September 25, 2002
In this installment of our ongoing Industry Interview feature, we take a look at an excellent niche site. As many of you hear ad naseum, niche sites are the way to go if you want to be profitable in the current economic client. The site featured today is ThreePillow.com, a successful niche site that focuses on the MMF bisexual community. The site is very niche oriented and we encourage you to give the interview a good read as well as review the site. In light of the sub-niche that the site caters to, it is also an excellent site to promote if you are looking for sponsors.
Today, we are speaking with "Coolegypt", the owner and operator of ThreePillows.com. The site was one of the first on the net devoted to bisexual men and has done very well. It is based in Canada and has been operating since June of 2001.
As to Coolegypt, he is also based in Canada. He has been working in the adult industry since 1998 and went full time in April of 2002. He is also the part owner of feeder-sites.com and couplessecret.com.
AIL:Initially, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Cutting to the chase, what did you do before you got into the business and why did you move to the online porn industry?
Coolegypt: I was actually a Chemical Engineer specializing in manufacturing management before my career took an unusual detour into online porn. My last role before I quit and started doing this fulltime was as Plant Manager for a Canadian company making plastic automotive parts (yawn).
Some of my closest friends really thought I was nuts when I made the jump to porn. But the fact is I never really liked working for other people. And this was the chance for me to own and run my own full-time business for the first time in my life - who wouldn't want that, I figured.
I actually started (like many others) dabbling in online porn part-time in the evenings and on weekends after work. That was maybe 1998. I played the TGP and linklist game and was hellbent to learn the search engines. And it just sort of grew from there. After learning the ropes of online marketing I was soon making as much with my porn business on the side as I was as a Plant Manager; but the kicker was I was having twice the fun and one quarter of the stress of my day job. So that's when I started to entertain the idea of doing this fulltime.
So I made the jump in 2000. For the first year I played the linklists, TGPs and search engines and started www.feeder-sites.com (making sites for others) with my friend Maqua.
But I soon saw the writing on the wall - that it was just steadily getting harder and harder for a guy to make a living off the search engines, linklists and TGPs alone. The search engines were all going to various pay models, conversions at the major sponsors were steadily falling, and the profit margins were shrinking. So that's when I started to entertain the idea of a paysite of my own. It was either that or update my C.V.
AIL: Where did the idea for ThreePillows.com come from and how is it different from the other adult sites? A site devoted to bisexual content is very niche oriented. Did you specifically set out to focus on a niche or did it simply happen on its own?
Coolegypt: The idea for Three Pillows really came from the same place that many other emerging niches came from; it came from the fact that I could not find porn that satisfied my own fetish - namely content depicting men demonstrating their bisexuality, that is, two guys and girl where the action swings both ways. There was just no site out there, that I could find, that had much of that content. There were a couple of AdultCheck Gold sites and that was really it. It was weird to me, because when Three Pillows came online in June 2001 as the first major bi site, the adult video industry already knew what a great niche it was - they had been making videos for the male bi market for many years and releasing dozens of videos per year.
Three Pillows was also intentionally different from the straight and gay sites that were trying to tap into the bisexual market. There were (and are) some straight sites out there with gay content, and some gay sites with straight content. But as a bisexual man myself I can attest to this fact: M/F and M/M content is great, but what really turns the bisexual man on is content depicting men with women and other men AT THE SAME TIME. This is really the heart of the male bisexual niche and what instantly turns on most bisexual men, and is the some of the rarest content on the net.
AIL: Do you think your members are different than general porn viewers as far as what they want from a site and how they decide to join a site?
Coolegypt: Yeah I think there are two differences that jump to mind right away:
1. As with many micro-niche sites, we get a lot of first time paysite members. These are people who have never joined a paysite before. They just haven't been pulled over that invisible psychological barrier that keeps many people from giving their credit card info to a pornographer. But finally they have come across a true niche site that seems like it was made just for them; it seems to satisfy their particular sexual craving perfectly and they sign up. So we get a lot of people signing up with very diversified expectations of a members-based porn site, because they have never seen one before. We have an exit survey on our site, for example, where we ask people to rate their satisfaction with the site; and it has always surprised me how many people rate the site 10 out 10 and how many people rate it 1 out of 10. Some people expect massive amounts of content and are quite disappointed - others seem to understand how rare this type of content is and are thrilled with what we have. I suspect the folks at RJB don't have this problem with a site like Kara's Playground.
