Tim Bednar interview
Last week, I wrote an article that harshly criticized some so-called Christian internet agencies, for offering sub-par web products at premium prices. Shortly thereafter, I recieved an email from Tim Bednar. Tim runs Turtle Interactive, and is the founder of E-Church.com. He is a prime example of what I wish more Christian web-designers would be - a pioneer. This is his story.
Please explain what inspired the name Turtle Interactive, and the vision behind your business. Also, did you go through formal schooling to learn about web design, or are you self-taught?
The name "Turtle" came from my admiration of Frog Design. Also, my high school my track team-mates gave me this nickname because I was so slow. People often forget what is slow for 200M is actually pretty fast over a 5K! Bottom line, turtles are slow but also wise. I figure that is a good mascot for my business. Wise often is better than fast, even on the Internet.
Turtle Interactive started as (and still is) a bootstrapping business. I started my training at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, but dropped out to pursue training at a Bible college. I pastored a multi-ethnic inner city church for about nine years and then decided to re-enter the design world.
It has been a long journey in my transformation from pastor back to web designer - mainly psychological, with most of it journaled in the archives of e-Church. By transition, I mean the change to being an actual web designer, and not just some hack pastor with a hobby site. I still consider ministry my calling. However, it is no longer my vocation. At least for now, I fully expect to recast myself several times throughout the rest of my life. I want to work full-time as a web designer and do freelancing as much as possible.
Would you explain a little more regarding how the e-Church project came about, and what your plans are for its future? Do you think this will always be a free service, or will it eventually generate revenue?
Turtle Interactive came after e-Church. I established e-Church in 1998 as part of a Sunday school class. My interest in web design emerged out of my teaching ministry and frustration with only being able to teach one subject, at one location, at one time. The web provided an "always on" connection to my class.
It went through several iterations, some of which can be seen using the Internet Archives Wayback Machine. It started as as an online magazine then in 2004 became a free spiritual blogging service. The blogging service is currently on version 2.5 and I expect to launch 3.0 early in 2006 based on my proprietary content management system, SiteNET. It essentially offers free blogging for anyone who wants to participate in the Christian conversation. My interpretation of Christian and conversation is very "generous" and the service embodies the conclusions I made in my white-paper on spiritual blogging called, "We Know More Than Our Pastors."
It is a fairly well trafficked site and has about 68 members who have posted at least one entry. However, I only consider about 8 members to be actively posting. About half of those who sign up never post an entry. So, the biggest challenge is to actually get people to write. My plans for the future are to allow people to post immediately without becoming members while still offering value to my members and not becoming a wiki.
Are there plans for e-Church to be web standards compliant? It seems as though some of the CMS aspects are breaking validation. Kudos on not using tables though, that's a step in the right direction. Any new features planned?
Although the site is currently table-less, it will be re-launched using web standards and offer more "personalization" for individual bloggers. The biggest backend change will be that I will replace Interakt KTML with Moxie Code's TinyMCE WYSIWYG text editor, so all forward entries will be in XHTML. The new site will be run off my content management system called SiteNET 3.0 which is scripted in classic ASP.
The site will also start publishing micro-sites alongside the existing spirituality site: politics, web design, gadgets, parenting, participatory church and podcasting. These micro-sites are based on my individual interests. I have not yet decided if other members will be allowed post to these sites, or if they will be kept in-house. Frankly, the change is dually motivated by my passions and desire to increase Adsense revenue.
We have plans to start offering a photo gallery to each member. I will also be experimenting with offering the ability for users to add enclosures to their blog entries to create a podcast feed. I have a desire to incorporate social bookmarking into the site, but am technically lost with it. My question is why would anyone keep "Christian" tags at e-Church instead of Del.icio.us or Furl I'm also experimenting with a Ning developer site for bookmarking. Anyway, the new site will allow members to "tag" their entries and users to browse using a topic cloud, right now they can only text-search the archive.
My passion is to continue to offer the service free. If I were to have my dream come true, it would be to work on e-Church full-time and develop it into an congregation-centered alternative to TBN, KLOVE, Christianity Today or Zondervan. I continue to develop e-Church because more Christians get their "spiritual information" via the media than the pulpit.
Would you mind explaining how SiteNET works, and what made you decide to go with a home-grown CMS, as opposed to using something like the ExpressionEngine or some other 3rd party solution?
Great question. When I started SiteNET, there were no "packaged solutions" that were free. MoveableType was still new and I did not yet understand Perl. After awhile, I did not like having to force blog applications to manage site content, and my clients wanted a WYSIWYG text editor.
I started building dynamic sites by reading tutorials and using Dreamweaver, ASP and Access. I was able to do things I only dreamed about and have now come to expect. I started to like scripting and have a whole library of ASP extensions for Dreamweaver that help me implement functionality into my sites, such uploading and resizing photos.
