Post-mortem report of my free online dating service; Part 2 of 2

My free online dating site launch in May of 2009 after a little under 2 years of work. Now I just need to get people to come to or write about the site and the real work has begun. I post it up to all the social networks at the time telling people to come check out my site. “SPAMMER!” I hear. Crap, how can I tell you about the site but not tell you about the site?

I thought my solution to organic marketing would be to get other people to write about it. I searched for and made lists of blogs and sites that wrote about online dating or dating in general and started crafting individual emails for each site. For hundreds of sites I found I spent a few hours each night trying to first find a method to contact them via form or email. If I was able to find a contact method I wrote up an email about how awesome my new site was and the work I put into it and they should take a look or write about it. After a few months of this I was completely burnt out. I had gotten next to no responses from all my work, less than 1% feels generous. No one responding to me after the hundreds of communications I sent out was crushing.

I tried a couple of paid per post services but that investment didn’t pan out. The services themselves were OK, the posts went up pretty quick but the types of sites doing this weren’t exactly well respected. With all their other pay per posts it was like trying to hold a quiet conversation at a concert. A worthless avenue for marketing.

The only reliable method to get new visitors from day one that I used was online advertising through Google AdSense and Facebook Ads. I setup accounts for both services and right away I was getting click throughs and new members. Everyday I was checking my cost per registration from both services and quickly found Facebook Ads just wasn’t performing well. With just Google AdSense to focus on I created a dozen campaigns with different keywords targeting states, cities and the different sexes. I spent a good amount of money here and it was extremely addictive. I would not recommend pay per click campaigns for anyone without extremely deep pockets or free services to use. Without this service I would not have gotten any users and with it I ended up hating the project more and more. I was spending money everyday and making a little money but it was never increasing over time.

One of my biggest mistakes was not developing a proper site administration system. I underestimated the amount of profile removals I would need to make per day. I spent about 30-45 minutes on some days just cleaning up bad profiles. I finally setup a rudimentary system but even then I sometimes had to resort to my set of SQL scripts to do some tasks.

My largest problem I never resolved was spam. The only people that actually wanted to seek out and use my site were spammers. Mostly from Nigeria and it’s surrounding countries but also from Russia for mail order brides. I had ReCAPTCHA in place but they didn’t care. These weren’t robots I was keeping out but tons of people that sent out hundreds of messages a day. My final attempt was a manual message and user approval process. That meant that before any new users messages were sent I had to approve them. This was just too much work and something I never considered before launching but could never solve afterwards. They ruined the site for me and the legit users that signed up.

I’m going to shut down the service this year and will be open sourcing my code, I need to clean out any S3 key stuff. There was a lot of important lessons I learned during this experience. My product didn’t have an interesting angle. I didn’t solve any new problems or solve an existing problem so well people wanted to talk about it. My marketing was underbudget to compete against the larger players. I under developed my application and failed to think through the spam factors.

I’m happy to have done the project but I’d be lying to say I’m not even happier to have it in the past.

Check out Post-mortem report of my free online dating service; Part 1 of 2 if you didn’t see the ramp up to launch

Magic Eight Ball with the Raphaël JavaScript Library (1.5.2)

Wrigley’s Magic Weight Ball is my first project using the Raphaël JavaScript Library and it just went live. I used Raphaël JS version 1.5.2 which you can download from GitHub. The project requirements came through as only being an iPad version that responded to a shake event. Getting to use a new technology for a front-end project where you only have to support one resolution and one browser is an excellent opportunity to try new things. I knew in the back of my head that they would want a non-shakeable static version as well but they just didn’t ask for it yet. Internet Explorer still came into consideration when I was evaluating technology solutions because I was certain it would come up eventually.

When I saw the Nissan Leaf site I was blown away by the heavy JavaScript animations being used. It really reminded me of the early Flash animations and sites in a way. The Hacker News submission I saw the site from pointed out that the animations were being handled by the Raphaël JavaScript Library. This was still fresh in my mind when I got this project so I loaded up the Raphaël demos pages in a ever browser I test on, IE6-9, Safari, Firefox and Chrome and they all worked! This was the library for this project.

I finished up the iPad version of the site http://content.theknot.com/sitelets/magic-weight-ball/ipad which requires iOS 4.2 or higher and was pretty happy with the results. It responds to a full shake event to give you another tip, the tip will bob lightly in the water when moved a little bit and the tip orients to the iPad. When the tip is touched it provides a little modal with more details. The site even supports landscape and portrait viewing.

