This is a very special post because it marks a radical turning point in my entrepreneurial career.
Exactly one year ago today, on April 12th 2014, I launched a web app to create micro websites (originally marketed as a mobile web app to create mobile web apps), adsy.me. I had always wanted to build my own CMS (content management system) since the early days of blogging (Typepad anyone?). I still remember when I was hiding the date of blog posts to transform them into non-dated pages, simply by setting the date color on white (to make them invisible on a white background). Not being a coder, this was the first of my numerous visual hacks.
I’ve always wanted to create a tool enabling the average user to create a great looking web presence. I had the impression that there was a gap in the market in a world where all web design tools tend to offer a linear template-based approach to visual creation. So I partnered with an uber talented web developer, Alex Petrisor, and we started working on adsy.me, a (mobile) web app to create mobile web apps (micro websites). It wasn’t an easy endeavor, by any means. My desire to craft a web app (instead of the usual native apps) was motivated by recent technical evolutions (iOS6 was launched in September 2013), making an audacious bet on a web-based future for mobile (in which I still strongly believe).
After months of hard work, we released our beta version in April 2014 and the adoption was pretty enthusiastic. Users were signing up without any major advertising effort besides the usual founder’s one-to-one hustling. We were featured on Cult of Mac in May, which brought us thousands of curious users in 24 hours. I had the pleasure to meet amazing people seduced by the app UX, like Robert Scoble, who interviewed me in San Francisco on July 31st. I even introduced adsy to Jerry Yang (Yahoo’s co-founder) on his way to the restroom after a Pandomonthly event in October (which meant a lot to me since I wanted to create some kind of Geocities for Generation Touch). I was really excited by the tool Alex and I were developing. It was a true labour of love.
We had plans for a premium version offering custom domain support and extra plugins. We had plans to build a community of creative teenagers around the platform, we had all sorts of imaginative plans. But there was a major issue, at least in my eyes. Our conversion rate was great, people were even creating more stuff than the average ratio you would expect from a UGC (user generated content) platform (1% creators / 9% curators / 90% visitors). 30% of the people visiting adsy.me signed up (as I’m writing those lines, we have more than 30,374 registered users). 30% of the people who signed up created “something” (ranging from “Hello World” to WOW stuff). So our “visits to creation ratio” was close to a whopping 10%. Most entrepreneurs in the UGC business were relatively impressed by our figures.
But I was still hesitating to scale the promotion, to spend advertising dollars. Why? Because, to be honest, the design quality of the micro websites created by our dear users disappointed me. I wasn’t wowed by the output of my creative platform. I couldn’t blame the users, I had to find ways to fix the situation. Alex and I had long chats to try to find a way to improve the quality of the creations while preserving the freedom of an open canvas (vs a template-based approach).
But the world had changed. Creative habits had changed. In the Geocities days (and in the days where you had to know basic HTML to customize your Myspace header), you were given a blank canvas and you were kind of forced, with taste or without (most of the time, without) to design something out of thin air. It’s not longer the case. These days, most web creators fill out / adapt templates. See for instance the way Canva users design Facebook or Twitter banners, modifying preset templates feat. fancy fonts & trendy visuals. See also what explainer videos softwares usually offer (the typical 3 steps: “Joe has a problem, here is our solution, Joe is happy.”). Storytelling is increasingly standardized. And it’s also increasingly atomized. We tend to consume content in tiny snack-sized bits (6-sec videos, 140-character messages, filtered photos, ephemeral stories, on-the-go low-fi livestreams,…). Music is consumed in singles, no more in albums. (Click bait) headlines are the most consumed form of instant news. Anything beyond 1,500 words is considered long-form. You might argue that long-form could be THE exception to the growing popularity of snackable content. Longer articles seem be the most shared content type at the moment, as reported by Noah Kagan on OKDork. Hope at the end of the tunnel or simply a sideline to the usual pattern?
But even with those 1,500-word articles, we’re talking about long text form, not a sophisticated multimedia project requiring some sense of spatial design (length doesn’t equal quality but it’s easier to spot in a glance a bad looking drawing than a poorly written essay). Our problem at adsy.me was that we made a bet on the capacity of contemporary adults to put together – out of thin air – a few visual elements on a blank canvas, structured in a few square-shaped pages, to tell a basic story.
Most people simply can’t do it, no matter how hard we tried to simplify the process, how much we optimized the onboarding. In the same way as most people confronted with a blank page in a text editor won’t become novelists. In the same way as most people going to the cinema won’t be able to shoot a decent family movie with their iphone, no matter which “magic” app they use. Kids are naturally creative but as Ken Robinson demonstrated in his famous Ted Talk, “schools tend to kill creativity”. Creativity in the sense of raw imagination.
Hence my desire at some point to offer adsy to schools and to kids directly, slowing down my evangelization efforts aimed at 15+. Schools started using adsy, let’s consider this my modest contribution to the education sector, but there wasn’t any sustainable business model for us in that vertical, at least not without investing a lot in school-specific tools (moderation dashboards, rating features,…), something I simply couldn’t afford in a bootstrapped situation.
