Ten years ago today, on the 1st October 2008, I left the safe confines of employment to strike out on my own. MotoMatters.com went from being something I did in my spare time, to being my main endeavor. It has been quite a ride.
I suppose I could have expected something of a rough ride. I had handed in my notice in August, as the site I started two years previously went from strength to strength, the audience growing monthly. Then, on 15th September 2008, the financial services giant Lehman Brothers collapsed, triggering the global financial crisis and taking the economy of much of the world down with it.
It was too late. I had made my bed, now I had to lie in it. I chose the path of pursuing a dream, of trying to make a living from writing, and writing about motorcycle racing. Giving up immediately after I started might have been the financially more sensible solution, but sensible has never really been my strong suit.
The first years were hard, though I supplemented my income with some freelance work in IT. But I had help and advice from some of the best in the business. I was encouraged by kind words from venerable Italian journalist Paolo Scalera. Dennis Noyes gave me more help than I ever deserved, advising me, sometimes picking my brain, sometimes giving me information and insights to help me understand. If I have learned anything about journalism, I learned most of it from him.
Chris Jonnum, then at the excellent but now sadly shuttered Road Racer X magazine, gave me my first shot at getting an article in print, a feature on Josh Hayes at the first ever round of World Superbikes at the Portimao circuit. The faith that he showed in me made me feel like a journalist, and made me believe that surviving was possible.
And I have survived. In my third year of independence, I dropped the IT work, and lived solely from the income I generated as a journalist. I had some income from advertising on the website, and some from writing articles for Dutch and Belgian magazines, as well as providing services to other websites.
It took me a while to figure out what worked on the site. At first, I was just covering races, and providing occasional bits of news and analysis. Then at Valencia, in 2010, while too tired to figure out what to write about Valentino Rossi's debut on the Ducati, I just combined a bunch of observations and notes into a single narrative story. The roundup was born, and I realized that this was what readers wanted: the most salient and important things of a MotoGP weekend, collected into one place.
Those roundups proved popular, and were easy to write at first. In 2011, MotoGP was a lot more manageable. There were three riders capable of winning every weekend, a fourth capable of winning on occasion, and a couple more riders worth taking notice of. And of course, there was Valentino Rossi on the Ducati.
The politics of the sport were interesting, as a massive transformation was underway, with Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta using the CRT bikes as a blunt instrument with which to beat the factories into submission. But the racing was predictable, which made the writing easier.
Things are tougher now, for all the right reasons. Spec electronics, Michelin tires, and a performance balancing system through concessions have made the racing closer than it has ever been, and more exciting than it has ever been. But that means there are more competitors that matter, and much, much more to write about. I always leave every weekend disappointed at all the stuff I didn't get to write about, and feeling I have done a poor job. That feeling has only gotten worse over the years. If the racing gets boring again (which heaven forfend), it might get a little easier again.
From the very start, Scott Jones became a major part of the website, his photos becoming one of the main attractions of MotoMatters. He was with me almost from the beginning, starting as a spectator shooting through fences. We got Scott credentials for Qatar, where he started creating iconic images which have defined MotoGP and inspired others. Scott's eagle eye spotted and captured the glowing disc brakes at Qatar, and Casey Stoner's insane lean angles in Barcelona, and Marc Márquez getting both wheels off the ground through Laguna Seca's terrifying Turn 1.
Money has always been tight, and there were setbacks. At some point, either through an internal misconfiguration or some external skulduggery, a sudden and improbable rise in the number of ad clicks (approximately 20x the usual number) led to Google excluding MotoMatters from Google Ads. That increased my skepticism towards the idea of online advertising (see below), and made me realize the fragility of my situation. I needed to find a more sustainable way to run the site.
As usual, my remarkable wife came through with the idea which would transform the way I thought about the website, and help shift it in the direction it has taken. It was my wife who came up with the idea of offering subscriptions to readers, as a way to allow them to help support the website.
She came up with this excellent idea after my unfortunate and expensive experience at Le Mans in 2010, when my motorcycle broke down while trying to leave the circuit. I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from readers. Not only did they send me kind words, they also sent me cold, hard cash, of the sort which helped get both me and my motorcycle home again. If readers were willing to help me in adversity, my wife correctly reasoned, why would they not want to support the site in normal circumstances?
