Free Nature Stock — Status Update #1

It’s been a little over 3 months since I launched Free Nature Stock and I want to share what has (and hasn’t) gone well, along with site statistics. Let’s dive right in.

Site Traffic and Audience

The project currently generates just under 30k pageviews/mo with most of that traffic coming from TheStocks, AllTheFreeStock, and organic searches. When I chose the name “Free Nature Stock”, I was concerned it might be too self-evident but the keywords have helped gain a high ranking in stock photo searches.

free-nature-stock-stats

As far as marketing the site after launch, I spent a couple evenings asking similar sites to feature me and I commented on a handful of stock photo blog articles. That has really been it. The rest of the site’s growth has occurred on its own.

There are 230 Tumblr followers and that number slowly but steadily increases. Twitter hasn’t fared so well and has a meager 19 followers, while Instagram is only up to 28. In terms of trying to grow a social media presence, I have done absolutely nothing other than keep content updated regularly.

Downloads

To date, Free Nature Stock photos have been downloaded around 15,000 times (woo-hoo!). The reason I don’t have an exact figure is because Bitly only allows me to see stats for the past 30 days unless I sign up for their Enterprise plan. That was a letdown when I learned of the limited data history but I can’t complain since I’m on their free plan.

However, Bitly does allow me to sort all links by most clicked and I can unequivocally say that people love star photos! With the exception of a couple mountain and foliage shots, all of the most downloaded photos were of starry skyscapes. Here are some of the top images:

Regarding keeping the site updated, I’m proud to say that I have personally taken every photo so far (most are from past camping and hiking trips). Eventually, I may start accepting submissions from other photographers but for now it has been easier to manage on my own and gives me a good excuse to keep exploring photography.

Also related to downloads, I have been using Amazon’s S3 service to deliver the files and have been impressed. It’s simple enough to use (read my previous article on how I configured it) and the monthly costs have been less than a couple dollars.

Income

About a month ago, I decided to try monetizing Free Nature Stock to help generate some passive income. In the past, I have used BuySellAds but they declined this project (I’m guessing because the traffic is still fairly low but they didn’t give a reason). Instead, I tried out Google AdSense and it has been earning around $100/mo, which is better than I would have expected for a young site that is basically on autopilot.

Because the free stock photo market is getting saturated and based on my previous experience with freebie sites, I don’t expect Free Nature Stock income to grow much higher. However, it’s still a fun project and my goal of keeping the costs and upkeep to a minimum have worked out exactly as planned. At the end of the day, the site is generating some income and every penny helps me support my family and stay self-employed.

My Daily Routine

Yesterday, Cameron Moll posted an interesting discussion on Designer News and asked for others to share their daily routines. It was a fun exercise and wasn’t something I had ever written out before. Here’s how my day usually goes:

  • 6:30am – Alarm plays music from Skyrim soundtrack by Jeremy Soule (much better than “BEEP BEEP BEEP”)
  • 7:00am – In-person client meetings today? Shower. No meetings? Less shower.
  • 7:30am – Feed dog, chase dog with 15-month-old daughter, help wife feed daughter her breakfast, dog gets food that drops on the floor.
  • 8:00am – Kiss wife goodbye, make “long” work commute to at-home office, put on noise-cancelling headphones to block out sounds of daughter still chasing dog.
  • 8:01am – Fire up computer, read emails, check news, general business upkeep (new leads, invoices, mail, etc.), review daily schedule in TeuxDeux, and often catch up with my parents and/or brothers with a phone call around this time as well.
  • 8:30am - Client work, lots of coding, some design.
  • 11:45am – Lunch, client calls, errands. Time and weather permitting, walk the neighborhood with wife and daughter or go on a local hike.
  • 1:00pm – Back to work. This is when my productivity is greatest.
  • 3:00pm – Short break to stretch legs again, then more work.
  • 5:00pm – Dinner and family time. Depending on the season, there’s usually snow blowing or lawn mowing at least once a week.
  • 7:00pm – Workout. Admittedly, this is the activity that gets cut out when my schedule fluctuates, which is often the case when you’re self-employed.
  • 7:30pm – This time slot varies every day but most often it’s used to pursue side projects, personal writing, and hanging out with my wife. During the Milky Way season in our area (like right now), I might also take this time to prep camera gear for a night shoot.
  • 11:00pm – Covertly check on daughter sleeping in her crib with my iPhone’s light. Go to bed.

Of course, no two days are exactly alike but that’s part of what keeps my job interesting. To make sure each day was well-rounded and accomplished, I came up with the Rule of One, which I wrote about in a previous article.

Live Like Your Days Are Numbered

I’ve never been fond of the phrase “Live like there’s no tomorrow.” I can appreciate the idea of enjoying life and making the most of your time but there’s gotta be a better way of saying it. To live for today only with no regard for tomorrow is an impractical message that proves itself false with each new day. All I can envision are crowds of people quitting their jobs, running the streets in their tighty whities, and waking surprised the next morning when the world hasn’t ended.

I’m proposing a new motto: “Live like your days are numbered.” Not only is it 100% true, but it helps illustrate life’s brevity in a way that has a profound impact. As one example, I’m currently 29 years old and might hope for 40 more summers in my lifetime (just a guess, but bear with me). I can easily think of more than 40-summers-worth of fun places to see and things to do, which is a huge motivation to get the most out of every summer.

