Web Masters Episode #48: John Battelle

Before the Internet killed magazines, it inspired the largest magazine in history: The Industry Standard, founded by John Battelle. Hear his story on Web Masters.


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John Battelle:

I Harbor no ill will towards people who don’t know that this publication existed. Most people were very young who are now working in the field. But, it launched in early ’98 and it had a rough first year because it was very expensive to put out a weekly magazine and for the first year we couldn’t sell a lot of advertising and subscriptions were a very difficult business but we had a very loyal following initially. But by late ’98, early ’99, we hit a tipping point and the magazine which had been on average 64, 72 pages ballooned and by the end of ’99 was on average 300 pages a week. Our website had something like four or five million unique visitors a month, which at the time was pretty significant. We had a conference business that was going bananas.

There was a point at which we couldn’t put all the ads of the magazine that people ordered because we just didn’t have the manpower. And in the year 2000 the publication became the largest publication in the history of magazine publishing in terms of ad pages. We had the most ad pages in a single year in a publication, in the history of publishing and I think that record will never fall because we know what’s happened to magazine publishing since the internet happened to it.

Aaron Dinin:

Sure. This is a podcast about the internet. So, why should we care about the largest publication in the history of magazine publishing? Well, that publication was all about the internet, a fun paradox, right? The largest magazine in history was all about the thing that was going to basically kill magazines. The publication was called The Industry Standard and the man you just heard talking about it was its founder, John Battelle. Are you ready to hear the story? Let’s get dialed in.

[INTRO]

Aaron Dinin:

Hi there, welcome to Web Masters. I’m your host Aaron Dinin. I’m a serial entrepreneur and I teach entrepreneurship at Duke University. This is the podcast that explores entrepreneurship by talking with some of the internets most impactful and influential innovators. That’s unquestionably what we’ve got on this episode with our guest, John Battelle. When you read stories about the cast of characters propelling the early web to meteoric growth and epic collapse, you’ll surely encounter his name. He was at the helm of The Industry Standard, the most influential publication focused on the fast growing web in the late 1990s. If you weren’t in the internet industry, you knew it, you read it and if you were a great internet business, you even got to advertise in it. And hey, that’s true for this podcast too, because well, we’ve got a great advertisers sponsoring this episode. Let me tell you all about it.

Web Masters is being brought to you thanks in part to the generous support of our incredible sponsor Latona’s. Latona’s is a boutique Mergers and Acquisitions broker that helps people buy and sell cash flow positive internet businesses and digital assets. That includes things like e-commerce stores and SAAS apps, Amazon FBAs, domain portfolios, content networks and pretty much any other type of online work from anywhere internet business. If you currently own a profitable internet business and you’re thinking of selling it, be sure to contact the team at Latona’s, they can tell you everything you need to know about the process and if you’ll let them, they’ll be able to help you get a great, great price. Alternately, if you’re looking to buy a cash flow positive internet business, then head on over to the Latona’s website where you’ll find their current listings of companies for sale and be sure to subscribe to their newsletter too, so you get updates when new listings are added. That website is latonas.com, L A T O N A S.com.

In a lot of ways this episode of Web Masters is a meta episode, which is just like the company it’s featuring, by that I mean normally we focus on tech companies and or the innovative tech our guests created, but this episodes guest John Battelle didn’t really create any innovative new technology. If anything, it was the opposite. John Battelle’s the Industry Standard marked the last of the big print magazines before the internet came along and made magazines if not obsolete, then certainly less relevant in mainstream media culture, which is of course funny because the magazine was about the booming internet, but still, just because the topic of this episode isn’t a traditional tech company, I’d say it’s still appropriate to call John a successful tech entrepreneur.

John Battelle:

I don’t reject the title entrepreneur in a wholesale way, but I find it comes with too much baggage. What I do is I start companies in areas where there isn’t something that I very much want to either read or watch or see or see done. And it turns out that the best way to make that thing happen is to start the company as opposed to do anything else. I started as a journalist, I’ve always been involved in journalism and I think that’s probably, if you look at the last portion of my career, probably where I’ll go back to, but for now I think the answer is, I’m the co-founder of companies.

