Wednesday, June 24, 2009

AQ Turns Five; Stops Sucking Thumb

If you haven't been able to tell from the theme, it's another AQ birthday, turning five years old today. Last year, I had this idea to buy another domain name and put the original version of Atlas Quest up so everyone could see how much it has changed and grown over the years. Alas, I never got around to it. Seems like there are always more important things to be working on. Maybe next year? Maybe for when it turns 10 years old? Gotta love those zeros at the end of numbers.

Five years ago today, I bought the domain name and started setting up the account and copying files over, turning the site live. I remember the day well. It was the first time I ever bought a domain name, and it was rather exhilarating. I always thought it would be fun to have my own domain name to play with, but never had any compelling information to put on it so never did.

The site was "feature complete" for about a week or two before I bought the domain name. I spent the time testing the website, letting a handful of close friends take a peek at it before making it live, and debating what domain name to buy. At the time, I was happily unemployed and had absolutely no income, which was why I waited until June 24th to actually take action. That's when a "new month" would start, and I could wait nearly two month to pay off the bill without incurring any interest or penalties. =) If I brought the site live just a day earlier, I'd have only had a one month grace period before the bill came due.

The 24th is burned into my brain for another reason. Since that was the date I started Atlas Quest, it was a convenient date to run monthly backups. There are some tables in the database that almost never change (such as the names of all the cities in the world), so it didn't make sense to save those tables every night. What a waste of space and computing power. So I ran them monthly. Full backups, once each month. Atlas Quest would also check for certain inconsistencies in the database and fix them. And it would compress the data to fill in all those gaps when data was deleted. AQ was pretty busy every month on the night of the 24th doing all sorts of things that never happened at any other time of the month.

There still are some activities that AQ runs on the 24th of every month, but it's a bit more spread out now. Full backups are now run weekly. Space for the database to run isn't nearly as restricted now as it was in that first year when Atlas Quest ran on a shared hosting provider.

When Atlas Quest first went live, I never expected it to become what it has. I imagined a little site with a really cool location-based search, and since I absolutely loathed the Yahoo Groups, figured I might someday add some message boards. (AQ 1.0 had no message boards at all.) But I was running out money, living off of my live savings, and needed to think about getting a real job that paid real money. I wanted Atlas Quest to be my foot in the door. "Yes, I do have a sample of my work. Check it out!" Keep in mind, I had been unemployed for about 2 1/2 years at this point--a rather large hole in my otherwise flawless resume! ;o) I felt like I needed something to compensate for that and impress the pants off of a potential employer.

Later that same year, Atlas Quest continued to grow. Since the site was hosted on a shared server, e-mails from AQ bounced like crazy whenever the IP address was banned for being a source of spam. (I didn't send any, but other websites on the same server apparently were.) So I created the AQ mail system to get away from the bouncing e-mail.

I also implemented the first, rather primitive version of the message boards. And finally, created the Trip Planner, another innovative method of searching for boxes to serve my own selfish needs: An easier way to find listings for boxes on some of my road trips. =)

And, just before the end of the year, I made a huge decision. I set up a system for premium membership. Atlas Quest was growing remarkably quickly, and I was scared my web hosting provider would eventually boot me off for 'abusing' resources. I could afford to run Atlas Quest out of my own pocket with a shared hosting provider, but I certainly couldn't afford to run it on a dedicated server that looked like it would cost somewhere north of $100/month for even the cheapest plan. That's a lot of money when you're unemployed! Heck, even if I were employed, I didn't really want to be spending that kind of money on a hobby website! =)

So I set up the premium membership as an option, hoping it would at least cover the cost of a dedicated server if it ever came to that. One of the main perks it had was the ability to record finds on unlisted boxes--something I never considered a critical feature for letterboxing, but something a lot of people were requesting.

Within an hour of uploading the premium membership option, two people had signed up for premium membership at $15/year. I called up my mom, telling her--she was skeptical anyone would ever sign up for a "premium" membership--and I told her, "Guess what?! I have two, count 'em--TWO premium membership! Thirty bucks!" (I didn't mention to deduct the PayPal fee from the $30.)

