Though I love my job and firmly believe the work is important I have to admit working for a non-profit doesn't exactly pay well. I'm not complaining but the reality is that I make about $20,000 less per year than I could elsewhere (and that's just in salary).
My solution to this has been to take a couple weeks off every year to work as a consultant. It isn't exactly the way I prefer to spend my time (I like the actual building of a product) but a couple $7,000 weeks makes it a lot easier to follow my conscience the other 50 weeks of the year.
Mostly this consulting is done for stealth startups. I have the good fortune of having friends from my "Valley days" who think enough of me to ask my opinion and who are willing to pay me someone else's money to get it.
Last week was one of those weeks and during the discussions a very interesting sticking point came up. Now I can't give much information on the business model but I will say it involved information that could be delivered either on the sites home page or via various widget platforms. The sticking point came when discussing which of those two should receive the majority of the company's limited money.
I took the side of the Widget.
Though I obviously believe in having an attractive, functional homepage there comes a point when you have to decide how valuable putting money into the home page realistically is. The mentality of the late 90s/early 00s was to make your page "sticky" by doing everything you could to turn your main page into a little funhouse that people would just be compelled to come back to.
So you got companies putting all kinds of peripheral stuff on their pages like celebrity news, quizzes, flash games, etc...
There are a few problems with this. First, it requires you to spend a lot of time and money on creating website functionality that is separate from your core business. All those goofy little quizzes or celebrity photo galleries cost money to build and that's money being taken away from the core functionality of your product.
Second, to be blunt, you (as a startup) aren't going to become someone's homepage. Sorry. The simple truth is a startup can't compete on the home page front unless that is their core business. Big companies are pouring billions of dollars into making themselves appealing as a portal so unless you specifically want to be a platform (aka devote all your resources to competing with the big companies) you won't win.
Which brings me to my advice. Advice that I thought to be common knowledge but which the various discussions proved was anything but.
First: Unless your product is a homepage, focus on your product not on your home page. Companies that spend all kinds of time and money trying to make their page "sticky" do so at the expense of their core service. The most powerful weapon a startup has is a razor sharp focus on one core idea. Diffusing that focus in a vain attempt to be someone's home page is foolish. You should certainly have an attractive website but beyond that your sights should be focused elsewhere.
Second: Home pages are now advanced platforms (e.g. something other programs can run within, an API is not a platform per se). If you aren't planning to build an advanced platform you need to be embracing other platforms instead. Not only does this allow you to focus on your core functionality but it allows you to boot strap your startup to portal/social networking companies that are spending millions to promote their page. In effect you become a feature of their highly promoted product which is a good place to be.
Now in saying all this I have to point out the one major draw back which is the difficulty in monetizing a distributed product. Though in saying that I'd point out how much easier it is to monetize a distributed product than it is to monetize a website with no visitors. Also remember that subtle Ads are as effective as any. The most profitable ad company on the Internet made their money almost solely on text based ads.
Bottom line, there are ways to monetize anything if you try hard enough.