Monday, February 23rd, 2009...2:45 am

My Web Start-Up Fundamentals

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I’ve been thinking about starting a new website or digital business with some of my free time. This is something I’m always thinking about. Recently, the itch has been compounded as a few of my friends, and people in my network, have shared some of their digital ideas with me.

Like in many industries these days, the drastic economic conditions are monumentally shifting the media and digital landscape. The paradigm has shifted (I love that phrase although I’m not even sure I know what it means). Below are some of the key fundamentals that I consider when evaluating a new digital idea or opportunity. This post is a starting point and a work in progress so I may add, edit, and update it. It’s great to begin to organize my thoughts though.

Digital Crack
Examples: Facebook, ESPN, Twitter, Perez Hilton, Barstool Sports, Etsy, Fantasy Sports, Pandora

A good digital property has that special sauce that gets people to visit multiple times a day, multiple days a week — kind of like a crack dealer. It is addictive to its users. Digital crack makes it impossible for a user to spend a decent amount of time on the web without instinctively going back to a site to see what is new.

Everyone has their favorite few sites on the web that they visit when they are at their computers. Almost all of those sites have a special ingredient that gives you a small jolt of excitement as you type in the URL. Your favorite sites, or the sites I mention above, they are a mix of e-commerce, online community, communication tools and content. So what’s in the crack? I think it has to do with a site being “alive”. By this, I mean that each time you visit that website you will find something new or different since your last visit. It’s keeps you coming back.

Compete On Strengths
I like to think I “get” social media. I know as much about sports, and being a sports fan, as anyone I’ve ever met. I’m a decent writer and have been trying to cultivating my own unique voice on this blog. I’ve been creating, observing and exploring websites since as long as there has been a web. I can keep an audience interested (well, at least when I’m in South Asia). I can sniff out new ways to make money or create revenue. I can put a deal together. I’ve helped build a digital business from scratch.

I’m not a web developer. I’m not a graphic designer. Therefore it would be foolish to create a website where I rely on product innovation to be successful. It baffles me when a business guy has a digital idea that is technically advanced and needs a superior product to compete in the market. It’s as weird as if an engineer wanted to develop an Ad network. It makes me nervous when I hear of an idea where the key to success relies on the performance of the product team (since I’m not part of the product team).

Steve Nash runs the fast break offense. Put him in a half court set with emphases on defense and your team loses its edge. Your big man gets poked in the eye, your other big man is too busy twittering to give a shit, and you have to fire your helpless lame duck coach at the all-star break. It makes sense to identify your strengths and play to them. Otherwise you end up playing the lottery.

Use Social Media (aka be viral)
Social Media = Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, Blogs, YouTube

The last four years the web has proved that people will use the web to communicate. They chat, they facebook, they twitter, they share links, they blog, they comment, they publish, they take picture of wacky stuff on their cell phones. They = you = everyone. Every website that wants some burn needs to figure out how to play nice with all of these services. This is where the digital conversations are happening and it is the quickest, easiest and cheapest way for your fans to share your website. The challenge is that social media is still developing so it’s hard to figure out what integration is valuable and what’s frothy buzz that will disappear as quickly as Michigan’s NCAA tournament chances after last night’s loss at Iowa.

Search Engine Optimization
If Social Media is Lil Wayne than SEO is Tupac or Biggie. It’s from the mid 90′s but is as relevant as ever. Do you wonder how certain websites come up when you do a Google search? Basically Google has some crazy genius algorithm that crawls every single site on the web and then organizes that data like a stadium full of digital Rain Men.

Imagine you created a website because you wanted to sell the greatest pancake mix in the world. Now you can advertise on television and on the web, use social media features, cut some business development deal with the Food Network, etc. Or you could just optimize your website so that it would appear first whenever anybody typed in “Pancakes” in google. There are 673K searches for pancakes. Around 75% of the people click on the first term when they perform a search. Do you realize how many people you would be able to scam with a bag of baking soda and a slick label? FYI, if you search for Pancake Wikipedia entry is #1`and IHOP is #2 so good luck trying to get that top spot.

There’s a bit of contention and debate in the exact tactics a website should perform to optimize. But it’s not rocket science. In fact it’s more about a clear and solid strategy and trial and error thank any sort of magical potion. It amazes me how many websites are created with an indifference or lack of focus on SEO tactics.

Create A Cult
Let’s say I wanted to create a cult. We’ll call it the YO BRO Tribe (or the YBT). First, I would need to figure out what the YBT is all about. It would need to be something that incites tremendous passion in my followers. Then I would find a few disciples who share my passion and connect them with each other. This would be the key step. If I put an ad on craigslist I might get a few uncommitted loons. But what I really need is a core group of devoted, dedicated and passionate base. Then I would equip my disciples with the message and tools they need to go out and spread the gospel of YBT. I’ll make them responsible to recruit new followers.

