Expert: Jeremy Wright, b5media

#29 of 30


About the Expert

Jeremy Wright is a longtime serial entrepreneur who has been involved with the business, programming, and IT aspects of the technology industry for nearly a decade. He has focused on communication-orientated ventures and regularly consults on blogging, communication, IT, and time management. Jeremy is the author of Blog Marketing, a business book on blogging as well as as the President of b5media, a prominent blog network.

Y’know, I remember back when blogging was simple. More community oriented. Less commercial. There were no “blog measurement” companies, no “blog consultants”, hell there were probably only 3 companies that had blogs at all. A simpler time. A quainter time. The wild, wild west. Home, home on the blog… Where the jerks and the buffalo roam. Yep, them were simpler times. And then, just like our precious wild west, somebody realized there was gold in them thar hills. I still remember the original feud that raged across the blogging world back in 2003 about ads on blogs. At the time it was a shitstorm (pardon my French) around “running AdSense on your blog will compromise your integrity!” I mean it was serious! People unsubscribed from A List bloggers by the dozens! The blogging world nearly imploded! It’s pretty funny looking back on it. But eventually bloggers got used to ads. Readers got used to ads. And the truth was that almost nobody’s integrity was compromised. And those who had their integrity compromised were self-selected out and shunned. From Day 1, bloggers have always stumbled along in the world of advertising. Even at b5media, the blog network I help run, that we’ve often stumbled along a little bit. Sure, there’s a bit of a process for going from 3$ a day (where we started) to 3,000$ a day (what we’re about to reach)… but we totally ignored that process. We made a lot of mistakes. This post is designed to share a few of the lessons we learned while stumbling along in the dark. Sure we got lucky, had a fantastic team and had great timing… but we still made a crazy number of mistakes! I hope you’re able to learn something from them 😉

Have a Vision I remember in early 2005 when the first email that kicked b5media off was written. It was something like “hey, we’re all making decent money, let’s pool together and sell our blogs as a package!” Famous last words, eh? (yep, I’m Canadian!) Then, like a bunch of putzes, we figured “well, if we’re going to do that we should put them under their own brand” and “if we’re going to have our own brand we should launch new blogs” and “if we’re going to do that we should hire writers”. One of our biggest mistakes in the early days was having a clear vision. We did fairly well at planning 2-3 months out, but we simply weren’t able to figure out how the company would grow 2-3 years down the road. What would it look like if we had 200 blogs, tens of millions of pageviews a month, millions a year in revenue? We were pretty good at imagining the status quo growth (10-20% per month)… But because we didn’t envision big growth, we often had to stop in the middle of the highway, open up the hood and go “hang on, if this continues we have some changes to make here!” It’s pretty funny looking back on it. Basically, because we spent our first year playing catch-up with b5media’s potential (which felt like trying to race a boulder tearing down a mountain!) we simply didn’t do enough looking ahead to the future and we didn’t do enough “what would happen if?” type discussions. Who knows where we’d be if we had (I’m hoping it’s not Iowa… *shudder @ Iowa*)?

Shut Up Until You Have Something to Say I remember the day we launched b5. Duncan and I had been working basically non-stop for 3 weeks. We’d found bloggers, picked names, installed WordPress, designed themes, put plugins in, done the homepage… it was crazy. Absolutely crazy! We were all so excited that we … well, we kind of got ahead of ourselves. The day of launch we realized there was no tagline. So in a rush of excited, youthful enthusiasm we made the site headline “b5media – a new kind of blogging network”. Yeah, that was a good move. We got absolutely roasted. Especially because just weeks earlier, Weblogs, Inc. had sold to AOL for 25M$ (give or take). Everyone said we were just followers, that we’d copied WIN’s model, that there was nothing different about b5 at all and that we’d be dead in 2 weeks, nevermind 2 months. Yep, a great move. It didn’t matter that we’d been working on the project for 6 months, that we were trying to basically do the opposite of WIN, and that the tagline was really just a funny placeholder to us. It also didn’t matter that we had big plans! Big ideas! Big … erm… yeah. What mattered, and what I’ll never forget, is that we spoke too soon. We knew it would take time to show off all of our ideas, but we wanted to tell the world how great our ideas were right now! Hell, we still haven’t done half of what we originally set out to do! Only talk about things when you’re ready to show them off, or when you already have a history of doing cool shit. And even then…

The Main Thing is to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing We started b5media with a few key things that we wanted to accomplish (one of the things we were very, very good at early on was documenting things… we had to be, until we got funded nobody in the company had ever even met!):

