I Started A Movie Website For Fun As A Teenager. Now, My Website Brings In 450K Visitors/Month

Jon Sandys
Founder, Movie mistakes
$4K
revenue/mo
1
Founders
1
Employees
Movie mistakes
from Guildford, UK
started September 1996
$4,000
revenue/mo
1
Founders
1
Employees
315K
alexa rank
1.21K
followers
2.79K
followers
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

I’m Jon Sandys, and I started the website Movie Mistakes back in 1996 when I was 17, the wild west days of the internet. It didn’t start with the intention of being a profitable business, just a side project to teach myself HTML while I was in school, but as its popularity grew I realized there was potential there. Primarily in showing adverts, but also offering paid memberships and selling books. From about 2002 it’s been my full-time job.

The site’s mainly of interest to moviegoers, but also lists TV shows and even games. Some people get really into it and are keen to spot everything they can, others come to the site because they think they saw something wrong, google it, and end up on my doorstep. Or indeed just because they’re interested in more general movie trivia. I count myself incredibly lucky to have created something which allows me to be my boss and work my hours while reading and writing about things that interest me. The site currently gets around 450,000 visitors a month, bringing in over $3,000 a month in ad revenue.

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What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

The first instances of my mistake-spotting mentality came up when watching Jurassic Park in the cinema in 1993, spotting the arrow changing directions and the "live" video that was blatantly pre-recorded. The realization that this was a bit of a niche area came in 1994 watching True Lies when I noticed that the trails of the Maverick missiles fired at the bridge looked fake, and no one else shared my interest.

The internet is always evolving, and what people expect is changing. As technology advances, there’s a real risk of being left behind, even in design or usability.

With our first internet connection in 1996 came some free webspace, and being into computers and interested in the rapid growth of the internet, I figured some movie mistakes were as good a topic as any to practice with. I listed some, together with an email address for people to contact me to add their own. I did some research into promoting it, swapped some links, and very slowly the traffic grew, with a few people adding more mistakes.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

Initially, it was just basic HTML using a text editor, then Microsoft Frontpage. I’m more of a developer than a designer, so the look of the site has always function over form. I started at Southampton University in 1997 and kept it updated during my studies as best I could, redesigning it slightly from a single list of entries into being separated alphabetically, as numbers grew. It was still just a hobby, but it was interesting to me and generated interest from other people, so I was keen to see how things would go.

Our internet provider contacted me saying that the site was too popular for a personal web page and they wouldn’t host it anymore, but fortunately, my university provided the web space, so I moved it over there and figured out how to redirect the old site. For a while, my site was the third most popular page on Southampton University’s servers, after their main homepage and student homepage.

The first awareness I had that I needed to make more effort with it was when in the late 90s/early 2000s there was rapid growth due to press interest, and it became clear that manually editing and uploading HTML files wasn’t going to be sustainable. I enlisted the help of a friend of mine who was well versed in PHP and MySQL and 2001 he transitioned the whole site over to be database-driven with a content management system. It made the process of updating much more intuitive, and could all be done online without fiddling with files, however, the nuts and bolts under the hood were at the time beyond me.

Over the following year, I reverse engineered what he’d done, learning the code, figuring out how things worked, and making changes myself, rather than needing to bother him. The site changed from a basic list to alphabetical pages, to having each title listed individually.

Some of the changes were suggested by visitors, some were self-evidently necessary, as browsing around the site was increasingly clunky. Things like adding a search function and categorizing the mistakes by type made visiting much more enjoyable.

Describe the process of launching the business.

My startup costs were fortunately non-existent beyond making use of my parents’ computer and an internet connection, then my university’s webspace.

In 1999 I registered movie-mistakes.com, as the non-hyphenated version was owned by someone else at that point, and moved to paid hosting. Put more effort into press releases and plugging myself online, and traffic grew to 2,000 visitors a day or so relatively quickly. Ad revenue initially wasn’t spectacular - from memory a few hundred dollars a month or so, but that was enough to pay my student rent and cover the hosting cost.

Press release from November 2001:

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I graduated in 2000 - by that point, the dotcom boom was in full swing, traffic had grown, and I had a fixed advertising deal with an ad network for $2,500 a month which lasted for a while until they went bust as part of the dotcom collapse. Traffic was still good, but advertising revenue wasn’t what it had been, albeit still being enough to live on.

In 2001 the site got another mention in the press and garnered the attention of “The Big Breakfast”, a morning TV show here in the UK, getting me a weekly slot talking about mistakes in films and raising the profile of the site. I bought the moviemistakes.com domain in 2002 for about $1,500 from the previous owner, which boosted traffic further.

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So I didn’t have a traditional “launch” as such, just a very slow organic growth, moving from a side project to a full-time job, albeit with some hiccups on the way!

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Mostly paying attention to organic SEO - that’s always made up the vast majority of my traffic, so I pay attention to at least the major factors. Google’s recent focus on Core Web Vitals meant I spent time at the start of the year re-engineering the site to cache a lot of content rather than serving it up live, which improved site speed significantly.

I’ve never tried to “game” SEO to a great extent, beyond the very early days when you could stuff a site with keywords and trick search engines! I’ve heard too many horror stories about sites that target themselves very narrowly towards one specific approach, and then search algorithms get tweaked, and their traffic plummets.

I’ve generally held to Google’s mantra of just building the best site with the best content possible. In part I’m restricted by the site content itself -I can’t target specific keywords, because the site has a fairly specific focus! Although I do make an effort to add as much content as possible for new and upcoming films to ensure what’s listed is current. That said, seroundtable.com is a good resource for keeping track of important updates or changes I might need to factor in.

