Craig emailed, asking What would you do differently? He wrote:
I aspire to someday have a website and community of commenters like yours, but in my area of interest (redacted). I’m interested in starting with wordpress.com and mailchimp, though I have only introductory experience with each.
If you were starting all over again from the beginning, are there a few things you’d do differently? Can you suggest a few foundation items that I should pay close attention to and learn about as I begin?
Honestly, I don’t quite know how to answer this.
While there are aspects of ToolGuyd’s operation that I am seeking to improve now, I’m not sure I would have done anything very differently if I could go back to the beginning.
I continue to stick to my original ideals, and although my goal to create a complete tool guide remains unmet, it’s still on my to-do list.
My main regret might be not working harder towards YouTube videos, something I aim to improve upon every single year. Maybe this will be the year?
My initial mindset for ToolGuyd is still clear to me. Write first, worry about everything else later. I wish I did that with YouTube too, but it has always been easier for me to create written content which can be more easily polished, or even changed over time.
After fielding the question numerous times, I wrote about how to get started here:
ToolGuyd had a rough look early on, and I refined it over time. I am still updating and refining the look and layout of the site.
I tend to be a perfectionist, but with something like a website, it doesn’t matter how nicely polished it looks if there’s nothing to read. As long as the initial layout is usable, the look and feel can evolve over time.
You learn something like this by doing.
I tweaked the font in 2014, I converted to mobile-friendly in 2015, I asked for feedback and started roadmapping additional tweaks this year, I changed link colors, and I changed the logo over the years. There are some “Wayback Machine” links to how the site used to look, in a 2013 update post.
Even if you can’t post and publish yet, write to Word docs, Microsoft OneNote, or Google Drive.
Everyday, I see articles about “WOW, the iPad is on sale at a CRAZY DISCOUNT,” and I cringe. In this particular example, it’s because I know from my personal potential purchase research that it was the same price last week and the week before. I have started to detest such “articles,” but they also help me feel better about not falling into the same hole.
When I started ToolGuyd, I was a little excited about affiliate retailer relationships, but was quickly determined to be cautious and reserved. As a reader, I didn’t like being pushed towards affiliate links then, and I certainly don’t like the out of control affiliate marketing landscape today.
I still try to be cautious and reserved about affiliate links. If I sound too excited, readers might mistake my enthusiasm about a promo to be enthusiasm about driving sales to earn affiliate revenue. So, I try to temper my tone as best I can, and with deal posts, I only focus on promos that I think are of greater personal or potential reader interest.
But also, revenue was very small when starting out. I saw affiliate link revenue as complementary – something that could accent a post in a mutually beneficial way, but something I shouldn’t actively focus on.
At the time, I thought “why be intrusive with advertisements for an extra 15 cents?” Magazines were trying it, and I didn’t like it.
From there, a “reader first” mentality took root and became cemented over time. I wanted a positive reader experience to be the priority.
Today, I see a whole lot of… objectionable behavior online. New bloggers who LOVE everything. Influencers that don’t disclose material connections or sponsorships. YouTubers that manipulate testing to favor an advertiser or partnered company. Abnormal social media “follower” growth. But, there are very many people, blogs, magazines, and channels that are genuine.
With ToolGuyd being a “one man band,” I had to wear multiple hats. I was the author, editor, web developer, and advertising department all in one. There was no manual on how to do things, so I made things up as I went along, following my instincts.
There still isn’t any sort of manual for what I do, and despite having a lot of help (thank you Benjamen!!), I am often alone in decision-making. There have been temptations, but so far I like to think that I’ve followed an honorable path.
So, I stick to one of my early tenets – to provide information, insights, and opinions, so that readers can make their own tool purchasing decisions.
Early on, affiliate revenue provided a way to explore new tools or unfamiliar brands, for the betterment of ToolGuyd, as I told myself. I had been bursting with opinions, review topics, and potential review topics, as well as “cool tool finds,” and my initial lists of potential post topics were full enough without adding new tools into the fray. I thought it was a good idea to put any revenue back into the site.
When ToolGuyd was founded, and for a few years after that, it was a hobby. I didn’t need it to make money. If I broke even on what I had been spending on hosting fees and what-not, great. A small budget to spend on additional tools of communal interest? Sure, that’s better.
Even today, I want ToolGuyd to be a me-friendly website. If I engage in practices that I personally don’t care for, how could I expect readers to care or not feel pushed away?
