June 3, 2011

The Origins of Step Into History

In 1999, I was nearing 20 years with the federal government - 9 years at the VA in the home loan program and 11 years as an investigator with the CFTC (the agency that was supposed to regulate the commodities markets).  It was increasingly clear that the agency was not interested in protecting the public (refer to the financial meltdown of 2008) , most of the people I had admired were gone, and efforts were underway to remove the rest.  One day, using a new search engine called Google (still in beta I believe) I found a new program being offered by Loyola University of Chicago Graduate School of Business for a certificate program in e-commerce. A couple of weeks later I took the GMAT, and one day after my 20th anniversary as a federal employee I was in school full time for the first time in decades.  As I finished course work in May 2000, I found it hard to get interviews as an almost-50 with a young child and wife, because no one thought I could spend 24/7 at the office.  And then the first dot com era imploded.

I spent a lot of time on the internet, partly job searching, partly looking for ideas,  partly just surfing. 

One thing I have always been interested in is history, especially historic sites and living history.  In my last year of high school and the summer before college I had been a guide at Old Economy, the final home of the Harmonists (a group similar in many ways to the Shakers)  near Pittsburgh.  One of the most vivid images from my early childhood (about 5 years old) is standing on the ramparts of Fort Ticonderoga looking up Lake Champlain (a view that seemed unchanged when we stopped by on my honeymoon over 30 years later).  I almost went to William & Mary just to be in Williamsburg.  And so on.

What I found on the web in 2000 was that it was not easy to find a lot about many living history museums, especially in the contexts of their communities.  Those sites that did have web pages weren't always very descriptive or inclusive, and many places didn't have sites.  Often, it depended on what organization owned or operated the site. Even basic information was hard to come by.  Information could be under a state park or historical society listing, local government, or buried somewhiere on a "comprehensive" tourist site -- maybe as a museum, or maybe as an activity, or place to see, or historic site, or tourist attraction, etc.

What began to take shape was the idea of a "reverse portal".  Rather than a site to include everything to see in a town, the thought was to create a series of sites built around specific interests -- such as living history museums, so that people with particular interests could find a site tailored to what they were interested in.  Then, each site would  provide information about other things to do in the area, and all the sites could share this generalized information as well as such things as travel information and lodging.  Sites could be built around such things as science museums, zoos, aquariums & other animal-oriented attractions, amusement parks, nature sites, etc.

The idea was that a half dozen such reverse portals could be maintained by spending an hour or so a day on research & updating each site, and that the generalized information could be spread across the sites to reduce the amount of time required to keep things up to date.

Income would come from affiliate programs.  No one site would probably get enough income to provide a living, but I hoped that cumulatively, since ads would be more geared to particular interests, there would be enough income to make a living, although there never was the notion of getting rich.  In the event, although traffic was actually higher than originally intended, income never really materialized, and what with one thing and another, only one other site ever went live.

NEXT POST:  Step Into Places and it's "specialized" areas.

June 1, 2011

What's all this, then?

In 2001 I formed an "S" Corporation (meaning it had one stockholder, officer, etc. - me)  called Step Into Places, Inc. and launched 2 web sties - StepIntoHistory.com and StepIntoPlaces.com.  Eventually, they grew to almost 9000 content-heavy pages, and at their peak were averaging about 40,0000 views a month each. However, even at their peak they never generated enough income to do more than pay their monthly and most of their annual expenses (web hosting, domain registration, on-site search, calendar service, etc.) This year I had to disband the corporation at the advice of my accountant, because they were not earning enough income to avoid IRS eventual scrutiny.

Although both sites are still up and running, I honestly have to admit that keeping up with the mountain of information I assembled had become extremely difficult after I ran out of "living" money and had to go back to work full time several years ago and nearly impossible over the last three years as a series of family and health related issues consumed most of my free time.

Probably the final straw was this year when,  for once, I had the county fair information overwhelmingly completed and ready to post in February and the latest upgrade to Access simply would not allow me to generate the reports in the format I have been using and posting for the last 8 years.

Between the change in legal status, the need to get the work process under control, and the outdated and outmoded technology and design features of the sites, I have decided on a complete overhaul of both sites with newer and more advanced technology (e.g.: there never were any "live" data links on the sites -- every list and piece of information was either typed in by hand or generated as a text report by Access and imported and tweaked by hand )

Additionally, what content to include needs to be re-evaluated, almost all the existing affiliate links need to be removed and replaced, and a few things I've always wanted to do (maps, maps, maps) have now become affordable and (comparatively) easy to implement.

This all won't be quick, and it won't be easy.  Mostly, this blog is a way to get me back in the habit of  spending "face time" with the computer on a daily basis.  Along the way, for those who may be interested, I'll be posting musings about how the sites were started, what they were intended to achieve, thoughts about history, travel, research, technology, books, advertising, and whatever else comes to mind.  There will be lots of comments about HTML5, CSS3, design software, databases, browsers, and how any one person can possibly get a grip on all this stuff.

Who might read this?  I don't know.  Hopefully, those interested in the fate of the sites, those who might be interested in how sites are put together, those of a certain age who sometimes feel overwhelmed by the turn-on-a-dime nature of information technology (what a quaint term), those interested in history, museums, parks, travel, the state of the web, the uses of information, and even, maybe, some with useful suggestions about how to proceed, will take a few moments to browse through these comments.

The clock on the screen tells me I've been at this for about 45 minutes.  Issue one is already apparent - time management.  The goal is no more than 30 minutes a day on this blog.  More tomorrow.