to the Web that is (and I’ve been thinking about this off and on for a while actually). You see for the past five to ten years, most of my enjoyment with the Web has been in creating community sites where I explore and share information with others. Yet in all of these ventures (including my recent Exploring Squarespace site), I didn’t make a dime from them. Thus the thing I’m the most passionate about, I can’t see a way of making any income from it.

Since this may be my last post on the Web (for quite a while anyways), if anyone has any ideas on this, definitely let me know. I mean the only two options I can see are adding ad banners, which would basically provide pocket change, or a more substantial approach would be making new content to the site subscription-based for a monthly fee. Yet I honestly don’t see many people being into that and actually I’d rather avoid that if I could, since I believe information on the Web should be freely accessible. Yet there in lies the problem. If everyone makes their content free, how can they sustain themselves?

Seems like we haven’t made much headway since the dot com bomb period when many sites experienced the same problems and closed up shop, even though many may have had thousands of people visiting them daily. If there isn’t a way to sustain what you’re doing, no matter how valuable and appreciative your content is, then don’t expect to be doing it for long. End of story.

12 thoughts on “At The Crossroads

  1. > If there isn’t a way to sustain what you’re doing, no matter how valuable and appreciative your content is, then don’t expect to be doing it for long. End of story <

    The way I see it, unless your providing a service online that differentiates you from all the billions of others out there your wasting your time unless your doing it out of pure enjoyment and enough others happen to like it.

    I think services people can’t do without are really the only sensible sustainable way to make a genuine living online. One where you can capture regular bums on seats. There are plenty of fads that come and go, there are tons of communities out there. I don’t know if setting out to create them is a very sustainable business. Users are fickle. They like one service for a while and then a better one comes along and unless they have a genuine stake in the previous one, emotional or physical, they’re likely to leave. I’m talking long-lived personal information. eg. email, blogs, photo sites, personals, social networks, product needs, subscription and services with good reputations tend to be the ones that are successful. They’re goal orientated, they help people get things done. Everyone wants instant gratification.

    My only suggestion would be to provide something users couldn’t do without and try and fit that in with your ideas if your still interested in persuing them.

    What I’m working on is very much along the lines of what we’ve discussed, only I have a unique user interface feature, identity and privacy provisions, content aggregation and media and relational services all tied into the system. All user centric aimed at getting things people do everyday done and stored in the system, in an open way that affords them the tools to create new ideas based upon that information and share that. Allowing self and relational exploration and transaction in a way that will hopefully keep users coming back. It’s the interface that will definately be unique, affording creativity, self expression, portability, extendability. I haven’t discussed any of it…nor seen anything remotely like it. I love the mockup I have of it. Yet often I still feel like throwing in the towel. I don’t want to spend my life online.

    Ultimately comes down to how passionate you are about your ideas. What goal and personal meaning they fulfill for you.

    Personally I want to build this for me, to better myself.

    What do you want to achieve for yourself?

  2. Don’t stop. You’re too helpful, too friendly and Squarespace is too great of a product to loose an advocate and teacher of your caliber.

    Start charging for the more extensive advice, get paid for it, then build that content back into your journal entries. You’ll be working directly with those that need and appreciate your knowledge and expertise, you’ll be helping them build their dreams/ businesses/ ideas/ content/ stories and your great voice will continue to be heard. Good luck with whatever your decision.

  3. > I think services people can’t do without are really the only sensible sustainable way to make a genuine living online. <

    Craig, but there’s a big difference between finding something extremely valuable and paying for it. I’ve had tons of people in the past say they really loved the information I provided in my Exploring Squarespace site and wanted to see more. Yet having said that, how many would be willing to pay for it? I guess what I’m trying to say is that the "need" of something is totally separate from the "cost" associated with it, especially when it relates to content.

    If I just sold layouts (which I was planning on doing) then people see that as something more tangible and have no problem paying for it. Yet with content, it’s almost expected to be free. Yet the information within that content helps a lot of people. So in effect, I’m providing a service, yet I’m getting nothing in return for it to sustain myself.

    So why not just create and sell layouts? Well, there are a lot of issues and complications around that in itself.

