This post was published back in 2008. It may not function as originally intended or may be missing images.
1000 Subscribers in 3 Months and How it Almost Didn't Happen
It was 6:25 at night and in 5 minutes my chance was over. My story on Facebook Beacon had been in the upcoming section on Digg for 23 hours and 55 minutes and in 5 more, it'd disappear into the Digg void, likely forever.
My roommates and I were taking a friend to a movie (Gone Baby Gone) for her birthday and because of my inability to stop hitting refresh on Digg, we were already late. The story was at about 50 diggs, but only in the middle of the upcoming section. I knew 5 minutes wouldn't be enough to climb all that way to the top. The story itself was gone baby gone.
While in the car, I couldn't stop thinking about it. What if it had made it? What would have happened? It would have been great exposure. On the other hand, it would have brought traffic to the Idea Shower well before I had originally planned.
However, this thought was rudely interrupted by the ringing of my cellphone. I answered and a friend said, 'Dude, you're on the front page of Digg."
Beacon BonanzaNow I don't know what happened in those five minutes, but without them I'm not so sure things would have happened the way they did.
The Facebook Beacon story blew up huge. Within the first two days I had over 50,000 visitors. The story appeared on the front page of Digg, Del.icio.us, Techmeme, Lifehacker, Download Squad, Valleywag and more. It was talked about by Om Malik, Arstechnica, and Nicholas Carr.
And it wouldn't die. The traffic over Beacon kept rolling in for well over a month. I was even interviewed by AP for an article about it.
The interesting part in all of this is that my website isn't about Facebook, the post really had nothing to do with anything. It was written hastily after having the Beacon pop-up on my screen, I didn't think much of it.
But what it did was bring in the eyeballs, and the eyes saw something else, Read It Later.
Reading It NowAs the Facebook shenanigans wore on, other parts of my site begun to get hit with traffic. And of those, the biggest was the Read It Later extension. Within two weeks of the original Facebook post, Read It Later had been downloaded over 10,000 times and the Idea Shower had again appeared on mega sites like Download Squad and Lifehacker.
I spent a lot of time trying to carry over the momentum. Remembering my summer readings of Problogger, I made a point to personally respond to nearly every comment, request, and bug report people left on my site. By the end of November, my second month, I had 600 subscribers and over 235,000 total pageviews.
It seemed, that my plan was actually working.
The Plan and the Beginning of Idea ShowerIn the early months of 2007, I had an idea (#13). It all came together in my head perfectly and I couldn't stop thinking about it. At the time I was working at a small web firm in Minneapolis. I would work a full 8 to 5, go home, eat (sometimes), and work on my idea into the night. I'd even wake up early on the weekends and work all day and all night. Something had to give. And in the end, something did.
Mid-summer I had been in this strange pseudo universe I imagine many first startups go through. The few minutes I spent away from my desk I spent worrying. Every morning my heart would stop for a few brief seconds as I stared at the empty white background of Techcrunch as it loaded. Every morning I feared that when the text appeared, I'd be staring at a post about my idea, only it wouldn't have been mine, someone else would have finished it first. Yet, at the same time I was rushing to be first, I kept slowing things down by adding more and more features. It was a never-ending tumbling cycle of stress and exhaustion. My girlfriend, friends, and family tried to get me to slow down but I wasn't listening. What stopped me was when I couldn't hear them anymore. July 8th was the last time I worked on Idea 13. It was also the day I lost the hearing in my right ear.
For the two months leading up to it, I developed a cough that just wouldn't go away. It was a nuisance and a constant reminder that I was working too hard, but it was easy to ignore. However, when I mixed sinus congestion with a quick swim one incredibly hot summer afternoon, I manged to get water and infection stuck in my middle ear. Over the course of the next few days the hearing in my right ear went from 100% to 0%.
Having a cough is one thing, but to suddenly not be able to have a conversation with a person sitting directly across from you in a restaurant as a direct result of how hard you've worked yourself, makes you stop and it makes you think. And that's exactly what I did.
A New PlanI saw that Idea #13 had strayed too far from its roots and the simplicity that made it worth getting so excited about in the first place. It needed to be rolled back and revised if it was ever going to stand out. And what's more, I saw that if I ever was going to do this, I had to quit my job.
