Things I’ve Learned From One Year of Echo Base
It’s official, Echo Base is no longer measured in just months and days. It was August 15th, 2015 when we did our large scale public launch.
Of course EB is much more than a year old in reality. It stemmed from a Facebook group with a bunch of entertainment obsessed nerds, led by our fearless leader Doug, that got together regularly to see films and discuss art. Eventually it just felt like bringing EB to life as a side project was something we had to do.
We all craved writing again and we loved the entertainment industry and communities. Having never launched an entertainment news and op-ed site before, we worked for almost two months before launch day: reviewing templates, setting up our servers, signing contracts, customizing code, looking for plugins, setting up a newsletter, social media sites, establishing back content and relationships with content creators, doing soft launches to test load, looking for sponsors to help share us, learning about revenue models and ad buying, and of course spending a lot of money on something that we hadn’t even really yet defined. All while working 9-6 jobs, taking care of families, and all the other life-stuff you can’t avoid when you have an idea you just have to pursue.
Back then the site was going to be a grouping of sites, similar to how Gawker Media has Gizmodo, Jezebel, etc. covering different areas. We were so confident we’d all be writing 5-10 articles a day, and we had put together a staff of about 11 contributing writers for launch so we figured it to be no problem. What a huge misunderstanding that was! Thank God our then partner Shane talked some sense into me/us and we combined it into one Geek heaven, Echo Base. Because the next 3 months were insane just trying to manage that.
We learned a lot of things very quickly. Like servers can and will crash under heavy loads without expensive load balancing in place, editing and proofreading takes a lot of time, writers have different opinions from each other and arguments will start, and the internet is not always friendly (but it’s not always terrible either).
While it’s been a side business of mine and my co-owners and our writers, we’ve all put a lot into it. We’ve spent long weekends sitting in press rooms at comic cons covering announcements, and longer nights obsessing over the words in our articles. We’ve been lucky enough to conduct interviews, review early screeners and test games; we’ve even experienced crashed/overloaded servers. We’ve accomplished so much in this year and yet we’ve made so many mistakes; there is so much more to learn.
Almost one million people have come to our site in a year and while some sites may get that in a few days, we’re extremely proud of this number. Especially given that the average person goes to more than one article and reads them for almost 3.5 minutes each.
So consider the following a collection of my mistakes made that you can use to your advantage if you want to start your own side project business. I do recommend doing it, but I stress the following:
#1 Don’t sweat the small stuff
I wish I could go back and tell myself this. Small service outages, meaningless troll rants, and minor decisions like what types of ads to show, these should not cause you to go into full meltdown mode, ignore work and family and friends, and fight with your co-owners. At the time these things felt really important to respond to, but looking back and going forward definitely not worth the stress!
The reality of owning a business, especially one that’s online, is that shit will come up all the time at rapid speed. You really need to learn to manage expectations and pick your battles. Honestly these are every day pieces of advice that we just take for granted, but we should constantly remind ourselves of them. Take it slow, take a breath, and collect yourself. The site and everything you worked for will still be there tomorrow, even if there is a slight meltdown today. Plus this is supposed to be fun!
#2 But Do Take It Seriously
The balancing act is tough because like I just said you don’t want to take it so seriously that you ruin friendships or your career; but if you take it seriously enough you can do amazing things from scratch. Balance.
During those original four months of setup we had the foresight to establish our business as an LLC and get as many news credentials as we could. We reached out to every PR group and representative we could find and introduced ourselves. We told them that we were a different kind of entertainment news and op-ed site, one that only wanted to focus on the positive side of what we like about the entertainment industry. We’re a site where you can find what’s good, not a rant house full of negative reviews and pompous nonsense. Well much to my surprise, people were willing to work with us! We got interviews, screeners, and invites to all kinds of events all around the country. So many in fact, we haven’t been able to keep up with all of it.
This is the most important thing I’ve learned from Echo Base. Sometimes things in life are worth doing for more than money. Sometimes you can pour your heart and soul into a project and even if you just get into the party and you get to meet new people and experience new things, it’s really worth it. Don’t get lazy because the money isn’t coming, this is an opportunity to learn what else you value in this world. For me, going to Comikazee as press with my fiancee, dressed as fantastic Mr. and Mrs. Fox, and having Amandla Stenberg (Rue from The Hunger Games) tell us how amazing we looked and chatting with us was an experience I’ll never forget, and one that required a lot of work to achieve.
