I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve had to consider whether or not I wanted to host my own solution or use a cloud provider of some kind. When I was first getting started as an entrepreneur, there simply weren’t choices to be had. You hosted your own solution, or you didn’t have a solution.
This included even the basic things we take for granted today, like mail servers, databases, and websites. Well, maybe not websites. I’m exaggerating my age a little bit here. But if you wanted a database, either you paid through the nose for a hosted solution, or you ran a dedicated server. This was back when SQL Server Express didn’t exist, and mySQL was still just a baby.
Mail servers could be funky. Sometimes hosted solutions worked great, sometimes they didn’t. But in those days, you would change website hosting on a pretty regular basis as different hosting companies experienced growing pains that were so profound, that the benefits of changing providers outweighed the benefits of sticking with the same provider. I still remember buying iMail from Ipswich software so I could host my own mail server. Yes, I’m old. I know.
Unfortunately, it simply got too complicated to deal with spam at one point so the cost of a self-hosted mail server eventually outweighed the management cost. It became easier to simply forward all your email to GMail, set up account aliases, and let Google handle the details of filtering out spam.
You knew that was coming, right? But, then there are times when using hosted solutions simply doesn’t work out as well. Maybe you need some customizations that your provider simply can’t do. Maybe they just won’t do them. Maybe they’re so big that they just don’t care about your needs and even the $19/month you’re paying doesn’t justify the effort it would take on their part.
In the best cases, you outgrow their ability to provide for you. That sucks in some ways, but if you’re growing quickly, at least you have the money to move to another solution.
There are also times when it’s just not working out anymore and someone pulls the plug. I would normally steal a line from George Costanza and proclaim “It’s not you, it’s me!”, but this isn’t one of those times.
Sorry Google. It’s not me, it’s you.
Some time back, Google announced that they were going to stop supporting Google Reader. The collective internet sort of freaked out. It didn’t matter that people were provided with plenty of time to move to new RSS readers. The problem for people who publish content was that RSS has always been something of a drive-by mechanism for picking up new readers and it’s not a lot different than the problems people encounter with TODO lists.
For every person out there who loves reading articles via their RSS feed, there are plenty of others who try it out for a while and then get overwhelmed by all of the incoming content. Their RSS feeds turn into a bunch of TODO lists that they never get around to. Eventually, they just cut their losses and give up.
The effect is subtle, and misleading. Since Google presumably doesn’t want to kick people off of their mostly free services, these accounts stay open. So when a user abandons their RSS reader, the software still goes back and pings the providers, making them think they still have active readers, when the reality is that they don’t.
Next, there’s not a decent mechanism for determining whether people are reading what you’re writing based on that RSS feed. I’ve seen some pretty wild fluctuations from one day to the next in my RSS subscribers and I know that I don’t lose thousands of subscribers one day, only to gain that and more the next.
In some ways, it’s kind of like paying a college kid $100 and asking him to spend half of it to print 500 flyers and hang them up around his campus. How do you know he didn’t just pocket the whole thing and go throw a keg party instead? Sure there might be telltale signs, like the complete and utter lack of flyers. But who’s to say that he didn’t spend $10 on flyers and pocket the other $90?
There’s a big difference between zero and one.
As a self-proclaimed geek, I can assure you that computers are nothing but one’s and zero’s. If you’re not that into computers, you’re just going to have to trust me on that.
Similarly, it’s easy to distinguish the difference between whether zero flyers were hung up or whether at least one flyer was hung up. But was it 50 flyers? 100 flyers? 500 flyers? Without that feedback loop, it’s almost impossible to be sure. That feedback loop happens to be super important.
Unfortunately, RSS is closer to an open loop system with a mediocre feedback mechanism that is fundamentally broken more often than it isn’t. You don’t have any way of knowing whether people connected with what you had to say, or didn’t. There are plenty of indicators that tell you that it’s a non-zero number, but how close is it to your subscriber count? Are some people counted twice because they switched from one reader to the next? Have people abandoned their accounts and are no longer participating in the system? Nobody knows. And to be honest about it, I don’t think Google even cares.
Google has a tool I’ve used for years called Feedburner, which helps track some of this stuff, but it’s heavily dependent upon counting the number of unique, incoming RSS requests from various RSS readers. They used to do a decent job, but I think they’ve gotten bored. I’ve seen subscriber numbers fluctuate by more than a thousand from one day to the next. When it dips to triple digits, you know there’s a serious problem. Who knew that counting by 1’s was so difficult? I have a 5 year old who manages to get to 100 pretty well, but I digress.
