Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

Being Different – Defining a Unique Selling Point (USP)

September 21, 2007

In a discussion with a forum owner this week he warned me that I’m in a very crowded market with this game swapping stuff.

Perhaps he’s right. But that has never really bothered me.

Generally, unless you’re some sort of genius pioneer, all markets are crowded. Indeed the absence of any competition could be very worrying. There may be no market at all! Assuming there was, though, you’d then have to be a trail-blazer and convince people of the benefits of your new and wonderful service.

It did get me thinking about my USP – Unique Selling Point. Any marketer will gabble on for hours, days, weeks about this. You need a way to differentiate yourself from the competition. Otherwise, what’s the point?

I’m keen not to make ‘free’ my USP. I’d like the service to be of enough value to members that money isn’t that much of a factor.

So what is Swopster’s USP?

I think it’s direct swapping.

Direct Swapping

Although there are quite a few swapping sites out there, the vast majority of them seem to have settled on an internal currency within their systems. So, each game will get valued based on popularity, etc.

This means members can build up credit by putting games into the system, and then use thet credit to get games out of the system.

Swopster bucks the trend here slightly because you simply swap a game you no longer want for a game you do want. This has three key benefits:

•   You get swapping as soon as possible (no need to build up credits)
•   The system doesn’t get swamped with cruddy games
•   Every game is equal. There is no currency, no credit and no complicated algorithms

The downside to this approach though was there needed to be a way to match gamers together. Thankfully that was all figured out very early on and the resulting matching process has proved to work pretty well.

Recently, the site was improved to allow greater flexibility and let gamers negotiate their own swaps. This has proved to be really popular too.

Time will tell whether direct swapping is the right direction to go in, of course, but the early indications certainly look encouraging.

Interesting Shoemoney Interview

September 19, 2007

Apologies if I start rambling incoherently.

I woke at 2:30am this morning to the delightful sound of the cat retching (which he always does just a few seconds before he pukes). The realization that he was actually about to throw up on the bed prompted an unexpected airborne mission for little Mr furry features as he was propelled retching through the night air.

Despite that (or perhaps because of it), some weird synapse connections have taken place today. All manner of new ideas for Swopster popped into my head…

Although the cat would probably love to take credit for any inspired thinking, it was probably more to do with listening to this Shoemoney interview – quite an interesting discussion. As ever, Shoe raises some excellent points and even makes newbie marketers like myself understand what he’s on about.

Even though I won’t be plastering adverts all over Swopster, this sort of stuff really does get you thinking.

5 Top Productivity Tips

September 12, 2007

Its very common to suffer burn-out on long running projects – indeed, developing a large or complicated project over a long period of time is very, very difficult.

You need to prepare yourself for this long, slow burn – most projects simply won’t be concluded very quickly. You’ll have periods where you simply can’t be bothered, you have other things to do, etc. and your project suffers because of it.

Of course, the difficulties are compounded if you’re developing your project in your spare time.

My take on it now (after numerous false-starts and abandoned projects) is to follow a few simple steps. None of this is earth-shattering or new, but it certainly helped me, so I though I’d share.

1. Organise your time

For me (working in my spare time), I try to work at least one hour per night, with about 6 hours at the weekend. In fact, this was is a minimum. Most of the time, I’ll exceed these targets by quite a bit. You do need to set a reasonable, achievable schedule though and stick to it.

2. Maximise flexible working

The most useful thing I ever bought was a laptop. The freedom it offers is incredible after years of being anchored to a desktop PC at a specific point in the house. No more scuttling off to hide away in a little room anymore.

So, although I can be working on my laptop, I’m still there in the room when my wife watches her programmes on TV or plays video games. It can be a little distracting at times (especially when she’s waving the Wii controller like mad playing Resident Evil 4…) but, on the whole, it feels much more sociable (even though I seem to have my head stuck in buggy code forever).

3. Cut down on TV

There are some great shows on TV. And there seem to also be thousands upon thousands of low-quality crappy shows that can somehow paralyse your fingers and stop you from hitting the off switch. Luckily, in this age of set-top boxes with hard-drives in them, waiting around for your favourite TV shows is a thing of the past.

I simply never watch live TV anymore – anything I want to watch needs to be selected on an electronic programme guide and can be viewed when its convenient. Just doing this filters out an amazing amount of cruddy trash. I also started dropping the shows that I watched but thought were a bit pointless; so Big Brother, property shows, etc. were jettisoned.