The whole thing still reminds of all the nights I spent with my Atari 800 using BASIC to turn the screen colors. I can still remember saving programs to tape or alternatively taping a note to the computer saying, "Don't turn this off."
Basically, SiteNET is the fastest way I can get stuff done. After four years of development, it now has a nice page editor, photo gallery builder, contact manager, product catalog, blog / podcast manager, and built-in RSS feeds and Google Site Maps. I "sell" it in two versions: SiteNET basic and SiteNET custom. It has proven to be quite profitable.
How did you get your start in doing web design and development? Was this always an interest of yours, or did it grow out of some other form of aesthetic, such as print or photography?
I touched on this a little bit before: My web-design interest came from my desire to teach, which I guess is my primary "spiritual gift." Given my background in pastoral studies and industrial design, the web was a natural medium.
I remember the first web site I published. It was like coming home. It was a comic story site called Kidzweb. It no longer exists but with a 2 year old daughter, I'm feeling the urge to write more comic stories for kids. Maybe in late 2006, I will re-launch it as another e-Church micro-site.
On your site, you mention that you are capable of being a one-man solution for web design needs. Having worn this hat a time or two, I know it can be stressful, especially with multiple clients. How do you juggle your business and personal life when you are your own boss?
Yeah, I think that "designation" has been my problem. It is maybe the reason I have not been able to go beyond Turtle as a bootstrapping business and work for larger clients. I did not do well when I was only freelancing. I expect that I'll try it again when I'm better prepared. Currently I am juggling three freelance clients, have a stressful full-time job, a little girl and am expecting a boy in December.
I work late, late at night about three to four nights a week, averaging about 15 hours a week. I'm fortunate that I do not need much sleep. I do not want to do this much longer, having done it for about a year.
The last month has been stressful. But if I keep myself organized, and I work pretty efficiently. The key is communication with my clients and managing expectations before they manage you. I definitely do not over-promise. Next year, I plan to take on only one client per quarter-year and work more on e-Church.
That sounds like a good plan. I myself am now only taking on clients that I think have a clear sense of purpose. Tell me, what has been your greatest challenge in making the move towards web standards? How would you encourage others in the Church to make this transition, rather than view it as drudgery?
The biggest challenge was at first (back in 2004 or so) it seemed as non-standard as HTML in 1999: "Oh that works here but not there." I got very frustrated with browser inconsistencies. CSS and web standards also seemed to aversely impact what I could do visually with the look and feel of the site. Everything looked like a blog template.
I love the CSS and web standard community. The gurus share their code to encourage the rest of us to adopt standards. This has made it fun to find new solutions and learn new things. I'm now confident enough to hand-code XHTML and CSS. It impacts my initial concepting less and less.
I now develop using Fireworks and HTML Kit almost in tandem, writing the CSS and XHTML while exporting images. I then develop the site functionality in Dreamweaver. Finally, I test across various browsers and validate the code via the W3C. Once I started doing this by hand, I have found I actually designed faster and with fewer errors.
I sell standards by relating it to search engine optimization. Most clients get that Google page rankings matter. It puts a tangible benefit on a rather invisible set of technologies. This tactic hits home with churches and nonprofits with no budgets to promote a site. It is also the easiest way to reassure a client a couple months after the project goes live, that choosing standards compliance produces results. Clients love seeing their site high in Googe page results. I can say every new site I've done this year has seen such improvement over their previous designs.
I also show them how easy it is to "redesign" their site. This especially resonates with clients who have been through multiple iterations of their sites. I typically sell web standards and SiteNET as the preferred web solution for the best ROI. It is the easiest sell for me because I believe in these technologies and have a proven track record of success with them.
Would you share your testimony, and how you came to faith in Christ? Did this affect your business, or were you already a believer when you started Turtle?
I came to Christ while in art school in Minneapolis. I won a scholarship for my junior year, but dropped out to attend Bible college. I spent most of the 1990s working with inner city kids and pastoring a multi-ethic church.
That was a great experience, but I feel that I'm most at home thinking about the tandem of Internet and "teaching." I just found that my ideas about the church, teaching and people did not fit cleanly into the typical "career" trajectory for a pastor. The so called "cyberchurch" is certainly the place where I most feel I have something unique to contribute to the Kingdom. So I decided to create my own path.
I can identify with that. Perhaps I'm too easily distracted, but I think that the pastorate would be incredibly boring for me personally. Yet here I am, almost done with a Master of Divinity! Anyway, is there anything else you'd like to add before we close?
I just want to say thanks for letting me ramble. This is probably more than necessary to hear from one guy!