Matt Haughey's the founder of MetaFilter, one of the web’s longest-running and most respected web communities, and its popular Q&A section, Ask MetaFilter.
Matt started MetaFilter in 1999, because he couldn’t do it all himself, and because he was in the right place at the right time. MetaFilter has 60,000 paid members, and eventually added a question-and-answer site, which led to him working on it full-time since 2005, with a team of six people today.
Matt was a reluctant businessman, and eventually had to hire an accountant and lawyer and all the other folks to help run the business. But there are three big lessons he’s learned in running a long-term project.
1. Failure is the biggest teacher. Failure has a lot of negative connotations, but it’s great because at least it tells you what doesn’t work (when you’re running a maze and hit a dead end, you know what doesn’t work, doesn’t mean you stop). It’s only bad if you give up or if you ignore the lessons it teaches you. Business blogs say “pivot” (Matt refuses to say it), but the sentiment behind it is good because it puts a nice face on failure.
You have to create an environment where you can do experiments and see what works. Fall in love with failure. Matt has lots of unpublished blog posts and old text files to record what he’s done that didn’t work (2 successful projects, and 12 bodies in a lake).
- Like “Ticketstubs”, a record of old ticket stubs and the stories that go with them. In 2003, scanning a stub or taking a photo was only of interest to super-fans, so it didn’t really click. The big lesson was that simple ideas work better, and first-time visitors didn’t get it. Though this could work now, since people are more familiar with it.
- PVRBlog was about Tivo and DVRs in 2003. Hours of research into each post, and it was one of the first sites to use Google AdSense, and it was generating $4000 to $5000 a month, doing a good job of paying the bills. He wrote an academic-style case-study of how Adsense helped him make money blogging. The downside of sharing that info was that within six months there were half a dozen ripoffs, and the site eventually faded out as the topic got less interesting. The lesson may have been to not give away the magic secret.
- TravelFilter was a completely-built site extracting the travel info from Ask MetaFilter questions, but they didn’t quite commit enough. (Didn’t “burn the boats”) so being half-assed hurt the success of the site. (Other lesson: don’t cannibalize your own success)
- Blogger didn’t really succeed as a business, even though people loved the site, it didn’t have revenues or investment. The lesson was to ask customers for money earlier. One of the Blogger co-founders, Ev Williams, epitomizes the good side of failing repeatedly, and always gets up and seems to be doing that again with Obvious.
2. Money is the least interesting problem. It’s a necessary evil, but it’s mostly a distraction other than providing for essential resources. Times he’s focused solely on money is when he’s made the worst decisions. Jeff Bezos talked about the “Amazon Doctrine”, always aligning the company’s interests with the customer’s. Tim O’Reilly wrote a great essay in 2009 about working on stuff that matters - running a startup is like taking a cross-country trip, and money is just the gas in the tank. You’re not taking a tour of gas stations...
The best days ever working on projects have been thinking of new features, or having a coding break-through. None of the best days are about money.
3. Success is fleeting. Several of Matt’s projects have been popular for a short time and then gone away. Success plots often look like Mt. Fuji: Pretty quick up, pretty quick down. It’s harder to set up a long, slow growth. Things have repeatedly decayed and been replaced by newer models. There’s already services replacing Uber in San Francisco -- wasn’t Uber awesome two months ago? Building on open source and open knowledge is great, but makes the competition much more fierce.
Relevance is really hard to sustain. MetaFilter’s already gone over a decade -- where will it be in 2020? Mobile usage, for example, goes from a blip in 2009 to 12% in 2010 to almost 33% today. And that’s already affecting advertising and money already. Businesses that depend on display ads are really challenged by the shift to mobile. The Olympics are showing 60% of visitors to the official site were on mobile. Matt’s predicting 50% of all web visitors to be on mobile by 2014.
Looking forward, Matt’s talking about information websites competing with individual devices that efficiently deliver information. “The future is a little iffy, but it’s super exciting.”