There but for the grace of pageviews go I: where blogging and my business are going

at wework
At one of the many coworking offices where I've worked recently. This one was WeWork in NYC.

Let's start with some required reading

Last week, I sent an email to all the Offbeat Empire staffers with the subject line: Required reading. The email contained a link to this post: State of the blog union: how the blogging world has changed. This post was written six months ago, but whatever: it's a big fucking deal.

The author Grace Bonney (publisher of the hugely popular Design*Sponge), runs down a list of issues that have been at the forefront of my mind for a couple years including:

  • The trend of people commenting on social media instead of blogs themselves. Publishers no longer own the conversation. Readers no longer feel its worth the time to type their name and email into a comment form. (Why would we when we're all on mobile phones, and Facebook has trained us to never need to?)
  • The shifting role of the homepage. Back in my day, you went to a blog's homepage and clicked on the newest posts. Now, people follow via social media and enter the site via a post. If (and that's a big if) they go to the homepage, it's just to get a sense of what the site is about.

She also goes into a great deal of detail about the shifting landscape of blog advertising toward what's now known as "native" advertising — ie sponsored posts. This is the one place where I feel like I was ahead of the game. Offbeat Bride has featured native advertising since 2007. I think my decade as a marketing copywriter made non-interruptive advertising feel like common sense… but it wasn't. I wrote about my business model back in 2008 (it's the post that Meg Keene cites as what inspired her to launch A Practical Wedding), and in the six years since then, native advertising has become a totally known thing.

…In fact, such a known thing that Google is now punishing shady people who do it (mostly link farms and spammers, but not always), and so now some folks are terrified about it. We're not shady (we use nofollows on all sponsored links), so we're not worried… but I think native advertising's day's are ultimately numbered. Not because it's a bad idea or because Google is punishing most of us who do it responsibly, but because advertisers are becoming frightened of it.

One of the things Grace doesn't talk about (surprisingly! how can you not talk about it?!) is the rise of mobile. I've watched my pages/session counts (the number of pages each reader views per site visit) tumble over the last 3 years… and when you map it to mobile use, it's basically a 1:1 correlation. People use mobile browsers VERY differently than they use desktop browsers. Even if your website looks good in mobile browsers, the user flow is going to be totally different.

Grace keeps her post positive, and basically the moral of the story is:

Blogs will need to diversify, run with a light footprint (in terms of overhead and team costs) and constantly change to stay alive.

She's right 100%. I've been in the content game for over a decade, and it's great! And I love it! But the game is changing. Fast. Hard. Print publishers have been in a panic for years, and we digital publishers need to stop feeling smug: there but for the grace of pageviews go I.

Side note: it's in part for this reason that my mind boggles that pro-blogging is still being marketed as a money-making endeavor. Blogging conferences are shutting down, you guys. I'm here telling you that even as an established full-time digital publisher of 8 years (with another 7 years of hobby-blogging before that), the landscape has changed. Buying a domain and installing WordPress? Har har. Several people managed to replicate Offbeat Bride's success in the late '00s, but here in the teens, even *I* can't replicate Offbeat Bride's success! Offbeat Families shut down after four years and $40k invested. Offbeat Home & Life is essentially a hobby that barely breaks even. I find it unconscionable that anyone would charge people to learn how to make money off a business model that's clearly on the wane.

Innovation & Fear

Part of what I love about working on the internet is that NOTHING is static. Just when you think you have it figured out, a new tool comes along, an old algorithm shifts so it doesn't work the same, an industry trend shifts and you're rich and confused or broke and confused. It's part of what makes it fun!

When Offbeat Bride launched, there were no other alternative wedding blogs. There was Indiebride (but that was a forum) and DIY Bride (which was more of a crafting site). Now there are whole spiraling fractals of niche wedding blogs (practical, rock 'n' roll, geeky, mountain, broke, etc x 50000) and I've had to adapt.

Sponsored posts used to be 70% of my revenue, but now they don't sell as easily and they're only 25%. That's ok because social media wasn't the same in 2007… people still used RSS instead of Facebook. I've written before about how I basically built my site around Flickr… which is now a struggling property hoping for a comeback (and mostly failing). The month I launched Offbeat Bride's vendor guide, I made four times more than I'd ever made in a month. My revenue model totally changed.

