This post is a joint-post with Robin and Chris Dalziel, of Joybilee Farm.
The internet is a noisy place. With millions of blogs and websites all vying for Google ranking and the attention of an audience with limited time, websites and blogs need to earn the right to audience attention. When Joybilee Farm went public in 2003 and we started trying to earn our living by farming, we started a website. For 6 years the website brought us a portion of our income. It was built in HTML, every picture, and page had to be uploaded with FTP and if the code broke, so did the website. Things have changed substantially on the internet since I first read “HTML for Dummies.” Last April Google revised their algorithms and lots of websites dropped in their rankings for their key terms. Our website was one of them. Website sales stopped overnight. It was called “Google Panda” and it created a tsunami on the internet. Many high ranking sites dropped out of the ranking completely. The key seemed to be how often a site was updated, the quality of the content, and the authority of the site in the eyes of Google.
Joybilee Farm also had a blog that I posted on intermittently with my thoughts, musings, rants, and farm stories. Readers liked the farm stories and there was an audience. But there was very little connection between our Farm website and the blog. The blog was hosted on Blogger, a blogging platform owned by Google.
Although we installed a Paypal shopping cart on the website, the “add to cart” buttons were difficult to use in html and also difficult to revise, the buttons couldn’t be customized and the shopping experience was often frustrating for our customers. We tried an online selling platform, “Artfire” and tried to sell online. Online platforms work by grabbing the attention of the audience with new uploads. To work the system you need to upload a new product every few hours, every day. As a full time shepherd and artisan, I didn’t have the time to invest to work that system. That experience was expensive and futile, requiring too much time to maintain it. We dropped out after a one year trial and a cost a hundred dollars. I didn’t sell anything on Artfire.
So I started on a journey to learn some “Best Practices” for small, personal online businesses, especially homestead and art businesses. If you’ve been following us for a while, you’ve seen changes in the website in the last 7 months and you’ve noticed the second revision this past weekend. I hope you like the new site and that you find it valuable. I’ve also invested time in learning how to be a better blogger, to offer you value when you come for a visit. My goal has been to connect with you better, to help you in your own journey to homesteading confidence, and to help you find ways to live a more self-sufficient and sustainable life. If you aren’t already a subscriber, please use the “follow me” buttons on the right and subscribe to our RSS feed. You can also enter your email address to receive our free newsletter, with additional articles and special offers.
My passion is sustainable clothing and textiles, but I also blog about local, sustainable food, “nesting” skills and entrepreneurial advice. I realize that for a farm to be sustainable, it has to to make a profit. Historically farming in Canada and the US has not been profitable. Farmers work off the farm in order to support the farm. Both big grain farmers on the prairies, and little “hobby” farmers support their farm lifestyle with an off farm job that is the majority of their income. I thought, it shouldn’t be this way. It means that farmer’s around North America are subsidizing the food we eat with their own sweat and with outside jobs. We’ve done it too, sold our lamb below the cost of feeding the sheep. We didn’t mean to. We just didn’t figure in the actual cost of hay, grain , abattoir and cut and wrap fees when we set the price per lb. And we lost about $25 per lamb. Ouch. That’s not sustainable. That’s why more and more farmer’s sell out to multinational corporations and why our food system is being held hostage by Big government and Mega-corporations. To be sustainable you have to ‘own’ the means of production and you have to make a profit to pay for your labour.
Recently I visited a new blog, through one of my yahoo! groups. It was a farm blog with a website, raising farm grown mohair, wool, and French angora bunnies. It sounded like our farm, in the write up, so I was curious about what she wrote on her blog and how she was making a living on her farm. Sometimes its helpful when you are starting out to get an in-depth evaluation of your strategies to help you avoid costly mistakes and improve your bottom line. Its what I wish I could have had at the beginning. Robin and I together, wrote a 2 part, public evaluation of this new homestead business, and I invite you to listen in and learn both from the evaluation and from some of our own mistakes that I’ve learned from.
Our combined expertise:
We come to this with 7 years of full time homesteading and making a living from our homestead, with the credentials of an MBA degree in business, an accounting designation and a financial planning designation (CFP, now retired), on Robin’s side and on Chris’ side an Honours BA in English Lit and writing plus post graduate counselling and psych courses, and 12 plus years experience teaching and writing.
