As I mentioned before, blogging may be light since I’m building a few websites.
The main one is The Agora, which was announced a few days ago, and is due to launch on May 11th. I’ll explain a lot more about it in a separate post. The below is a list of things I hope to avoid.
LawPath launched about 2 years ago, and frankly, didn’t work. What follows is a list of a few things the whole process taught me.
1. Make sure you can summarise your site’s aim in a few words.
Often people asked me what LawPath was, and I’d go into some long ramble about how it would “by students, for students” etc. I should have said “It’s a news website for law students” and left it at that, but I was too wrapped-up in future plans.
2. Publicity is everything.
For crying out loud: get your site out there, and make sure people know about it! Having a bunch of cards printed with the URL is great, but a waste of time and money if you don’t hand them out to people.
There was one fundamental which a guy at the business school mentioned: you will almost certainly have to spend money, and quite a bit, on marketing.
3. Don’t just believe what you read.
I bought myself a copy of Getting Real by 37 Signals – a really good book for anyone launching a web app. Unfortunately for me, I somehow convinced myself that following this would somehow constitute a marketing strategy and therefore half the law faculty would visit my site. They didn’t. It’s still a great book, but it takes more than a few rules from a book to make a site.
4. Keep going back to your site and maintaining it, however much traffic it’s getting.
When I released TaskStep, it took quite some time before anyone really started downloading it. This was hardly a surprise – there was zero publicity other than a few forum posts I’d done, and I didn’t care too much about downloads.
For LawPath, I had posters, read 37 Signals’ book, and had little cards printed to hand out. Since very few people visited the site, I didn’t either. But since this in turn meant absolutely no new content, nobody visited the site, leaving a hellish website cycle of silence.
5. Spammers WILL post on your site. Sort it out quickly.
After a few weeks of LawPath getting no traffic at all, a few posts finally appeared. Fortunately, a friend of mine took the time to visit the site, and told me about them. It turned out a few accounts had been registered and for 3 weeks my site had been advertising all sorts of things that are too impolite for this blog. Since I hadn’t visited the site, I didn’t notice, and I was paying the hosting and domain costs to advertise someone else’s (very dodgy and almost certainly fraudulent) product.
LawPath was written from scratch in PHP. No framework, no CMS. The problem is manual spammers exist, and they’re a real pain.
6. Missing a deadline is nothing if your site doesn’t work, or doesn’t do what you’d like it to do.
There were several extras on LawPath that I hoped to implement “one day” once I’d got a bunch of users. Firstly, it turned out they weren’t so much extras as core features. Secondly, the site fell apart so quickly, I never bothered. In the same way that you need to keep maintaining a site, if you plan to later add features, make sure you do.
7. Avoiding feature creep is fine. Avoiding features isn’t.
I convinced myself that the raw site was what was needed, and I could skip a lot of the features for now so that the site could be launched more quickly. Not so. Work out what the main features are, and then make sure they make it to the launch.
8. Enjoy it.
Honestly, if you built the site you’ll be bored to tears with code by the end, but there’s more to a site than just code. Take a break, and give yourself plenty of time. Yes, who’s first is a huge factor, but that competition is nothing if someone else brings out a later product that’s much better. When things get tricky (and they will) relax for a bit and change what you’re working on, because a rushed release will destroy the product completely.
Much like Getting Real, this list isn’t a comprehensive guide to launching a site, it’s just what I’ve learnt so far. I’ve no doubt there’s plenty left still to learn.