One of the first things another entrepreneur said to me when I was getting feedback on the viability of FamiliesGo! was that I ought to think about whether I want to keep things small or “go big.”
I think about it a lot and can see the possibility and appeal of both paths. I can see the potemtial to grow FamiliesGo! into a brand that is much bigger than me—something along the lines of TheKnot.com. I can envision the website flourishing with diverse content, tools that can generate a “freemium” price strategy, and brand extensions into apps and electronic guidebooks.
But I can also see the appeal of making FamiliesGo! as an extension of my personal brand. It can be a vehicle I can use to leverage writing assignments, speaking gigs, maybe a book or two and supplement it all with ad revenue. Growth would be there, but on a modest scale.
When I tell others about FamiliesGo! I always talk about the bigger idea. So I have to acknowledge that on an instinctive level this path appeals to me. I think what makes me hesitant—aside from the work-life balance thing—is winding up in a position where I take outside money and then have to work at a pace my investors’ set, rather than at my own pace and because of that, I miss something important and good.
There’s a scene in The Social Network movie where Sean Parker tells Mark Zuckerbeg that they shouldn’t start worrying about monetizing Facebook because they don’t know what it is yet. And that’s how I feel about FamiliesGo! My ideas about what it can be and what my role in it ought to be changes daily. I want to have room for trial and error, and time to let my company come into itself more. I don’t know what it is yet.
My initial thought was to do what I could on my own for two years, maybe three, and then look for money if I need it. In New York, where 20-something techies start shopping for VC money before they even have a name for their business, this plan seems absurdly timid. But I recently read a great blog by an entrepreneur who is seeking investors so that he can rev up his art-related dotcom after 10 years of growing it slowly on his own. So I know my plan isn’t totally kooky.
For now, going big or going small is really less important than simply moving forward and making the right decisions for the business as I plod along. If I do the day-to-day stuff well, follow my instincts and make the right small choices as they come up, then I think the big question will take care of itself.
I kind of love Google Analytics. I’m just beginning to plumb its depths and it only starts to be really helpful after you’ve built enough traffic to show patterns.
But it’s interesting to see what it can tell you—and what it can’t. Here are a few things it’s shown me that are interesting and how it’s influencing the business decisions for my web company.
FamiliesGo! Is Global
I’ve learned that 24% of my users come from outside the US. The largest segment of these visitors are from Canada.
I suspect that a chunk of these Canadians visit the website for information on the Caribbean and Florida (especially as we move toward winter). But I am going to make an effort to build out my Canadian hotel listings more quickly than I was planning to.
LinkedIn Is a Good Traffic Source
Posting FamiliesGo! updates to LinkedIn was an afterthought because of the site’s career and business focus. But it routinely sends more visitors than Twitter. Moreover, those visitors spend an average of four and half minutes on the site, look at nearly four pages, and have a bounce rate of 40%. All these metrics outpace the same ones for both Facebook and Twitter, and point to engaged users.
Part of what makes LinkedIn work well, I think, is that I can post updates to specific groups. For example, I might reach a fair number of parents who fit my demographic through my college and high school alumni networks.
The trouble is that the interface between LinkedIn and Analytics isn’t great. While I can tell that about one-third of these users do find FamiliesGo! via groups, it’s hard to tell which groups. Knowing that would help to me focus my efforts better.
Chance Users Are the Most Profitable
Over the past month people who found FamiliesGo! via search engines (mostly Google) clicked on more ads and generated more ad revenue than people who came to the site directly or from a referring website.
The only explanation I have for this is that people who come via search engine are actively researching vacations and see ads related to the trips they’re considering. I should learn more about search engine optimization and consider doing some search engine advertising.
I Can't Explain Everything
I had my first single day with more than 100 visitors on Oct. 16. It was part of several days in a row with more than 100 page views (another first). I rushed to Google Analytics to figure out what I was doing right. And I came up empty.
A whopping 65 percent of these visitors came to the site directly, not via a referring website or search engine. Typically fewer than half of my visitors arrive this way. I posted a blog on traversing Heathrow airport with kids and some new hotel listings during this time, but the biggest portion of these visitors—38%— looked at a list of tips for taking cruise vacations that’s been up since the site launched. And I made less than an $1 in additional ad revenue from this traffic surge, which dragged my average click through rate way down.
So I have no idea where all these visitors came from or, really, what drew them to the site, which is frustrating. Then again, since they didn’t click on any ads I guess I don’t have to worry too much about getting them to come back.
Planning and structure has been on my mind lately.
