Parallels

With about two and a half weeks to go in their fundraiser, Xanga is just a tad over halfway to their goal. 51.8% of the way there, at the moment of this writing. Things are looking bleak for those clowns.

Way back in the 1990’s when the internet snowball was still near the top of the hill, it was enough just to be among the first of those offering a product or service that people would like. They were heady days for those of us who were in the business before the boom came and turned the internet into a high tech boomtown.

Every one of my clients from before the year 2000 was successful and it didn’t really matter all that much what they were selling. In those days I still marketed my SEO (Search Engine Optimization) services, and being the analytical turd that I am I had Alta Vista (Googod’s predecessor) completely figured out. I wrote some software that mimicked theirs to the extent necessary for my purposes, and it enabled me to essentially pick the keywords and the ranking I wanted and then take them. I had great fun amusing and amazing clients by telling them which terms their existing web pages were actually optimized for and where in the rankings they would land, all while we chatted for a few minutes on the phone.

My keystone client came along in 1998, wanting to sell textiles. The founder was a salesdroid who had worked a very good deal with a manufacturer, and for some screwball reason that he’d later come to regret he brought a couple of his college buddies along for the ride. It’s a common mistake. I told him then that if he wanted to keep his business he’d not bring his friends into it, and if he wanted to keep his friends he’d not do business with them. No one ever listens. Anyway, I wrote a bunch of software to dynamically generate what was a huge web site for its day, and then designed the web site, and SEO’d it — but in the meantime, the founder got to shooting his mouth off.

Two weeks before the scheduled deployment date, the manufacturer exercised an escape clause in the contract. They’d just build their own damn web site and keep all of the profit, thank you very much, have a nice day, don’t call us we’ll call you. When Mister Founder called to tell me about it I explained that I wasn’t a party to that contract and he still owed me what he’d agreed to pay whether the web site got deployed or not. With a big fire under his ass and the salesdroid’s skills of deception, he went off to some other manufacturers and landed some even better contracts. Another of the partners did some serious data massaging to make the new stuff fit the old format, and we deployed on time. I made the site live at around 10PM and immediately ran around doing the new site submission to the day’s relevant search engines. When I arose the next morning I gave a look at Alta Vista and found the new site perched at number two for the most important search terms. I’d never seen them move so fast.

My client was not fully prepared for all of the sales that came flooding in, but they managed them and worked the kinks out of their procedures just as fast as they could. About two weeks into it, one of the partners couldn’t contain his joy any longer and wrote an email to the other two, and to me, in which he exclaimed, “Who are all of these people? Where are they coming from? Why are they throwing so much money at us? Never mind. I don’t want to know. I have no reason to care. Thanks, Heathen, for making this happen!”. Later that same week the original manufacturer deployed their own web site which settled in on page three of the search results. They might just as well have thrown the development money into the ocean. It wasn’t very long before they came back around to my client and offered them a sweeter deal than the original, which my client rejected saying it wasn’t good enough to be worth their while. The manufacturer was duly humbled, and gave my client the deal my client demanded. It was that or continue watching their sales dwindle.

By the end of 1998 when the various manufacturers’ numbers were compiled, my client was the number four retailer of their products worldwide, and number one on the internet by a wide margin. The manufacturers’ own web sites couldn’t compete — no one could. A couple of other vendors were vying for the search engine rankings and doing a good job of keeping me on my toes, but their web sites were clunky and left people going back to the search engines to try again and because of it their sales suffered. It did make a difference to my client’s sales whether their site was number one or number four, enough of a difference they were willing to pay me to keep it on top, but their primary motivation was competition and winning. Being new millionaires was fun, but taking that blue ribbon was exhilarating. They wanted to be number one worldwide without qualification, not just on the internet.

Having done both, I’d rather be stalked by a psycho killer than have business partners. Managing their success was two full time jobs, but by mid-1999 it fell entirely to the founder. His partners were content to just rake off their shares while doing as little as possible to support the business. The “third partner”, as far as I know, hadn’t done anything at all to contribute to the business by that point. The founder, exhausted and exasperated, issued an ultimatum essentially stating that if neither of them would step up, he’d step aside and be quite happy to toast marshmallows over the flaming wreckage. Number Two stepped up, and not so much later quit his day job to focus on the business. It made sense, as the business was making for each of them far more than their “primary” careers.

Eventually Number Two became exhausted and exasperated and reissued the ultimatum. Number Three stepped up this time. At various times I suggested to each of them that working together they’d accomplish a helluva lot more than by taking turns working alone… but no one ever listens. The partnership was soured, and each of the three of them was freelancing rather than bringing his ideas and plans to the partnership. I know what they were all up to because I built their web sites for their hush-hush freelance gigs. They couldn’t keep their mouths shut, though, and by telling their partners what they were up to all they accomplished was the breeding of resentment. Their freelance gigs all flopped.

