9 Years of Blogging: Lessons from the Trenches

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It is May 20 today and that means two things. First, it’s the 5 year birthday of this handsome boy. Without a doubt, his day will be filled with belly rubs and snacks… as it should be.

But secondly, this is my 9th anniversary of blogging. It’s also the 9th anniversary of me installing WordPress for the first time and embarking on, what would become, a career change and my livelihood. This month, WordPress celebrates it’s 10th birthday which makes me a WordPresser for almost all of the time it has been around.

In that time, I have dabbled in everything from traditional blogging (evolving from political blogging to personal blogging to blogging about blogging to social media blogging to business blogging…. and on and on), to writing code for bloggers use to writing a book for developers to consulting on WordPress projects, etc.

I may have learned something or other along the way. From my 9 years, let me share some of my thoughts:

Blogging Never Killed Journalism

In the hey day, everyone suspected that “old media” was a dying breed and that blogs would overtake old media and replace it. While it is certainly true that old media had to adjust to the digital age, I think it’s more relevant (and healthy!) that blogging began to complement traditional media, as I noted in 2010. Today, most of the major news organizations maintain blogs and journalists wear the hat of traditional reporters and maintain more loosely structured blogs as well.

The same can be said about other forms of digital media – Twitter, primarily, but Reddit and other Social Media destinations as well. While it’s certainly true that breaking news travels much faster on digital platforms (including blogs) than traditional, the fact is that traditional publications still have a relevancy and can get a job done in a better way that digital sometimes.

This is particularly true for long form content. On the internet, there is an inherent ADD that causes many readers (including myself) to get distracted easily and not be able to consume long-form content as easily. If I had to back-of-napkin guess, I’m guessing the sweet-spot for online articles is between 300-700 words. This article will, of course, blow that number out of the water. It is rare that you see great long-form content from publications other than The Atlantic, Ars Technica, the New Yorker, etc.

Notably, it was Sports Illustrated’s print edition that carried the story, that has since been published online, about NBA Center Jason Collins coming out as gay. That was an important piece of journalism with far-reaching political and cultural fallout. And it wasn’t printed online first. It was printed in traditional media.

Get Rich Quick with Blogging? Fugghedabotit!

Oh boy, do I remember the days when everyone fashioned themselves a pro-blogger. Throws some ads up, write content and PROFIT!

While there’s a part of me that wished that model worked (Damn, that would be so easy… I’d never have to work again!!!), life is never that easy. First of all, the advertising bubble was just that… a bubble. The fact that usable metrics (that advertisers with real money wanted) around long-tail sites could boost income was (and still is) a farce. You need to be able to show some level of guarantee of traffic (CPM) or relevancy with a user propensity for buying (CPA). Otherwise, why buy the ad spots at more than “remnant” (i.e. cheap) rates. Remnants aren’t going to pay your salary, much less your coffee bill for the month. I abandoned advertising on this site a long time ago.

Protip: Affiliate advertising still can convert very well and, if handled properly, could potentially earn someone a living.

Data Portability is actually important

Data portability – the ability to take all your content and pick up and go somewhere else – used to be the domain of radical, technarchists like Dave Winer. However, with recent acquisitions of companies like Instagram by Facebook or the very recent Tumblr acquisition by Yahoo!, where reportedly 72,000 Tumblr blogs were moved into the WordPress.com silo in a single day, the ability for users to take their content somewhere else is actually a primary concern these days. It didn’t use to be like this, but notably enough of these events have scared users into wondering what happens when their platform of choice goes out of business or is bought.

Personally, for these reasons as well as things like SEO and domain canonicalization, I’d always recommend people have their own site and use open source self-hosted solutions like WordPress.org or even one of the (in my opinion) inferior open source content management systems out there. Control your own destiny.

Journalistic Integrity

Many bloggers fancy themselves as journalists. They’ve never gone to J school. Never got a degree. Never learned the art of sourcing. All they have is a laptop, a loud mouth and something to rant about.

To be fair, there have been hundreds of bloggers who have turned into amazing journalists in their own right, broke stories, developed sources, protected their integrity with confirmations, etc. Then there’s the rest of bloggers who hear something, run with it, write a story that is poorly sourced (“a source inside Congress told me…”) with little to no confirmable facts and want to be respected as journalists. There’s a reason why real journalists look down their noses at bloggers like this. And rightly so. Also, why everyone looks down their nose at CNN… ahem *cough cough* )

Not to mention the spate of bloggers who have historically expected freebies for “review” or otherwise. Another thing separating real journalists from bloggers.


There are probably dozens of lessons learned from the past 9 years. Don’t hold yourself to a posting schedule… write when you have something to say. I do that here. Maybe a lesser known thing… write drunk, edit sober. Yeah, I have some of my most creative time when drinking. Dumping that stuff onto the proverbial canvas while in that state and hitting “Save Draft” instead of “Publish” means I can come back later and review what I wrote with a clear head.

What tips would you give?

WordPress Hacking and Cleanup

There’s a brute force attack underway on a global scale. Massive. The attack vector? Keep attempting user/pass combos in an automated way until a breakin happens.

If your WordPress site gets hacked, I am available for cleanup and an audit.

Aaron@technosailor.com

It absolutely will cost you a minor fortune. That’s the way it goes. Don’t complain or whine, just get your credit card out.

It would be cheaper to have a strong password and install a plugin that limits failed login attempts though.

But if you don’t, rest assured I can help you despite you having to postpone a vacation in St. Thomas.

Do the right thing.

