It’s been a little over two months now since my company, Small Business Trends LLC, acquired BizSugar.com, a site for small business news.
It’s been a learning experience, and it occurred to me that it might make a good case study about acquiring a Web business. So I plan to periodically report on how it’s going.
It’s still early but I’m reasonably pleased with BizSugar’s progress so far. BizSugar is nowhere near on the scale of a site like Digg, which gets millions of visitors and page views. But for a small business site it is promising. Traffic has tripled in fewer than 90 days. The number of new people joining the site and contributing content is accelerating, and that is extremely gratifying.
What is BizSugar?
BizSugar is a bookmarking and sharing site where readers can share content — their own and others’. Then readers vote on content. The content with a combination of the most votes and other activity gets promoted to the home page, gets featured on Twitter, and may get featured in our Top 10 widget, our toolbar and our weekly newsletter. (More on these in a moment.) In turn, that usually means added brand visibility and traffic for the content author.
The site is a little like Digg, but with key differences. Aside from the obvious fact that Digg is huge and BizSugar is still small, another difference is the niche focus. BizSugar is dedicated solely to content of interest to SMBs — small businesses and midsize businesses.
What Have We Been Working On?
A lot of our activity has been behind the scenes. Here’s what we have worked on and accomplished:
Learning how to run the site — The site uses the Pligg software which, in one sense is great, but also has a few quirks. As others have written, Pligg sites are not easy to manage. Translation: We have been learning how to manage the site through trial and error — emphasis on the “error.”
We have had great support from the former owner of the site, DBH Communications and its President, John Holsen. That has made things easier. John gave us detailed instructions in long explanatory emails. He has generously answered questions long after the deal closed. He even jumped in a few times to save us from making a mess of things.
Despite all his support, we’ve still managed to “bork the site” (as one of the team members calls it) a couple of times through little quirks. That highly technical term “bork the site” means that part of the site became inaccessible for an hour or two or three, until we figured out the problem and fixed it.
One of the challenges of open source software like Pligg is that you are on your own when it comes to support. There is no 1-800 number to call. This means we’ve spent hours on forums and blogs trying to discover the source of problems, how to implement fixes, or just how to change something. But in a way that’s good. It’s forced us to learn the site from the inside out.
Recruiting Moderators — One of the first orders of business was to recruit Moderators. The Moderators’ biggest role is to be “ambassadors” to help share all the BizSugar goodness with the world, and also to create a welcoming community feel. The moderators provide a familiar human face on the site. The moderators also keep an eye on the site 24/7 and clean out spam entries.
We’ve been lucky to get several Moderators whose dedication goes above and beyond: Shawn and Heather Hessinger; Martin Lindeskog; Amanda Stillwagon; TJ McCue; and Mary Grace Ignacio. Staci Wood, who is the Small Business Trends Operations Manager, also jumps in to the fray. I can’t say enough good things about the team. You rock!
We’ll be expanding the Moderator team with a few more people in the near future, as the site grows.
Growing the Newsletter and Blog — I assigned people to update the BizSugar blog and make sure the BizSugar top 10 newsletter (pictured below) goes out each week.
Amanda composes and issues the newsletter each week like clockwork (with the exception of one week early on when we managed to “bork” the mailing system for a couple of days). We have about 1,800 subscribers. Subscribers are growing at the rate of about 200 a week now.
We had to make some enhancements to the BizSugar blog. We opened up comments on the blog. Bit by bit we are adding interest and interactivity such as widgets and images. Shawn Hessinger updates the blog regularly now. He is also involving community members by interviewing them. I think the blog is still too hard to find, and plan to make it more visible (the only link on BizSugar is a footer link ).
Assembling an Advisory Board — We also assembled an Advisory Board to give input on the future direction of the site. The Advisory Board consists of the moderators above, plus some people we know who are active members of the Small Business Trends community: Zane Safrit; Joel Libava; Travis Campbell; Servaas Schrama.
Building an Operations Manual — We’ve been building an Operations Manual as we go along. We took all those emails from the former owner, along with the notification emails/instant messages we send to the team after we solve some problem or other, and dumped them into a single document. This way, critical knowledge is not locked up inside one person’s head.