    1) I’m not that great of a "production" designer. What I mean by that is that I can create great designs but it usually takes me much longer than a "professional" designer. That’s why I prefer not offering custom design work because I think people could get better bang for their buck by hiring someone else. I mean just doing design work with me would probably cost $1000 to $2000 easily which I think is more than what people expect. That’s why I thought of just creating my own layouts and selling them (i.e. kind of like an artist creating work and selling it).

    2) Even in designing my own layouts though, there are still complications. You see I initially thought of Squarespace customers as my target audience. I thought "Cool! I’ll be able to make radically different layouts!" Yet at the same time, Anthony expressed an interest in purchasing layouts from me if he likes what I create. Yet if I go that route, I’d have to make the layouts conform to a certain "Squarespace" standard (i.e. one layout with three or four styles). Yet if I go that safer route, I can’t go the radical route and push the boundaries with more customized layouts (i.e. one layout, one style, with a customized setup to include three column layouts, horizontal nav bar, etc).

    Even having said all of that, if I take the "design layouts" approach that still leaves the Exploring Squarespace site going nowhere. As I said, a lot of people find the information useful but unless I can get something tangible in return for it so that it can sustain my work on it, there isn’t a reason to continue with it.

    I mean another option as I already mentioned is providing customization support. So if someone is having troubles with the one of my customization tips, I could assist them with it for a fee. Yet just the other day, I realized that certain customizations aren’t as easy as I thought. For example, three column emulation is radically different dependent upon the layout your using which is why so many people are having troubles with it.

    The hilarious thing is that I thought, no problem I could create three column emulation examples for all of the main Squarespace layouts. That way people could cut and paste the exact code to work with the default template. Do you realize how valuable that would be to people? Yet who’s going to pay for this valuable knowledge that I spent a lot of my time researching to figure it out? I really honestly would love to share this information openly but there is no point going down that path unless there is a way I can financially support myself with it.

    > What do you want to achieve for yourself? <

    Let me just answer this in two ways by 1) describing who I am and 2) what I would like to do.

    1) I’m what I would call a creative explorer. That’s why I love researching things and trying to push the envelope with them. And once I love discovering things, I love sharing that information with others. Yet as I noted, I don’t honestly see any way for me to support myself in this direction since people aren’t interested in paying for content / ideas.

    2) I want to change the world. Simple enough right? πŸ™‚

    Actually to be more specific, through my explorations and idea discoveries I want to help people to connect and collaborate with one another (which is why I enjoy focusing on community building) so that they can better understand each other (thus promoting more harmony and cooperation).

    As I said though, I’ve got all of these ideas in my head that I’m working on yet the sad thing is that even if I come up with a better way to collaborate, more often than not, it would be an open approach (instead of a proprietary approach). Therefore even though I provide this information and ideas freely to others on how to do this, what do I get out of it? Yes, of course, everyone will be appreciative and I will be helping to change the world but how does that sustain me in my life? Appreciation is great but it doesn’t pay the bills. πŸ™‚ Therefore, without some form of sustainability, I don’t see myself going down that path but instead deviating at the crossroads into something completely and radically different (i.e. non-tech related field).

  4. > You’re too helpful, too friendly and Squarespace is too great of a product to loose an advocate and teacher of your caliber. <

    Michael, I definitely appreciate your comments but you actually raised another important point. I do want to be a "teacher". Yet what does a teacher do? Do they teach a lesson to one student at a time or to the entire class at once?

    By offering paid support, I’m only helping one person at a time which is extremely frustrating for me because I know I could be helping a much wider audience of people all at once through my Exploring Squarespace site. Yet again of course, since this information is freely available, who is going to pay for it (i.e. who will pay the "teacher")? As I said before, this is more of a paradigm shift that people need to start making. People have no problem paying someone for support with a specific issue (i.e. creating three columns), yet they do seem to have an issue with providing money "freely" for information "freely" obtain from a site (i.e. instead of payment for services, it’s more of a reward for valuable information received).

