After months of thinking it through, a vision of a website dedicated to all things about MP3s was taking a shape. The idea was to build a website that would combine all aspects of the trendy new technology under one umbrella: news about the tech, guides on how to use the tech, software downloads to help to follow the guides provided and a place for indie artists to publish their songs, in MP3 format, for free.
Drafting the plans, the realism hit hard. Building - and maintaining - such a site on my own seemed like an impossible task. The thinking was, that once the novelty of the project would wane, the project would be left to die, if running the site on my own. Furthermore, back in those days, there weren't open source CMS systems, free picture galleries, WordPress themes to pick from or anything like that. Nope, you had to build the entire site from the scratch, on your own, including all its backend systems, design, etc. And yeah, hosting, even a medium-sized website would cost something like $100 a month back then. I was in my 20s and quite poor, to be honest.
So, I decided to gather a team of people who'd share my vision. Contacting my friends, telling them about my idea, polishing the idea, finetuning it. Eventually, I had a team of 8 people put together, including myself, to start the project. We'd spend the spring of 1999 having IRC meetings (the original chat service of the Internet..), developing the site, putting bits and pieces together. At some point, we had a yet another IRC meeting, this time about the name of the project. I had asked all participants to suggest handful of names before the meeting - and we'd vote for the best one. After few rounds of voting, we settled with the name After Dawn (the current form, written together as AfterDawn took shape about a year later). And no, unfortunately there's no chatlog saved anywhere from that particular meeting, so nobody remembers the other candidates we had for the name.
Just few weeks before launching the site, one of our team of 8 had to drop out of the project, as his employer at the time didn't allow him to participate with it.
And here we go...
In 10th of June, 1999 we decided that the project is now "ready enough" to be launched. So, we launched the site officially and told the URL of the site to handful of our friends and asked them to check it out.
On that glorious day, we had a whopping number of appx. 10 visitors on our site.
AfterDawn in 1999
As mentioned before, the idea was to launch a website dedicated to MP3 technology. We did as we planned to and published news about the tech, guides on how to rip CDs, how to encode MP3s and offered related software downloads. We also offered an MP3 hosting service for indie bands, who wanted to share their music for free with web audience.
Quite soon, in year 2000, we moved our indie band hosting service to its own domain. It operated there until the spring of 2019, when we finally decided to pull the plug. More reasons about the decision can be read from the linked news article.
One of the services we also offered back those days was a download service for WinAMP "skins". WinAMP was the de facto, most popular music player software in the world back then. Skins were a way to customize what the player looked like. And man, there was a massive amount of those available. Our WinAMP skin download section had thousands of skins available and hundreds of thousands of skins were downloaded during those early years. We had even our own official WinAMP skins back then.
We had assumed that freely distributed WinAMP skins were also free to be distributed by us. We thought wrong! A handful of artists who had created those skins (remember, they couldn't be bought, they were free) contacted us and demanded to remove their creations. As handling of those requests was bit painful, we decided to quit the business altogether and shut down our skin selection back in 2002.
Even though we decided to build a site dedicated to "all things MP3", we started to cover DVD business, too. And specially the DVD ripping hobby that was developing rapidly when our site launched back in 1999. We covered the DVD ripping the same way we did cover MP3s - we provided news, software downloads and guides. By the year 2000, DVD ripping and all things related had become by far the biggest traffic source for our site. During those early years, we quickly positioned ourselves as one of the largest digital video tech sites in the world.
Yet another important aspect in our site's history was the history of the P2P technology. When our site launched, the music industry's war against the notorious Napster was boiling over. We covered the entire court saga and its subsequent events in depth back then.
MP3s, digital video and P2P. That was our unholy trinity. We wrote tons of guides for those topics. We hosted hundreds of software tools to help out our users when using those technologies. We covered all of those technologies with our news and newsletters.
And we grew. A lot. But the site was still just a hobby for us. It didn't even pay for its own hosting back in early 2000, but we had to use our credit cards to cover the bills. As we were approaching our site's first birthday, it seemed that we could turn our hobby into a real business soon. But then the dot-com bubble burst and - boom - suddenly the ad rates collapsed as much as 99 percent, virtually overnight. So, we had already hoped that we could turn our site into a real business - and now that goal needed us to grow our site hundred times bigger than what it currently was.