Their original business officially became what Number Two was after all along: A cash cow. When it got too near death they’d get highly motivated for a while, but once it was breathing on its own they’d neglect it again. Eventually they put it on the market just to get rid of the stress it brought them — it had made them all millionaires, but they hated it with a passion. The problem was that by the time they put it up for sale no one wanted it. The last redesign was done in 1999 and it showed. Moore’s Law had brought so much more horsepower to the internet that web sites that were impossibly resource hungry in 1999 were not only doable, they were commonplace.

Finally, Partner Three, The Silent One, bought the thing for his wife. They’d been looking at an emissions testing franchise but she couldn’t see herself running such a thing. She liked the idea of the home office, working in her jammies, and taking leisurely lunches with the girls during which she would very importantly take very important calls on her cell phone. She placed her first very important call to me, and stated that she recognized that the bulk of the company’s success was my doing rather than theirs. I thanked her, genuinely, for her kind words. I suggested that with the software still being adequate though suboptimal due to design decisions forced upon me by Partner Two, the first most important order of business was to strip and refinish the facade to get a more modern look. She said that that was a fine idea but first they had to bank some profits to pay for it.

I told her that those who cannot afford to stay in business don’t. That it was regrettable that when the money was flying down the wires of the internets it was all siphoned off so there was none spent on keeping the site updated, but that regrets are useful only when they prevent your making the same mistakes that gave birth to them. She agreed but said that first they had to bank some profits to pay for the updates.

No one ever listens.

She was in fact spending money on software and other business infrastructure, but all of it for her very cool home office. She initially had some trouble getting her new laptop and cell phone working with the server I administered, but we worked through it. She told me about how disappointed she was that she’d got burned by a fellow church goer whom she’d paid serious money to build some custom dining room furniture for her, and how she’d finally come around to my way of thinking about the world and the environment and bought a new Prius. The full-size SUV would be for reserved for long trips and hauling cargo. And so on.

We did though add a new product line to the site, and I worked some serious FM (magic) into the software to make it really easy for the customers to get precisely what they needed. What about that redesign, I asked. First we have to bank some profits, she said.

Finally, finally, she hired a very talented graphics designer to develop a new look for the site. It was very pretty but it had no space for words. Can’t do SEO without words. Still, I’m sure I’ve got some magic that I’m not yet aware of, and it’s a sexy bitch of a design, so let’s do this. How much? Oh, about this much. That’s too much. Can I do it cheaper?

Get the fuck off of my phone.

It actually took several more months before I said essentially that to her. She was taking up at least two hours of every day but paying for none of them, apparently believing that consulting should be free for such a good client who’s been with me for more than ten years. Good client? “What, in your opinion, makes you a good client?”, I asked. They’ve been with me for more than ten years and spent thousands and thousands of dollars, she said. I pointed out that since she and her husband bought the company, it had been less than two years, and in the final analysis I was making about 10% of my billing rate for every hour actually devoted to them and that number was on a steep downward trend. Oh, but there will be lots of money available for upgrades and things once this new site is deployed and sales pick back up again…

Get the fuck off of my phone. I didn’t quite put it that way, but I made it clear five years ago that I was tired of her sucking my business dry like some kind of yuppie vampire.

Five years later, finally, there’s a new site there. The old site was there two weeks ago when I used it as an example of how not to do things, but now there’s a new one. It’s not the sexy bitch, but it’s cute. Like the sexy bitch design, it’s not suitable for SEO — Googod agrees and has ranked it at #107 for the most coveted search terms that brought in the great majority of their customers. But the poor ranking isn’t hurting their sales at all because their shopping cart does not work.

The 1999 site was still at #8 in Googod’s estimation two weeks ago. That’s quite the fall from page one to page ten. They might as well have just thrown that money for the redesign into the ocean. It’s a short walk to the Pacific from the owner’s house — she can see the beach from her bathroom window, she often said. The salt air was a constant challenge for her husband who didn’t want his Porsche to rust.

I’m guessing that The Xanga Team can see Central Park from their bathroom window, and they’ve got nice laptops and cell phones, too. There’s just got to be a Prius in the mix somewhere. It’s regrettable that the money that might have financed the vital upgrades was siphoned off when it was just gushing through the doors, but regrets are only good for something if they keep you from repeating the mistakes that created them.

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20 thoughts on “Parallels

  1. axiomatika

    amen. this was a fun read too

    i laughed here, the first and 2nd time:

    “Get the fuck off of my phone”

    i’m listening to the heathen

    Reply
  2. ordinarybutloud

    Hm. This was a very interesting post. I know nothing, but NOTHING, about the internet or code or what SEO might mean, but it was still interesting, which in my opinion is one telltale sign of great writing. In re: Xanga, I was just thinking about that whole situation this morning and blogged about it over at Xanga. I haven’t gone so far as to call anyone “clowns,” but to be honest I’m secretly thinking it. I just don’t get it. I don’t get asking your bloggers for “pledges” so you can make your business work. I’m no technological genius but I do have a degree in Finance circa 1995, and from what I (very vaguely) recall about business, that isn’t how you do it. And ps, you can’t hate the wife for wanting to work in her jammies and make important calls from her cell phone. Options for women are limited, particularly if you have children. Sometimes jammies are the only option.