2. A surprising number of our members are women and male-female couples. I would estimate that 15% to 20% of our members are "single" women and another 15 to 20% are M/F couples. Which means that about one third of our members are female or couples. This has a profound effect on the feel of the site. For example, we have several interactive features in our site that are big hits, like a member's forum, a fantasy board (where members can write about their bi fantasies and experiences), and a running story that members can contribute to. These types of interactive features, just don't work on straight sites (horny straight guys just don't want to interact with other horny straight guys). In addition, these types of interactive features seem to appeal stronger to our female members, and so they are more active on them than our male members. So a bisexual site really ends up having a very different style and feel than either a straight site or a gay site. It's a blast and members just love the interaction from both sexes.
AIL: You have three people that appear to be working on your site. What is the role of each and why did you break up the duties among three people?
Coolegypt: I have two helpers, Kim and Mike. Kim is a female friend of mine who helps out answering email and such. She was actually initially involved just to answer emails from people who preferred to talk to a female (usually other females or couples). This was something we did to make our female members feel more comfortable. And "Mike" is my good friend who goes by the handle Maqua in webmaster circles (he runs www.sexy-midgets.com and www.feeder-sites.com). He is smarter at many Windows technical issues than I, so we encourage members with video problems and other technical issues to email him. He is straight as an arrow, but he loves to help our members out. I joke to our members on our customer support page that Kim and Mike are here to keep me from doing stupid things. There is actually a lot of truth to that. I am the kind of guy that is quite smart, and 9 out of 10 ideas I have are pretty good (if I can be so immodest). But I also come up with some really, really bad ideas on occasion - and I need good employees and friends to help me distinguish the really bad ideas from the good ones. Kim and Maqua are indispensable in that regard.
AIL: When you decided to do the site, did any of you have any experience in web design?
Coolegypt: Only what I had learned through making TGP pages and feeder sites. I, like many adult webmasters, learned my HTML from one of those "HTML for Dummies" type of books.
AIL: What programs did you use to design the site?
Coolegypt: Mostly just the standard ones that many other webmasters use. I like Homesite as an HTML editor, even though it is a massive memory hog. And I use PaintShop Pro and Adobe Photoshop interchangeably for graphics. But I use Photoshop 5.0 exclusively for picture re-sizing using their batching/scripting feature to re-size pics en masse.
For the generation of the gallery pages I use my own Perl script that I wrote, because I just couldn't get the features I wanted in a commercially available program. We have a unique feature on 3P… we have most of our pictures available in two sizes, regular and then an extra-large version for people with big monitors and broadband. Members love it, especially on the high-quality pics, but it meant writing my own gallery maker script.
AIL: Did the first version of your site look anything like your original idea?
Coolegypt: Basically yes, I haven't really changed the site much from my initial concept. Other than one big change that we made within weeks of first opening up. Initially, 3P was geared toward both male bi and female bi content. But I quickly realized this was really a mistake, as it diluted our key selling point - that is, our rare M/M/F Bi content. We made that change very shortly after opening up. We still have lots of content depicting female bisexuality, but we just don't highlight it on our tour so much anymore.
AIL: How long did it take you to get the first version of the completed site up?
Coolegypt: It took about 8 months total, but that included about 3 months in the middle when work basically stopped. I got cold feet, and really questioned whether a site like Three Pillows was going to work. Then I figured if I wasn't the first guy to really tap into this niche then it would be an opportunity forever lost.
I'm glad I proceeded, because since 3P opened up, about 6 other sites have started up in this niche, and it is true what they say, there really is an advantage to being the first kid on the block. Our site has a terrific reputation and strong brand identity in the bisexual and porn communities. And amongst affiliates we have a reputation for terrific member retention and therefore, of course, high rebill rates.
