My usual answer is web stuff, or web development. It doesn't really matter what you call it. I could tell people I train web servers to cope, emotionally and conceptually, with the implications of the modern internet and most would nod thoughtfully and say they've heard there's a lot of money in that. The inner workings of the interwebs are not something most people think about. Besides, 'web stuff' is a legit way to describe what I do, I've fiddled with pretty much every aspect of the web over the last 15+ years.
I registered designbyian.com in 2002. At the time I had already been self employed running websites and doing contract work for years, I was too busy actually working to spend a lot of time selling myself. Instead, in 2003, I put up a single page site over the course of a couple days, briefly listing the things I was proficient at, and pretty much left it at that. Looking at it now in 2011... Well it was a bit dated. This realization has inspired me to replace the previous rush job with a new one. I like to think that I'll spend more time on it soon, but I know it won't happen.
These days I still do contract work, I love building and improving things. I also do consultation and teaching. After years of running websites and watching the internet evolve I like to think I have developed a larger perspective on web properties and applications. The projects I enjoy most are those that take all aspects of web business into consideration. It's great to have opportunities to put it all together. Beyond that I'm not particularly interested in writing a personal sales pitch. So instead I'm going to talk about how I learned about building the web. I'll try to be brief, apologies in advance if I fail.
I started playing around on the internet back when many of the web pages (web site wasn't a popular term yet) of the time were nothing but text. There were no search engines to speak of. The best way to find new pages was to visit a small but comprehensive list of links called Yahoo!
My first experiences of the web were via telnet. I would connect via dial up to a local BBS service and then telnet from there through an educational institution's internet connection using a password of dubious origins. No images, just text. It's an amazing contrast to the modern web. Made more amazing by the fact that this wasn't really that long ago. Things move fast in the digital world.
I used this pony express like connection mostly as a sales tool for various silly entrepreneurial pursuits, and it actually worked. People were willing to buy things based on a little text blurb on a web page... crazy. This was years before the dot-com bubble but it seemed clear that the internet would fundamentally change commerce. For my purposes, though, it was enough that it made me a little extra cash.
Eventually I started building web pages of my own, selling products, referring people to incentive marketing companies, whatever looked interesting. I wish I had taken screen shots of those first websites, they were superior to pages full of little dancing rodents1, but only just barely.
Fast forward a year or two and the dot-com bubble was hitting full stride, people were throwing millions of dollars at anything appearing to have the slightest potential, allowing countless of companies to lose money in massive quantities and pretty much just ask for more when they ran out. It was at this point that the internet started paying all my bills. This venture capital/absurdly huge IPO fueled craziness went on for years. I made no attempt to roll the dice at selling some silly idea and making millions. I was having more than enough fun playing with web development while not having to worry about rent. In the process I was learning about the widely varied, and sometimes conflicting, disciplines involved in being a webmaster. Incidentally the term webmaster is a little outdated now, if you're not familiar with it, don't worry, just know that leather and restraints are not a necessary component.
Any innovative web development technique or tool was a new toy for me. Along the way I re-discovered the joys of real programming (I taught myself BASIC as a kid and then forgot about programming completely). Programming might not seem like a lot of fun from an outside perspective, but if you have the right mindset it combines the joy of creation, the challenge of problem solving with the zen of total immersion in a pursuit. It can be surprisingly artistic and the end result will often send you checks. There's a reason so many of our modern million and billionaires are programmers.
But running websites is about a lot more than coding and graphics. You need traffic which means drawing visitors and then persuading them, not only to stick around, but to come back. So you learn about search engine optimization and the myriad other ways you can promote something online. This includes copywriting for things like "hook" articles and press releases. You learn the psychology of your target audience. You discover what they want, how best to provide it for them and how to communicate with them. You also learn about the business world as a whole because you inevitably, unfortunately, end up dealing with traditional corporations. If you have heard someone use the word leverage as a verb, in completely the wrong context, with a straight face and a vaguely smug undertone, then you can understand. It's especially entertaining when it's you they claim to want to leverage. It always seems to me that they should at least offer to buy you a beer first.
Many aspects of business are easier online than in a brick and mortar environment because you have logs which, when interpreted correctly, can tell you exactly what your visitors are looking for, almost what they're thinking. The majority of what you want to know about your audience can be gleaned from your logs and everything that remains can be learned by encouraging them to interact with one another and interpreting the results. Much of the guesswork is removed. Determining your return on investment (ROI) when you run an advertising campaign is also a much more straightforward process online. In fact that one little truth is what funded the second internet boom, ultimately allowing the net to go from being a novelty that everyone knew would be big, just not exactly how, to being the planet's primary medium for commerce and communication as well as our first universal hub of knowledge. More on that in a minute. If you happen to disagree that the net is our primary medium of commerce and communication, it must still be 2011 as you're reading this. Give it a few more years :-) the distinction between being on or off-line is already starting to disappear.
