A car restoration enthusiast starts a pay-for-access website after spending two years in Ulaan Baatar, Outer Mongolia

In this exclusive Mequoda interview, Satch Reed explains his popular subscription website that’s dedicated to antique car restoration. It’s also dedicated to making money for its publishers.

MEQUODA What is your educational and professional background?

We decided that a subscription-based model would work better for us, first, because we didn’t want to give away the information for free. Second, we didn’t want to be on the treadmill of having to continually go after advertisers.  

—Satch Reed

SR My educational background is that I completed high school. But I didn’t stop my education there. I have been self-teaching myself for my entire life.

I owned two photo-typesetting companies between 1973 and 1990. But unfortunately, desktop publishing came on the scene and eliminated the market for those services. I closed my companies in 1990. I worked as a customer service manager for a large data processing firm for two years.

I then married a diplomat and spent four and a half years abroad. We lived in Hamburg, Germany for one and a half years, Kingston, Jamaica for one year, and Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia for two years.

After we got back to the States, I decidedly had no career left, so I decided to put my knowledge of computers and graphics to work and taught myself how to do web design and programming. Along the way I learned Cold Fusion and SQL Server. I now own Reed Web Design.

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MEQUODA What best describes your position with SecondChanceGarage.com?

SR I am a partner at Second Chance Garage. I had long wanted to restore an old car and after coming back from overseas, decided to put my garage to good use.

I bought a ’52 Ford F1 pickup truck, which we are now using as a demonstration project on our site. This was my first restoration project, so to learn more, I attended an evening course in auto restoration at a local high school.

The instructor there, Les Jackson, was an automotive writer, and restored over 15 cars. I had looked on the web many times for information on car restoration, and there didn’t seem to be any high-quality, consistent information about the process.

I approached Mr. Jackson with the idea of creating the site. It wasn’t clear what format we would use, but it was clear that we wanted it to be a moneymaking proposition.

After a few meetings, we decided that a subscription-based model would work better for us, first, because we didn’t want to give away the information for free. Second, we didn’t want to be on the treadmill of having to continually go after advertisers. And third, we were aware of some of the missteps of dot-com companies who gave it all away for market share.

But to answer your question, I am the publisher of the site and Les is the editor-in-chief (and resident car restoration guru).

MEQUODA Who are your subscribers?

SR The site focuses on the process of car restoration. We provide in-depth how-to article, monthly garage tips, product reviews, auto-theory, where we explain the technical workings of automobiles like how an engine works, how brake systems work, etc.

We have feature articles that can be on any subject of interest to auto restoration hobbyists. As Editor-in-Chief, Les has a column titled “From the Drivers Seat” where he can expound on anything relevant to the hobby, and to liven up the discussion a bit we have created a fictitious character called “Dr. Crankshaft.”

Dr. Crankshaft is a curmudgeonly character with unlimited knowledge of cars. His friend, Dabney Dufus, heir to the Dufus paperclip fortune, has a collection of over 250 classic cars. Dabney is oftentimes running into “unsolvable” problems and finds himself having to contact the Doctor for his help.

Our readers find it amusing and it gives us a chance to write dialog and situational explanations to some of the problems faced by the average car restorer.

When someone subscribes to our site, they rank their restoration abilities, so that we know the level of expertise of our audience and can write our articles accordingly. Most of our subscribers are relatively new to the hobby, although we also have some pretty savvy, more experienced hobbyists.

MEQUODA How long has your site been active and what is your subscription fee structure? What is included with a subscription?

SR Our site will celebrate our first anniversary with this November issue. At this point, we only offer a one-year subscription. This gains access to the entire site, including our archives.

To date, we have 100 articles in our archives. Our annual subscription is $19.95 per year. We have had many people say that we are not charging enough for our subscription. While that may be true, we are also up against a fair amount of free-info on the web, particularly discussion groups.

Many car clubs that have websites have discussion boards on them. Nevertheless, we are looking at possibly increasing our prices during the coming year.

MEQUODA Now to the technical details. To build your site, what tools did you use, and how long did it take?

SR I built the site using Dreamweaver, PhotoShop and Cold Fusion Studio. We use a SQL Server 2000 database.

Also, just because it made sense to do so, I used a couple of off-the-shelf Cold Fusion plug-in applications (rather than build them myself). One, ActivEdit, gives you a screen much like a word processor that we use for inserting or editing pages.

Also, I used 2simplifi’s Subscription Cart to handle the credit card transactions. Again, it saved me much time, and the prices were reasonable.

I started the site in August, 2002 and we launched the site November 1, 2002.

MEQUODA Can members subscribe online through a secure server, and is the process built into your site or outsourced? If outsourced, what has your experience been with outsourcing?

