January 4, 2007

YoYoNation pledges allegiance to open source

Author: Tina Gasperson

In 2005, two former Merrill Lynch techies, young and living large in New York City, left their jobs to start a company based on their favorite pastime: playing with yo-yos. YoYoNation is more than just an online retailer -- it is a community for all things yo-yo, with a mission to make New York the "center of the yo-yo universe." This particular universe runs on open source software.

Patrick Cuartero and Weber Hsu launched YoYoNation in 2005, after working with SUSE Linux on mainframes at Merrill Lynch. "My job was to take everything from the QA level and push it out to the production level," says Cuartero. Both founders graduated with technology degrees and went through Merrill Lynch's in-house technology training program, which introduced them to a wide range of platforms that included open source applications and tools.

So, when Cuartero and Hsu looked at starting an online store, they looked at open source technology. Hsu says that at first, it seemed a "trendy alternative. It has a cult following among anti-Microsoft people." Ultimately, Cuartero says, their decision to use open source software was more practical. "We decided to pursue something open source because, number one, it was inexpensive, and we are able to get a wide range of help from the community."

That community help has made it easier for Cuartero and Hsu to create a community of more than 1,200 yo-yo enthusiasts, using Simple Machines Forum software. The forum at YoYoNation is more than a community -- it is a marketing venue for the partners that is much less expensive than traditional advertising. When yo-yo-ers talk about their new toys, other community members are likely to buy something similar from YoYoNation's extensive line.

Cuartero and Hsu rely on X-CART open source shopping cart software to power their store. Once again, the community surrounding this application has been a vital source of help. "There's a lot of third-party add-ons," says Cuartero. "But X-CART was kind of like a skeleton. We tore it all apart and did all of our own stuff to it. If there was something we didn't know, we just reached out to the community."

Cuartero and Hsu considered osCommerce, but ultimately it did not meet their needs. "It was great," Hsu says. "Initially I wanted to go with it, but in the end we realized that what osCommerce offered was not as robust, and there wasn't any immediate help we could turn to. The forums were not as quick as we would like them to be."

For others considering launching a business using open source software, Hsu recommends taking time to find the right fit. "It took a while to find the right software for us to go forward with," he says. "There are a lot of alternatives. But we just felt that because of where we're at financially, and because of our future goals with YoYoNation, X-CART was right because it is so robust."

Cuartero agrees. "You've gotta do research, but it is research specific to your own capabilities. We could do [modifications] in-house, but if an entrepreneur is coming from another background, then they should get something they can easily understand, that will meet their needs. They've gotta be able to maintain it. Also, nothing is actually free. The help and support may be free, but with X-CART, certain modifications are not free."

One important aspect to running the store has been finding the right hosting company. "We just migrated to dedicated hosting," Cuartero says. "Hosting for Linux is a lot less expensive than with Microsoft. It's helped us."

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