SXSW 2006 Panel: Does Your Blog Have a Business?

Monday, March 13, 2006

SXSW Page about this panel

[Phoebe Espiritu is an ITP graduate, by the way.]

Byron: This is a segue from what Coudal said last year. Your business should have a blog, obviously. But should your blog have a business? So what we have in common is that we wanted a better thing.

Zeldman: I started in 1995. I did my first client site in 1995. Pretended I knew what I was doing. I realized I can do work and not have a client, so I started a personal site. So I decided to write a thing about how I was doing it. Started doing Dr. Web, which is now offline, and started a kind of community thing going. Edutainment. From, I got two businesses. My own, Happy Cog. At one point in 1999 I decided to walk out on my client and do my own thing. I felt free. And the client I walked away from was really good money, so that was even better. So the first business I got out of this was a magazine, A List Apart. Now it has 14,000,000 pageviews / month. I didn’t believe in advertising, but I think we found a way to do it respectfully and intelligently. Another business is a conference called Event Apart. And a book business that’ll roll out. So by putting content out there for a long time I found an audience.

Inman: That’s pretty much how my story goes. I started a site in 2000. And I’ve been kind of following the design portals like k10k and finding my own voice and eventually fell into the web standards and the CSS Zen Garden and people started to come to my website and I built a community around it. So I was more and more interested in who was coming to the site. I played with webalizer and So I started finding my own needs and started to build an app called ShortStat. Free. Some problems. This evolved into what is now Mint. I was scratching my own itch, but there were a number of like-minded individuals. So I did a poll and got, like, 100 comments in a few days so I began to make this app. And as necessary people could add features. It was that back-and-forth that decided what I product was.

Byron: And that’s what we have in common. Accidental entrepreneurship. Was was interesting… I just started talking about what I was doing and this new market came to us that we didn’t know existed. Clip’n’Seal is now being used by NASA. We get all kinds of feedback all of the time. It’s now being used to study global warming in Antarctica. It’s reinvigorating.

Rice: I like the term “accidental entrepreneurship.” I fell into the web fairly early on, 1995-1996. I was a cheese sandwich blogger. It’s interesting to live in this environment where we’re building in the petri dish. It’s still evolving. Our show started about four years ago. I can’t answer, “Why do you podcast?” Nothing can stop me because the tools are there. So I have this dual life of working and being nerdy and then that personal celebrity thing that I don’t stress about. It’s interesting to live this process in real-time. Blog is a weird pop-culture/tech thing that turned itself accidentally into this business thing. It’s amusing to see “Find Eric Rice” ads on I write things and people think they’re cool so people give me things and invite me to speak and write books and things. Then there’s all these rules. I disagree with all of them. I’m not afraid to sometimes be an asshole and break the rules. It’s important to teach people about the process along the way, creating all of this how-to content. It’s eating your own dogfood. And this evolves into all of these different avenues. The blog is the portal for me the human being as the brand. “What’ve you been doing the past 15 years?” The blog lets me tease about what’s going on in the future and people begin communicating. Nothing pisses me off more than people who don’t engage the community. The more your blog gets traffic, it’s hard. When you get on PR lists, it’s non-stop. And mySpace. Tons and tons want to be my friend.

Byron: I was on a panel where people were like, “How to I submit to the blogs?” Well, you don’t. You enter the community.

Rice: We actually met because we were a part of a paid blogging thing that generated a lot of static. I’m not a journalist. That’s where Byron and I met and connected. Our conversations evolved. We have similar methodologies and things. So I have a lot of luxury not afforded to a typical corporation.

Espiritu: I want to touch on “accidental entrepreneurship.” Clay Shirky blogged about this — “situated software.” When people realize there’s a problem, they often have the resources and know-how to solve it on their own, but not the entire solution. But when you’re a part of the blogger community, it’s kind of natural for you to kind of extend the kind of beta testing to your community. And you start asking them what they think and you get feedback. And what’s interesting, not that long ago — 6-10 year — it would’ve required a pro marketing focus-group to arrive at these conclusions. Longer. More expensive. But blogs let you do that. Subversive blogging was my introduction to blogging. Look at blogs as a powerful set of tools that you can take apart and use the modules as you see fit. Another thing, I don’t necessarily try to create a celebrity identity. But I do facilitate other people with their ideas. When I was still a grad student, I accidentally met Seth Godin. He had this project called Change This and I was working on it as an intern. And the idea was to measure the viral potential of blogs in a different way: He wanted to publish ideas as PDFs. And to track how far ideas would spread through this new format. So we took apart components of blogs and custom-created some new technologies to measure the spread of ideas. What happened. The project changed hands two years ago. But other media companies have seen what we’ve done and they’ve taken the idea and managed to extend their own businesses. Such as Before and After magazine. They realized they could extend their subscriber base by publishing into a PDF format. And they did extend their business that was by charging $5 per issue. One interesting aspect of this: It’s not necessarily your personal blog. But it also extended other people’s businesses in way I certainly didn’t imagine.