I Fired Myself

If we’re friends on Facebook or Twitter, you know about my new job in Baltimore. Technically, it’s not a new job yet, as I don’t start until February 4. However, it’s a new job and a return, for the first time since 2006, to a more corporate (if laid back) working environment. I’ve only worked for one company in that period of time, and I was a founder. That, of course, is the hugely successful WP Engine. However, I left that role in October of 2011. I still didn’t have the motivation to not work for myself.

A little about this new role, however, since I brought it up. I feel it’s necessary in proving the point I want to make.

Corporate Culture

Agora Financial, as a division of Agora, Inc. was named the 2nd best place to work in Baltimore in 2011 by the Baltimore Sun. As an adopted Austinite, that label carries a high standard. In Austin, “business casual” is cutoff jean shorts (“jorts”) and a tech swag tee shirt with sandals. In Austin, the chic commuter rides a scooter or bicycle. Maybe even walks. In Austin, drinking a beer is not something simply saved for off-hours. In fact, many companies keep a refrigerator stocked with beer because, hey, the workforce can be more relaxed, efficient and productive if given certain leeway. Thankfully, none of us are drunks… maybe.

At Agora, I found a company that matched this sort of comfort level I’ve come to expect. When I flew up for an interview (and job interviews have been something I’ve not really had to do seriously since 2002), I emailed Mark, the Art Director and my point of contact, and very politely suggested I wouldn’t be arriving at their headquarters in a tie. Manage expectations, and such. Mark’s response was simply, “That’s fine. Business casual works”.

Business casual can mean many things. It’s sort of a catch all phrase that means different things to different people based on different companies policy ideas. So I wore some decent dress pants, a button up shirt and a vest with no tie. The team had sandals, jeans with holes, and hoodies and plaid-pattern button up shirts. I felt like I was in Austin!

Ideology

But company culture was just one aspect. The work they do perfectly fits who I am practically and ideologically.

You see, Agora is a publishing company first and foremost. I’m a publisher. I’ve written a book and worked with traditional book publishers. My first startup was a publishing company with, at our peak, 350 blogs. Agora’s model is different than those models, but they’re publishing. They are creating content that, hopefully, long outlives us.

They are a policy research publishing company. Those who know me know that I love policy, I hate politics. When I engage in politics, it’s usually from the lens of policy. Agora provides research analysis and white papers based on their policy research in a subscription format. So there’s also a revenue model. And they’ve been highly successful at doing this, historically through newsletters, for years. It’s a proven model, and they are a proven company.

In addition, their policy analysis generally comes from a libertarian (small “l”) perspective. As a left-leaning small-l libertarian, I enjoy this aspect of what they do (even though I suspect most of my colleagues and most libertarians as a whole are right-leaning small-l libertarians, I suspect that we all agree on a framework of responsibility and limited government in individuals life, and diverge on other less-important minutiae).

I was hungry for this job. It was a dream job for me. Join a company doing things I loved, in areas I loved, with tools (WordPress) I loved, with a style of corporate culture that I loved. When they made me an offer, I didn’t hesitate to accept and fire myself from my own company.

I fired myself!

Having the Balls to Fire Myself

Most people aspire to stop working for the man, and start working for themselves. There are entire classes at universities and colleges about entrepreneurship, and to be sure, entrepreneurship is the mode of decade.

The other night, I had the opportunity to guest lecture for an capstone course on digital entrepreneurship for American University. It was online and you can hear my story and lecture here. This course is a culmination of all the classwork done in this program and is largely a practicum of everything learned to that point. The lectures are a series of lectures from guests that give the students inspiration and motivation about their futures while they work on their individual projects.

During this talk, I spoke specifically about the time I left corporate America and went out on a limb. It was 2006. I had been working on a side-project basis for over a year building up a WordPress-powered content network and when we finally took funding, I was employee #1 or #2, depending on who you ask. I couldn’t wait to leave my computer-fixing job and go do something I really, really wanted to do instead and get paid for.

I’ve heard stories like that from hundreds of entrepreneurs. Most never look back with any regret, despite the struggles and sometime-economic instability.

I have a view that whatever I do, I do it because I want to. It’s very easy to look and say that running a startup, building a product, starting a company or, in general, working for yourself is, in fact, the holy grail.

From Happiness to Happiness

My view is that the holy grail should be happiness and motivation derived from what you do. Sometimes that means taking a more unorthodox step and saying, you know what… being an entrepreneur is awesome, but it’s a vehicle to happiness, not happiness itself.

So effective February 4, 2013, Aaron Brazell has been terminated by Aaron Brazell.

I don’t know if I would have fired myself to go be a developer in some developer-happy company that segregates the developer from the product line. In other words, a lot of developer-oriented companies have developers as a means to an end. Product managers go talk to customers, develop goals, milestones, wireframes or storyboards, make decisions on initiatives with corporate executives and the developers exist to make that shit happen.

Some people like that. Some people don’t want to be a part of the politics and roadmapping. They work better with a framework that defines what their role and deliverables are. For them, that’s happiness.

For me, happiness is seeing the vision, talking about what it means – the pros, cons, feedback – iterating, being a part of the process of both scoping and building and then allowing the idea to flourish. It means building something toward an end. In the idea of a startup, it means building a product and moving it toward acquisition, IPO or even failure.

As a consultant, there was no viable end. Unless I’m committed to building out a team (I’m not), increasing a production pipeline (without a team, I can’t), or other such motivations, a consultancy looks exactly the way it does in 10 years as it did on day 1 – find clients, build something for them, collect money, wash, rinse, repeat. There’s no glorious ending. To me, that makes for an unhappy Aaron.

Agora provides an exciting platform, an an innate sense of entrepreneurship internally, that makes me happy. If I have an idea, I can try it. If I think something could really work well, I’ve got a green light to work on it. All within a good developer situation where I also have deliverables, and things to look at and solve. The combination of such makes Aaron a very happy person.