IT Costs of Running an E-Commerce store

Running an E-commerce store is a strange thing.  We spend a significant portion of our budget on IT costs each year, updating and adjusting the store to make it more user friendly and bug fixing.   To give yo an idea, it’s about the same amount that we spend on marketing.  In many ways, I look at the IT budget as a mixture of a maintenance / fixtures upgrade budget and rent.  You see, at a guess, we probably spend about 50% of our budget on adding new features and the other 50% on fixing bugs.  It’s a strange process in that each new feature that you add generally means bugs in the future.   It’s also part and parcel of running an online store – when software updates – on your server, on your site, on browsers – you need to update your site design to ensure your site still works for them.  The more complex / sophisticated your site is, the more chances there are of something breaking.

Self-Hosting vs SaaS

Part of the reasoon for the need to update our site and it costing more is that we self-host our site.  We have our own servers, our own domain name and our installation is not linked to any other major network.  There are a lot of Software-as-a-Service systems out there like Shopify or Magento Go, but for us, keeping a self-hosted server allows a level of flexibility that we desire.  With a SaaS system, we’d be reliant on the features that have already been released and any new features we wanted would have to wait.  And god help you if you run into an unusual problem – I’ve seen and heard of horror stories where companies, with an unusual error are unable to get it fixed on a SaaS solution.

Hosted solutions give you more flexibility – but generally cost significantly more to keep up an running.   If a major browser update changes how your site shows up  / functions with the browser, you have to pay for the development / fix yourself.  there’s no spreading it around multiple sites. Well, okay, it’s possible that a general patch is released on the platform you are on – but updating to the patch generally brings its own headaches as you then have to update all your modules / fixes / add-on’s to the new update.  That can sometimes be more expensive than just having a patch set-up just for your site.

Different Models

As mentioned, we update our site on an on-going basis.  On the other hand, I know of other e-commerce businesses who spend very little on this.  They get a basic (or more complex site) up, pay a large lump sum payment and put off any other updates till it’s time to revise the site again.  It’s no a bad model, just like using the SaaS model isn’t ‘bad’; just different.  The advantage is that costs are significantly lower and cashflow is less effected on an on-going basis.  However, this often means that when you do have to update the site, you are miles behind and often have to scrap / redo the entire site to bring yourself up to code.

It can also mean that you miss out on customers – customers who want / need a specific feature on your site that you don’t provide might decide it’s not worth working your site and move on.

Overall, if you do run an e-commerce site, expect to budget for website development – whether it’s a one-off payment or an on-going one like us.

Video Review: Tzolk’in: Tribes and Prophecies and Dungeon Petz: Dark Alleys

We’ve got a new review out today, for two recently-released expansions from Czech Games Edition. Tzolk’in: Tribes and Prophecies adds new variants and a significant difficulty bump to 2012’s hit worker-placement game, while Dungeon Petz: Dark Alleys adds a lot more depth and versatility to one of Vlaada Chvatil’s classic releases.

Building the Game Wizard

As many of you have, hopefully, seen; our Game Wizard has been released to the wide world.  Hopefully everyone is finding it as useful as the infographic which it is based on.  I thought in the blog post I’d talk abit about the development process.

The Data

The data was actually very easy – we already created it for the infographic.  Luckily, since we know the games well enough, creating the data for the infographic wasn’t that hard either – it was just a matter of taking the time to develop the various trees and making sure we didn’t double-up.

The Development

In this case, I went outside my usual developers for the site and used another 3rd party.  I had been talking to them for a while now on a few other infographics and they had shown me the work they had done before so I figured they could do this well enough.  The quote they provided was acceptable too, somewhat on the higher end of what we wanted to pay but decent.  I decided not to try the oDesk / Freelance job site this time as I wanted a design that would be coded decently well and previous experience had shown that results from such sites were widely variable.

With this local design company, we had to go through a couple of design changes, mostly tweaks to the original design they sent us.  The major issue came when they started trying to hook the design / information up to our sites database.  Unfortunately, Magento is an extremely complicated e-commerce platform and while I had asked them their experience (and received assurances of competence), they actually had no idea what they were getting into.  Instead of a 1 month delivery date, it took over 3 months with numerous back and forths.  One last, major issue, was the huge delay in displaying products when an item was finally called.  In the end, we decided to take the application as it stood.

Once we got the files, we took the final application and brought it to our usual developers (Collins Harper) and had them code in a cache system.  It should be running properly now, with a cache set-up to run once a day to keep load-times for product pages nice and fast.

In the end, we got an app, but it wasn’t what we fully wanted.  Unfortunately, the budget has now been spent.

The Final Product

So, you’ve seen the app/  It’s not what we wanted – the front-end is nice, but there are certain aspects of the backend that we really wished had been done.

  • It’s not possible for us to integrate the design into the main site without ripping the entire code apart.
  • There is no backend so all changes have to be hard-coded. This was definitely not part of our intention.
  • The code is extremely simple for others to steal.  Considering the work we’ve done, we aren’t particularly thrilled with that.  It’s not something we asked for, but it’s something we need to think about next time.

