Oh dear, I hope I’m not turning into a Republican.
Yesterday I made my first dollar off the internet. Perhaps I should wait for the check to arrive and the money to actually make it into my bank account before I spend the money. And it’s not a whole lot of money: $60. Still, if I get it then it will be tangible evidence that there is money to be made off the internet by ordinary Joes like me. I won’t quit my day job but for the first time in years I am motivated to feel a bit entrepreneurial.
In 2001 I purchased my first domain, oakhillva.com. I bought it because I live in a place called Oak Hill. Of course it’s not incorporated. It’s the name on the post office in my zip code: 20171. Many of us who live in Oak Hill don’t even know we live here. We say “We live near Herndon” or “We live near Chantilly” or “You know Franklin Farm? I live near there.” Basically it’s a bedroom community with a couple shopping centers.
Anyhow in 2001 a new post office opened with our name on it which made it sort of official. So I went shopping for related domain names. I figured maybe there was some money in having a community web site. I had planned to learn this internet stuff anyhow and this seemed the way to go. But I was so naïve back then. I bought the domain off of Yahoo Domains for an inflated price. I shopped for a web host online and picked a place called Javapie.com that was dirt cheap but was actually a reseller for successfulhosting.com.
And that was about all I did with the domain. I guess I was hoping someone with more time and energy than me would offer me some big bucks for the domain name. It never happened. Instead I used the domain to practice. Since I had started teaching web page design and I wanted my students to have an experience similar to real electronic commerce. So I created a few server side scripts on the site. Students submitted a web form to an address on the oakhillva.com web site and they got back a response. Pretty simple stuff.
After a year or so I decided to get fancier. I erased the FrontPage version of the site and put up portal software, phpNuke. This too was a learning experience. The real learning experience came when some hacker broke into the site and defaced my main pages. It became such a hassle trying to fix it that I just erased the whole thing. I then tried PostNuke but it didn’t have the interactive features I wanted. Eventually though I decided to stick with a product I knew: phpBB, open source bulletin board software used everywhere. I had plenty of experience customizing that with my other domain, potomactavern.org. So I put up some forums, dressed up some content, placed ads around it and went back to my slumbers. About once a year, usually when I was off between Christmas and the New Year I would go to the site and tweak it a bit. I added a neat interactive business directory and local link directory. But mostly I ignored it.
Over the years I moved the site around. Now it is hosted by Site5.com and DiscountDomainRegistry.com generally manages my domain names. Over the last couple months I have started to get inquiries about the site. One guy had a number of similar domains and was investigating potential partnership. That didn’t seem to go anywhere. I also got a couple requests about advertising on the site. Only one went anywhere. It culminated yesterday when I got my first paid for advertisement on the site.
My hope is to bind the citizens of Oak Hill together on the web. Basically we are a bunch of subdivisions and if we have any allegiance at all it is too our subdivision, not to Oak Hill. We are also very well moneyed. Our average income is more than $100,000 per household. But marketing the site seemed daunting. I’m just not a salesman. I tried that in my days working for Montgomery Ward and flunked spectacularly. I can’t imagine going door to door to do marketing. I’m too much of an introvert.
With my wife unemployed she has been picking up a few wetbacks fixing and building computers for friends and through referrals. It hardly pays our grocery bill but it keeps her from hanging out in pool halls. So I slapped an ad for her nascent business on the site. I’m not aware of any referrals she got directly from the site. Nonetheless for a site with no marketing oakhillva.com gets a fair number of hits. It comes up #1 on a Google Search for “Oak Hill Virginia”. In February there were nearly 28,000 hits and close to 700 visits.
With someone willing to give me $60 for six months of advertising on the site though I am thinking that I need to think larger. It’s time perhaps to risk a little working capital. My wife needs more customers. And my site could use more traffic. So we’re looking into doing some advertising ourselves in more traditional mediums. The hard part is reaching every home in the area. We are looking at bulk advertisers like Money Mailer and ValPak. We are also considering a couple ads in the local newspapers.
Selling one advertisement for $60 basically pays my hosting costs. Oakhillva.com is just one domain parked in my potomactavern.org domain, and at Site5.com I was able to buy quality shared hosting for less than $100 a year. Add the modest cost of maintaining the domain name (about $15 a year) and it only takes a few paying customers to make a profit over my operating costs. Of course my time is worth a lot of money and right now my day jobs pay the bills. But there is the potential that with some marketing and focus I could make some small amount of money on the side from this venture. Just a couple hundred bucks a year would demonstrate the potential of internet commerce on a personal level.
Of course if the site caught on that would bring other issues. Hackers would find it more inviting. Since I have forum software I’d have to watch and worry about content posted there. So small steps. I am still skeptical that after all these years there is any money to be made in a small community web site, but perhaps I will prove myself wrong.