September 7, 2004

Web design company uses open source shopping cart to grow business

Author: Tina Gasperson

Chris Winfield knows that his clients need low-cost custom Web site design and deployment. Winfield's company, 10e20, has found that offering those solutions is easier with open source software applications like osCommerce.Winfield and his staff do some coding, but 10e20 is more of a design company. They never wanted to build apps from scratch, so Winfield used to employ proprietary software options for his clients, who are mostly small to medium-sized businesses running ecommerce sites. He found himself running into problems, however, when the clients needed custom tweaks to the shopping cart software.

10e20 couldn't make the tweaks -- it had to go to the company that sold the software and ask for the changes, only to be told, "Oh, that feature is coming out in the 2006 release!" That wouldn't sit well with 10e20's customers. Winfield didn't believe it was good customer service to tell a client that they wouldn't be able to do want they wanted to do with their Web site.

"We need to be able to service those small requests," he said. "For us to have to go back to our customer and say, 'OK, everything else you wanted we can do, but for that one little change....' -- then what happens is, good-bye customer."

Not only that, but Winfield found he was having to pass high subscription costs for the shopping cart programs on to his clients -- not a good move when you've billed yourself as a low-cost solution.

It didn't take long to figure out that traditional proprietary software just wasn't going to work for 10e20, yet Winfield didn't want to take the time and expense to develop a huge application in-house. He and his staff started looking around for another solution and happened upon osCommerce.

osCommerce is free (in both senses) open source software that uses PHP, Apache, and MySQL. Winfield likes it because his staff can tweak it to enhance usability for his clients. Once they decided to adopt it one of their first actions was to change the way it generates URLs. Since the program is database-driven it creates what Winfield calls "search engine unfriendly" URLs. "Our clients live and die by search engines, so we definitely wanted to provide them with URLs that would enhance their rankings," Winfield said.

In fact, Winfield said he and his staff spent a good deal of time completely customizing osCommerce as a whole to fit clients' needs -- something that was impossible with proprietary software packages. "And then what we do is we give back," he said. 10e20 contributes the code changes it makes back to the osCommerce community. "As a business, I know it doesn't do us any good just to keep this to ourselves. If we get so much benefit out of other people's work, I don't believe we should keep it."

ocCommerce hasn't presented many challenges to 10e20, other than support issues. Winfield misses being able to pick up the phone and call support when there are problems. He said having the experience and knowledgability of the open source community available has been good, if frustrating at times. "It's interesting because many times in the support forums you get 10 different answers, and each one sounds like a great answer."

Another problem is documentation for users. They've had to take time in-house to write documentation so that they and their clients have something to refer to when questions arise. "That was never really in our minds. It's a major issue," said Winfield. "We have to know how to run the software so we can help the clients. That's cost me in employee time. But it has never even been anywhere close to outweighing the benefits."

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