The thought of quitting my job scared me. But I realized that the time is now. I don't have a wife, kids, a house, a dog, so if I fail, I don't take the ones I love down with me. Even so, I still had bills, student loans, and the desire to eat occasionally. The thought of quitting my job scared me.
I recognized that in order to quit my job I would need something lined up to fall back onto. The plan was to find part-time work to pay the bills while opening up two or three days a week to work on my own projects. And at the same time, freeing up my nights and weekends for what was missing most: a life.
The hard thing about job seeking in the programming industry is that for every position there are 10 other dudes and dudines who say they all do the same stuff you do and when asked to show for it, reply that all of their work was proprietary, under an non-disclosure agreement, and they are prevented from showing it to you. Unfortunately, they'd be right. Most of the work we do for people isn't ours and we can't just go parading it into a competitors offices, even for an interview.
So I recognized the need to stand out and to have something to show for it. I needed a portfolio. During the past 10 years while I've been making websites, I've created lots of little scripts, tools, and ideas that all sat around unused and neglected. But by sharing them online under one roof, I could show off my abilities to potential employers with examples and not job titles, while maybe establishing myself some street cred with other developers in the industry.
Then it struck me. The major concern I had while building Idea 13 was when I was finished, I'd have no one to show it to. Minneapolis is a great city, but when it comes to the web, it's not San Francisco. You can't take two steps in San Fran without a venture capitalist giving you money because you have a flashy website with a misspelled domain name. But in Minneapolis, I'd have to rely on my own network, which was weak at best. Ultimately, I had no audience.
While reading startup news, you see a lot of the same founders, but different company names. It's because once someone makes it big, their next projects get coverage and an audience no matter if they are any good or not. It's just another example of 'Your first _____ is always the hardest.'
But if your first startup is always the hardest, why not make it an easy one, and if need be, an easier 10. You don't need the next YouTube to get some recognition. Start small and build up your reputation. And that's what I started thinking.
Each idea, each script, each post is another doorway into your site. And by putting them together the traffic from one will shower another. One visitor may come for one thing, but find and write about another. By keeping it all together, every bit of growth is shared.
And that's how the concept behind the Idea Shower was born.
And It WorkedThe Facebook story really jump-started the whole process, but I'm confident it would have followed a similar path eventually, however slowly.
But the process worked. Facebook Beacon brought on traffic and added a few hundred subscribers. The visitors from Facebook found Read It Later, some wrote about it and brought in a whole new wave of traffic and subscribers.
And in December, I was shown that the system works when the week I released the CSS Text Wrapper, it received 28,000 visits and I didn't do a thing to market it except for post it on my blog.
Moving ForwardAfter a few months, my ear did eventually clear. Though a noticeable loss remains, I'm happy that it was only temporary. But as you hear me say over and over again on this site, with every loss, you'll gain something. It's just as important as success. Here it was the ability to step back and slow down. If I hadn't stopped, I would have eventually completed Idea #13. It would have been a hodgepodge of a million features, overly complicated and it would have taken a lot of work to get going. Yet, it's likely it would never have.
Slowing down gave me the time to really focus on what needs to be done and how best to do it. It also gave me a refresher for remembering how important it is to find time away from the desk to have new experiences. My best ideas have come from times while I've been doing something new, traveling, or relaxing. Consider even the Facebook Beacon story. It came blasting it's way into my life while I was just playing a flash game online.
The Idea Shower has grown, but it is hardly at the level I want it to be. I'm still funding myself by doing contract work most of the week. In the future I would like to have the revenue from all of my projects covering my bills so I can focus more time on the Idea Shower and my ideas. But that is still some time to come.
This experience has taught me that anybody can do this. I'm not special, I'm no different than anyone else trying to make a run at it. It showed me that you don't need to know the big-wigs in San Fran (though it probably doesn't hurt), you don't need thousands of dollars, you just need a good plan and some good ideas.
If I can give one piece of advice from the short experience that I have, it's to take the time breathe, to play a game, to read a book, or do something other than work yourself sick. You need to let experiences run over you. Because in the end, sometimes it's not about your work. Because at 6:25 that fateful day, I had a plan and I had ideas, but what I really needed was a little luck.