SR Initially we used PayPal for subscriptions. We are able to track people who come to the site and begin the sign-up process, but don’t complete it and we soon realized that the added steps of setting up a PayPal account was causing potential customers to go away.

So we set up our own credit card cart, as I mentioned. We still get some cancelled sign-ups, but not nearly as many. Other than the off-the-shelf software I mentioned earlier, we don’t outsource our processes.

MEQUODA What software programs or functions handle usernames and passwords, and is access immediate or do you provide access later via email?

SR When a new subscriber signs up, they provide their own username/password. We decided on this rather than computer-generated passwords, primarily because computer-generated passwords are definitely unmemorable. It also sends a thank you email to the subscriber. I built the password system.

MEQUODA How often do you add new content?

SR We spend a lot of time generating content, primarily because we are doing the projects we are writing about. We go out to the garage, put the new clutch in our project truck, photographing every step, then write about it.

But that’s the fun part. Then I spend time cropping and tweaking the photos, and Les writes the articles. After stripping all the garbage out of the Microsoft Word documents, it just copy and paste into the “add and article” page, add photos, and some JavaScript for the pop-ups for the photos and am finished.

MEQUODA Has your site changed significantly since you launched it?

SR Our site is basically the same since launch. We have added some features such as an events calendar, and some “calculators” that are handy for car restorers. We plan on adding some classifieds, and as our subscription base gets larger, discussion groups.

MEQUODA Marketing and promotion seem to be a great challenge for most subscription website publishers. How have you approached this task, and what kind of results have you experienced?

SR Our marketing has taken several tracks. First we ran some classified ads in Hemmings Motor News, which is a print magazine that’s primarily classified ads, all geared to car restorers. We didn’t get the results we’d hoped for.

Next, we started giving how-to seminars at Carlisle Events. Carlisle Events present 10 car shows/swap meets at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, every year, with a combined patronage of about 1.5 million people.

Our seminars were well received and we did see some increase in site visits and subscribers. We have just negotiated a deal with a major car restoration tools and supplies retailer where we provide some Q&A and Tips for their website.

This content on their site is branded as Second Chance Garage content and has a blurb about our site along with a link. They have site traffic of over 500,000 unique visitors per month.

Also, we get a link on their email newsletter (goes out to 275,000 address each week) that points to the same page on their site. We are freshly into this arrangement, but preliminary results look promising.

Also we use Google Adwords, but with a very limited budget. But the number of click-throughs is favorable.

MEQUODA Do you have any advertising on your site? If so, how do you attract advertisers? Is ad revenue a significant source of your website income?

SR We don’t have advertising on our site yet, but are considering an “advertising page”. We don’t want to annoy our readers with banner ads, but will use an “advertising page” so that the visitors can view the ads on their own terms. We hope to attract primarily advertisers who are offering services to car restorers.

MEQUODA For Mequoda members who are devising premium content strategies for their online properties, any advice you would offer?

SR Give yourself more time than you may think is needed to get things going. It takes a long time to get search engine recognition, and a long time to see results from your advertising/marketing efforts.

MEQUODA What has been your greatest challenge to date, doing business online?

SR The hardest thing to do online is to develop credibility with your potential clients. This is true of the whole Internet, not just subscription websites.

This is where good design comes in, along with quick (and pleasant) customer service. We answer every email we receive as we receive it.

We even had a subscriber ask a question that we had no way of knowing the answer to, but we did a couple of quick searches on the net and was able to provide him with some direction. It would have been easy to say we didn’t have an answer, but it only took a couple of minutes to come up with one.

MEQUODA What tips would you pass on to aspiring publishers who want to start a subscription-based website?

SR There’s no magic wand. Particularly in marketing a site. It calls for Guerilla marketing….many, many, many little steps in building your market share. Constantly talk with folks with like interests about your site; offer free subscriptions to those influential in their field. Send out press releases. Give seminars. Print handouts. Register with major search engines. All of it is important, any one of them is not.

MEQUODA What’s the best or smartest thing you’ve done? What’s the worst?

SR One of the best things we have done is our events calendar. When we list a classic car event, we send an email to the event’s contact person, telling them that we have listed their event, and that we have additional space available if they want to add any content.

Ninety-nine percent of the time they are grateful to have their event listed, and many times, they are affiliated with car clubs and will add a link to your site to theirs. It’s a great way to reach our target audience. And because the email we send out is in reference to their event, and gives them something, it’s not considered Spam.

MEQUODA What question have I neglected to ask you that you want to answer?

SR The verdict on online subscription-based publishing is still out. Although statistics show that there are large increases in pay-for-content business, they also are quick to admit that the largest segments are online dating services.

Next are the large players like the Wall Street Journal etc. The real question for most newcomers to the field is whether niche players can make it as a sustainable business. Nobody seems to have the answer to that yet.

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