There is a stigma to monetizing your side projects. I take exception to this. Building useful software is hard work. Maintaining it takes even more work. Adding a revenue stream to a project helps make it sustainable. This is good for everyone involved.
This is a big issue in the open source community. Github and Google code are littered with the remains of half completed and unmaintained libraries. This is a loss to everyone involved: the volunteers that built the library, the brave souls who were early adopters, and the community at large. And when the open source ecosystem fails for a particular space, our end-users have no choice except to turn to a corporate provider.
To Advertise or Not, That Is The Question…
This site started as an experiment and family project. While it has always been of commercial value to us, the initial gains were indirect. It opened up some great doors. It also gave us a safe place to validate the underlying technology. LoadRunner can’t compete with a couple thousand crazed scrabble fans!
However, there is a certain amount of recurring work and expense involved in maintaining a site. On the low end, you need to keep the spammers in check and maintain a minimal level of content/link creation to keep Google interested. On the higher end, you need to respond to changes in the underlying games and new game launches. After a few months, this can become a burden. It competes with family time and new projects, chewing up the credit card a bit.
Which is the first revelation – the project already was “work”, I just wasn’t noticing it in the early stages of the site. Once competing priorities arose, it became harder to rationalize doing this work. This isn’t unique to this project, by the way. The same issue occurs with most of the lesser open source projects and weekend hacks. Unless you have a huge mission, engaged audience, and strong team – many projects flounder at this point. Start strong, fade away to nothing.
This site took an important step towards self-sufficiency last week. We started displaying ads. The purpose of this article isn’t to brag, by the way. Hangman solvers aren’t a “get rich quick” niche – cash hungry internet marketers should keep walking 🙂
What a Revenue Stream Really Provides: Freedom to Grow…
Most of our vacations involve trips to the beach, which involves a 6 – 8 hour drive (with small children, which only makes it longer). This usually tends to be pretty good “thinking time”. This site was conceived on our last Thanksgiving trip and we cranked out a couple of improvements over Christmas before we launched. This trip was no different – once we settled down into the long drive across the South Georgia countryside, I started thinking about the stuff I wanted to build next.
The ads don’t generate much, just enough to cover our costs. That flips this site from being a burden to a net benefit. Worth protecting and improving. Sustainable. Funded by something other than pure ego.
Plus A Running Start For The Next Adventure…
For the entrepreneurial developer, there are three really good reasons why you should try to monetize that little side project. Even if there isn’t much commercial potential.
Second, it gives you some exposure to the business side of the web: generating traffic and monetizing it. If you ever do launch a ”real product”, you will need to know this stuff. SEO and social media sounds silly until you realize just how much traffic can come from Google, Reddit, and Twitter. Ad design, targeting, and placement are boring until you need those $5 clicks you are buying from Google to start covering their cost. It is a lot easier to learn this on a small site than after you start a real business – with partners, investors, and customers asking why the server keep crashing and when the next payment is coming.
Finally, you get a running start on your next adventure. The server is paid for. We have a battle tested codebase that can give us a head start on development. Google crawls this site regularly – we can get new content indexed and ranked within a few days and know how to get the first dozen links to a new site (without resorting to spam). My out-of-pocket cost to test something new just got very small…
And that is the big win. When you take the cost of running experiments to near zero, you can explore a lot of ideas. It’s like being locked in a room full of free lottery tickets. It’s up to you to keep scratching…