Aaron Dinin:

So far, that number is seven tech-related media companies and counting, but he’s a different tech entrepreneur than most of our guests, because he wasn’t obsessed with using computers or building things with them or finding new ways to leverage them. Instead, he was focused on what I describe as a more humanist aspect of computers.

John Battelle:

My experience with computers definitely predates networking, inter networking you could say. I started playing around with them when I was in middle school in the seventies, when my mother who was a teacher got an Apple II, which is one of the first mass produced personal computers and I found them to be very fascinating, not in the way that a lot of traditional technology founders find them, it’s just they get obsessed with programming them. I was obsessed with what you could do with them and at that time it was pretty limited. You could write, you could do math, you could print things, but I just found all of that fascinating and I did some minor scripting and programming in high school as the PC became a thing in the late seventies, early eighties, but it was really in college that I got the contextual awareness of what the impact of that tool, the computer was going to be on our society.

Aaron Dinin:

So, what was your relationship with computers in college, because you weren’t a computer science major or anything like that, right?

John Battelle:

It was really in college that I found the contextual framework for how I thought about computing ever since, which is anthropological. Computers as a tool, as an expression of culture, as an artifact worthy of study. And it was combining that anthropological framework with a career in journalism that led to most of my career. As soon as I saw a Macintosh in 1984, having been an Apple user with the Apple IIc, I realized that this tool was going to change everything. And that’s classic joints after midnight sophomore at UC Berkeley, man, that’s going to be huge. Not many people really understood why I was so on about it. Most of my friends just thought it was an interesting little tool or a little toy. But for me, one of the things that made it particularly interesting was the fact that you could use a modem to connect to other things.

So, I was increasingly assessed with this tool, this plasticity of this tool, the ease with which you could use it and with the fact that if you use this other tool at the time of modem, which now people don’t really know what that is but, at the time it was another tool you had to master in order to connect to other people. When you put those two things together, it struck me that how we communicated, the media we made and since media shapes culture, the culture we lived in was going to change dramatically. So, I became somewhat obsessed during college with those ideas.

Aaron Dinin:

How did those interests shape your career path after college?

John Battelle:

When I left college, I took the first internship I could find that put me in direct contact with the Macintosh, which was for a startup magazine that covered Apple as a trade magazine. The only time I’ve really held a job was when I worked at this magazine for two or three years, probably a few months after it launched until it got pretty big and it was the biggest trade magazine covering Apple. Then I went back to grad school in order to hone the skills of journalism to tell the story much more broadly, because of the things that I was writing as a reporter covering Apple, my parents had no idea what I was talking about, right? Because it was mostly inside baseball, feeds and speeds and databases and networking and graphical user interfaces and terminology that only people inside the computing industry really understood.

And I wanted to write the story that I was increasingly convinced, this is now by 1989 and I was convinced it was going to change everything. Which was how technology and the artifacts and the tools of technology intersect with culture and society. It struck me that we had plenty of academic framework for understanding that, but we had not applied that to what was clearly the most potent set of tools we’ve ever made, which was computing devices and networks later became known colloquially as the internet. I was pretty obsessed with it. So, I decided to go back to UC Berkeley to get my master’s degree in journalism and focus my work on understanding technology.

Aaron Dinin:

So, I’m a humanist by training. My degrees are English literature. Meaning I agree with everything you’re saying, but what I want to understand is why you thought this stuff was going to change everything and why does that matter or should it even matter and why did you feel the need to tell people about it?

John Battelle:

One of the things that animates journalists and journalism is big stories, right? Journalists love covering big stories. What animated me was when there was a really big story that no one was paying attention to, that was technology right? Now, it’s not fair to say no one was paying attention to the technology story in the late eighties and early nineties, they were, but they weren’t paying attention to it and this is where the arrogance of journalists or authors comes to the fore. They weren’t paying attention to it in the right way. Time Magazine made the computer the man of the year sometime in the mid-eighties, I can’t remember when maybe it was mid to late eighties, but the obsession was on the use of computers in school, in work, how computers were this thing that was going to make us all a little better, a little faster, how the industry had interesting and furry characters in it, who were iconic clastic and weird.

There was very little writing in the popular press or certainly coverage on television that got into the way it was going to change the fabric of our society. Not around the edges, not how cool it would be when… as Bill Gates was saying at the time, every desk had a computer on it, right? It was no, what’s going to really change in our systems? What’s going to change in our educational system? What’s going to change in the way that we react and interact with each other? What’s going to change in how we govern each other, how governments interact with each other? What culture we actually make? And those questions weren’t really being raised in any specific or structured way.

