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Interview: Michael of ShanghaiExpat
This Friday, beloved online refuge for the expats, ShanghaiExpat, turns ten. SmartShanghai talked shop to Michael. Via email. How else?
By Nov 30, 2010 Community


This Friday, beloved online refuge for the expats young and old, new and old, Shanghaiexpat.com turns ten with a big party at La Finca restaurant in Xintiandi. As the most trafficked and populous online community for expats in Shanghai, Shanghaiexpat is an invaluable resource, not only for people looking for a little logistical information to make their lives easier, but as a support system of friends and enemies to console each, bash out their problems, and rage about and celebrate their lives in this city.

Media new and old is a big business game, more so true than ever in the increasingly corporate racket of expat trade media. Shanghaiexpat was founded, click by click, from the ground up by a Seattle transplant called Michael Connolly. Ten years later Michael has built the site into what it is today, and SmartShanghai offers our sincere congratulations to him and his team for their accomplishments.

Here is the party information. DJs, dancing, finger foods, fun, games, gambling, and more. It's 80rmb presale and 100rmb at the door.

SmartShanghai talked shop to Michael. Via email.

How else?

***

SmSh: Maybe you could start at the beginning... where are you from? How long have you been in Shanghai? And tell us about starting Shanghaiexpat.com. What was the online media landscape in Shanghai like ten years ago?

Michael: I came to Shanghai in 1999, following my wife who had a good job offer here. I was an IT guy working in Seattle at the time. I had to find a niche for myself. I did not have the idea of starting Shanghaiexpat right off, but I did start posting an online travel blog for friends and family back in the US. In researching the move, there was almost no good English language resource for people moving to Shanghai. I found shanghai-ed.com, muzi and a couple of other sites hawking expensive apartments.

Gradually, the travel blog started gathering steam and became "shanghai-shanghai.net", which then became shanghaiexpat.com in 2002. I was answering questions and posting them and it started to pick up a buzz. Traffic doubled or more pretty much every year for the first 6 years and is still growing.

SmSh: Ten years later, what's the general size and scope of SHExpat? Generally speaking, how many members do you have and what's the traffic like?

Michael: Numbers and stats mean different things to different people. It's important to know what you are looking at. For our site, traffic happens in cycles. Every summer we break our traffic record from the previous year, as people are doing their research for either moving to Shanghai or getting ready to leave. At the peak last summer, we had 5M pageviews for July (and that is a viewed pages -- bots and automated programs were filtered out for that number).

Since we started running the forum in 2002, we have had about 84,000 screen names sign up, which means probably about 40,000 or so real people ( we know that more than a few keep a couple of different identities ). In any particular day, guests (not logged in users) outnumber registered users by about 9 to 1.

SmSh: What's the size of the enterprise behind the scenes? Do you have a big staff with several departments or is it just you in some dark basement with a laptop and multiple personality disorder?

Michael: I may have a personality disorder, but not that kind. We actually do have about 16 full-time people working for us and have a townhouse on West Yan'An Lu we go to every morning. Shushu cooks a full lunch for us all every day. I probably could run things quite a bit leaner if I wanted to work harder. However, it is important to me that work be fun enough to want to get up every morning or I would not have lasted this long.



SmSh: Over the past few years, online media has seen something of a commercial shift with the proliferation of 'socially based media'. In Shanghai in particular there are several new dating and social networking sites geared towards expats -- I can think of at least 6 which operate in the English language. How has this impacted Shanghaiexpat and how has the site remained relevant in the changing market?

Michael: Every year since we have started, new sites have come and gone. Some stick and some don't. It's very tough to put up a site that is relevant. Tougher to maintain it over the long haul and get people to come to the site. Tougher still to make money at it. We are relevant because we really do fill a need that others do not. I was just very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time with a certain set of skills. We met a need and developed a community of sorts.

I have my facebook profile and linkedin profile, but none of those have the kind of engagement the Forum on Shanghaiexpat has for me. We also do not try to be everything to everyone. We acknowledge that there are people doing it better for certain things than we do it.

SmSh: Shanghaiexpat.com recently underwent a site overhaul, with what looks like a shift onto more original editorial content. For some users, it felt like the site was moving away a bit from the "online community" aspect of SHExpat. Is that an accurate characterization of the situation? Do you see the future of SHExpat as more based in original editorial content?