And it just keeps changing. Last summer, I stopped fighting Facebook and look what happened to Offbeat Bride's traffic:

That shows our referrals coming in from Facebook. Suddenly, instead of hating Facebook (for not being RSS, for sucking comments away), I figured out that I could milk it for traffic off of "greatest hits" posts, and traffic went way WAY up. That increase was true of for all the sites — even the blog that ceased publication.

I've basically spent the 7.5 years since Offbeat Bride launched adapting and adapting again, and shifting and shifting again. We're in a BIG shift right now, but things are never static on the web.

Adapting to the rise of mobile

One of the biggest adaptations I made was accommodating mobile use. My brain still tries to work in desktop browser brain: "People can see where this text link goes by hovering over it," I think to myself, and then realize how many readers are on mobile where there is no hovering. Why does no one use the site's navigation? Oh right: mobile.

Early last year, I invested many thousands of dollars in making all the sites more mobile-friendly, which was SO IMPORTANT. I felt like I was a year or two late, even… and I'm still playing catch-up. (Every month or so, Offbeat Bride Tribe members ask for a stand-alone app. No one wants my stupid website — they want an app.)

I'm increasingly aware too of how much bigger mobile is going to be. I just read an article about how low-end Android phones are going to radicalize the internet, as floods of folks in developing nations get smartphones. Then I watched this fascinating slideshow about the future of global internet use — all mobile, all the time.

 

So where are we going?

Ok, ok: I don't mean to be all terrifying here. Content on the web certainly isn't going away and neither is the Empire. But a reader emailed me to ask if I had any updates to this 2011 post about monetizing your blog… and I was horrified that I didn't. This is the internet! The fact that the basic tools I use haven't changed much in 3 years is a sign that things are stagnating. I'm not scared, but that's only because I've already got multiple irons in multiple fires that reduce my business's dependence on my longtime business model of selling sponsored posts, banner ads, and vendor listings.

A sales slump scared me into action last year. That particular slump was thankfully temporary, but I'm thanking my lucky stars that it motivated me to get a head start on diversifying my business model. Getting into the events market with Lovesick Expo is a big deal, and it's only the beginning of the shifts. I've got several new revenue streams and business models in the works to launch within the next six months or so.

So yes: I'm working hard to diversify my business to not just be about content — but I'm also investing to make the most of the Empire's deep well of awesome content. This means we're in the beginning phases of a six-month project to redesign the Offbeat Empire's websites.

Amazingly, with only a few tweaks (and a major recoding to get mobile browser responsive), we've been using the same design since 2009. It's remarkable to me that the design has held up as well as it has, but it's finally time.

Decreasing numbers of people navigating content by my beloved blog category archives… they browse by related post and tiled thumbnails. They care less and less about commenting, and more and more about sharing and social media conversations. Yes, longtime readers absolutely still care about post recency, but the vast majority care about relevancy. Why do Offbeat Empire sites have a "Next / Previous" post text links instead of a swiping navigational function? Why do we show comment counts when only 1% of our readers have ever left a comment, and most people care more about view or share counts? Big change and exciting decisions afoot!

I've got a pretty good handle on the base design and the UX, but I need a few hours of designer help. I'll be posting about that tomorrow.

In the meantime: anyone want to talk about the future of blogging? Social media? Online advertising? Diversifying your business? I want to hear your stories!

  1. I don't really have much to add, but I didn't want this post to just sit here. I want you to know that I am sending this to everyone on my content development and editorial team. I adore these updates from your front lines.

    The next time you are in NYC, let's grab a coffee?

    11 agree
  2. This is SO interesting — not least because it is such a different perspective from this very optimistic post, which frames blogging as a "baby" industry.

    http://www.abeautifulmess.com/2014/03/on-young-industries.html

    Does the difference between your/Grace's perspective and the linked site lie in the role of advertising? A Beautiful Mess' profit seems to be pretty mixed between ads and product. I'd imagine the shifting business model can't be that simple, but it seems that quite a lot of successful blogs rely at least partly on selling either digital or physical product. Granted, the blogs I follow are largely sewing-related, so the products (patterns, notions, fabric) are a more obvious next step and my sample is skewed toward that option.

