Lessons Learned From An E-Commerce Adventure

It is better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all; and even more important to learn from your mistakes.

That is what I keep telling myself after having invested the time and cash equivalent to a Harvard MBA in an e-commerce start-up that has stalled and is winding down. Not a happy prospect in light of all the media pre-occupation with e-commerce success stories and the young millionaires watching their IPOs rocket into cyberspace. But the headlines ignore the more frequent stories of new e-commerce businesses that do not hit the stock market jackpot. Many of them either settle into a low-key niche or exhaust their resources and fold.

This is the story of an Internet venture that did not make the headlines, but offers some useful insights for entrepreneurs evaluating their own initiatives. The lessons learned are applicable to your own new venture or to an investment in someone else’s.

In mid-1998 we launched a new company called nxtNet (www.nxtnet.com) with the slogan … “taking you to the next level on the Internet”.

My partner and I both had prior successful entrepreneurial experience in computer products and wanted to start a new venture together. We decided to develop a business that would catch the next wave of e-commerce services for mid-sized companies seeking to do business on the Internet. After long discussions, searches for a unique service offering, and many draft business plans, we developed a market strategy and then chose Intershop Communications as our software development platform. This product had the advantages of being suitable for single or multiple online storefronts, and offered a flexible, economic and comprehensive solution. We committed to the product, staffing, facilities and equipment to start training and development immediately. The two of us provided the time and cash required to get started.

By October 1998, we had an initial product with application as an online storefront for an associated computer business. At the same time, we realized that the application had wide appeal to other computer dealers and could be sold as a multi-user database service and e-commerce resource. We had developed a consolidated catalogue of 85,000 computer products from multiple distributor product databases that allowed rapid search and comparison for product information, pricing, and current sources. Users could access the catalogue from the Internet and find a product by manufacturer, category, and part number, key word or price range and immediately see the alternate sources and prices with links to more technical information, preferred dealer pricing and actual stock levels. Additional features allowed the catalogue to be customized so that any computer reseller could present the database as his own online storefront. This option offered all the search and product information features to his customers, but showed only retail pricing and enabled the online ordering process.

The product offering quickly received positive feedback and strong indications of support from all the participants – resellers, distributors, and manufacturers. It was a comprehensive, powerful, and effective tool for buying and selling at all levels within the Canadian computer distribution channel. Resellers recognized the value in an online resource to save time and effort. Distributors and manufacturers saw the opportunity to promote their products, and major publishers in the industry wanted to offer complementary online services to their subscribers and advertisers. How could we fail with all this enthusiasm and support?

While the potential for success clearly existed, everybody had the same questions and reservations – “Who is there now?” “How many are using it?” and “I don’t want to pay until it’s bigger”.

Reasonable objections we thought, so we added features and content for free. We promoted the product with free trials and low cost subscriptions for reseller access. Then we coaxed, persuaded, sold hard, and made deals. The “contra” became the standard for obtaining press coverage, free ads, mailing lists and promotion in exchange for free participation and future consideration. Activity on the Web site and catalogue grew to 3000 visitors per month with over 800 subscribers and the distributor list increased from three to twelve.

But revenue remained near zero as most reseller subscribers declined to pay for the service. Reasons were “it should be free – let the advertisers pay”, “I don’t use it enough”, “there are lower cost options”, or “we built our own solution”. The audience did not grow fast enough even after we offered it for free, to satisfy the advertisers and content providers. Without persistent and conspicuous sales and marketing efforts, all the participants quickly lost interest. Meanwhile the costs of database maintenance, ongoing development, site hosting, Internet access, sales, marketing, and administration were increasing.

Clearly the old entrepreneurial model of controlling costs and growing revenue was not going to apply. We had to realign our profile to show how zero revenue and high initial costs could still lead to significant investment returns like other well-known Internet ventures. So from early 1999 we started an aggressive search for financing, estimating our requirements at $500,000 to $1,500,000 over the next two years before achieving positive cash flow. More business plans, spreadsheets, and glossy presentations to demonstrate future valuations up to $20 million, even $40 million.

