I love phpBBHacks.com. I spent 11 years managing it. It was my biggest, most successful community. And that is why it was so hard for me to give it away.
phpBBHacks.com was launched on April 6, 2001. I created it because I needed it. As someone who used the phpBB forum software, I wanted an organized directory of all of the hacks and customizations that were available, so that I could make my phpBB do what I wanted it to.
I wasn’t alone in this. The site grew to be visited by tens of thousands of people every day. What I created was the largest unofficial resource for the most widely used community software in the world.
At the time that I gave it away, over 4,400 unique hacks, styles and other downloads were listed in our database from nearly 1,500 different authors. They had been downloaded well over 13 million times. This massive database was paired with a friendly and helpful support community featuring over 300,000 posts, 73,000 threads and 34,500 members.
What the Community Meant to Me
Obviously, the numbers are nice. It was an extremely successful project and helped phpBB to grow and reach more people. But, in order to achieve that, I dedicated a portion of my life to it.
When I launched the site, I was 15. This is one of the places where I learned what it really meant to be a community manager and where I paid my dues. To take it from day 1 to what we became, there is so much that you learn and experience.
We faced some very unique challenges that I shielded the community from. Without getting into it too deeply, I will suffice to say that open source politics can be crazy. There were people, with great authority in the phpBB community, that did not want us to exist and they exercised their authority in an attempt to make that so and to discredit me and phpBBHacks.com. They failed and it was an amazing challenge that we triumphed over. It was an incredible experience for the few who knew about it.
The phpBBHacks.com community was able to help so many people. I hesitate to even estimate the number. Hundreds of thousands, certainly, if not more. I was able to meet many great people. I was able to help people move on to other great things, helping my staff members to secure not one, but two book deals related to phpBB. I wrote the forward for the first book ever written about phpBB and the first four books about phpBB were all written or co-written by members of my community.
It is a special project and to accomplish what we did was something that I don’t take for granted. For more details, please read the message I posted on the 10th anniversary of our launch.
Deciding it Was Time to Move On
When I decided that it was probably time for me to move on, it wasn’t a quick or easy decision. It was one I made after a lot of thought. Months of consideration, perhaps even more than a year of thinking about it. First casually, then more frequently.
It is not easy to simply walk away from something that you created, that has been so successful, that you have so much of yourself invested in. Let alone your most successful project that receives the most traffic.
But, I decided that I was ready to face other challenges and to move in different directions and, in order to do that, I had to free myself up. I needed to make time available and, in addition to pulling myself out of a number of different projects, I felt that I was ready to make the difficult decision to step away from a project that had been a part of my life for more than a decade.
Time to Sell?
Running my network is a full time job and phpBBHacks.com took more time than any other project I have ever had. Because of this, it also represented a portion of my income that I would have to replace. The only way to do this would be to sell the site.
Beyond the history, content, traffic and current revenue, I had also amassed a very impressive portfolio of related domain names. The package was worth quite a bit to the right person. I could have really used that money.
But, as I considered the parties who would be interested in buying it and have the money to do so, I came to an uncomfortable conclusion: the people who would be interested in buying it would likely run it in a very mediocre fashion – or worse, run it into the ground.
There may be some projects where I wouldn’t care, where I didn’t have the relationships and the emotional connection or where I had simply devoted enough and had to worry about myself. This was not that project. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
phpBBHacks.com had a very special relationship with the community, specifically with hack and style authors and with users of phpBB. Those are the groups that we cared about. The relationship was one that I had tirelessly cultivated, exchanging so many messages with so many authors.
As I mentioned earlier, there had been over 4,400 individual creations in our database when my time came to an end. Every single one of those was added with the permission of the author. With a majority of downloads, we weren’t required to do this – the license they were released under allowed us to distribute them without permission. But, from day 1, we went beyond that requirement and ensured that every author had given permission and knew their work was in our database. We trusted authors with their own work. We trusted them to maintain it and be responsible for it. This unique, special relationship with authors was something I always valued and something that set us apart from other resources that popped up over the years.
This is why I didn’t want to sell it and have it simply go away. Nothing lasts forever. But, I wanted someone who would try to take it to new heights – places that it had not yet been. If I was going to keep managing it, that would be what I would do. Since I was moving on, I needed to find the right person to do that.