4. Keep an up-to-date to-do list

This really, really works. I use the power of the mighty NotePad to keep a list of everything left to do on a project. Crucially though, each major task is broken down into a series of minor tasks. None of these minor tasks are estimated to exceed 2 hours (this is very important).

5. Complete at least one item on the list each day

Then, simply start working through the list. The goal of completing a task (any task) – no matter how trivial – means that at the end of every day you get to mark something on the list as DONE. This simple action of completing a task every day is incredibly rewarding.

It’s vitally important to always keep in touch with your project, even if you’re just firing up your IDE and adding some extra comments. Otherwise, it can take an absolutely monumental effort to get the ball rolling again. Once you stop, it simply takes a whole lot more effort to start again.

It’s just a list, isn’t it? And yet, seeing that I’d completed something every day, and getting into the rhythm of working through the list each night, somehow raised my productivity out of sight to what it had been before.

Just remember to stay focussed on the list.


Using these simple little steps, I went from being one of the laziest, most inefficient, undisciplined part-time developers around, to coding at a steady, sustained pace for 8 solid months during the development of Swopster.

The amount of code I generated and the high level of motivation I kept throughout this period still amazes me today.

Of course, your mileage may vary…but I’ve heard lots of similar tales of folks maintaining motivation through similar methods.

Good luck!

Stickiness: Encouraging Repeat Visits

September 8, 2007

[As part of a new series of articles, I thought I’d discuss a few of the design ideas within the Swopster site. These concepts aren’t just applicable to free game swapping – any sites where you’re trying to get users to interact with each other need to solve similar problems]

Encouraging members to keep coming back to the Swopster site time and time again is an important goal. My vision is of a large, healthy community where members regularly indulge in free game swapping between themselves with as few problems as possible.

The cycle of swapping a game is the biggest draw – after going through the cycle and completing a swap, the benefits to the members are terrific: the ability to try out different games by simply re-using their existing games collections.

However, until members have gone through the free game swapping cycle successfully, there’s still a need to keep them involved and active within the Swopster network. There are a number of elements designed to nurture this involvement.

Expiring Swaps

When members request swaps, there’s a time limit on each request (3-14 days). The main reason this was done was to stop members endlessly waiting for specific swaps and cluttering up other members swap lists.

expires.png

However, this also helps with stickability – even if a member has issued a whole stack of swap requests, they will still need to re-visit the site if none of the requests are agreed.

Logon Usage

As discussed in the Chicken And Egg post, the logon usage graph is publicly visible for every member within the Swopster:: Free Game Swapping network:

usage.png

This handy little graph shows how often a member has logged in over the past 5 weeks. It’s a useful way of establishing how active a member is. To keep their graph looking active, members need to login regularly.

Alternative Swaps

On the face of it, members can simply build their SwapList and WishLists, and passively wait for matches and requests. They never need to return to the site – they can just sit and wait for an e-mail request. However, new games are being published all the time, and I didn’t want members to miss out on a new game they hadn’t heard of or set-up in their WishList.

So, I implemented the Alternative Swaps function. One of the benefits of knowing everyone’s likes and dislikes is that we can suggest alternative swaps which can be immediately matched. This is a really useful way of showing the member games they might not have even thought about.

altern.png

Currently, the alternative swaps aren’t sent out as e-mails. This means members have to login to take advantage of this useful facility. As the member numbers grow, this facility will take on more and more significance.

These are just a few of the techniques I’m experimenting with to encourage repeat visitors to the Swopster site – I’ll post additional articles as more strategies are tested.

Chicken And Egg: Building Trust Between Anonymous Users

September 7, 2007

[As part of a new series of articles, I thought I’d discuss a few of the design ideas within the Swopster site. These concepts aren’t just applicable to free game swapping – any sites where you’re trying to get users to interact with each other need to solve similar problems]

Trust

community.png
Building trust between users is a little tricky – within Swopster, users are simply identified by their made-up username. They could be anyone. How do you know if you can really trust them? You don’t want to send your shiny XBox 360 game off to a complete stranger without knowing anything about them, do you?

In the real world, you’d get to know someone first, chat to them, perhaps talk to their friends. You’d be able to spend a bit of time finding out about them. Obviously, it’s impractical to do any of this when presented with a big long list of folks who want to swap a game with you.

With the Swopster site, I figured there’d be three main factors involved in how other members perceive you: your swapping history, your member ranking and your logon usage pattern.

Element #1 – History

Each time someone swaps a game, everyone learns a little bit more about them and it’s the perfect opportunity for them to build up some trust. Since they’ve swapped a game, another user will leave a feedback score (which could be good or bad). The more swaps they complete, the more swap history they’ll create.

