How To Build a "Lifestyle Business" with 30 Million Visitors Per Month: The wikiHow Story
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accomplished a lot. You’ve met other people with similar interests and you’ve shared that interest with a gazillion people.”
If cognitive surplus is one fuel feeding wikiHow, another is AdSense. Google’s pay-per-click, keyword-based advertising program is a godsend for high-traffic sites like Herrick’s. “It allows us to run our business without really worrying about anything else,” he confesses. It’s an amazing luxury, when you think about it—has there ever been another time in history when a single company’s invention provided a livelihood for so many others?
Of course, if you really wanted to build a big business, you probably wouldn’t want to depend solely on the ads Google sends your way. Instructables, for example, has a sales staff that works with big brands to set up sponsored campaigns and contests. But fortunately, Herrick doesn’t want to build a really big business. “I certainly want wikiHow to be a nice, profitable, healthy business, but squeezing every last dollar out of it has not been on my priority list,” he says. WikiHow even lets registered users opt out of seeing the AdSense ads. (And registration is free.)
The hidden benefit of being a lifestyle business, in Herrick’s view, is that it actually gives wikiHow a much longer runway to accomplish its goals. “The thing with us is that it’s going to take us decades to do what we want to do,” he says. “Our mission is laughably ambitious. The idea that 12 people could attempt such a thing is pretty ludicrous. If there is any chance of us being able to pull it off, it will be because we can take our own sweet time,” rather than operating within the 7-to-10-year time horizon of a venture fund.
And Herrick thinks there’s plenty of work left to do. It takes only a few minutes of browsing the site to discover that there are many subjects nobody has written about. There’s an embarrassing shortage of content in all non-English languages. There isn’t much video or other multimedia content. And the quality of most text articles “is good, but not as good as it could be,” Herrick says. “I can imagine much better.”
Herrick says he worries that wikiHow will eventually have to start paying people to round out the unfilled corners of the site, and that AdSense won’t generate enough revenue to fund freelance contributions plus the development work that will be required to keep the site up to date in a world of mobile devices and HTML5.
But so far, he hasn’t been tempted to go out fundraising—or to consider acquisition offers. “One data point I have never told anyone outside the company is that we actually did get an attractive offer from a big, public Internet company,” Herrick says. “We turned it down. I thought about it a lot, and did a lot of soul searching, and I think I made the right choice. But it wasn’t easy.”
What made the decision a little easier than it might have been, Herrick says, is that selling eHow was “a very nice deal.” Exactly how nice, he didn’t say. But because he’s had past successes, “I don’t have to get to that first piece of liquidity,” he says. “So it’s not like there’s any massive hurry to do anything. I just think we can make [wikiHow] better, and I want to keep trying.” Which sounds like a pretty worthy lifestyle to me.