As a freelance writer I’m good at imposing both of these things on my work. I know how to schedule work so I’m not left with idle days but I have time to research and pitch new assignments while working on current ones. I’ve also learned to take time out at the start of every assignment to outline the story I want to write and the information I need to gather for it. I list the people I want to contact and studies I should gather and estimate how long it will take me to do the reporting, revise the outline, and write the story. But this planning doesn’t take more than 30 minutes.
Imposing far-reaching planning and structure on a start-up is proving to be a lot harder, partly because it’s more involved and time-consuming. Instead of a simple story outline I need a marketing plan, a financial plan, a content plan.
But when I know I have a blog to post, a partnership proposal to write, and broken links that need fixing on my homepage, how do I put those things aside to spend the morning mapping out where I want to be in two years? That seems wildly unproductive.
At the same time, no matter how much I vow to stick to my supposedly crucial to-do list, something else always comes up—an opportunity to jump on, or a problem to trouble shoot—that derails me from it. While some of it needs immediate attention, much of it can wait. I know from managing large editorial projects that being easily distracted is usually a sign that I haven’t thought through what I want to accomplish. I haven’t set clear goals for myself and I need to.
But then, when I take an evening out to attend a class or panel discussion, the session itself is almost beside the point. While I do come away with useful tips for boosting my search engine results or converting Facebook fans to website users, the real value is setting aside an hour to do nothing but think about my business.
I came out of one of these panels—I don’t even remember what the panel was about—with a clear vision of the content and community I want to develop and the products, business relationships, and revenue streams that can ultimately grow out of it. I’d had fragments of this plan shifting around in my head for some time, but it was the first time they all fell neatly into place. I used the subway ride home to draw a diagram that laid it all out. This, at long last, was my back-of-the-napkin plan.
So I’ve been reminded of two important things. The first is that being busy is not the same as being productive. The second is that spending time not actively working on tasks but thinking about the business can actually be productive in very real ways.
I'm going to try to routinize this kind of free-thinking and longer-term planning. Some of the time will come out of my workday but some will also have to happen outside of it. I picture one morning and one evening a week. As often as possible I should get away from my office to do it.
At this point, my goal isn’t a comprehensive, formal business plan. I still want to learn more about FamiliesGo! before I do that. But I would like to turn the diagram I drew on the subway into something fuller and more concrete, with a handful of goals for 2012 as well as to-do lists for each. Hopefully I can stick to those.
I recently wrapped up FamiliesGo!’s second month. Now, I’d like to take stock, note the small victories and inches of progress, and see what needs more focus going-forward.
First, the good news.
People Are Finding FamiliesGo!
I’ve been keeping my eye on Google Analytics and am seeing some nice trends. The portion of people coming directly to FamiliesGo! is going down while the portion finding it through organic search has nearly doubled. I take this to mean that people who don’t know me are coming to FamiliesGo! because they are finding out about it and are interested in the content. This is better than coming to the site because you are me friend/sibling/colleague/classmate and I sent you an email asking, “Please go look at my website.” Better still, nearly 30% of my visitors have come back two or more times, so they like what they see.
Google Helped Me Out
Some kind (or at least PR-savvy) soul at Google saw my recent Inc.com post about my frustrations with AdSense and helped fix my problem. So my Google Analytics and AdSense accounts are now tied to a single FamiliesGo-related email address. I’m pretty sure my YouTube account is looped in, too, though I don’t have any ads popping up yet. I think I have to get more videos up and more people viewing them before the powers at YouTube/Google will consider me ad-worthy.
A Cruise Line Responded To My Blog
I wrote two blog posts about taking a cruise with a toddler; one on things we liked and another on things we didn’t. Norwegian Cruise Lines took the trouble to post a lengthy response to my complaints on my website, which means they actually think other parents are likely to find it and that it could influence them. This isn’t anything I’ll make money from, but it’s validating (and great for my ego).
We’re Expanding Beyond AdSense
I’m an email or two away from sealing a marketing partnership with a staffing agency in Chicago that offers family travel services. And a daily deal website offered me an affiliate relationship (I promote its travel deals on FamiliesGo! in exchange for a percentage of sales that come through my site).
I need to build a sizeable audience to make real money from these. But when I do send business their way the compensation will be dollars, anywhere from $12 to a few hundred per transaction, which is a step up from AdSense, where payment so far has ranged from five cents to maybe $2 per ad click.
Of course, I have plenty of areas to work on.
From roughly 1,300 visitors to the site I’ve managed to harvest maybe two-dozen names for a newsletter list. I figure I need 100 before I start sending a newsletter out. Clearly I need to be more clever about getting people who visit the site to hand over their email address. (Ideas from smart and resourceful Inc.com readers welcome).
