Business Musings: Platforms

Business Musings free nonfiction On Writing

To download an audio version of this post, click here.

At the beginning of August, Patreon had what some termed a payment meltdown. Some creators couldn’t access their payments. Banks notified some Patreon backers that their payments were being flagged as fraudulent.

Patreon claimed that the problems weren’t one problem; they were two problems. For the creators, the problem was a payment partner of Patreon that wouldn’t let them cash out. For subscribers, the problem was a lot more arcane than I want to go into here.

The secondary problem for creators, though, was that the subscriber issue brought the subscription to the attention of the subscriber. The great thing about subscriptions is that once people subscribe, they tend to forget how much they paid for the subscription.

If that subscription in any way loses value in the mind of the subscriber, or if their financial situation has changed, or if they had completely forgotten the subscription existed, having that subscription brought to their attention makes them reevaluate it. When they do that, many cancel. In this latest kerfuffle, one creator claimed they lost 300 subscribers.

A friend on Facebook gleefully reported all of this, and mentioned this was why they avoided all outside platforms, choosing to go through their website and with the systems they had built. (And yes, I see the irony of a friend using a platform to claim that they never use platforms. Don’t go there.)

They did have a point about platforms, though. We’re moving to our own online store for a variety of reasons, but one is that it gives us a cushion should one of the bigger online retail platforms change its way of doing things.

Another friend complained about online store platforms like Shopify, and said that they preferred to design their own. Turns out when I looked at their site, they had defaulted to WooCommerce, which we had tried and didn’t like.

The first friend’s point about outside platforms caught me, though, and got me thinking. My initial gut reaction to both of these folks was that my website has had a lot more problems over the past 25 years than I’ve ever had with the platforms. The idea of depending solely on my website scares the bejeezus out of me.

Having only one point of contact for all of my work is too risky for me, even if I supposedly control that one point. I don’t control the platform on which my website rests. It’s also taken forever to get someone to help me rebuild the website here. Some of that is me stalling, but some of it is finding the right fit.

Still, outside platforms have their own issues. At Christmastime last year, Amazon caused a lot of turmoil by dropping its newspaper and magazine subscription service. Some magazines were invited into the Kindle magazine program, but others were not. As Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld wrote at the time:

Earnings from Amazon subscriptions provide a varying and sometimes significant portion of the revenue that these publications require to stay in business. If you don’t already know, genre magazines are subscription-driven, meaning that subscriptions make up the bulk of their income. Some people think advertising is a major source, but it actually represents a tiny fraction for us….

None of these magazines are entirely reliant on Amazon, but as the largest ebook retailer in the field, the cancelation of this program will hurt and in some cases, hurt badly. Badly enough to shutter a magazine? Maybe. It’s too soon to tell …

Platforms change all the time. They make decisions that have a huge impact on the people they partner with. Amazon’s change was a cost-cutting measure driven by severe layoffs in the fourth quarter of 2022 and into 2023. The Patreon problem had a lot to do with a platform they had hired to help them process payments.

PayPal also changed its fee structure in late 2022, closing a loophole that a lot of businesses used as well as upping some fees. I’m sure online store platforms like Shopify will change how they do things as well over time, and many of those changes will harm some group of their partners.

Sometimes these companies do things seemingly en masse. They’re not. (Well, some of them might, but mostly, no.) Generally, they’re responding to market conditions which were not favorable in the last half of 2022 to anything online. Streaming platforms like Netflix also changed their rate structures and closed loopholes. At some point, I’m going to have to take a hard look at our streaming subscriptions and see if I can cancel some we never use or get a better deal if I restructure them.

But, as I mentioned above, this has not risen to the level of urgency that other things in my life have. If, say Hulu, tells me that my payment didn’t go through, then maybe I’ll look at the entire subscription with an eye to saving money. But right now, I’m too busy with my own projects, starting up various new things for my business, and figuring out what to do next. Saving $5 on Hulu isn’t that high on my priority list.

So, most of that went through my head when my friend said they avoided outside platforms. In principle, I agree. But in practice…life’s too short.

Let me explain.

The online boom started roughly fifteen years ago, when I already had an established career. Frankly, it saved my novel career. I couldn’t sign the contracts from the major publishers any longer. I couldn’t take the rights grabs.

I was looking at a short-story-only career. At that point, I thought I could still bring in some money from royalties. That changed as well.

I had assiduously gotten my rights back for almost every book that was an original. I owned the books and could relicense them; I just wasn’t sure how to proceed.

Then the online revolution, from viable ebooks to print on demand to easy-to-produce audio to podcasting to video podcasting to video production—well, you were there. You know.

