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Handling 5000% Forum Growth: Interview with Kirk Stenvall of TalkAboutTennis

After growing 5000% in the first year, Kirk Stenvall of TalkAboutTennis.com discusses the unforeseen challenges with needing to switch to a new ISP as well as the leverage points of growth for both his forum and website.. Enjoy.

1. If you were in an elevator and had to describe the talk about tennis forum to a stranger before reaching your floor, what would you say?

TalkAboutTennis (TAT) is focused on discussion first and tennis second. We’re a group of tennis fans who also enjoy discussing every day topics like politics, current events, religion, science, the whole gambit. But the one thing we all have in common is a love of tennis.

2. Your forum is in an extremely competitive space, why do you think it has resonated so much with people?

That’s easy to answer. We insist on members respecting other members. We actively moderate threads and posts and don’t tolerate personal attacks. Too many sports themed forums don’t seem to have moderators and the trolls run rampant. We simply don’t allow that and our members know it. Many have told me that’s why TAT is their online home. They know they’re safe there.

3. The “Dropout Rate” (quitting while trying to build a site) is extremely high with new forums because it’s not easy to gain traction within a new community, how did you do it? And how long did it take to generate traction?

This is also easy to answer. Early on one of our members invented an intriguing contest for us all to play during major tennis tournaments. A well read tennis writer from Sports Illustrated heard about this contest and began posting about it in his column on SI.com. Even today, 10 years later, prior to this contest being played, each of four times per year, we receive a link from his online page. We were lucky. We had a well-read advocate. Plain and simple.

4. Now having many members, can you describe the moment when you knew that the forum was going to be a success?

LOL. After the first link was published to our contest on SI.com.

5. At what point in time does a forum administrator need to bring in (or appoint) moderators? Is that something new forum owners should worry about when launching?

I guess it depends on what kind of atmosphere the administrator wants on his forum and what kind of members he wants to attract. If the admin has specific forum rules that need to be enforced he/she will need moderators sooner rather than later. Having said that, however, the admin has to know that he can trust those he gives moderator permissions to. So rather than making moderators out of newer members whom you really don’t know very well, I would suggest doing the moderating yourself until you’ve had enough time to get to know some members and feel comfortable with them before making them mods.

6. What sort of technical problems (if any) did you endure along the way that you didn’t expect?

When I launched TAT back in 2004 I brought with me several (literally 4 or 5) members from another forum. We began on a small local ISP. I was paying $9.95 per month for a hosting account. We literally grew by 5000% in the first year, and it wasn’t long before that small ISP was unable to handle the traffic. I didn’t have a clue how many pitfalls there were when switching ISPs. When we moved from that hosting account to a VPS I didn’t understand what a change in IP addresses would do to my members. It took several days for our new IP address to propagate throughout the internet and I nearly lost a lot of members because one day they could no longer reach the forum. We moved twice since then. We went from the VPS to a dedicated server, then earlier this year to a more powerful dedicated server. I was ready for the move to a dedicated server and I gave my members plenty of notice and information on what to expect. I also gave them the IP address to use while the propagation took place. I’ve also learned, the hard way, to test test test all software upgrades on a local server before committing anything to my live site.

7. What advice (practical or conceptual) would you give to someone who wanted to start their own forum?

Again, we were lucky with TAT. But I’m getting ready to start another sports community and I’m going to follow the same advice I would give anyone… be patient, persistent, and be ready to work 24/7. If you think you’re going to start gaining hundreds of members as soon as you register your domain name, save your time and take up gardening instead.

Also, do some research and find the best form of promotion you can for your niche. For instance, if your potential future members are active on Twitter – say for instance you want to start a political forum – create a Twitter account using your domain name as a handle and begin tweeting about politics. Be generalized in your tweets. Don’t take one side or the other, but rather tweet about current political events. In other words, stay neutral. Unless you want to attract a specific ideology (which I would say already cuts your potential membership in half, so don’t do that). Once you have a following, announce your forum to your followers. Write blog posts on your forum and link to them from your Twitter account.

If you plan on having paid-for “premium” accounts in the future, offer new members life-time premium membership for a period of time.

Possibly most important, research your particular niche. If the internet is already saturated with the forum focus you’re interested in, maybe think twice about trying to break into that market. Find something related that’s not already widely available.

8. Final thoughts? Advice?

Starting my little tennis forum almost 11 years ago has been very rewarding. I’ve learned more about a sport I love from others who also love the sport. I’ve made friends that I know will be friends for life. I’ve learned the ins and outs of running a server, updating scripts and modifying the software I use. I’ve learned different ways to interact with people. But most of all I’ve had fun. Whenever I promote a regular member to a staff position I always tell them the same thing: Have fun. You have to have fun. If you’re not having fun tell me and we’ll figure out how to fix that.

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