Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?
Unfortunately, the website builder I launched failed. It failed because there were way too many website builders already. No one needed another website builder. What they needed was someone to tell them which website builders were good and which were bad.
So I started Site Builder Report. Site Builder Report does in-depth reviews of website builders — think of it like The Wirecutter, but for website builders. In the last two years Site Builder Report has averaged $44,000/month in revenue.
What motivated you to get started with Site Builder Report?
I had just moved to Toronto and was dreading taking a job. I wrote this in my journal at the time:
"Just had another coffee with the co-founder of [a design agency]. Once again, I had a real tough time articulating what I was looking for... The reality is I just don't want to work at an agency. I want to build my own company. It's what I've always wanted to do."
So that summer I decided not to take a job — instead I'd take the summer to launch a bunch of products and see if any of them stuck. My goal was to generate $4,000/month from these projects to fully support myself. (I was doing freelance work to support myself at the time.)
Some of the projects I launched seem silly in hindsight. Canada In Pictures did photo tours of destinations in Canada. I was hoping to generate a ton of traffic and earn money through Adsense. It went nowhere.
Other ideas had some promise. I started Oak Tree Themes, a site where I would sell custom Weebly themes. Unfortunately it was a lot of work to design themes and it only made a few hundred dollars in sales.
But of all the projects, the most promising was Site Builder Report. By the time November rolled around, I wrote this in my journal:
"Site Builder Report is really starting to pay off. It looks like November has a chance to eclipse $350 monthly revenue. And who knows where it goes from there."
What went into building the initial product?
While I designed the website and wrote a custom CMS in Rails, I still think the most important thing has always been the editorial.
I've now written hundreds (seriously) of reviews of website builders and ecommerce software. It's boring work. But after a couple years of writing reviews, you develop a pretty informed perspective. How many other people on this planet have spent hundreds of hours trying different website builders? This informed perspective is at the core of Site Builder Report — it's the value I offer readers.
(Why not use a website builder for Site Builder Report? I believe website builders are best for specific use cases. For example, while I don't use a website builder for Site Builder Report, I do use Squarespace for my band's website.)
How have you attracted users and grown Site Builder Report?
SEO. Full stop.
Site Builder Report comes up first if you search best website builders in Google. It comes up third if you search website builders. This means it regularly beats GoDaddy and Wix — companies with tens of millions of dollars in ad spend.
So why does Site Builder Report rank so high? Honestly I don't know. Don't believe anyone who speaks with certainty about SEO.
I've tried many, many things to boost SEO: I've done endless amounts of content marketing and link outreach, I've started a magazine, I've built a popular free stock photo search engine to attract links, and more. But it's not apparent to me which of these things drove results.
In the end, my SEO advice is simple: (1) choose a market with high search volume and (2) go overboard trying to create value for people searching those keywords.
What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
I earn an affiliate commission when readers choose a website builder based on my reviews. (Almost every website builder has an affiliate program.)
I worried that readers would not trust this arrangement when I first started. But in practice it hasn't been a big issue. In fact, readers ask me which links to click to ensure I get my commission. Honestly, negativity about my business model is more likely to come from a community like Hacker News than it is from my readers.
Different website builders pay different commissions. For example, WebsiteBuilder.com pays commissions that are 4x the website builders that I recommend. But I don't let that influence my reviews. In fact I've been very critical of that company.
I think readers have a sixth sense for bullshit and can sniff out inconsistencies. In the long term it's far better to invest in creating value for readers. More than that, it's also just the right thing to do. Site Builder Report already makes more money than I need. My readers aren't just pageviews, they are real people. I don't want them to use shitty software.
What are your goals for the future, and how do you plan to accomplish them?
I don't have ambitious goals for Site Builder Report. I just want to keep incrementally improving on a modest goal: help readers choose a website builder. A couple examples of what I mean:
- It took me a few years to settle on a review format that works. Now I think I've got it right. I've even figured out a schedule to update reviews after 9 months so nothing's out of date.
- I test each builder's cancelation policy with my own credit card to uncover shady practices.
- I have a pricing calculator that shows what you'll pay for each website builder over time. Unfortunately pricing in the website builder world is not always transparent.
- I do customer support response time testing.
All of these improvements take time and attention to figure out — but they are fun and exciting for me. I like testing and tinkering with new ideas.
People occasionally suggest that I scale Site Builder Report to new categories, but I'm not interested. I've found it hard to scale the editorial. Instead I have been working on Wise Buyer, a new project where I do customer satisfaction ratings for software by talking to thousands of real-life users. Wise Buyer hasn't been as successful as Site Builder Report so far, but I'll keep cracking at it.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced? Obstacles you've overcome?
Early on, it was money. I had no money. Once I started making $4,000/month (CDN), I felt rich. Everything was easier after that.
Now my largest obstacles are all SEO related. For example, in July 2015 I designed a new review system without image compression. Oops. I didn't notice how slow-loading my reviews were but Google did — they penalized me and traffic plummeted. Since then I've fixed the image compression (I recommend IMGix!) and rankings have been improving.
What were your biggest advantages? Was anything particularly helpful?
It's funny to connect the dots in hindsight. Two events come to mind:
When I was in high school I sold a website for $12,000 that shared custom emoticons for MSN Messenger. That website had succeeded because it ranked in Google for the term "msn emotions" (a common mispelling of "emoticon" at the time). That experience showed me you could generate real revenue with SEO.
Also (as I briefly mentioned in the introduction to this interview), I had spent 4 months trying and failing to building my own website builder. This gave me some insight into the industry, or at the very least, an opinion.
Otherwise I think luck always plays a role. Since I was a kid I've always had side businesses. I sold knockoff NBA jerseys, I sold DVDs, I started a flat-fee real estate listing company, and a bunch more. Most of those businesses failed but a few did succeed. This has shown me that success or failure is not pre-ordained. You really can only try stuff and hope for the best. Fortune favors the bold, right?
What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?
Starting businesses is not theoretical. It's a practice. It's something you do. Don't even bother talking about starting a business — those conversations easily slip into indulgent fantasy talk. Just get started. When you have something to show people, then you can talk about it.
I also wonder if it's better to avoid media that glorifies entrepreneurship. Close the tab if you find yourself reading an article with a glossy photo of Evan Spiegal or Mark Zuckerberg. You don't need that hero-worship swimming around in your head. I always think of this quote from a book publisher on why people buy business books:
"All the evidence suggests that business books are not in fact about learning, but about escapism, just like a romance novel. The business book is about imagining yourself a success, not making yourself a success."
So skip the entrepreneur-porn. Far better to read publications like Indie Hackers that focus on real stories and tactics you can relate to.
Where can we go to learn more?
You can go direct to Site Builder Report :)
Ask me anything in the comments, happy to share :)