And my mom was shocked. SHOCKED! Her exact words were, "What IDIOT would give you money for your website?" =)

I still tease her about that, calling her up again when the 100th premium member signed up. "Guess what?! There are now one hundred IDIOTS who've given me money for my website!" =)

(I use the term "idiot" with the greatest of affection here. Honestly, I think the relatively cheap price of a premium membership is well-worth the amount of fun and enjoyment the site provides for regular visitors.)

And a wonderful thing happened--the site started earning enough money to pay for a dedicated server. So shortly before AQ's first birthday, I started shopping around for an improved web hosting experience. There were two issues I wanted to focus on: One, getting AQ off of a shared server, and two, using a web host that had excellent support options.

I wanted to get AQ off of the shared server so e-mails would be more reliable, DOS attacks against other websites on the same server no longer affected AQ, improved security, and a whole bunch of other reasons.

And when I had a problem or something didn't seem to be working as expected, my experiece with their customer support was terrible! If there was a problem, I wanted someone hosting my website that would hop on the problems in minutes and 24/7, not "within 24 hours" or during "normal office hours."

And while looking for the ideal host, I discovered a magical thing called VPS. Virtual Private Servers. Not really a shared server in the traditional sense, but not quite a dedicated server either. It was sort of this middle ground, nearly as cheap as many shared hosting providers, but with all the benefits of a dedicated server. It was a "virtual" dedicated server.

To make a long story short, I upgraded to a VPS. The cost of running the website went from about $10/month up to $45/month overnight. Which was FAR less than I had been expecting of even the cheapest dedicated servers. (I've upgraded the VPS a couple of times since then, so it's costing more now, but Atlas Quest to this day is still running on a VPS. Someday, I might have to upgrade to a dedicated server, but that could still be years away!)

So I found myself in an unexpected situation: Atlas Quest was profitable! =) I was planning on spending anywhere from $200-$300 per month on a quality dedicated server, set up a premium membership to pay for it, then it turns out I'm paying $45/month for a hosting service that precisely met my needs. Depending on the number of premium members signing up in any given month, I would be profiting anywhere from $150 to $250 in most months.

Okay, that's not a lot of money, but when you've been unemployed for 3 1/2 years (at this point), it sounds like a fortune! Which was the first time I started wondering, "Could I actually make a living off of this website?" I was still living primarily off of my life savings, but at least my life savings wasn't being depleated at the same rapid rate that it had been before.

The next couple of years, I kind of felt like I was somewhat in a race. Could I earn enough to live off of before I ran out of my live savings? I actually did apply for a couple of part time jobs, hoping to suppliment the earnings from Atlas Quest enough to make an actual liveable wage, but alas, nothing happened of them. (Even REI turned me down. ME?! After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, they didn't think I was up to snuff? The losers. *shaking head*)

It wasn't until 2007 that Atlas Quest finally earned enough that, for the first time in 6 years, I was able to pay all my expenses without having to dip into my savings. My earnings were still below minimum wage given all the hours I put into the site, but I was happy. I no longer needed to worry about finding another job. I had somehow changed from being unemployed into being self-employed. I may not get paid much, but I felt like I more than made up for it in the joy of working at a job I loved to do. =)

Last year, I started funding my retirement accounts again. (Not sure why--now I don't even want to retire!) And perhaps there's a better, more-fullfilling job out there somewhere, but I'm not aware of it. I feel like I'm the luckiest person in the world to have somehow stumbled into this job.

Five years later, and it seems like I should do something particularly special for Atlas Quest on this birthday. I thought about having a "Free Listing WEEK!" Maybe keep up the balloons and confettii for several days instead of the usual one.

Except that I'm in the middle of a major upgrade (mostly under the hood type of stuff--you won't be seeing major changes to the public interface), and I don't really want to make any changes to the live site right now in fear I'll break something. But then I remembered.....

I keep forgetting about Free Listing Day. There's a small piece of code that lists which days of the year is Free Listing Day. I keep forgetting about it, and never update the file. For those who were on the ball, you would have noticed a Free Listing Day last May 8th, also known as Cranmere Day. But I forgot to announce it.... And today, AQ's birthday is a Free Listing Day, but again, I forgot to announce it--until now. =) (A little late in the day for most people, I would image.)