Here is part one of a two part homestead business evaluation on the new blog.
1. You have your own domain name.
Excellent. This is a good start. Every homestead that desires to sell on the internet should have their own registered domain name. Ideally it should be something easy to remember and easy to spell – “Joybilee Farm” is not that easy to spell. A .com domain is the best choice because it is internationally recognized. This farm website has a .com name. Good. Our own domain is a .ca because we live in Canada but we also own www.joybileefarm.com. We probably should have started using our own name as our URL. If I was starting again I would chose the farm name with a .com, but since we thought it would be hard to spell, we went with www.fiberarts.ca If the name you want has already been taken, go for something that fits in with your vision and your mission statement. Your own name is good, too. Avoid using nonletter characters like hyphens or underscores because these are hard to remember. And the shorter the domain name the better.
2. You have a website with a blog.
Excellent. Google algorithms reward websites with great content that are updated regularly. If your site is stagnant you will drop in the search rankings. By hosting your blog on your website you ensure that fresh content is uploaded regularly to your website, improving your Google rankings. To host your blog on your website you need to have hosting with a database. The database holds your blog posts and the extra information that makes your blog run smoothly.
3. You are hosted on a free blogging platform.
In this case the site is hosted on Weebly. Free sites have limitations but they are good to start out on if income is limited. When evaluating a free site, ask yourself if you are able to migrate to paid hosting down the road. If the answer is, “yes” then you own the content on your blog and its like a piece of real-estate that you can monetize and sell down the road. Its an investment. But if the answer is “No”, the case if you are hosted on a blogging platform like Blogger or WordPress.com, then you don’t own that online real-estate, and the limitations are set by the whims of the hosting company. If you are blogging for business, you should own both the domain name and the hosting — using a paid hosting service, if necessary. There are inexpensive web hosting services available from as little as $2 a month. We’ve been with the same web hosting/domain registering service for 7 years and the support has been amazing.
4. Your web design is basic from the free site.
Its a start. Your site design looks simple and it looks like a free site. Its missing some web design features that make websites easy to navigate, such as drop down menus, and flash controlled pictures. The fonts are basic. There is nothing that makes your website stand out from the millions of other websites out there. Ask yourself, what is it about my website that would make people want to read more? What is different about my business? What is my unique selling feature. Your website is a big part of your “brand”. When you build a basic website and host it on a free site, you are saying something powerful about your “brand” and why people should choose you. Does your website say what you want it to say? If the answer is, “No” you may need to re-tweek your design.
When picking a hosting site, have a look at the available “free” designs and check if any of them stand out. Are they customizable? Can you upload a background design and header design that will contribute to your brand? Can you upload your farm logo into the header? Does the header list your website name or farm name and your tagline? Can Google see your website name and your tagline, even if it is filtered from your header? Are there enough widgets (small pieces of code that allow you to customize your site) that will make customizing your site and building your brand easy and reliable? Does the hosting allow monetization of the site? Will you be able to run ads and more importantly chose the ads that run on your site and make them valuable for your intended audience.
5. Your site is limited because you are not running a WordPress Blog.
WordPress.org offers Web design function in a website and blog building software platform. Many beautiful and functional web site designs are based on WordPress. Using WordPress as your site’s foundation gives you incredible functionality as well as search engine optimization. Many other premium web designs are based on WordPress, making upgrading to a premium design down the road, easier, since you don’t have to rebuild your content. WordPress adds security to your website and blog, making it more difficult for hackers to destroy your hard work. If this is a concern, there are premium platforms that work with WordPress to increase the security of your site.
6. You are using a Paypal shopping cart.
That’s great. Paypal gives the user many options for payment, including credit cards, Paypal balances and a direct bank transfer. The more choices that your customers have the more likely you will be able to close the sale. Paypal is also a secure site, so your customer doesn’t have to worry about credit card fraud. The customer is protected from a bad sale through Paypal’s charge back and dispute system. You are also protected, somewhat, from fraud by Paypal, since the seller is verified. However, it is not guaranteed.
