Fanroom was a website I designed to list pubs and bars showing live sport. I did so with two others: Andy, who built it and Mike, who gathered the data. It was a side-project that’s out there and we got quite excited about it but it never really grew into the beast we’d hoped it would do. However side-projects are great for trying and learning new things and I did just that:
1. Just because everyone says they like it doesn’t mean they’ll use it.
Everyone we would tell about the idea of Fanroom got it instantly and thought it was a good idea. “That would be really useful”, “oh yeah, I’d definitely use that” they’d say. Unfortunately it doesn’t mean they really would. What we ended up creating was something that was useful to use once every few weeks (maybe only once ever) but people don’t really have a compelling reason to revisit a sports pub website. They just hit Google when they require that information. If ours came up top great, if not, we’ve missed out. Hardly a regular user-base, which will always make it hard to grow.
2. Gathering data is hard. And the data is everything.
Certainly our biggest challenge. Finding out the pubs and bars that carry Sky Sports, ESPN etc involved a lot of manual searching, which took a long time in itself. This was then followed up with recording all the details including lat/lon and screen-grabbing a streetview of each place. Not the quickest. Luckily we had one person doing just this the whole time. Not that it was that lucky for him and it was never going to be a sustainable method of growth. We managed to gather 600-odd venues this way but this was just for London and if we had aspirations of reaching further afield knew we had to get user-submitted data. We never got there because to do that meant having a regular user-base (see above for why that didn’t work).
And there’s no doubt the data is everything, content is king etc. It’s the reason people will be coming to your site. It needs to be useful. It doesn’t matter how usable, well-designed, well-built or beautifully coded it is (in fact people will persevere through badly made sites to reach great content).
3. It’s increasingly hard to make money out of online stuff.
Even creating a database full of useful information does not a profitable venture make. So we whack adsense on top but even doing hundreds of thousands of pageviews a month only makes about a hundred quid. The other option would have been for us to start charging venues for prominent/premium listings but this would require lots more time and sales skills. Both of which cost money. Or we could have grown things organically to get a massive audience by spending all day on social media. Again the old time being money problem. So guess what? Making loads of money online isn’t quite as simple as we’d once hoped. It’s like it’s the same as a real business or something…
4. User testing can be done for free.
And perhaps always should be, as you’ll get the most honest feedback. For our biggest bit of user testing, we took an unconventional route, inspired by ‘guerilla user testing’ I’d done a bit of at the BBC. We went to The Football Ramble Christmas drinks, which are held in a pub where (mostly) men watch football – if the users don’t come to you, take yourself to the users.
There we simply set up a laptop and grabbed people for five minutes at a time, which was all we needed to run through the key tasks for using site. One of which was reviewing a venue, meaning we managed to combine testing with gathering reviews. A sneaky way of building up the content. Anyway, we got about ten users in a couple of hours and came away with a list of about ten key things we could do to quickly improve the site.
5. Naming a project correctly makes it come to life.
We went through every possible sport, TV and pub synonym combo trying to name this. And we came very close to getting it wrong. I was convinced we needed a unique name to help us be memorable and let us dominate Google (even though no-one was searching for us yet). I bought into what Seth Godin had to say about naming a company and I still think he’s right if you’re going to make it. But so convinced was I that we almost called the site Fanama (kind of combining ‘fan’ and ‘cinema’). The three of us thought it sounded pretty cool (like Panama, a cool-sounding country) and had started to get attached to it. Then we told our girlfriends and got laughed at. Apparently they thought it sounded like a euphemism for lady parts. So always run it past others, kids.
But when we then landed on Fanroom, we knew we’d cracked it. Before long we were using it comfortably in conversation and it didn’t sound weird. It has a structure very much like that of Facebook so feels at home in the web world, whilst giving a bit of a hint at what we do. But getting this right was a huge motivator and made us feel like everything was heading in the right direction. So it’s worth the time you inevitably spend poring over lists of words.