GURU INTERVIEW: WILLIAM HANN, OF FREEPINT
William Hann, BSc MIInfSc, Managing Editor, Free Pint http://www.freepint.co.uk/, ("Helping 27,000 people use the Web for their work").
Marylaine: My big question for you is about the history of Free Pint. What had you been doing before the Net came along?
William: My background has always been in online information and so when the Web came along in '93 I guess it was a natural fit. I have a degree in information science and have previously worked for a number of online providers (FT Profile, DIALOG (then Knight-Ridder) and News International). I performed a number of different roles, but the key was that I was always close to the customers (in service development, training and support). It was thus that in 1996 I decided to set up a professional Internet consultancy, using my online information background as a base.
Marylaine: How did you decide to do this, how did you get the backing to do it?
William: Through my company, Willco Limited -- so named because of its positive undertones ("Roger Willco") and based on my name -- I provided a range of Internet services, including Web training and consultancy (site creation, hosting, domain registration). Again, I worked closely with end users of the Web, especially in large organisations such as the UK Government's Department of Trade and Industry to which I presented over 100 training courses.
Marylaine: What was your original concept for Free Pint?
William: In 1997 I came up with the idea of providing a twice monthly newsletter, written by information professionals, with tips on using the Web more effectively at work. It would include Web site reviews, as well as covering subject topics in-depth. The name "Free Pint" was a flash of inspiration whilst sitting in a deckchair in a park next to the river Thames between meetings. The word "pint" came as an anagram of the first letters from various words which described what the newsletter would be about: "people", "interested", "Net", "New", "Technology", and so on. I immediately used my mobile phone to verify the availability of the domain name and purchased all variants. It's one of those moments when you just know something is right.
The name is important, although it was originally designed to appeal to a UK audience. The concept that "there's no such thing as a free lunch … or pint" was a good one to play on, and whether people loved the name or hated it, it didn't matter as long as they remembered it.
I'm fairly technically literate which was a great help when it came to setting up the Web site and newsletter distribution. I think if you're going to work for yourself or run a small business then you've got to be a Jack (or Jill) of all trades, and that includes computers. The site was built slowly, bit by bit, and I would be very daunted at having to start over again now since the site has over 2,000 pages. The advice I was given at the time was "Don't plan too much, and just do it". If you worry about the task too much and daunt yourself with the enormity of the task then you'll never even start.
Marylaine: Are you able to do it full-time now, or do you still have to keep a day job?
William: Having effectively been running three businesses for three years - training, consultancy and publishing - I spent a lot of time last summer giving some serious thought to what I would concentrate on. Although all parts of the business were going extremely well, it was Free Pint which stood out as having the most potential for the future. Therefore it was a difficult decision to take, but in November 1999 I closed Willco to concentrate solely on Free Pint Limited as a separate company.
Marylaine: How, if at all, did the original concept change in response to what other people were doing and in response to your readers?
William: Ever since the first issue, whenever people subscribe to the newsletter we always ask them some details about themselves (location, occupation and how they heard about us). I found this invaluable information as the subscriber base grew rapidly by 10,000 a year. We increasingly attracted more and more business end users and I also always make a big thing about asking readers for feedback and soliciting their comments.
It was through this feedback that we've been continually enhancing the existing site and are working on some exciting new services. As well as the newsletter, we now have the bookshelf, the Bar (including the email Digest), industry newsfeeds, with events listings coming shortly.
The Free Pint team now consists of five very committed members, but of course this all costs money. I've always been proud that Free Pint has been self-financing through advertising from day one. However, we have some really exciting new ideas and so we're currently talking to venture capitalists about investing in the company.
Marylaine: Tell me about the Free Pint "Bar"; who visits? Are there regulars? Cliques? Quarrels? Do some subjects routinely arouse passionate debate, and if so what?
William: You're right in identifying this as the most fun part of the Web site, and its popularity has really surprised us. The idea of a virtual bar seems to have struck a chord, although we've been lucky to have avoided any brawls as yet.
It's hard work to maintain interest in an online forum, and you do have to have a certain audience size to make it feasible. We always review the latest two weeks postings in the newsletter, and there's also the Digest of the latest messages which is sent by email every other working day.
The range of topics has been phenomenal, ranging from concerns about search engine promotion, to finding Peruvian music Web sites. The most popular request recently was for Web sites with song lyrics, whilst the debate still rages as to whether the new millennium has indeed begun.
Marylaine: How do you, as Web site author, benefit from having this as part of your site?
William: As you may have guessed, I'm a strong believer in finding out what people think … and what better way than to get them interacting online. Indeed, this has helped to build a strong sense of community with Free Pint, and gives us a valuable insight into what our members want.
For me personally, the whole project has raised my profile substantially, and this is a good enough reason to work hard at maintaining a quality offering. My reputation is at stake, and this an effective motivational force.
Marylaine: As you know, the question I ask everybody is, how do you stay current?
William: I am privileged being a publisher in that I get early access to the content which will run in our newsletter, and have of proof-read and approved all the material. Like most people, I get many email newsletters and bulletins, and especially enjoy Danny Sullivan's Search Engine Watch http://www.searchenginewatch.com/.
My favourite magazine is Business 2.0 http://www.business2.com/. It's quite expensive to buy here in the UK, but if you subscribe directly from the States then it's very reasonable. It's packed full of great articles, and has given me many ideas and much encouragement.
Many people tell me they're too busy to read newsletters and magazines. However I strongly believe that in a fast moving industry like the Internet you can learn an awful lot from these sources, and quickly become very knowledgeable. This background can then lead to many exciting new challenges, like those I've enjoyed over the last few years working for myself.
Marylaine: Thanks so much for your time, Will. It's been enlightening.
The Steve Coffman article, as you might guess, generated some interesting feedback.
A young boy in Harlem was sitting at a computer in a library, clearly loving the experience. When asked why, he said of the computer, "It doesn't know I'm black."
Roger Rosenblatt, in "A Letter to the Year 2100," Time, January 1, 2000.
You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of my own articles (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:
Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.