I once had a US verified customer purchase through Paypal. After 6 weeks I heard from her that she did not receive the item in the mail and she asked for a refund. After I paid her the refund, the item was returned to me — yes, it was lost in the mail for 6 weeks. The customer had moved and had failed to change her address on Paypal. Paypal offers your customer more security than it offers to you, the vendor.
7. You are blogging irregularly.
This isn’t so good. I understand the challenges of trying to blog and farm full time. Its difficult to carve out the time in an already hectic family life, to meet the needs of yet another audience. However, once you commit to a blog you should set up a schedule and blog consistently. Blogging requires commitment. You are building an audience. You have something to say, hopefully. And you have chosen to say it through blogging. To become more consistent in your blogging you need to set some business goals. Ask yourself what are you trying to achieve through blogging? What are your goals? Once you have answered these questions you can make a plan about what you need to write about, that will build your audience, get your message heard, and make a difference in the world. Then decide how often you will blog — once a week, twice a week, 5 days a week, daily? Make it a goal you can achieve and stick with it. You owe that much to the people that have given you the gift of their attention.
8. Your blogging is haphazard and not related to your business.
You state in your home page that your goals are sustainable farming, improving the local economy and helping others with your farming knowledge.
“Our purpose is to achieve agricultural sustainability and to improve local economy by selling fresh farm products, aiding our neighbours and enriching the lives of our community by sharing our farm and farming knowledge.” — from the site.
Do your blog posts contribute to this goal? Do you increase people’s knowledge of your farming philosophy, are you educating the public about the difference that your natural farm products will make in their lives, do you help people by sharing your farming knowledge, or are you just talking about yourself. Do you solve a problem with your posts? Do you inform, entertain or help people to live more sustainably through what you write? If the answer is, “No”, then take some time to determine the purpose of your blog and reconnoitre and start fresh with your next post.
9. You haven’t decided who your audience is. You are writing for yourself.
Blogging about yourself and writing for yourself is fine. Lots of bloggers do it. I did it when I started. Most bloggers that start out this way get bored or run out of things to say because they don’t have a clear audience in mind. But when your blog is attached to your business, your blog needs to be about your customer and what they need. Who is your ideal customer? What problems are they facing and how does your product and what you know help them with that. Do you have a product that meets the needs of that ideal customer? What does your customer need to know about what you do, that will help them gain the maximum benefits from your products? What problems that your ideal customer has will your products solve? Blog about these things. Then you will build an audience that will appreciate the products that you have for sale.
If you are selling roving and batts from your sheep and angora goats, you are looking for an audience of spinners and felters. Write to them. Give them tips on how to get the most from your batts. ( The batts look beautiful, by the way.) If you are selling giant pumpkins offer thousands of ways to utilize the meat from a 1,000 lb. pumpkin. Build your authority while you build your audience. And hold something in reserve, so that you don’t shoot it all in the first month of blogging.
This indepth business evaluation continues tomorrow, so check back and get more tips on getting your own homestead business off to the right start online.
Part 2, Homestead MBA – an indepth evaluation of an online homestead business
Homestead businesses can be viable, sustainable in the long term. With some planning and regular check ups, with the willingness to tweak it to make it work, you can live your dreams of doing what you love, where you want to live. But begin by taking a hard, honest look at what you are doing and see where you can make improvements. At Joybilee Farm we do this regularly. I’m not saying we’ve arrived. There’s lots of work we still need to do to have the farm and website that we want and to be sustainable in the long term. Building a business is like having a child and watching it grow. You need to make adjustments as your business matures and maybe throw out the ill fitting clothes and get something that fits better. That’s what a business plan is for — to see what fits and what’s been outgrown.
Those of you listening in on the online business evaluation, and that made it all the way to the end, thanks for reading. I hope you gained some tips to make your own homestead business a success. I’ll be doing more of these in the future. If you want to participate in a public evaluation of your homestead business, leave a comment or send me an email. The benefits to you are a link to your website and increased traffic. If you want a private consultation, we do that, too, and we are happy to help you make your business sustainable. There will be more information on this in the future.