It's not often that you hear of a 15 year old who was closing $10,000 advertising deals for his newly launched site in between classes at school, earning enough to buy himself a new BMW with cash by the time he was just 16.
We constantly hear of Matt's success story, but don't hear too much about the failures he had to overcome. We decided ask him some of the tougher questions about the difficulties and problems he faced building his sites. Enjoy the Q&A below.
What was the biggest problem you had to overcome when building SitePoint?
Our biggest challenge was surviving the dot-com crash that caused all of our advertising revenue to dry up as our key clients slowly went bankrupt and were unable to raise further venture capital.
To overcome this issue, we had a look at what people were doing on our website. Back in 2000/2001 few people had two monitors on their desktop, so when they were learning to program, they liked to have the tutorial sitting next to their keyboard rather than flicking back and forth between windows. As a result, one of the most popular links on any given page was the "print this article" link.
We came up with a theory that people would pay us for the privilege of printing out content on their behalf. We decided to test our thesis by turning our most popular tutorial - on PHP & MySQL - into a print on demand book. Despite the content being available for free online, people were more than happy to pay $35 for a hardcopy that was shipped to their door. The book has gone on to sell over 25,000 copies across 4 editions and opened up a whole new revenue stream for us....
What was the biggest mistake you made building your sites?
The biggest mistakes have been problems with some of the vendors that I ended up choosing. Let's just say that not everyone is honest... thankfully, none of mistakes were game changing.
How do you decide when and if to add a certain feature to one of your sites?
We try to base our development pipeline on what will have the biggest impact on the business.
Sometimes this means we focus on marketing/conversion and website usability, other times this means we're working on creating a better experience for our design community.
One of the biggest challenges is always balancing big, high-potential projects against dozens of smaller ideas, quick fixes, and minor changes. We have regular meetings and schedule development sprints based on what's most important to the business in any given quarter, and based on what lines up against our goals and long-term business plan.
In today's age, when SEO & PR are extremely competitive, what's your advice for gaining traction online?
I think of what Fred Wilson just said that if you create a great product, your marketing will take care of itself, at least in the early days... Make something that's 10x or 100x better than the alternatives or completely game changing. I'm a huge fan of companies like:
- Etsy (handcrafted goods marketplace, going after eBay's original customers that it long ago abandoned)
- UberCab (disrupting the cab industry)
- AirBnB (allowing people to rent rooms in their house and generate income, disrupting the hotel industry)
- Square (disrupting the merchant & credit card processing space by allowing any smartphone to become a credit card terminal)
- PlentyOfFish (free dating site)
- MaxCDN (providing an enterprise-level content delivery network to small bloggers & websites, without long-term contracts or huge financial commitments like Akamai requires)
Ask yourself what assets are going unused, what services are fundamentally broken or could be made radically cheaper or more accessible with the power of the Internet? iStockPhoto is another classic success story, selling for $50m to Getty Images, and currently turning over $300m annually and opening up stock photography to a whole new class of customers.
You've got SitePoint, 99Designs, Flippa - they are all doing great. What's next for you?
Within the next few weeks we're launching Learnable.com - which allows anybody to create & sell access to an online course about whatever topics they are knowledgeable and passionate about.