From 0 to 2 Million Pageviews* a Month: The History of No Film School
If you're at all curious as to how this site came about, why it exists, and what the early days were like, here's an interview our friends at Film Courage did with me about the origins of No Film School. I suppose this post could be construed as self-serving, but hey -- as the guy who started this site and ran it single-handedly for the first two years, I'm proud of what we've managed to build. We also talk about how I lied my way into MTV, as well as some strategies for growing a website that will hopefully be of interest to anyone launching a web presence.
I launched NFS while living out of a suitcase, and the place in Queens, NY where I was crashing at the time had no internet. So I tethered my laptop to my cell phone in order to launch -- but then I could not FTP using the tethered connection. Thus, in order to push this site live in January 2010, I had to individually upload every Wordpress theme file via a web control panel. Murphy's Law applies to websites as well as film shoots!
* - I used an asterisk in the title because we are always growing, and the "2 million pageviews a month" figure is already slightly outdated. It's a nice time for me personally to look back at thousands of hours of work that went into building this community, given we are hard at work on the redesign and on the verge of taking the site to exciting new places. I'm looking forward to making this a better, more useful place for all of us, so thanks for watching and stay tuned!
A transcript follows for reading-not-watching types.
Film Courage: We want to talk about No Film School in terms of how many page views does it get each month? What were the page views starting out? How did you get this tremendous growth that we've seen?
Ryan Koo: I actually had launched NFS as a personal blog in 2005. That's what actually got me a job in New York City and I moved out there. But really, the website as we think of it today, I launched in January of 2010. At that point, just because it was a personal blog, it was averaging 39 views a month or something -- no one was reading it. For all intents and purposes, it started at zero. Now, we're doing two million page views a month. We've been growing fairly consistently since I launched it. It's been great.
When I launched the site, I had no idea whether anyone was going to read it. I only spent a week designing it. I didn't want to front load all the work and find out that I built it, but no one came. It's been great to have the community there and we're currently completely redesigning it and we'll be re‑launching it soon, I hope.
FC: When you started out, I just want to go back to starting out that personal blog back in 2005, what was your desire behind it? I think that's great that you had a passion for it and you went for it, probably never thinking that it would never ever turn into this. You just wanted something in your spare time about your passion about cameras and filming?
RK: From 2003 to 2005, I was a video producer in North Carolina which is where I'm from. I went and shot a documentary in the Amazon Jungle in Ecuador. I could only shoot it during my vacation that I had accrued. So I went for two weeks. That was really the breaking point of realizing: I can't be a film maker and have a full‑time day job at the same time. I knew that I didn't want to go to film school, thus purchasing the URL.
Me launching the personal blog was a way of putting myself out there, knowing that I was recently unemployed (of my own volition). I was going to try to get myself to New York City. I didn't know anyone in New York. How can I reach across geographic boundaries? Well, the Internet -- that's the great thing about the World Wide Web.
[At the beginning] it was just me talking about movies a lot. I ended up interviewing with an indie film company in New York who didn't hire me and sort of fell off the face of the earth. But somebody else read what I was writing about these experiences and I saw that his signature said "Senior producer at MTV". That contact initially was because of my website. That's really when I learned about the power of the Internet and that's what motivated me to keep doing what I've been doing.
Unfortunately, they were hiring graphic designers at the time, and I wasn't a graphic designer, but that didn't stop me from saying I was a graphic designer. I was able to lie my way into a job in New York based on creating a fake portfolio and putting on a suit and driving myself there and taking this interview. And then doing Photoshop training on the train every day to and from work.
But that was kind of the impetus behind the power of the Internet and knowing how it hit home personally, was being able to get myself from an unemployed kid living in North Carolina with my parents, to working as a senior designer at MTV in the middle of Times Square -- because of my website.
FC: When you first launched that blog, how many hours a day were you putting into it? I'm sure now it's probably every waking minute, but in terms of back then, what were you putting into it?
RK: When I first launched it in 2010, as the current site, it was a full‑time job, essentially. Not a full‑time job posting content, but I wasn't somebody who knew how to run a website. I didn't know things about search engines, inbound traffic, marketing, advertisements, and monetization -- all the sort of things that you would see on if you went to a website and looked at the masthead: editor, managing editor, biz dev, outreach, publicity. All of those things I had to learn about.
When I launched the site, I told myself I'm going to post one thing a day. That way people will know there's something new here every day, so they can come back. It's not going to be something where I post one thing and then there's nothing for three months.
During that first year of growing the website from nothing, it was just research. Most of my time was spent learning about these things. They're great things to know about now, but I essentially had to put my film career on hold for a year while I learned about all these other aspects of running a website.
Then, once I had been running it for a year and we reached a certain traffic level, that's when I was able to sort of cut down on the research, just run the website, and work on my screenplay at the same time.
FC: What do you think has been the most important thing in getting that traffic? Or it's probably a combination of many things. Can you share some tips for other people that want to start their own site? Whatever it is, whether it's about food trucks or whatever it is.
RK: I think with websites, there are so many websites out there that the challenge of launching a website is if someone comes and they read something at your site, or they watch a video at your site, they never come back because there's just so many out there. The challenge is how do you keep people coming back to your site.
Of course, there are the usual approaches of just having better content, trying to do a better job, making sure that your content is better written than other people's. But to me, the thing that we ended up being successful with was when I wrote the DSLR Cinematography Guide which was -- or still is, because we're a little out of date now and we need to update it and we're going to do that when we have some time -- [The DSLR Guide] is a hundred-and-something pages and we gave it away for free in exchange for an email address. Anyone can sign up for it, and unsubscribe if they don't want to get new updates. That was the thing that kept us on people's minds: you came and you got this guide, then you started getting emails and coming back to our site.
That way we were able to grow our community from week to week and month to month as opposed to just having this revolving door of people coming and forgetting about the site.
FC: If someone does want to start their own site from scratch and just dip their toe in the water, what's the quick and dirty? What are some of the tips? Get the domain name... would you advise WordPress, a Wix site? What are the quick things you can advise us on?
RK: That's a good question. For example, WordPress is great. I've built a lot of sites on it, and you can't beat the price, it's free. You can customize it every which way. But [websites] are like cameras -- a different camera is best for different kinds of film projects. Websites are the same. We're actually going to be migrating off of WordPress for our next version. Not because WordPress is bad, but because what you're trying to do has a different tool. Behance has a lot of portfolio sites, and they're now part of Adobe Creative Cloud, so if you're using their software, you have this portfolio website software included.
Vimeo Pro is also something where you can host your own business, host your video, and all sorts of things. I think it depends on whether you're primarily trafficking in video or whether you're a news site, whether you're a community. A lot of people use vBulletin for forums. It's just knowing, what you're doing right now and where you want to take it -- and then thinking about which tools are going to get you there.