Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello! This is Itai Danan founder of Cybernium Inc. This tech company builds desktop and server software, including performing full-stack web-development. We publish several of our own websites too. Cybernium was created in 1995, registered as a company, and fully incorporated in 2016.
Neocamera is our flagship online property. This publication spans thousands of webpages and sees up to 1.3 million unique monthly visitors. For consumers, Neocamera is a digital camera review and resource website with multiple buying guides, numerous digital camera reviews, many photography articles, and an extensive camera and lens database which powers the most sophisticated search engine and comparison tools for digital cameras and lenses.
For customers, Neocamera showcases our full-stack web-development capabilities with its outstanding speed, powerful features, intuitive user-experience, and sleek design, plus end-to-end management.
Neocamera alone makes around $1,000 per month, making it a positive contribution to our bottom line. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, revenues certainly will be much lower but this global downturn is expected to be temporary.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Initially, while developing ground-breaking real-time special-effects software for films as Senior Software Engineer at Autodesk, Neocamera was launched as a side-hustle. The idea was simple: Publish information about digital cameras along with a summary of reviews published around the web to provide a unified consensus.
After years of working intensely on multimedia software without a break, the opportunity to take the voyage of a lifetime appeared when HR announced that vacations could no longer be accrued due to a recent legislation change. Having recently discovered the Cathay-Paciffic All-Asia Pass, this got me dreaming... There was no way to go on such a journey without a digital camera! Only, I knew nothing about them yet! Having graduated several years earlier with a Masters in Computer Graphics and published a thesis on Interactive Radiosity, a rendering technique that simulates the physics of light, I was an expert on light and digital imaging. This made me exceptionally qualified to understand digital cameras.
What works best to attract visitors are guest posts on publications related to the same subject. One post lasts forever and generally provides a flow that traffic that starts high and tapers off after a while. By regularly publishing guest posts, new traffic can be acquired.
After reading thousands of pages about digital cameras, I quickly became recognized as an expert by word of mouth alone. When I noticed how many people that I didn’t even know came to ask me about digital cameras, I realized that publishing online could have potential. There were a handful of websites dedicated to digital cameras but reviews were so long and technical that people found it overwhelming which is why they came to me. The initial idea was simply to publish a 4-step Digital Camera Buying Guide to help people choose a digital camera.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The development of Neocamera is unambiguously organic. What started as a side-hustle became a major project when I left my last permanent job as Senior Software Engineer at Google for my own startup. While I had over a decade of experience in desktop software development, including at Google where I worked on both Google Desktop and Chrome, the future was clearly heading towards the web. Working at Google gave me a deep understanding of how the web works. In order to fast-track myself among web developers though, the experience was required and so I decided to create my own!
At the time, Neocamera was what is called a static website. It was just a set of pages, each written independently and linked together to form a website. Adding content was tedious but that is not web-development and cannot do anything sophisticated. PHP was quickly becoming the most lucrative programming language and so I took the decision to rewrite the entire website using the LAMP stack. For over 6 months, I spend up to 16 hours a day designing the most sophisticated digital camera website. A huge number of features were added which took almost two years for the first competitor to mimic! Online, two years is a huge head-start.
This strategy turned into a double-win for me! Neocamera revenue went from less than $100 per month to a thousand, while Cybernium was awarded more frequent and lucrative contracts. More websites were added to the family to demonstrate our level of expertise. Our second website, Neopanoramic was built in about half a month and made it to the first page of Google Search results within 6 weeks! It took just 4 days to build my own personal photo gallery website, Neolumiance. By then, Cybernium Inc. had also built about a dozen websites and server applications for customers.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The funny thing is that we never really launched the business! Let me be first to admit that I have no marketing experience and certainly lack intuition for it. Neocamera, before the actual business, was just shown to friends and colleagues. When someone came to ask about digital cameras, I gave them a short explanation and told them to check the website for more information.
Then, developing the new Neocamera was foremost to teach myself. When I applied for contracts and during interviews, talking about the website came naturally. Most times, I did not even mention the name of the website, just talked about how it worked and performed but web-presence expands on its own.
The moment when I realized its scope is clear in my mind. It was at dinner, in Peru. Close to the last night of a 2-week holiday, a Croatian photographer living in the USA started talking casually with me and so I mentioned Neocamera, to which he answered that someone in India told him about it! Indeed, being English-speaking and highly populated, we get a significant portion of traffic from India.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Word of mouth brought Neocamera the initial flow of visitors and reached 100K+ unique monthly visitors in its first couple of years. A successful online publication requires much more to be viable when it relies on display advertising. Increased organic traffic mostly requires one thing: desirable quality content. Luckily, finding out what digital camera buyers want is easy since there are a huge number of forums where people ask exactly what they want.
Stack Exchange revolutionized forums by focusing on factual questions and letting people vote on questions they want to be answered. Many questions posted on Stack Exchange get closed because they involve recommendations or don’t have an absolute answer, although they would make great articles. So, I started to answer popular questions there until ranking second-highest on Photography Stack Exchange, although I eventually slipped to 4th place due lack of time. This allowed me to acquire a reputation and eventually other users started to answer questions with links to Neocamera.
