A few years ago (back in 2008), I started windows7center.com. A friend knew someone (let’s give him a fake name, John) who was looking to build a news site for Windows 7, and he referred John to me.
John already purchased the domain, along with hosting, but other than that, he had a very vague idea of how he was going to execute this idea. After all, he was a student pursuing business, and although he spent lots of time on the internet, John had never grown or developed a website. I worked with many clients who were either establishing, or established, and had a fair amount of experience growing forum communities. There wasn’t really a website dedicated to information and news on Windows 7 at that point, so our partnership began.
We worked together to come up with the design, and I developed the website. We took turns writing articles, and very quickly, decided to go live. Once it had gone live, John was disillusioned. He thought surely with a domain name like windows7center, we would be getting lots of traffic, right? I reassured him this was quite normal, and that our focus should be writing quality content and establishing presence. I went on some forums that I was a regular member of, and let them know of the site’s existence.
Slowly, we got some steady traffic (with the help of some enthusiastic people from other forums). The question of how the site would pay for itself and generate some “loose change” quickly came up. I decided that we would use Google Adsense like nearly every other news site out there, but also would have to focus on the user experience and not scare people away with ads everywhere.
Having moderated a couple successful forums in the past, I had become attached to the idea of a forum community, and suggested that a forum would help us greatly. It would allow us to more closely interact with our visitors, invite them to discuss new changes, get feedback and suggestions, paint a more accurate picture of our visitor demographic (along with Google Analytics), host contests, and get ideas and content for our future articles. This proved to be a success. My primary focus became to grow the forum community and convert once-in-a-while visitors into avid forum participants.
Revenue passed “lunch money”, and soon we had another problem. John wanted to bank his money and just continue with the site/forum at the current state. I was not satisfied, I believed that the forum still had lots of room for growth, and lots of revenue to be created. After the huge amount of criticism about Windows Vista, and all the blog posts on the internet bashing Windows Vista, I was sure Windows 7 would receive a lot of attention. Our forum members were definitely excited about Windows 7, and most had already been using the Release Candidate. I convinced John that we should hold contests and give out a few free copies of Windows 7 (out of our own pockets of course), and if executed well, it could bring us a lot more attention and ad revenue than we ever had previously.
John was sold. Somewhere between “buying Windows 7”, and “much more traffic and money”, his eyes had lit up. For the first time in a while, I could see he was excited about what we were doing. Within the next couple of months, our traffic and revenue would multiply even more, and we found a few young and talented writers on the forums who wanted to help with writing articles. We had 3 other moderators for the forums who did a great job furthering engagement and ensuring no obscene content or toxic behaviour took place. They were all volunteers passionate about the forums, and I guess in a sense, enjoyed the sense of control and power. Windows7Center became more or less self-sustainable. John and I could leave it alone for a month, and it would still be doing great. I only worked on it because it was something I enjoyed; in no way was it a chore, and I did not tire from committing time to it.
Outlook was positive. Sure, I had thought about what would happen once Windows 8 was announced, and John had purchased the domain for windows8center.com too. We knew that we could easily launch Windows8Center, and have everything ready for our members to move there. It would all go fine, the site that is.
I had run into some personal troubles/difficulties of my own, and no longer had much time to dedicate to Windows7Center/Windows8Center. Seeing my creation thriving had been my goal, and together, we had done it. We had trudged through the early days of seeing single digits in Google Analytics. The early days where people questioned how viable it was. The community had some great writers and moderators, and I was happy to have started this, but sadly, I no longer had time for it. So I decided to leave. I would still visit once in a while, but I would not be the administrator/owner/moderator anymore.
As I had expected, everything went fine. John would take on a more hands-on role, the administrator of the site, Google Adsense, Google Analytics, forum events, everything else I had previously done. It went great, at least that’s how it seemed. Windows7Center/Windows8Center was popular. We became the second largest Windows 7 community on the internet. We ranked around 2000 on Alexa, and served millions of pageviews.
While I had been more quiet about it in my personal life, lots of John’s friends and classmates knew he was a founder. Within 2 months after I left, all 3 moderators that worked with me on the forums were “demoted”. 5 of John’s friends took their place. I did not like where it was going, but I had already handed off everything to John, and promised myself I would simply be an observer. They seemed to manage fine, a few seemed a bit abusive of their new-found superpowers, but overall it didn’t go too bad.
What happened next still makes me shake my head to this day. John decided that the steady growth the site was having was not enough. More revenue was needed, and as he was a business student, he knew best. And so he started cutting costs. The hosting fees were relatively cheap, and necessary, the moderators and writers were voluntary, so what costs were there to cut? Oh yes, the free copies of Windows 7 they gave out. Of course, he suspected that if he gave out less copies it wouldn’t help too much, so he started pointing people to torrent links of cracked copies of Windows 7. Costs? Gone. More revenue? Yes.
Unfortunately for him, many users started complaining and pointing out that it was illegal. So he stopped doing it and bought the copies again. Nope, not a chance. Him and his moderators started banning people who had anything bad to say, posted rude remarks, and happily showed the door to unsatisfied forum members. His way or the highway. Around this time, I deleted my account and never went back. I heard that many users still stayed, the forum was active, but vulgar language and negative comments became the norm. The site slowly died off, and around mid-2012, John pulled the plug.
We never discussed exactly what happened after I left, his reasoning for moving to piracy is mostly my speculation, and we haven’t spoken since then. It’s made me sad to see the site take such a turn, but we all make mistakes, and I’m sure John has learned a valuable lesson. I certainly have.