If you find this perspective gloomy at first, I get it. No one likes thinking about how short life is. I promise you, though: when you can recognize that time is a limited gift, you’ll find a much deeper respect and appreciation for every single day.

Dealing With Bad Web Design Clients

To be perfectly clear, most of the “bad clients” web designers encounter are a result of our own failure. As a designer, part of our job is to educate clients on the product they need and the design decisions we make. If you cannot clearly explain every step of your work, do not fault the client for not understanding.

All that out of the way, yes, you will occasionally run into bad clients. With any luck, you’ll notice early warning signs during initial discussions and can politely decline the project. Other times, you’ll see these signs too late or convince yourself that the job is worth the risk. Big mistake. Along with the stress, a headache project causes you to lose:

Money. Bad clients come in all forms but they’re typically the ones who undervalue your work and try to nickel and dime you to death. Adding insult to injury, you may also have to pass on better work while you’re committed to dealing with a bad client.

Motivation. Bad clients suck the passion out of your career. They make you dread each morning you devote time to their project and, often, you’re not proud of the final result.

Minutes. Time is the most valuable commodity of all. Don’t spend a single minute more than you have to dealing with a bad client.

So let’s say it happened, you agreed to a new project and it turns out to be a nightmare. What next? If there’s no way to gracefully back out, you can either push through the project or offer the client a full refund. Understand that your reputation is attached to either decision and remaining professional is top priority. If you decide to move forward with the job, do it well and don’t cut corners. The client might not appreciate the effort you put in but others who see it may.

In all honesty, sometimes a bad client is exactly the kick in the pants we need to break out of a stagnant routine. Let difficult workdays motivate you toward new and better opportunities.

Thoughts on Supporting the Web Community

The web design community is remarkable at freely sharing knowledge, more so than most industries. I often wonder how some designers get any work done with the amount time they spend teaching online. Websites like CodePen, Stack Overflow, and innumerable design blogs are filled with useful information.

I’m grateful to be a part of such an open community, one that I strive to give back to, but in reality I’m often constrained by money. I have to focus on projects that financially support my family and that greatly limits the amount of time I have to make code tutorials, design assets, work lessons, and other useful materials.

I’ve quickly learned that any side projects I take on have to at least generate supportive income, meaning the project can pay for itself. To do this, there are a handful of popular methods used today:

  1. Advertising.
  2. Referral links.
  3. Donate buttons.
  4. Crowdfunding.
  5. Increased exposure.

Let’s go through each and identify some of their pitfalls:

Advertising

Advertising is one of the most common ways for publishers of any kind to see a financial return on their time. The theory is: publish attractive content, generate a significant amount of website traffic, and advertisers will want a piece of that audience.

One of the immediate drawbacks to this solution is cluttering your website with ads that are generally annoying and ugly to your visitors. Though small in impact, it’s also worth noting that ads typically require additional load times for images, scripts, and HTTP requests.

While selling ads is very easy and potentially profitable, a big danger is letting the allure of higher traffic drive your content’s focus. Far too many design blogs put more effort into creating linkbait titles than they do in writing quality articles.

Referral Links

Referral links, when used subtly, are another easy way to increase revenue. For example, if you run a website dedicated to reviewing the top design books, it might seem logical to include referral links to Amazon.

However, from what I’ve found, referral links usually generate very little income and publishers are forced to use a minefield of intentional product links. Similar to advertising, this can taint a website’s true message.

Donate Buttons

Donate buttons are, in my opinion, the least invasive but also the least powerful way to generate income. Because they requires users to manually go through a donation process, you’re likely to only receive a one-time payment from individuals interested in contributing. People have busy lives; they don’t want to have to remember to donate to your cause repeatedly.

Crowdfunding

I was hesitant to include this category but sites like Kickstarter are viable ways to get your side projects funded. The major problem I see with this method is your idea needs to be very narrow and concrete. Say you had a great idea for a mobile app, crowdfunding may be an option.

Unfortunately, this approach is very centered around the end result only — backers want to know exactly what they’re going to get in return and that leaves little room for exploration. What I’d like to see is an alternative form of crowdfunding that invests in an individual’s talent and allows them to create whatever they want.

Increased Exposure

Increased exposure certainly has value and is worth mentioning. One example is when a designer on Dribbble posts a useful resource and, as a result, gains new interest in their work. They’re not generating direct income from the free file but the added exposure may lead to paid work. The catch-22 is the more paid work you receive, the less time you’ll have to create free resources, and vice versa.

What the Web Community Needs

What I would love to see started in the web community is some kind of monthly donation plan that would allow anyone to support the designers and developers they feel provide value to the community. A comparable example is Patreon. In their own words, “Patreon enables fans to give ongoing support to their favorite creators.”

It’s important to note the difference between this idea and a subscription-based service. Take Tuts+, for example. Much of their content is free but a lot of their articles are premium-only and require a paid account. To me, this isn’t as helpful to the whole web community because not everyone can access and learn from the information.

If a service like Patreon existed in the web community, I could see it being extremely useful. It would help eliminate nearly all of the drawbacks mentioned above while still allowing creators to have some kind of financial support. Personally, I would be happy to send people like Sam Soffes a little money to explore new app ideas, or to Chris Coyier for his hard work in the CSS world.

What do you think? Is this a good idea? Are there other ways you support fellow web designers and developers? Let me know in the comments.