Diary of a Dot Com
A Case Study

Charlie Balch

The following documents the process that I went through to create and deploy a commercial website and can be considered a case study. I'm fortunate that I have (or think I have) the myriad skills needed to develop software, deploy and advertise a commercial site.

It should be understood that this is just a diary of my .com project. It is not all that I do. In addition to this development, I do a lot of consulting, teach full time at the University of the Virgin Islands and have a life that includes important things like long lunches with my wife.

I'm also revising a rather large CouresWare project that has been pet a project for some time.

Finally, this is what is happening as its happening. I don't know how this is going to turn out. Hopefully I'll make a million dollars plus. On the other hand, I may hit a snag. I'll include my dollar and hour costs as I go along.

June 1, 01
I Discover a need. My wife and I recently moved to a new house. The current location is much closer to a main road than our old location and street noise is keeping her up. When she can't sleep, I can't sleep so I went in search of a solution. I recalled that I used to have some CDs with environmental sounds such as waves and wind that could be used to drown out external noise. With the move and the years, I'd no idea where the CDs went and ordering one was out as I need an immediate a solution.

No problem, there's thousands of software apps out there on the net and an obvious need for something that creates an ambient sound to drown out external noise. Sort of like a screen saver for your ears. Someone must have created such an app. I was hoping for public domain or shareware but figured I might have to pay a few bucks but it would be worth it.

I searched for over an hour with all sorts of keywords and couldn't find anything like what I was looking for. I'm very good at searching so this was a surprise. I was even having trouble finding public domain sound files! This was all very interesting but wasn't getting me any sleep. I settled on playing one of the sound files that I found in a closed loop. The sound file was not well edited but served the purpose.

If I want it, I assume many other people do as well. I might have to educate them so they understand why the want it though.