ToolGuyd is now a business, rather than just being a hobby, but even if I wanted to, my rules, policies, and practices are so ingrained that I couldn’t change them even if I wanted to. What I mean to say is that some of my decisions might not make the most sense from a business perspective, and I know that, but it’s by design, practice, and intent.
I still do doubt myself at times. Was I right to decline a specific advertising arrangement last year? I have “left money on the table” over the years. But, I am also proud of what I created, and the choices I have made.
In today’s world, mobile devices have changed the way readers “digest” web content. However, I check for new comments several (sometimes many) times a day, and it still “makes my day” that readers keep the conversations going with thoughtful and insightful comments.
You, the reader, make everything worthwhile. There’s a cliche out there about how “it’s not working if you’re doing something you love.” But, that’s the way I feel.
There’s still a LOT to do. Right now ToolGuyd is undergoing some… organizational optimizations, for lack of a better word.
Ten years ago, I had no idea that ToolGuyd would become my career. It’s not what I intended, and it’s not what I had wanted. It just… happened.
ToolGuyd’s ethics and ideals have been expanded upon as needed over time, but are firmly rooted in those first days when I made the first decisions. I cannot take all the credit for it, as my early behaviors were adapted from standard practices at a now-defunct tool blog I briefly contributed to prior to ToolGuyd’s creation.
Early on, I was also influenced by other examples of bad behavior, such as intrusive in-content contextual links, and the such. Seeing things I didn’t like on websites, magazines, and forums showed me the kinds of things I didn’t want to do or expose ToolGuyd readers to.
In short, “how can I create the ToolGuyd.com that I would want to read, benefit from, and enjoy?” Change “I” to “readers,” and the answer should not change much.
What would I do differently? I really don’t know. There were always good reasons for every choice I made.
I like to think that the choices I made helped to foster a sense of community. If I had instead set out with a career or business plan, ToolGuyd would be very different today, if it existed at all.
So, How to Start?
The path to ToolGuyd’s creation was straightforward. I found a tool blog, I commented a lot, and I was later asked to contribute. After a few months, personal obligations prevented me from meeting an expected quota of posts, so I took a break. I started contributing more to online forums. Things got political at one particular forum, and entire threads were deleted. But I wanted to keep sharing my tool reviews, insights, and information. So, I created ToolGuyd, a place I could share what I wanted to, at a pace my personal life could sustain, and where nobody else could have the power to delete my work.
Back to the second part of Craig’s question.
WordPress.com is a good place to start. But, also have a domain name in mind. You can do domain mapping (more information here). WordPress.org gives you more control in operating a website than WordPress.com, but you can always change over.
I experimented with WordPress.com before registering ToolGuyd, and also Google’s Blogger. There are other services today, such as Squarespace and Wix (which I only know from their advertisements on YouTube).
There are a couple of different hosting solutions, as well as content management environments, and you can change services if you need to.
Starting with WordPress.com is the easiest way to get to the “write what you want to write about” path. But, you can always change that later on.
Have a plan about what you want to do. What information do you want to provide? What stories do you want to tell? Make a list. How often do you want to write? Establishing a consistent posting frequency is important. How will you get word out about your content? For some content, you don’t have to do a lot before Google makes it visible to the target audience. For others, guest posting, freelance work, or even search engine or Facebook advertising can help.
In today’s world, a social media presence can help. I tend to neglect social media simply because there are too many other things to do, but eventually it will have to be a higher priority. Maybe.
Be genuine. I’ve seen and heard of others purchasing large amounts of subscribers, and I personally find the practice to be ridiculous.
Create content, and then think about how to connect with your audience. Without content, there’s nothing to draw an audience to.
But without an audience, it’s hard to justify the effort that goes into content. Sometimes you can write with a target audience in mind, but other times it will be out of your control.
Self-motivation is important, which makes it important to love the topic.
I love ToolGuyd’s community and commentors, including regular, occasional, and first-time voices. It makes the work and effort very rewarding.
As of the time of this posting, ToolGuyd has 114,130 public comments, 11,980 of which are mine. I am no longer able to respond to every comment, or every email for that matter (sorry!), but I read everything.
One thing to remember is that not everyone wants to have a public voice, and that’s okay. There will be times when growing a new website when there are zero comments. This disappointed me a little early on, but even though there was not a lot of engagement, there was an audience. You will see examples of this on public forums, where there will be top contributors, frequent contributors, infrequent contributors, and a whole lot of people who registered but never post. That’s why self-motivation is important. There will be times when you have to drive yourself forward.