All history and feedback is public – by making the system as transparent as possible, other users can scan through the swapping history to build up a fairly representative picture of other members.

Element #2 – Ranking

However, there’s a bit of a conundrum here – if a member has no previous swapping history, other members may be wary of swapping with them. This leads to a classic chicken and egg deadlock – no-one will swap with them because of their lack of a swapping history, but they’ll never build a swapping history because no-one will swap with them… To help combat this, each member also has a ranking – essentially a score of 0-10 represented by 5 stars:

ranking.png

While the ranking is heavily weighted towards positive swapping histories, there are a number of other things that can be done to boost a member’s ranking. These other elements are not dependant on their swap history, but will take a little effort to attain.

For instance their SwapList/WishList game lists are analysed to ensure they have a healthy balance that is beneficial to other members (a 1:1 swap/list isn’t considered healthy as it greatly reduces the level of choice within the free game swapping network). There are a number of other elements such as how many member referrals they’ve generated, how regular a user they are, etc.

Element #3 – Usage

So, armed with someone’s swapping history and ranking, will they show a complete picture of that member?

Well, within the context of Swopster, that’s not quite enough.

To stop members waiting around endlessly for other members to respond to swap requests, each request has a time limit on it (3-14 days). However, even before making a swap request, members can quickly see how active a member is through their logon usage graph:

usage.png

This shows how often they have logged into Swopster over the previous 5 weeks. It gives a clear indication as to how regular a visitor they are (I’m surprised I’ve never seen this before – as far as I know, I invented it!). The more regularly they visit the site, the more probable it is they’ll agree to a swap request.

Combined together, all these elements are intended to give members the opportunity to build a degree of trust with other members.

…And The Best Bit Is…

Of course, a useful by-product is that – generally – the actions they take also benefit the wider Swopster community by building traffic and encouraging regular participation in the site.

Beware: The Developer Trap

July 27, 2007

I waste inordinate hours of my time reading through the lively discussions over on the Joel On Software forums. A lot of developers hang out there. It’s interesting to see quite regular postings cropping up about ideas to develop all manner of technical or developer-centric ideas.

And that’s precisely why many of the folks on there will struggle.

You can easily be blinded by your own problems and annoyances. As a developer, this is an all too common trap. Not happy with that limited functionality in your RSS reader? You’re a developer, just write your own! Annoyed with graphs in your web traffic analysis software? Hey, just write your own.

And that’s precisely what you do.

Having the capabilities, you can simply rush off and develop technical solutions to your own technical problems. Along the way, you’ll worry about whether you’re using the right programming language, whether your end-user will have .NET installed, and whether your UI looks Web 2.0 enough.

In the vast majority of cases this approach is, I’m afraid, simply broken right from the start.

By targeting the developer/technical sector, you’ve effectively just reduced your potential market to about 1% (I’m being generous) of the size it could have been. Well done. And of that 1%, many of those folks are also developers and will think they could develop a better solution themselves!

If you do somehow manage to pull off an amazing job of marketing your uber-widget, you might actually manage to interest some non-techy buyers. In fact, you should stop those high-fives because now you’re really, really screwed! Before, you could rely on techy-types knowing what they were doing. Now you’re dealing with *gasp* normal people.

Normal people simply haven’t got a clue about FTP, cookies, caching, DOS prompts, or security. They will break your software, they will tell you nothing (of any real use), they will send you on wild goose chases, and they will most certainly expect it to be fixed. Pronto!

So, before you start dusting off your favourite development IDE and writing your own flavour of RSS aggregator, just remember to watch out for that big nasty developer trap!

Can Video-Game Swapping Really Work?

July 25, 2007

Despite the misgivings of bloggers like Mike Arrington of TechCrunch, online swapping/trading services simply refuse to roll over and die. Mike argues that the barter system does not work.

Personally, I find this kind of interesting since I’ve been happily watching lots of new members sign up to Swopster every day. Successful game swaps are taking place all the time. In fact, all around, new swapping services seem to be springing up. Most recently, SwapTree went live and looks to be doing well.

So, can these swapping systems really work? What’s wrong with cash-based services for buying, selling and trading-in games?

Well, obviously, buying games at their retail price is just plain crazy when there are numerous online shops like Amazon offering substantial discounts on just about everything. But even Amazon prices look high if you’re willing to buy a pre-owned game from your local video-games shop or eBay. There, you’re likely to chop a half or even two-thirds off the original retail price. This is digital entertainment – it doesn’t need to be in pristine condition. It just needs to play.

