Category Archives: Business

Building Your Blog Is Harder Than It Used To Be

bloggingThis isn’t the first blog I’ve run. It’s not even the first blog I’ve run at this URL. From about 2002 until 2007 – the golden age of blogging – I ran another blog on this site. It did reasonably well at the time. And I can tell you firsthand, a lot has changed since then. In many ways, building your blog up is much harder than it used to be.

The blogging community is radically different than it was in the early 2000s. Political differences still existed, and were very real. But the community of people on these newfangled things called “blogs” were a lot closer knit. Blog relationships transcended party lines a lot more. It wasn’t just party lines, either. Pretty much anybody who had a blog on pretty much any topic would interact cordially and frequently with just about anybody else who had a blog on just about any other topic. Many of today’s biggest bloggers knew each other back then and got along very well. Back in the day, even the biggest of big name bloggers would respond easily to even the lowliest of other bloggers.

The blogging community of today is very fragmented. It’s fragmented politically. The “red vs blue” divide really hit home during the 2004 presidential election cycle. The political blogosphere segmented along lines that were somewhat party based, somewhat ideological, and pretty much all “I’m going to live in my own bubble now, thank you.” Beyond politics, the blogosphere has largely segmented into topical blogs that are far more focused. Back in the day, most bloggers talked about anything they felt like. Now most bloggers are looking for a niche. And those big name bloggers? They’re getting spammed too much, and it’s hard to get through their filters.

The infrastructure that supports blogging has also radically changed. If you wanted to “reply” to someone else’s post, you wrote a nice post of your own. And then your software notified them via “pingback” or “trackback” that you’d said something. These often showed up in the comments section of their own blogs, which served as a nice way to get more traffic to your own blog. Readers there would see the notification and (some of them, anyway) would come over to see if you’d said anything interesting. Comments themselves were a great way to get traffic. Leave an interesting comment on another blog and people would click through to your own. Even better, the links from pingbacks, trackbacks, and comments would all hang around – and the search engines would pick up on them. Your own blog would climb up the search engine listings, little by little.

Today, trackbacks are all but dead. WordPress still supports them, but they’re manual. Many blogs, if not most, ignore them now. So even if you take the time to do them, they often won’t show up. Pingbacks are still a thing and are still automated… but they don’t seem to actually show up on most blogs, either. Again, they’re mostly disabled. And comments you leave on other blogs? In many cases they don’t link directly to your own blog anymore, but to your “profile” somewhere – either on the host site or on the site of a third party comment provider, such as Disqus. You’ll still get a bit of direct traffic from people who click through, but the search engines don’t recognize those as links to your site anymore.

There are good reasons for all of these changes. Spam is the biggest one. If you had a blog back in the day then you know just how bad the problems of pingback, trackback, and especially comment spam were. Fighting comment spam could easily become a full time job all on its own, even for a small blog. Today’s automated spam detection tools are less than perfect. Back then they were barely functional. And many sites moved toward simply shutting down pingbacks and trackbacks as a direct result. The move toward comments without direct links came early as well.

Those big name bloggers who don’t respond to you anymore? It comes with success. Some of those guys get millions of page views a month now. They’re simply too busy for the unknown guy – just like every other celebrity. It’s sad, but it’s completely understandable. It comes with the territory.

Last but not least, there are far fewer blogs now than there were then. Most bloggers never had their heart in it to begin with. Many, like me, enjoyed it but couldn’t find a way to monetize it. I’ve since solved that problem. But blogging takes a lot of time, and without either love or compensation (or preferably both), most people either can’t or won’t keep doing it. That means that there are far fewer small name blogs, which means fewer opportunities to leverage their readership to help build your own – especially since the big name bloggers won’t interact with you as much anymore.

