Online Success Story:

Online Success Story:
Craig Harkins

A site dedicated to news and training tips for the Olympic sport of fencing.

1. When did you set up your website?

I started Fencing.Net as a personal web site as part of my MindSpring account way back in 1995.  Soon after I set up the site I registered the domain for it.  ( was already taken by a fencing club in San Jose!)  At that time I worked for MindSpring in the sales department and I wanted to set up a web site on my own so that I could better explain it to our Internet service customers.

2. What gave you the idea for this particular niche & website?

I chose fencing for the site because I was an active competitive fencer at the time and there was not much good information on the sport online.  The only other places I found discussing fencing were in newsgroups where I found people were giving out bad information.  I knew I had good information that I could share, so I started posting.

I took my old training journals and started posting them up as articles on the web site.  Then I grabbed news from all of the world level fencing events to build out reports on what the top fencers in the world were doing and previews of how the US fencers were doing and how they were expected to place at events including world championships.

From there, the site grew in traffic and I built up a list of subscribers to a semi-regular email newsletter which I would email each time I posted a new article to my site.  Eventually I added a forum (first with UBB then vBulletin) to the site and started getting more discussions going there.

3. Did you have any experience with online business prior to creating this website?

No experience before starting this site.  I used the business experience I was getting at MindSpring in sales, marketing, and product management to help with growing the site, but it was mainly just my passion and sideline hobby.

4. What did you do for work prior to setting up an online business?

For MindSpring I worked in sales, then marketing where I learned through trial and error about setting up sales scripts, talking to customers, building relationships with prospects and, most importantly, tracking the results of anything we did to generate sales.  Later I moved to a product management role which was not only the marketing side (bringing in sales) but the profitability side.  A product manager owns the revenues and costs for the product line, so is responsible for setting the product features and pricing to be able to sell in the marketplace as well as managing the costs and support so that the product will be profitable.  That kind of detailed analysis really helps focus me today.  If I think some new feature
would be cool to add to the site, I make sure to ask myself (1) what does it do to grow the business or enhance readership and (2) what will the ROI be?

5. How did you initially promote your website, and if different - how do you promote it now?

Back in 1995 there wasn't the same competition for web sites.  There were still pundits saying that the Internet was just a fad, so there weren't hundreds of sites created around every topic.  I had great quality content (I thought) that came from my expertise as a competitive fencer.  When I started Fencing.Net I started out by finding every other web site I could written about fencing and I asked for a link and I built links to the good articles that I found.  That built up links and traffic to the site right away since we were all fanatics about the subject and wanted to help share what we were writing.

Today it's more difficult to break in.  Now I promote Fencing.Net by making sure to post our new articles to Facebook and Twitter, emailing our news to our mailing list, and finding other sports sites that will take articles I write.

I covered the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and have a media credential for the 2012 London Olympics, so I'll be using that to approach the sports news sites about including articles of my Olympic fencing coverage.

6. Is your website profitable? Can you share some basic traffic & profit stats with us?

Yes, the site is profitable.  The story of the site is that when I first started to monetize it, all I asked for was some free gear for myself and some money that I would use for my own training and travel expenses.  In exchange, I put up advertising for some of the equipment suppliers that were online at the time.

After the traffic to the site grew, I ran the numbers on what I could expect to earn if I started selling the gear myself.  This is where the online and product management experience really helped.  I took my traffic and results from user surveys (so I knew what percentage of my reader were also shoppers) and created a business model using projections for my conversion rate, average order size, etc.  The numbers looked good enough to take the risk on a business venture, so I quit my job at EarthLink (EarthLink and MindSpring had merged a couple of years prior) and started running the web site and equipment ecommerce business full time.

Overall, the site gets 40k - 50k unique visitors per month and around a million page views per month.

7. What are your plans for the site going forward?

Going forward, I'm working on partnering more closely with another site that provides really great photography for the sport.  We've been working loosely together for over 8 years now and we've become good friends, so we're going to figure out how to leverage what we're good at to make a solid business venture. We're also going to keep growing out the equipment business.  Ecommerce is our primary revenue stream and we've been fortunate in hiring great people who are dedicated to providing great customer service and sharing their knowledge with our customers.  I hope that we keep growing so that I have to hire another employee in the next 12 months.  That would show that our growth is taking off.  There are also plans to revise and update all of our site content leading up to the 2012 Olympics, where I'll be covering the fencing events live.

8. What ONE piece of advice would you give someone interested in starting their own niche site or blog?

If you're going to start up a niche site, you've got to be professional in your level of expertise and passionate in the subject.  You also have to be willing to dedicate a lot of time to your project before you're going to get any money out of it. Once we started to monetize Fencing.Net, the revenues grew very quickly but it was the years of content and community building before the launch of the "real" business that made it successful.  I like to say that Fencing.Net is an overnight success story that was 10 years in the making.

The advice to take from that is that you have to build a solid foundation.  You can do a lot of it for very low dollar costs - you're trading your knowledge and time to build up that content base.  Build that base and build a community around it and you can find ways to monetize it.

Craig Harkins

-Thank you, Craig and congratulations on your success!

About Lynn Terry

Lynn Terry is a full-time Internet Marketer with over 17 years experience in online business. Subscribe to ClickNewz for the latest Internet Marketing trends & strategies, Lynn's unique case studies, creative marketing ideas, and candid reviews...more»


  1. Craig,

    You site is a great example of a site that was a natural product of your passion.

    Personally, I have found that hobby sites and professional sites that are the passion of the writer make the best sites.

    I always enjoy visiting these because there is always something to learn.

    My main site started as a hobby, so, hopefully, someday it will be as successful as yours.

    Great interview Lynn!


  2. Mark,

    Thanks for the comment. Being passionate made it easy to spend time on the site developing the content into what my readers would want to see.

    • Graham Lutz says

      How does one get into fencing? It doesn't strike me as the kind of thing a kid would ask to play...

      Is it more of a high society type of thing?

      • Kirk Ward says

        For me, it was a required course in school. My instructor was actually the Olympic coach at the time. It was fun and interesting.

  3. DeAnna Troupe says

    What a wonderful example of how focusing on content first can lead to profit later on! Excellent interview! Thanks for sharing!

  4. I really liked that you started the site so you could better explain the process to your customers and clients, that was fantastic, and then to have it grow into something like this is amazing and wonderful! Congrats 🙂

  5. The whole story of online business is obscure in contents as contents are the king.

  6. Graham Lutz says

    "years of content and community building before the launch of the 'real' business"

    So true and so under appreciated.

  7. Great site Greg and starting in 1995! My goodness! Love that you built it around a topic you know so well and can bring all of the elements together.

  8. This is the perfect example of why choosing a niche in something you love is so important! When you are passionate about something, you won't get bored with it further down the road and the passion will always come through to your audience. Good for you Craig and have a fabulous time at the 2012 Olympics (you lucky dog)!

  9. Oops! Hit the wrong key for my Twitter ID

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