    A lot of the blogging-related posts I read tend to be similar to the above ("there is no limit to where your blog can take you!"), which may be true, but it's refreshing to see people talking about the industry's major challenges, especially when it is overwhelmed with content.

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    • Super interesting! Thanks for sharing that link. And yep: ads are a nice egg to have in your basket… but one must have many eggs (and ideally several baskets).

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      • …and a few chickens.
        …Perhaps some other species of bird would be wise, and some reptiles just to be sure.
        …But what if there's no future in eggs? Might be a good idea to get a foot on the "live birth" bandwagon too.

        Aw man! Now I've gone and over-diversified. Bummer.

        9 agree
  3. This is so true! Blogging is changing in the wake of things like tumblr and pinterest and twitter, as well as FB and organizations need to stay agile and work to keep up with trends, even if they are fleeting (or appear to be fleeting. Twitter was a joke for a long time, ya know?) I'm happy to see that the OBE is aware of this and working to be where the people are. I love the OBE!

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  4. Thanks for the thoughtful post! As always, these business-y behind the scenes discussions are my favorite. I can't wait to see where you go and how the online business world continues to develop. And funny timing- The offbeat empire and APW are the two tops of my reader, and Meg just posted about the future of her business today too!

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  5. *sigh* Yeah, this has been my business to for the past umpteen years (as a writer/editor/content strategist, so at least I'm not responsible for the financial side, heh), along with my hobby blogs. It's fascinating & terrifying at the same time.

  6. This does make a little thankful that my non-Empire stuff is in academia. That is slow enough just accepting blogging, so at least I know where blogs will become cool. 🙂 Watching how fast things shift still blows my mind but more and more it just becomes oh so clear that we have to be ready for change. Settling in and becoming comfortable is just not really an option anymore!

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  7. Offbeat Bride was the only blog that I've ever piqued my interest. I've been on tinylife a few times, but not nearly as much as I frequent OBB. I don't have very much to add, but as you already know, you're doing a great job! I've never understood blogs and it's interesting to learn that Facebook/social media has caused it to decline. I love your FB "Best Of OBB" posts, but rarely ever comment. Do you get updates on when the site is viewed through mobile?

    1 agrees
    • Do you get updates on when the site is viewed through mobile?

      My site analytics track visitors from desktop, tablet, and mobile browsers, as long as you click through from Facebook.

      Basically: if you click through to my site, you're counted! If you don't click and just stay on Facebook, you're not counted in my site stats. There are many FB followers who do not click through — they leave a Facebook comment based on the title and thumbnail photo. Heck, sometimes they even share on Facebook without having clicked through to read the post they're sharing! It used be quite frustrating for me ( http://offbeatempire.com/facebook-sucks ) but now I've adapted and don't really care as much. Interacting with our content is interacting with our content, wherever you do it.

      3 agree
  8. I just wanted to let you know that I chose my wedding photographer exclusively from OBB vendors. I went to the vendor guide, went to a few websites, shot off a few intro emails, and bam, a week later I had Carrie Swails ( http://offbeatbride.com/2014/04/boulder-wedding-photographer ). I wouldn't have known she charged by the hour and included engagement sessions without the sponsored post, and those were huge for us.

    Plus, knowing that she had gone out of her way to advertise on OBB meant she was probably going to be awesome, which she is, and I wouldn't have to sift through photogs for potential scams, etc. I LOVE sponsored posts.

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    • Yeah, you bring a great point here: there's a big difference between the brand-based sponsored posts that many bloggers do ("Dove Soap sponsored my kid's birthday party… think nice things about Dove!") and what we do ("Let us introduce you to this small indie vendor who you might want to hire for your wedding later this year.")

      The vendor model has some built-in longevity, but it also has a market cap: my readership is up 250% from where it was in 2011… my sponsored post rates, meanwhile, have only increased by about 25%… because small indie vendors just can't afford more than $900. (And many of them can't afford even that.)

      So, while I love having a vendor-based revenue stream, it does come with a built-in cap in terms of how much they can afford when balanced in with how many sponsored posts readers are willing to read. (What if we cut sponsored post rates in half… but did one every single day? Readers would HATE IT.)

