The paraphrase Charles Dickens in Tale of Two Cities, it is easier than it looks, it is harder than it looks.
When I launched my first Competitive Image website in 2004, I had to design the basic layout and determine how I wanted it to look and to work. Of course I wanted to show off my work, give people the best first impression and still give them the desire to look deeper at the galleries from an event. I was always flattered when I had a lot of people looking at images on my site.
My 2004 site was build by developers who tried to translate my vision into something that was both functional and could be maintained.
Keeping in mind that the only thing I knew about HTML was how to spell it, somehow from 2004 until 2011, I was able to maintain the site with only nominal additional work from the developers. Of course every time I need them to make a change it was expensive! My specialty was reverse engineering and thankfully I didn’t screw too much up, too often.
In early 2012 it was certainly well past the time for making a change, but in doing so, not only did I need to have the cash for the upfront investment in the site development but even more demanding I had to decide what I wanted to show and how.
I started by looking at the sites of photographers whose work I liked: Joe McNally, Chase Jarvis, Peter Read Miller and others. Not that I was I wanted to build a site that was exactly like theirs or better than theirs, I just wanted to find a great way to display my work. What I found particularly interesting was in the lower left corner of each site, was the note: Powered by LiveBooks. Each site was different and each did a great job of showing off their work.
That was April 2012 and I was committed, or so I told myself, to having the site up and running by mid-June with plenty of time to tweak it before I went to London for the Olympics.
In the meantime a friend set up a meeting on my behalf with a developer who he thought could help me with my new site.
I briefly described what I had hoped to do and showed him some of the other sites that I liked. After a bit of thought, he estimated that the development of a new site would cost around $10,000. My sushi lunch nearly exploded all over the table, I asked about using something like the platform-based site such as LiveBooks. He said that by the time I finally got it to look the way I wanted, the extras would added up to the same cost.
In May I was on the road, or more appropriately in the air. I was in Texas, Northern California, Southern California and Madrid. Great races, great people great photo, but not a lot of time to think about a website. The rest of the summer and fall continued at the same pace.
What I did decide however was that I didn’t need to provide a full gallery for each event that I shot. Typically I send a medium resolution gallery of selected images to a publisher after an event via an FTP. When they want the high res, I do whatever post-processing is necessary and send it off. If they need something that isn’t included, I get an email and respond with a set of additional selected images.
With this realization, I became incredibly lax at maintaining my site. Lax is in fact an over statement of my effort, I just didn’t update anything and yet, I had more images published than ever before. I was now getting to the point where the appearance of my site was a personal embarrassment to me and would refer people to my WordPress Blog, because my blog had current content.
Race season ended, with the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon, the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii and the Bahamas Triathlon, which only left 3 things on my calendar for the balance of 2012: Thanksgiving, yoga and my website.
I kept being drawn back to the LiveBooks platform and earlier in the year, I had discussed having a custom site build for $4,200, better than $10,000 but still!
I once again looked at their basic formats as well as their interactive home pages and I did find one that I thought with a few changes could be really cool. Even with the interactive home page, I was prepared to compromise.
My first job was to go through my images picking what I wanted to display. This was no small task since I shot about 40 separate events doing the year. I spent all day everyday, for two weeks going through images, post processing and optimizing them for the web.
My next step was to sign up for the LiveBooks, free trial period – I had received a coupon code to extend the trial period from 14 days to 30 days and used that as I signed up, thinking it would take me most of the 30 days to really get ready.
I began my free trial in a Friday and by Monday I was comfortable with the LiveBooks Edit Suite and I activated my subscription and placed the order for an interactive home page. Cost to-date was $400 for annual hosting and the use of the platform and an addition $200 for the interactive home page. $600 in, not bad – but I was certainly ready to adjust my expectations of what could be done with their template.
I am extremely lucky in that I have a great friend Carl who is an amazing designer. One of his strengths beyond design is his ability to visualize the users’ experience. It is always challenging to work with Carl and I mean that in the most appreciative and affectionate way. Carl challenges me, makes me think and in the vast majority of the time is spot on in his process.
100% of my interaction with LiveBooks was done via email. In fact, it was somewhat into the process that I realized that my customer service contact, Elena was really based in Romania. Both her understanding of the LiveBooks system and her English were perfect. Once we synced up on the zone differences, things went even more smoothly than before. I would send off requests, comments etc. each evening Minneapolis time and by the time I was at my desk early the next morning I would see the result of the changes. We could do another round in the early morning and then she would be gone for the day. I did have to pay for two additional design changes at $50 each (total cost now up to $700, including the annual fee).
If you look at the LiveBooks offerings and then see the magnitude of the changes I have made (and if you knew how picky I am), you could easily understand how this process could take months. The changes of which there were many, took just over 2 weeks. Looking back at the process, I am still impressed with their responsiveness. Best of all, there were no compromises on my part.
There are a few things that I realized in the development process. Whereas I used to be really flattered by the sheer number of people looking at my site immediately after an event, that is now much less important. What I want are the right people to look at it and for them to be blown away by the images. My constituencies are much more clearly defined and include, but are not limited to:
- Photo Editors;
- Art Directors;
- Race Directors; and
- Workshop Participants.
Of course the list could go on, but these are the primary users of my images. Everyone is of course welcome and I am always flattered, but I wanted to build a site that would show off the quality and diversity of my work, not necessarily the volume of it.
Although I still have some content to add, SEO and behind the scenes work to do on the site, the change from my prior site is so dramatic I wanted to get it launched as soon as practical.
Will the new site lead to more business? There is no doubt in my mind that it will. In fact, I picked up two small projects solely by showing off the test site before it was launched.
Two of my favorite things about my LiveBooks site are: the site scales to fit the size of your screen, so you never have to use the scroll bar to see the entire page; and based on the interactive homepage, you can see 15 of my images without a single mouse click!
It was a lot of work to bring the site to its current state, but well worth it and LiveBooks made it much easier than I could have imagined!
Take a look if you get a chance. I hope you like what I have done, with a little help from my friends.