Twenty Fourteen

December 31, 2014 / Personal

I’m Sam Solomon. You likely know me from the longform interviews I do with designers, writers and entrepreneurs. By day I manage digital projects for casinos and by night I design, write and tinker.

Part of doing a year in review is for accountability. If I’ve written something down as a goal, it adds pressure to meet it. The other half of this is for you. Perhaps there is a mistake I made, or a flash of brilliance I had that you can apply to your own projects.

This year I did 12 interviews, wrote six posts (including this one), worked on five projects, was promoted and started a newsletter at work.

2014 Project Review

Signal Tower has been at the core of my side projects for two years now. The site where I interview entrepreneurs, designers and the like underwent a major redesign in 2014. I won’t harp on the intricacies of the redesign, as I’ve written about it before; however, I will share some details about the year and what might be in store for 2015.

Currently, Signal Tower has 540 newsletter subscribers, a ten-fold increase from the 50 subscribers I had this time last year. It’s difficult to pinpoint what was responsible for the increase. My redesign focused heavily on generating more signups. Additionally, the site appeared several times on Designer News and Sacha Grief’s Sidebar. The biggest contributors to signups were Owen William’s Charged Newsletter and landing on Product Hunt, which added 41 and 73 subscribers respectively. If this keeps up, maybe I’ll hit 5,000 subscribers in 2015?

My interview with Jennifer Dewalt about how she taught herself how to program by building 180 sites in 180 days was by far the most popular this year. My interviews with Designer News and LayerVault creator Kelly Sutton and founder Sol Orwell were a far second and third.

Interestingly, most of my traffic still comes from early design listicles I created when Signal Tower was still just an experimental blog. That was years ago. Nine Legible Paragraph Fonts for the Web and Nine UI Patters Web Designers Should Know still rank towards the top of search engines for many search terms. I don’t write listicles like that anymore, but it shows that smart, dedicated writers can carve out opportunities for traffic.

What lies ahead for Signal Tower? I honestly am not sure. It will be around for the foreseeable future. Once a month I get an email from a reader telling me how awesome they think the site is. From my standpoint, it is a great vehicle to start conversations with people that are smarter and more successful than I am.

Near term there are a lot of ideas rolling around in my head. Unfortunately, there are only so many hours in the day. I touched on this in my post about Podcasting Seasons, but I see a series of interviews being produced at once. These interviews would be released week after week for six to eight weeks. I would have a sponsor support the entire series instead of just one show. My guess is that consistency with releases will help with growth. It would also and give me more time to work on producing the interviews instead of chasing down sponsors.

In the future premium content will probably only be available with a membership. I think a small publication would benefit from a freemium-style business model. I really need to work on adding value that membership, and work on consistency with interview production. I’m not sold that additional audio and video versions of the interview are enough to push for a premium membership. The jury is still out.

Even further in the future, I see economies of scale—a small strong product team at the core of several publications, with a small number of writers working at each publication. I know exactly what to do from a product standpoint, if I was going to build another site like Signal Tower. Perhaps, if I stumble upon the right person we could branch out to golf, paintball, food trucks—anything! Additionally, we could provide more value to customers by starting one in a closely related vertical and providing memberships to multiple sites at a discount.

The content industry is an interesting one. Content startups such as Vox, Buzzfeed, Pando and Priceonomics have been interesting to watch grow. With the right audience, niche and person at the helm, I think there is an enormous opportunity for non-venture-funded content companies.

Advertisers is my most recent project. It is a community for people that work in the marketing and advertising industry. I’ve learned a lot building the site—mainly that building a community is much more difficult than designing or developing one.

The site is in beta has about 50 members though only five or so contribute regularly. Content is an amalgamation of design, ad campaigns and growth. The comments to date have been flat and provided little insight. I’m considering rolling back the feature.

Gaining traffic has been an interesting exercise. I’m planning a press push early next year to get the project in front of people in advertising—I probably should finish polishing up those designs for my press kit this weekend. I’ll also try and get a mention in email lists for 4A’s, AIGA and other various ad associations. Additionally, I’ve Started building out a directory of advertising agencies in various cities. I was hoping that I’d get search traffic from people looking to join an agency or have agencies see the backlinks and discover the site. Neither of those appear to be working, but it is still too early to tell.

The downside is the advertising industry as a whole is struggling. In-house teams can do what agencies can do for a fraction the cost. Heavy consolidation is happening, and usually a sign of a stale market. larger players hedge against future competition by buying smaller players. Smaller players get out easy, because competing is too hard. Also, the ad industry is a revolving door. Businesses know that the talent is mostly replaceable. Scale up when a client is gained, and scale down when one is lost. That may seem harsh, but it’s just the way most of those businesses are designed.

Advertisers may have an opportunity for monetization. Should site traffic start growing, revenue from job postings is the clearest opportunity. Perhaps, agencies would pay to have a premium listing in the directory. The state of the industry doesn’t give me a lot of confidence that that agencies would pay for job postings. There’s also the opportunity for banner ads, but I’d be hesitant here.

What would have I done differently? A product like this is probably a step or two ahead of where I should be. Starting over again, I’d build a community around a weekly newsletter and blog first. List growth and link contributions would prove the desire for such content, and adding a community for those to interact would just be the icing on the cake.

How could this project benefit your company? I think this would be a perfect side project for an company in a fairly active vertical. From my interviews with Kelly Sutton and Mikael Cho, I know side projects can make a business. There are opportunities for press, and new user acquisition. I think side projects are the new goldmine for marketing. Get your businesses project on Product Hunt and get a ton of qualified traffic.