      Anyway, I love sponsored posts too, and I love how USEFUL they are for readers… but there are definitely challenges with scaling them. (And there's a LOT of fear about Google's Panda updates, which doesn't help.)

      2 agree
      • I would LOVE daily sponsored posts. OBB as a hopefully-one-day bride was fun to look at wedding porn and save (ahem, pin) good advice for later. As a bride planning her wedding, I need meatier, more practical posts. If I can scroll through a dozen posts to get to something helpful, your readers looking for dress and shoe porn can scroll past a post featuring photographers and coordinators. The more options in each area, the better; wanting to advertise on OBB is a good enough reason for me to consider them as a vendor, because no bigot is going to advertise someplace so openly welcoming to the LGBT community. So it narrows down my choices, even as I'd like to have more–but I'd like to have 20 options, not 4. I'm not digging through wedding porn posts looking for a vendor. Maybe switching in more quantity means you can afford to give a discount on vendor listings to those who have been mentioned in wedding porn posts?

        Shoes at two keeps reminding us you're a fun resource that understands what we're going through (more dude shoes please!). Wedding porn keeps the single folks dreaming and scheming and the newly-engaged brainstorming options before there's a date set to start picking vendors. But that's been where I've felt my readership of OBB start waning lately. If I'm not making active decisions that check off my to-do list, then I'm not thinking about my wedding AT ALL. Looking at wedding porn I can't have is just stressful.

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        • If I can scroll through a dozen posts to get to something helpful, your readers looking for dress and shoe porn can scroll past a post featuring photographers and coordinators.

          I agree with you on this, but I also think that the readers who hate sponsored posts are louder than the ones who find them useful, most likely because of the Tribe. Personally, I use both when planning; I find the main blog to have more useful vendor information and how-to posts (like DIY Ceremony 101 etc.), but when I want personal experience, I'll run over to the regional forums and see how someone in my area liked the vendor or how they dealt with a regional issue.

          But a lot of Tribesmaids stop reading the main blog (this is still a thing, right?), thus a lot of the active planners aren't weighing in on the usefulness of main bloggy stuff.

        • If I'm not making active decisions that check off my to-do list, then I'm not thinking about my wedding AT ALL.

          …and that's when you head over to Offbeat Home & Life, right? 😉

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      • Oh good GAWD no — we're not on Vine at all, and they're not interested in our 2k followers on Instagram. From what I understand, they're interested in folks with millions of followers. I'm mostly just blown away by the fact that people are making solid money making 6 second videos for ad clients. SIX SECONDS! Vine amazes me in general.

        1 agrees
  9. Thank you so much for this! I'm the editor of a blog, and it makes me feel a million times better that ours isn't the only one struggling with this stuff (especially the lack of comments!). I think we're going to reevaluate some things based on what you and Grace have shared about your experiences. As I reflect, I realize that my own habits as a reader/user have changed a lot in the last few years too (in largely the same ways you and Grace have discussed) so it's hardly fair of me to fight against it as a content creator! It's a little (okay, a lot) scary, but now I feel more inspired to adapt and experiment. =)

    3 agree
  10. Are you seeing a dip in traffic from the changes to the Facebook algorithm? This is one comment I've been hearing from bloggers a lot- that unless their readers set up notifications for their posts, they're less likely to see them on their feed.

  11. They'll have to pry my RSS reader from my cold, dead hands.

    When Google Reader dumped the share feature I got Tumblr, which is where I spend most of my internet time now. (I think they were hoping for Google+ but that's never happening.) When they dumped Google Reader altogether I got Feedly, and now tbh I use Feedly on my phone a lot.

    I always feel bad about getting the content but not looking at the ads. I know you've written about this before, but it still feels weird. I guess if you needed your RSS readers to see the ads you could configure your RSS feed to just be links.

    1 agrees
      • And I'll actually look at every single sponsored post 🙂 Which, um, I don't do with other ads.

    • RSS for life! I feel like such an internet dinosaur. *grins*

      And Ariel, I absolutely love reading these posts. It really gives me a whole new perspective on the content I consume. Here's to the future of blogging!