No matter how you slice it, most of the techniques for gaining traffic that worked back then are simply worthless now. Pingbacks and trackbacks? Pingbacks are automated, so you might as well leave them on. But trackbacks are worthless now. Commenting on other sites? It’s still helpful, but the return is far lower. Also, you have to be aware of what site you’re commenting on and whether those comments link back to you or not. There are sites I’d love to participate on, but since they don’t link to me anymore it’s not worth my time. I need to spend that time in other ways.

Building your blog is much harder than it used to be… or is it? Tomorrow we’ll look at ways in which blogging has gotten much easier over the years.

Why Your Blog Should Be Ad Free

Go ad free.
No, most likely you couldn’t be.

Straight out of the gate I’m going to acknowledge that this post won’t apply to everybody. But there are plenty of folks out there for whom it will apply. The plain and simple truth is that your blog should probably be ad free.

I saw a post on this topic come through my Twitter feed over the weekend by one particular self published author. He was trying the tactic of patiently explaining to his readers why the ads were there, and that he needed them to pay for his blog. Among the points he made was that the blog costs him $2500 a year to run. My first impression was amazement. He must get a heck of a lot more traffic than I do! But then I read on, and I’m not so amazed. Among that $2500 were the following expenses.

  • Site hosting and bandwidth.
  • Themes for the blog
  • Site design work

Now, this author probably sells a lot more books than I have (so far!). But unless he’s pulling in a lot of money from his books (like well over six figures annually), he’s simply spending too much. Only one item on this list is a required cost: site hosting and bandwidth. That one can – and should – be amortized in other areas. As for themes, there are lots of free themes out there. Pick one you like. It doesn’t matter if it looks like everyone else’s – many of the most popular blogs out there all use only a handful of themes anyway. And those are all free themes. And you don’t need site design work. These days, WordPress does everything but write the posts for you.

Those two factors alone almost certainly accounted for more than half of his $2500 total. They probably accounted for four fifths of it. Cheap site design usually runs in the $300-600 range. It’s not uncommon for it to hit $1500 or more. Themes can easily be a few hundred dollars each.

I pay $98 a year for the site that hosts this blog. But in addition to that, I host three other business related web sites on the same server for the same fee. That means I’m paying $25 a year for hosting. My host has bandwidth limits. I get enough traffic to manage all of those businesses. I’ve never even come close to exceeding my bandwidth limits. And this is paid hosting. There are several decent blog hosting sites out there that are still free, and several more that will host a blog (if that’s all you’re hosting) for $45 a year or so. My only other notable expense for the blog is the annual cost of renewing the domain name itself (around $15).

But the big problem is that he’s looking at his blog in entirely the wrong way. Your blog isn’t a revenue generator. This is the part where I reiterate what I started with – there will be some people out there for whom this isn’t true. Your blog is advertising. Treat it that way, and pay for it that way. If you’re careful, it can be one of the lowest cost advertising methods you use – and it will likely have one of the highest returns on investment (most likely far superior even to social media). But it needs to go in the expense column under ‘advertising.’

Running ads on your blog causes several problems. First, it degrades the user experience. Nobody likes ads, it’s that simple. But beyond that, they’re slow, they’re obnoxious, they eat up your readers’ precious bandwidth (and mobile users, at least, are paying for that!), they frequently cause layout issues. I’ve had sites crash on me due to the ads – and this very writer mentioned the time he spends fighting to keep the ads working right.

Second, you lose readers. Again, this very writer mentioned that he needs the ads… to make up for the revenue he loses when people click through the ads and don’t come back to his site! Your blog is about gaining readers – and potential paying customers! – not running them off.

Third, online advertising pays shit. The revenue you get from it is simply terrible.

But fourth, and most importantly, your blog is your advertising. Keep it focused on you. Advertise yourself, not somebody else.

I ran a very successful blog at this same URL for more than half a decade in the early 2000s. One reason I shut it down because I didn’t have a good way to monetize it at the time – and that included looking at web ads. They just didn’t bring in enough revenue.