All of these things go on various platforms. I have too much product to put it all on my website or on websites controlled by me. I would never get to all of it.

Dean and I had to hire people to help us put our books and short stories up on the various platforms, otherwise we would have had to give up writing. That’s why we started WMG Publishing, so that we had people to handle the various platforms.

We have a good staff, but they’re horribly overworked. They can’t control everything, just like Dean and I couldn’t. We’re constantly researching and finding the best way to put our product out into the world. We do a lot of experimenting. That’s why we were on Kickstarter in 2012. It was an experiment—one that worked. We did a variety of experiments that did not work.

So when my friend posted about platforms, it caught me because for them, the post is somewhat logical. They have a massive computer background and can handle whatever the computer world throws at them. They can develop parts of their website to handle some of the new stuff. They can write code. They can do things that I will never be able to do.

They also have maybe one-twentieth the product I do, maybe less. They can develop this stuff.

There might be an argument to make for not using any platform at all, but I suspect that argument is for people who can handle the programming as well as the workload. It will slow their writing down. It also puts everything through one point which carries too much risk for me.

I decided long ago to use other people’s platforms for a lot of the work that we do. We use Amazon and Barnes & Noble and D2D and Bookfunnel. We use Mailchimp and Kickstarter and Teachable and YouTube. I use Patreon. We now use Shopify. I’m sure I’m missing a lot of platforms that we use. I do know that there are many that we are investigating and some we used to use. There’s a lot we’ve tried and a lot we abandoned and a lot that we have learned to love.

But that doesn’t mean we’re going to use them forever.

I think that’s where my Facebook friends and I differ. They seem to believe that a perfect platform exists out there. They seem to believe that any platform can exist without making mistakes or changes. They also seem to believe that they can do everything better than some company whose only job is to do this around the clock.

Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes it’s not.

Here’s how I approach platforms.

  1. I acknowledge that I need them. I can’t do everything. Because I acknowledge that, I have to accept that the platforms have flaws and benefits, some of which I can’t see.
  2. I fully expect problems with every platform I’m on. They’re run by human beings. People make mistakes. People act in their own interest. Businesses—platforms—have agendas different from mine.
  3. I expect every platform to go away. I figure they all have a short(ish) lifespan. It’s rare for any business to last longer than five or ten years.
  4. If the platform doesn’t go away, it might become obsolete anyway. The hottest, newest, most amazing platform in 2014 is out of date now. Heck, even shopping on Amazon is counterintuitive based on some of the recently designed shopping platforms. Amazon is too big to change quickly, and I don’t see anyone there working to make the shopping experience better. That’s not true of other platforms. Things change.
  5. I will have to rebuild my work on every platform at some point…and that includes websites. Sometimes it’ll be because of me and the fact that I haven’t kept things up to date (like my website). It might also be because the platform is going to vanish. Amazon gave magazines almost a year to figure out what to do when the platform disappeared. Sometimes you don’t get that kind of time. Sometimes, the platform goes away overnight.
  6. The hottest, newest, most amazing platform is only as good as the business people running it. I loved one of my web hosting services. It was small, great, and user friendly. Then the owners sold to a larger company, which then got absorbed by a larger company. The platform now has the worst customer service in the business. My biggest concern about some of the great small businesses that are running some of my favorite platforms at the moment is this: Have the owners figured out what to do if they’re hit by a bus tomorrow? Is there an estate plan in place? Will the business live past them in the event of their death? I can think of one platform in particular that’s being run by a husband and wife, and the people they hire. They have young children. The couple’s business has grown exponentially, and they’re the heart of the business. Even if the business can survive their deaths, the business will not be the same, because it’s their computer artistry that makes it work.
  7. I have a low risk tolerance. Because I expect platforms to fail and cause problems, I’m on several. I also back up everything on those platforms (as best I can). That way, one’s failure will cause me headaches, but it won’t decimate my business. That’s why I’m not doing everything through my website. If the website fails, then I’m screwed, and I don’t want to be screwed.
  8. I expect to rebuild over and over and over again. If something goes wrong, I hope to rebuild on my schedule. (See my website issues.) Chances are, though, that I will end up rebuilding in an emergency situation. Will I be annoyed? Oh, yes. Angry even. Especially if the rebuilding comes because of a known problem, one the platform never solved. Or because I didn’t move quickly enough. But that’s a price I’m willing to pay to have redundant systems.
  9. I do value convenience, as do my customers. A lot of DIY sites by coders assume that everyone has the same level of skills they do. Those sites also tend to look like they were coded by someone with no business sense. That drives some customers away. And a lot of that coding is counterintuitive. As a customer, I try to avoid sites like that. As a business owner, I want something that’s easy for my customers to use, but easy for me to set up.
  10. I am mindful of what I use the platform for. By being mindful, I know what I can and cannot do with that platform—and what will happen to my business if that platform disappears. Sometimes I can’t solve the instant problem a lost platform will bring. Sometimes I can plan for that eventuality. But I need to know where the vulnerabilities are in my own business and mitigate them as best as possible. Mitigation for me is having a back-up or a secondary plan. Mitigation for you might be something completely different. Just know how valuable the platforms you use are and if you can easily replace them, particularly in an emergency. Figure out what you would do if they disappear overnight.
  11. I am a writer first. Platforms and their time-saving convenience make it possible for me to continue writing, rather than building platforms of my own. Which is not to say that I won’t do things on my website or in ways that I control. But I like having the choice of doing them my way or using some platform. The choice, for me, always comes down to doing whatever gives me the most time to write.

