Here’s an e-mail:

I saw that you run a few websites and they look impressive. I also saw that you said you had 130K users of Amiglia. I don’t want to be too forward, but I was wondering if the users drop out when they get to the end of the year-long free trial–I mean how many are really paying? The site looks like a good idea.

I’m thinking of starting a website, but I don’t know if users will pay. Even still, I would hope to have members, but I’m impressed with how many users you have. Again, if you don’t mind me asking–how did you get that many people? What marketing tactics were successful for you or would you recommend? Also, I don’t code so I need all the help I can get.

My reaction:

  1. I congratulate this person for sending an e-mail to founders of and asking these questions.It doesn’t hurt to ask. The world of startups is full of people guessing what’s going to happen. Ideally, you get into a team with somebody who has experience to get you through this. You want educated guesses, not just guesses. And if you want to know, one way to find out–if you’re lucky–is to just ask.Another good idea, when you’re asking, is to ask who else might know. Ask them to point you to some resource on web membership revenue. Ask them to point you to resources on web marketing. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
  2. Teams. You don’t have to know everything to get a team together, combining people with different skills and experience. It does take organizational skills, sharing and working with other people…but it’s hard to start at zero and find out everything you need to know. People learn business from experience, and that’s a matter of teams.
  3. Getting money from websites can be mysterious business. There are a lot of beta sites like that don’t actually charge money. And there’s the website tradition of not charging money, too. Facebook is free, LinkedIn is free, MySpace is free and Google Apps are free.
  4. How did get that many people? The line from Field of Dreams comes to mind: If you build it, they will come. Amiglia built a site offering family-friendly photo sharing and waited for reviews, awards and recommendations.And what works for one site doesn’t necessarily work for any other. There is a lot of experimentation going on in this business. The good news is that sites like get up and running with relatively little startup capital, and sometimes they work. Do a good web search on what it cost Guy Kawasaki to start and
  5. Will people pay to be members, and how much? Really good question. In Amiglia’s case, they haven’t pushed it past beta. People can still get it free. The New York Times went from membership to free a few months ago, and The Wall Street Journal is supposedly thinking about the same thing. and Picasa Web are free. How they make money is a good question. Everybody has a different answer.
  6. Oh, dear. “I don’t code so I need all the help I can get.” You can be a marketing guru like Guy Kawasaki and find coding help, or a coder and find marketing help, but it’s hard to be neither. Unless you have a lot of money to spend.

I like to think of this situation as similar to what it was back in the 1980s when I got my first toll-free telephone number for Palo Alto Software. It was pretty obvious that the toll-free number alone wasn’t going to do anything for me; I had to get the word out for people to call.

Things are so much easier nowadays because of Google AdWords and related opportunities. But it’s still pretty hard to guess right, and ahead of time, on any of this.

A final thought: Figure out your burn rate. How much money per month will it cost you to buy both internet marketing and website coding skills? Do you have that kind of money? If not, don’t give up, but keep looking for answers. Get some of the right books, read the blogs, immerse yourself in it, and things will be better, after a while.

Tim BerryTim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.