A few other attempts were made to increase traffic further. One seeming obvious choice was Google AdWords. We hired an AdWord specialist and she created campaigns to get more traffic. After almost a year, we came to two important realizations:
AdWord traffic is temporary. When ad-budget runs out, no more ads and new traffic.
More importantly: AdSense used to generate revenue on online publication is someone else’s AdWords! Read that carefully again. What it means is that AdSense is a fractional commission taken from AdWords sales and so it is nearly impossible to monetize with AdSense traffic acquired by AdWords. The store is entirely different when selling products and services.
What works best are guest posts on publications related to the same subject. One post lasts forever and generally provides a flow that traffic that starts high and tapers off after a while. By regularly publishing guest posts, new traffic can be acquired. These are great since they cost nothing other than the hard work required to write a great article! Plus, online publications love them because they introduce additional content.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
It depends on what you look at! The camera business has been sinking for several years due to being overtaken by cellphones. This means that volumes are significantly down because camera manufacturers produce significantly fewer new cameras. The peak of the industry coincides with ours in 2008. Camera makers responded by increasing the average selling price of their cameras since they must also break profit, so at least affiliate commissions grew to compensate. Display advertising revenues have been declining though since they are mostly driven by volume.
Read everything! Going in without knowing much was very frustrating and made me waste plenty of time and opportunities. To excel, you must know everything about your product.
The future when looking at cameras alone seems bleak but there are many opportunities to expand in related areas. When the industry was at its peak, I decided not to review lenses because cameras kept me too busy but reconsidered this recently.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Can I say everything? Clearly, I had no idea what having a business entailed when I started. All I knew was that there could be money at the end. The first lesson is that focus should be on what you can do better than anyone else. If it’s coding, code, but if not get pre-build software. Even if you learn something new because you need it right now, there is no way to reach a high level of proficiency quickly enough.
The internet is a long game. There is almost nothing you can do online that produces immediate results. Even great content needs time to be discovered. Visitors take a long time to come and become regulars. This is the most difficult aspect of online business. Given it takes time to obtain results, it is all too easy to spend time on things that are not productive.
There are a lot of loose ends! The act of publishing online may be the official work but so much more is needed just to get there. A huge amount of PR is required to get contacts and build relationships that the business needs to produce. Even when paying others to do marketing, accounting, emailing, etc, significant time and effort are required to delegate those efforts. For another website, we were doing press releases, and people redacting them require all the information which is time-consuming.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
The LAMP Stack is amazing. The initial attraction for most is that it is completely free but what gets people invested is its power and flexibility. Each component of the stack is far from optimal but they work together really well.
Google has everyone hooked on its integration. AdSense is the easiest way to monetize an online publication. Due to its global coverage, it delivers ads nearly everywhere and they are even personalized unless people opt-out. We use other platforms too but they require much more work to give returns. For Neocamera, a system to select ads among different platforms based on user geolocation data and commissions was implemented.
Although the blog was implemented using WordPress, that is something that I regret. That software is so buggy and tedious to work with that most people leave it as is which results in cookie-cutter websites. We avoided it ever since and always get positive feedback for our original designs and exclusive features.
There are great success stories regarding Social Media but that seems to require a huge time investment and are better suited for rapidly changing topics. A few attempts were made to leverage those platforms but none succeeded because they are a poor fit for our publication format and schedule.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Don’t remember, other than The House That Google Bought is what got me dreaming of online success.
Actually, among a pool of overly technical digital camera sites, there were two standouts. One was DC Resource, the first that managed to balance conciseness and good coverage of camera performance. The second was SLR Gear that produced perfect lens reviews with a neat custom Flash plugin that allows readers to visualize lens performance. Sadly, DC Resource no longer exists, while SLR Gear merged with Imaging Resource several years ago before selling out last year.
Those two sites set a high bar for Neocamera to surpass. This is crucial actually. Competition has to be highly influential for any business because every new site, product, or service needs to stand out and provide something superior to be successful.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Read everything! Going in without knowing much was very frustrating and made me waste plenty of time and opportunities. To excel, you must know everything about your product. Taking digital cameras, for example, having a deep understanding of imaging, optics and photography were crucial to know what to write. It would be the same if you were making chocolates, you would have to learn about cacao, how to process it, make it, store it, etc. No matter how simple the idea is, every detail matters.
To start without leaving your security read or listen to Side Hustle School. The book teaches people how to get a business started without virtually no investment, while the podcast has inspiring success stories that show that people can succeed at virtually anything!
Where can we go to learn more?
As consulting services, Cybernium is a minimalist website simply to self-advertise. To see the magnitude and performance of our technology, visit Neocamera. Finally, after learning about cameras and photography, it was only a matter of time until getting started on my own photography which is showcased at Neoluminance. In fact, although it was designed to be a personal site, it helped readers gain trust in Neocamera because it demonstrates that we review cameras from the perspective of photographers.
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