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Any road followed precisely to its end leads
precisely nowhere. Climb the mountain just a little
bit to test that it’s a mountain. From the top of the
mountain, you cannot see the mountain.
– Frank Herbert

I was born into a generation that has grown up with a mouse in one hand and a modem in the other. We consume more data in a day than our grandparents would have in a month, and all of us noble pioneers of the datastream are looking for the meaning tucked away in the noise. My first substantial introduction to the web was a little piece of software called America Online. If you don’t remember it, AOL was a spam company that used to send out thousands of . . . OK, OK that’s not fair. At the time, AOL was a crowning jewel of Internet democratization, the Time Warner merger was just a gleam in the corner of some underwriter’s eyes and the entire online universe could be summed up in “You’ve Got Mail.”

If I remember anything at all about my early experience with the Internet, it is the excitement of belonging to something so vast.

Signing online for the first time was like stepping out into some great, unknown wilderness. I mean, where do you go, where should you go when all of the world’s information is at your finger tips?

After the Gold Rush

In the many years between my introduction to the web and the day I took my first baby steps towards making a career of it, I’ve witnessed the rapid evolution of the technology from a utility that squawked at you — promising knowledge read from the entrails of some nameless, faceless creature somewhere in cyberspace, to a platform that speaks with you — a living, breathing community. A community not so unlike any big city anywhere in the real world. A community with a culture, an economy and a life all its own.

Even after the “Dot Com” boom of the late 90s threatened to derail the web’s momentum, even after all of the brick and mortar prospectors realized that a product and a guy who knew HTML did not a business model make, even then many of us at the edges recognized a simple fact – we hadn’t seen the last of business on the web. How could we have? There was too much room for collaboration and more importantly, unlike every other industry that has ever existed, the web made it all so cheap to do.

It was this bet, that the web was the next, great untapped wilderness of entrepreneurship, that put me in that coffee shop four years ago.

Prototypical Entrepreneur Story

The story starts simply. Like any good entrepreneur, I had an idea and I needed to talk about it. To this day, I can’t remember which of the dozen grand, world changing and ultimately aborted new inventions that I produced weekly it was, but I am sure it would have been worth about ten million dollars to Google.

Five phone calls and ten emails later, I ended up inside a Starbucks speaking with Dan Rua, a Venture Capitalist who, to this day, has the unenviable position of being the only real “web” investor operating in Northern Florida. The story that I tell is that sometime between our coffee and our chat, I realized two things: the first was that the idea that I had been lusting over for months was about the stupidest plan to ever see the light of day, the second was that I had to find someway to get a presence on the web.

Later that day, I bought a domain name and put up my first blog — How To Split An Atom. The rest, as they say, is about 100 pages.

About This Book’s Structure

This book is an amalgam of essays and observations that I have written over the course of the last two years. The first versions of these essays were written for How To Split An Atom, within the context of the Web 2.0 boom years. While the content has been sliced, diced, tweaked and often completely changed to fit the context of this book, the spirit of each piece is identical to what it was on the day it was written.

By telling the story of the web directly from the trenches, I hope to give you something that few other authors in this field can — perspective. You will have the opportunity to learn about the Internet, Blogging, New Media and the culture surrounding these concepts from the voice of someone knee deep in dealing with them.

This isn’t a How To guide and you wont find any secrets of getting rich online here, but you will learn what it means to run a business on the web. I will teach you about the culture, the conflicts, and the creativity that drives the social web forward. With the tools and advice you’ll gain from this book, you should have much of what you’ll need to step onto the web with your eyes open.

Going Digital

Why is it hard to make money online?

Legend has it that if you want to become a millionaire without the pain of doing actual work, all you need to do is learn a little HTML, some Javascript, buy yourself some $10 hosting and head out to Silicon Valley in search of a gold mine in a 3-button suit. Those fortunate enough to take this path to its logical conclusion are usually left with two pieces of priceless wisdom. The first is that it “just isn’t as easy as everyone makes it out to be.” The second lesson is that no matter how many guides you pour through and how many sterling pieces of business literature that guarantee that you will be successful that you add to your bookshelf, building a business on the web is, in fact, exactly like building a successful business anywhere else – almost impossible.