AIL: After completing the first version of the site, was there anything that you wished you had known prior to starting the site?
Coolegypt: Only that I wish I had thought out all of the aspects of third-party billing and affiliate program management before I started up - I perhaps would have done something a bit different there - see the answer to the "Billing issues" question below for more.
AIL: How many revisions have you done on the entire site or are you constantly updating it?
Coolegypt: I haven't made any major revisions to the members' area, although we are probably due for a "new coat of paint" on the inside. But I have revised the tour about 3 times, and will continue to do so about every 4 months to keep things fresh.
AIL: How often do you update the content on site and why did you choose this frequency of updates?
Coolegypt: I still update manually. I'm really afraid to make the jump to an automated system as so many other sites have done. Our site really has a very loyal fan following. Our updates are very much personalized, and I am afraid to lose that personal connection with the members by going automated. I think automated is the way to go to save the webmaster time, but I just can't see how to do it and still retain the feel and style that has worked so well for 3P.
The major downside of the manual system is that I can really only update the site once per week. We add about as much content as any site in any given week, but we have to add it all at once because of the time it takes to update. Weekly, we usually add 5 or 6 galleries, 3 to 5 video clips, 2 exclusive stories and 2 more "canned" stories. And then we usually add a column every 2 weeks, an audio story every month, a pictorial story every month, a few pieces of art every month, and a poem or two every few months. So it is enough content to go to daily updates, but we would have to automate it to do that, and I'm just not ready to do that, yet.
AIL: Once you got into the business, what was your biggest surprise about running an adult site?
Coolegypt: There are two things that were unexpected about 3P:
1. How loyal the customers can be. I had only joined a few adult sites myself before I opened 3P and never really felt any loyalty to any of them; when I quit, I never re-joined them. But it continues to be a pleasant surprise to see so many 3P members come back after they have quit. We have members that have joined and quit 4 times in the 14 months that we have been around (yet another reason for not having a trial if you ask me). Many people decide they can't afford the membership fee every month, but they don't mind shelling out the monthly fee just once every 3 or 4 months to download the new exclusive content.
2. When doing the business plan for 3P I ended up overestimating the bandwidth costs of running a paysite by quite a bit. The reason was surprising (to me)… Longterm members really don't use that much bandwidth at all, the vast majority of bandwidth is consumed by new members. So when you have a site with good retention, you can expect your bandwidth costs relative to your income to be small and almost insignificant as your site matures and your ratio of longterm to new members grows. So my advice is don't sweat your bandwidth and server costs when setting up your new paysite, instead go with a host who is extremely reliable and strong in the area of technical expertise and security. Because your bandwidth cost relative to your income potential if you have a great retention rate is really going to be minimal.
AIL: Billing issues are a continual problem in the adult industry. Have you always used CCBill and are you happy with them?
Coolegypt: I love CCBill; they treat me like gold. I did a lot a research before I chose CCBill to do my processing. Being an anal-retentive engineer in a previous life, I scoured the boards for posts about billing companies and made a tally of negative versus positive comments made about the various companies. CCBill came out on top of that "survey", and I would highly recommend them today to anyone.
Billing is a scary topic for one-site businesses like mine. Although I am very happy with CCBill and made the right choice with them, the fact is I am tied to them in a way that my business is absolutely and completely dependant on them. If I chose, or was forced, to leave I would lose all my rebills, which would cause me to lose most of my affiliates (in anger), which would then cause me to lose most new sign-ups as well. Changing billing companies would shrink the size of the business by about 75 or 80% I figure. It is not really an option, ever, except in extreme circumstances.