We didn't give up. But once again, we had to use our own money to cover the hosting fees. Hosting fees that were growing all the time, as the site became more and more popular. And nope, nobody had been paid by then, ever, not even a penny. We still hadn't even set up a company to run the site, but it was simply a project.
It was back then that we had to ask for help from our users, the only time during these years. We asked for help - and got help. Not much, but enough to cover some of our hosting fees during those hard times.
During our early years, we also collaborated with various other sites, with variety of ways. The deepest collaboration was with another Finnish tech website called CD-RW.ORG, with whom we merged our technical resources back in 2002.
We also changed our site's design quite often back then. AfterDawn v2.0 was launched in September, 2000. The redesign was kind of a step back from our original design. Our original design was praised for its looks by many, but at the same time, it was extremely heavy (compared to most other sites back then - and people's landline connections..). So, v2.0 design was extremely simplified, but also very, very fast.
After we had survived the worst of the dot-com bubble burst, it seemed that we were about to reach some level of profitability some time in 2006 or so. So, still many years to go. But then we got lucky. Extremely lucky.
We happened to write a short news article about an upcoming commercial DVD ripping software called DVD X Copy from a company called 321 Studios. Somehow, this particular article "went viral" as we nowadays call it. Remember, back then, there was no social media as we know it today. But the link was passed from person to person and it just caused an avalanche of traffic. Thousands of people read the article and suddenly, hundreds of people were asking questions about the software in our news article comments. People asking when they can buy the software, asking how it works, etc. And 321 Studios' employees started replying to those people - again, within the news commentary of that article.
Shortly we realized that there's something interesting happening right there and decided to contact the 321 Studios directly. We chat for couple of days and then agreed that AfterDawn would launch a dedicated support forum for DVD X Copy, completely separate from our other site. In exchange, they provided us a huge advertising deal. Our only rule for accepting the deal was that the deal wouldn't affect our news output or our journalistic integrity - we could still write news about other similar products and also to bash 321 Studios products when necessary.
DVD X Copy support forum
With help of that advertising contract, our site was finally profitable and we could set up a real company to operate the site.
Setting up a company
Partly due the 321 Studios deal and partly due steadily increasing traffic, we were confident enough that setting up a "real" company to run our site is the right decision. In spring 2003, we gathered to a physical meeting room in Finland to form a LLC company, called AfterDawn Oy. This was also the very first time when all seven founders met each others in person - as said, we had built and operated the site for more than 4 years by using IRC and other similar methods as our form of communication.
So, it was a time to finally form the company - but also a time for co-founders to finally meet and greet.
Just to ensure that the company was properly founded, we spent 3 days - and tons of alcohol - doing so. Just to be sure.
EUCD and new direction
In year 2004 it was becoming clear that our core content, guides and software related to DVD ripping, were about to get targeted by the upcoming European Union Copyright Directive aka EUCD.
And it happened, just as we feared. Finland, our company's home country, adopted the EUCD at the beginning of year 2006 and we had to remove massive amount of content from our site. Tens of software downloads, huge pile of guides and massive amount of discussion forum topics had to be removed due the new legislation. There are rumors about some smart user of ours backing up all of the removed contents to a single torrent file. And another rumor tells me that the very same torrent is still alive and kicking, somewhere in the depths of the Internet.
That moment also meant that we had to find a new direction for our company, now that the biggest growth driver had vanished from our site. One of the key changes was the decision to extend our software download section to include variety of non-a/v related downloads, too. Since then, our software section has grown to contain thousands and thousands of titles from a wide variety of software categories.
It also meant that our content became more "all about technology" than previously. We started covering variety of tech topics, including copyright legislation changes (duh!), rise of the online streaming services, consoles and more.
We also launched our site's third design, dubbed as AfterDawn v3.0 in year 2006. We're actually using that very same design with our admin pages, even today.
The only time we bought another site
Back in 2007, we realized that phones were getting more and more complex and that users weren't exactly certain of what to choose when they were shopping for a new phone. We had launched a product spec comparison service in our Finnish AfterDawn version a year earlier and bumped into a service in Finland that did similar spec comparisons for phones. As the site's concept and feel looked familiar, we started talking with the owners.