Aaron Dinin:

Why did you choose the format of a magazine as a way to explore those questions?

John Battelle:

At the time, now we’re getting into 1990, ’91. The only way I knew to investigate that story in that framework was to make a publication that adopted that story and that framework, right? And we won’t dwell on this because I know you have other guests who are focused on WIRED, but it was when I ran into and joined the initial Merry band of crazy people who started WIRED the five of us, that we got a chance to truly litigate the argument that technology was changing the world dramatically. And the early WIRED, the first three, four, five years of WIRED was just an explosion of possibility and an exploration of possibility in the impact of technology on society and that framed my career for the next 30 years.

Aaron Dinin:

Were you listening closely, if you were you just heard John talking about not The Industry Standard, but another famous tech focused print publication, WIRED Magazine. John was actually one of the founding editors of WIRED. So, before he built The Industry Standard into the preeminent print publication discussing the internet, he was helping lead the preeminent print publication about technology. However, as good as WIRED was at exploring technology as a whole, John believed it wasn’t giving enough attention to the internet.

John Battelle:

When I was at WIRED, I was managing editor so, I was responsible for all the editorial day-to-day, but I was also responsible in a strange way for business development and that meant imagining other things that we might do with the WIRED brand besides just the magazine. Initially, that was an online presence, obviously which became hotwired on search engines and other things, but also just talking to the big partners who we might work with for our content at the time they were AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy now long forgotten except for AOL. Forgotten, but very important back then. And it’s where I started understanding the business piece around computing and the internet. And I had a business sensibility because I’d been in the trade world covering the business of computers Apple and other related vendors around the Apple ecosystem. So, about four years into WIRED, obviously we were covering the internet, every aspect of it from 1993 to 1997.

And in ’97, I thought that the internet story again, was not being covered properly, was being misunderstood, was being over-hyped and under investigated and in particular, the place that was getting the least amount of scrutiny was the intersection of the internet with business.

Aaron Dinin:

And what made you feel that way?

John Battelle:

Recall where we are now in the late nineties, the first internet boom was just getting underway. A bunch of entrepreneurs were starting companies based on the ability to put a webpage up and you had Excite and you had Yahoo and you had Amazon and Google. All of those companies got their start in ’96, ’97, ’98 and there was a flurry of coverage about them, but it was all hype and bullshit to my mind and it was all “Look at those crazy kids in California doing this crazy stuff and well, isn’t that neat.” And it was being treated like a toy and it was being hyped and it struck me that a new industry was being born and it needed to be covered as an industry and because it wasn’t just a vertical industry that was going to become whatever gas and oil or travel and leisure or retail, it was going to touch all of those industries.

Every one of them was going to be massively remade by this set of technologies that there needed to be a magazine and a website at that point was obvious you had to do both at the same time, that covered this story with the fundamental principles of journalistic inquiry, which were essentially being abandoned by almost all journalistic organizations. When they covered the internet it’s like they threw the rule book out, they become incredibly sycophantic and slavish and just gee whiz and it’s like, no, no, no this is all awesome stuff, I’m the biggest cheerleader in the world, but there’s a lot of bullshit and there are a lot of hustlers and there’s a lot of stuff that is shady here and no matter what power needs to be held to account and there is clearly a lot of power here.

Aaron Dinin:

So how did that turn into an idea for a new magazine?

John Battelle:

So, I came up with this idea for a weekly news magazine that was a combination of The Economist and Variety, right? So, The Economist piece was, we’re going to take this journalistic long form approach to covering important topics and Variety is that we’re going to have the trade dress and the speed and the inside wink, wink that Variety has for the movie industry, right? And I pitched that inside at WIRED and the truth is my co-founders were “John that’s a really awesome idea, we think that should exist in the world, but it’s just not cool enough.” WIRED was just such a cool brand and it just was not cool enough and I’m “But I just really want to read this, I really want to do this.” And some things aligned, I got a phone call from a fellow who ran at the time, one of the most powerful trade publishing empires in the world, International Data Group IDG.

