Today marks five years since I launched the website that my mom still refers to as 'the other bedbugs'. Happy business birthday to me!
Any site that aspires to be an archive starts life with a credibility problem. The Internet is strewn with the corpses (or in some cases, zombies) of sites that once promised to save your links forever. As people keep discovering, building a bookmarking site is easy, but making a business of bookmarking is hard. Like one of those leathery, spiny plants that is able to thrive in the desert where everything else dies, I have tried to find ways to adapt to this hostile business environment. And I have feasted on the flesh of my rivals!
I raise this brimming skull to the awesome group of users and fellow-travelers who have made it possible.
It's my tradition to post updated statistics about the site:
The biggest surprise (to me) is how predictable Pinboard has been over the past three years. Users come and go, like on every site, but the number of active users stays roughly the same. And the site makes roughly the same amount of money (around $200K) every year.
If you've ever run a small website, you'll recognize how weird this is. Typically everything in a small project—traffic, user count, revenue—is spiky. You spend a long time treading water and then big events happen that dominate everything else. This was true for the first two years I ran the site, but since then, things have settled down remarkably.
I regret that I totally forgot to keep downtime stats this year. There wasn't a lot of it, but I should probably track it better so I can brag about it next year, unless it goes up, in which case I will never mention it again.
Now back to some beard-stroking:
I see my role much like a small-town praire banker in the 1880's. My job is to project an aura of calm, solvency, and permanence in an industry where none of those adjectives applies. People are justifiably risk-averse when it comes to their bookmarks, and they are looking for stability. This means several things at once:
On the most basic level, the site just has to work.
On the design level, it means not futzing with stuff unnecessarily, except for bug fixes and basic improvements. Luckily there is so much work to do on Pinboard that I am immune to the temptations of a redesign. If there is a feature (or bug) you love in 2014, chances are excellent it will still be there, like a cherished friend, years from now when your trembling and aged hands go to make that final click.
Finally, there is stability on the business level. This means persuading people (including myself) that I am going to stick around, and then actually earning enough money to do that.
The money part turns out to be easy. People will pay for a decent service. As long as you stay small and don't forget to have revenue, you too can build a bookmarking website. There is plenty of room to specialize!
My strategy of pre-emptively antagonizing anyone who might possibly have an interest in acquiring or funding the site has worked wonderfully. In five years, I haven't received a single email from an investor or potential acquirer. The closest I came was a few months ago, when the new Delicious owners reached out to me about providing "vision", but I think they were just unfamiliar with my oeuvre. They learned quickly.
So the biggest risk in a project like this remains burnout.
Avoiding burnout is difficult to write about, because the basic premise is obnoxious. Burnout is a rich man's game. Rice farmers don't get burned out and spend long afternoons thinking about whether to switch to sorghum. Most people don't have the luxury of thinking about their lives in those terms. But at the rarefied socioeconomic heights of computerland, it's true that if you run a popular project by yourself for a long time, there's a high risk that it will wear you out.
It's not the fact of working on just one project that's the problem. This dude, for example, has spent much of his life building a Boeing 777 out of manila folders. Another guy (always dudes!) is slowly excavating his basement with toy trucks.
What burns you out is the constant strain of being responsible for a lot of other people's stuff.
The good news is, as you get older, you gain perspective. Perspective helps alleviate burnout.
The bad news is, you gain perspective by having incredibly shitty things happen to you and the people you love. Nature has made it so that perspective is only delivered in bulk quantities. A railcar of perspective arrives and dumps itself on your lawn when all you needed was a microgram. This is a grossly inefficient aspect of the human condition, but I'm sure bright minds in Silicon Valley are working on a fix.
Perspective does not make you immune to burnout. It just makes burnout less scary. I've gone through a few episodes since starting Pinboard, and I'm sure there will be more to come. People have been very understanding about my occasional need to flee the Internet. I find that the longer I run the site, the more resistant I become to the idea of ever giving it up, even if I need to take the occasional break. It is pleasant to work on something that people draw benefit from. It is especially pleasant to work on something lasting. And I enjoy the looking-glass aspect of our industry, where running a mildly profitable small business makes me a crazy maverick not afraid to break all the rules.
Most of all, I'm gratified that people have been patient and considerate over the whole lifetime of the project. There has been a lot of goodwill sent my way that makes my job vastly easier. Thank you to all the people who have used the site over the years, and the many people who have helped me build it and keep it running. To my competitors: I will crush you! To everyone else: you're wonderful! Upgrade!