The ambition to transform the average adult into a freestyle creative powerhouse gradually proved to become a lost fight, especially when approached from a digital angle. There are probably better ways to stimulate creative skills for those who still want to escape standardization. Starting with old school paper books, sculpture, painting and all sorts of traditional art forms.
While I was struggling with the lack of raw creativity of our users, whom I couldn’t blame for the situation, I was frequently approached by business owners who asked me how to implement an engaging web strategy, beyond the static business card approach of out-of-the-box $10-a-month websites, which “do the job” but don’t give you any competitive edge. I started working on some projects and found the challenge really fun, echoing some of my past ventures. Amazing people, serious about their web presence while acknowledging it requires a broad range of skills. Smart people aware that templates are cool but not enough, asking me for regular creative input. People who loved adsy but wanted more, the whole package, not only a micro website but also interactive applications, engaging campaigns, advice on how to set up and grow a mailing list, a community. People who understand that “being on the web” isn’t enough to spark sustainable engagement.
It didn’t happen overnight but I gradually understood that my future wouldn’t be in trying to evangelize a (too) sophisticated creative platform, with all my respect to the people who signed up, but in helping out business owners to grow an engaged online community. I decided to switch (you could say “pivot”) from a SaaS (software as a service) model to an EaaS proposition (Entrepreneur as a Service).
Instead of relying on an almost burned out solo developer to build my dream platform, some would say my Castle in Spain, I started collecting the best apps available on the market to build my own toolkit. My plan was to evolve from a software product to a productized service. And, as Paul Graham once suggested, I decided to do things that don’t scale, to start again from scratch, while leaving the legacy adsy.me up and running for our dearest creative fans (probably a few hundred people out of 30K+). I am proud of what Alex and I have achieved in the 2 years we’ve worked together but it was time for me to move on, to capitalize on my own skills to build the best creative service I can provide to the community.
A service I will call the “All In Plan”, sharing with my clients the multidisciplinary experience I’ve built over the last 15 years, since the first website I released in the late 2000. Sharing also with them the knowledge I’m accumulating on a daily basis scouring the web for the latest apps & creative ideas.
I used to run a circus (the real thing, including red & yellow tents), wrote a biography about a football agent and an historical novel about WW1, produced indie rock bands, promoted (and mixed) music gigs, before deciding to get back to digital. So the best way to describe myself, based on my entertainment experience blended with my geeky passion for digital products is probably to call me a WebRingmaster, a passionate Jack of All Trades, with an insatiable creative appetite. I won’t be able to share my excitement on a daily basis with thousands of clients. It wouldn’t scale. So I’ve decided to create a plan, the All in Plan, which will be offered to a maximum of 20 clients, for £699 per month.
I will create a private Slack #channel where I will be at their disposal five days a week (ok, sometimes even 7), both suggesting creative ideas and providing advice on demand. This channel will also be the repository of all the material I will design for those clients (all included in the flat fee) and a private newsfeed where I will share my latest findings, tips & suggestions.
Here are a few examples of what my 20 clients will find in their channel: bespoke landing pages (incl. adsy micro websites and WordPress sites), blog posts, event registration pages, newsletters, contests, surveys, quizzes and other innovative lead generation campaigns, html5 banners (I love Hype3), monthly explainer / demo videos (GoAnimate) shared on multiple networks, Slideshare presentations, infographics, Vine & Instagram videos, suggestions of social media campaigns, actionable SEO tips, e-commerce insights, statistic reports analysis, etc. I will feed them with content as if I was creating it for my own business. I will be their digital ghost creator, with a strategic edge, their personal WebRingmaster. I will manage their web presence as if it was mine, with a strong personal involvement, focused on results.
There won’t be any timesheet but value for money through constant two-way stimulation.
My single ambition, my one and only daily obsession will be: spark and grow meaningful online engagement for my limited group of clients. I will also create a community among those clients, which will probably trigger serendipitous opportunities. We will grow together. You might call this a lifestyle business (compared to chasing the Unicorn). I agree but I’m in love with craftsmanship, I’m a web artisan. I want to build and grow personal relationships with people I will learn to appreciate and this is something you don’t really get by selling $5-a-month commoditized software. If less is more in design, it tends to be true also in business (& human) relationships. That’s probably why I bought Slowbizz.com back in 2011, which now redirects to adsy.me. Slow is my new fast.
By the way, I already have 2 clients, so only 18 spots are left. But it won’t be first in, first served. No counter, no timer. I will only choose the projects that both excite me and can benefit from my creative background. I invite all business owners to apply to join the roster but I will never take anyone on board just for the sake of it. No need to rush. If you’re interested in my holistic approach to online engagement, feel free to contact me for a chat, ideally in a real life Café. I love strong Latte with an almond croissant gently sprinkled with icing sugar . What about you?