About half way through developing the iPad version the email I was expecting arrived. “Oh no!” they said, “We need a static non-shakable version for desktop users to visit.” I was already prepared though. When I though about a desktop version I first defaulted to Flash but I wanted to give Raphaël a try first. With a IE6 PNG alpha transparency fix and a small work around for IE to get the Raphaël image src it was up and running on the desktop.

You can visit http://content.theknot.com/sitelets/magic-weight-ball/ to see the result and if you happen to hit the page in an iPad you will get a slightly modified version that still responds to the shake events, always giving the best experience possible.

The weight ball interface itself is a series of 3 layered PNG images. The top most image is a 24bit eight ball and the rest of the tips, triangles and back black images are all 8bit PNG images with the a properly picked matte color. The total site size was reduced as much as possible and the designers loved the look. I reduced the number of colors where ever possible and used a pattern dither, it really seemed to look the best even though it bumped up the file size a bit.

For this animation interface the Raphaël JavaScript Library was a perfect fit and I was able to provide a cross platform and cross browser experience that I was very proud of.

Post-mortem report of my free online dating service; Part 1 of 2

I registered the domain for my free online dating service, DiveIntoThePool.com, in October of 2007. I decided that along with making my first real startup that I would invest money in that it would be a good idea to do in a language I didn’t already know (ASP.NET), with a database I wasn’t familiar with (MSSQL) and on a platform I had not deployed anything on before (IIS6).  My thinking was that along with creating this sure fire website that I could make money though advertising off of I would try and learn as many things along the way as possible. I worked on this project in my evening times while also supporting a medium-core World of Warcraft habit. When I say something took days of research it’s real time passed after work, WoW and a little life.

I had modest goals to measure the success of the site. My first goal after launching was to make more money than I spent in hosting and advertising. After that I wanted to invest all actual profits back into the site so it would continue to grow. I pictured a power point graphic of exponential growth and with a little patience I would be rich!

I broke the site down into smaller and smaller chunks and for every small milestone or functionality I completed I patted myself on the back. Milestones such as getting Visual Studio Web Express to pre-compile DLLs so I didn’t have to place source files on my webserver, which I had none setup at the time, or migrating my new found zip code database from MySQL to MSSQL. Every step I took involved several days of thinking and research.

I swear it wasn’t intentional but I felt like I put as many technical obstacles in between myself and launching the site as possible. I vividly remember spending several evenings, days I felt like, trying to decide on which source control solution I should use. I kept hearing Git this and Git that at the time but it took me a while still to figure out there was no easy way to run a Git server on my home Windows machine. I finally settled into VisualSVN and celebrated when I checked a file in from my laptop and got latest from my desktop! I was on my way.

I stressed over membership and security for a long time as well. Don’t store passwords in plain text, watch out for all user input and SQL injection worries. I had created a pretty full registration and login web of pages before I even thought about creating a admin interface for my users. That’s no problem I thought at first, Visual Studio Web Express came with this very helpful ASP.NET Web Site Administration Tool that I found out, after several more nights, couldn’t be installed remotely on my newly acquired shared hosting environment. Screw it! At that point I had a text file of SQL scripts I was running to do development work that ended up being my “admin” interface to the site.

I had been using my free time since registering the domain working on the site and learning C# but by December 2008 I still seemed far away from launching anything I was proud of. I was doubting my plans and if I didn’t do something drastic soon I would never launch the site. In January 2009 I quit playing World of Warcraft, I disbanded the guild I had put together, transferred onto another server and kept no ties to anyone I knew. Even my real life friends didn’t know where my characters went. Shortly there after I actually canceled my accounts. Suddenly I had all the time in the world during my evenings to work.

Within 5 months of cutting out video games I was able to launch the site in May of 2009. I actually did a soft launch first, running through all of my test cases a few times just to check for any obvious bugs. All of my testing, research, learning and code was live. It took me far to long to get here I told myself and I knew that the hardest hurdles were still to come. No one knows me, I have no track record of success, how on Earth am I going to get people to sign up or even visit my freshly unwrapped free online dating service.

Continued in Post-mortem report of my free online dating service; Part 2 of 2 to read about the end of DiveIntoThePool