Things only get worse if you move into town without knowing where you are.

In 2006, there were 100 million web pages, and since then that number has grown exponentially. There are millions of people vying for the same eyeballs you hope to corral. To win in this game, you’ll need much more than another set of tips and tricks, you’ll need intuition. I hate to break it to you, but there is no secret, no magic bullet, no shortcut that will make all of those Internet millions you’ve been reading about appear at your door. What you need is to understand the fundamentals of building a business on the web and then to try, and fail, until you get it right.

Swallowing Poison

After learning that all those seminars at the Hilton were for naught, many leave the world of the web jaded, lamenting the time they’ve wasted and the money they’ve spent. How many times have you heard this?

“The web just isn’t ready for commerce.”

Sentiments that are usually followed by this equally valuable piece of reasoning:

“The web is just a plaything for kids and work-at-homes. Real business can’t work there.”

Bitterness is not necessarily truth.

What is correct is that building a product on the web is like selling rain in a hurricane. The first thing to realize is that to an outside observer all the drops look the same and nothing, nothing you are doing is at all original. Need proof? Do a quick search on Google for your idea. You will probably find dozens of sites that do what you plan to do in one form of another. If not, stop reading this book right now and get to work because I can bet you someone is nipping at your heels as you read.

A much worse discovery will be when you find out that some of these sites are doing exactly what you are doing more elegantly. It’s not enough that you have dozens of competitors but half of them have better products! Before you lose hope, ask yourself this – have you ever heard of these competitors? Do you know anyone who uses them?

Why and why not?

Function is only marginally relevant on the web. Someone, somewhere has made something that does everything. Just as every story has already been written, every product has already been created. How then do you come up with ideas in a world where original thought doesn’t exist?

You shift your way of thinking.

You stop asking yourself how you can do a particular thing first and you start asking yourself how you can do it perfectly, beautifully. What is it about your social network for dogs that will make Animal Planet take notice? What is it about your political news blog that will get you an invitation to the White House? Why do people care about the Huffington Post and not Bill Sutter’s Magical Political Discussion Group (other than the fact that this blog doesn’t exist)? What makes your product exceptional to your best customer?

Vision: A Million Dollar Party Trick

If there is a million dollar talent, it’s the ability to ask the right questions. Steve Jobs had it when he realized that you could sell piles of MP3 players if you made them stylish. Mark Zuckerberg had it when he saw that college students will spend hours on the web stalking their friends and neighbors, as long as you make it easy. Visionaries aren’t those who can find the idea no one has ever done before. Visionaries find the idea that everyone is doing incorrectly. They see the hidden beauty behind the crumbling walls and peeling paint of an industry, and have the foresight to snatch up the property.

Still, we aren’t getting to the heart of the matter. Product design is only one stage of producing ideas. The question remains, how do you take a “great concept” and push it out to the masses? To get a better understanding of where you need to start, let’s look at a story.

All We Want is a Fender Guitar

There once was a young man who wanted nothing more out of life than to buy a Fender Guitar. Circumstances would have it that guitars are expensive, which meant that the only way that our hero had any chance of strumming “Stairway to Heaven” before he was grey in the face was if he got himself a job. The boy was quite industrious but he only had one marketable talent — mowing lawns.

“No problem,” he mused, “it’s a big world out there and there are a lot of lawns to mow. I am the best lawn mower that this town has ever seen. This will be a piece of cake! Yes Siree!”

So the boy took what savings he had and bought himself a used lawn mower. He worked hard, he worked well and in a short amount of time he really did get to be known as the best gardener his neighborhood had ever seen. By the end of the summer, he had earned enough money to buy himself the guitar.

This is the world we hope for when we create something online, a world where our beliefs about the merits of our skills and the power of a singular purpose can translate into an unbeatable brand. The real picture is a little different. Imagine if the hero of our story was not only facing off against a dozen huge lawn care syndicates, but was also going toe to toe against others like himself, others who were scrimping and scraping away for their own “guitars.” Take this a little further and imagine that everyone in need of a trim knew all about each of these services and could pick and choose without any searching costs.

