DockLister shutdown

I recently published a blog post on DockLister detailing why I’m shutting the site down. I’m reproducing that post here at the suggestion of several friends so it would not be lost when DockLister goes away.


I was just naive enough four years ago to start DockLister and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. I met some great people, learned some valuable lessons, and loved building and running a company. But the time has come for me to shut down DockLister.

The Story

DockLister started as an observation while chatting with a boat broker. I witnessed this broker struggle with the Boat Wizard software he was using to create and manage his listings online. It was clunky, logged him out randomly, and was overall a terrible experience. As a software engineer, I winced at every step. I was, in that moment, very ashamed of the software industry and I vowed to build something better.

My thesis was simple: an MLS site is a simple web application, charging customers anything more than $1500/yr was a crime. DockLiseter would simplify the data, streamline the search experience, and charge customers appropriately, all while keeping the site free of advertising. The plan was straight forward: bootstrap the business in my spare time. The restrictions on my time would force me to build a business that was low-touch and efficient. When the business reached four figures in revenue, I would quit my job and focus full time on the project.

So I built a prototype and started contacting brokers. Feedback was good. Brokers were fed up with the incumbent, Dominion Media and their web properties. But in order to justify the expense, brokers needed leads, which meant pageviews. It was at this point that I realized the scope of the work ahead of me. Brokers would go wherever the eyeballs were; I was less concerned with converting them. The key was getting potential buyers on the site. Luring buyers off of YachtWorld, Boats.com, and BoatTrader was going to be very difficult.

And so the marketing effort began. I wrote blog posts, participated in some great discussions on LinkedIn, managed Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. I launched a dozen paid advertising campaigns through Adwords, Facebook, and Twitter, and tried to score some PR from some popular boating blogs all in attempt to get potential buyers onto the site. Leads started trickling in but I was burning hundreds of dollars a month on paid advertising, working an extra 20 hours a week on top of my full time job and only generating ~5 leads/mo.

It was at this point I realized the fatal downside to the paid advertising marketing strategy. Paid advertising inflates one’s sense of success. Pageviews feel good, and it looks like you’re growing, but it’s not real. As soon as you stop paying pageviews plummet. Realizing this, I tried selling to brokers again. Sales conversations invariably devolved to the following question “Well how many leads have you sent us this month?”, to which I was forced to reply, “Well none at the moment”.

For the next three years I toiled away at DockLister in what little spare time I had. I would research a marketing strategy, launch a campaign, and measure pageviews to gauge the success of the strategy, each costing me ~$100. Discouraged by the results, I would take a break from the project for several months and plow through another marketing book. This was the loop I was stuck in for 3 years and ultimately what has discouraged me to the point that I’m closing down DockLister.

Lessons

In hindsight, launching a marketplace is the hardest type of business I could have launched. While I didn’t understand it four years ago, the truth is DockLister was never going to be the low-touch business I wanted it to be. With the exception of several outliers, marketplaces are notoriously difficult to get off the ground. They are especially difficult where a largish incumbent like Dominion Media monopolizes the space. I built a solution looking for a problem and it just so happened that the problem was very real. Unfortunately, while brokers were ready to jump ship to another platform, boat buyers didn’t really feel the same pain and were content to continue browsing the same sites they’ve always used. Without the eyeballs of potential buyers though, DockLister was doomed from the start.

Convincing the average buyer to visit my little site over YachtWorld, Boats.com, or BoatTrader was a monumental task. Expecting a single marketing strategy to “click” and pave the way to success was naive. The reality is that marketing needs to be “on” all the time. When I neglected marketing to spend 2-4 weeks writing code to improve a feature, I saw a noticeable drop in activity on the site. And without revenue to support new campaigns, I was losing money every month. A better long-term strategy might have been to focus almost solely on potential buyers, develop a set of content that would help buyers through the purchasing process. This content keeps on giving and continues to generate pageviews years after it’s published. Attracting potential buyers should have been my number one priority.

Then there was the problem of interest. While I grew up sailing and genuinely enjoy it, I haven’t really ever found a way to weave it into my life. A combination of cost, time, and canine accommodations prevented my wife and I from really exploring sailing as a hobby. Up until now most of my side businesses were a “scratch my own itch” type of business. DockLister didn’t embody this entirely and I occasionally found it difficult to muster up the motivation to work on something that I wasn’t passionate about.

Thank You

If you have an account on DockLister, the site will continue to run through August 2015. If you have a paid subscription, you won’t be charged for the remaing time that the site is live. At the end of August I will be turning off the hosting and the site will cease to exist.

I learned a great deal working on DockLister. I met some fantastic people. Thank you especially to Nick @ POPYachts and Anna @ MoreBoats for all the support. It’s time to move on to a new project. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

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