I’m still not clear on how to create new pages for my Hotel Guide and there are a few new regions—Texas and Canada, in particular—I need to add ASAP. My developer sent me some video tutorials and written notes. But I think having her come in for an hour and walk me through it will take less time than the self-teaching method even if it means getting over my entrepreneur’s aversion to spending money for it. I’ve sent her an email to schedule this.
My total visitors dropped between August and September. I expected seasonal dips like this. In August, parents are in travel mode; in September they’re in back-to-school mode. The monthly numbers are ticking back up in October, but my base is still small enough that I need bigger and steadier growth. I want to see some gains as people plan holiday and winter break travel in November, December and January.
Marketing to Parents
Speaking of growth, my biggest priority right now is more aggressive marketing about FamiliesGo! to parents.
The goal here is lining up a regular writing gig with a major parenting website. It’s something I’d like to have within a year but these slots are coveted and not easy to land.
In the meantime, online parenting communities are one of the key elements to my marketing plan. In sizeable metro areas you can reach anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 parents at a time through them and they can lead to good word of mouth. But each group has its own rules regarding what kind of commercial information you can post for free, what you need to pay to post, whether they let outsiders post at all, who can join, etc. It’s difficult to scale.
Once I get a handle on it all and develop posts that work across the board I can set a budget for joining or advertising with some, take advantage of free posting on others and get into a seasonal routine with them. But figuring all that out is time-intensive and monotonous, the kind of work that sends me scurrying to just about anything else.
I’ll let you how it goes at my next check-up.
I’m running my first giveaway contest on FamiliesGo! I’m asking people to “help develop the Southwest section of our hotel guide” by contributing reviews of hotels they’ve visited with their families in Southwest states. Those who do can enter to win a copy of a new kids’ book called Arizona Way Out West & Wacky.
The slight glitch: I have three copies of the book at my disposal and only one entry two weeks into a three-week contest. Underwhelming to say the least.
It’s conventional wisdom that contests and giveaways are a good way to steer traffic to your site and also to encourage a desired behavior by your users. So I was thrilled when companies started pitching me things I could offer just a few weeks after launching.
I wasn’t expecting a stampede to my website from my first contest, but I was hoping for more entries than I have books. I’m working on more giveaways already and hopefully my execution will be better.
Here's what I learned for next time:
Offer big prizes
About a year ago I interviewed Angelia Kane, an expert on bootstrapping and we discussed using contests to promote a new business. Had I reread that interview before I planned this giveaway I would have recalled her observation that people often can’t be bothered with small freebies. Items worth $100 or more, she told me, will make people sit up and take notice.
I definitely undershot by offering a kids’ activity book that retails for $10.50. Next time I’ll learn to pick a meatier prize or bundle smaller ones together into baskets with themes like “Take the wrinkles out of holiday travel.”
Lower the entry requirements
I made several mistakes here. I winnowed out too many people, for instance. The way I designed the contest, from the several hundred people who heard about it I had to draw in those who have stayed in hotels in one of five Southwest states with their kids and who have kids the right age for an educational activity book (and who would take the time to fill out a quick review form to get that book).
My next giveaway has to appeal to my target audience (parents interested in travel). And the barrier to entry has to be lower to draw in a broader group within that demographic.
Moreover, the required action and the prize have to be in better sync. Users might “like” your Facebook page for a $25 to $75 giveaway. But to get them to sign up for your newsletter or commit even a few minutes to, say filling out a survey, I need to hit that $100 threshold.
Get your giveaway partner to help
For the Arizona giveaway I featured a photo of the book jacket, the book’s website and publisher’s Facebook page in multiple places on my website and Facebook page. I also posted about the contest fairly energetically on Twitter, targeting tweets to tourism and other relevant groups as well as to my 750 followers. I also posted the contest on about five websites that list giveaways, two of them specifically targeting moms.
In exchange, all I asked the publisher’s PR person was to feature my Facebook page on her company’s page (which she hasn’t done).
Next time around I would recommend the sponsoring company post its own tweets and Facebook updates about the contest with links back to FamiliesGo! And I would request a link from the sponsor’s website.
Watch your stats
Giveaways can wind up attracting people who are interested in the freebie but not FamiliesGo! So it’s important to watch Google Analytics and tinker to attract the right people—people who are interested in the content, too.
So far only two of the five websites I submitted the contest to have driven traffic to my site: 20 people who visited the contest page and left the site in less than a minute. I’ll have to see whether these numbers improve with better giveaways and experiment with other publicity.
On the upside, about 65 people have visited the contest page that talks about the contest. Presumably 45 of them found out about the contest on Facebook or Twitter or from my homepage. More than half of these folks stayed on the website for a few minutes and looked at several pages. The contest has also garnered more than 500 views on my Facebook page.