Goals for next year: Attract 1,000 members and improve engagement.

Chmod Calculator is a Linux file permissions calculator and the best looking one on the internet as far as I’m concerned.

When I moved from shared hosting to a LEMP stack droplet on Digital Ocean, I had a whole lot to learn about system administration. Luckily, I’m pretty familiar with Unix commands, but I kept running into frustrating permissions errors. My reaction was to build something to help me quickly check myself.

How could this Chmod Caluclator make money? There’s probably a small amount of that can be made from advertising by ranking high on search results. This might be possible by writing a few entries about file permissions, and how they work. It would be difficult, because the search results are pretty competitive.

Goals for next year: Get the Chmod Calculator on page two of search engines.

The Wiry Wireframe Template is a tandem project I’ve been working on with my friend Chris Rowe. I admit. I haven’t pulled my weight on this project.

It’s not that I’ve fallen out of love with building an open source wireframe kit, but my other projects have detracted from it.

Goals for next year: My goal for Wiry in the near term is to move the project to GitHub or LayerValut. It’s an open source project that will need versioning. The bigger goals are to finish my pack of updated elements, organize and name the layers—they’re a complete mess now—and add some example applications.

Icon Yard is a library of Creative Commons Zero icons. CC0 licensing means that anybody can use the icons for anything. It is one step removed from being in the public domain. My friend Henry Bayuzick and I worked on it together. The development credit goes to him.

The initial vision was to build an Unsplash for icons. Unfortunately the site as it stands isn’t a good experience from a user or management standpoint. There are a bunch of broken links and other issues on the user side (my fault not Henry’s) and on the management side, it takes a huge amount of time to standardize and upload new icons.

My goal for the next year is to get the user-facing issues resolved. We just need to sit down and knock out some of the main issues. I’m afraid that the project may be in limbo for the time being. I simply cannot spend the time resizing, tagging and uploading icons. Maybe there is a better way.


I’m rather disappointed with the amount of writing I’ve done this year—six posts including this one. It is unacceptable, and I need to get back into a habit of writing regularly.

Earlier this year I wrote about my decision to remove social sharing buttons from Signal Tower. That post drew a lot of fire—from everywhere and eventually landed on the front page of Hacker News, Designer News and reddit. It’s a decision I still stick by, and I’m glad to see it’s helped influence other designers and developers. As I said in the article, if people really love your content, they’ll share it.

Following Google’s Panda 4.0 update several major companies suffered catastrophic losses in search rankings. This update was different, because major companies were hit. eBay lost 80 percent of its organic search rankings! My post was just a reminder, write for humans first.

I always tell people that the best way to learn is by working on side projects. This has been a year of side projects for me, and I’ve learned an incredible amount.

People tend to be surprised when they find out how old I am. I have a ton of experiences that helped form my somewhat eccentric opinions about education and entrepreneurship. I’ve bussed tables, built a startup and worked on others. I thought I’d expand on what I’ve learned from those jobs. Hint: the most important thing I learned was what I didn’t want to spend my life doing.


I’m a senior interactive producer for a casino advertising agency and get paid to build websites, games and applications. I got promoted after being with the company for a year. As a whole 2014 was slow. This year I was mostly focused on a few big projects—a series of games for the Hard Rock Casino in Tulsa and the Cherokee Casinos.

In March we started Red Square Gaming Insights, a monthly newsletter containing articles from our blog as well as interesting links we find on the internet. After several months we’re north of 500 subscribers. It’s been an interesting task considering most articles about casinos are dry as dust—mergers acquisitions and things everyone in the industry knows about. The goal has been to merge advertising, design and gaming to produce a better newsletter. I think we’ve done that.

We received a ton of non-gaming RFPs in November and December of this year. I’m already working on websites for two investment firms. Hopefully, there will be more of an opportunity to branch out from casino work.

Future projects

Observatory is a concept for a Hacker-News-style space and science community. I’ve learned a ton building Advertisers. From the technical and design side of things I think I can do much better. I’m holding back on this one for now. The first iteration will probably be a newsletter containing space and technology links. If that takes off building another community might be in the cards.

Doors of Italy is a photography project that I’ve been meaning to complete ever since getting back from my family trip last summer. I have about 250 photos that still need to be edited, but I still plan on completing it. Expect to see it as a blog post early next year.

It’s about time for an ultra-simple professional profile to be built—a Medium for resumes. Import your profile from LinkedIn, Google + or AngelList and easily edit, share and print it. There won’t be multiple templates or formats, just one great one. Farther down the road this might have analytics as a paid feature.

Fantasy sports is going to be an incredibly hot market in 2015. The rise of sites such as FanDuel and DraftKings has shown the opportunity. I’ve spent much of my break meeting with a couple others on building something in this space. The team is solid, the market is perfect I’m not sold on the idea yet. However, I tend to be a skeptic. If we move forward, managing design for this will take a significant amount of my time.

Closing thoughts

This year felt like the year I actually became a maker. That is a big deal—to see your ideas and concepts through. It sounds silly, but was something that wasn’t possible before my friend Mike Chau helped me set up my server. Before every new website took me another $15 to $20 to get off the ground. I now have a platform to build, explore, fail and start again. I see that as something infinitely valuable.

Here’s to an excellent twenty fourteen and a better twenty fifteen!