Free Listing Day started as a way of saying thank you to all those people who support Atlas Quest in something other than monitary ways. I know there are times when money is tight--I've been there, done that. Given the economy of today, there are likely a number of folks who can no longer afford a premium membership even if they wanted to.

Perhaps you've help other members with their questions on the message boards, or suggested improvements that have made Atlas Quest website a better place to be, or have acted as a comic relief when things get tense. There are many ways to support Atlas Quest beyond becoming premium members, and the Free Listing Day was started as a way of saying thank you to those people.

But now, I keep forgetting to say thank you and have forgotten to announce the last two Free Listing Days completely. *slapping self* So, I'm tweaking the way Free Listing Day works in the future. From now on, they will be more often and predictable. There will be at least one Free Listing Day each month. And (for the time being, at least), it will be on the 24th of every month. I'm thinking it might be fun to make the day each month selected at random so it's more of a surprise when you do see it, but for now it's set up to run on the 24th of every month. (And remember, AQ runs on Pacific time, so remember about time zones if you aren't in this timezone. It's the 24th of each month, Pacific time.)

So enjoy some of the perks of premium membership one day each month, even if you can't afford it. You deserve it. =)


dragonrider said...

well, i know i wont be forgetting about AQ's b-day. since mine is the day after..
congrats ryan. heres to another 5 years.

cheers, Dragonrider

WalesFlyerMary said...

Thanks for sharing all this with us! I'm glad it is working out for YOU! Thank you for all you do for the AQ community!

Anonymous said...

I feel so lucky that I found AQ on it's 3rd birthday resulting in it also being my cake day... if only I knew it was also a free listing day!

Liz Henderson (Hendel D'bu) said...

Thanks for all you do, Ryan! I'm so pleased that it provides enough income that you can devote all your energies to AQ. Your webmaster talents are unmatched, in my humble opinion.

Happy Birthday, AQ!

~SHH :-)

Melissa R said...

I didn't realize that AQ IS your job...that makes me feel SO much better! In my home we have talked a few times about poor Ryan, spending all his free time taking care of all of us. But now that I know it is your job, that makes me feel much better! Congratulations on your successful idea and thank you from my family!

Unknown said...

WOOOOW very interesting I am a pretty newbie here. Never knew how someone went about owning their on site.SOOOO what is a free listing, what is that. If its free I want it lol and I am one of the few that are thinking wooow I would love to have one of those hats :). Always wondered what does a member see more than I do.? and what is a free listing? ily.....

Kathi said...

Thanks, Ryan...from a very happy idiot (and you can show that to your Mom!)

Happy birthday, AQ, and many more!


Scarab said...

Rhino Bird Three Cows!
No, no, that's not right.
Rhino Bird Two Cows!
Rhino Bird Two Sheep!?
Hippo Bird Two Sheep?
Hippo Birdie Two Ewe!!
And many hippo reterns!

Kellyann Brown said...

AQ enters kindergarten!!

Not only is this a profitable enterprise, it is a positive presence in the world.

Thank your for all of your efforts, they make the world a better place!

Anonymous said...

ummmm....what is your mom saying now? I am so glad I found letterboxing in general and AQ in particular.......and I'm really happy for you that it is so sounds to me like a perfect job, too! Thanks for everything.

kaslkaos said...

Thanks so much; I'm in the can't afford category, so I'm marking my calendar, thankyou, thankyou, thankyou, and congrats on your career change--cool and hopeful story.

Mama Cache said...

I'm only now getting to comment -- to extend my sincere thanks for everything. My premium membership is something that's a priority over here, and AQ feels like home to me.

You do such an amazing job, Ryan. Keep up the good work! And, yes, "happy trails!"


Anonymous said...

Ryan, thanks so much for AQ!!
we have met so many wonderful people with the event feature. Now we regularly box together.
Very interesting to learn the history of your site.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ryan.. I know AQ has open up the world to so many new and wonderful friends for us. My son says I'm more hooked on AQ than his friends are to MySpace. It's just such a nice place to come to at the end of the day.
Thanks for all that you do.