So I pray every night that CCBill is doing well and doing all the things it needs to, to be in business a very long time. (I'm quite sure they are)
If I could turn back the clock and do one thing differently about the start-up of our site it would be this… I would have put in the place the scripts so that we could manage our affiliate program ourselves with our own linking code that was then tied into CCBill behind the scenes. This way if something ever happened to CCBill or if we ever had to leave them, we could make the change behind the scenes and our affiliates would not have to change linking codes, nor would they have to re-sign up with another billing company to be an affiliate - they would simply start to get their checks from a different source. This would minimize the damage caused by changing third-party billing companies. Anyone starting a new paysite using a third party biller, should really consider that option. Hopefully you won't ever have to switch billers, but at least you will sleep better knowing it is a feasible option for you.
AIL: Your site allows for submissions from writers and artists. Do you actually receive many contributions?
Coolegypt: So many submissions that I can't keep up with them all. :o)
We add about 2 exclusive M/M/F Bi stories per week, and a small handful of art pieces per month. And we have had to turn writers away because we were getting more submissions than we could handle.
I think "alternative content" like stories and art is really important to a micro-niche site like 3P. M/M/F Bi content is so rare and expensive to produce that we can only afford to add exclusive pics and videos about every 3 weeks or so. So it is crucial that we add other content in between to keep the members happy. And this kind of stuff is cheap content too. I pay about $25 or $30 for a custom story; usually it is exclusive to our site. That is MUCH more than most others pay for stories, but our stories are tailored to our members needs - they are niche and rare and members just eat them up. We also trade membership for stories, poems and art, so in essence those ones cost us nothing.
If nothing else, advertising this type of rare alternative content, lets potential new members know that the site is not one of those "big company" sites, run by folks who run 80 or a 120 other sites; rather it is a true niche site run by someone who has the same fetish they have. (no offense to the big companies out there)
AIL: Do you communicate with your members proactively with a newsletter or other media regarding new content, articles or any such things?
Coolegypt: We decided early on that we wouldn't email members except one-on-one, when necessary or asked. We sensed the anti-spam wave coming on - it seemed to be particularly strong in the bisexual community.
We include thumbs of our exclusive updates on our tour so that returning members can see when there is new stuff and re-sign up - a lot of our members are returning customers - many come back every 3 or so months to see our new content (another reason why having a trial doesn't make sense for a micro-niche site like 3P).
We are working on a double-opt-in bi newsletter that would be independent of 3P, but would advertise for it, and have snippets of content from it. Similar to what Wasteland.com has had in place for a long time with it's Fetish Newsletter.
AIL: Do you pursue and real world advertising or promotional events to publicize the site in the bisexual community?
Coolegypt: We are one of the sponsors of the Annual Bisexual Men's Conference coming up this fall, and the Bi Men Forums - a series of private online newsgroups. We are also the main sponsor at www.bisexual.org, a non-profit website of the American Institute of Bisexuality.
We are always looking for niche advertising opportunities like that, it reaches directly to our main audience, bisexual men, women and couples.
Bisexual sites, like some gay sites, can find opportunities to advertise in the "mainstream" (non-porn, I mean) world, because bisexuality and homosexuality are really mainstream topics with a sexual slant. Straight sites can't really do that, but bi and gay websites can sometimes do very well advertising or partnering with non-porn organizations, with discreet, classy, g-rated advertising copy.
AIL: Tell our readers a little bit about your affiliate program.
Coolegypt: It's very similar to other CCBill-run affiliate programs. We pay 50% payout, with us and the affiliate splitting the CCBill fee down the middle (actually 7% from the affiliate's half and 7.5% from our half). And of course this includes rebills.
We have no trial on 3P, just a monthly price and then a discounted 3-month price. I think that true niche sites do not need a trial - if it's truly a niche site then surfers with that fetish will sign up regardless of whether there is a trial option or not. This means more money for our affiliates, as they don't have to convert the sale twice to get the big bucks - once to a trial and then again a few days later to a monthly subscription.