I brought the blog back because I figured out the correct way to monetize it: by driving traffic to my other businesses. Blogs are excellent tools for that – one of the best out there. The hows and whys of that are enough to fill an entire other post, but it works (if done right). Forget the ads – make up the revenue by driving traffic to yourself. One click to another site will give you anywhere from a few pennies to a few dollars. If you’re an author, one click to yourself (ie, your own page, where you’re selling your book directly – or to Amazon, where you’ll get royalties from it) can give you a few dollars. If you run other businesses, it can be more. With my wife’s videography business, for example, one click could generate up to $2500 in revenue. With my dojo, one click could generate a paying student. The immediate revenue might not be as high. But if that student ends up staying long enough to, say, reach black belt, it will be substantially higher even than that.

There are a very few people who generate enough blog traffic for ads to become a significant revenue source. If you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly not one of them. Your blog should be a piece of your sales funnel, and that funnel should end with you – not with somebody else.

Ditch the ads. Pay for your own blog, and chalk it up as a cost of doing business. At the end of the day you’ll get more business from staying ad free.

The Problem With Urban Fantasy

draculaUrban Fantasy is a broken genre.

Don’t get me wrong – I actually really enjoy urban fantasy. At least, sometimes I really enjoy it. But it has a serious issue that makes it tough to find good urban fantasy:

Traditional monsters are absolutely no match for modern technology.

Vampires are the easy example. Let’s start by talking about their traits (keep in mind that this is for traditional, folkloric vampires – not the modern versions):

Strengths:

  • Superhuman strength (degree varies)
  • Regenerate most wounds (sometimes requires drinking blood or an “overday” sleep)
  • Effectively immortal
  • Can only be killed by certain specific methods
  • Enhanced senses, especially night vision
  • Mesmerization/mind control (sometimes)
  • Shapeshifting into bats or other creatures (sometimes)

Weaknesses:

  • Wooden stake to the heart (lethal)
  • Behedding (usually lethal, depends on mythos)
  • Fire (usually lethal, again depends on mythos)
  • Garlic (usually nonlethal)
  • Holy water (usually can be lethal, sometimes leaves permanent injury)
  • Holy relics – crosses, crufixes, etc (usually burns and/or deters them)
  • Sunlight (lethal)

In a preindustrial society, this is a pretty frightening creature. It’s stronger than you are, and the general weapons you have available to you aren’t particularly useful against it. A bow might work if you have good aim and a powerful bow. Maybe a crossbow would work better – but you’d better make that shot count so that it doesn’t get you while you’re reloading. Holy water? Nice enough, if you can deliver it. Fire’s not bad, but you need a lot of it. Sunlight might be your best bet, but remember that these are creatures of the night. So that requires tracking it to its nest, which might be difficult since it can see, hear and smell better than you during the nighttime hours when it’s out and about.

But in the modern world? Please.

  • The night advantage is neutralized by modern goggles and electrical lighting.
  • Crossbow? Try a harpoon gun. Those things kill whales – I doubt that getting one through a vampire’s heart would be particularly tough.
  • Holy water becomes extremely useful in a world that has Super Soakers and fire trucks.
  • Flamethrowers. Bring the heat.
  • Sunlight. Depending on the actual mechanics of it all, modern electrical lighting of the UV enhanced variety might suffice. If not, there are modern explosives to blow the roof off the vampire nest. Either way, it’s a win.

Against a decently armed modern opponent, traditional vampires are kind of a joke. To be fair, vampires aren’t the only creatures of lore that suffer this fate. Werewolves aren’t particularly frightening, either.

So what do you do about it? There are really only a few things you can do:

  1. Modify the way your creatures work (aka the “our vampires are different trope) and buff them up.
  2. Deprive your heroes of access to modern items.
  3. Turn your heroes into bumbling idiots who are incapable of using these advantages.
  4. Invent all-new creatures to avoid this problem entirely.

