CoasterBuzz 20

Chapter 2: It’s all talk

With the success of Guide to The Point, and a growing desire to see more roller coasters at other amusement parks, it didn’t take long to see the potential for another site with a broader focus. Where it would land exactly wasn’t clear, but I started to iterate pretty quickly.

The forum on GTTP was taking off. It was clearly the center of all of the activity. People came for the content that the community was generating, the photos and fluffy articles, but they were staying and coming back for the community. Creating another site would be easy if I just started with a forum. It was the fall of 1999 at this point.

How not to start

I’m not sure if I could have made more mistakes in starting this endeavor. Let’s start with the name. I figured that I would call it “Coaster Talk,” which was horribly generic and not a brand, but it did describe what a forum would be. I was even thinking that I’d buy another UBB license and create forums for all of the parks. And so I did.

This lasted about a day, when I got a nastygram from Jim Serio, who ran World of Coasters (on the domain) at the time. It wasn’t nasty, actually, it was just matter-of-factly that he believed “coaster talk” was his trademark, used for a mailing list with about 300+ subscribers. I certainly didn’t argue, because given my background and education, I understood trademark law pretty well. After all, I danced around the Cedar Point trademarks. I apologized to Jim and took it down. He suggested that I use a “more original name,” which is funny in retrospect because the one he was using seems so unoriginal in retrospect.

He did say in his email that his site was going through a “major change,” which seemed pretty exciting. Whatever that was, nothing really happened in the near term, but I’ll get back to that.

I was not making friends in other ways. I mentioned previously that I had introduced a great many people to Guide to The Point via the Usenet group, rec.roller-coaster. I suspect few people today even know what Usenet is, but it was at its core something of a decentralized social network or bulletin board that no one actually owned. It wasn’t quite real-time, but close enough. You generally used an application on your computer and pulled down the titles of posts, then it fetched the actual posts when you wanted to view them. Around this time, there were a great many groups that hosted binary files, which as you might guess were mostly pornography and illegal software trading.

In any case, rec.roller-coaster, or RRC as it was generally known, was a pretty tight-knit group of regulars that had been talking about coasters for quite awhile. Because it was completely unmoderated, often the trolls would be the loudest (basically, it’s Twitter in 1999). Conversations often devolved into pissing matches about who had been on what and was more experienced. It wasn’t the friendliest scene to newcomers at all, which was why I wasn’t that interested in it much beyond promoting something else. But when I announced “Coaster Talk,” I didn’t choose my words well. Specifically, I said:

The idea here is to bring back the spirit of community that rec.roller-coaster once had. By moderating the forums and keeping out abusive users and deleting nonsense posts, we can again enjoy the spirit of coaster enthusiasm in peace.

Not surprisingly, this pissed off some folks, because I came to their house and said their house sucks. A lot of folks just rolled with the noise and trolls. Eric from Ultimate Rollercoaster was the first to call me out. I explained that there were certainly good people, many of whom I had met by that point, but it was so hard to find good conversation in a sea of nonsense.

In the end, I owned the mistakes, but they weren’t really all that big of a deal because the relevant audiences weren’t huge in the first place. In fact, I was sitting on a huge audience from the other site, and it made more sense to use that as the launching platform.

Getting a buzz

The strange thing is that within an hour of getting Jim’s trademark claim, I thought of CoasterBuzz. This was a weird time, because while the rawest domain names that were simple words were all taken, there was room to be creative. The new name didn’t feel entirely original, but there were no records of it in the federal trademark database, and the somewhat basic search engines of the day couldn’t find it either. Google wasn’t great at finding things yet either. The name was certainly available, so I bought it.

I continued to run the Ultimate Bulletin Board essentially as the entire site, with specific forums for each park. I figured if people would talk endlessly about Cedar Point, that every park would have a similarly dedicated audience. This was a poor assumption on my part. The forum for Kennywood got some traction, as did the one for Kings Island, but the volume of traffic was not impressive. As the fall turned into winter, I realized that the site didn’t offer anything particularly interesting or useful. CoasterBuzz was not going anywhere.

In my day job, we were rolling out fairly beautiful sites for each of the magazines and trade shows we had at work. The magazines would of course post their editorial content, but they were starting to sell directory listings to the same pool of people who advertised in print. The sites had strong customization features, where a user could favorite the listings they used the most. Because communication was still so grounded in telephone conversations, we sold a feature called “call me now” that would cause a vendor to call you almost immediately. It was ahead of its time.

