In October 1997, I went back to work full-time after being a Stay at Home Mom for six years. By January 1998, I was ready to WAHM!
I had a husband who was winding down his business because of poor health, four wonderful kids under the age of six, and a graduate degree in a field I hated! I knew I had to stay home, but I didn't know how I was going to manage it. The one thing I loved doing, writing kids' books, wasn't bringing in anything but a stack of form rejection letters and the occasional hand written note of encouragement.
Then some folks in my rural Midwest community decided that we needed something called "Internet access." They got together, got things done, and suddenly the Bennetts were wired. We had a modem, and a web page, and I took my first look at the world wide web. Wow! I must have spent four hours surfing aimlessly my first night on the web after all the kids were in bed. I saw that there were moms just like me on the web, and they had their own businesses, and they worked when they could fit it in around their kids' schedules. And I figured, how hard could it be?
In other words, I was totally clueless.
One of the first places I surfed to was Amazon.com, to look for books about how to run a home business. I found that, and more, including something intriguing called an affiliate program, where I could earn money selling their books from my website. So I signed up, picked out a few of my favorite kids' books, and started writing reviews. My husband, a computer genius, took care of the technical stuff, like finding a web host, registering my domain, and turning all my brilliant prose into HTML code.
It would be uncharitable to say that we just made up Circle Time as we went along. Let's just say that Circle Time e-zine evolved because it had to in order to survive. At first, I was going to build the definitive children's bookstore on the web. Then I found Cherry Valley Books, and saw that it had already been done. Quite well, in fact. So I decided to concentrate on different book review themes. Then I found a couple of sites aimed at teachers that already did a good job of that, too. So I decided to shift my target market to parents. The feature articles and resource pages which are now an integral part of Circle Time are an outgrowth of that shift to a parenting magazine concentrating on great kids books. The feature articles are based on my own experience as a parent. The resource pages grew as I explored the web and found sites that were too good not to share with others.
In March of 1998, we posted our first issue. My husband submitted the site to search engines. We emailed all our friends to come check it out. Then we sat back and waited. At first, we were getting five or six hits a day. After awhile our friends got tired of visiting. Then I panicked.
Luckily, it was shortly after our launch that I discovered the two sites that saved Circle Time from oblivion, LinkExchange and Virtual Promote. Joining the banner program at LinkExchange is probably the best bit of marketing I've done for Circle Time. While we can probably count the number of times anyone's clicked through one of our banners and not use all the fingers and toes in our household (especially if you include the two dogs and the four cats), being in LE's SurfPoint directory has definitely paid off. People will search through the directory looking for children's stuff in general, find our listing, and pop over for a visit. By reading the LinkExchange Digest, a wonderfully-moderated discussion of Internet promotion issues and "geek tips," I've learned more about marketing my site than I could ever learn from a book. Sometimes, I even know more than the resident computer geek in the family.
What I didn't learn through the LinkExchange Digest, I've learned at Virtual Promote, which has everything you'd ever want to know about promoting your site and then some. I go back and revisit the content areas of the site every month or so just to keep myself focused.
I've also found that web rings are a good way to bring people interested in sites like mine to Circle Time. The only problem with web rings is that Circle Time only gets exposure if the other sites in the web ring play by the rules. For awhile there was a site just ahead of me on one of the children's book rings that had a way into the site via the web ring, but the way out was hidden. Needless to say, I didn't get much traffic from the surfers on that ring.
I've learned that my newsletter, Circle Time Highlights, is an indispensable way to make sure that readers come back to my site. Subscription is free and easy. I've only had one person ask to unsubscribe, which was also easy (for her, anyway. I moped for a bit, wondering what I'd done wrong).
One thing I learned the hard way was that while it's good to do something you love, it's more profitable if you can touch on everyone else's passions also. When I wrote a feature article called "A Birthday Party Primer," I had no idea that it would be the second most popular page in all of Circle Time! Apparently, lots of people are searching the web for birthday party ideas. In fact, after the major search engines and LinkExchange, most people who visit Circle Time do so via a link on another birthday site that decided to link to my article after I told them that I had linked to them.
Another one of Circle Time's most popular features, the Circle Time Guide to Toy Shopping, was just plain fun to do, even if it had little to do with books. Most of Circle Time's visitors in November and December of 1998 came for the toy information first, then visited the book pages.
Reciprocal links are one way I hope to expand Circle Time's readership in 1999. To that end, I've recently overhauled my Parent Resources page to include more sites that I visit often and feel confident recommending to others. After I picked the sites I wanted to feature, I wrote most of the webmasters asking for a short blurb about their sites to include along with the link. Most of them wrote back to me with their suggested annotations and said they would add Circle Time to their links pages. I'm still keeping the sites that didn't offer to link to Circle Time on my page. I'm even keeping the links to the sites which didn't bother to write back at all. After all, they are great sites.
I'm also adding a Mini Mall to Circle Time's resource pages as a place to gather all my affiliations and reciprocal links with other Internet businesses. Feel free to browse the shops over there -- the only way they get on that page is if I buy from them myself or plan to buy from them in the future.
I've just recently discovered the excellent resources at some sites specifically designed for women in home businesses. I've become a member of Mom's Network Exchange, Digital Women, Extreme Women, Field of Dreams, and First Ladies, to name a few (you'll find links to all these sites and more on the Circle Time WAHM Resources page). I'm excited about what I'm learning from them, and how I can use that knowledge to help Circle Time grow in 1999.
I'd like to say that Circle Time is paying my mortgage, putting food on the table, and providing for an excellent retirement, but it's not quite that lucrative (however, if you'd buy some books from me or surf on over to the Circle Time Mini Mall, you could help change that). I love doing Circle Time, and plan to keep it going for a long time to come. I've learned so much about the children's book industry just by writing the reviews and keeping up the resource pages. Because of Circle Time, I've even gotten email from some of my favorite authors! I've also been inspired to send off more of my own manuscripts to publishers in 1999.
I've learned a lot of things about being a WAHM on the Internet the hard way, but that will only make it easier for me to launch my next web-based business, which is still in the planning stages (and I'm going to spend a lot of time planning this one!).
For more information on working at home, check out Circle Time's Guide to Work at Home Resources and Our Best Advice: Business Women on the Web share their Tips for Success.
Circle Time e-zine is Copyright © 1998 by Kathy Bennett
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