Byron: I also wanted to talk about the passion and hard work. And this less thing, “lessiness.” How much of this passion is driving it for you? It’s a lot of work. Three years and we’re finally getting the kind of sales to make a difference.

Zeldman: I didn’t try to become a web celeb and I wasn’t trying to make money. I was trying to express myself. That was such a high after not having that and watching that grow because I enjoyed it. I don’t know why that was such a motivator, but some people are motivated to communicate or get respect or something. 1995-1998 for me wasn’t a good way to make money, but it was a good way to meet people all over the world and put ideas out there and watch them come back to you. It’s like, I saw a crashed car on the road and no one else was pulling over. You couldn’t just drive by and not do anything about it. And it was such an uphill battle. Nobody was interested. So that kind of challenge. Contrariness. And another thing that worked for me: Just pick someone you want to kill, someone whose position you want to have or who you think you can do better than. I picked people I thought were successful in influence and I tried to do better than them. Then the commitment part is easy. It’s only in the past year that I realize that I have a family and I’m self-employed, so no one’s looking out for my retirement, trust fund of the kids, etc. So I try to monetize it.

Byron: One reason I became a pundit was because the other guys weren’t running a business — they didn’t know what they were talking about! With my business, there’s no way to deal with comments on my blog so we never ran live comments. Now has the tools have matured we’ve turned those on. So it’s just a practical thing. The reality of the business was, how much time can I commit to this.

Inman: ShortStat started as a personal thing that I decided to share. Influenced by Josh Davis who shared his code. It comes back ten-fold. And as it progressed into Mint, as it launched. I came last year and every time you turn around there are three people from your blog roll. It was amazing. So we became friends. And they were willing to challenge my ideas, and that pushed the product forward. So these people all decided to write about their favorite feature. I knew there was a little bit of buzz. [About the buzz-building of Mint.] So when I decided to release Mint, it’s been such a huge success that I’ve had to turn down client work. And it was the blog that determined the product and built the buzz and everything. They’re personal things. You want to know how people are reacting to you.

Byron: How did you arrive at your pricing?

Inman: Mostly a recoup your cost. A business-guy friend and my fiance helped me work through it. I was working full time, as well, and it was just deciding what its value was. There was a bit of backlash when it launched, but I think that backlash actually created more publicity and people responded that you pay for value. But I exceeded my expectations the first month.

Rice: I like when Jeff brought up the issue of competition. We live in this weird landscape of VCs doing weird stuff and going under the radar, etc. But at its core, it’s the passion of it. I love criticism more than anything. And people talking back. But you do things with this passion, even if you don’t know what it is. So in 2001 I had no job, it was a dark period. People would look at you like, “what are you doing?” Now people look at you, like, “oh, that’s what you were doing.” Whether you have a big master plan or not. It’s this fact that, can I do all these things? Well, I’m doing on thing. Some things are intentional. Some things are totally accidental. MY wife calls me calculating, but some things are just a shot in the dark.

Espiritu: There was an interesting panel on Saturday on passionate users. One of the things you described was this state of flow. I’m really just the facilitator for other people’s ideas. But even after the engagement is over I can’t release myself from having an involvement in their projects. There is a lot of passion and there are days you really can’t sleep. And there’s much built into the DNA of developer types: you just naturally want to fix something that seems to be broken. So I have dinner with my friends who aren’t those types. So the first question is, how do you make money off of it? Does it need to? Sometimes I just do something because I can. But maybe there is some business in that idea of yours that you didn’t see.

Byron: I still have clients, businesses, and they still want to know how this blogging thing works. The hardest client ever has been myself. Have you quit your day job, is the question.

Rice: We need to make money. But not everything plays money. Who plays video games? How do you make money at that? Not everything needs a pay-off. But start blogging about it, and you get acquired by Nick Denton or something like that.

Inman: With Mint, the goal wasn’t to get rich. ShortStat took a lot of time. So the idea was to provide support for those people who used it.