As bizarre of an example as that is, I believe that the same properties work on the web. A good online community just needs a few hundred active, dedicated leaders to work together to get it off the ground and build something massive. It helps if the topic is one that people are passionate about but that isn’t even necessary if you can convince them it’s an important or noble cause (community recognition and incentives help). Think about YouTube. For every one person who has ever uploaded a video there are 100 who haven’t. That rule usually applies for most online communities. The key is to figure out how to galvanize a few hundred dedicated users (and give them the ability to publish and share). Often times a website worries about how to get to 500K monthly users but never even figures out how to get their first few hundred.

Examples: Digg, RootZoo, Rivals Message Boards

Aggregate and Organize
Before the web was all about creation and communication it was about the efficient organization of information. Sites like mapquest, Google, eTrade and ESPN provided the world with an aggregation of information that was never before possible. New and fascinating markets were created (eBay, Craigslist, jdate). That’s what happens when information exchange is enhanced.

I spend lots of time thinking about stuff I wish I knew. If I can’t answer a question myself I go to the web. If I can’t find the answer on the web I think about how the web should and will create that answer.

Some examples
How can I find the perfect apartment in NYC?
What book should I read next?
What stocks should I add to my sinking 401K?
What bar should I give all my hard-earned money too tonight?
What is the single most interesting program on television right now?
What are the most expensive places to buy a doughnut in NYC?
How can I get my hands on an authentic Marcus Hatten Israeli league jersey?
Who are the other 103 people on the Steroid list?
How can I get rid of the rats in my backyard?

Each of these questions should, could and will eventually be answered on the web. It’s the world’s greatest problem solver!

Revenue Model
The difference between a website and a web business is that a web business makes money. For some reason, this important tidbit often gets lost in the sauce. There are three basic ways to earn revenue on the web.

1) Advertising
2) Premium/Subscription Service
3) E-Commerce

There was a huge pendulum swing towards advertising based business models in the most recent web 2.0 boom. But the advertising markets have collapsed (and to be honest they were never that great in the digital space). Surely, they will rebound at some point but the freemium model is subject to some scrutiny. My largest concern with giving away a product for free is that it ignores your harshest and most important critic – the user. Once a user pays for something they are vested in your website. You’re also on the hook to delivery a service or product that is valuable or you will lose that customer. In a free service it’s difficult to create as strong of a bond with your users (why do you think gangsters get branded) and it’s way easier to overlook them and view your advertisers as the only customers that matter. This is faulty logic since advertisers will only receive true value if you have a captive audience to connect them with.

If you’re one of the few people who are still reading this post than I’m interested to hear your thoughts and ideas. Who knows, perhaps we will even start something together soon.

P.S. – I have no idea why gangsters, frat brothers or anyone else feels the need to get branded but I felt like Malcom Gladwell when I wrote that line.

  • Web Developer

    Best wishes for your startup Ideas. Recession is the best time for launching startups. So just do it

  • Shamsul

    Nice article, Brian. Definitely agree with the “digital crack” you mentioned; I feel that works in tandem with the whole cult you mentioned as well (i.e., Twitter, Facebook, etc.). Also, it is interesting how often SEO gets overlooked when creating a new startup. It’s a great alternative for those who cannot invest in SEM but can still build awareness with the natural results.

  • Brian

    Dear Brian,

    My name is Brian as well, and I was just googling around for some ideas on social networking when I cam across your blogs. I have an idea for a social network revolving around the Healthcare Industry, more specifically the Orthopaedic Industry. I feel there is a lot of upside to a network relating to this industry, with all of the baby-boomers looking to stay healthy and live active lifestyles they are going to be looking for ways to stay fit and to relieve them of any pain from different forms of arthritis. Such as Knee and Hip replacements.

    The problem that lies with this generation are they going to be pro-active enough to figure out how a social network such as this will work.

    Anyhow Brian, I was quite intrigued with your blogging and wanted to contact you for any thoughts or ideas you may have espeically on how to go about pursing something of this nature.

    I am a 2006 graduate from the Monfort College of Business in N. Colorado. I find many of my passions to be similar to yours and really felt the need to reach out to you.

    I truly though enjoy Orthopaedics there is just something about Knees, Hips, Shoulders, etc… and the healthcare industry in general that really fancies me.

    I do apologize for any rambling and all grammatical errors, I am not the best writer, but I do have a lot of ideas.

    By the way I loved your Wager the World idea, I have a friend who is a sports/gambling fanatic and we had a similar idea somewhat related to yours, but was more closely related to just sports.

    Well, I think that’s it for now, thanks for all the great blogs you seem to have quite the knack for online business’s/networks hopefully I will hear from you soon because I would love to get something like this up and running asap.

    Best regards,


  • Brian

    Check out I was thinking something along those lines, but where people can actually log-in as well as physicians so that people can receive current updates on procedures recovery time, post op therapy, etc.. Just a simple way for people staying active to join different groups and communicate.