There are only a handful of sites that I visit every day aside from TechCrunch. Among those was the lovely, lightweight image sharing site MLKSHK, which is set to shut down on September 1st.
MLKSHK got so many things right for me. It’s nicely designed and provides an honest transaction when you visit. You go there to look at an image and the image loads first without a bunch of crap being shoved in your face.
There’s a unique community with its own language and sense of humor and it was always enjoyable bouncing around the site each day for a couple of minutes. Because of the variety and community, I’ve been encouraged to check out movies, books, cultural stories and history that I had never been exposed to in any other arenas.
The shutdown is voluntary, and its creator Andre Torrez laid out the reasons behind it in a blog post yesterday. Among those reasons were a failure to monetize in a way that would support the site in an ongoing fashion. Torrez notes that he’d be willing to sell it but only if they were the ‘right fit’.
As it’s one of my favorite sites on the web, I thought I’d reach out to ask a few more questions about the site and its shutdown.
Matthew: What were some of the things you tried to monetize that you felt wouldn’t work, and why?
Andre Torrez: Our initial plan was to make a place so good that enough people would pay for it and we could just keep doing it forever. We had a chance to take a different route than so many other sites had taken so why not try it? We used our own money for six months and when it became apparent that we weren’t going to get there in time we started looking at other options.
I was a co-founder of Federated Media and its CTO so I know the ad business well enough to know our traffic was not at the level to make sense with ad banners. We very briefly worked with a couple of advertising networks over the years and either the content of the ads or the amount of the checks meant that it wasn’t going to be a worthwhile option. I even wrote a way for members of the community to put their own ads on the site.
We also received varying degrees of shady offers to put bits of tracking code on pages which wasn’t interesting to us. I’d feel complicit if MLKSHK showed you an ad for underwear you had been looking at on some other site. That wasn’t what we were about.
I spent a year at Tugboat Yards as their Head of Product which gave me a chance to play with a lot of ideas, but ultimately it wasn’t going to be enough to get us to a place where I could give the site the attention it needed and work a full-time job.
MP: What would constitute a ‘good fit’ for a buyer?
AT: Someone who has the same beliefs about community as us and the resources to keep doing what we were doing. If we don‘t find someone it’ll be a shame but we’ll be OK with it. We went in with our convictions and we get to go out with them. I always wanted a chance to do that and I will certainly do it again if the opportunity comes up.
Our first goal was make a nice place that people wanted to keep coming back to. Anyone who wants to buy the site would have to respect that goal; which means they’d need to have the resources to give the site what it needs. We’re not interested in seeing all the goodwill bled out of it for a profit.
MP: People seemed to create uses for MLKSHK which would then grow into collectives of people. What was one of the surprising ways that people used the community that you loved?
AT: Someone tweeted at us after our announcement that they loved MLKSHK because “people took pictures of food they made, not food they had just ordered” and when I read that I remembered the day that started happening.
An early and frequent user named Jer started posting images of food he had cooked with spices from his own side business, Jer’s Rubs. It not only inspired people to buy his spice rubs, which I think was the original point, but it prompted people to start photographing their own attempts. That was the beginning of the Gastronomy shake where people post pictures of food they’d made.
I think MLKSHK was a safe place to share things like that because we didn’t have the judgemental, drive-by commenters waiting to pounce. We all thought of each other as friends and the images we chose to share reflected that.
MP: What’s the most popular shake of all time?
AT: TonyB’s Friday Dance Party is the first one that comes to mind. Every Friday animated GIFs and videos pour in of people dancing. It was a nice end to the week and one of my favorite shakes on the site. People would sit at their desks and just funnel stuff in and riff off each other with images.
MP: What was your favorite shake?
AT: The one my wife made for our son. Having the internet on hand while raising kids is such a blessing. Throughout the day she will drop interesting things into his shake and then later we’d sit and look through it and it would spark conversations about physics or animals or starting points to research on Wikipedia. He’s five so he’s a pro at asking “Why?” and so I love that I can answer nearly every question or admit that it’s something nobody knows.
MP: Do you think that there is still room for sustainable ’boutique’, independent, ‘conscientious’ community sites, or are the ‘bigs’ sucking the air out of the room?
AT: Definitely! Look at Andy Baio’s Kickstarter for Upcoming.org. Only an hour in and he has already passed the halfway point. The economics of building sites are getting so small and the ease of building something is always increasing. I’ll take the blame for not being clever enough to figure out the answer for MLKSHK, but I know there are smarter people than me who will and have built sustainable and conscientious sites.
The flood of tweets and email I received after announcing MLKSHK’s closing was honestly not surprising to me. I know we did a good job at our primary goal and I know we can do it again.