After few weeks of chats, we decided to acquire their site. Thus, our first and (so far) only business acquisition had happened. We bought a phone spec comparison service called Puhelinvertailu.com and merged its comparison services with AfterDawn.
A bit later, we decided to convert the recently-bought site as our "news about mobile" site - a decision that has proved to be a smart one, as Puhelinvertailu is nowadays one of the largest tech sites covering Android, iPhone, etc news in Finland.
Life as a "all about tech" website
From those years on, we started transforming our site as the go-to destination for all things digital, expanding our coverage to PC tech, streaming services, phone technologies and more. Many, many things happened during those hectic years. We even published our articles in a physical newspaper, with a collaboration of a local weekly newspaper here in our home town. We also published our own Finnish language podcast from 2012 to 2014 - years before the current podcast boom.
But for all those years, we had stayed within our existing two language regions: we started AfterDawn as a service that operates in English and in Finnish. But in 2011, we bumped into a small Dutch blog that resembled our site quite a lot. After contacting the owner and rounds of talks, he agreed to launch his existing site as AfterDawn Nederlands, adding third language to our selection.
In 2009, we launched our current site design, dubbed as AfterDawn v4.0. The very same that we still use, ten years later. And yes, we've been planning to launch a new design for years now, but there are reasons why it hasn't happened yet...
Tom's Hardware - Lets take over the world!
We had done business with a French media company called BestOfMedia in the past and had had good relations with them for years then. One day, they contacted us and asked if we'd be interested to start operating their iconic Tom's Hardware brand under a license in Nordic countries. They had just recently failed in Sweden with a previous licensor and wanted to get someone to run their business there.
As things were doing great in all of our three language areas, we were curious about the opportunity. Scared, yes, as we didn't have any knowledge of the net business in other Nordic countries: Sweden, Norway and Denmark (Iceland was considered too small market for anyone to launch a site there). But we were eager to try, so we signed a licensing contract for all Nordic countries, including Finland, with BestOfMedia to launch localized versions of Tom's Hardware in each of those countries.
As expected, it was a struggle to get started, but we eventually found the right team to move forward with and launched our Danish site in August, 2011 - and in Norway few weeks later.
Problems arise: Tom's Hardware
Looking back, it is easy to say that year 2012 was our first difficult year for more than a decade - even the EUCD didn't stop our growth, but in 2012, black clouds emerged. Many thing went wrong that year, but most importantly, we lost our focus. We had a small team and we were trying to do many things at the same time, losing focus on things while doing so. Our plan to launch Tom's Hardware in Sweden never materialized - we didn't find the team needed to pull it off and also, after analyzing the Swedish market, decided that there's simply no room for a new PC tech site there.
In Norway, we had major problems with our recruits. Many people we hired, stayed with us for only a few months, after deciding that tech journalism wasn't their cup of tea, after all. Eventually, the story of Tom's Hardware in Norway was a very short lived one and ended without much of a fanfare.
In Denmark, things went seemingly fine. We had an excellent team there who had the right entrepreneurial spirit to pull it off. We got an audience, our articles were praised and loved there. But it seemed that we always missed the one extra step there, something that would boost the traffic to the levels needed. We never got there, we never managed to make our Danish operations profitable. Instead, our tour in Denmark eventually drained our small company's cash reserves and we had to pull the plug before the Danish operations would sink the entire AfterDawn. We called it quits in January 2014.
Sh*t hits the fan - from many different directions
For all these 20 years, we have been a site that kept its content free for our users and one that has made its money through advertising. To make money from advertising online, you need to have a certain amount of eyeballs to look at the ads and proper ad sales contracts in place.
Sometime in 2013/2014 many things in both of those areas went wrong. Ad blocking became extremely popular, specially among those tech-savvy users that are our core audience. I personally blame YouTube for this - their annoying pre-roll ads seem to be the main reason why the Average Joe installs an ad blocker. And once you install an ad blocker, by default, they block all the ads, from all the sites, including ours - even when you installed it just to get rid of the Youtube ads..
