How My First Success Failed

How My First Success Failed
Photo by CHUTTERSNAP / Unsplash

Success comes in many flavors. Sometimes it's as simple as completing the project. Sometimes you need to meet a specific target. Sometimes that target can even be moving. Success doesn't come easy.

Also, no matter what success looks like for you, it is possible to both succeed and fail. Failure is always an option. Sometimes it's even a good thing to fail. Let me tell you the story of my first success and why it failed.

Spring 2011: The Spark.

I still remember this moment. I was sitting at my desk at work going over the google analytics of my then-current project, a blog called "TheEventOf". I'd been spinning my wheels on this project for some time. It didn't have a clear direction or topic. I was struggling to attract new readers. I needed something new to blog about.

I don't quite remember how I came across the idea of photography, but I started down the rabbit hole and immediately found it to be a viable solution to my problem.

I'd been reading a lot about "the right way to blog" and "how to gain an audience blogging" and photography ticked a lot of boxes.

Photography was everything "TheEventOf" wasn't. It was a specific topic. It had a broad highly reachable audience. There were a number of online communities to help me share and learn. Best of all - I got to buy a new toy to get started - my first DSLR camera, a Nikon D3100.

The fuse was lit.

Summer 2011: Learning

Over the next several months I became a sponge about photography. I read articles. Watched YouTube. Joined forums. Using the blogging skills I'd developed with my previous project I started "Phogropathy" as a daily photography blog. Yes, the name needed work and I'll get there.

I learned more about how consistency fuels repeat readers. As I became more intertwined within the photography communities on Flicker and Digital Photography School I started to see readers from those sites joining my own.

By the end of this first summer, I'd built a small following of loyal readers and more importantly, fell in love with the hobby of photography. 

I fell in love so much that only a few months after buying my first DSLR I was ready for an upgrade. After researching for a while I ended up settling on the Nikon D7000. Along with this purchase, I also acquired my first wide-angle lens, a Tokina 11-16mm. This was a game changer for me. I finally started to develop my own unique style of photography and build a name for myself in the online community.

November 2011: The Breakout

It didn't take long for me to find my groove. I started to experiment with SEO and began sharing photography tips on my site alongside the daily photography I was already sharing. I slowly attracted more readers through organic search further proving the concept was valid.

But, kerosene was about to be dumped onto the fire. I sent an email to the creator of Digital Photography School, the forum I'd used to learn a lot of my photography skills. I'd written an article and wanted it to be published outside of my own circle. It was time to see if I could play a bigger role in the photography community.

A few weeks went by and no response. Was I a fraud? Imposter syndrome can be extremely difficult to deal with sometimes.

However, I really wanted this and was not deterred by the non-answer. I sent a second email.

This time within 24 hours I had a response saying they'd missed my first email and would gladly publish my article in the next week or two.

This was the first time I'd seen any amount of real traffic. Rather than getting a few hundred pageviews in a week, I was getting a few thousand - a day! But, it was short-lived.

I had a taste and I wanted more. With the direct contact of Digital Photography School in hand, I set out to create a plan.  I would email him ideas for articles and he'd publish just about anything I gave him. I was even able to have him publish direct links back to specific articles I'd written on my own site. Or even embed videos from my personal YouTube channel.

A couple of years went by and dPS put out a call for paid freelance writers. It was a no-brainer for me to apply for the gig - so I did - and of course, I got the role. Now I didn't need to email anyone, I had my own personal WordPress account that I could use to draft articles and submit for approval. Plus, I was getting paid for my writing on top of the exposure.

I was on the cusp of success.

Four years into this journey I'd passed 1 million pageviews, had a small community forum with dozens of active members, a newsletter with more than 2,000 subscribers, and over 6,000 YouTube subscribers. Things were looking good for my little photography blog, which by this point I'd renamed to PhoGro, much better.

Disaster Strikes in 2015

I don't want to dwell on stupid mistakes, but the start of the demise was the result of just that. A stupid mistake.

I was playing around in the backend of YouTube's creator studio and, to this day I'm not even sure exactly what I did, but whatever button I pressed automatically unsubscribed every single one of my 6000+ subscribers!

This went through me like a dagger. All that work, all that effort, gone in a second.

Now, it's convenient to blame the failure on this mistake, but it's not entirely fair. Sure it absolutely played a key role in the downfall, but I continued plodding along several more years without growth.

There was more to this than just a stupid mistake.

2015-2017: The Slow Death Of PhoGro

Around this time Digital Photography School got a new editor and while this helped streamline things in terms of the publishing schedule it meant that sneaking direct links to my own content was not as easy. This limited my growth.

Additionally, I was trying to do a lot of things, too many things. I was working a full-time job, I was drowning in personal debt, I was managing an online forum, writing a weekly newsletter, publishing my own blog, writing for Digital Photography School, maintaining a YouTube channel and on top of all that I was planning my wedding.

I'd spread myself thin. I'd burnt myself out.

I stopped posting as frequently. The newsletter's quality dropped and moved from weekly to monthly and then eventually to whenever I remembered.

The YouTube channel died due to lack of motivation. I was reeling from that mistake and hated looking at the subscriber number now. It was so demotivating that I stopped making content altogether for the channel.

The community forum was the last thing that hung on. I really liked the community I'd built and the core group that participated daily was a fun bunch of people. However, with downward growth, less time, and expensive hosting fees coming due I decided to kill the site entirely in 2017. The community did manage to keep itself alive on Discord for some time, but without an influx of new members, it too eventually died.

This was my largest failure to date, but it was also my first success. I'll remember it as both.