July 13, 2006

A family business based on PHP

Author: Tina Gasperson

Tedd Caldwell didn't know much about computers before his dad retired from NASA in 1999. But Dad didn't take too well to just "sitting around"; he needed something to keep him active. After some consideration, Caldwell decided the answer would be to start a family business. So he created a Web site called SeniorGlobe.com, with message boards, chat, links to news stories, and other interactive community content. One good site led to another, until today the Caldwells find themselves in the Web development business.

"None of us had any computer experience at all," Caldwell says of his family. "No money either." They launched SeniorGlobe using Microsoft FrontPage. "That's a pretty good tool, but if you really want your site to do something that wasn't going to be the right tool." FrontPage made too many assumptions about what Caldwell wanted to do with his site, and didn't give him the flexibility to make the changes he needed. He searched for another application that could do what he wanted, but he found nothing affordable or flexible enough. Time for plan B: make your own application.

When he began looking for a programming language to learn, his criteria was still affordability. PHP was the best choice. So he went to Borders and bought "a big book" on programming in PHP. "I just started reading it, and when I was done I said, 'I have no idea what I just read. I can't believe it. I have no idea.'" Caldwell started reading again, but this time he took notes as he went. "It was like I was back in college. I started working through examples of small projects you could do, like adding two numbers together. It was baby steps." Those steps added up, and although Caldwell says he's made "every programming mistake you can make" in the last six years, he has become proficient with the code, and he and his family have expanded their business far beyond the maintenance of one Web site. They've become a full-blown Web development company called SonicFog.

One of the sites SonicFog created, SonicPilot.com, houses a training critique application Caldwell developed. Airlines frequently put their pilots through training programs and solicit feedback from the pilots in order to improve future training. The Web-based survey system provided by SonicPilot.com makes it easier for pilots to respond, increasing the participation level. In addition to SonicPilot, there's also HomeSchoolEdge.com, with an application that helps homeschooling families keep track of grades and assignments.

To keep up with the work, SonicFog has expanded beyond just family members to include another programmer and a tech support person. Dad is the "money guy," and Caldwell's wife also helps out. Even with the growth, Dad's the only one who has quit his day job, but Caldwell says everyone gets a nice monthly stipend. He hopes SonicFog will soon be bringing in enough money to support everyone. He plans to develop more Web-based applications that will enable managers and employees to access important information from anywhere. "People have applications they use at work and only at work that keep them tied down," Caldwell says. "They want to be able to do the same functions at home. We're getting a ton of contacts on that."

Caldwell is enthusiastic about PHP and open source in general. "You can save a lot of money," he says. "But one of the great things about open source is that there are so many communities out there on the Web. People like to talk about how to solve different problems, and a lot of code already exists -– you might not even have to write anything yourself. There's a lot of sharing going on."

Caldwell works to give back to the community. He is sharing a contact form he developed at SonicFog.com, as well as some affiliate program code. "You can start your own affiliate program for free." Caldwell says he wants others to avoid the expense that he ran into with another affiliate program that had him paying "tens of thousands of dollars" and not delivering the results he expected.

He is quick to encourage others who might be considering launching a Web company. "Most of us here are former military guys who don't even know that much about running a business," he says. "We came to this with limited computer experience, but we've been able to keep a company running for six years. We've been humbled along the way many times, but open source has really saved us. We just couldn't afford any other kind of technology."

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