In early March of 2020 my company asked staff to work from home because of the spread of Coronavirus.

At first, the change from a traditional office setting to remote work was jarring: my very small New York City apartment didn’t enable a comfortable work area in which to write, code, or perform proactive tasks.

Over time I did my best to adjust and, like many of my colleagues, spent time searching for ways to adapt to new routines.

Make the most of the situation, I frequently reminded myself.

Given the prevalence of coronavirus New York, I knew I would be indoors for months on end. This led me to an idea: I challenged myself to learn a new skill. I thought that learning something challenging and different would be enjoyable and a much needed and reliable distraction.

I spent time reflecting on what I wanted to learn. I then conducted research and came up with a short list of skills I thought I could develop during quarantine that met the following criteria:

  1. Learning the skill should be fun
  2. Once acquired, I should be able to use the skill more broadly in my life
  3. The skill should help me build something useful or of value to others
  4. And lastly, I should learn the skill through self-learning online.

Given these guideposts, and my circle of competence, I created a list of things I would be interested in diving deeper into.

My initial list included:

  • learning to play the guitar,
  • becoming a reasonably competent amatuer chef capable of making a diverse array of nutritious meals,
  • improving upon my very rusty Mandarin skills acquired while studying abroad in China,
  • building a website - more or less from scratch - to help people, like me, working from home.

After consulting with friends and reviewing various online tutorials, I chose to build my first website. Instantly, I was hooked.

I have learned so much along the way and want to now share some of these core lessons with you.

My story is not yet complete as the site that I developed is still growing and I am learning more by the week.

There are many resources online on how to build a website or monetize a blog. This post is not that.

I want to focus on a few higher level topics that I became aware of - and that you should know - before diving deep into a website project of your own.

Insight #1: When building a website, build around a topic you are passionate about

When I started building, I was essentially building an online resource that helped me solve a series of problems that I was acutely aware of.

Even if traffic was minimal, my thinking went, the site would still be useful for me and a few colleagues struggling with basic questions like:

  • How to negotiate new benefits and perks while working remotely?
  • How to best set up a home office on a budget?
  • Ways to mitigate stress or maintain a comfortable posture when working in a bedroom?

I found the process of creating content for the site deeply rewarding.

Not only was it fun to write on these topics, but I got to learn more about what people cared about and what challenges they were facing in home office environments.

I did qualitative research and called friends and spoke with them about how they were handling remote work. I did quantitative research and looked at search query trends to better understand what people were searching for online.

This process was laborious. Nights and weekends became dedicated to learning more about the work from home space. I translated these learnings into content that I would then share with important people (friends, family, peers) in my life. These people, in turn, shared my site with others.

Getting e-mails and messages from friends of friends or former colleagues about how my blogs helped them successfully work from home accelerated my interest in building more resources, guides, and content that could help these readers.

So if you want to build a website, make sure to start a site in a vertical you care about. Take time to understand what you are building, and why, and ensure your digital fingerprints are across it in detail: take ownership of what the site says, how it looks, and whom it helps.

The flywheel starts with passion. The list of possible niches is infinite. For me it is the work from home space.

Insight #2: Speed matters, so move quickly

The first version of the website looked so-so at best. It would be generous to call it a glorified landing page with a few links. The website was missing features and functionality I knew I wanted to include but that I couldn’t complete upon launch.

Some of the content that I wrote needed edits, but I placed these blogs on the site anyway. A few of my links, unfortunately, led to 404 errors.

Why am I candidly sharing the shortcomings of the site at launch?

Because I believe that speed to market matters if you have an obsession with helping users.

Showing a bias towards action and insisting on high standards are not mutually exclusive concepts. You should have a vision for a site and launch it when it's not yet complete knowing that future improvements will yield better results.

From the website's launch in March 2020 until August 2020, I performed roughly 1,000 edits, improvements, and fixes. Had I waited five months to get everything “right” tens of thousands of people would not have gotten their questions answered or learned about strategies to work from home successfully.

The flywheel needs initial momentum to get moving.

Insight #3: Earn the trust of users

My final key learning is that users need to trust a website (and the site’s authors) in order to spend time on its pages and absorb the site’s content.

When users first came to my site, I noticed high bounce rates. Given how empty the site was, this was not surprising.

But after ample work and site improvements, people actually spent more time looking at the guides I wrote and the resources I cultivated. My attention to detail increased as the titles of my pieces became indexed on Google.

I found the experience of earning user trust deeply rewarding. I reviewed three metrics weekly: how much time was spent on each page, website abandonment rates, and bounce rates.

As I made general and specific website improvements, these operational metrics improved. I replaced large image files with smaller ones to reduce latency and load times. I optimized the site for speed.

I became obsessed not with how many people visited the site but the amount of time they spent there. I used time on site as a proxy for how useful and helpful my content was. As my visitors demonstrated to me that their experiences were getting better, I knew I was headed in the right direction.

The flywheel needs trust to turn.

Wrapping up

Spending long periods of time in quarantine gave me time to develop a newfound skill, website development. This skill has unlocked a new passion (helping people working from home) in a newly emerging vertical (remote work).

A world where people are educated about how to work successfully from home is a world I want to live in - and one that I am on an ongoing mission to create.