SLentrepreneur Profile: Real Estate Mogul Ayesha Lytton

December 17th, 2009  |  Published in SL Entrepreneur Magazine, SL Entrepreneur Profiles  |  1 Comment

By Sitearm Madonna for SL Entrepreneur

Ayesha Lytton, Owner, Solace Beach Estates, runs a thriving real-world business in the Second Life® virtual world. With 2 years and counting operational success, 60 and counting sims to her name, acceptance this year to the Linden Lab Community Gateway Program, and new-direction expansion plans for 2010, Ayesha is sitting pretty “on top of the (virtual) world”. We had a chance to ask her a few probing questions with the following results.

Solace Beach estates owner, Ayesa Lytton, nominated for SLentrepreneur of the Year 2009

What is your educational background?

I have a BA in English / Creative Writing from Stanford University, and a MA in Community Psychology from Antioch University.

Have you worked in the Internet industry before, or was SL a new career path for you?

I’ve been involved in online communities since 1995. I was in college, had Internet access for the first time, and started reading a musical theatre USENET newsgroup. I sent an e-mail to a woman who was posting there, and it ended up changing the path of my entire life. I started an e-mail discussion list (THE way to talk back then, there were no web forums let alone blogs or Facebook) and an IRC chat room, and met all sorts of fascinating people from all over the world. That led to traveling all over the US and Canada, and meeting many of them in person. The original person I e-mailed ended up becoming one of my best friends and we lived 5 minutes from each other for several years. So I suppose I’m a prime example of how communities can form online and then extend into the real world.

I worked for a few different Internet companies over the years, including a music website that had customizable Internet radio that would play songs based on how you rated other songs and artists. It was an early form of what we see now with iTunes Genius, Amazon recommendations etc. It was really on the cutting edge. Working there, I also gained an understanding of the startup / Internet company culture – which has been helpful in dealing with Linden Lab.

How did you come to be a part of SL?

I had a business (with the friend I previously mentioned) making t-shirts and buttons. Then we both moved, and as we once again live on different continents, we got the idea to sell digital versions of our shirts in SL. I had joined SL already, but found it hard to meet people and find a community to get involved with, so I wasn’t on much. We had no idea of the economics of SL or that we’d never make tier trying to sell 30L$ t-shirts. But it got me learning and meeting people.

At the same time, I was dealing with a personal tragedy in my real life – my stepmother was dying of ovarian cancer. My father was facing being widowed for the second time in 10 years (my mother also died of cancer). As a way of coping with the loss, I decided to create a peaceful, beautiful place in SL, somewhere that new residents and others could go to meet people, get help, and find a community. That core idea led to the Solace Beach name, our underwater treasure hunt, and everything else that has followed.

Solace Beach estates owner, Ayesa Lytton, nominated for SLentrepreneur of the Year 2009
(Solace Beach signature Pirate ship with flags waving at sunset.)

Tell us about the current scope of your business and the services you offer.

Solace Beach Estates has over 60 sims. 4 of them are the Solace Beach Community sims. Solace Beach itself has a treasure hunt, shopping area, club, and live music venue. Attached to it, we have Black Pearl Beach, a full-sim amusement park with rides and an arcade, and Black Sand Beach, which is home to our pirate village shopping area. Last but not least, we have Solace Cove, our Community Gateway sim. Community Gateways are resident-run, Linden Lab-approved orientation islands. New residents joining SL can choose to arrive at our island instead of the LL-operated orientation. We have mentors to help them learn the SL basics, and a sandbox where we hold building classes several days a week.

The other sims are rental properties – I have both residential and commercial sims with a variety of themes and terrains. We have beach land, of course, but also green, winter, and gothic land. I try to appeal to a wide variety of SL residents.

We have a website online at http://www.solacebeach.com – it includes an events calendar and searchable property listings.

How have you built and grown your business?

When I started out, I didn’t plan to go into the land business at all. My first landlord had 40 sims and I thought that sounded like an insane amount of work. Then I found myself spending 8+ hours a day in SL, and decided that what I really wanted was to make a living from it. Renting land seemed like the logical way to do that.