1. Make our bloggers famous – every chance we got we wanted to promote our bloggers

2. Value community – we honestly felt (and now know) that a strong internal community can make anything happen

3. Focus on great writers and keeping them happy – do this and the rest (traffic, revenue, etc) will happen

4. Build an industry – we’ve believed from day 1 that working with other networks, other owners and building real partnerships and sharing resources was the only way to turn the hodgepodge of networks into a real industry Each of the biggest mistakes made in b5’s history was caused by us forgetting about one of these things. Sometimes we’d forget how important a healthy community was and make some bull-headed decision and it would hurt! Other times we’d focus more on b5 than on the health of our industry and find that other companies didn’t want to work with us as much. We’ve never had a mission statement; the above 4 points are as close as we’ll likely ever come. But when you have a mission, you really, really need to stick to it!

Challenges of Growth When we first launched b5media, it was our goal that within 3 months we’d grow to 50 blogs and 100,000 pageviews per month. What ended up happening? 100 blogs and 1 million pages per month. We weren’t a TechCrunch or a Boing Boing or a Gawker. But we had serious growth challenges. Hell, we still do! We’ve had challenges in:

1. Keeping servers up – we started out sharing my 5$/month hosting plan. We’re now at 12 high-end servers. Each transition step was painful!

2. Managing the platform – running 200 blogs, maintaining the software, managing plugins, upgrading stuff… is HARD!

3. Paying bloggers – Ooh, blogger pay. We started out doing a type of revenue sharing (we did 60/40, but gave bloggers 100% of the first 100$ each month so it was basically 50/50). We’ve now moved to a 2-tier system where bloggers get a base pay (50-250$ depending on experience) plus a traffic bonus (1.65$ currently, though it goes up every quarter). The truth is that finding a fair way to pay the stay-at-home mom who loves gardening and just wants to write about gardening while also ensuring that the high-traffic blogger who has a massive audience are both compensated fairly is HARD! Paying our community has been, and will likely always be, a challenging exercise!

4. Stats – The metrics industry is in a state of upheaval right now. If we measure our stats the way some of our competitors measure theirs we’d be doing 30,000,000 pageviews per month. If we measure it the way others do, we’d have 7,000,000 pageviews per month. Finding a way to measure stats that is both accountable (ie: to advertisers) and stable (ie: for bloggers) has been one of our biggest challenges.

5. Designs – Yeah, when we have challenges we try and make them major! Blog design is a massive challenge for us. In an ideal world every blog would be totally unique, and totally imbued with personality. But doing that makes it totally impossible to manage the backend of those blogs centrally (which is fine with 15 or 20 blogs, but stupid with 200 or 300). Walking that tightrope between maintainability and customizability has been a huge challenge for us. The new templates we’re rolling out now are our newest attempt at this: they rely on a core template, but allow bloggers and Channel Editors to move elements around, do some minor restyling and add their own elements (like widgets and such). It’s not perfect, but yeah 😉 And those are just the biggest challenges! We’ve gotten into useless fights with competitors, had to put out new contracts for all of our bloggers, had to move the company across country lines, raised Venture Capital funding, had to part ways with a founder, spent too much money on meals with potential partners, had to manage acquisition talk… Running a blogging empire is a lot of work! But it’s a lot of fun 😉

If you’re looking to go from 0-3$/day or from 3$/day to a full-time wage or even trying to start a major blog-based empire, I have only 3 more tips for you:

1. Make sure you really, really want to do it first… It’s not easy. Sure, it’s rewarding, but if you can’t handle 100-hour weeks for months at a time it probably isn’t for you, heh.

2. Plan, plan, plan… Build financial models, traffic models, everything. Ask yourself what happens if you only grow by 1/10 of what you planned… Ask yourself what happens if you grow by 10000% of what you planned… Planning makes the world go round!

3. Build a great team… I can’t tell you the number of times the team and community at b5media have saved the company. Hell, how many times they’ve saved me and kept me sane. It’s way more balanced now than it was in the early days, but even today it’s the team and our community of absolutely amazing bloggers that makes us tick and that lets us do cool stuff. Without them, we’d be nothing, nada, kaput. It’s never perfect. It’s always fun. It’s always scary. It never stops. But going from Blog to Blog, Inc. is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. We aren’t “there” yet, but if we can stay a community, stay a team and stay focused on what truly matters, we will eventually get “there”! See you at the finish line. We’ll bring the mojitos!