Back in 2009, Small Business Trends (my company) bought a website called BizSugar. It’s been an awesome experience and we still own it today. Through it we’ve met many entrepreneurs across the globe “virtually.” This is a report I wrote shortly after acquiring the site. I’ve updated it to remove a few outdated references. But otherwise the information is still relevant today. Perhaps it will help you with a few tips for buying a website. — Anita Campbell, February 2019
It’s been a little over two months now since my company, Small Business Trends LLC, acquired BizSugar.com, a small business community website.
Buying this website has been a learning experience. So 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’.
Readers can also discover new content there. They can then 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, this usually means added brand visibility and traffic for the content author.
The site is a little like the original 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.
Tasks Immediately After Buying the Website
A lot of our activity since acquiring the website has been behind the scenes. Here are the key things we did immediately after buying the website:
Learn how to Run the Site — The site uses the Pligg content management software. In one sense it’s great. But it has a few quirks. 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 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. 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 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.
Recruit Moderators — Here’s one of my best tips for buying a website if it also has community features: recruit Moderators immediately. 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; and a few others. 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.
Grow 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 ).
Assemble 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.
Build 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.
Get Visitors — This probably should have been the first item on the list. It’s one of the most important tips for buying a website. You must have a plan to get traffic.
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.
Build 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.
Respond 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.
Grow 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 Tips for a Smooth Transition After Buying a Website
As you can see, there are many ins and outs of acquiring a website. Let me recap with 7 lessons we learned in the first 60 days after buying the website:
- Educate yourself thoroughly if it’s open source — If you ever consider buying a website built on open source software, take into account the learning curve. You will have to devote time to self-education and trial-and-error. There is no support number to call.
- 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. Know who you are dealing with, and be a judge of character. 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. Whether it’s adding new content, managing social media, or recruiting a community — it requires active effort.
- Work at increasing community — Growing visitors is challenging, but increasing engagement in a community site is much dicier. Communities take a lot of work to build! Expect to devote a great deal of energy, day in and day out, to whip up interest at first. 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 if the website you bought is a community. 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. You must have a strategy to make money from any website you buy. But this is about setting priorities and doing the right things in the right order.
Other thoughts you’d like to add? What tips do you have for buying a website — or selling one?