At first, subscribers got little more than a smug sense of satisfaction, and larger versions of Scott Jones' outstanding photographs. But in recent years – again, at the suggestion of my wife – subscribers have started to get their money's worth. Exclusive interviews, in-depth analysis of the time-consuming variety, hi-res photographs from the immensely talented CormacGP, and now the amazing technical photos of Tom Morsellino with expert commentary from world-championship winning crew chief Peter Bom.
The number of subscribers continues to grow, and that has allowed me to enlist the help of others. Steve English and Jared Earle provide outstanding coverage of WorldSBK, while Zara Daniela and Mike Lewis supply superb race and practice recaps for MotoGP.
The aim is to continue to expand the site, though in terms of quality rather than quantity. There are some fantastic writers I would love to be able to get to write exclusive material for the site. The more subscribers we have, the more quality content we have on the site.
Becoming better known and more established has opened up new opportunities. This year, I was asked to take on a role as pit lane reporter for the Dutch-language broadcast of MotoGP for Eurosport. It has been an informative, if rather stressful experience. I massively underestimated the intensity of working in pit lane, and the physical fitness required to keep patrolling pit lane looking for things to pick up on. But I have learned a lot as well: talking to mechanics, watching what teams do, watching the body language of riders, seeing qualifying tactics unfold before your eyes. With less access to TV footage of the action on track, there are some things you miss the first time around in pit lane. But there are plenty of other details which you would not otherwise have noticed.
What have I learned in 10 years of dedicating myself full time to running a website covering MotoGP and World Superbikes? Firstly, that sales and marketing are probably the most important skill you can have in running a business. Secondly, that sales and marketing are the two skills which I most sorely lack. Running a website takes money, and generating money is hard.
More importantly, I have learned that motorcycle racing is a complicated and difficult pursuit. Attention to detail is key, and the teams and riders which get this right do best. Having a plan and being prepared for any contingency are crucial. But examining every single area for possible gains – even areas which seem self-evident – can provide small gains which make the difference between winning and losing.
My admiration for everyone involved knows no bounds. The riders are truly extraordinary individuals, their absolute focus on peak performance making them a fascinating study. But mechanics, crew chiefs, team managers, factory bosses, offer insight and a perspective which adds a richness and depth to the sport which I had not realized.
Then there are the people whose tales you will not often hear. The truck drivers. The hospitality workers. The cooks. The team coordinators. The security guards. The TV crews, especially the camera men and women who spend all their time in the sun and the rain, the heat and the cold, capturing the images we love. The army of assistants and technical staff who lay hundreds of kilometers of cables before every race, then pull them all back up again on a Sunday night. There are more, far more than you can realize, even when you spend every weekend in the paddock.
There are the friends I have met along the way, good people who make every weekend fun. MotoGP may seem all glamour, but after nights and nights of five hours sleep, the humor and camaraderie make it all that little bit easier.
Was it worth it, these ten years of financial hardship, of uncertainty, of wondering whether the invoices you sent will be paid, so you can pay off the debts you have made? Was it worth spending so much time away from home, of having less time to go riding motorcycles, which is why I started writing about motorcycle racing in the first place?
Of course it was. I'm still here, aren't I? Here's to the next ten years. Hopefully.
Online advertising generates a veritable tsunami of numbers, which advertisers believe (because they are told) measure something useful. The truth is, though, they don't. Clicks, impressions, engagement, none of these actually measure genuine reader interest in the products on display. Advertising sellers (especially advertising resellers and aggregators) game the metrics, which have made online advertising into a nightmare for readers. Popups obscure articles, not because they are trying to attract the reader's attention, but because they want the reader to click on them. Advertisers are paid a premium for clicks, and are not judged on whether the click was from genuine interest, or because an irritated reader could not find the 'close' button on the ad.
This is why more and more users are installing ad blockers. And this is why online advertising is unsustainable in its current form. My dream is to have MotoMatters.com free of all advertising save a few, select companies selling products which are directly relevant to the readers of the site.
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