I mostly built my business by buying out other land companies that wanted to sell off their sims. This allowed me to acquire sims at a lower cost, and often with tenants. If you can buy a sim with tenants and manage to keep most of them, you’re at a major advantage compared to buying an empty sim. Existing tenants mean that there is demand for the land. That said, I am done growing for the foreseeable future – the market simply won’t support more growth. Plus, I don’t want to become so big that service suffers or becomes very impersonal.

How do you manage such a large number of regions, plus all of your events, meetings, and other responsibilities?

Well, most importantly, I don’t do it alone. I have a wonderful staff of estate managers who take care of most tenant / land related tasks, and a sales / marketing manager. Then I have Kalli Birman, our Community Manager, who is basically my right-hand woman. She manages the community gateway mentoring program and schedules all of our events. She’s much more organized than I am and she’s not afraid to tell me when I’m making a mistake. Finding hard-working, trustworthy employees – whom you get along with as friends, too – is key to a successful SL business.

I have to do a lot of time management. It’s very hard for me to say no to people. However, I’m learning how to delegate, and how to filter the IMs I receive. I set up an auto reply using the Greenlife Emerald viewer; it gives a notecard that answers common questions and directs people to the appropriate staff member. It has really helped with the “RU online?” and other time-wasting type IMs I get.

What marketing strategies have been successful for you?

I threw myself into learning as much as possible about marketing and how to get a high position in search. I managed to get to #1 or #2 for all major land keywords, though it has cost me a small fortune. Since Solace Beach specializes in helping new residents, one of my early sims was entirely comprised of small, low-cost parcels. It has been a great introduction to SL land for a lot of people, and as I intended, many go on to rent larger, nicer parcels on my other sims.

We recently introduced a gift card system for land tier. As far as I know, we are the only estate company that offers gift cards. They make great promotional items – we give them out at events and to people who put Solace Beach shops in their Picks. They encourage our guests to check out our land offerings, and our tenants to attend events.

What are some of the challenges you have faced in running a SL business, and how are you overcoming them?

This summer was rough. The SL summer slump and the homestead grandfathering deadline left me with a lot of available land. I had also begun to feel burnt out, like something was missing. The community wasn’t really coming together in the way I hoped. We had a small core group of loyal regulars, but we also had a lot of leeches – people who were coming to the sim to get free stuff and L$, but not participating in activities or giving anything back. Somewhere along the way, I’d lost the core, the soul of Solace Beach. Something had to change, but I didn’t know what.

The answer came to me one night when I was fortunate enough to hear SL singer Tamra Sands, who is a well known musical theatre performer in RL. Her performance deeply moved me, and brought back memories of that first online community I was part of and the people I met. I realized that those intelligent, creative, compassionate individuals were the kinds of people I wanted to know in SL, to have as a part of Solace Beach. The arts were the glue we needed to hold the different aspects of Solace Beach together. I had come full circle.

Since then, Solace Beach has shifted its community theme and focus to the arts, particularly live music. I re-built the central waterfall that serves as the centerpiece of the sim, and it now includes an event venue with gorgeous views of the surrounding sims. We have live music just about every day, with performers such as Tamra Sands, Jean Munro, Skye Galaxy, Zachh Cale, and many others. We’ve also added more club events, a talk show, and an art gallery is in the works. A whole new group of people is discovering Solace Beach, and I feel re-energized and optimistic about the future.

What would you say to someone who is considering starting a business in Second Life?

I would honestly advise them NOT to go into the land business. I’m not saying that because I don’t want the competition, but because it would be a poor investment for them. SL is not growing at the rate it once was. There is a lot of mainland sitting for sale at cheap prices or abandoned. Estate land is even worse. There is just simply more land than people wanting it. The market has to correct itself and that means that some businesses will fail. Those who are determined to succeed need to offer more value for the money, better service, unique properties, and a vibrant community.

