Building Sustainable Websites

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.

That’s when it hit me. I have a budget now, at least in the eyes of my wife and the IRS. Not a big one – I still need to show up at work on Monday – but enough to cover part of the expenses of “trying something new”. Want to redesign an interface and spend $50 bucks on a Javascript book? No Sweat. Need to start a secondary site (new domain,  another hosting account)? That $100 is covered. Feeling the desire to spend a couple of days building a new solver? “Hey Honey, we might be able to fund a date night or two from a new solver…” That goes over a lot better with your significant other than “I’m going to hide in the basement and cut some code, see you in a week” – just a tip for you married guys 🙂

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.

First, it will make you a better developer by encouraging you to maintain / expand a project over a long period of time. Even during a quiet month, I usually wind up tinkering with something that reinforces my understanding of Python or Javascript. It also gives you a token incentive to buckle down and learn the ”hard stuff” in your chosen toolset, using tangible projects and measurable outcomes.

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…

2 Replies to “Building Sustainable Websites”

  1. Yes..for now 🙂

    In truth the real benefits from the project are strategic in nature (reputation, networking, tangible demonstration of skill, easy access to a web infrastructure I understand, SEO firepower for other projects). Google Adsense just helps me “live off the land”.

    They were the fastest one to set up and seem to have a decent targeting mechanism. I may test an alternate provider later this summer. Their TOS does limit what I can do for ajax refreshes, which limits my impressions to a degree….

    1. Agreed on other benefits. (oh… and people are amazing: congratulations, ideas, bug reports, patches, look & feel redesign…)

      I have tried some other ad providers, like Chitika (ex-YahooAds) but the revenue was… 3€/month. Google is a monster.

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