I found that, as a webmaster, it's in your best interest to learn about every aspect of your business: advertising, user experience, marketing strategy, sales, copy writing, customer service, etc.. When you can do everything yourself your overhead is almost nothing. This allows you to build and test an idea without a major financial risk and without assembling a large team. This to me was the real magic of the internet in the early days. Even today it remains possible for one person to accomplish things that are traditionally assigned to teams of people. Which is not to say that amazing things can't be accomplished through collaboration, but even then I have found that working with people who have at least passing knowledge of all aspects of the equation makes a project flow better, creates a tighter back end, a more beautiful front end and allows all of these things to happen faster. And the internet is all about faster.
1 If you never experienced pages full of little dancing (and singing) rodents you missed what may have been the first real internet meme. It was bizarrely popular for reasons that will never be fully understood. I'm not sure that anyone who didn't see it when it originally came out can really appreciate it... But if you let the audio loop enough times it may lower your IQ sufficiently: Hamster Dance.
For quite a few years search engines took up the majority of my time. That's no longer really the case but I'm going to talk about them in more detail as they had a large role in the evolution of the net as a whole.
As time passed, and I became a better programmer, my work was involving progressively less design and more coding. At that time everyone wanted to be a web designer. Kids, senior citizens, precocious livestock, were building websites in their spare time. Considerably fewer people could write code and less still could do it passably well. It's not that it's terribly difficult, just that it requires a certain perspective.
During this period the internet bubble popped. The bottom dropped out of the tech stock market and countless companies, which had never even approached profitability, died overnight. Traffic numbers didn't decrease, however, people were spending as much time and money online as they had before. Many companies, especially those that were privately held, went largely unaffected. A fact which was partly lost in the media frenzy surrounding the crash.
Those of us that didn't have to answer to shareholders happily continued to explore the internet's potential. There was no need for venture capital or outside funding because startup costs were not that high. This fundamental difference between the digital and brick and mortar worlds is something which I think many traditional business people fail to understand even today.
One company that survived and then flourished after the tech crash was GoTo.com. They were the first company to successfully implement the simple, beautiful, idea of charging advertisers to appear in search engine results. Advertisers would bid on a given search term and would then show up in the results based on the competitive size of their bid. They paid their bid only when someone clicked on their result and visited their site. This model was called pay per click (PPC) search engine advertising.
This was good for advertisers because they could choose exactly what they wanted to pay for potential customers and could then track what percentage of those visitors became buyers. ROI was suddenly no longer mysterious. Instead you could determine almost exactly how much money you were going to make based on a given advertising budget. You could not lose.
It was good for GoTo as well. You can't ask for a better situation than thousands of advertisers competing with one another for rankings in a virtually endless list of key words and phrases. A single click on the top ranked spot for a competitive keyword could easily end up costing $10 or more. That's just one click. GoTo would syndicate their paid results to search engines, and other websites, giving them a percentage of the revenue from clicks generated through their site. Some of these sites would then re-syndicate the results to a further tier of sub affiliates.
Because of the popularity of PPC hundreds (eventually tens of thousands) of me too1 websites popped up. Some of these were well funded ventures, others were housewives and college kids using cookie cutter software. It was a member of the latter group that first contacted me about improving their PPC site. The software they were using was extremely popular because it was the only affordable, mainstream system that allowed people to create a PPC website. What it couldn't do, however, was re-syndicate the PPC listings that were coming from upstream feeds or track and pay the resulting downstream publishers. By adding this functionality, along with fraud control, user interface enhancements and various other improvements, it was possible to turn a website that was making a few hundred dollars a month into a website that could make thousands a day. Other PPC website owners naturally wanted the same modifications and eventually I was doing work for hundreds of websites.