?: People don’t see the money that you don’t have to spend for marketing and such by having a blog.

Byron: Sure.

?: Should you blog be a separate site from your business or the same. Opinions?

Zeldman: Coudal Partners works where it’s the same thing. But it depends. I might say something political that I feel would be inappropriate on a business site. So I separate the two.

Byron: There’s such a blend of bloggers amongst us. Boeing decided to separate it out because they have such a huge site even though it uses their standards. Same with Fastlane. We also have different topics, so I started different sites about that. Clip’n’Seal is just Clip’n’Seal.

?: Did you find the audience or did they find you?

Byron: For me, we just started blogging and an audience found us.

Zeldman: Accidental audiencepreneurship. We have 213 issues of A List Apart. Put content out there and keep putting content out there. And people will find you. If you lean semantic mark-up, your content will be easier to find. Then pretty soon people will find it. This Techcrunch site came out of nowhere and I became very curious about it. I don’t even know how I found it. So if you have a very focus and consistent content area, people will find you.

Byron: I joke about starting a company called No-SEO. I started pug-blog. Within five days I was at the top of Google. Google loves blogs. Link around. That’ll raise you up. Findability is targeting your post-headings. Sounds like SEO, but it still has to have that natural emotion or passion in it. So you don’t want to get into that trap of, “how do I target my audience?” But you do want to use keywords in your title.

Rice: Also, how-to content Those articles go off the charts and I can apply that to other things. But it’s a soft sell. But I want to help people make movies with video game engines.

Byron: Posts on standards suck and you’ll get a pretty big audience coming at you.

?: How did you deal with patent issues and your product?

Byron: I wrote about that. There’s so much information and misinfo about that. We had to put a date when we first started talking about the process. We’re still patent-pending. We’re not that technical, but we were very specific about what we could and couldn’t say and we didn’t start showing pictures until we were at the patent office. Executing on the good ideas is what it comes down to. Once the lawyers said “you’re in” we started putting those pictures all over the place. The main thing that happens is that investors or buyers will not talk to you unless you’re patent pending. They get inundated all day long with products. It’s just a checklist thing.

?: How are you dealing with piracy of your software?

Inman: Mint is open-source and it’s easy to go into the source code and remove the authentication. I don’t even try to hide that code. One thing I came up with, though, was a Firefox extension that would check if Mint was on a site. If so? It would ping me! It created like a neighborhood watch. So once I get that I can figure out who is using the pirated software. Another option is just a public shaming list. My only problem with that is that it creates a central repository of who to go to if you want to pirate Mint.

Byron: A really good point. Reblogging. Zombie blogging. Splogs. Sites that suck in your RSS feed and run ads against it. Maddening. We have some paid lifestyle blogs. And that content gets ripped off. It really pisses me off and I’m waiting for someone to come up with a brilliant idea to counter-zombie them.

?: I put ads into my RSS feed and now I’m getting, like, a third of my income through that.

Byron: I’m jamming CC logo and disclaimer after every article. And that one zombie blog went away.

Rice: Or you could just blog about it: These people are ripping off my content!

?: What about celebrities that are starting blogs in an effort to drum up some business?

Byron: The celebrity whore blogs? My favorite blog is The C-Lister. But that’s trying to game the blogosphere.

Rice: There are bloggers out there willing to get pitched relevant stuff. If you’re willing, say so. And it’s okay to tell a friend about your thing if it’s cool.

[See also:]

[ITP references: 2. Phoebe Espiritu and Clay Shirky.]

Thanks for the notes!

Posted Mon, March 13, 2006, 7:16pm EST by DL Byron

Wow. Thanks for the thorough notes on the panel. Much appreciated.

Thank you!

Posted Tue, March 14, 2006, 4:53am EST by Phoebe

Thanks so much for the notes and for attending the panel. Are you an ITP alumnus?

Thanks for the notes!

Posted Tue, March 14, 2006, 8:31am EST by DL Byron

Wow. Thanks for the thorough notes on the panel. Much appreciated.

ITP Student

Posted Tue, March 14, 2006, 3:16pm EST by Josh


I'm a first-year student at ITP, actually. There are about five of us down here for the week, checking out SXSW.

Re: ITP Student

Posted Tue, March 14, 2006, 11:43pm EST by Phoebe

Nice! I hope you're enjoying your first year at ITP? Let me know what you're working on in school. I'm kind of jealous -- they're offering courses that I wish they offered when I was there! Please keep in touch and definitely let me know if you'll be showing anything at the Spring Show!