With a finite number of people needing their lawns cared for and a near infinite number of comparably skilled competitors, what chance does our young hero have? On the surface of things, not much of one.

Look at it another way.

If you were to put up a single page on the web today and all it had was a picture of your house, how many people do you think would visit it? Very few. You wouldn’t really blame them, what reason does anyone have to visit a website with a picture of some stranger’s house? Now, keep everything about the previous situation the same but substitute the picture of your house for your product. I hope by now the scope of your challenge is becoming more clear.

If not, let me present it to you another way.

No matter how interesting you might think your product is, to the apathetic masses it’s nothing more than another “thing” on the web. Once you realize your product is a needle in a stack of needles, you’ve taken the first step towards creating something that will sell.

The Cult of Me

There is nothing subtle about bringing a good idea to the masses. Getting people to care about your brainchild is no less than Total War.

Wikipedia defines Total War in these colorful terms, “. . . is a conflict of unlimited scope in which a faction mobilizes all available resources in order to destroy their rival’s ability to defend themselves. The practice of total war has been in use for centuries, but it was only in the middle to late 19th century that total war was identified by scholars as a separate class of warfare. In total war there are no non-combatants; every person from a particular country, civilians and soldiers alike, are considered to be acceptable targets.”

If you want your idea to be successful, you have to take the fight to every battlefield. Whether it is a tiny navigation tweak, fighting for a mention on the smallest blog, all the way to remembering what to say during your New York Times interview, everything is a battle of attrition. You are fighting against apathy, inertia, and tens of thousands of competitors looking to own the same patch of land. If you are not willing to wage war across every front at your disposal, you are just wasting your time.

Producing big ideas on the web doesn’t end on launch day. It’s a process that spans the entire lifecycle of your product. It’s a process that requires a range of task that will make the pain that you went through to produce your product feel like a weekend getaway. Creating great ideas online involves everything from buzz drenched terms like SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and Social Media to the nuts and bolts of effectively communicating with people who you have never met and who don’t know you or your idea from a hole in the ground.

Instead of giving you a laundry list of sites that you can register for in order to make your product work, let’s look at another example of some of the skills you’ll need.


Three people want to create a social network ( to help people organize social gatherings in New Jersey. They code a rudimentary application and they put it onto a website. After four months, they notice that only a handful of people are visiting their site and they wonder what is going wrong. It doesn’t make sense. They hired someone to get them listed well in Google for, “social gatherings in New Jersey,” they are paying thousands of dollars for advertising and they have even added the URL of their website to their business cards like all the web marketing tutorials suggested. Why isn’t it working?

One of the three decides to do an experiment. He spends the next week finding and registering to Forums dealing with the New Jersey social scene. After a while, he decides to ask some of the participants why they aren’t visiting NewJawseySocialWeb. He gets a lot of suggestions but most of them boil down to the fact that they simply didn’t know it existed.

After a few weeks of traveling to related sites and asking the same questions, he ends up with a laundry list of suggestion. When he goes to tell the other two people working on the project about his findings, they have an even bigger surprise, since he began his little experiment, registrations on the site had doubled and visitors had increased ten fold without any other changes.

How and why did this happen? Inadvertently this entrepreneur had stumbled upon the only secret of marketing ideas that is 100% true.

Talk about your product. Talk about it everywhere, to everyone, whenever you can. More importantly, speak honestly to people who care about what you’re doing and turn them into your evangelists.

If there is one skill that a web marketer needs above all else it is an intuition for where on the web their product will be able to thrive. It’s so easy to waste time and money on tasks that are destined to fail if you don’t think it through. Are you a content producer who needs to use Digg, Reddit and Stumble Upon to fuel traffic? Are you a social network that needs to target Forums in your niche? Do not waste your time looking for a catch all solution, instead spend time understanding how the Internet as a whole functions. With that understanding, your vectors of attack will become clear.

First things first, however, before you can market your idea to anyone you have to get it launched. That’s where this book comes in. In it I will describe the steps you should take to get your website off the ground, and some of the bruised knees and sprained ankles that you will want to avoid.

Next: Case Study, Herbert Tabin | I bet you’re excited about buying a copy.

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