By John Gruber
Flatfile: Never format messy spreadsheets again.
When I started writing Daring Fireball in 2002, there really weren’t any established ways for a small independent website to generate money. I mean like literally nothing. I knew, though, that it was what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to write. But I didn’t want to write books. I didn’t want to write for a newspaper or a magazine or someone else’s website. I wanted to write Daring Fireball.
I plugged away, writing as much as I could, doing it as a hobby. And I just started trying ways to generate revenue, with one guiding rule: don’t do anything I’m not proud of. In 2003 I first announced publicly my intention to one day write Daring Fireball full-time, and began a brief experiment with Google AdSense. (Daring Fireball was literally one of the first sites on the web showing ads from Google). It didn’t work well financially, or look good. In June 2004 I started selling t-shirts and a $19/year membership system. That worked better.
A few months later, I started selling my own sponsorships:
Effective Tuesday evening, I abandoned Google’s AdSense program, in favor of selling my own sponsorships. If you’ll take a look at the bottom of my sidebar, you’ll see an ad from Daring Fireball’s first sponsor: Coudal Partners’ Jewelboxing.
Thus began the best business partnership of my life.
In early 2006, Jim Coudal started The Deck, with Jeffrey Zeldman and 37signals (now Basecamp). I joined in early February, making Daring Fireball the fourth site in the network. Andy Baio, Jason Kottke, and The Morning News joined soon thereafter. In March, we had a group dinner in Austin during SXSW. I remember a palpable sense of accomplishment. I remember thinking, This is going to work.
A month later I announced I was going full-time writing Daring Fireball. It worked.
Today, 11 years later, Jim announced that The Deck is shutting down: “Things change.”
It’s no coincidence that Jewelboxing was DF’s first sponsor. I devised my original sponsorship system — a set of principles more than a set of rules — through commiseration and collaboration with my friend Jim Coudal. We shared the same deep frustration: a sense that there had to be a way to do advertising on the web that didn’t suck — something that readers would not mind (and might actually enjoy), provided good results for the advertisers, and generated good money for the publisher.
Here are just a few of the things that make me proud to have been part of The Deck:
Perhaps most importantly, we never showed more than one ad per page. From the beginning of web advertising, publishers have seemingly been in a race to cram as many ads per page as they can. In print magazines and newspapers, there are ads like that too, but they’re the low-rent pages in the back of the book. The real money in print comes from the prestigious ads that are exclusive. The back cover. The inside front cover spread. The full page opposite the table of contents. Exclusivity has tremendous value, and most web publishers still haven’t gotten that. And on the web, an ad doesn’t have to be big to be exclusive and to occupy valuable real estate.
I lost count long ago of the readers who wrote to me just to say that they whitelisted The Deck from their ad blockers. Not as a favor to me, but simply because they recognized that The Deck deserved not to be blocked. I love that.
I love The Deck.
“I write for my pleasure, but publish for money.”
I’ve used that quote before when writing about the business side of Daring Fireball, but it’s a good enough quote to use at least once every decade.
As Jim wrote today, what ultimately did The Deck in is the shift in advertising dollars to social networks and the rise of mobile:
In 2014, display advertisers started concentrating on large, walled, social networks. The indie “blogosphere” was disappearing. Mobile impressions, which produce significantly fewer clicks and engagements, began to really dominate the market. Invasive user tracking (which we refused to do) and all that came with that became pervasive, and once again The Deck was back to being a pretty good business. By 2015, it was an OK business and, by the second half of 2016, the network was beginning to struggle again.
This graph showing Facebook’s revenue from 2007 through 2016 tells the story.
That said, Daring Fireball is doing fine. DF RSS feed sponsorships remain strong, and listenership and sponsorships for The Talk Show are growing. The Deck was only one leg among several on the DF revenue stool, and in recent years, it had become one of the shorter ones. I have not decided yet how or what to replace The Deck with. I feel certain of only one thing: things have changed, and it’s been too long since I experimented with new ideas. In terms of aggregate revenue, selling weekly RSS feed sponsorships is the best idea I’ve ever had — but it started as a lark, a last-ditch attempt to figure out a way to provide full-content RSS feeds to Google Reader users.1 It might be time to try a few larks again.
What hurts far more than the loss in revenue is the principle of the damn thing. The Deck did it right, and it worked for over a decade. I’m sure I would’ve gone full-time writing Daring Fireball sooner or later, but I couldn’t have done it when I did, in 2006, without The Deck.
I was chatting with Jim earlier this evening. Someone wrote to him to ask, “Why didn’t you sell the network instead of shutting it down?” Jim’s answer: “The Deck was built exclusively on close, personal relationships. I don’t think those are mine to sell.”
In 11 years, Jim and I never had anything more than a virtual handshake through Messages (née iChat) as a “contract”. They say don’t do business with friends. My experience says otherwise — if you have the right friends.