Getting Visitors — Visitors have been growing steadily and I’m pleased with that growth. We’ve had a couple of spikes in traffic and pageviews, mostly from social media, but overall the trajectory has been steadily upward, as this pageview graph shows:
A nice chunk (20%+) of the traffic growth has come from Twitter. BizSugar Hot Topics (items that make it to the home page) are publicized through the BizSugar Twitter account. We are also adding at least one human tweet a day during the workweek for some human personality. If you see the initials “SH” after a BizSugar tweet, that’s Shawn. If you see “AC” that’s me tweeting.
Slowly each day we build a following through Twitter, and that is gratifying.
Building Engagement — It turns out that getting visitors to a community site is easier than getting engagement. By engagement, I mean people discussing stories and voting on submissions and actively participating.
There’s still a tendency for people to visit, submit one of their own stories, and then leave. But if you do that, you limit the value you get out of the site.
So we are working on a number of strategies to help visitors see what’s in it for them to participate beyond submitting. That includes reaching out one by one to the existing active participants in the site, introducing ourselves. Or we are tweeting @ them (sending tweets or retweets) so that they know we notice them.
Also, recently Amanda and I (along with some help of Tim Grahl and his team) set up a BizSugar toolbar. I’d had Adam Boyden, the President of Conduit, on my radio podcast show a while back and was intrigued with the Conduit toolbar creation platform. So we played around and developed a BizSugar toolbar. With it you are alerted when new items go hot on BizSugar. You also can submit items directly from any Web page with our “submit” bookmarklet. The BizSugar toolbar is here.
Registrations and responding to support requests — One area that I am not satisfied with is the way a small percentage of the registration confirmation emails keep getting blocked by certain ISPs. This leads to unhappy people and abandoned attempts to register for an account.
Also, I recently discovered that emails coming to the support address had fallen into a black hole through a technical glitch. So if you are one of the 4 people whose email about not being able to register we ignored, my sincerest apologies. That’s unacceptable and we’re fixing that.
Revenues — Right now the site earns no revenues. It is an expense from a P&L perspective. The focus right now is on developing it into a rockin’ site first. The good news is that I’ve already had inquiries about sponsoring the site, although I’ve put those on hold. Providing a quality site experience comes first.
7 Lessons Learned
I could go on, but I think this post is long enough. I’ll save more for the next post, including profiling some of the loyal community members.
Meanwhile, let me recap with 7 lessons drawn from our first 60 days’ experience:
- Educate yourself if it’s OPEN source — If you ever consider acquiring a website built on open source software, take into account the time you will have to devote to self-education and trial-and-error.
- Get post-closing transition help from the seller — Always structure your deal to include a commitment from the former owner to assist with the transition post-closing. Be a judge of character, too, and have high confidence that the seller will actually follow through and help in a pinch. It’s one thing to have a contract stating that post-closing support is required. It’s another to try to enforce it if your seller won’t cooperate.
- Create an operations manual — As you learn things about your new site, take the time to build an operations manual. That way knowledge can be shared among the team. You will build a more knowledgeable team and a stronger business.
- Actively manage your Web business — Be prepared to spend time managing your Web business. If you’ve never run a Web business, you might be tempted to think ‘put up a website, and voila, it runs itself.’ Nothing could be further from the truth for most Web businesses. You have to devote some amount of time, even if it’s just an hour or two a day, to actively manage most Web businesses. It’s just like businesses in the real world.
- Work at increasing community — Growing visitors is challenging, but increasing engagement in a community site is much dicier. Put yourself in the visitor’s shoes. Is it clear WIIFM (“what’s in it for me”)? If not, work on it until you get it right.
- Involve others — Don’t try to do it all yourself. Without a good team and dedicated moderators and loyal community members, you won’t have a chance at success. You may be a control freak (many entrepreneurs are), but let others in.
- Don’t rush your monetization strategy — Don’t try to eke out pennies too early, by slapping up lots of ads before the site gets its sea legs. Spend time creating a quality brand and user experience first. It is how you build premium value. This is different from having no monetization strategy at all — it is about setting priorities and doing the right things in the right order.
Other thoughts you’d like to add?