We knocked on many doors, from banks to government agencies, from angel investors to venture capital, from stock promoters to business consultants, and again received lots of encouragement, but no financing. So the founding partners were faced with a continuing cash drain, no relief in sight, and the limits of their own resources rapidly approaching. It was time to put the project on hold. Strategic partners or investors might still be developed to proceed with the project, but the ongoing expenditures were stopped in late 1999.

So what are the lessons learned? We already knew that nothing ventured, nothing gained. We now also knew that big successes in the new economy require big investments. Entrepreneurs may start small, but large investments will be required from new sources to achieve significant success. And no one will put significant money into a venture unless it is the only remaining requirement.

The concept, product, development, marketing and staffing all have to be in place before an investor will provide the final ingredient – his cash. Exceptions are likely only where the management team has already succeeded in the same arena, or the investor himself can deliver the missing elements, such as customers or management skills. No investor is going to take the chance that the entrepreneur with a good concept or product will also be able to deliver the required management and marketing skills to succeed, after he has the cash.

Next time we will know better. And there are side benefits from this expensive learning experience. I can now admit that with the knowledge gained through our association with Intershop Communications, I was confident enough to make an investment in their stock on the German Neue Markt at 65 Euros last year. It went over 400 Euros last month and is still rising with their rapid growth and the prospect of a NASDAQ listing this year. Almost enough to recover my investment in nxtNet.

So the most important lesson is that education in the new economy is essential, and not free, but it can lead to success outside the original plan. Learn, be aware, and be aggressively opportunistic.

Online Shopping For School Supplies

This season, when it comes time to back-to-school shopping, many parents have decided to switch to online shopping for the supplies and even Dell computers their children need. One could find anything and everything on a child's list for school through various online stores and Internet sites that are connected to real brick and mortar stores. Besides being convenient, getting supplies for school through online vendors, there is also a money saving incentive. Most of the online stores are significantly cheaper than the real world stores, even those connected to a real world store.

Canada online shopping is a big deal because they save even more money and taxes when they shop through the Internet rather than in the brick and mortar stores. Many of the online stores will offer free or very low cost shipping if a person's order total goes over a certain amount and with school supplies, this is easy to do. From notebooks to crayons and staples and pens, most of the online stores carry everything a student will need to outfit them for the new semester ahead.

Now is the time to begin hunting for bargains with all the back-to-school sales, even if one does not have a child going to school. These discounts are for everyone and anyone; They do not have to be a student in order to save money on things like laptop computers, folders, rulers and high tech calculators. Canadian online shopping consists of many different electronics, school supplies such as notebooks, pens, papers and books as well as discounts on clothing and shoes, everything a student would need to go back to school.

For students who are going off to college or universities that will be staying in a dorm or apartment, they need more items then the typical school supplies. These students will need home furnishing type supplies and most of the time; These types of items are also on sale at this time of year. These items consist of bed spread sets, desk and chairs, organizers for a desk, organizers for bathroom necessities for those who share a bathroom with others, small kitchen appliances and area rugs as well soft style floor seating.

There are many smaller office supplies or desk equipment that one may need during the course of a semester that they should purchase now to save themselves from running out and getting it later. Things such as a three hole puncher, ruler, protractor, paperclips, brads, rubber bands, masking and scotch tape, sticky notes, erasers, scissors, colored pencils, markers, glue and white-out. These things may not be used everyday but could be used at some point in the semester for a special project and it would be nice to have them on hand.

A lot of online shops will ship faster service for a small fee if someone needs a certain supply right away for a project. For example a poster board in a certain color or a type of scissors with a wavy edge. These are items that would cost less to purchase online then at the local supply store or book store and saving money is what college students need to do everywhere they can.

There are a couple of things to beware of when shopping online. One is the shipping and handling fees. Most companies are reducing their shipping fees in order to bring in more customers. However, they are raising their handling fees to make up for this lack of income. An individual would be wise to shop around for an online shop before filing their shopping cart they will no doubt save even more money.

There are also some stores online that will charge taxes and other that do not. There is no law that says an online store needs to collect taxes from a state where they are selling to. For example if a person lives in Missouri and they are shopping at a place in Texas, they may have to pay a Texas state tax online but they do not have to pay Missouri state taxes. This is something to watch out for.