    This paradigm shift is something I’ve been thinking and researching about since 2002 when I wrote a letter to David Weinberger entitled "Paradox: In Giving You Make Yourself Stronger".

    http://nollind.whachell.com/journal/2005/10/14/paradox-in-giving-you-make-yourself-stronger.html

  5. > Craig, but there’s a big difference between finding something extremely valuable and paying for it.<

    If it was extemely valuable, they’d pay for it, right? A figure I see often bandied about for online apps is that approximately one percent of users will find something valuable enough to pay supporting that other 99% who want something free. It’s that small number of people you need a ground-swell of, and in order to get it to a point thats sustainable you often need very large numbers depending on market. Myspace layouts are one of those large ground-swells that can pay out in the design area. The squarespace audience may be too small at the moment. Personally I see layouts AS content. Eventually good designs become freely available so no one pays for them. Instead the good designers who produced free templates create reputation from that work potentially bringing in consulting work.

    Have a listen to this excellent talk on the Dunbar number if your interested in group building.

    http://www.itconversations.com/shows/detail1072.html

    If you think about that one percent. Think about how many sites and services you use everyday online that you consider valuable enough to pay for. I pay for my internet access. I pay google with my attention data for email. Same with my news reader. I’ve bought domain names, get blog hosting from a friendship and will be buying more soon. I’m a cheapskate, but I really don’t need a lot online. All the content I read online is paid for by people who pay for hosting, businesses that pay for eyeballs, that one percent who pay for services.

    As for design, it’s a very personal thing. I was discussing this with a graphic designer recently and how increasingly people see design as an extension of self. Helping form their reputation image. The problem being that most people can’t decide on what image they want to present. They keep changing they’re minds and moods. Thats where I see the majority of people wanting to customise themselves, rather than pay, they want to play. It’s about getting to know yourself. Templates that aren’t completely customisable, suck. There’s a reason I host my own blogs. This is it. I can hack the code, I can hack the template. But I’m able to. Not everyone is. Which is the central feature to what I’m working towards. Making something idiot proof yet extensively customisable. I have a working mockup I can use like desktop publishing software, creating multiple pages like a wiki, with the extensibility of creating custom widgets and some secret sauce. If you’ve used piczo, it’s much nicer than that. It’s a part of my vision of augmenting humans(myself) through User Experience. That means creating tools.

    If there’s one thing I bitch about most, it’s tools that don’t let me do what I want to do or do it easily.

    You sound like the type of person that would work great in a team, helping to guide group development, something along the lines of an interaction design. Someone that oversee’s community driven development. And that doesn’t necessarily mean online. πŸ™‚

  6. > Personally I see layouts AS content. <

    I think we’re agreeing on the same thing there. Selling a product or service is easy. Selling content is completely different though. Yes people are doing it (i.e. Salon membership) but again a lot of it is done through advertising that takes months to build up and a huge audience which, I agree, I don’t think Squarespace has at this time (but could with the right attention).

    > All the content I read online is paid for by people who pay for hosting, businesses that pay for eyeballs, that one percent who pay for services. <

    This emphasizes my point exactly. Advertising is how content sites are paid for. Advertising while fine for sites getting millions of hits per day is not that great for smaller community sites of thousands of users. It still can be done though as Problogger points out ( http://www.problogger.net/ ) but as I indicated, that would take months to achieve that form of sustainability. In effect, I’d have to do the site for free for many months in my spare time while doing another job. Therefore if I have to get a job elsewhere, I’d rather just look for a job that I’d enjoy doing and just do that, instead of being burnt out doing two jobs (yet only getting paid for one).

    > As for design, it’s a very personal thing. I was discussing this with a graphic designer recently and how increasingly people see design as an extension of self. <

    Well said indeed. This is actually why so many people don’t realize the complexities of design. I often get people giving me a description of a few sentences and expecting me to make a design from it. I could literally spends hours just obtaining information first about the design before I even start working on it. You are extending a visual representation of that person when you design for them, therefore it’s critically important you fully understand them and their identity and what they want to communicate. Often times their message or purpose is more helpful in creating a design then listening them say what colors they want on the site. Their message or purpose defines the mood and feelings of what they are trying to relay and in turn defines the colors and visual style.

