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My previous life as a programmer/entrepreneur - Part 4: Avatic

This is part 4 of a series of articles. If you missed the previous articles, you should start at the beginning.

In the last article, I wrote about how I got into search engine optimization (SEO) and then had my first success ($$$) followed by my first failure (getting banned from Google). Subsequently, after recovering from that failure (getting back in Google's good graces), I began a more cautious SEO strategy. Instead of promoting random spammy websites, I created my own legitimate websites and used SEO to gain footholds in different markets. Imagining myself running an empire of websites, I decided to call my entire web development business Avatic.

This part of the story runs roughly from 2005 through 2007. As an undergrad in college, I had some free time, particularly in the summers. So I started several different projects that all experienced varied, yet ultimately underwhelming, levels of success. I promoted all of these sites using the same SEO technique outlined in my last post.

First was iTopsites. Formerly this was available at itopsites.com, but that URL now seems to be defunct. Its successor is still available at iranksites.com. iTopsites was a remotely hosted version of my popular Aardvark Topsites software which I described in Part 1 of this series. So, rather than downloading some complicated software and figuring out how to install it, you just had to fill out a form, press a few buttons, and then you were all set.

iTopsites was actually fairly successful. It grew to the point where it was one of the top 10,000 most popular website on the Internet, according to Alexa at least. I also licensed the hosting software I developed to some other people, which was fairly lucrative as there were basically no competitors in this market. I was the only one doing it. This licensing eventually also led to another interesting story which I'm going to save for the next part of this series.

But there was a problem. It's the same problem any web service faces as it gets popular. Spam. Spammers relentlessly attack every marginally popular website. iTopsites had a ton of dynamically generated content, which made spammers not just a content problem but a server resources problem, particularly as I was running this all on one dedicated server I bought. Another problem was that I wasn't focusing all my time on this. I was still an engineering student. I couldn't dedicate time every day to counteract the latest techniques of the spammers. And really, that's what's needed to fight spammers. You need to stay a step ahead. And I couldn't do it. So, despite the fact that I was making several hundred dollars per month on iTopsites, it wasn't passive income. It required too much time input. Luckily, I was able to sell it to a good collaborator and friend of mine, who was able to give it more attention and keep things running smoothly for a while at least.

So that's it for iTopsites. Another project I made around the same time was Pollverize, which is also now defunct, but this is what it looked like in its glory days. Pollverize was a hosted poll site, similar to what Polldaddy is now. So people could easily create a poll that they could post on their site, and my software would count and display the votes. This sounds simple, and it is. The problem was, back when I started Pollverize at least, all of the websites offering this service had horrible usability (e.g. redirecting to a separate page after voting) and were plastered with ads.

I could do better. This was in the early AJAX era, which motivated me to find a more elegant solution. AJAX allows you to do nice things like dynamically rewriting the content of a page without reloading... so for instance, a user could vote in a poll and see the results inline without the page reloading. I couldn't actually use AJAX for my hosted service, as it doesn't run across domains. But I could cache the results I would have returned from AJAX (the current vote totals) and simulate that experience with some simple JavaScript. So that's what I did. As far as I know, I was the first person to apply this idea. And with that, I had quickly created what was, at the time, the most usable and least ad-infested remotely hosted poll service.

Due to my SEO technique, I quickly got Pollverize ranked #1 in Google for several relevant terms. So, the users came. The users liked it. I was amused to see that there was even someone from Rutgers (my university) using it to let people vote on which movie to show on campus for some special event.

However, once the site was built, it kind of just stagnated. I didn't know what else to do with it. I didn't think there was much upside to it either, from a business perspective. It was just a poll. Boring. And the technology behind it wasn't anything too special. So I sold it for a few thousand dollars. With the success that sites like Polldaddy have had since then, it seems that my market analysis was probably horribly wrong. I probably could have built a career out of Pollverize. But, oh well. That wasn't my first business mistake, and it wouldn't be my last (stay tuned!).

My third and final project from this era that I'm going to write about here is actually the only one that is still running (although it should be better... I sold it in 2009 and the buyer hasn't made any improvements since then). This is My Baller. I still think this website was a great idea that I just didn't have enough time to polish. My idea was to create a basketball-based online RPG. You create a player and win experience points (XP) by playing other people in a one-on-one basketball video game. Then you can use the XP to train your player or buy him better equipment. I had a built in leaderboard, a Facebook-like wall, all kinds of goodies.

One problem: The actual basketball video game part of it was boring. So I attracted people with a good concept, a flashy design, and a pretty UI. But the actual game wasn't fun. I use the same excuse as above for this: I didn't have time. Again, I probably could have made My Baller into a career, but I didn't want to put in the time to do it right.

When successful new websites are launched, they experience exponential growth. One person likes it, so he tells his friends, then they like it, so they tell their friends, etc. I saw this with My Baller... for about a week. Then traffic crashed and flatlined. I'm absolutely sure that just means that people got bored of my game and stopped telling their friends to play. If the game was more fun, that exponential growth could really have amounted to something substantial.

Eventually, I decided that I was never going to be able to put sufficient time into My Baller to make it fun enough, so I sold it for a few thousand dollars. Unfortunately, as I said above, the buyer has done nothing but let it stagnate, which is unfortunate because I still think this concept could work, especially as a Facebook game or something. Actually, I'd be surprised if someone hasn't already done it.

So, these were my attempts at being a legitimate web developer working on my own projects. In my next post, I'll write about some of my other related work I did for hire. You will be amazed at my lack of business acumen, I promise.

Want to keep reading? Go to Part 5 of the series!

3 archived comments

  1. hey Jeremy, thanks for sharing this insight into your web career, I've been following your development for years and in essence I owe my current career as a freelance developer to what you have contributed. Sounds strange I know, but the right ingredients at the right time and place can bring surprising results.

    To elaborate on what happened at iTopsites after you sold it, the site ran nice for a couple years with some new spam prevention and a bigger server, but was eventually blocked from Google adsense program due to adult content being posted. Google refused to lift the block after the offending content was removed, after trying (and failing) with nearly every other ad program, the decision was made to 301 itopsites.com to iranksites.com and return to using Google adsense. Income has severely dropped over the past couple of years but the site does continue to grow with zero intervention and is able to remain in the black. That said, it really could use a week or 2 worth of cosmetic updates and modernization.

    anyway, kudos for sharing, not just this post... but everything you have contributed in the past, it has had a profound effect on my life... and for that I thank you.

    Comment by Mark — November 15, 2011 @ 2:18 pm

  2. Mark, thanks for filling in some of the details. And thanks even more for the kind words. itopsites/iranksites is definitely in need of modernization, but even lacking that, I still don't think there is a competitor better than it.

    Comment by Jeremy Scheff — November 15, 2011 @ 11:36 pm

  3. I like the My Baller game and it sounds like fun!

    Comment by Nelly — October 14, 2016 @ 2:44 pm