And he’s “Hey, I need somebody to run a weekly trade magazine about the internet.” And I said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll run a weekly about the internet, but let’s not make it a trade magazine, let’s make it this new form of journalism that I want to apply, that isn’t all about feeds and speeds and the vendors and that whole classic trade magazine formula, but rather let’s make it truly credible journalistic enterprise that at some point can go on and try to compete with Businessweek or The Economist.” And he took a flyer on me and that’s how The Industry Standards started.

Aaron Dinin:

I’ve realized The Industry Standard was huge in its day but of course, a lot of people don’t really remember it now. Could you maybe explain what kind of stories it was covering and why it was such a big deal?

John Battelle:

It’s funny because not many people do. I Harbor no ill will towards people who don’t know that this publication existed. Most people were very young who are now working in the field. But, what the magazine did is chronicle the narrative of the business story on the internet. During a really important formative period, the period where Amazon and Google rose to prominence, the period where we explored almost every business model that exists today on the internet was explored in the late nineties. Most of them were not ready for prime time because the consumer behavior had not gotten to the point of adoption that it has now, the technology stack was not robust enough to support many of the attempts for example, to deliver groceries to your door, right? That requires an incredible set of infrastructural changes that had not happened by the year 2000, 2001 but, obviously have happened in the year 2020 or 2021.

And so there were these companies that on the promise of doing that, on the promise of delivering groceries to everyone door had gone public and it became worth billions of dollars and then in the recession of 2001, the dot-com crash, all of these companies were essentially wiped out, including mine. But, it was this crazy gold rush moment and everyone wanted to buy a ticket to the show. And if you were in the show, in other words, if you had a company or a bank or a service firm like a law firm or an investment bank or an executive recruiting firm, everyone wanted a ticket into the show. Everyone wanted to play.

It was the hot space for four years or so and the way you could demonstrate you had a ticket to the show was to buy an ad in our magazine. And that doesn’t happen very often, it just doesn’t. You cannot manufacture that moment out of your own sheer will, you simply happen to be paddling around in a set of waves where you were in the right place to ride it for a while and if you were not a complete in athletic idiot, you could stay on the board for a while and it would be a great ride and that’s what The Industry Standard was for me and for the hundreds of people that worked with us.

Aaron Dinin:

And so, why couldn’t it keep going after the crash? Because of course there were still plenty of stories to tell after the crash, right? In fact, probably even more important stories to tell.

John Battelle:

There were two or three chapters of more important stories to tell, exponentially more important stories to tell by 2003, four, five. There’s a meta answer to that and that there’s a specific answer to that. The specific has to do with the specifics of the ownership of our company and the board meetings we had in early 2001 and the white Knight offers we had from financier’s to get us over the bridge of the dot-com crash that were rejected by our majority ownership and I won’t get into all of that. Suffice to say, it could have gotten through, but it didn’t for various reasons. Some of which I completely own, some of which I lay at the feet of others but, the narrative never stopped and for me in my career after going through what was a credibly difficult period, right?

So, I was the CEO and founder of a really successful thing that everyone in the industry at least knew about and I was seen as one of the cast of characters in this great new story and I think generally seen approvingly too then when we closed shop, the New York times wrote an obituary for the magazine, The Wall Street Journal wrote a front page, TikTok story about how we fell apart, right? And Internet’s wants me to come on to explain why the internet is over because I’m the poster child for it, right? To go through that it’s bad enough to have to tell you hundreds of employees they don’t have jobs, to go through the personal depression, shame involved in failure, but to also have to do it so publicly, that was rough.

Aaron Dinin:

But you’ve done a lot since then too, right? So, if you don’t mind me asking how’d you come back from what was a highly public collapse?

John Battelle:

The thing that got me back was going back to my roots, which was a journalist covering a narrative and realized that that narrative wasn’t over as a matter of fact, that narrative was completely building. And the narrative really did not care that most of the media had decided the internet had its moment and it was over, which is exactly how the media felt about the internet in 2001, 2002. The internet really didn’t give a shit about that narrative. The internet just kept growing and broadband penetration started to increase to the point where some of the dreams of the late nineties entrepreneurs became technically feasible and the more broadband, the more innovative technologies that were layered into the internet stack, by 2003 we had the rise of Ajax, which was a set of protocols that allowed for true customer and interaction on the web browser. And that laid bare the potential to do e-commerce at scale, to do communications applications at scale in a way that were frankly just impossible in the late nineties. And that to me was okay, there’s a really big story here and I was motivated by telling it again.