By making it possible for this, already prolific, application to syndicate results I had created a niche industry. Which, as you might imagine, worked out well for me. For a surprisingly long time I as the only gateway for a non programmer into the second and third tier PPC industry. An industry which was making single owner/operator companies five and even six figures a month. In addition to providing the back end software and sometimes the front end web design, I helped people learn how to make their sites successful. By this time there wasn't much I didn't know about the PPC and search engine industries and it was fun for me, helping people from every possible demographic make jaw dropping amounts of money.. One of my most memorable clients was a teenager who eventually ended up paying his own child support and taking his family on vacations. Over time the code I was writing evolved into a complete advertising application of its own, allowing people to run a meta and PPC search engine and to serve the results in a variety of formats including traditional PPC search engine results, contextual ads, CPV, domain parking, popup ads and cost per action (CPA) ads. And most importantly, allowing them to do it for a relatively small investment. A big part of the equation was the elegance of the code. We're talking about an application that in some cases needed to be able to serve 100's of requests a second, each request grabbing data from a dozen places, many of which were external websites. After that it needed to parse the data, check for potential fraud, log 100's of points of information and then build and display a web page or feed before too many milliseconds had passed. Most of the time it needed to do this with the resources of a single server with similar hardware to a home PC. Efficiency is frequently overlooked when it comes to web development. I have seen websites maintaining dozens of web servers to handle traffic load that, had their application been written efficiently, could be handled by a few machines.
The PPC industry continued to grow, GoTo re-branded themselves as Overture, competitors entered the market and advertisers continued to spend huge amounts of money. Despite all of this activity PPC managed to stay somewhat under the radar until shortly before Google launched Adsense, their own PPC advertising system. Almost overnight it made them profitable and to this day it remains their primary source of income. It is ultimately PPC that made Google the publicly traded behemoth it is today. PPC quickly became a household phrase among webmasters and Yahoo, in an attempt to compete, bought Overture.
All of this new money inspired, and funded, another wave of internet startups. The difference this time being that the money was generated by something that had actual value for both advertisers and publishers, as opposed to the neon buzzword bullshit that powered the original bubble. No crash this time.
Along the way the second and third tier PPC industries continued to grow and change and my clients continued to make absurd amounts of money. I even started a search engine of my own, maintaining the back end code and front end design myself, bringing in a partner to handle the day to day operations. This gave me a great opportunity to learn more about the industry and fine tune my software. One thing I didn't do during the insanity that was PPC during that time (despite numerous offers) was launch the half dozen or so PPC sites, each run by different partners, that it would have taken to become a millionaire. In retrospect I probably should have, but it didn't sound like fun, and after all this was the internet, money was easy.
Over the years the PPC market has changed and, partially because of consolidation by the big players, partially because of traffic quality issues, the second and third tier PPC industries have slowed down. They are by no means dead, but reality has caught up, they aren't the free ride they once were. The decrease in demand for PPC sites has been great for me, giving me more time to play with new ideas. My meta search and ad delivery software is still available to word of mouth clients but I never got around to creating a generalized commercial version that I could advertise or provide to resellers. During the busiest days of search each installation of the application was unique, requiring different modules and customization. In retrospect I think I preferred it that way, having a personal relationship with each client.
1I use 'me too!' to refer to the phenomena whereby people, upon seeing a good website or product, think "I can haz monies too?". This results in countless second rate copies of any good idea.
I work with a variety of different websites, search engines, ecommerce, small businesses, etc.. Personally I'm finding social networking and mobile interesting lately. The former because social networking is redefining how people interact both on and offline. Did you know that, by some metrics, in 2010 Facebook accounted for almost 25% of all US internet traffic? In case there was any doubt, that is insane. More important than traffic numbers, though, is how social media is changing the way people interact and share knowledge. For example: Facebook, Twitter, et al. have now played a major part in overthrowing numerous regimes. That's big. These are situations that wouldn't have even entered public awareness in most of the world ten years ago.
Mobile because it's redefining how people interact with everything. As the technology matures our phones will become (are already becoming) a kind of all purpose personal data interface: replacing mobile computers, facilitating our financial transactions, navigating for us, seamlessly merging with our social lives, connecting us with the cloud, acting as search engines for the real world, documenting our lives and interacting with ever more digital devices from cars to refrigerators. In the not too distant future smartphones, combined with new display and input technologies, will be the only computing device that a casual user needs. And, essentially, the platform on which they run will be the ubiquitous internet.
For those of you that, wisely, skipped straight to the end in hopes of finding out if I can be of help with your project, I am available for consultation on all aspects of web development and marketing. I take contract design and development work as well. If by some chance I'm not interested in your project I'll be happy to find you people who are. For larger endeavors I can manage the project for you, coordinating and directing independant contractors. My goal with any project is to make the business successful, as opposed to just providing a product. I don't believe that web development (or any development for that matter) should be done without trying to see things from as wide a perspective as possible.
Do I have a portfolio? Nope. I have never taken the time to save copies of my work and many of the projects I've worked on are no longer online, more still I have forgotten about. I often think I should start saving screenshots, but never actually start doing it. As I write this I have failed completely to save a copy of this website from before I started rewriting. Fortunately, since I don't promote this site, you are probably here because your friend or colleague told you that I'm awesome so that part of the process is already behind us :-)