Project Management

Builder.com is dead, long live Builder.com

This is going to be one of those rambling, meaningless blog posts that clutter the blogosphere. It's stuff that nobody but the writer really cares about. I hate doing it, but it's something near and dear to my heart, so I'm going to write it even if nobody is going to read it. It's a requiem and a memoir for the passing of a Web site that I helped launch a decade ago: Builder.com.

We launched the site publicly I believe in 1998, or was it late 1997? I can't remember ... it was during the frenzied years when it seemed the Internet would keep growing exponentially forever.

I do remember it was envisioned from the start as one piece in a multi-platform business. The Web site being one platform, and a Web conference business being the other, with vague and grand notions of adding more types of platforms in the future once we figured them out.

The plan was that the platforms would feed each other — articles and reader feedback on the Web site would drive planning and sessions for the conference; then, people attending the conference could use the Web site to learn more about the sessions they attended and keep in touch with the new friends and colleagues they had met. It was Web community before that term exploded into the multi-billion dollar industry it is today.

Unfortunately, we were never really able to tap into the then-new notion of the Web as a community platform. Part of that I suspect was the target audience of Web developers. It's a very diverse group with interests all over the map that no one Web site could hope to satisfy, yet the charter for our little site was to try and cover all aspects of the Web development space.

Builder.com could never really find one thing to do well — the articles we would publish were all over the map just like our target audience. One week you'd have something on Oracle databases and the next on stupid JavaScript tricks. We were trying to offer content for everybody from the enterprise software developer to the guy working on his personal Web site.

We know now from the recent success of laser-focused tech blogs that the way to success in a niche is to own the niche. Builder.com was aiming for too big a niche and couldn't possibly own that space the way a site focused on just one aspect, say JavaScript, can.

Another part of Builder.com's woes I believe was that in many ways we were going up against the very advertisers we needed to support the site. I mean, if you're Adobe why sponsor content on a third-party Web site like Builder.com when you can just as easily post the same content in your own Web property? The Web makes everybody a part-time publisher, which makes them all competitors to the full-time publishers like Builder.com.

That's not to say that some advertisers didn't find clever ways to leverage Builder.com. For example, for quite a while one of the biggest advertisers in the Java newsletter was Microsoft. Smart counter-programming, reaching an audience of Java Web developers with advertisements for Microsoft software that both complimented (SQL Server) and competed with (Visual Studio) the very Java software covered in the newsletter. Say what you will about their technological prowess, but you can't argue with Microsoft's marketing savvy.

The first Builder.com conferences, held shortly after the Web site launched, were called Web.Builder. The URL for the conference program was cleverly web.builder.com. Those conferences were really fun. How can you go wrong when you have your conferences in cities like New Orleans and San Francisco? But then the Internet bubble burst, which of course hurt the conference business badly. There were no more Web startups with millions to throw at any and all types of marketing including our conference.

So the conference business was struggling to find sponsors, and the Web site was struggling to find and grow an audience. Interest in all things Internet was waning as the bubble burst. Eventually the conference business was shuttered, and Builder.com was sucked back into the main CNET.com site.

The site was then later spun out to the fine people who run this site, TechRepublic.com. They made a go of it, trying to find ways to turn it into a profitable concern. But the fundamental weakness remained of trying to be too many things to too many people and serving none of the audiences well. So it was probably inevitable that we couldn't make it work even with this second chance under the TechRepublic umbrella. I shoulder part if not much of the blame, as I was essentially running the site for over a year at TechRepublic.

So it is with deep regret that I bid a fond farewell to my old friend, Builder.com, the site I helped bring into this world. Perhaps I'm looking at the past through rose-colored lenses — I know at the time it was quite a struggle trying (and ultimately failing) to make it work. But what I remember most was how much fun it was to be part of launching and nurturing Builder.com. Those are the memories I will cherish, even if it wasn't quite the lasting work we all had hoped for.

The only way now to find any remnant from the old Builder.com is to query the Internet Archive and maybe Google's cache, at least for a little while longer until it gets updated.

The URL has been redirected to Builder.com Australia, which is a fine Web site that was born from some of the same ideas that we used in launching the U.S. site so many years ago. Thankfully, they seem to be doing much better at executing those ideas than we were here in the United States.

Best of luck to our friends Down Under as they take over the URL. May it be as much fun for them as it was for me.

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