Tuesday, June 17, 2008

An Interview with Stuart of Blotanical

Many of you will already know Blotanical - the social networking site dedicated to gardening and garden blogs. It's a site where I spend a lot of time, and which has not only increased the number of visitors to the Balcony Garden, but which has also put me in touch with a number of people who I now think of as "virtual friends". So I was really pleased when Stuart Robinson, who runs the site, agreed to do answer a few questions about how Blotanical started and is likely to develop. Well, OK - they were more than a few. So I'm even more grateful. Thanks Stuart!

How was Blotanical born? What gave you the idea ? Did you envisage it developing as it has from the beginning or has it taken you by surprise?

Blotanical was really an upgrade from the Garden Blog Directory that I set up last year. The reason for the extension was because I wanted to give garden bloggers a place where they could easily form a community based on their location and gardening style. But the main reason for Blotanical was to show off all the gardening posts that existed as timely as possible. I found that I was trying to keep up with hundreds of them via Bloglines but this wasn't a very efficient way of reading through feeds as some posts were weeks old by the time I got to them while others had only just been updated. It meant that I missed out on conversations that I would have enjoyed being a part of. So, the solution was to merge all the feeds and have them in a list that showed some semblance of timeliness.

Blotanical was around for a while before it really took off. I remember registering, but then forgetting all about it for a time. And then suddenly everyone was talking about it and participating. What was the tipping point, do you think?

Two things really. The first was when Susan did a review of Blotanical through GardenRant. The review was well recieved and we picked up a few new garden bloggers who seemed to desire the same things I did (ie. being part of a community rather than just blogging solo). The second tipping point was when some people started accusing Blotanical of being too competitive. While it was never my intention to make Blotanical a competitive site, there did need to be some way of rewarding those who participated more regularly. Some people took umbrage against this and while I thought it may have been our downfall instead it became one of finest moments. Many bloggers stood up for Blotanical and we came out better for it.

I know that outside Blotanical you have a “real” job and a family. You also run a couple of blogs. How much of your time do the sites take up? And how much time is left for gardening? :)

Gardening? What's that? Yer, I don't get a lot of time to get out into the garden but that is mostly due to our current winter. Spring should see me out there more often and sleeping far less than the 5 hours I enjoy now. How much time does the sites take up? Basically I spend 2- 3 nights per week on them plus blogging time from 6-7:30 every morning (except Sunday - I, and the family, need a break) plus Wednesday's get pretty much a full day. I work 4 days per week as a Business Manager at a local Private College.

There are been lots of technical teething problems with the site recently which you always seem to remedy very quickly. Do you have a technical background? Where does the software for the site come from? Do you write it yourself or use ready-made packages?

Unfortunately, yes. There have been some teething problems which have mainly been related to the Picks. Everybody wants theirs working and while we are fast approaching 1000 blogs this makes it difficult to satisfy everyone's desires. Do I have a technical background? I learnt some basic HTML at University but then taught myself PHP, CSS, MySQL, a little Javascript and am learning XML at an exponential rate. Most of the code I have written myself but if there has been other code that I can garner which works better then I will go that direction. Websnappr.com now looks after all the thumbnails that you see on the screen, Google Maps runs the mapping side, SimplePie looks after the Picks and the rest runs on PHP/MySQL.

Blotanical is a social networking site, and as such is fuelled by active member participation. But in the past it’s seemed to me that that sometimes leads to people feeling that they “own” the site and have the right to control the way it develops. Has that been a problem for you? How do you draw the very fine line between giving people what they want and staying in control?

Interesting question Sue. For whatever reason some bloggers do take it upon themselves to share their frustrations regarding Blotanical and it's not always helpful. I can understand the frustration and wish that everything always worked all the time. Alas, it seems that life here on the web imitates life in general - sometimes the power does go out. Keeping members happy is my main goal with Blotanical so I'm always keen to get constructive feedback and here suggestions as inevitably it will make the site far better. But in the end, I've come to realise that you can't please everybody and some people just can't be pleased.

At the moment, one of the nicest things about the site is that the number of active members is small enough that everyone feels they know each other. But the list of members is growing daily. Do you foresee a point where the number of people participating will change the personality of the site? What would be the advantages and dangers?

I would hate to see the MySpace mentality creep in where some people had lists of Faved members totally 10,000+. In reality, we can only cope with networks of friends in the tens and twenties so a limit of 100 should be sufficient. I would hope that these communities would grow on Blotanical and make every member feel connected. Gardeners in the Blotanical community should always be able to forge inclusive relationships despite the growth of the site. My goals are to find better ways to highlight these types of relationships within Blotanical.

