Way back in 1999 I was cleaning out a closet when I found a box of old photos. They were all photos from snowmobile races in the 1970s when snowmobile racing was a very popular sport in the snow belt. I thought the images were interesting, so I posted them online.
The response was immediate and overwhelming.
Within days my inbox was full of people asking what I knew about the photos and if I had any more. I was struck by the fact that I was working on some very high-profile websites at the time – and not one of them got this kind of response.
The response was immediate and fascinating.
Traffic on the site grew exponentially faster than in other places we were doing professionally. That was somewhat embarrassing. Our clients were from massive, innovative, and well-funded companies. Yet for all of the work we put into their websites, this tiny little site I did in my spare time (about a subject matter I couldn’t imagine anyone cared about) was kicking their asses in terms of traffic.
I didn’t say much. I did my best to translate what I learned on vintagesleds.com to my clients. But I was met with resistance from most of them, who all wanted “flashy” at the time over function. But the excitement of that success spurred me to spend copious amounts of time adding to the site. I decided to blog about my adventures in hunting down some of the folklore around the old race sleds and sharing every detail. I did the first story about looking for the handful of racing sleds Kawasaki made for the 1977 racing season.
I iteratively released the story. I would write a page, remove it, then hunt, write, and release it. Each section of the report drove more and more traffic to the website. By the time I was going to put up the finish to the story, I was getting fifteen to twenty-five emails a day from people who couldn’t wait to know the end. Some had found my phone number and were calling.
Soon I added a classifieds section to the site. Although it had a database, I made its programming free to use and pathetically simple.
The response was immediate and stunning.
Traffic climbed exponentially again, and soon the classifieds got almost as much traffic as the home page. Traffic tripled in just a few months. I added a store, and the site soon earned $60,000 a year. Ad revenues started to pick up, and the place was finally paying for itself, but I never paid myself a dime. Instead, any money left over went back into the site.
I kept adding stories to the home page all this time, which was exhausting. Growing fresh, exciting material means a lot of travel, talking, hunting, decoding, and fact-checking. But I loved doing it.
Eventually, we added a forum named the ‘Bull Sessions’ in honor of guys who like old sleds and love to chat about them. I admit I was against this at first because I knew building it was out of the question budget-wise, and the open-source packages available at the time had too many features and were too complicated. I also knew that a forum would require 24/7/365 monitoring to prevent trouble. So my brother (AKA Doc Jim) stepped up and volunteered to moderate the discussion, mainly taking that additional time off my plate.
The response was again immediate and mind-boggling.
Eventually, I found the store part of the website to violate my attempts to simplify life. I had lots of inventory, some very large, and no place to put it. I hired several fulfillment houses, but none met my expectations for customer service. With credit card fees, shipping costs, inventory costs, returns, and other costs, the margins on the store just weren’t very exciting. I’m sure I could have kept working on it… but the issue of all that “stuff” being around was too much for me. So I shut the store off with little fanfare and focused on increasing ad revenues.
That worked. The site paid for itself within a year but had no inventory costs. I still never paid myself a dime. Digital Opera was doing very well, and I didn’t need any more money. So I invested money into sponsorships to support the community and build the website.
But, as is my nature, I became restless and started to lose the attraction of working on the site all the time. It was time for a change.
As I started to simplify, reducing the time I spent on the website became paramount. But by now, vintagesleds.com was doing 4.2 million visitors a year who looked at over 40 million pages and spent about fifteen minutes there. A ton of these people had become excellent friends. I didn’t want to disappoint any of them.
I ran through a dozen scenarios, but in the end, selling it to someone with a professional interest in keeping it running was the best idea. So it was purchased by Vertical Scope, a Canadian company that runs dozens of similar web communities. They assured me they would continue to work on the site and grow the community.
Was it all worth it? You bet! If for no other reason than the massive amount of really great people I met and got to know off that site, who came from all walks of life and live in all corners of the globe (or at least the corners with snow!) that I have stayed in touch with over the years. But what we learned about making a website huge – well that has turned out to be a really great benefit that keeps paying for us and our clients.
Update: Vertical Scope has kept the site alive – barely. The only changes they made were attempts to up the ad revenue. Otherwise, they haven’t updated since 2016. All the other Vertical Scope websites have been moved to a common platform, but not Vintagesleds.com. As a result, most of the site’s users are far more active on social media, primarily on Facebook.
In retrospect, the website came along at just the right time. It both caused and was one of the beneficiaries of the peak of the vintage snowmobile hobby. By the early 2000s, the people who lived through the 60s, 70s, and 80s enjoying snowmobiles got to an age where looking back was made so much easier by the internet, and we were #1 across any search.
In any case, it was a fantastic experience and an even more amazing ride.