    Reply
    1. axiomatika

      i agree. jammies are great work attire. i work in mine. well, not earning but i write and muck about online

      Reply
      1. ordinarybutloud

        it would be so excellent to work in your jammies all day (as I do) AND earn money. a girl can dream.

        Reply
    2. happierheathen Post author

      Oh, no, I didn’t (and still don’t) hate the woman. I eventually came to despise her for her selfishness, for taking hours of my life she refused to pay for. She’s not one whose options in life have ever been significantly limited — she came from an upper middle class background and moved up from there after college. Their nanny’s options are probably limited, but she doesn’t get to work in her jammies. Or maybe she does on those days when momma’s fled from the California almost-beach house to decompress in the Hawaii beach house (whose remodel cost more than my client wanted to spend but the labor costs on the islands are just so darn high, ya know, what’cha gonna do?).

      Thanks so much for the kind words regarding my writing. 🙂 Oh, and I think the secret is out now. 😉

      Reply
  3. lovelylollipop

    It just doesn’t makes sense, i’m an anthropologist so numbers that are not dates, not my thing at all. But even I can tell, the way they did things, it was not right, not for the bloggers and certainly not for them… losing/kicking out the majority of your users, well it wasn’t the brightest moves… even if they raise the money, who’s gonna sign up for a payed ghost town?

    Reply
      1. lovelylollipop

        I didn’t pledge for a couple of reasons, mostly cuz I really can’t justify to myself expending the money on xanga (single mom, kids in private schools, money tight)… but also, even if they raise the moneyz they are asking now, how long will they be able to sustain xanga?

        Reply
    1. happierheathen Post author

      Not to be contrary, but since the money went out of banner ads years ago there’s just no value in the users who will consume resources they won’t pay for. Xanga never figured out how to make the purchase decision easy enough. There they are, steps from falling down dead, and they still expect that walking circles around the pond will quench their thirst. It’s pure idiocy.

      Reply
      1. lovelylollipop

        true… i think very few sites are effective enough to raise the amount of cash they could… are you familiar with “stardoll.com”, gosh those girls do know how to make you spend 😛 easy to pay (phone, credit card, paypal, gift cards) small amounts either for an article or a membership… I mean, it’s really easy to do.

        Reply
        1. happierheathen Post author

          I’d never heard of that site before now. I’m out of touch these days, I guess.

          That’s where Xanga went really, really wrong: They didn’t have monthly, quarterly, or semi-annual payment options or graduated pricing that brought more features for more money. Scads more people will pay five bucks a month or $28/six months than will pay $50/year, just because people are that way. They’ll pay more because the installments look like less and are easier to come by and easier to part with. As Xanga did it, users who didn’t care to post protected and who didn’t mind using an image hosting site like photobucket had zero incentive to pay.

          The bugs also got in the way. People don’t like to pay for broken things, even if they’re otherwise happy to continue using the broken thing and have no desire to replace it. The bugs didn’t drive people away in any significant numbers, but they did cause a very significant number of people to keep their money.

          These things being obvious to anyone who’s been in the business for more than about six months, and to pretty much all users, the only plausible explanation is that Xanga saw the thing as a cash cow to be milked until it starved to death. Well, okay, it’s dying now, so they’ve got what they wanted.

          Reply
    1. happierheathen Post author

      Epidemic, or endemic? 😀

      I’ve found that the most reliable characteristic of almost all of those in business is their ability to avoid the knowledge that success teaches you nothing.

      Reply
  4. kaylar

    wow. seriously interesting. i mean, OBL is right, too, excellent writing. it’s just so…nice to hear it from someone that actually knows. not to mention validating my gut instincts. i think i’m going to go re-read this. 😀

    Reply
  5. grannyandthebaldguy

    Excellent post. And still they yell send us your money, they being xanga. I want to yell at them I gave you my money as in three years in the form of three years of premium plus and when they shut down, or change over I loose that money. I have gotten three different stories on what is happening to folks with already paid up accounts and life time and it doesn”t matter anymore because I am no longer there and am here.
    I am grateful to Xanga for the wonderful people and friends brought into my life.

    Reply
  6. philip hom

    It is hard to make a retort to defend xanga, I do a lot of stupid things in my life and I do prefer not to listen to advice. But the magic at xanga maybe short lived, just because there are a lot of “poor” people. However it may be possible to soak the rich xangians. ZSaMd recently decided she could afford to give a little bit more. Also Christos also will be matching pledge funds (despite the inability to confirm someone did donate after his plea for donations.)

    I have seen a lot of posts that appear to be of little importance, but often that is because I am myself and the other person is theirself and maybe that is what matters mostly.

    I should read more drivel. It might make me a gibbering idiot or a snotty genius.

    Reply

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