StopForwarding.Us: What I have learned.

About a year ago I was looking for a website that would let me politely and anonymously ask a coworker to stop forwarding political and religious email. Not finding one, I decided to create one.

As with most of my personal projects, I decided to take a stab at monetizing the website. After all, if I am using my time and money to provide a service, why not try to make a few bucks as well? Shortly after having the idea, I quickly developed a site that provided the service I had in mind and StopForwarding.Us was born.

My plan for making money on the site was to offer email related wares through a Cafe Press store, ads via Google AdSense and a donation button. After about six months of no sales at the store, I decided to cut my costs and downgrade the store to include one design (to date I have sold one shirt). After a year and some lucky breaks in the press, my AdSense account has finally made it past the $100 threshold which is necessary for Google to cut a check. Finally, I have made $3 thanks to the donation button (two of those donations came from friends).

A few months before being featured on a few well known blogs (Download Squad, Lifehacker & Kim Komando), I had written off the site as a fun but ultimately fruitless (revenue wise) project. A few more months, press inquiries, friendly and hateful emails later I have gained some insights and learned some lessons which I will outline below. Oh yeah, if you’re a hater looking for some sort of white flag or an apology for my site, you may me disappointed.

People Like Being Served
Up until the launch of StopForwarding.Us, all the projects I have been involved with were centered around hustling some sort of wares (mostly Cafe Press stuff). This business model, while so far producing far more revenue, has generated little in the way of buzz and user loyalty., however has received more traffic than all my other sites combined, has gotten mentions in big media outlets, has a large user base and even has a modest following on Facebook. I recently read a post at Get Rich Slowly that I think pegs the reason for the buzz and user loyalty down. I enocurage you to read the entire post. The post wraps up saying:

Success as an entrepreneur isn’t about you — it’s about helping others achieve goals you care about.

While stopping bad email etiquette may seem trivial, it is a goal that I care about and by providing a service where like-minded individuals can attempt to accomplish the same goal, I have created a service with social benefit. T-shirts and mouse pads provide little social benefit.

The cool thing about the Internet is that people say stuff that they would never say to one’s face. While this is often seen as a negative thing, it also alows for a very honest and blunt opinion. I get a modest amount of hate mail from people who really dislike the site and me. At first this shocked me. I was surprised by how many people could learn that I am a money grubbing, cowardly, unemployed piece of whale excrement just from the fact that I had built a website. At first I started to compose lengthy emails which defended my integrity in a polite and mature manner. But before sending the first of my responses out, I decided to reply with simply:

I am sorry you were offended.

Even this proved to be a mistake as it only opened the door for another email. So I decided to delete the hate mail I got (I kept the particularly funny ones) and not respond. The positive emails I kept and responded to warmly. Here are some thoughts on humility I have had as a result of the negative response to the site:

In addition to the negative email I have received, I have gotten much more positive emails. These emails included thanks for offering the service, ideas for improving and even monetizing the service, offers to translate into different languages, and more. These emails meant a lot to me and seemed to come just when I needed to read them most. It encouraged me to continue developing the site and gave me hope that common decency still exists on the world.

Always have a scalability plan
Perhaps my biggest mistake when creating StopForwarding.Us was not seeing the potential for growth and utility. As a result, I had no plan to scale and improve the service. Now I am in a position that leaves me with a lot of traffic while I frantically put together the next version of the site. If I actually had a plan in place, even if I did not immediately act on it when the site launched, at least at this point a new version could be in the works instead of just being planned. This would allow me to hang on to more of the users that I am getting from buzz.

Google pays slowly
I like Google. I use as many of their products as I can. They keep things simple. It’s a little scary that they are so huge and that I place so much trust in them, still, I like them. AdSense, however, is a raw deal. Good hustle for Google, bad business for me. I’ve given AdSense over 200k impressions and have only made about $200. It took me over a year to get there and that is from traffic to three different sites (StopForwarding.Us included). If advertising is any part of a future business model of mine, I will likely cut Google out.

Don’t give up

If there is one thing I’ve learned from StopForwarding.Us, it’s that one should not give up too quickly. Six months into this project with no sales of shirts, mugs or mouse pads and only a couple bucks in my AdSense account, I came close to pulling the plug. If I had, then I would have never had the opportunity to learn what I have so far. I’d also have lost the opportunity to network and collaborate with developers on a new and improved version of the site that improves upon my initial idea and ultimately provides a more valuable service.

In the future, I hope to apply some of these lessons to new projects. In the mean time, I hope you found them insightful and that they come in handy in your future. Stay tuned for the next version of StopForwarding.Us!

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Good stuff, Eric. I liked your bit on humility. I’ve learned to ignore the haters, unless they actually make a valid criticism. I’ll address that. Most people griping are just looking for a reaction anyway. Don’t feed the trolls!

Also, never give up. There have been several times when I’ve wanted to throw in the towel with AoM. Sometimes we get a streak of just negative responses other times it feels like the site is too much work. But I know it will pay off big someday if we keep plugging away.

Good luck with the site.

Great post! Thanks for taking the time to put together these lessons learned. Even though you may not get rich from this project, you changed the world, made it a better place. That is awesome!

Looking forward to seeing you present this at OpenBeta!

Great info Eric. The post is spot on. I have similar feeling about our site… We do it for fun and for a purpose…but It’s not even paying for itself. Adsense is making a little but merchandise is useless and finding a relevant affiliate product is impossible.

Maybe it’s time for a new plan like you suggested. I look forward to seeing 2.0!

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