Mentally, I struggled with some of this because connectivity was the opposite of ubiquitous at the time. At home, most people were still using dial-up modems over their landlines, and not every workplace had dedicated networks connected to the Internet. But there was this company called Salesforce that was selling web-based software to manage sales, which seemed pretty bold considering sales people tend to travel and move around a lot, away from connectivity. I was skeptical that sort of thing would work. (Salesforce is worth about $160 billion as of this writing.)

Regardless, this was the point where I realized that the sites had to be more dynamic if I was serious about building up an audience. I quickly learned some basic database skills and the basics around Active Server Pages, the technology we used at work, and by late November, I had a basic forum application, POP Forums v1.0, running on Guide to The Point. Around that, I ripped off the customization features that we had on our magazine sites, so users could create a list of their favorite articles. I no longer had to license Ultimate Bulletin Board!

This gave me some ideas about what CoasterBuzz should be. GTTP was consistently generating over $250 in ad revenue by then, so I was motivated. My own enthusiast desires fell into four areas of interest: Moderated discussion, news, a coaster and park database, and finding all of this great stuff that kids in their dorm rooms were publishing on the Internet. The forum bit I figured out, even if it was pretty basic, but some basic content management for news and a directory seemed easy enough to figure out. That’s what I wanted CoasterBuzz to be, a portal to that information.

In about two months, using my own forum, GTTP had racked up over 5,000 posts after ditching UBB. A lot of it was noise, sure, but it was a lot of traffic. Being 26 with no kids, I had plenty of chances to pull all-nighters, often cursing at the computer for things I didn’t understand (being self-taught). But on January 30, 2000, I relaunched CoasterBuzz: Portal to The Thrill.

This first proper version of CoasterBuzz had a site directory, where people could submit links to their own fan sites. There were hundreds of these popping up all over the place, living on student university accounts, the old GeoCities, and sometimes, on paid hosting accounts. The best part is that these folks would contribute news items about their newest content. As CoasterBuzz got bigger, this was a mixed blessing… their pet projects got traffic, but sometimes it was so much that their hosting provider would shut them down temporarily. Bandwidth, the actual volume of bits being transmitted over the wire, was expensive in those days.

I also paid a friend $50 to start populating the park and roller coaster databases. Since it was set up to take contributions, people in the larger world were quick to add what was missing, and those contributions became the bulk of the database. About half of the news was from people running their own sites, and the other half was from mainstream newspapers online.

The community-driven approach was validated almost instantly. This was cool because there was no way I could create a ton of content in my spare time, let alone national or global in scope. I couldn’t even make meaningful bursts of content on the other site, and that one only covered one park. But the other thing that was great about it was that it became a genuine community where I was providing a framework while others took real ownership. That has been the foundation of my professional life ever since, not to mention my approach to coaching volleyball. Give people tools, let them step up. It’s a consistently winning formula.

The other surprising thing that caught on was the ability to keep a “track record,” or a list of coasters that you’ve been on. This was a natural fit for what I was already doing, because if I could allow you to flag your favorite news items, doing the same with coasters was essentially the same code. There were a thousand records within two days!

Exponential growth wasn’t the only surprise

Things got out of control pretty quickly. Since I was making money, it seemed reasonable to advertise the site. I started spending about $25 per week on a company called, which sold advertising by way of a huge site directory, kind of a search engine. For most of 2000, I was buying the top result for “roller coaster” at a cost of a few cents per click. The interesting thing is that the new people who were participating in the forums were not your “typical” enthusiasts. In fact, they might not have even known they were enthusiasts. Only a small percentage of site visitors have ever actually engaged in discussion, but these weren’t the usual enthusiast stereotypes.

This growth was getting expensive, fast. I observed that the advertising rates were already dropping even before I launched the site, so trying to make it up on volume was not easy. My hosting costs were getting pretty high, up to $300 just for Guide to The Point. Adding CoasterBuzz to the mix required that I get a dedicated server, which means I had an entire computer to myself, sitting in a data center. The problem was that it had no software, and running everything on Microsoft products meant I had to buy it all. The database license for SQL Server in particular was not cheap. When it was all said and done, I spent about $4,000 to outfit my own private server. By the middle of the year, the server and all of that bandwidth was costing about $700 per month, and the advertising was just barely covering it.