We also have a 5% Tier 2 referral program. So webmasters get 5% of all sales made by other webmasters who were referred to our program by them. This has been a surprising success for us and our affiliates. When we first implemented it, I assumed that only those affiliates who had webmaster traffic would profit from this (like linklist and TGP owners). But it is amazing how many webmasters will surf around like regular surfers checking out sites, and if they like the look of the tour and it looks like it converts, then they will sign up as an affiliate. And the nice thing about CCBill's Tier 2 system is, the cookie to track surfer sign-ups is the same as that to track webmaster sign-ups, so our referring webmaster always gets credit for his/her Tier 2 webmaster sign-ups no matter how the referred webmaster made his way to the sign-up page. Many of our affiliates are earning some nice money off the Tier 2 program even though they have no official webmaster traffic. They are just prolific in producing feeder sites and gallery pages and being visible with 3P banners to both other webmasters and surfers.
AIL: Based on your knowledge of the industry, what would you tell a person just getting into the business and why?
Coolegypt: It was true when I got into the business, and it is true today, and it will always be true on the net… it is all about traffic. I would encourage all newbies to focus on harvesting traffic and bringing it to your sites. Play the linklists and the TGPs and the picposts and the search engines. Also experiment with counters and toplists and other forms of link trading. If you do this you will learn how to get clickthroughs and how to move traffic around. This will be the basis for whatever you do after that. Spend the time learning the basics.
The other thing I would encourage all newbies to do is to learn Perl and then PHP. These are a webmaster's best friends. I would not have been able to start up 3P had I not learned Perl for a completely unrelated project 12 months prior. Once you know how to write little Perl scripts to automate much of what you do, you will wonder how you got by without it.
Many newbies wonder how some guys do so well making TGP galleries and linklist sites and other free sites. It's because they automate the hell out of it. They do much the same as what newbies are doing but on scale 100 times bigger, and much more optimized, by having it automated.
AIL: In your opinion, what is the biggest problem in the industry and how would you fix it?
Coolegypt: I think one of the biggest problems facing the adult internet is actually not an ADULT internet issue but an issue for all e-businesses.
I think spamming, viruses and hacking are starting to cost all of us huge amounts of money. Significant demographic segments of the internet are shrinking for the first time. People are starting to say "to hell with it" and going for a walk in the park rather than wade through a sea of spam, or spend three days trying to get their computer back to normal after a virus, or going through the hassle and cost of renewing their firewall software. I think that we are working toward to a critical mass on the net where soon people will just log on a lot less - they will use the net when they HAVE to, not when they WANT to be entertained. I think the signs are there and in 1 to 4 years it will be a significant problem. It won't just be a matter of trying to convince people to sign up for your site - it will be hard to convince people to just bother logging on and surf. People will find it is much easier to buy a porn flick and slip it into the DVD player rather than maintain a Windows-based computer and sign up for a porn site. Call me nuts, but I think the internet is, like an old shopping mall that's frequented by punks, gradually slipping into decay, and it's merchants are slowly going to see it in declining sales.
As for fixing it… We need to see a virus writer or two sent to prison for 10 to 15 years, then about 10 major spammers fined 2 or 3 million dollars each and put in prison for a few years for mass cyber-stalking. Voila, the next year the internet will be a more pleasant medium and ecommerce will begin to grow significantly again. But I am being flippant - the fact is that isn't going to happen anytime soon. AIL: I have to mention the "A" word. Have you made any significant changes to ThreePillows.com since Ashcroft was confirmed?
Coolegypt: Just a few small changes. I have always been pretty conservative regarding legal issues and tried hard to be a responsible webmaster while practicing my right to distribute adult pornography to adults in the privacy of their own homes. And I am in Canada, so that takes a bit of the pressure off. In some ways, it is currently more clear in Canada as to what the obscenity standards are - we don't have to count visible knuckles to determine if there is obscenity, for example (if you know what I mean). Nor is an erect penis alone considered obscene up here by any stretch (pun intended), as another example.
But I made three changes about 12 months ago in anticipation of action someday soon against the industry…
1. I censored our tour so as to remove all the sexual contact, except on small thumbs, where the details were blurry and indistinguishable.
2. I went through all my feeder sites and did the same thing. For the few that had hardcore content, I either converted them to AVS sites or replaced the pics with non-penetration content.