All well and good. But that’s still a significant amount of money for something that doesn’t have a terribly long shelf-life. If I buy a music CD/MP3, I’ll keep it for decades and listen to it fairly regularly – a long, slow burn. Video-games, on the other hand, burn very brightly and fade quickly. I’ll play a game for weeks on end and then lose interest. They just gather dust on the shelf.

That’s where swapping services like Swopster can come in. You’ve bought the game, played the game…and got bored with the game. Instead of trading it in for peanuts (seriously, you will be amazed at how little you get back by trading games in at a video store), you can simply swap it for next to no cost.

If you want to play lots of different games, or you’re disappointed in a game you’ve bought, swapping is an idea way to get the maximum benefit from your games collection.

But, while there are lots of swapping services out there, Swopster is carving a nice little niche for itself in providing:

A Free Service
Some swapping services charge you each time you swap. Some charge subscriptions. But our aim is for you to try as many games as possible for the lowest possible cost. So our service is free.

Direct Swapping (no building up points)
A major problem with points-based swapping services is when members flood the system with their unwanted low-value games to accumulate points, hoping to use them to trade for a high-value game. If the majority of members do this, very few popular games end up making it into the system.

Swopster provides a more immediate way to swap, in which all games are equal. Of course, you’ll need to find someone who can fulfil your swap, but our matching process does this for you instantly.

Games Only
Video games are high-priced items that generally wouldn’t be swapped for other entertainment media like audio CDs, movie DVDs or books. So, rather than complicating everything, we’ve taken the simple approach – swap a game for another game.

By only swapping video-games, we’ve found we can concentrate fully on your likes and dislikes. Tell us the consoles you have and the types of games you like, and we can save you a lot of time by filtering out all the stuff you don’t want to look at.

Safe, Community-Based Swapping
Swapping with strangers can never be 100% safe – just look at some of the tales of woe on eBay. That’s why you can create your very own private swapping communities on Swopster. Invite your friends, colleagues, or forum buddies into your community and swap with complete confidence.


So, can swapping really work? I guess only time will tell, but Swopster is signing up new members every day. And with each new member the circle of swappers, and the choice in the game swapping pool, gets a little bigger.

Banned From Digital Point In Record Time!

March 26, 2007

I hang-out over at the Digital Point forums every now and again, but have never posted anything there. However, I stumbled on some great information for the AdSense wannabees in the comments section over on Techcrunch.

Figuring folks would appreciate a real-life example of some AdSense earnings, I dutifully created an account on DP and posted the info…about 5 minutes later I got an e-mail from DP telling me I’d been banned for six months for spamming the forums!

This probably happened because I’d left in all the URLs (which had no links to me at all) and fallen foul of their aggresive spambot. I’d love to read DP’s infraction rules (which they helpfully gave me a link to), but they now automatically divert me to a page telling me I’m banned whenever I try to re-visit. Thanks guys!

So, did I spam them? Read my post and tell me what you think:

For The Doubters: A Real-Life Example of AdSense Earnings!

Lots of folks seem to post on here asking the standard “how much do you make” type of questions. Since forums are a pretty anonymous sort of place, you simply never know if someone is telling the truth.

Browsing through the TechCrunch site today, I noticed someone left a comment about selling off his sites on eBay. Interestingly, he included A LOT of information on his AdSense earnings and traffic levels, etc.

I’m not sure anyone has mentioned it yet, so I thought I’d share…I hope it helps motivate the doubters out there…

This is the eBay listing:

High-Traffic Superfan Sites For Sale
We get approximately 500,000 (combined) page views a day to the following domains:

moosak.com
teavee.com
aktorz.com
muuvie.com
deciderz.com
athleit.com
celeeb.com
allpetsz.com

Fly Publishing, LLC is a company I created to run these sites along with a book publishing initiative. We are not selling the company, just the above sites.

Q. How much advertising revenue do the sites prodcue?
It ranges from $30 to $200 a day. The last few months it’s been closer to the $30 side. We used to be getting $100 a day consistently. All ads are done via google adsense.

Q. How long have the sites been running?
Teavee.com started in Feb 2004 but only since April 2006 (1 year ago) did the traffic really get going and the money start flowing.

Q. What is the source of the traffic?
Originally teavee.com got well indexed by yahoo.com and many searches for TV shows and actors came to us. Now there is a core group of several thousand people that use teavee and moosak everyday.