It seems the contest is at least drawing people’s attention to my hotel guide, and hopefully after learning about it, these folks will come back and use it. Also people who are already interested in FamiliesGo! will be on the lookout for other giveaways that suit them better.
In the meantime, if you’ve visited a hotel in the Southwest with your family I’ve got a great activity book your kids will love…
I wonder if Congress would consider creating a longer day, specifically for entrepreneurs. I think 27 hours would be enough.
I don’t need the extra time to get more stuff done so much as I need it to actually get enough rest after my day ends sometime between in the evening.
I’m at that stage of starting a business where my to-do list is long and everything on it should be at the top. I’d try reading up on time management and organization tricks, but they won’t change the ungainly volume of necessary work, so why bother with the distraction? Some the items at the top of my list:
- I have a growing list of people interested in marketing and promotional partnerships with me. I have to study up on what to offer and how to write proper proposals. Then I have to write the proposals. These relationships can be big steps in growing traffic and direct revenue.
- I have a series of people I’ve approached about guest blogs and I need to follow up with them. This will simultaneously save me work (writing blogs) and increase my exposure.
- I have to resume my search for a partner to handle some of the business-side stuff.
- I have to carve out more time for marketing and promotion. I’ve done well spreading the word about FamiliesGo! in travel circles but need to make better inroads to parenting websites and magazines.
- I have to revisit a video tutorial I have on adding widgets to new web pages. I’m sitting on content for my hotel guide because I can’t figure out how to add sidebars as I add new sections and the pages look silly and don’t function properly without them.
- I have endless new content to add to the site. New material gives people a reason to keep coming back.
All these things could easily keep me busy until 11 p.m. every night. But I know from my former corporate job that I’m more of a sprinter than a long-distance runner. Too many late nights just makes me exhausted and sloppy.
I’m learning what I do well at night when I’m tired and what has to happen during the day when I’m sharpest. But I’m also learning that since work never ends, at some point you just have to leave something unfinished, make your to-do list for the next day, and shut down the laptop. And really, that hour might as well be a sane one.
I try to keep late evenings to three or four a week and to call it quits on those nights by 9 p.m. This lets me toss in a Mad Men DVD for an hour, wind down, and actually get a good night’s sleep. This in turn makes it more likely that I’ll wake up early and do yoga, which improves my focus and momentum. I can prioritize better and focus on the important work rather than the easiest work, a habit that’s easy to fall into when I’m tired.
It takes a certain amount of discipline to call it a day when there are still things you want to do. It’s not easy and I don’t always manage it. But the day isn’t actually going to get longer and that to-do list isn’t likely to get shorter anytime soon. Focus, momentum, and rest are the best tools I have for keeping it under control. For the time being, I’ll take them.
It’s just before 8:00 in the morning on the 13th day of a 19-day vacation. I was supposed to write this blog several days ago, but my plan to work early mornings and evenings on my new website, FamiliesGo! while on a family vacation in Germany has been nearly impossible.
After dealing with later than usual bedtimes for my preschooler and organizing for the next day’s adventures, I’m ready for sleep myself. I’ve done little more than check my email and answer what I absolutely have to, then glance at my Google Analytics and fret over my slowing traffic. There have been a few mornings—not enough—like this one, where I’ve been the first one up and can squeeze in a half hour of work while the coffee brews.
I have to admit my empire suffered from neglect on the first ten days of my trip. With no blog posts, no new listings in the site’s Hotel Guide and no new Facebook or Twitter activity, my traffic fell to less than half of the 232 visitors I had in my previous ten days. I’ve made a trifling $17 in Google Ads for August— most of that in the first half of the month before I left town—compared with $13 during the mere six days in July that we were live.
Things shifted in a better direction after I found the time to publish a guest blog and some hotel listings I had readied before I left. And I’ve been better about Tweeting and Facebooking for at least a few minutes in the evening, when my mostly US-based followers are still at their computers.
The one nice thing about being on vacation and not posting things constantly is that I’ve been able to see more clearly what spurs new traffic and where that traffic comes from. I’ve harvested some helpful strategic insights.
The guest blog, about traveling with tweens, spurred a nice spike in visits to the site, a handful of comments and several new Facebook followers after a long plateau. A lot of people assume parents of older kids need less help and advice than those with small children and parent-travel content tends to skew toward people with babies and toddlers. So this is new traffic to the site is interesting and an incentive to find ways to serve up other content for parents with school-age kids and teenagers. I’m now always on the lookout for more guest bloggers who can address this demographic that I can’t.
