When I’m not focused on client work, I always have at least a few side projects in the works. In 2010, I created Design Kindle, a website dedicated to offering free web design resources. The project was recently acquired and I no longer run it, though I came away with many lessons learned.

Building an Audience

Most of my side projects are relatively simple websites for myself but creating a community around Design Kindle was a new challenge for me. Before launch, I tried generating hype with a teaser page that offered an iPad giveaway. The rules to enter were dead simple: follow the project on Twitter, spread the word with a tweet, and one random person will win. I received zero interest! In hindsight, I realize I didn’t provide enough information and left people wondering, “What’s the catch?”

Next, I contacted some of the top web design blogs and asked if they would help promote Design Kindle in exchange for a free month of advertising once the project went live. Understandably, no one agreed because they weren’t comfortable vouching for a site that hadn’t fully launched yet.

Desperate to create some buzz, I purchased a $350 ad space on one of BuySellAds’ top performing design sites. Maybe I expected too much but I was severely disappointed with the 0.10% click through rate and, again, Design Kindle had gained no real interest. I should also mention that I had already gone through the process of manually submitting Design Kindle to StumbleUpon, Reddit, CSS galleries, and many other social outlets.

Eventually, something really cool happened: fellow web designers stepped in to help. Drew Wilson and Liam McKay both agreed to contribute free icon sets to the Design Kindle giveaway and they also helped get the message out. I remember Liam mentioning me on Twitter and I was gaining something like 20 new followers every minute for most of that evening. Rounding out the giveaway, Obox contributed a free WordPress theme. I can’t thank these guys enough for their generosity and for providing that initial boost that Design Kindle needed.

Creating and Maintaining the Project

I chose WordPress as the CMS, built a custom theme, and used the Download Monitor plugin to handle file delivery. Andrew Knapp, one of my favorite designers to work with, lent a hand with the design. I had also hired Nick Visser to draw a beautiful mountain scene, though this was later scrapped in favor of a simpler website design.

At the time, 365psd and Designmoo were similar sites offering free files on a regular basis. Shortly after finishing Design Kindle, Premium Pixels launched as well and Orman did a fantastic job with it. He wisely used his freebie site to drive more traffic to his premium WordPress themes, which is something I wish I had done.

Originally, I intended to create all of the free design resources myself but that quickly became impossible with the limited income from the site (details below). I turned to Dribbble, where many designers had started offering free files to gain attention and that basically allowed me to put Design Kindle in auto-pilot.

Traffic and Income

At its height, Design Kindle was receiving 250k page views and $500 per month. Not earth-shattering but when you’re self-employed, any passive income on the side is helpful. That being said, it wasn’t feasible for me to invest a lot of time on Design Kindle and still be able to pay my bills. My interest in maintaining the site steadily dropped, as did the traffic and income. Overall, I made around $9,000 in ad revenue but invested a signifiant amount of time to earn that.

Recognizing that CSS3 was quickly replacing PSDs and wanting to move on to other side projects, I let the site go to Webdesigner Depot for $2,000. They’ve since rebranded Design Kindle to “Design Freebies” and continue to run it today.

Lessons Learned

Don’t put the cart before the horse. I tried so hard to create a community around the site before I even had content to give away, which is completely backwards. A better route would have been to focus on creating amazing content and letting that drive the community interest.

Me versus We. To be clear: I maintained every part of the project myself. The mistake I made was presenting the site as if it were run by many contributors. For example, I always said “we” rather than “I” when updating social media. This detracted from the personal connection visitors had with the site and hid the fact that I was putting in a lot of my own time to keep it running.

Those who contribute the least complain the most. I sincerely wanted Design Kindle to be a valuable resource for designers. The web community has an amazing willingness to share knowledge and this was my way of returning the favor. Unfortunately, I found that freebie sites generate little sense of community — the majority of visitors grabbed the goods and ran. I was also constantly answering support related questions but whenever I asked for a retweet on Twitter, there were only crickets.

Free = crap. The other major issue with offering something for free is you remove all value, regardless of how good it actually is. People are more interested in that which is difficult to get. A perfect example is the Mailbox app that was released about a year ago. Quite brilliantly, they added a waiting list to the download and I remember checking my phone constantly to see what position in the queue I was. The app felt exclusive, out of reach, and therefore I wanted it. Conversely, when you give something away for free that anyone can have, no one wants it.

Lastly, if I had to do it all again, I would focus on creating design tools rather than finished files. For example, a set of Photoshop brushes, textures, patterns, or similar assets would be far more useful. The problem with handing out completed designs is 1) they’re very specific and 2) most people will download and plug them straight into their projects without actually learning anything.