The problem? No one who would qualify also had the money to buy the site. So, I had to make a choice. It was either going to be the money, which I deserved and could use, or it was going to be legacy.
Finding the Right Person
I opted for legacy. The understanding that I did something that I would look back on with pride. Not that selling the site would have been some breach of integrity, but I cared more about the site having an opportunity to be even greater.
For that to be true, it had to be put into the hands of the right person. In the most ideal situation, this would be someone who has worked with me, who saw first hand how I managed the community. Someone that was aware of the challenges that we had faced. I wanted someone who knew my vision and shared it, but would work to put their own stamp on phpBBHacks.com.
After a lot of thought, I determined that there were two people in the world that would fit that description. One of those people was Jared Smith, one of my very first staff members, who was knee deep in other pursuits. The other was Jeremy Rogers, better known throughout the phpBB community as Thoul. Jeremy had been a member of my staff for about 4 years, from 2003 through 2007. He was exposed to a lot of pivotal moments and was a great member of the team. He co-authored the first book ever written about phpBB. They came to me first, but I couldn’t write it. However, I knew who could.
His influence throughout the phpBB community, with his contributions at phpBBHacks.com, is immense. He is one of the most impactful phpBB related resource authors in the history of the software. It is hard to say just how many people he has helped, alone. I tried to estimate once and was comfortable saying “over 100,000″ but who really knows. He was a major presence in our support forums, becoming the person with the most posts – the only member with more posts than me. At the time of our 10th anniversary, a year before I stepped away from the site, he had released 83 hacks and other customizations that had been downloaded 235,100 times and made 17,963 posts in our forums. As if that wasn’t enough, he had also been honored 13 times in our annual phpBBHacks.com Awards, which was a record. For more of me praising Jeremy, you can read the 10th anniversary profile of him or my announcement when he left my staff in 2007.
Jeremy was the one. But, I knew Jeremy most likely could not afford to pay me what the site was worth. So, I gave it to him.
What I Gave Jeremy
We discussed different ideas, including me maintaining some ownership of the website. But, I personally leaned toward giving him the entire operation. That’s what I did. The website, all content on the website, an assortment of domain names, everything. They were his. Full ownership. I put together a short contract to spell this out.
To help me transition to other projects, we agreed that I would keep any revenue generated from the site for 6 months. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it helped. The domain names alone were worth more than that, so it wasn’t about getting value for site. It was just something that would help me replace some of the income that I was losing. As part of that, I also agreed to host the site for a minimum of 9 months, meaning that the only real expense that he would have within that 6 month period was renewal for some of the domain names. Meanwhile, he could learn the ropes and settle in as the manager of a well established site.
I provided him with all sorts of extra things related to the site, but perhaps the biggest was a long, detailed guide to everything that went into running the site and what my thought processes were. It too me several hours to put together. Of course, I’m always available to him should he have a question.
One of the things I worked to impress upon him was the fact that it was his site to run. Even though I might be around, the moment it was handed over, it was no longer my site and I understood that. I would be around for support and input as needed, but the reason I was giving the site to him for practically nothing was that I wanted him to take it to the next level. That desire to see it progress was the whole reason I decided not to sell it.
I had plenty of time prepare myself to step away, but that doesn’t mean it was easy. Even thinking about it now can get me a little emotional.
We made the hand off on April 6, 2012. It marked the 11th anniversary of the launch of phpBBHacks.com. 11 years of my life. It was amazing to consider what had changed in that time.
My final act as owner of phpBBHacks.com was this announcement. In it, I reflected on what the community meant to me and how I had been wrestling with stepping away from the site. I walked through my thought process and my eventual decision. I thanked people and I welcomed Jeremy to his new role. I stayed on staff for a couple of months to support him as he learned the ropes.
The move was received by community members in an overwhelmingly positive way and, beyond the replies in the forums, I received many messages via other social media outlets (like Facebook) expressing some very nice things. It was very touching.
This isn’t to say that I will always do this sort of thing. It isn’t to say I am advocating it. I wanted to share the story because I believe there may be opportunities to learn from it. Bottom line: in this case, with this community and the special, unique relationship I had developed, it was the right decision and I’m glad I made it.