#3 Writing Is Hard, Especially If You Want To Write Well
My assumption was not that writing would be easy, especially for an internet audience. That would be ridiculous. But I didn’t anticipate just how hard it would be to crank out articles that I didn’t feel were totally shit.
Every time I’d sit down to write something I’d want to put something into it to make it my own, even for a general news piece. Some personal touch. So I research a lot. You have to dig through old fan sites and youtube videos, you have to search social media and PR releases, you have to read long wikipedia entries and sometimes even dig out a book or two. And at the end of all that you say ‘Well shit’. You just wrote a review of a trailer for a kickstarter project and 134 people read the article that day, it took 2 and a half hours to write/edit/share, and engage conversation on social media. The net profit of your hard work is a whopping .04 cents, but this feels O.K. because…
#4 There’s No Money To Be Made in Ads, If You Care About Your Site’s Experience
Here’s the truth. Making money doing this is hard; extremely hard. We are fortunate enough within the first year to have had enough revenue to pay for the servers and plugins and template costs, but we ultimately operated at a loss. It takes 150k page views in adsense just to make enough to pay for the server cost. Even on insane days where we go viral, our ads don’t pull in much, our cost per thousand visitors hovers in the low .50 cent range and below. This is for two reasons. 1. A lot of our traffic is used to a web that sucks so they all use ad blockers, and we don’t fight that. 2. We use minimal ads without pop ups or auto plays and with no in content ads except our affiliate links which we always try and keep relevant to the post content.
Basically since we want to make something good, we have a really hard time making money. It’s the reason CNN auto plays loud videos, same with USA Today and many other sites. All these once respected news groups have to resort to all these nasty tricks to make you consume their ads because guess what…
#5 This Isn’t Cheap At All To Do
I mean there are so many expenses. We have server costs, template costs, plugin costs, email costs, advertising costs, tickets and travel costs, contest and giveaways costs, and occasionally we try and you know… actually pay our writers. I mean at least as a business you can write it off on your taxes, but it does feel like an endless uphill battle sometimes. Well until you realize…
#6 The Best Way To Make Money Is To Get Sponsors
I remember my whole life my dad telling me “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” and as it turns out it applies to everything. Even this. Because the reality is advertising, even when done with the shitty/shady practices of today’s websites, will not make you rich. Sorry it just won’t online. But what will make you money is partnerships. Sponsored content, clearly identified of course, and other deals that allow us to keep going are great. Contextual affiliate links for example allow us to promote products that are relevant to the article and are clearly marked as a promotion. We stay away from ads that aren’t relevant or tricks that take you out of the story you’re there to read. This is what we shoot for. Because…
#7 At The End of the Day, You Have To Stay True To What Makes You Happy About The Project
This is key. Echo Base has always been and will always be a place where we are free from editors with interest. No one here makes any calls about what you say based on a stake/ holding or even a friendship in a project. We’re clear as day about all our partnerships and we write from the heart. I’m really proud of that because it is something we’ve never allowed compromise on from the beginning. We’ve turned down promoted material that didn’t fit with our mission, we’ve turned down slam pieces and hate, we’ve turned down click bait articles, pop up ads, auto playing videos, and everything that could have made us a lot of money in the pursuit of something that we actually care to call our home.
And Finally, #8 Enjoy it While it Lasts
I can’t stress this enough. Enjoy. Every. Moment.
A few months back we were in Colorado covering the Ween Reunion Shows with a bunch of friends from all over. One of which was the amazing Brent Dylan. At the time Brent was not yet writing for EB, but he was sucked in by my energy at the Ween shows and how much he wanted to be writing so we got him setup doing concert reviews and music news.
Brent was a ball of energy. Every morning we’d wake up to him in the EB team chat sharing new punk rock songs and screaming about how fucking terrible Trump is. I loved him dearly.
That’s why it was such a shock when he suddenly left us. There was a huge hole in EB, one that will never be filled, one that we think about all the time. How could we have gotten more time with Brent? One more show with him screaming in my ear “THIS IS FUCKING ROCK AND ROLL!”. One more review sharing his love with the world. We won’t get that back, so believe me when I say this: Enjoy. Every. Moment.
Echo Base is our home and we’ll be here for a while. We hope you’re enjoying it folks. We love your feedback. Keep it coming! Here’s to another 100 years of EB.
Tim and the Whole EB Staff