There’s also occasional press attention, largely around major movie releases having mistakes in them, which has been less of a factor in the pandemic! So I make an effort to send out press releases to movie blogs and newspapers if there’s anything significant to report. Sometimes it’ll pique someone’s interest, but not always.

I think my site’s content works well on a slow news day - it’s of niche interest, but can be easily “drowned out” by other things. Major press interest has always resulted in my most popular traffic periods - The Return of the King mistakes got posted on Slashdot and the site had over 100,000 visitors that day. Similarly, mistakes in Skyfall in 2012 led to a few 100,000+ days in a row.

I’ve got some regular visitors who make up the bulk of submissions to the site - while most visitors will look at a page or two and move on, the idea of mistake-spotting connects with a minority of people in a big way, me included! So some of my members have submitted thousands of mistakes - big movie-watchers with a keen eye for detail and enjoy coming back to the site near-daily to submit their observations.

Listening to their requests and addressing concerns they have gives me good insight into needed features or bugs I might otherwise have missed. I think I’m so attuned to the design of the site and how it works I often can’t see the wood for the trees, so getting outside input is vital.

Capitalize on the good times, and ride out the bad ones. Things that don’t work out aren’t time wasted.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

The site’s still doing OK, but not as well as its heyday. Partly ad rates aren’t what they were, partly organic SEO is harder to attract than it was, and partly I think internet users’ tastes have changed. People are now more likely to start with social media and occasionally branch out from that, whereas in the earlier days of the internet people roamed and explored a lot more, with individual websites having more of a community feel.

Traffic used to be about 600,000+ people a month, it’s now more like 350,000, with a proportionally larger drop in page views too. People are more likely to come to the site as the result of a specific search query, get their answer and leave, rather than spend time exploring. The average time on site used to be about 3 minutes, but since smartphones came along that slowly dropped, and has now leveled out at about 1 minute.

Fortunately, ad revenue hasn’t dropped to the same extent that traffic has - it’s hard to pick apart exactly why, but at least in part, I think it’s the double-edged sword of SEO. I’m attracting fewer visitors, but the people who do visit are more specifically interested in what they’re looking at, and hence the adverts they’re seeing, so are more valuable than a larger number of irrelevant (to advertisers) viewers.

I’m still a one-man operation - it’s not too much to handle solo, although I’ve now got two children which makes time a premium! If the only thing which needed doing was the day-to-day admin, adding submissions, proofreading, etc. that would be more manageable, but as I’m also the developer, it tends to mean that if I need to tinker under the hood, then admin takes a back seat, and vice versa. For every one thing I focus on, something else gets neglected, so I just need to make sure nothing falls too far behind.

As for the future, we’ll see, is the short version. The running costs are very low - about $100 a month for hosting the site, and that’s it. So the bar for being “profitable” is pretty low by that measure! However, as it's my sole source of income, if traffic/ad revenue drops, I might need to return it to be more of a side project and find a more conventional job. Or it might carry on at current levels for years, or indeed grow, who knows. Traffic does go up and down somewhat randomly at times - I’m at the mercy of Google’s algorithms to a large extent.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Adaptability is key. The internet is always evolving, and what people expect is changing. As technology advances, there’s a real risk of being left behind, even in design or usability. I’m far from an expert developer, but I’ve learned what I’ve needed to, and even if I can’t keep pace with everything, I can at least make some changes. As my skills have grown over the years I’ve got better at knowing what I don’t know and trying to fill in the gaps.

In 2013 I rebuilt the entire site from the ground up, partly because it wasn’t very mobile-friendly, and I knew that needed to change, plus it was still using a lot of the rewritten codebase from 2001, and that was both insecure and very inefficient. Took about a year of very hard work, but put the site on a much better footing moving forwards. It’s now much easier to work with and improve incrementally as needed, so hopefully, a complete rebuild won’t be needed again (or at least any time soon!)

Luck has played a huge part. Because I had no expectations, everything was a bonus, like newspaper articles or TV interest in the early days. I didn’t seek them out, they almost literally landed in my lap. But I then made an effort to capitalize on them and find more opportunities like that, rather than treat them as a one-off.

The timing of when I got started was very fortunate as well - just as the internet was getting a foothold in life, coupled with being at school/university so being able to run it as a hobby. The dotcom boom helped with interest and ad revenue, but I wasn’t so dependent on it all that when the crash came I could ride that out.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

I started using PHPStorm a couple of years ago and that made a huge difference to my productivity, before that I was using a high-powered text editor. PHPStorm error-checks my code, links functions, can find every instance of some lines of code, etc., and makes managing my sprawling codebase infinitely easier.

Later is also very useful for scheduling Instagram/Facebook posts. I’ve got about 3,000 Twitter followers, 1,100 on Instagram, and about 25,000 on Facebook. Twitter I can handle programmatically via their API and some code on my site, but Facebook and Instagram are trickier, so being able to schedule things in advance is great. I tend to post an image a day, some of which are better received than others.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I’m afraid I listen to hardly any podcasts except The Bugle, which isn’t particularly relevant! Harry Knowles’ book Ain’t it Cool? was inspirational in the early 2000s when I read it, although the site and he have both fallen from grace. Ain’t It Cool News was one of the original massive movie websites, and I hoped to follow in its footsteps. I never reached its heights, although ironically it’s declined in popularity over time, in part due to a lack of adaptation, and we’re now at a very similar level of traffic.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Capitalize on the good times, and ride out the bad ones. Things that don’t work out aren’t time wasted - I’ve embarked on other side projects or additions to Movie Mistakes which didn’t prove worthwhile in absolute terms, but I learned a lot in the course of doing them which I could then apply elsewhere - either new approaches, new skills, or even just learning what doesn’t work helps inform what does.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

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Jon Sandys, Founder of Movie mistakes
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story

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