June 2, 01
Explore Viability I chatted with some folks about the concept of creating a sound generator. I did need to explain the concept a few times. While doing this, I came up with sound keywords such as ambient, sound, relaxing, personal space. Once they understood, everyone seemed to like the idea. I also did more searches for public domain sounds and got a lot of good ideas for the types of sounds that I want to use.
I'm going to focus on natural sounds. Right now I want to work with continuous sounds but eventually I want to use intermittent sounds such as bird calls, crickets and such.
June 3-6, 01
Create a test product I've done more than a bit of programming but I've never worked with sound before. Time for a crash course in learning how to code sound. A few days later I have satisfied myself that I can code with sound and have created a basic application that my wife has fallen in love with. I suppose that I shouldn't be insulted when she asks "Did you really write that?"
Market Strategy: I've decided on a two level approach. I'll give away a fully functional version of the software that doesn't have the features of the deluxe version. The give away version will have something slightly annoying in the interface - maybe something like a big "un-Registered" splash screen. Upgrading will remove the un-registered splash and provide some additional features. Another possibility is a Jr version.
June 7, 01
Improve the product The sound files that I've been working with are OK for testing but need a lot of editing and reformatting. I spend a day researching the various sound editors.
To do my research, I visit numerous Bulletin Boards, news groups, web sites and such. I also quizzed my buddy Erik Pattison and brother Ben Hudnall who are the only sound gurus I know. Despite the advice I got from my gurus, I decided to go with CoolEdit 2000. At about $70, it is far more affordable than the best rated packages which cost around $400. If this idea takes off, I'm going to buy a nice digital recorder and start collecting my own sounds. I'll be able to expense out a lot of travel that way.
For now, I'm spending a lot of time learning how to edit sound which involves all sorts of new terms and techniques. Sound is every bit as complicated as images when it comes to editors and there was a steep learning curve. I got it worked out well enough for my immediate needs in about six hours. My sound files all loop nicely and are about a quarter their original size. I've a lot more to learn about editing sound though and have not even begun to scratch the surface of file types.
I'm thinking that I might want to switch to some other sound generation technique or file format. There should be algorithms out there. On the other hand I'm using the .wav format which, while primitive and large, should run on most any system. I know that I'll review this decision a number of times.
June 9, 01
I've polished up the software a bit and sent it to a few friends for comments. It is only working with about half the folks that I send it to. The ones it works for are all programmers. I suspect that it works for the programmers because they have the same sort of programming support files installed that I d. I don't have much experience with creating executables for installation on generic computers. It's always something.
Got a site! I've been mulling around what a good name for the product/website should be. The development name to this point has been "backgrounder" which just doesn't feel right.
My PPs contract allows me up to eight web sites and I've recently handed off a couple of them so I've got a slot. With a slot open, it only costs me $15 a year to add another site (my 8 site contract is $50 a month). The perfect site name is critical. The name hits me today. SereneSound.com! As the name hits me, my wife and I are supposed to be going out in five minutes. I manage to get the site registered in fifteen.
I could have done it in five but for some reason my normal registrar dotster.com is having trouble with my credit card (I later learn that they had just installed new security software). I'm in a panic - I've just put the perfect website name out on the ether and my registrar bounced it! I do some quick research and discover www.dotEarth.com from the list at betterwhois.com (betterwhois.com is a great place to discover who owns a site - everyone offers help in choosing names). DotEarth is registered with ICann which makes them as good as anyone else and actually cheaper than dotster. No problem with the registration this time. I fire off a quick Email to my PP letting them know add my new site to their name server. (My PP is CrystalTech.com - not the cheapest but very reliable. Over the years, I've learned that reliable is more important than saving a few bucks.) I now own SereneSound.com and am very happy. My wife is used to this sort of thing...
BTW - The site name is a variation on my favorite screen saver at SereneScreen.com
It takes a few days for a new site address to propagate across the net so I'm glad to have registration done early in the process. I can now start creating the page. It is very important that the page be complete before it is released. There are few things more annoying to a net surfer than a dead link. Of course the software has to be solid but presentation is at least equally huge.
June 10, 01
I play around with my application software (Visual Basic 6) and teach myself how to create an install package. I'm not very happy with the install package that comes with the software. In particular, the documentation is poor about adding associated files (in my case sound files). I finally figure it out. The good thing is that it appears that all the associated system files that I need are included automatically. The folks who had install failures that I discussed before had mentioned that their systems were looking for specific files - I see these files on the install list. I think I'm now ready to go but don't want to push my testers to often. I know that I'll be making some changes is the next few days so I'll wait for them before I re-recruit my testers.
I'm still not happy with the install though. First it is a little big at 2.5 megs and there are three files. I don't want to spend my life telling folks that they have to double click on setup.exe.
June 11, 01
SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses Opportunities, Threats No business strategy is complete without a review of these basic questions. Regarding threats, with all this research I've found two apps that are something like what I want to create. They don't seem to do what I have in mind though. I.E. Who would find the sounds of gun shots relaxing? Also the controls are very complex - not what you want when you are trying to relax. I still appear to have a unique product - a strength and opportunity. My weakness is that all is not ready yet. Another strength is that I won't start advertising till it is. I estimate about a week.
June 12, 01
I purchased the self-extractor option for WinZip today. It allows me to completely automate the install process into a single distributable file. WinZip.com. I now have an install that I'm happy with.
The website is up! I need to create some content but first need to settle on some fundamental issues. I want an interactive page so I'll start with an .asp page which will give me a lot of room to play but is a little harder to start up with. I've got a number of sites so I'm simply taking one of them (http://toursism.vigov.net and rewriting as needed. The sites do not look similar as they have different goals.
Choosing the database backend gave me pause - SQL is more fun and more robust but Access is easier and more portable. I can always port over and Access is good for a few hundred thousand folks and a few hundred hits a minute. I'm not expecting bigger numbers than that any time soon so I'll go with Access. When this goes public, I'll be looking closely at the hit counts. One of the reasons I chose Crystaltech is that they have a reputation of being able to handle a high hit rate.
I'm going for simple (serene) feel. I've decided that, to download even the free version, users will be asked for their Email - answering is optional but I want to build a mailing list. There are a lot of dead links on the page but I like the over-all look and feel. Here's a shot of the first page attempt. More tomorrow.
June 13, 01
The self-extractor gave me major grief. I putzed around with the wording of the home page some but the biggest issue is getting a no brainer install. The smaller the better but I can live with the current two meg install. I'm not doing anything weird -- I wish I knew why this app won't work for me. I don't like asking for help but after reading all the documentation, the website FAQ and doing a search of the newsgroups, I sent in a tech support request to the folks at WinZip. It takes a few tries but I finally get an automatic install. The problem was that WinZip likes to maintain a directory structure so the file I wanted to have automatically run was not where I thought it would be.
June 14, 01