Unfortunately for fans of the genre, the most common solution is #1. In and of itself, that’s not too terrible – except so many forms of the “our vampires are different” trope just come out bad. Authors make them different without fully thinking through the implications of the changes that they make.

Even worse, the second most common solution is #3 – by virtue of the writer himself being a blathering idiot who couldn’t use the modern advantages. This is really just a subset of the fact that most creative types don’t know squat about combat, let alone how police and military forces actually operate.

One of the better solutions is the one that Jim Butcher used for The Dresden Files. In his series, the effects of magic cause technology near the source of that magic to break down. The newer the technology, the more disruptive the effect. While neither entirely original nor entirely perfect, this solution basically works. It’s logically consistent with magic and it neutralizes enough modern elements to allow the author to tell a story of well matched opponents.

The worst kind of answer is something like Season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where an entire squad of supposedly elite special forces gets their ass handed to them. As near as I can tell, they suffered from a severe case of “my writers don’t know anything at all about the military or combat.” In any remotely realistic scenario, any US spec ops team chosen at random would wipe the floor with the typical threats that faced Sunnydale.

Side Business – You Should Have One

I’ve long been a believer in small business. I believe it’s the lifeblood of the economy. Small businesses (those with less than 500 employees) have created 64% of all new jobs in the US since 1995. I also believe it’s the path to true prosperity for most individuals. But for most of my life I’ve believed that you needed your small business to be your full time job for it to be worthwhile.

In the last five years, I’ve learned better. Most people should be operating a small side business. My wife and I currently operate two side businesses (a third business we operate is technically and legally part of one of the others) – and they’ve been really great for us.

Side businesses have several huge advantages over businesses that require you to work full time.

  • You don’t have to quit your day job, so you don’t lose that income.
  • You don’t have to find the cash to pay yourself a full time salary that replaces your day job, so it’s much easier to make the business profitable. In fact, with some kinds of businesses they can be profitable – or nearly so – from day 1 (Ever After Videography was profitable after Morgon’s first paying job).
  • If you pick the right business, the major investment can be your time rather than your money.
  • You don’t have to make a full time living at it, so you can scale the business up or down to fit your needs. If the workload is too high, scale it back.
  • Keeping it part time can make it a great fit for a “stay at home” spouse.
  • You get (almost) all the same tax benefits as if you had a full time business.

A quick example that combines several points: my wife is a stay-at-home-mother. Her side business does videography. She does all kinds of video work, but the main “bread and butter” work is weddings. This is a wonderful fit. Most of her workload occurs on Friday evenings or Saturdays – times when I’m already home. So we very seldom have to pay extra for childcare for her to work (we do, very occasionally – 4 to 5 times a year – have to make use of a drop-in daycare facility near us; the kids go so seldom that they view it as a treat).

The business has been profitable since the first paying job we landed her. Now… it’s not making us enough money for me to quit my day job. It’s not even making her what a typical “professional” job would make. But for about a dozen weekends a year worth of work, she makes more money than she would if she worked full time at a fair amount above minimum wage. That alone isn’t bad.

But on top of that, there are quite a few tax benefits to be had for having income in the stay-at-home-spouse’s name. You can now contribute to retirement accounts for the second spouse, not just the first. Dependent care expenses become tax deductible, if they help the second spouse work (or go to school). A lot of things you’re already paying for can become legitimate tax deductions (be careful with this, though – you do need to understand the rules well; or better yet, get an accountant who does).

I just finished doing our taxes for the year, and the business deductions alone from my wife’s business just impacted our personal tax bill to the point where they effectively increased her net profit by 25% (anybody need 20% off on TurboTax?). Now… if you grow your business past a certain point, it will definitely increase your tax bill – but then, you’ll be making a tidy profit at that point, too.

Think carefully before you jump in – not every business model will work as a side business. And you need a plan, not just an idea. But there can be a lot of benefits. What side business are you thinking of?