3. I replaced some of our banners with new ones, which censored out the actual sexual contact.
AIL: Where do you see the adult industry heading in the next five years?
Coolegypt: I think the movement to niches continues and is even starting to mature into "micro-niching". The niches are getting more and more specific. I think you are also seeing more webmasters understand what a niche really is. A niche is not a particular market or demographic, it is a specific type of content that some people crave, have a fetish for, and will pay just about anything to see.
"East Indian lesbians", for example, isn't really a niche unless there are people out there who have a fetish, an absolute craving, to see pictures of East Indian lesbians (there MAY be people with that fetish, I don't know).
But another example, say, "close-ups of black pussies" is, I think, a better niche because I think there are some guys who perhaps crave that very specific type of content - they collect it on their hard drive, they search the TGPs and linklists for hours just to find one new picture they haven't seen before that fits the bill, and their heart beats faster when they find it. And if a site opened up that catered specifically to that content, they would find it easily, would pay just about anything to join, and would stay a member forever even if you just gave them just a dozen new pics per month that fit the bill. If it's true, then THAT'S a true niche.
I think that these micro-niches are where the best money will be in the next five years in our industry.
AIL: More importantly, what does the future hold for ThreePillows.com?
Coolegypt: We are focusing right now on solidify our position with Three Pillows. We are working hard at getting the brand name out there, and improving the quality of the site even more. I want every guy in the world who has a fetish for M/M/F Bi content to have heard of 3P and associate it with rare, fresh, quality M/M/F Bi porn.
So we have opened a few other services for the bisexual community to get the 3P brand out there. We now have www.wherebisexualsmeet.com, which is personal ads specifically for bi singles and couples; and www.bisexualchatnetwork.com, which is a bisexual chat service; and we also have a few bi linklists and other small bi sites. And we have a few more sites along that vein that we want to open up in the next 6 months.
After that, well, we'll have to see. :o)
AIL: What do you enjoy the most about being in the online adult industry?
Coolegypt: I love the freedom that running an adult site gives you. I can flex my hours to whatever suits my mood. I have complete control over my business, my working conditions, and who I do business with. It's all about freedom for me - I'm running my dream business.
AIL: What do you enjoy the least about being in the online adult industry?
Coolegypt: Well I don't know if this really qualifies as the least enjoyable thing about the adult industry to me, but it is a pet peeve of mine, and since you've given me the opportunity to sound off… well, I can't pass it up…
I've never quite understood how there can be homophobes in the online adult industry, but there are, in some circles.
Pornography is all about sexual freedom. There are those who would judge us pornographers based on what we provide to people to view in the privacy of their own homes. And it requires constant defense by pornographers to stand up for ourselves to keep the state out of our bedrooms and home offices, and those of our surfers. And yet the basis of homophobia (and bi-phobia) is judging people based on what they do in the privacy of their own bedroom. It's an obvious incongruity. I just can't understand how one can be an online pornographer and homophobe at the same time - it requires an immature and poorly thought out set of personal ethics in my opinion.
Fortunately, and it speaks well of our industry, the homophobes are just a mildly successful minority. I think the "players" in our industry understand that it is all about sexual freedom - making money by providing people with material for them to explore their sexual freedom in the privacy of their own home. And most players and successful pornographers understand that you can't both do that, and then turn around and judge the same people based on what they do in their own bedroom or home office when the blinds are closed.
AIL: Any curses or closing words of inspiration you would like to give our readers?
Coolegypt: LOL. Words of inspiration from me? That will be the day.
I guess the one thought I will pass on is this… Don't believe it when you hear people say that all the profitable niches have been tapped. People were saying that 3 years ago, and yet 3P is doing just fine even though it started from nothing just 14 months ago.
There are many, many untapped niches out there, just waiting for someone who is passionate about a particular fetish and who also has online marketing skills and good business sense to come along and tap into it. Five or six years from now, there will be millionaires in our industry who, today, haven't yet even opened up their first site.
AIL: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview.
Coolegypt: My pleasure. It was a blast to talk about all the fun that 3P is giving me and my friends.
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