Aaron Dinin:

So, here again John turns back to an old technology to tell the story of a new technology. He writes a book and it focuses on exactly what he’d been thinking about since childhood, which is to say, it’s not a book about a specific technology. Instead, it’s a book about the implications of that new technology.

John Battelle:

I found a company or two that I thought were reflective of that story. And I just started calling people there, going there, talking to them and the company turned out to be Google. And so I wrote a book about the rise of Google and it happened to be well-timed because it came out right after the IPO and that book shot to the bestseller list and it was published in 25 countries and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

Aaron Dinin:

The book is called The Search, How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture. And the blah, blah, blah, blah John uses to describe it is a modest way of saying that his book is often mentioned as one of the best business books ever written. When it was published back in 2005, it completely transformed the way many people thought about internet culture and how it’s new business models would likely impact the world. 15 years later, we can look back on John’s insights and see how prescient they were, it’s even a bit creepy actually. In addition to the book, John started blogging a choice which ultimately led him to his next major venture.

John Battelle:

I had started a blog to think out loud about the things I was considering as I wrote this book about search and about Google. And that blog went to the moon for a year or two with 300,000 readers a month. And that’s how many readers I had at The Industry Standard. And here it was just me just writing whatever’s on my mind every morning. And I thought okay, does the mechanics of media are shifting in a really interesting and important way. My site is a reflection of that, but I’m not an isolated case. There were people all over the world who were doing exactly what I was doing and who had interesting and similar backgrounds. One was an investment research guy who had crashed during the dot-com crash that turned out to be Henry Blodget who started Business Insider. One was a guy who was a big reporter covering a bunch of these stories that turned out to be Om Malik.

Another was a group of friends who were finding really interesting weird stuff on the internet and that turned out to be BoingBoing. Another was a woman who was just chronicling her parenting stress and that turned out to be Dooce, which is on the largest mommy bloggers in the world. All of these folks are doing this just by themselves. And I have a business background, I have a publishing background, I have a media background. They’re all going to want to do this as they’re living, but nobody who creates, wants to spend 80% of their time selling ads, setting up websites, doing analytics, making advertisers happy, worrying about traffic acquisition all the things that you need to worry about if you’re actually running an internet site, I understood how to do that.

So, that’s when I came up with the idea at the same time, I was writing a book of starting another company called Federated Media. Which would bring all of these sites together, a school of fish that looks like a Whale at a time when the Whales were starting to take over the world, right? AOL was huge, Excite was huge, Yahoo was huge Google was huge, Amazon was huge. And I thought there needs to be a collection of independent voices who thrive because they federate together and that was the next company idea.

Aaron Dinin:

For the better part of the decade, Federated Media was a successful ad network for independent publishers online aka bloggers, who are basically ushering in the age of social media. Plus, at the same time as he was writing a bestseller and building a huge ad network, John was also running one of the most popular and important web industry conferences.

John Battelle:

In many of my conversations I think probably for the book, I went up to see my friend Tim O’Reilly.

Aaron Dinin:

That would be the Tim O’Reilly founder of the popular tech publishing company O’Reilly Media. If you’re in the tech industry, you’ve probably seen some of their books before. They usually include a distinctive wood cut of an animal on the front cover.

John Battelle:

And Tim was just a super smart guy who had started a computer book publishing company, how to do this? How to code HTML? How to JavaScript? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And he had this idea for a conference and I’d run conferences and so we went into business together to do a conference that we called, Web 2.0 and that became a big deal too. So, in 2005, I did three things at the same time and they all worked and I would never suggest anyone do that because it’s exhausting, but it was super fun at the same time because they all were interwoven and they all were about the same story, right? That was a great run from 2003 to 2012, the rise of Web 2.0 the rise of independent publishing through blogs, which really was the first version of social media and the rise of an industry, which coalesced around this event, which we called web 2.0. So once again, I was fortunate to be in the steak of yet another cycle in the technology story.

Aaron Dinin:

So, if you don’t mind me asking, what does that story look like now?