Also, it’s become apparent that while my Twitter followers outnumber my Facebook followers by 3.5 to 1, Facebook drives two to three times more people to my website. I need to learn more about building my Facebook following and getting Facebookers to click through to the website. Luckily, a day or two after observing this, an invitation landed in my email inbox to a workshop for entrepreneurs on getting more out of Facebook. I signed up from Munich.
I’ve also come to fully appreciate that, traffic issues and time away from the laptop aside, this trip has been valuable to me. As a person running a family travel website, I need to get up from my desk and travel. I’m now able to add a new region to the FG Hotel Guide with hotels I’ve personally visited. I’ll get easily five blogs out of the trip, including another video. I’ve also had the opportunity to acquaint myself with JFK, Heathrow, and Frankfurt airports—all major hubs— through the eyes of a parent. I’ve already added a tip about play area in Heathrow to my homepage. (Last time I went through Heathrow I wanted to find a proper pint, not a play area.) And every scrap of travel I do with my husband and child adds to the body of knowledge I can draw on as a "family travel expert".
All entrepreneurs struggle with the reality of not being able to be everywhere at once. And planning the vacation soon after launch wasn’t ideal in terms of building momentum, but on balance I hope the long-term gains outweigh the short-term setbacks.
Now, time to wake the family and head out for the day.
My daughter fell on her nose at camp this summer.
This, in a nutshell is why I’m reluctant to seek venture capital or to build my business, FamiliesGo!, in a way that necessitates it.
It’s not that I couldn’t make good use of outside investment money. The deeper into this venture I go the more I appreciate what I could do with an infusion of capital. I could hire or outsource more technical knw-how, and marketing, sales, and public relations help. I could hire freelance writers and bring in an intern or two. All of this would allow me to build the content, tools, and revenue streams I have in mind much faster and improve my odds of developing FamiliesGo! into the Learnvest.com or TheKnot.com of family travel, which it has the potential to be.
But my daughter fell from a very small height flat on her nose. There was a lot of blood and tears and the camp called to have me come get her. After lunch, a story, and much cuddling and reassurance she napped. And I made up for lost time.
I’ve lost half and full days of work before due to viruses and snow days and school art shows. And I will continue to. In the short run it’s frustrating to have a long to-do list I know I won’t get to. But I’ve learned that I’ll finish whatever I was supposed to work on a day or two later than planned and in the long run the lost time doesn’t matter very much. I also know it doesn’t mean I’m not dedicated to my venture. If FamiliesGo! ultimately doesn’t succeed, the odd emergency call from school won’t be the reason.
But there has been a lot of chatter in the blogosphere, on Twitter, and at tech community events lately about why women receive only a small portion of venture money despite starting a large portion of new businesses. One oft-cited reason is that they don’t ask for it. I think my daughter and her nose have a lot to do with why.
As a reporter I’ve talked to a lot of VCs and venture-backed entrepreneurs for publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal to Knowledge@Wharton. So I understand that should you be lucky enough to attract venture money these days, your backers will expect you to work 20 hours a day to accomplish in eight months what might be doable in ten if nothing goes wrong. If you fail to hit their goals on their schedule, they’ll quickly lose interest and move on to the next founder.
This approach has something to do with the pressure VCs are under to perform for their investors in an environment that hasn’t favored them for a few years. But it’s also indicative of a deep-held belief many VCs have always had: The way to prove you are dedicated to your business is to do absolutely nothing but work on your business. It’s a variation on an unwritten rule that women (and some men) bump up against in corporate jobs. You know, the one that says the last person out the door every night is the one who gets the promotion.
Women have been fleeing corporate jobs and pursuing entrepreneurial ventures for years because this narrow definition of dedication and productivity doesn’t work for them. It’s not that I won’t work long hours—I’ve been at my desk past 10 p.m. every night this week. But I absolutely need to be able to wrap those hours around family dinner and nightly readings of Fancy Nancy. I think that, like me, a lot of women who start businesses want an environment where flexibility and ambition are not mutually exclusive. After fleeing (largely male) bosses who couldn’t offer this, you can understand my reluctance to take on (largely male) investors who seem no more progressive.
We all know that a goal that should reasonably take ten months to achieve will probably take 12 in a start-up because things do go wrong. And it might take someone who’s a parent a little longer than that because flu season comes every year and always at the worst possible moment.
If you know any patient investors who understand that kids hurt their noses and are willing to let me take 13 months to accomplish something another founder could do in 12, I have some ideas I’d love to discuss with them. Until I meet them I’ll just be another woman entrepreneur who isn’t asking for venture money—and isn’t getting it.
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- My First 60 Days
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