Behind the scenes at RetouchPRO
First of all, RP is not a business. It's not even a non-profit organization. Technically, I guess it's a hobby, my hobby, but I cringe when I think of it that way.
I started RP after doing an extensive search for a site dedicated to photo restoration and retouching, and coming up blank. I desperately wanted to join such a place, but there wasn't one to join. Being a marketer by trade, I saw a need and instinctively acted to meet that need. Plus I knew that if I wanted such a place, I'd have to make it.
While things were still in the concept stage, I decided on two guiding precepts. One was pragmatic, the other totally subjective. First of all, the site would have to be totally self-supporting. If the users wanted new features, they'd have to figure out a way to pay for them. Second, the site was to be a positive place, where no one would be made to feel badly about their work, wherever they might be on the learning curve, and whatever software they might use.
So, after some initial experimentation and unscientific polling of other groups, I registered the domain and fired up my web editor (I use Adobe Golive).
Since I'm not a skilled web designer or a programmer, I knew I'd be dependent upon off-the-shelf solutions provided by others for the technology behind the site. Since we have no revenue stream, aside from donations, I was further limited to inexpensive or freeware programs.
The initial incarnation of RP was so rudimentary I was embarrassed even as I was making it. We had virtually no content, which didn't really matter all that much since we also had no users. It consisted of some ham-handedly designed pages and a freeware forum package, all on a free webserver.
The primary method of site interaction was email. People would email me things, and I'd do my best to lay it out and publish it, sometimes as a web page, sometimes as a forum post. The forum didn't allow attachments, so any files would either have to be done as links provided by the user, or I'd have to upload their files myself and make a link for them.
It wasn't long before I was spending 6-8 hours per day simply acting as middleman for our users. So I had to look for other solutions or the site would die simply due to my only having so many hours to spare.
The first step I had to make was choosing a better forum program. Again, I'm not a programmer, so it had to be off-the-shelf and inexpensive. Luckily, at the time a program that had been available for some time was gaining a huge userbase, and due to its unique structure and licensing policy it also had a very active developer community. That forum software was vBulletin, the same software you're reading this post on right now.
After that decision was made, several changes were necessary so it could be implemented. The software itself wouldn't run on our existing site, a free provider of webspace. We were also running out of room, since they only allocated 20meg per site. So, I did even more research and found a good hosting company that had the technology needed for the new forum software and a price that fit my budget (again, basically zero).
Additionally, since there was no profit incentive to offer an import function for a small, free, unpopular forum package, our existing posts could not be easily brought into vBulletin. I solved this with brute force, by locking the doors, brewing up gallons of coffee, and simply copying and pasting the existing posts into the new software. Even now if you look at our oldest posts you'll see they're actually many, sometimes dozens, of individual posts all jammed into one long post with me listed as the author.
It was apparent I couldn't handle all the housekeeping chores by myself, so I drafted some volunteer help. These kind souls free up a lot of my time by taking responsibility for individual forums, and by watching the site in general. Even today, these volunteer moderators are probably the single most important factor in the growth of RP. Though we've added some, and some have moved on, there is no way RP would exist today without them.
As the popularity of vBulletin grew, a small aftermarket of software authors developed, offering software that could read vBulletin's member database. This promised to be important, since it would allow members (you) to register only once, yet access several actually unrelated programs. Unfortunately, this has had mixed success. It seemed either the software was spot-on but the integration was flawed, such as in our links database program, or the integration was excellent but the software itself wasn't a perfect fit.
This latter situation is the case with our Gallery software. Our Gallery is based on Photopost, a program authored by a kindred spirit in his off-hours. Photopost was unusual in that it was an image upload and viewing program that could read the vBulletin user database, and even be made to physically resemble vBulletin, but it was being written for an entirely different market with very different needs.
But we had our own needs here, and Photopost proved to solve some of them, though not nearly as many as I'd hoped. We were now able to offer our members space to display a few of their best work examples, and other users could comment on them. But the comments were in an image upload program, not in our forum software, so many were confused about why they looked the same but didn't interact with each other. Actually, this is still the case today.
Unfortunately, tens of thousands of other customers found our same hosting company simultaneously due to their extensive feature list and low price, and their service quality dropped to a level that made them synonymous with bad service and outages. But, since the only way I could afford them was to pay a year in advance, we were locked in for the duration.
In one of my proudest moments, our users banded together and formed a donation drive so we could move to a better web server once our contract was up with our overloaded host. For the first time, cost was not my primary consideration when looking to expand the site. I was able to move us over to a host with the best reputation I could find (site5.com). It felt good then, and it still feels good.
Over time, the authors of the various programs we rely on add features, and I make use of them where I can. The new version of Golive allowed the cosmetic redesign of the site. A new version of Photopost allowed its use for Challenge entries, and more features will be added soon. A new version of vBulletin is coming this fall, with a ton of new features (and a whole new batch of incompatibilities with our other software). Even the menubar that everyone either loves or hates has been revised.
So here we are, one guy running a hobby (ick) site, helped by some of the nicest and most generous volunteers anywhere, serving a userbase that runs the gamut from working professional retouchers to enthusiastic novices back to accomplished artists, all held together by free or cheap software that was never really meant to be used for these purposes. And still with no budget to speak of.
Thanks for taking the time to compose this little bit (well, a lot, actually) of history. A facinating read.
The culture, diversity and quality of content here are exceptional.
I'm proud to be able to point to RP as a site from which I've learned much and, more importantly, developed some terrific relationships.
Doug, thank you for the background information. I personally care very much. When I found RetouchPro, I was immediately impressed by the sense of community that showed in all areas of the site. I have learned a great deal about PhotoShop and also a great deal about community and caring for others.
You and the RetouchPro volunteers have earned a big round of applause and a bouquet of roses....
That was quite a writeup Doug! Congratulations. This site also means a lot to me. It seemed that in the early days, even though there weren't many people here, we had a good time. Kind of like we were at a family reunion or something. There have been a lot of fine people who joined the site since, and I don't think the original character of the site has changed a lot. It's just much bigger. Oh yeah, you need a roadmap too.
I am one of the enthusiastic novices.. My retouch diploma will read from "THE UNIVERSITY OF RETOUCHPRO". All of my retouching experience has come in the last six months from this site. I really appreciate the people here and feel like I know a lot of you..
I know several of the recent threads must me troubling to you but growing pains are never easy and everyone usually gets through them..
So thanks again for the effort and hang in there....
Thanks for the information Doug. I've certainly learned a lot during my short time here.
Just one question:
How much webspace/bandwidth is need to host a site like this? Most forums want a link to my site for my images. RP on the other hand has space to upload seemingly unlimited KB's of graphics.
That was a very nice story Doug. I think alot of members would like to know what goes on behind the scenes.
What happens when we max our alloted space?
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