    > Thats where I see the majority of people wanting to customise themselves, rather than pay, they want to play. <

    True but there’s a fine balance with this. For example, your knowledge level allows you to play much more so than an average user ever could. Thus you wouldn’t like Squarespace because you don’t have finite control over everything. Yet look at it from the average users viewpoint. They don’t have much web knowledge at all and thus using Squarespace gives them much more ability to play with things on the Web then they every could before. It really depends upon your knowledge level and how much (or deep) you want to play.

    > You sound like the type of person that would work great in a team, helping to guide group development, something along the lines of an interaction design. <

    I was the Senior Web Developer for a web firm in the past and ya that’s pretty much what I did. Someone described me as the conductor of an orchestra. I saw myself as kind of a fusionist who helped bring everything together (i.e. front end visuals, content structure and usability, and backend programming).

  7. Nollind, I can’t tell you enough how valuable I have found your Exploring Squarespace site, and I hope that you find a motivation to continue writing for it. It has really opened my eyes to what you can do with a few CSS hooks and a little ingenuity. Actually, I’m very surprised that this isn’t a fully-funded and official piece of the Squarespace help.

    Since your audience for Exploring Squarespace is made up of Squarespace users, and the level of the content is targeted toward users with some CSS and XHTML knowledge, couldn’t you partner with Anthony to make it available for an optional fee on users’ Squarespace accounts? That way you wouldn’t be worried about giving away valuable info for free, and the users that really enjoy customizing their site could subscribe to it without the hassle of yet another online service subscription (it would just be attached to their regular recurring Squarespace charges), and basic users that don’t care about all of the tweaking don’t ever get confused by this info appearing side-by-side with the basic FAQ and manual.

  8. It’s all a question of balance.

    You must educate the consumer in order to create a better customer.

    As I see it, Squarespace attracts a customer with a need. They typically want a clean style and the ability to manage their content… quickly, efficiently and in a cost effective manner.

    But, alas, they ultimately want more.

    I’ve been designing web sites since 1994. That’s right… 94. Today, I have at least 5 persoonal sites done in Squarespace. The reason(s)? Simplicity and management. The internet and web require that you be honest. If your web site is dormant, your company and its image is dormant. If your content is stale, the perception of your company is stale. Squarespace (when used properly) resolves that dilmena.

    But… alas, we ultimately want more.

    Enter Nollin Whachell –

    Here’s the business model I see;

    Advanced (read:fee based) templates with support. Let Squarespace provide the basic blog-like content management templates while you provide Designer Templates. Think about it, there are only so many ways to skin a cat… or layout a web page. For years and almost immediately after the W3 consortium approved the HTML background tag, I wrote a white paper preaching the benefits of "Printed" look and feel. I saw a pattern of HTML tags driving the page design. Page layout was becoming "net-centric."

    My point is, even in an offer for Advanced Templates, the scope of design doesn’t mean a loss of control.But they can certainly add enough style for a customer to go… "gee, I’d like my site to look like that." At which point, the client is told, those templates are fee based… let’s say $750 and, you get 5 hours of support free. After that, support is billed at $80 per hour in 1/4 hour increments.

    Is this for everyone? No. So what….? You can’t afford to do business with everyone. You need to be selective ($750 is only a filter) and seek clients that respect your talend and understand your need to be paid for your time. If a client is not intelligent enough to understand a simple rule of economics and/or appreciate the value-add in your service, they’re not your customer.

    Sorry… I meant to be brief. πŸ™‚

    John

  9. John, actually what you described is pretty close to what I’ve been envisioning. I think I’m noticing one big flaw in my plans here though. I talk too much and with too many details, thus overcomplicating things much more than they need to be. For example, I probably confused more people with my explanation of "layout patterns" than anything, when really I just wanted to say "I’m figuring out ways to help you create the site layout you’ve always wanted" (which in effect is designer layouts as you said, since these layouts will all require custom modification work to be implemented properly).

    This is quite ironic because I’ve always been a strong advocate of simplicity (which you can tell from my layout work) and I think I need to put that into action with regards to my communications as well. Therefore in future, I’m going to avoid going into all these details (i.e. pricing, layout patterns explanations, etc) as to why I take an approach to something. Instead I’m just going to communicate my purpose and show the results of it.

    In a nutshell, I want to help people to connect and communicate with others in simpler ways. That’s it. How I do this doesn’t really matter, as long as that’s the end result.

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