Something unexpected happened though, just as I was launching CoasterBuzz. A British company that was doing promotional work for pop music wanted to buy from me, which I had registered a few years earlier. I had formed a limited liability company called POP World Media by then, so I liked having it. They offered $1,000 for it, to which I politely declined.

The next day, they made another offer, this time for $10,000. OK, so that was unexpected. I started digging around to try and figure out what they were up to. They had registered and oddly, It felt to me like I had a trademark claim all over them. I also learned that they were doing promotions in the UK with Pepsi and the Spice Girls, who were crazy popular at the time. $10,000? No, if they were serious, they could afford more.

They called me again and offered $30,000. The guy I talked to, charming as he was with a proper accent, was slightly hostile. He said they would begin pointing people to one of the other domains they had, but that they might mistakenly go to my site as the default “dot com” address. I asked him how that was bad for me (because it wasn’t). I don’t know why, but this latest figure still didn’t make me want to sell. Despite a wedding on the horizon later that year, I couldn’t sell. Plus, I wanted some of the Pepsi and Spice Girls money. They seemed to have banked the entire project on the name that I bought years earlier.

I told the frustrated guy, “I really don’t think I could let it go for less than six figures.” He said he would talk to his investors.

The next day, they offered me $100,000 for, and I accepted the offer. This solved a great many problems for me. For one, it helped shore up the cash flow situation in the hosting cost versus advertising revenue situation. It also helped me pay off my student loans five years early, pay for my wedding and honeymoon and leave a little for a down payment on a house, as I was tired of renting. I also wrote a check to the United States Treasury for $18,000, but as a good friend pointed out at the time, “If you didn’t make it, you ain’t gotta pay it.”

Of growth and competition

Before CoasterBuzz had even been on the air for a year, and a little more than two years into having Guide to The Point, the “hobby” was taking up a lot of time. This was the blessing and curse of the Internet: It was relatively inexpensive to produce something and publish it as a one-person outfit, but you probably weren’t going to make a ton of money. The fun thing I started was stressing me out because I wasn’t sure if I could consistently cover the cost of this endeavor.

In September, with the encouragement of one of my colleagues at work, I started selling POP Forums. I mean, I used to buy another forum app from another company, so it only made sense to sell my version. This wasn’t a home run, but it was good enough to make a difference. I sold it for $150 per license, cheaper than some of the competitors. I was selling about four or five licenses per month, and I suddenly had room to breathe. This required that I start accepting credit cards, which was crazy expensive in those days, and I had to buy a secure certificate, which was also expensive. I was paying $60 in fees monthly just to take a credit card. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would save my butt a year later.

By the end of the year, I was in the black on a monthly basis in terms of recurring revenue and expense, by about $200. However, with all of the software I had to buy for the dedicated server, and the acquisition of my first digital camera (Time’s “machine of the year,” the Nikon Coolpix 990), I was carrying debt. I even decided to cover the big IAAPA trade show in Atlanta that fall, which was possible because of the digital camera.

CoasterBuzz was not the only game in town. Robert Coker ran a site called Thrillride!, and that guy could write circles around most everyone in the coaster world. He wrote a ton of great features with style, grammar and personality. As a writer, I appreciated what he did.

There was a site called Danimation that focused largely on the coaster gaming scene, which was largely revolving around Rollercoaster Tycoon 2 and its expansion packs. Social sharing of game files was not yet a thing, but they offered some great curated stuff there.

That fall, Jim Serio started shopping around World of Coasters and the domain name. I don’t think the content was worth much, since a number of sites had largely duplicated it, and it had no significant community component either. The domain name was definitely valuable, but unless someone had a great idea about how to monetize it with something other than advertising, it wasn’t that valuable. Ad rates had been in free fall all year, and I was only making up for it by volume.

My math was that I could afford to offer $15,000 on credit, since I had committed most of the money, and make it up in 12 to 18 months based on organic traffic looking for the special domain. I made the offer, but the minimum the seller’s agent would consider was $42,000. Of course I didn’t have that much, and I would never spend that much. Heck, CoasterBuzz was non-generic and becoming a brand itself.