The Lessons

Firstly, we should have made sure to get full clarification (and double-check again and again) when we agreed to the work.  We thought we had an agreement on a few aspects of the business – like the backend CMS structure – but didn’t.

Secondly, double-check the credentials of the developers you use.  In particular, the software / the systems that you use – make sure the developers you hire really do know how the system works and what can / can’t be done.  If not, you’ll just add a lot of headache to the development.

Thirdly,if you have access to a developer you trust, work with them beforehand to develop a  structure / developer brief.  It’ll make your life a lot simpler and make the first issue much less of a contention.

Lastly, for me – I think I’ll go back to testing out outsourced developers for one-off projects like this (at least if CH is busy).

The Game Wizard

We’ve been working hard on this behind the scenes and it’s now ready to release.  Our Game Wizard is an interactive version of our infographic.  We’ll be updating with more questions and games, but since it’s taken so long to get done, we wanted to share it right away.

Check it out, let us know what you think and if you have branches and games to recommend; we’d love to hear from you!

Searching for Value

Been thinking about the values of the business a lot recently.  Part of it came about from Gary Ray’s post, part of it from reading the huge blow-up happening (and caused) by Game Salute and part of it just watching the industry change.  It’s interesting in the sense that I do not, for a number of reasons, ever actually think about ‘my’ values – I don’t prod and ask myself ‘what do I stand for’, etc.  Lots of reasons for that, but it does translate to the fact that the business has never had a written set of ‘core values’.

For the most part, I don’t think it’s been a major hindrance.  In fact, there’s certain arguments for not having defined ‘values’.  For one thing, so much of it is lip-service.  Having worked for larger corporations, I gained a very cynical viewpoint about the worth of the ‘core values’ espoused by most corporations.

On the other hand, sometimes it’s worth taking the time to write it all down and living the values you expouse – Proctor & Gamble is a great example.

So Who Are We?

Truthfully, I still don’t have an answer.  We’ve done well enough as it is, so I’m not going to push the point.  I do know a few things that we strive for as a company:

  • Be fair – that’s for both customers and suppliers.  We treat people the way we’d expect to be treated – fairly. No subservience, no ‘customer is always right’, just fairness.  Maybe a bit more towards the customers side than ours, but that’s because we are in business.
  • Play the long game – I’ve always thought in the long-term, willing to look in terms of years rather than months or years.  It’s particularly useful when considering the future of the company and it’s something we can do as we don’t have to worry about the next quarter earnings reports.

That’s about as far as I’ve gotten really.  Perhaps one more – Wil Wheaton’s command of ‘Don’t be a d*ck’ comes to mind.

New Event: Netrunner Wednesdays

Note – Netrunner Nights have been moved to Tuesdays at the same time

Netrunner gaming night, every Wednesday from 6:30pm.

With the success of our monthly Open House, we’ve decided to keep expanding the opportunities for customers to come and game in our space. Starting this coming Wednesday, May 15th, we will be hosting a regular Android: Netrunner gaming night every Wednesday at 6:30pm. If you’re an experienced player, this is your chance to bring your decks and pit them against a range of new opponents. If you’re new to the game, our staff will have a number of pre-built teaching decks on hand, and will be happy to walk you through the rules of the game and get you started on your first Run.

Gaming nights will be held in our main office at 61 W 7th Ave. We have 1 designated parking space at the rear of the building (directly to the right of loading bay #61), and there is ample street parking on 7th Avenue and Manitoba Street. If you’re traveling by transit, we’re a 10-15 minute walk from the Skytrain stations at Broadway-City Hall (Canada Line) and Main St-Science World (Expo Line), and a 5-10 minute walk from the #8, #9, #20, and #99 bus stops at the intersection of Main Street and Broadway.

We’re really looking forward to getting some games going next week, and will hopefully be expanding to more events in the future if this gaming night becomes a success. Come out and play!

Getting in Your Own Way

One of the weirdest things about launching Fortress Geek is realising how some of the choices I made / make basically set us up for a slower growth path than what it should have been.  It’s also made me think about how some of the choices we make for Starlit could be detrimental.

I dislike book-keeping so I avoid that task as much as possible (which has sometimes resulted in really slow book updates).

I have no desire to spend my weekends running a B&M store, so we’ve never launched one.

I don’t want the complexity of a 2nd warehouse, so we have avoided opening in the US (also, no money).

There are other examples, but it’s interesting to think about the decisions you make and consider whether they are based off rational decisions or just because you dislike doing it.  Now, doing things that you utterly loathe is probably a bad idea but sometimes, it’s just because you are lazy.  And in my world, laziness isn’t a good enough excuse (well, okay; it is – it’s just not a good one).

This obviously extends outside of running a business – from picking up your clothing or doing laundry, we often just ignore things we don’t want to do.  Sometimes, it doesn’t matter – and sometimes, it does.  What do you avoid?