Michael: Ah yes, the infamous redesign of Shanghaiexpat. One story here is about the redesign and the other is about our editorial bent. The redesign was a very tough thing for us and we stumbled on it. It was not executed well. We are still working out the issues. We take the blame, but we did misplace our trust a bit in taking on this massive IT task. Things are getting better quickly and very shortly you will find a better organized site.

We really did want to have some decent editorial. We had related on the forum to provide the info to users for quite a while. This has its pluses and minuses. As our Forum got bigger and more people used it, good information got buried very quickly. Initially, our intention was organize some of the good info in the Forum, and to have an eye was what is going on around Shanghai that would make a difference to our members. We also really needed to document blocks of important content that brings users to our site.

I don't think we have gone away from being an online community. If anything, we are better for it. I think we just need to update our look a bit so that it strikes a balance.

SmSh: One of the key aspects of SHExpat is your Forum section. And one of your chief tasks is moderating the Forum. How heavy of a hand have you adopted over the years? Approximately, in the last ten years, how many people have you banned? What's the most frequently occurring ban-able offense?

Michael: Actually, I personally do not have a heavy hand, though some would disagree. Of course, this being China, we do have to walk a fine line with appropriate content. Also, we have quite a diverse group of people using our site -- moms in Pudong, to single students, to senior managers at MNCs, to English teachers. Very tough to please everyone.

In terms of banning, mostly it's the spammers. We ban a handful of spammers every week. We delete a few dozen posts every week. Very few people who are active members get banned for good. The ones that do get banned are the ones that just really don't get it and step over the line again and again. We do warnings and short bans (like a week ), but if there are issues with language, outing real life identities without permission, flamewars (though we have created a place for that ) and they keep coming, we moderate. A few of mods wish I was a lot tougher...

SmSh: Who's got the most posts on the Forum? Who's winning?

Michael: It all about time. The most this month or the most this year? Overall, Magnolia I think is still tops at over 32,000 posts. She has been around a long time. Very savvy and helpful person. She went back to her home country, but still posts. We have become the default online community to a handful of people, even though they are no longer in Shanghai. A few people may have more, but spread it over a handful of screen names.

SmSh: Do you miss the SmartShanghai Forum? On a scale of 1 to 10, how sad were you when SmartShanghai axed the SmSh Forum?

Michael: I read it often and thought it had a niche that was not covered well on our site. Can't say I was sad. I can say I understood the decision and know how hard it is to keep a forum clean and still keep up with all the ideas and plans and demand of business. I definitely think Smart covers a niche that we did not cover. We don't have a big nightlife section because Smart was already there.

[Ed’s note: Sadness seems to measure at about a 4.]

SmSh: Do you ever get sick of giving people advice about ayi-related issues?

Michael: There is a bit of a issue with some older members who end up seeing the same questions on relocation again and again. One reason we have editorial now. However, you have to forgive the noobs and I see it an opportunity to engage another person to become a more active member on the forum. Personally, I am happy to answer the same question 20 times a year AND the answer might not always be the same.

SmSh: What's in store for the future or the business? Have you thought about expanding the model to other cities in China?

Michael: Good question. We have several ideas. We actually try to do something new every year. Some things have worked out great and some things haven't. We have to get a few things done and then we'll work on picking out a new project.

We have thought about other cities, and still may do it, but anything we do in other cities in China, will likely be smaller and more expensive to run than Shanghaiexpat. In order to grow the business significantly, I think we do need to be in other Asian cities, but that takes capital.

Personally, I quite amazed that we have arrived at 10 years of doing this and are still here.

Here's something I wrote for our 10th Anniversary article:

"Shanghaiexpat is the result of efforts and participation by many people. The people helping other Shanghai newbies on the forum. People who helped out and volunteeed at our events. Dedicated employees who made things happen in IT, Sales, Marketing and Admin. Partners who lent us expertise to make sure things were done right."

SmSh: For once and all time, what are three pieces of advice you would give new-comers to Shanghai?

Michael:

1. Find people you can trust and build your personal network with them. It's worth gold here.

2. Have a goal for the day and for your time in China. Shanghai is the kind of people where time flies and it is really easy to spin your wheels.

3. Things are different here than where you are from. Just expect they will be and don't let small things bug you. Have a good time here.

***

Congrats to Shanghaiexpat.com. Read more about Michael here. Here's that anniversary party info again.
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