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The road ahead for ShowSpace

I've been working on ShowSpace for more than 1.5 years now. It started off as an idea for a small web application but I quickly realized it had a lot of potential and started working on it more and more and calling it a "startup". It certainly wasn't always easy because I chose to do all development and marketing myself, but I learned a lot along the way!

Over its lifespan, ShowSpace has undergone lots of minor and a few major changes: for example, it was first focused on storefronts instead of widgets. A storefront was basically a store without a checkout, where all the products were affiliate products that linked to the merchants where you could actually buy them (some storefronts are still online). I also experimented with different pricing models, initially focusing on monthly payments before switching to "pay-as-you-go" product packages.

All in all it was an incredible learning experience and I have grown as a developer as well as an entrepreneur. I can certainly much more appreciate the amount of work that goes into launching a product, finding the first few users, and adapting the product over and over as you grow.

Three problems

While I feel that the project was quite successful and has drawn a lot of attention and users, three main problems crystallized over the months:

  • A general unwillingness to pay. Affiliate marketing has a certain reputation that draws a certain kind of people to it. I'd say that for every ShowSpace user with a good looking website and decent content, looking for a simple way to present affiliate products alongside the content, there are nine users that want to "make money on the Internet" and heard that affiliate marketing would be a quick and easy way to do so without much effort. The latter group of people doesn't focus on creating a good looking website, writing great content, or building a readership. Instead, they set up a Wordpress blog and add Google Adsense, Amazon affiliate links and all kinds of sharing buttons (and sometimes ShowSpace) before writing any content. As ShowSpace users, they weren't always the most pleasant people to deal with, often expecting lots of support for free and not willing to pay 5$ for using an application that might make them much more in return.

  • Too much manual work. A lot of users signed up to ShowSpace expecting a system that automatically adds affiliate products to their websites without any work on their side. Instead, what they found was that they actually had to find the products themselves, generate affiliate links (ShowSpace helps you with generating affiliate links for Amazon products) and add them in the ShowSpace backend. One mistake was probably that this wasn't properly explained on the marketing site, but another one was not to focus on automating everything as much as possible to begin with. A system that actually adds items to your todo list instead of removing them is a hard sell.

  • Unused network effects. The choice of products on the Internet is basically endless. How is one person to find those products that users actually click on and eventually buy? Even in a small niche this involves constant experimentation with new products, measuring their performance and adjusting which products are shown and which aren't. This is the area that a system like ShowSpace can really shine in: measuring product performance and adjusting visible products automatically. Moreover, once a system monitors lots of products, all users benefit from it: if a product performs well on other sites, there is a good chance it will perform well for you, too. ShowSpace doesn't really take advantage of these network effects.

Three solutions

I have spent a lot of time trying to come up with solutions to the aforementioned problems.

The result is a new system with a very different approach that deserved a new name: ProductWidgets

This is how ProductWidgets addresses the mentioned problems:

  • Pay only when you make money. While it will probably take a while before affiliate marketing loses its reputation as a quick way to make money without any effort, the hurdle to displaying affiliate products on your website should still be as small as possible for everyone. A pricing model that should work much better than monthly or one-off payments is the revenue share: as a user, you only "pay" when you actually make money. ProductWidgets takes a small share of the generated revenue. This way you can try it out as long as you like without an upfront investement, and if it doesn't work out for you, you didn't actually lose anything.

  • Automate everything. ProductWidgets will be fully automated based on the affiliate service Skimlinks. Skimlinks offers a database of more than 25 million products from over 4,000 merchants in 54 countries. ProductWidgets will use this database to automatically find the best products for any content. The products will be picked based on keywords the user supplies and automatically monitored for their performance. Products that perform well will be displayed a lot while products that perform badly will not be displayed at all. ProductWidgets will effectively become a drop-in replacement for Google AdSense or any other ad network, because the user does not have to manage the products at all and can focus on creating great content.

  • One for all, all for one. Because ProductWidgets is completely automated, it knows about all products of all users. So if a new user signs up and adds a widget for, say, guinea pig cages, ProductWidgets knows which guinea pig cages performed well on other pages and can immediately show those ones instead of testing all available guinea pig cages specifically for this user. This leads to a situation where more users mean better results for everybody.

What happens next

I am currently implementing the ProductWidgets system on several websites of a major music and entertainment network. These websites have a combined traffic of many million visitors each month which is an incredible chance for me to test the system and its performance under heavy load. While many of the features I am working on right now are specific to this customer, the "public" version of ProductWidgets is coming along nicely as well.

I hope to be able to open signup for ProductWidgets in early 2013.

I am unsure about what will happen with ShowSpace after that, it will definitely stay online for a while but I will probably shut it down at some point in time.

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Ideas? Constructive criticism? Think I'm stupid? Let me know in the comments!