Furthermore, our core knowledge - audio and video - had become "too easy". There was no need for guides or guidance anymore. Mobile phones were the thing - and we weren't catering to that need. And no, our site wasn't (and still isn't) responsive, so using our site with a phone isn't an optimal experience, not even today (sure, our mobile version exists, but it wont allow stuff like news commenting). Also, the way ads were sold was changing - and that was hurting medium-sized sites, like ours, who had decent number of visitors, but not massive number of pageviews.
And while all this was happening, we had too many things going on that we were focusing on - and we simply didn't pay enough attention to changes that were happening around us. All this put together meant that our house of cards was about to collapse - and hard.
Once that situation truly hit, sometime in early 2014, we realized that we had spent our cash reserves on failed world domination plans while ignoring the changes in our core business. We were heading to a bankruptcy. From there on, we had to make hard decisions. The hardest we had ever made. We had to lay off people. Good people. People who had shared our passion and who had become our friends. We had to cut back on our development plans (yup, still with the same design..). It was all about survival from there on.
Since 2014, AfterDawn has been in verge of collapsing a couple of times. We have managed to pull it out of the water and nowadays, 5 years later, we're on somewhat solid ground. Still not in good shape, but getting there.
Many turns in journey
Our story is a long one and it has many turns, u-turns and twists. I've left many of those out of this story, just to keep it somewhat readable. But yeah, stuff like our English-language gaming site, our Finnish price comparison service, our Q/A sites, many twists of our software section, our 1999 WAP site (that gathered praise even back then - and even made its way to a book!), our AvantGo site and how its monetization turned out to be problematic, our Android apps, our HIGH.FI news aggregator, hundreds of drafts and plans that haven't materialized (yet), stories from our discussion forums and how it has evolved during these years, etc...
There are tons of stories still left to be told, but let's get back to those when I write our 30th birthday article :-)
Next 20 years
We have managed to keep an online company alive and independent for 20 years now. We have survived three major crisis during these years and are still alive and kicking. I think our skin has gotten so thick - and that we have learned how to adapt - that we will have the chance to write our 40th birthday article, too.
We, seven guys, started this project as hobby 20 years ago. We are probably one of the very few independent news sites still alive and kicking, after 20 years, with the same ownership base.
We, the founders of AfterDawn, have changed, obviously. We were those enthusiastic twenty-something kids when we started this website of ours. Now, we're middle-aged men in our 40s. Some of us have mortgage, some of us have family, some of us have both. I'm the only one left of the original founders who is still actively working for AfterDawn, acting as its CEO, like I have, for all these years. Our other founders have moved on to other jobs, other careers. But all of us still share the same passion about our site - and the proudness for this baby of ours, the site that we managed to build and maintain for all these years.
During these years, we have managed to find and hire extremely talented people to our team. People who have shared our passion with this job and with this site. Some of them have stayed with us for more than a decade now. But yes, many people have also left us, to do other things, pursuit other careers. But we have always separated in good terms with everyone - we want everyone who has ever worked for us, to feel like they've been part of something special: a group of people who shared the same passion. And yes, many of those people who have worked for us, feel like friends, after all these years.
We have always tried to listen to our users, try to understand what they want, what is their passion and what they want us to write about. And I think the fact that we have listened to our audience has helped us to transform when needed, to stay relevant, even after all these years. And that is exactly what we plan to do for the next 20 years, too.
I would like to thank those six friends of mine who have been owning and running AfterDawn for all these years with me. Thank you Hannu, Janne, Jari, Juhani, Tapio and Teemu. And special thanks goes to Tommi, wherever he now is. He is the "eight guy", the guy who didn't get permission from his employer to join our project. Despite this, he always supported our project and always remembered to cheer us up, when needed. RIP, my friend.
And of course, thanks must go to our family members and our friends. They have had to listen our ramblings about AfterDawn for more than two decades now. They have had to put up with us staying up late in our early years, building the site after the "real work" has finished for the day. This was - and is - a hobby that totally got out of hand. In a good way.
And finally, I want to thank you guys who have been with us during these years. Whether you have been our employee, our moderator, our ally, our user or just our random news reader that visits the site every two years: Thank you! Without you guys, this site wouldn't exist.
-Petteri Pyyny, CEO
Written by: Petteri Pyyny @ 10 Jun 2019 8:53