You’re constantly adding features and improvements to Blotanical. What’s in the pipeline for the near future?

I can't reveal too much but the Forums are soon to be completed (they've gone on hold while the Picks problems were being sorted out), the Blotanicals our own Garden Blogger awards are set to explode on 1 September and the Reviews facility is already well under way.

And how would you like to see the site develop in the next 5 or 10 years? Will there come a point where you say "OK, that's it. From now on it just ticks over and I move on to something else" ? Could you see yourself getting burnt out and fed up with it?

I certainly hope not. I love creating this site and I see a huge future ahead for Blotanical and for those who hang around long enough to see it unfold. I would love to be doing this full-time and am planning ahead to see this happen.
Some people have intimated that Blotanical might just be like other startups where they sell for millions after 2 years. Even if I was offered this I wouldn't take it because I treasure this as my 'baby' and look forward to seeing it all grown up and doing well - and I think this will probablt take 5-10 years at least.

What's the nicest thing that anyone has ever said to you about the site, or the nicest thing that's ever happened?

I think the loveliest thing is seeing these wonderful bloggers who support the site even when their traffic has halved or more because of some problem that we're having. These are the bloggers that I want to hang around with because they're patient and understanding. I hope Blotanical gets more and more of these people come on board but I'm thankful for those who are already here. They make Blotanical the site that it will become.


Helen/patientgardener said...

Thanks Sue and Stuart - this was a fasinating read. I was under the impression that Blotanical had been around for a while and I was the last to come across it!! Thanks Stuart for all your hard work and patience

CanadianGardenJoy said...

Hey Sue ! & Stuart too !
This was a great idea .. I had no idea about the beginnings of Blotanical .. and all these points of interest .. I just took my blog for a drive into the site and parked it here , haha.
Thanks very much for letting more of us know a little of the history and future : )

Kerri said...

Great interview Sue! You asked some really good questions, and I was very interested to read Stuart's answers.
Excellent idea for a post!

Nancy J. Bond said...

Great questions, Sue! And well answered, Stuart. :)

Robin's Nesting Place said...

I enjoyed reading this! I'm very glad to know that Stuart is hanging in there and that he is in it for the long haul. Great job, Sue!

Jane O' said...

It was great learning more about Stuart. He's like a shadowy ghost, working mysteriously in our midst. I think we know him a little more now. Thanks, Sue.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Sue for your idea of doing this interview--interesting questions! and thanks Stuart for answering the questions. It's interesting to hear the story behind Blotanical. Like the other commenters, I really appreciate your work, Stuart, and how you make it a community-oriented site.

Linda aka Crafty Gardener said...

Great article to read. I have been a member since The Garden Blog Directory, and I have thoroughly enjoyed watching Blotanical evolve into the gardening network that it is today. Stuart does an amazing job with the site and I really appreciate all that he does.

Aiyana said...

Great interview and well conceived questions. These interviews are always interesting!

garden girl said...

Thanks for the enjoyable read! I love Blotanical and it's nice to learn more about the hard-working man it. I'm grateful to be a part of such a great community.

Anonymous said...

Blotanical is such a great place and I have met so many wonderful people, and learned so much as well! :)

Yolanda Elizabet Heuzen said...

Interesting interview, well done Sue. Not sure that I agree on that community thingy as I was already a part of the blogging community long before blotanical started. BTW blotanical is a very funny name when you're Dutch as the first part of the word means nekkid in Dutch. :-D

Sue Swift said...

Glad you all enjoyed the post and thanks to Stuart for doing it - not to mention for all the hard work he puts in to the site.
Yolanda Elizabet : the Naked Gardener - hmm now there's a name for a site that might pull in a few visitors ...

Barbee' said...

Sue, what a Clever idea!!! Great post!

Lisa said...

Thanks for the insightful interview, Sue, and thanks to Stuart for caring about collecting a place where a gardening community of bloggers can join together.

Remarkable that there are so many of us!

themanicgardener said...

This was a great idea, Sue--thanks for doing it, and doing it well.

Val said...

I've just found this post Sue as I was hunting on the net to see if there were any reasons that I couldn't access Blotanical at all let alone the picks! Been like that all day too. I'm getting withdrawal symptoms! :-) Great post though. I enjoyed reading it very much! Val

Diana Studer said...

I wish, I hope, that you might do a second interview. Once Blotanical Mark 2 is up and running again. Will you? You are a gifted and skilful interviewer. Hard hitting, interesting questions.

Diana Studer said...

Linked back to you today, while we are hanging in there until Blotanical is running smoothly again.

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