Everything You Need to Know Before You Buy

Asian Walnut wood flooring is one of the most unique hardwood species available in the market today. Often referred to as Acacia, this walnut hard wood floor is harvested obviously in Asia. Asian Walnut wood floors have become increasingly popular in the last few years. Although Oak is still the # 1 seller in wood flooring, exotic species such as Asian Walnut and Brazilian Cherry have made long strides towards becoming main stream wood flooring choices. If you are looking for a very distinct floor that is considered a center piece for your room or home, Asian Walnut hardwood flooring is definitely worth considering. There are several things you need to know when considering the exotic Asian, Acacia Walnut species of floors.

Most Asian Walnut floors are offered with a factory finish. Factory finished means the factory has applied multiple, protective coats of either polyurethane, aluminum oxide, or a combination of both. These finishes protect the floor from minor scratches and wear. Of course any wood floor can be scratched, but the current factory finishes are much better than 20 years ago. The best option is to find an Acacia wood floor with either an aluminum oxide or combination of aluminum oxide and polyurethane finish. If you buy unfinished, Asian Walnut wood flooring it will have to have the protective finish applied after installation in your home. This type of in home finish is not very comparable to a factory finish as a installer can not duplicate the heat and pressure to the boards the same as a manufacturing process in a factory.

Asian Walnut is usually available in 3 colors or stains. Natural is the most common color. Actually, natural is unidentified but has a protective finish. The natural Asian Walnut boards will have a wide variety of color ranges from dark to light. The darker colors will be slightly more predominant though. Another color commonly sold is Cinnamon or sometimes called Cherry. This color has slight, red hues to give a classy, ​​semi formal look. Cinnamon is a very rich, deep stain. The final color you may find is a stain sometimes called Smoke or Toffee. Smoke stained, Asian Walnut floors have a very similar appearance to another species, Black Walnut. The stain is not actually black or extremely dark, but does have a defect, darker hue than the other colors you will find. A Smoke stain, Asian Walnut is a nice alternative to it’s cousin, Black Walnut as the Asian version may be priced slightly less.

A tip to remember when getting samples of Asian Walnut hardwood flooring is to ask for two samples. Asian Walnut, or Acacia wood has substantially different characteristics between every board. Two samples will give you a much better idea of ​​what the floor is going to look like. Another hint is once you have decided to go with a specific color or dealer, buy one box first. When you get the box, loose lay it out in an area of ​​your home to make sure you like the color and style. You may or may not be able to send the box back to the dealer, but, your initial investment will be much less than if you had purchased the entire job. If for some reason you do not like the Acacia hardwood floor, you are only out about $ 100 or so instead of thousands.

A few design and construction notes to consider are the characteristics of Asian Walnut wood flooring. Almost always, Asian Walnut is a 3/4 “solid board which is designed for a nail down installation. The Asian species of Walnut wood flooring also has a distinct grain pattern. Large swirls and a loose grain structure give Asian Walnut one of the most Unique looks of any wood species sold today. This unique grain pattern works very well in large rooms and areas. Another characteristic of Asian Walnut, or Acaica hardwood flooring is the board lengths typically are not longer than about 4 feet. A tall growing tree, so the boards tend to be slightly shorter than traditional walnut trees. A final note on Asian, Acacia Walnut properties is that that it rates very highly on the Janka Scale coming in around 2,300 The Janka scale is a measurement used to Determine the hardness of a hardwood species. The higher the number, the harder the wood At 2,300, Asian Walnut is much harder than common Oaks which are around 1,300 or so. As a reminder, any hardwood floor can be bent, sc Ratched, scuffed etc, however, the harder the wood, the tougher it is.

A Worm Farm on a Budget

Have you wanted to set up a home worm farm, but been put off by the high cost of purchasing one of the neat “designer label” multi-tiered ” vermicomposting” kits, promoted by garden centers and mail order companies? Well, let’s cut through the crap! – ITS ACTUALLY NO SECRET !!! -You can easily make your own DIY three bin kit for a just a few dollars and your worms will be as happy as little pigs in the yellow stuff, with no big bad wolf in sight. Moreover, you do not need to be an expert handyman to achieve this!