Q. Why do people keep coming back to the sites?
The sites let you vote for your favorite tv show or music artist, etc. Super fans really enjoy posting messages to the group of other fans and making their item #1. Teavee and moosak have become fan community sites. Since you can only vote every ten minutes, many fans spend all day on the sites waiting for the ten minute windows to open.

Q. What are you selling?
All the code, the domains, the current user database. You can either takeover our dedicated server (hosted with godaddy) or we can install the code on your server. The sites are written in Ruby on Rails with a mysql database. They require a dedicated server though. Trying to run them with shared hosting plans doesn’t work. The amount of traffic (especially during the voting windows) would break a shared hosting account.

Q. Can we see exactly how much you’ve made over the past year?

02/28/2007 GOOGLE ADSENSE REVENUE SH +$1,713.43
01/25/2007 GOOGLE ADSENSE REVENUE SH +$2,413.87
12/29/2006 GOOGLE ADSENSE REVENUE SH +$1,835.51
11/27/2006 GOOGLE ADSENSE REVENUE SH +$2,551.13
10/25/2006 GOOGLE ADSENSE REVENUE SH +$1,393.86
09/26/2006 GOOGLE ADSENSE REVENUE SH +$1,885.13
08/24/2006 GOOGLE ADSENSE REVENUE SH +$1,749.25
07/26/2006 GOOGLE ADSENSE REVENUE SH +$2,342.41
06/28/2006 GOOGLE ADSENSE REVENUE SH +$1,630.24
05/30/2006 GOOGLE ADSENSE REVENUE SH +$494.16
04/28/2006 GOOGLE ADSENSE REVENUE SH +$107.74
02/16/2006 GOOGLE ADSENSE REVENUE SH +$0.70

Q. Why are the sites worth over $100,000 if they only make around $2,000 a month?
Businesses are often sold for x times earnings. You are buying the business for the potential to change it and make even more money. There are lots of improvements that could be made to the sites.

Q. Why don’t you just make those improvements yourself?
It’s time for us to move on. We’d had a great year with the sites but we are ready to move on to another idea.

Q. I’ve been to the sites and I just don’t get it. Can you explain why people use it?
Sure, watch this youtube video:

http://youtube.com/watch?v=4Qg-qdTkFFU

Q. Can we see the traffic stats?
Sure, watch this other youtube video:

http://youtube.com/watch?v=bljBBsGQenY

Also, send us your gmail email address and we can give you access to our google analytics report.

Q. What kind of guarantee can you give us that the traffic won’t stop?
None. All the fans could decide tomorrow to leave and never comeback. Hasn’t happened in over a year though.

Q. How many registered users with email addresses do you have?
At the time of this post, over 8,000. Each user has two email options recorded, allow Fly Publishing, LLC to email them, and allow partners of FlyPublishing, LLC to email them. They can change these settings in the user settings page.

Q. What type of escrow will you accept?
Only 5% of final purchase price placed in escrow for six months. After six months if no claims against it, escrow ends and last 5% is given to FlyPublishing, LLC. This means if the final price is $100,000 you give$95,000 to Fly Publishing on day 1. Then you have six months to use what you bought and see if we lied or misrepresented anything. If you feel we did, you can make a legal claim against the $5,000 in escrow. But don’t worry, we didn’t lie about anything.

Q. What type of support will I get?
You’ll be able to email or call us with programming questions. We won’t be able to do any new programming work with the code, but we will be happy to help a new developer understand how the system works and answer specific questions. You’ll also get a pdf manual explaining the whole system.

Original Bay Listing

Small Steps Are The Best

March 26, 2007

Due to technical reasons (ummm…me being an idiot), the service was down for a few hours the other night. A slight issue with me uploading 3 new things at once (database scripts, file uploading, new build of the site, yup – that’ll work…) and not knowing which one had blown up (the database scripts).

Lesson to self: small incremental steps.

Swopster Is Now Online

March 26, 2007

Woo-hoo, you may have noticed we’re finally online.

It’s taken a while. Okay, a long, long time! Seemingly insignificant tasks can end up consuming so much of your time, it’s untrue…

So, what’s the current status? Well, my dedicated little band of beta-testers managed to slow the site’s development to a crawl while I frantically fixed some UI issues and minor bugs for them. No major bugs reported as yet (famous last words!), but I needed to do a bit of a re-design of the swapping/confirmation screens. It’s just a bit more reassuring to be taken to a ‘Are you sure’ type of page with explicit confirmation of what you’re requesting rather than the old Banzaii-all-or-nothing ‘I Agree’ button that used to be there.

Another week or so in beta-test, and then I’ll take off the beta restrictions, I think.