I reckon a lot of people who start websites fall into a couple categories. Folks who are interested in a topic and want to share that knowledge and passion with others and people who want to make money from working on the Web – give up working for the man, that 9-5. Sometimes it’s a bit of both or one leads to another but when I read online forums its often these two camps. I suppose the other is people developing a great idea…but they usually go via the start-up path.
My personal route into web publishing was the former. Since I was about 12 I’ve been a big fan of the author J.R.R. Tolkien. I must have read the books about 20 times and used to play the roleplaying game (MERP)…generally fairly obsessed. When the films were announced just before the millennium I started scouring the web for news. I found one site I liked called LotROnline (before the game), and began helping out. This is how I picked up some HTML as we were coding pages by hand. As time went on I became keen to open my own site and sort of fell out with the owner. So with a few others in tow I built and launched War of the Ring.net.
At the time I’d just started University as a mature student and was studying AI and Computer Science. There were some really big established sites like TheOneRing.net (looking great today) and it was hard to get loyal visitors. However, with determination and a bit of unhealthy obsession we started to get noticed a bit and became about the third biggest (at the time) of the Tolkien fan sites. This didn’t make a huge amount of money, enough for expenses and a bit extra, but it did get me over to the world premiere in New York City where I got to attend the after party and generally had a ball…really a dream come true for a Tolkien fan. The amount the site did make via affiliates (mainly via a company called Sideshow) did get me thinking that there might be gold in them there hills…as it were.
So I had an idea to create a multi-media Tolkien encyclopedia online, to be called Annals of Ea. I advertised for a volunteer database expert and programmer…a rather bright German chap answered the call on War of the Ring and we set to work. We recruited volunteer writers, 3d artists, animators, and traditional artists and built a fairly good content management system to allow us to control workflow and publish the site. I remember having 5 mini-pcs in my spare bedroom all running in sync rendering frames for 3d animations of the fictional town of Bree…that is, however, as far as it got.
When we were running War of the Ring we had a lot of contact with New Line Cinema, who were backing the movie. They provided us with promotional material but also sometimes complained if we overused the property (as they liked to call it.) Since we were a fan site and promoting their movie they let us away with a lot, plus we were not really making any cash. But this did open my eyes to issues of copyright and making money from other people’s work. Naively we thought the encyclopedia would be fine but a stream of legal letters and threats from the Tolkien Estate put that project to bed. I’ll post up something on the dangers of using pictures, text and other copyright material without license or permission in the future…suffice to say tread carefully if you want to build a legitimate business.
By this time I’d dropped out of uni and was working part-time, concentrating on the project. So it was a bitter blow, but where one door shuts another opens.
Another group of people I’d had a lot of contact through War of the Ring was movie site owners and managers. Having seen sites like Dark Horizons and Movie Web. I thought why not build a movie news and review site but do books, the arts and music too…. this led to the launch of Monsters and Critics. This is how my passion for a topic led me to starting a commercial site and what enabled me to start making my living online. Not an easy path and one where people will doubt you all the way until you put that first cheque in the bank…. but what a feeling when you do.
So I reckon the easiest way to get started is to choose something you are passionate about, that way you’ll stay motivated and inspire other people to help you out…often for free. Starting up a site solely to make money is probably a bit harder in terms of both breaking into a market and staying motivated. But that’s one for another post.