The name ended up being sold to some combination of interests who also acquired Thrillride. As I understand it, and this is based more on my poor recollection and rumor than anything, was that there was some combination of cash and “stock” in whatever the new thing was supposed to be.

Whatever happened after that is unclear to me, but eventually “World of Coasters” was an unfinished thing of its own by late 2001, with the domain reverting to Jim Serio. At some point in 2003, the domain went up for sale again, and eventually landed in the hands of a spammy domain seller. It’s been in similar hands ever since.

Robert Coker also retained Thrillride, and owns it to this day, with an archive of some of the features he had written.

Out of all of these strange deals, there was Thrillnetwork in the middle. I don’t know the details, but I think it came out of the ashes of the World of Coasters and Thrillride meltdown that happened in 2001. When they merged the sites and announced the new project, they claimed that they had the largest coaster database on the Internet, which was not the case. Duane Marden’s RCDB was the largest, CoasterBuzz wasn’t far behind. I put out a release disputing this, not for any ego reason, but it felt like a kick in the nuts to all of the people who had been adding records in the community. It was their database. If that wasn’t shady enough, suddenly everyone from CoasterBuzz got a Thrillnetwork newsletter in 2003 that no one had signed up for. My former wife and I certainly never signed up for it, so it was likely the result of a site scrape, where you scan the pages for email. That was partly my fault, because the forums at the time showed your email address.

With all of this going on, I vividly remembered an article that appeared in Wired about the missteps of many failing dotcoms at the time. Too often, companies were chasing each other in a race to the bottom instead of staying the course, moving toward the thing they believe is right for their customer or audience. That has been a principle I’ve tried to remember ever since. I don’t care what everyone else is doing… is it right for my audience, and is it right for me? People have predicted the end of CoasterBuzz for 20 years, and it’s still there. Being true has worked well.

A fat pipe and 9/11

If 2000 was a ridiculous first year for CoasterBuzz, 2001 was off the charts. With the financial padding that selling forum licenses brought, I upped my weekly ad buy to $100 per week, for the first few months of 2001. The traffic kept going up, and the ad revenue was at least somewhat proportional. The big score was that I started showing ads from Doubleclick, which was the big seller of the day (their technology would eventually be bought by Google).

The hosting costs were approaching a grand per month. That spring, I decided that it may make the most sense to get a “fat pipe,” a T-1 line, to the house, and host it all from my home office. This would require another $2,000 in equipment, and a check to Sprint every month for $1,230.14. A T-1 gave you 1.544 Mbps of bandwidth. That’s not actually all that much, considering your mediocre cable connection at home is probably at least 100 Mbps, at least in the inbound direction. Still, it’s generally enough to serve up even a busy site as long as you weren’t serving video (video was still hard at that time, and there was no YouTube). Fortunately, I had all of the software already, so believe it or not, this was the most economical direction to go.

I wasn’t making a ton of money, but it was enough to at least offset the expenses, and the big capital things like a router for my home server, and the camera I bought the year before. I was cautiously optimistic, all while traffic continued to increase gradually. I even did my first major revision of the site in those first few months of 2001. Design wasn’t my strong point, but I usually found things that I liked and tried to emulate them as best I could.

My career was getting weird. Penton Media, where I had been working for more than two years, was falling apart. Business-to-business media seemed to be struggling pretty hard, which didn’t surprise me because I watched as they gave away their online advertising, worried it would cannibalize their print advertising, which was going to die anyway. After two and a half years there, I jumped ship to a smaller, startup B2B media company, which was more agile and didn’t have to pay to have their name on a building in downtown Cleveland. It was also a chance to be entirely hands-on coding instead of partially, which was the career direction I wanted.

Then 9/11 happened. If you’re old enough to remember it, you know how terrible that day was, and how it really caused us to question everything. It also pushed the start of a recession into a genuine recession. The company that I worked for took a bath on a tradeshow that it had to cancel, and as the newest person there, I was the first to go. If the state of the world wasn’t scary enough, now I had to deal with not having a job, a new mortgage and a contract to pay for a T-1 every month. To add insult to injury, Doubleclick was imploding, and the grand a month in ad revenue instantly disappeared in October.

I didn’t think that CoasterBuzz would see its second birthday.

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