What Would You Say You Do Here?

That’s one of my all-time favorite lines from Office Space. Cracks me up every time I see it. John C. McGinley delivers it perfectly.

What do I do? I get asked that question by a lot of people. I’ve written before that it’s not exactly my favorite thing to talk about, mostly because so few people understand anything beyond “he works with computers”.

However, there are plenty of people I associate with who do understand web business and have a pretty good understanding of our business. Those conversations are my favorite. I have noticed though that one question does come up rather often. People see us running SportsLizard, Detailed Image, and LockerPulse, and also doing some side projects, and don’t really see the connection. Like, are we spreading ourselves too thin and not becoming good at any one thing?

It’s a really interesting question, mostly because there is no right answer. I have my opinion, but one can certainly make a valid argument the other way.

Anyway, first and foremost, I love side projects and I love new projects. They keep me excited and motivated, but that alone isn’t necessarily enough to justify their business value. One only has to look to Google’s 70/20/10 break down of time as a model for how working on side projects can help your business immensely.

Still, maybe even more so than Google, our side projects and secondary projects directly help our primary project, Detailed Image.

Everything we’ve ever done has had a bunch in common:

  • We use servers running Apache on Linux, with WHM/cPanel as the control panel system (we’ve used other control panel systems here and there, but now everything is on cPanel)
  • We program with PHP (dynamic scripting) and MySQL (database), and HTML, Javascript, CSS, XML, etc on the front-end
  • We’re selling something online – premium subscriptions (SportsLizard, LockerPulse), products (Detailed Image), and services in the past
  • We rely on having search engine optimized sites (read my essay SEO & Web Marketing For New Web Ventures for more on our strategy)
  • We market almost exclusively online, with some PPC marketing and a variety of sponsorships
  • We build highly targeted newsletter lists slowly over time and integrate those in to our marketing campaigns
  • We use PayPal to process all of our transactions

That is what we do. There’s probably more, but that’s what comes to mind off the top of my head.

There are so many times where something we’ve done on a previous site makes the process on a new site 100x easier. LockerPulse could have never been done so rapidly if there weren’t years of experience built up, not only in programming but in everything that goes with running a web business. I was able to set up and test our subscription system in less than a day because it’s essentially the same thing we’ve been using for years successfully on SportsLizard. There’s a piece of mind that comes with that too – the more of that stuff we’ve “solved”, the more effort we can expend on other things.

Then there’s times when new projects help Detailed Image. I discovered a better way to do our internal redirecting on DI when a Z.ips.ME user emailed me a potential issue with our 301 redirect header. I solved a lot of problems with scalability on LockerPulse which will help us with DI. We also built a pretty good mobile site for LockerPulse. It forced me to build a solid foundation in mobile layouts and mobile browser detection, so that when we go to build a mobile e-commerce site for DI we won’t be starting from scratch. We’re often able to kill two birds with one stone. We’re also able to discover things that work on one site (say, premium subscriptions coupled with advertising on SportsLizard) and port that model to another site (LockerPulse). It doesn’t guarantee success, but the more data we have across all of our sites the more we’re able to learn.

And of course, as a collective team, we have an interest and some expertise in those industries. I collected sports cards for almost my entire life up until a few years ago. Greg and George detailed professionally for a few years. And we all love our sports.

I think rather than look at it as we’re trying to become experts in sports cards and detailing and sports news, I look at it as us trying to become experts in web design, web development, and web marketing, and then applying those skills to what interests us most and to where we see business opportunities.

5 comments on What Would You Say You Do Here?

  1. Tim says:

    Soooo what is it that you say you do here? 😀

  2. Anthony says:

    There’s a ton of overlap from a web development perspective, so it makes a lot of sense for you personally to engage in multiple projects. But if other team members end up taking their time on those projcets as well, they are possibly a bit more questionable, since their participation isn’t feeding quite as much back into DI as your’s is.

    That said, you cited a ton of technical, development overlap. But the one thing I think was brushed over here is the idea of general business experimentation. Having new, less popular sites, helps you test new ideas on the web without risking a proven business. Those ideas can ultimately feed back into DI, whether you use the actual code from them or not. What you’re essentially doing is diversifying your risk so that you can evolve as a business without testing the waters on your main product. And that, to me, is one of the most important reasons to do things the way you do.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Very true Anthony. There have been countless times where we’ll think something might be good for DI, but we’ll test the waters on one of our other sites, whether it’s technical or marketing or design or something else.

      Along those lines, it’s also really nice to have lots of data from all of our sites. Simple questions like “what browsers do people use?” can be answered better by taking the sum of the data from all of our sites and not just SportsLizard or DI or this blog because each has their inherit technical biases.

  3. Tim says:

    On a more serious note, as you know I am in the same boat and along the same lines one of my FAVORITE questions is: how do you know what to do? People who don’t have a business or have never ran a business have a hard time grasping how you create a direction, come up with a solid idea/model, let alone how to execute. The logic(or lack there of) is that they are told what to do and they do it, the concept of actually thinking with real accountability blows their mind, they can’t understand it.

    Having moved to the south recently it’s become even more of a problem, I typically say I own a marketing company or I “do computer.” Unfortunately I live on a short road, about 1.5 miles long and the word spread quickly so I have become the IT guy for a lot of the locals, thankfully their problems are extremely simple and it makes me a hero… but it’s also the reason I’ve started using the marketing company explanation almost exclusively. I honestly don’t think my mother understands what I do, when I try to explain it I can tell she has not a clue what I am talking about.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      “I do computer” haha I love it. I should just adopt that line and leave it at that.

      “How do you know what to do?” is another one of my favorites. Like you said, the concept of actual accountability to someone other than a boss screaming out orders is foreign to most people. This mentality scares me about hiring people who have been in the “traditional” workforce for too long. I’m a big believer in everyone “owning” their projects (my boss when I was an engineer really harped upon this, one of the best lessons I’ve ever learned). For example, our part-time employee is about to go full-time and run our warehouse, and he’s going to “own” warehouse operations. He’ll have his metrics that he’ll have to hit and he’ll have to decide exactly what to do and when to do it. Granted, it’s in an environment where the choices are pretty simple (customer orders going out supersedes everything else), but he’ll learn how to make those decisions for himself instead of us making them for him. The feeling of ownership is really key for happy, motivated employees I believe. You certainly have to guide them, but they also have to feel as if new initiatives are “theirs” and not “yours”. He’s already changed a lot of things for the better with our day-to-day operations because he’s doing it every day. I want to encourage that attitude and environment where it’s OK to change things if you think it’s better, and it’s OK to experiment…even if something doesn’t quite work. I think if you do that, you avoid the employees who just do a task, return for new instructions, do another task, and then rinse and repeat for 30 years.

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