As I wrote above, I agree with my Facebook friends in theory. I would love to have my own platforms for everything and be in control of each aspect of my business. But that’s not possible. Just like in the brick-and-mortar business world, I have to depend on architects and contractors to build the building, on suppliers to get me the furniture for the interior, on machines that will enable me to run credit cards, on banks to handle my accounts…and so on and so forth.

Platforms are part of our life. We just don’t call the brick-and-mortar ones by that label. We’re not used to all of the online platforms yet. We need to use them as best we can, with the knowledge that they will disappear over time.

Maybe something better will take their place. Or maybe they’re no longer useful in the current era. We don’t know right now. We’ll never know up front.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop exploring new tech or figuring out how to make these platforms work for our businesses.

We just need to know what the risks are and how we can handle them. And how many mistakes we’ll tolerate from a platform before we find something to replace it with.

That’ll vary for each of us. But it’s always something worth examining.

Assessing your platforms is something you should do routinely, just like you look at profits and loss, your cash flow, and your business organization. Make it part of your routine.

You’ll be glad you did.

*****

This weekly blog is reader supported.

If you feel like supporting the blog on an on-going basis, then please head to my Patreon page.

If you liked this post, and want to show your one-time appreciation, the place to do that is PayPal. If you go that route, please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.

Which I am going to say right now. Thank you!

Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynruschr4e to go to PayPal.

“Business Musings: Platforms,” copyright © 2023 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / TanyaRozhnovskaya

2 thoughts on “Business Musings: Platforms

  1. Thanks again for a great article Kris, with lots to think about in there. I am somewhere in between your friend and you in terms of computer ability probably. There are lots of things that I CAN do, but each one is a time commitment. If I ignore all the ecommerce and promotion stuff, and JUST talk about website blog posts and hosting, I have a personal site on steroids. While most bloggers out there die after 5 posts, I have been actively blogging for almost 20+ years, although early on it was more website pages and ezines.

    In recent years, I have revamped two of my websites multiple times. I have it in a structure that currently makes sense to me but I failed to diversify my risk. A disgruntled employee of the hosting company destroyed a bunch of server content, as well as backups for thousands of customers. Police were involved, it was a whole thing. But from a user perspective, it was like, OH NO! Because they were also my backup provider, and the hobbit who went nuts took out the backups too. Eventually, I got ALMOST everything back. And it served as a good catalyst for a significant redesign after a previous redesign was starting to show that it didn’t work the way I had hoped. Now I have a totally separate backup system for all my web content, two separate online backups for my home files (3 if you include in-house hard drives), and an online backup for all my photos. I **could** do a lot of that myself, but there are turnkey systems that are cheap that can do it for me with far less pain and hassle.

    Social media posting is the same, for me. I could do it all myself, but why bother, when I can have it post through an online app that manages scheduling for me, is available from anywhere with minimal login, and if I have to ditch the company, two clicks and I’m done, not impact on my website at all. If I want to switch to BrandNewDancingMonkey tomorrow, two clicks. It’s not bulletproof.

    Where my pain point is in your list is the rebuild. My website is critical to me, and having to rebuild it this last time was the tipping point. I can’t do any major redesigns anymore…there is just too much content to adapt now. I can play with aesthetics, but a major redesign? That might be beyond my psychological threshold. If I lose everything, yes, I might have to rebuild. But I might need some good therapy-quality drugs to stay off the ledge. I can’t imagine if multiple platforms crashed for you and Dean and you were sent back to the stone ages to rebuild. Even with people, that would seem beyond the pale. I feel like some of the victims of a natural disaster. You rebuild after teh first couple. But after a fourth or fifth, do you just think of moving or giving up? Or just starting over and ignore the detritus of the past?

    Paul

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *