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Monday, August 9, 2010

Shifting Gears

After more than five-and-a-half years of trying to build a website into a business, I have decided to shut down royalsteals.com the day after Christmas. It’s a landmark no one except me will notice. Based on the site’s level of success, no one except me should notice.

For quite a while I’ve been trying to simply keep the site going in the hopes of connecting with someone or some organization that could add the business acumen to the project that I just don’t possess. I was spending 20 hours or more every week on the actual content of the website, updating weekly offers from the various affiliates, coming up with “hot products” to feature, and making sure there weren’t too many dead links from sales that came without expiration dates. That doesn’t include the time I was spending networking to try to make business connections and promoting the website on a budget that insisted the site pay for itself. I just didn’t have the knowhow to advertise online, and feared creating a funnel of money going out the door on a project that brought in less than $1,000 of profits in its life.

Of course I knew all along that the money involved was inconsequential. Yet, society’s attitude toward hiring people with disabilities made looking for a job even less fruitful, and in some ways the website at least allowed me to feel like I was being productive. Or, perhaps more accurately, it allowed me to feel that I was working toward something that might one day be a productive venture.

Hindsight is often 20/20, and looking back there were certainly signs from the beginning that pursuing the affiliate website business model wasn’t the best idea. Initially, my brother and a friend of his with programming skills were supposed to be partners in the venture. When that fell apart, I probably never should have continued on my own. Subsequent attempts to connect with others on the project only brought wasted energy and money.

I guess most people console themselves at this point with “lessons learned,” and I believe I have learned a few. In an effort to attach the website to a good cause, offering customers more incentive to use it, I eventually connected with an assistive technology foundation. The arrangement, complete with a contract, was that I would donate a portion of profits from royalsteals.com (then known as The Stores @ Royal Steele) to the foundation in exchange for their assistance in advertising the site within their normal marketing efforts.

Accepting a job offer from the foundation just months into our deal was a terrible mistake, even though the two years of part-time pay became the only real financial asset that came (indirectly) from the project. It made enforcing the original contract impossible and, thus, the concept of connecting the site to the foundation worthless. Sadly, the bigger lesson was that even in the advocacy world disabled people still have to fight both for respect and the end of the poster child mentality employed by groups that supposedly serve us. Any illusions that the foundation wanted to hire someone with a disability for the right reasons, long since evaporated for me, disappeared when they clearly weren’t even considering keeping my position after the grant from the Heinz Endowments that paid my salary ended.

Despite the failed arrangement, the website trudged along well enough for me to at least get out of the red on the project without factoring in the part-time job. Back-to-back years of about $400 in profits, though still nothing more than pocket change in the real world, seemed like a good reason to try to take the site to the “next level.” I decided it was time to get serious and use the small cushion of profit to upgrade the website.

So, this year I gave myself an ultimatum: I was going to find a way to put a customized search on the website or end it. I thought connecting with a guy that I knew as a kid, especially one who claims to build “liquid nitrogen overclocking supercomputers,” was a stroke of luck. Instead, it became a lesson in dealing with a scam artist. I don’t know what “liquid nitrogen overclocking” even means, but it certainly sounded like the guy would have no problem building a site search. After paying up front based on his claims that he needed to pay for a few programming scripts, I never saw any indication that he even attempted to build the search. After 4 ½ months of ridiculous excuses from him for not delivering what he said would take two days to do, I googled the guy.

Lesson learned: google everybody, at least those you plan to do business with. Before I finished typing the guy’s name, Google suggested his name followed by the word “scam.” Not exactly what I wanted to see. The list of links varied from the world of chess to literature. I still have a hard time believing that I grew up around a guy now known as a scam artist. Paying up front was stupid on my part, but I thought having known the guy when we were both kids brought some assurances. I’m pretty sure it used to.

A comment from Scammer Boy eventually reached me through his equally ignorant father, stating that he was surprised that I was able to ask some intelligent questions. Clearly, he assumed my physical disabilities came with intellectual ones, and he thought he’d found an easy mark for his latest scam. Only a mother’s guilt brought 1/3 of my profits back in the form of a refund. Still, more than half the year had been wasted dealing with the scumbag, and having a search engine in place by the fourth quarter just wasn’t going to happen. It was the very heavy straw that broke the camel’s back.

The experience reminded me of another arrangement I entered into while I worked on the website, though involving far less money. At one point I tried to add creating simple websites to my “business.” I agreed to do a team website for a local Catholic high school basketball coach. I said I would do it “at cost” since he was my first customer. And that’s exactly how I did it – at my cost. The guy stiffed me despite repeated requests for payment. Fair or not, the two experiences lead me to believe that having a disability means needing to be extra vigilant about trusting people.

I believe the deal to build a website “at cost” also drives home a lesson I learned when I used to offer to volunteer for potential employers to show them that my disability was nothing to fear. It’s tough to put the lesson into one sentence, but it seems that there’s a fine line between being willing to prove myself and insisting on being treated as a professional. Too many people just assume people with disabilities want a job to fill their day and stay busy. They retreat the minute even a minor financial commitment comes up. I now feel that insisting on being treated as a professional is the only choice. Once the idea of being a volunteer has been broached – regardless of which side brought it up or just assumed it – transitioning to a paid position or contract job is extremely unlikely.

The biggest lesson, though, from royalsteals.com may be that I need to focus on projects geared toward my strengths. I think the fatal flaw was getting involved with a project that ultimately required the skills of others to be successful. I knew all along that a customized search would be critical to the site. I’m not suggesting that the concept was any sort of revelation on my part; it’s more like stating the obvious. My point is that knowing this fact, along with the knowledge that while I have some programming skills producing a search was out of my league, I should have moved on.

Other lessons learned from the website experience include the fact that a good name is everything (even if Amazon doesn’t necessarily mean anything obvious, your website’s name should), thinking your contacts will be a good base to get things rolling is a bad idea, and trying to make a shopping website work without a serious advertising budget doesn’t make any sense despite what the big dot-coms and geniuses on message boards profess.

While the website was never exactly a money maker, part of why I continued with it as long as I did was a belief that disabled people have to become more of a financial presence in this world if we are ever to become a true community respected as equals by the rest of the world. My website certainly wasn’t going to be the catalyst for that movement, but it was “something.” It was my effort to keep working toward that goal.

But as the affiliate business model continued to show its frailties and my lack of programming skills got in the way, it became clear that I needed to move on. Hits and sales plummeted this year after two of the best years in commissions, and something told me that the bad economy had little to do with it. A new name and a lot more effort somehow led to less. I never believed the affiliates who claimed to be making hundreds of thousands of dollars – such claims, if true, would be disincentives for the big dot-coms of the world to even have affiliate programs – but it became clear that the affiliate model didn’t work for me even with more realistic goals.

Throughout the time royalsteals.com was my primary focus, I continued to pursue writing. It’s the one thing I am confident I do very well, and I have always needed to do it more.

In some ways, I won’t be totally abandoning the affiliate model. The website is paid for and mostly set-up to have active links through Christmas day. I may even consider keeping royalsteals.com as a redirect to Rob Q. Ink. Readers of my blog will still find links to some of the big dot-coms in the sidebars and the occasional posts. I may even take advantage of Blogger’s relatively new feature allowing users to add some stand alone pages to add more links, and I’ll likely continue to offer sales links on Facebook and Twitter. But the weekly updates and continuous effort of trying to make real money through affiliate sales are over, as well as having to incur costs for a website.

I will also be continuing my efforts with PhillyACCESS. The informational resource for people with disabilities has garnered some interest and a decent number of hits. More importantly, I think I may be doing something worthwhile for the disability community. Commissions from affiliate links on both blogs will be earmarked for expanding readership of PhillyACCESS and hopefully turning it into a true advocacy force.

Mostly, I hope, I’ll be writing more. Whether that translates into a blog post per day, a couple posts a week, the Great American Novel, or some combination of those choices, I don’t know. I imagine that at the very least my rants about the Phillies, Eagles, and even the Sixers (if they ever become relevant), will become a bit more frequent. Forgive me in advance!

In some ways, I feel relieved. In others, I am very disappointed to be giving up on royalsteals.com. But I felt the same way when I was laid off from my job with a children’s publisher in early 2004. Working full-time “just like everybody else” had always been “the goal” in my life, and I didn’t know I could be happy without being productive working toward having a career. I eventually accepted that building a traditional career wasn’t very likely for me in a society where abilities are still ignored because of disability.

New goals came along soon enough, as did new definitions of being productive. And so they will again.

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