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  12. As someone who works on the social media side of promoting/advertising/keeping content and blogs afloat, I find this perspective really interesting. I am also a huge fan of Grace Bonney and Design*Sponge, so her insights were useful too (I somehow missed her original post. Possibly because I wasn't paying attention to Social Media that day?). Thank you for sharing.

    2 agree
  13. Where do you see the option of asking readers to contribute to the site fitting in this new world of blogging? I know the Empire has the monthly sponsorships available through Tugboat Yards new this year, any lessons learned from using this reader supported method so far?

    • While I wouldn't call our 10 months with Tugboat Yards a failure, it's certainly not the magic bullet that's made Offbeat Home profitable. Since last October, Offbeat Home & Life/Tugboat Yards has brought in about as much as Offbeat Bride advertising has brought in since June 1st. So, 10 months vs 2 weeks.

      Tugboat Yards staunches the bleeding a bit (and more importantly, makes me feel warm and fuzzy that readers love the site so much!), but financially speaking it hasn't proven to be a large revenue stream… and honestly, I'm still uncomfortable with asking readers to essentially donate money. I don't like having to remind people every month that they can. I'd be terrible working for public radio.

  14. Is there a good way to leave feedback on usability of the mobile platform? Because I definitely leave fewer comments due to mobile site set-up.

    3 agree
    • Sure! Feel free to email me — although keep in mind that at this point all my dev resources are focused on the redesign, so you may not see immediate improvements on our current, soon to be obsolete, template.

      I do want to clarify that I've completely made my peace with the lower numbers of comments on the blogs. In fact, it makes my life WAY easier. We used to essentially have someone focused on moderating comments 18 hours a day… now we don't have to worry about it.

      This is all to say: I'd love to hear your feedback about any bugs with commenting on mobile browsers, but I do want to make it clear that I'm not complaining about the lack of comments, or trying to force people into commenting more. As always, a community will use the tools in ways that feel natural. It's not worth me trying to change anyone's behavior.

      2 agree
  15. And things like this is why I dream of one day being a staffer (paid or non-paid) for the Empire. I think I've learned more about modern communications and social media techniques from reading these Empire updates than I ever did in my comm textbooks and advertising classes.

    I also use social media much differently than most, though. Pins are pinned for reference, so Home gets more pinned than Bride. Facebook I just kind of ignore, unless it's an actual status update from a friend. I don't do twitter or insta-gram, because my life is not than interesting. Bride is on my RSS feed because it's a fun, light thing to read on my lunch break or when I'm waiting for the bus. Home is also on my RSS feed, but that's reading for when I have more time and can explore my feelings on the pieces there a little more in-depth, and I read the comments on certain topics nearly always, or nearly never for others. I almost never read comments on Bride, almost always on Tribe, and I leave comments when a piece on Bride moves me. Leaving comments on the kindle is a bitch, so I almost always make a mental note and do it on the laptop when I get home.

    I know, I'm weird and that's probably way too much info you. But there ya go.

    3 agree
  16. Ariel, thank you for sharing this kind of information with us. You are an incredibly savvy businesswoman, and I have learned SO. MUCH. from you and everyone else in the Offbeat Empire.

    You keep right on keeping on, okay? God knows the internet needs more places like OBB. 🙂

    5 agree
  17. This is fascinating. I hope the Lovesick expo makes it up to Canada one of these years.

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  18. I just read the Design Sponge post this weekend, (oh, and the link about blogging conferences shutting down didn't work). And then I read this one: http://ohamanda.com/2014/06/16/spreading-community/ It's interesting! I view much more on my phone as well, and the biggest problem I run into is trying to leave comments. I think anyone is smart to diversify – clearly you know what you're doing. I'm excited to see what other avenues you're pursuing! And, I think you're the only person I've seen not bemoaning Facebook.

    • First, thanks for flagging the busted conference link. It's been fixed!

      As for Facebook, I was bemoaning it NON-STOP last year… until I decided to try shifting my strategy to see if I could ride the shift instead of fighting it. As I said in my tweet that I included in this post, my referral stats are a pretty clear indication of what happens when you stop moaning, and start feeding the beast. Ever notice how few posts I write these days? That's because most of my writing time is now dedicated to scheduling posts on Facebook. It might sound sad, but the traffic don't lie and ultimately as a publisher, I'm happy to do what makes the traffic flow.