  • Hardware stores, supermarkets and camping outlets sell tough, general purpose black (opaque) plastic storage containers for a very reasonable price. These are usually tapered so that they can be nested to facilitate stacking on the retailer’s shelves and come with a ” snap-fit” ce lid. For your worm farm, you will need three of these tapered containers (but only one lid). For a simple home worm farm I would advise going for 12 gallon (45 liter) containers. Typically, they will be about 15 inches deep (400mm). You can go smaller, if you want.
  • In the first storage container, drill a 3/8 inch (15mm hole), centrally placed, in the side of the bin, just above the base. Insert a inch inch (12mm) cheap plastic barrel or irrigation tap (with washers) into your hole and tighten fast with lock nuts – make sure you get a good seal – test by filling the container with tap water. This container is to be the lowest one in your stack and will retain the highly nutritional ” worm tea ” leachate, that will start dripping down from the composting bins above. Worm tea is a valuable liquid organic fertilizer, that can be diluted and used directly on your organic vegetables.

The two upper bins will actually hold the worms. They are to be identified and are prepared as follows: -

  • Drill a pattern of inch inch (6mm) holes across the entire base of each container for drainage and to allow drainage and the upward migration of the compost worms, these holes should be regularly spaced at approximately two inch (50mm) centers in either direction.
  • For aeration, drill two rows of inch inch (6mm) holes at two inch (50mm) centers, in a continuous band around each of the bins. This band of holes would be about four inches (100mm) below the top rim of the bin.
  • It is not essential to drill holes in the lid, which is closed tightly over the upper bin. As you should get enough air through the sides.
  • You first set up the lower (sump) bin on bricks or blocks, allowing enough space to tap off the fluid from beneath it. Choose a shady location for the worm farm (in a shed or garage, if you are subject to frosts).
  • The second and third bins are “nested” within each other and dropped into the sump bin. To maintain a working space for the worms, and for accumulation of compost, you need a few spacers or packers of about six to eight inches height, between the two upper bins and some smaller packers of about four inches in the lower (sump) bin . You can use wood blocks or sealed food jars for packers. The packers also prevent the tapered worm bins from jamming together.
  • To prevent “nasty bugs” from squeezing in between the bins, you should close ( caulk ) the small gap between them with strips of shade cloth, or mosquito netting.

Now you are ready to go into production. Spacevents us from giving fully detailed notes here for the fine points of operating the system, such as selecting and feeding your worms, eradicating pests and maintaining the worm farm etc – you can visit our website for this information. However, just make sure that you cover the following points: -

  • Set up your worms in the top bin with a good (damp) fibrous bedding (or even shredded newspaper) and after a few days you will be ready to start feeding in your kitchen scraps. Cover the food with more bedding material to discourage pests and keep the lid closed.
  • Make sure the worm farm is never allowed to dry out, by sprinkling water over the bedding periodically, if there is not already enough moisture coming from the food scraps.
  • When the top bin has been fully productive for a while, the worms will multiply and compost will be start accumulating from the worm castings. When the quantity of compost is meaningful, stop putting feed into this bin and swap over the upper two bins by putting bin No 2 to the top of the stack, with bin No 1 now in the middle. Set up this new top bin with clean bedding, a small amount of the old castings and immediately start feeding your kitchen scraps into it. The worms will naturally migrate upwards towards the new food source, leaving the lower bin with only a few stragglers and ready for the harvesting of your compost within about three weeks after the swap.
  • All you need to do is to keep repeating the process of alternating the top two bins on a regular basis, taking out the compost, whenever it accumulates, and tapping off the worm tea from time to time. Use both products in your garden and grow delicious fully organic vegetables and stunning roses. Sit back and enjoy the fruit of your labors – your worms are doing most of the work anyway!

To see a detailed diagram of this simple worm farm, as described, and some illustrative photos, you can visit our web site at http://www.working-worms.com/

Happy worming!