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Every Friday, I post a small insight into running Curio City and/or Blue Hills Editorial Services. My most recent posts are directly below. You can also start with the first post, or use the subject labels to the right to home in on particular topics. Feel free to comment on anything that interests you.
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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Web Development Begins

By September 2005, I’d built up a good head of steam. I opened a checking account. I trashed out, cleaned, and organized part of our cellar, and started looking for merchandise. I opened a PayPal account. I arranged for web hosting with Navigator Hosting, a small business owned by one of the Octopus Overlords, and the host of that site. I went with Navigator partly to support somebody I know, and partly because I was impressed with Octopus Overlords’ uptime during Hurricane Katrina (Navigator is in Louisiana). And I worked intensively to finish my website spec.

I quickly realized how little I know about two important things: internet technology, and marketing.

Fortunately, the developers that Michelle had recommended (Eric and Polly) explained things as we went along. My computer gaming career gave me considerable experience with software development, but the online environment was all new to me. While Polly (the artist) and I hashed out the look of the site and the logo, Eric (the programmer) explained such arcana as merchant accounts and gateways. He also floated the idea of buying a PHP shopping cart to drastically reduce development costs.

Buying a software package that already included all the basic e-commerce functionality, rather than having it coded from scratch, looked like a very good idea. Eric would customize the basic cart to achieve my spec. He suggested a few possibilities, and I eventually settled on Sunshop, mainly because I liked its interface and support forums.

I have questioned this decision numerous times, and am still ambivalent. Sunshop itself is fine, as far as PHP carts go. But Curio City Online does not exist as a set of static HTML pages. Rather, Sunshop builds pages from templates as they are called up. Without knowledge of PHP programming, I am more dependent on developer support than I would like to be. I’m perpetually unsure what can and cannot be easily implemented. It’s difficult to optimize for search engines – a problem that still plagues me today. All of the help resources I've found are specific to HTML pages.

This might be tolerable if I had my developer’s undivided attention. I do not. Eric puts in time as he can, and progress comes very, very slowly (he does have a day job, after all).

Incidentally, Turnkey is working on a major version upgrade to Sunshop. It will theoretically be ready next month, and the degree to which it solves some shortcomings will greatly affect my opinion of it. That's fodder for a future post.

Once Eric installed Sunshop at Navigator, I pressed him to tackle my many customizations. He convinced me that we really needed to concentrate on just getting the doors open. Reluctantly, I dropped or postponed one planned feature after another. It was hard to watch my vision of a unique, exciting web shopping concept gradually give way to a plain-vanilla online store, just like every other. But October was slipping away already. I wanted to open before Thanksgiving, and we hadn’t even nailed the look yet. The bells and whistles would obviously have to wait. Just getting the basic site up and tested was pretty intense.

Long story short: We did get it done in time for a stress test the weekend before Thanksgiving. It passed. Curio City Online 1.0 was real, and in time for the heart of the Christmas season.

Eric has slowly been plucking away at my task list ever since, most recently completing some support for Google Analytics. I do have a clear plan. First, I want Eric to handle about 10 more tasks that I consider part of Curio City 1.1. I had hoped that he would finish them before Sunshop 4.0 comes out. Then, I want him to perform the upgrade. After that, I can finally set the poor man free, and go into Christmas 2006 with version 1.1. After the holidays, I'll find a new developer to implement the core customizations that comprise Curio City 2.0. Three developers read my spec; one expressed weak interest in taking it on. It is amazing how hard it is to find someone for this without paying big bucks to a big company.

All of this tech stuff gave me an excuse to put off my other major challenge: marketing. I have never liked or cared about marketing. I don’t know anything about it. I’ve never had to deal with it myself before. But it is critical. Curio City will rise or fall based on marketing. I have known this from the beginning. I have also known that I am inadequate for that challenge. I need help.

Next: If You Build It, Will They Come?

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