      1 agrees
      • As a reader, that bums me out – as a blogger, I totally get it. I can't think of a non-cheesy way to say it, but I think it's savvy and obviously smart to 'feed the beast' instead of just whining about it and trying to game the algorithm (especially since it is ever changing). So, rock on! (/cheese)

        3 agree
        • Yeah, I figure I can either whine and try to fight it, or just enjoy finding new ways to have fun with it. Luckily, social media marketing is as much fun creatively for me as writing is… even if it's not as, I dunno, respectable? I spent 15 years doing marketing, and I genuinely like it! So even though I miss writing as much, it's honestly sorta fun to focus on social media marketing.

  19. I love when you do behind the scenes posts like this. I have learned so much from the Tribe and the OBE blogs. I recently decided to switch careers and I'm seriously contemplating web design. I look forward to see what changes you end up making here.

    2 agree
  20. I don't know why you prompted me to comment with THIS post, but there you go. I am one of those people who LOVES the less 'relevant' posts. They are all relevant. All of them. Offbeat Bride is new to me, and there is a treasure trove buried in those archives. I love that they get replay time on facebook, and that I never get to the end of digging through the site. There's always more to love. I am so head over heels for the community here, and I know I'll still be reading from all the different Offbeat sites long after my own wedding is over.

    I'm not in the blogging game anymore, but I do get that business changes, models have to change, and the way consumers behave is going to change as well. Thanks for going with evolution – I might not be here reading this today if you hadn't. In fact…I followed this post off a facebook link 😛

    2 agree
  21. (This may be completely dumb but you mentioned an app…)

    When I got my windows phone I installed the youtube app thinking it would be, you know, an app. All it actually did was launch my browser straight to youtube without me having to open a new tab, type youtube and wait for it. Would an "app" like this satisfy those wanting it and also count as page views each time it was launched?

    2 agree
  22. I'm here from Facebook! I like getting reminded about or seeing content that I didn't previously know about, though it feels weird to comment when I suddenly realize I'm reading a post several years old!

    I love to get your take on the business side of things. Thank you for sharing that.

    2 agree
  23. I find comment counts useful as I use them to judge if there's been much discussion on a post since I last visited it. Not so much for very old posts but for recent things where the comments have been interesting or I have joined in a conversation.

    An indicator of when the last comment was made might do the job just as well though.

    • I completely agree. I love the comments on posts as much as the posts themselves, and often check back to see if any have been added.
      Although, something I've always wanted was a way to subscribe to comments without having to comment yourself. I'm sure you'd say you always want people to get involved in conversations rather than just observing, but sometimes I don't have time right then to comment, or I feel everything I would have said has already been covered, but I really want to hear what others have to add.

      5 agree
    • I love the comments on posts as much as the posts themselves

      And I love this about ya'll! My goal is to find a way to acknowledge that relatively few people care about the comments, but the people who care, REALLY CARE. I want the comments to feel engaging and awesome for those who enjoy them, while not letting low comment counts act as a misleading representation of engagement.

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  24. Ariel, I think of you as a bellweather for Teh Internets. You've articulated a lot of thoughts in my mind which I had not seen anyone discussing; I was wondering if I was missing something. I had been toying with starting a blog and eventually monetizing it, but all my knowledge is from Blogging 1.0. Categories, home pages, ads, WordPress and a domain, everything you said. Reading this article and Grace's article may have changed the direction of what I want to do with my time in general, let alone whether I actually want to start this blog.

    I have an online handmade jewelry business, and the other day I decided to go to Instagram, set up an account for my jewelry, and get started on that whole social promoting thing. First thing I did was type in the word "Swarovski." For a second, I thought I had accidentally typed in the word "Etsy." 90% of the pictures that came up were of Etsy resale listings.

    Even if I love the internet and tech, I feel like I need to take a step back and focus on other, more Luddite interests for a few months. I am really, really keen to see the new ways in which you are diversifying the Empire. Thanks, Guru. 🙂

    1 agrees

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