Clearly I don’t lose 1,000 blog subscribers one day and acquire a different 1,000 subscribers the next. It just doesn’t happen. As the problems have gotten worse, I’ve felt that it was time to move on from Feedburner, but much to my horror, I’ve realized that I can’t. You see, Feedburner takes over your RSS feed so that the URL that people are subscribing to is Google’s, not mine. In a sense, Feedburner has artificially injected Google between me and my readers and I didn’t even realize it.
I trusted Google.
I said: “They’re not going to let me down. Their mantra is don’t be evil. What could go wrong?”
Survey says!!! *bzzzzz*
I’m sure we’ve all gotten into at least one relationship that we regret. Don’t lie. You’ve been there too. This is certainly one that I regret getting into, and like many other bad relationships, it’s one that’s difficult to get out of.
You see, my data feed has been pointed at Google’s domain servers for years. Anyone who has subscribed over the years currently has their RSS reader pointing at Google’s domain. And while I can use the “My Brand” feature to regain control of future users, there’s not a lot I can do about people who have subscribed in the past. In fact, I’ve already done that but as I said before, I think it’s already too late.
If Google arbitrarily decides to pull the plug on FeedBurner in six months, I lose every RSS subscriber I’ve ever had before today. Given the Google Reader fiasco and Google’s movement towards Google Plus, it seems like the writing is on the wall. But after digging a bit deeper, I feel like I should have gotten a letter from Google.
The Feedburner Developer API’s are no longer available, AdSense for Feeds has gone away, and they’ve said Goodbye on the Feedburner Twitter account. As someone who primarily uses Feedburner to stay in touch with my readers, clearly this is a concern.
The underlying issue is really that Google was offering me a free service and I took it, without stopping to think about how they were making money from it. When a company isn’t making money on a product, not even indirectly on that product, there had better be a good reason for them to keep it around. If there’s not a good reason, eventually it will go away and you’ll need to find an alternative.
So I’m letting you know that moving away from Feedburner. If you’re fan of me or this blog, and you want to continue hearing from me, I highly recommend that you subscribe to my newly created Bootstrappers Mailing List by visiting the site directly. You’ll see a popup near the bottom of the page where you can enter your email address.
If you received this post via email, then you’re all set. You either signed up to the mailing list already, or I’ve migrated you from the Google RSS email into my mailing list.
In the meantime, I’ve changed the RSS feed for this blog to point to: http://feeds.singlefounder.com so if I decide to do something with it in the future, I’ll have control over it again.
I still intend to be pushing stuff to my blog, so RSS will still technically work, but I’ve decided that that not everything I push to my email subscribers is going to end up on the blog. If you’re only subscribed via RSS, I can guarantee that you’re going to miss some things. If you’re familiar with my work on the Startups for the Rest of Us podcast and MicroConf, you’ll know that you can trust me when I say I won’t spam you.
I know I’ve slowed down a lot over the past couple of years in part due to my work schedule, the SaaS product I’ve been working on called AuditShark, and some previously undiagnosed health reasons. (More on all of that in a future email. *hint* *hint*). Since that diagnosis and ensuing treatment, my productivity has increased dramatically. I have the graphs to prove it.
And along with that resulting productivity increase, my writing is back on track again. I’ll be publishing a new article roughly every two weeks or so related to bootstrapping a startup or various other things that I think you might find interesting.
To get started, just add your email address to the popup near the bottom of any page on http://www.SingleFounder.com, confirm your subscription, and you’re good to go.
As a special thank you for subscribing, I have a new article waiting to be sent to my email subscribers with the first one starting the day after you subscribe with three more that I’m working on scheduling.
Until next time, here’s a homework assignment. Take a hard look at each of the services you’re using and ask yourself just one question. Am I a user, or a hostage? If you’re a hostage for any of them, then you’ve got some work to do my friend. Thanks, and take care.
PS: Have an RSS provider you would recommend? Let me know in the comments.
PPS: Since I’m moving towards an email newsletter format, do you have any friends you think might benefit from being on my mailing list? If so, please share this article with them and tell them to subscribe at SingleFounder.com.