Now, all that said, I would not discourage anyone from going into other SL businesses. There is always room for good creators – building or making clothing can be very profitable because there is less overhead. Profit margins in the land business are very small – whereas you can set up a nice big store for 2000L$/week or so in tier and potentially make a few hundred US dollars a month. The trick is to keep up with the latest trends and techniques – sculpties, for example – and to learn to market your store and products. If I could do it all over again, I’d probably learn to sculpt and make waterfalls, trees, and other landscaping items. I love to build those things, but I almost never have time to do so.

What do you like most about your job?

I enjoy the creative aspects of my job the most. Coming up with new ideas, developing a vision for what I want the community to be and then bringing it to life. I love designing and landscaping new sims, making them beautiful and unique. I love building when I have the time. Working with and listening to our live musicians feeds my soul. I enjoy watching new residents coming to our gateway and learning, seeing them attending our club and live music events and meeting new friends. Some people who came to Solace Beach as newbies have gone on to work for us, including one of my main Estate Managers – who is also now a good friend. Ultimately it is the people who keep me in this job…knowing that I helped someone or made their day a bit better.

What do you dislike most about your job?

The most unpleasant part of my job by far is dealing with difficult customers. I get very frustrated when people pester me for help and have clearly not read the signs or tried to help themselves. Sometimes people demand answers NOW and give no thought to the fact that I am a person. I may be AFK, helping another customer, or even just enjoying live music or shopping. (Though it’s rare that I can do either without multitasking/dealing with IMs). Some people think that because this is a virtual world and they are somewhat anonymous, that makes it acceptable to be rude or to threaten others. They don’t understand that just as in RL, they need to pay their rent and follow the covenant.

What do you think about your competitors?

Well first of all, I don’t really see other community-oriented land companies as being competitors. They are trying to make SL a better place just as I am – and in many cases, we appeal to different niche markets. I am out to challenge the big guys – the estates with hundreds of sims but no service and no soul. I want people to see that there are alternatives, and that community and customer service matter.

What are your impressions of Linden Lab so far?

I have had mixed experiences with the Lindens. I am not one of those people who is constantly ragging on LL. If they offered me a job, I’d probably take it. My overall opinion is that they are basically well-intentioned, but do not always have a good understanding of the realities of doing business in SL. It is very difficult to make money here, especially when considering the cost of their services (tiers) compared to the value of the micropayment currency (L$).

Right now LL is going through growing pains as a company. There is a conflict between the new, corporate suit Lindens and the innovative, fly by the seat of your pants Lindens who have built the company up to this point. I believe that the key to their future as a company will be to deliver the consistency and stability of the corporate types without stifling developer or resident creativity too much.

What are your impressions of the Linden Lab Community Gateway Program so far?

I have had very good experiences with the Gateway program. Applying and getting accepted was straightforward and fair. I wasn’t anyone special to LL when I joined – simply a resident who got to where she is through a lot of hard work. The gateway was a natural extension of what Solace Beach was already offering, and it has brought a lot of great people to our community. My only complaint is that LL offers us no discount on tier for the gateway sim, and I have to staff it out of my own pocket, so it is quite expensive to run.

Despite our best efforts to help them, the current state of the SL interface creates many challenges for new residents. LL needs to create a simplified “starter version” of the viewer to improve the new user experience and retention rate. They also need to develop a viewer with basic graphics that will run on low power computers like Netbooks, and maybe even one for devices like the iPhone. Until they do these things, there is only so much we as gateways can do to get new users into SL and keep them there.

What are your plans going forward into 2010?

One of my priorities is to do more RL outreach, both to bring more people into SL and to develop more stable funding sources. $100/month is not a lot of money to a real-world company, but it goes a long way towards covering tier on a sim. I’m also focusing on community development, ways of getting new and established residents to attend and participate in more events. Although SL is a social world, people tend to isolate themselves a lot. SL has so much potential, and I hope to see it continue to grow and thrive, and to be a part of that experience.

Responses

  1. SLENTRE.COM» SL Entrepreneur 2009: And the nominees are… says:

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