John Battelle:

We could talk for hours about Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and where those platforms might go, but I’ll just leave with a prediction which is, they’re all going away. And they are ephemeral. Everyone thinks that the tech giants are forever and now we need to legislate them out of existence and they’re screwing us up and blah, blah, blah, blah and I’ve been leading the chorus in that in various ways over the past 10 years. But the truth is, the technological changes that are germinating at the moment when combined, because people forget that they combined, it’s not just 5G, it’s not just Blockchain, it’s not just AR, VR in the [inaudible 00:30:43] Metaverse. Come on, Mark. It’s all of them together and the things that people will do with them that are contrary to the core business models of the current giants. That’s what’s going to wipe out the current reigning champs of technology. It’s inevitable to my mind that they will be irrelevant within a generation. It’s built into how they make their money. They will argue with me on this if they care to argue and they don’t, but I’m convinced of it.

Aaron Dinin:

Who’s telling that story now, the story you were trying to tell what the internet standard or is it finally just the mainstream press because tech is well mainstream?

John Battelle:

I think the latter, I wouldn’t name one particular branded publication as carrying the banner so to speak and why it still exists I’m very proud of that. It’s still a very good magazine and I’m very glad that it is still thriving. There really isn’t anything like The Industry Standard extent today and the main reason is because we are still in the media industry in a landscape that is incredibly fractured, actually happily fractured while at the same time, beholden to massive media platforms which have made a living pretending that they’re not media platforms. Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple all pretending they’re not media companies when they have captured the essence of what makes media work, which is the attention and engagement of audiences without honoring the work of a publisher, which is to manage and respect the relationships between advertisers, audiences and brands.

And I think the loss of that has been expressed in many, many ways. One of them is the rise of the Substack. One of them is the rise of podcasting and the rise of documentary filmmaking and then silary or related portion of this and the non-journalistic world is the rise of scripted television, the rise of high quality independent production outfits that can make whatever they want and sell it, that’s awesome. The creator economy, which makes me want to throw up in my mouth, not that I don’t think it’s a good idea. It’s just, it’s always been so. It’s always been so, that creators makes [inaudible 00:33:11] and they look for ways to connect that to people who care about it. That’s hello, what’s a publication but an organized way to get creators work out into the world, right?

And there will always be new organizational structures to get creators work into the world. And that generally speaking, I called those organizations media companies. Call me old fashioned but that’s what they are. And I think we have lost something in the last 10 or so years and the rise of the Facebooks and the Googles and the Amazons and that is the brand that a media company makes, this thing that holds a community together and makes them feel like they’re all part of something and you see it emerging in lots of places, a lot of email news that are driven stuff, right? So, it’s not like it’s dead, but the moment where a particular publication can capture the imagination of an entire generation or industry or segment of the population, I think that moment may have passed.

Aaron Dinin:

Well from the mouth of the person who created one of the last great industry publications, the days of mega media brands, at least the ones that acknowledged themselves as such are dead. And hey, at least according to John, it’s the death of those brands that have given rise to podcasts like this one you just finished listening to. Call me bias but, I think that’s a good thing, I hope you do too. Which means that now that we’re coming to the end of John’s story and the story of The Industry Standard, I hope you’ll take a moment to tell the world by leaving us a nice review on your podcasting app of choice and sharing this episode with a friend and while you’re at it, make sure you subscribed to Web Masters so you get the next episode as soon as it’s released. I want to thank John Battelle for spending a bit of time talking with me.

If you’d like to keep up with his thoughts on the ever evolving story of the internet, you can follow him on Twitter. He’s @johnbattelle. He’s also still blogging though less regularly over at battellemedia.com. This podcast is on Twitter too. We’re @WebMastersPod and I’m on Twitter @AaronDinin. That’s A A R O N D I N I N. If you’d like more content about startups and entrepreneurs, you can also check my website, aarondinin.com. You can even sign up for my newsletter there since according to John, that’s a new and important thing.

Thanks to our audio engineer, Ryan Higgs for helping pull this episode together and thanks to our sponsor Latona’s for all their amazing support. Remember if you’re in the market to buy or sell an internet business, be sure to visit latonas.com.

That’s all for this episode. We’ll be back again with more Web Masters it’s coming soon I promise, but for now well, it’s time for me to sign off.