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CFDJ: Article

ColdFusion Prevents Nudity

How a high school student became a business owner thanks to CF

Have you ever come up with something clever and thought "Wow that should be on a T-shirt or something"? In the summer before my senior year of high school, my friend Graham Stevenson and I had that thought many times. So many in fact that we decided we should start a T-shirt company to address the growing demand for trendy yet original clothing.

When we first started talking about the idea most people asked us "How are you going to start a business with no money, no investors, and no time?" The answer usually made my peers giggle, "It's easy, I'll use ColdFusion." Of course they didn't know I was talking about the handy server-side scripting tool that would allow me to do everything from marketing my website to order processing and inventory tracking.

Background
I had been using ColdFusion only a bit since I was introduced to it at a summer internship a few summers prior. With Graham's design skills, and my ColdFusion knowledge, we were able to come up with a business plan. That plan consisted of buying a cheap silk screen press, with pizza delivery job savings, and programming a simple order management system based on PayPal's IPN (Instant Payment Notification). Graham designed an array of silly shirts and a neat-looking website.

In the summer of 2003 we launched CureForNudity.com. After a month in business, we had a grand total of one order, about $17 in the bank account. That's when I realized we needed a real shopping cart, more product information, order tracking, shipment tracking, a link exchange program, an affiliate program, a picture submission system, a coupon system, a newsletter, an anti-fraud system, and a cleaner way to check out. I spent the next two years working diligently on my four-step plan to success.

Step One: Getting a Real Shopping Cart
I soon determined that most people would not buy a T-shirt from our site because, at the time, it required you to have a PayPal account. In addition pop-up blockers tended to stop PayPal's pop-up shopping cart. We looked at many ColdFusion and non-ColdFusion based shopping carts before realizing that our whopping budget of $0 would not allow us to purchase any pre-fab shopping cart system. Luckily for me, I was able to follow some session management and array tutorials to construct my very own shopping cart. The only thing left to do was ditch PayPal.

Ultimately we decided a merchant account and credit card processor would be the best solution. But we were both under-aged so we decided to use a service called 2CheckOut until my eighteenth birthday. Once we moved to our new shopping cart system, the orders started to pick up a little and we began to feel the burn of paying nearly 5% of each transaction to our processor. I began to look for a payment gateway. Verisign and Authorize.net appeared to be the options. Authorize had a nice, well-defined API which I was easily able to learn; thankfully it was also about half the price of Verisign. Authorize.net also provided me a great anti-fraud suite. However, a month into setting up the Authorize.net gateway I ran into a serious problem: every bank I called laughed at the thought of giving an 18-year old with absolutely no credit history a merchant account. Wells-Fargo laughed the hardest I think. Fortunately for us, the Authorize.net reseller we chose did not want to lose us because of something as silly as our age, so she was able to talk some no-name high-risk bank in New Jersey into giving us an account at a slightly higher percentage. 14 forms and 6 faxes later we were in business.

Step Two: Internet Marketing 101
In April of the next year my friend Kelly Brown, who first introduced me to ColdFusion back at my summer internship, hired me to do some Internet marketing for his company called CareerBank.com. I used the skills I learned during the day to transfer over to CureForNudity.com, and the things I learned working on CureForNudity.com transferred right back into CareerBank.com, which made me look good. Because CareerBank.com is a ColdFusion based website, I was also able to learn a bit about how a real e-commerce business functions.

A first step for Internet marketing was to make my products indexable in the search engines. Search engines seem to have trouble indexing query parameters. Using a little CFScript only a few lines long, I was able to make my URLs more acceptable:
Before: www.curefornudity.com/product.cfm?id=6
After: www.curefornudity.com/product.cfm/gotserved.htm

Each product was assigned a unique name. This was done automatically by removing spaces and special characters from the title of the shirt. Then a CFScript parses the URL to the right of the slash, removes the .htm, and queries the product. The .htm tricks the search engines into thinking that this is a static page. The trick worked almost instantly as all of our T-shirts were indexed in Google.

The next step for Internet marketing was an affiliate program. At first we tried to get accepted to some programs like Commission Junction but realized they weren't interested in low-traffic T-shirt startups. Again, there were many pre-fab ColdFusion apps to choose from but again our budget made us realize that they were not an option. So I added another table to the database. In order to gain a little credibility with affiliates we added a tiny output near the copyright info which lets you know the current affiliate ID associated with a potential sale, this way the affiliates can be sure that their sales are being counted. We even created a place for the affiliates to login and see tips on selling our products in addition to code they could cut and paste to their websites, blogs, or even instant message profiles.

My favorite marketing tactic, which will be in use soon on our site, is a picture submission system. We will hold contests every month where users can submit photos of themselves in our T-shirts. Having user-submitted photos helps show that our product is real and tends to ease people into buying. The system is simple: CFFILE with some validation and then an administrator can approve the picture for publishing it in association with the design it represents.

A report generator is necessary to measure the effectiveness of marketing efforts. The backend can build reports for date ranges geographically, by affiliate ID, by coupon used, or by what products were ordered.

Finally, we also needed a simple coupon code manager. We can add a coupon code to give a certain percent, a dollar amount, or a free shirt based on minimums purchased. This was particularly important for tracking our success after purchasing an advertorial in Rolling Stone Magazine.

Step Three: Order Management
There are many e-commerce solutions out there to power your website, but none specifically designed to handle T-shirt inventory, order status, and a printing queue to show what needs to be made in the shop. In each incarnation of the backend to the website, the interface got easier to use. If I thought, "Wow, I really wish the shirts highlighted to show if they'd been printed," I could go upstairs and program that feature. I added feature after feature until the backend allowed me to do anything I wanted from editing people's phone numbers to entering in shipping and delivery dates. I combined the shipping system with a service called Endicia which is a desktop application that can print postage from USPS.

Another hurdle was the inventory system. Because we print our own shirts, the inventory system needed to know only how many T-shirts we have of each color, style, and size; this negates the design of the shirts as an inventory factor. The system alerts me when we fall below 6 or 7 shirts of a particular style, size, or color.

After steadily adding features to the order management system for almost a year, things got a little buggy. (Okay...very buggy.) Just as MX 6.1 came about, I decided the site needed a healthy facelift. At the time I was also thinking about selling the site, so I added form validation to things I would've let slip before. Although a few features in the new system have not yet become fully live, the backend to CureForNudity.com is better than ever and fully customized to sell t-shirts. In addition to updating the code to take advantages of MX 6.1's CFCs I also removed all JavaScript from the entire site.

Step Four: Continue to Grow
With a solid website structure that handles orders smoothly and has the ability to steadily add features as required, CureForNudity.com will continue to grow. Adding features to the site is easier than ever thanks to the Object Oriented Programming features brought about in MX 6.1.

In the future we will expand to include bumper stickers, buttons, accessories and more. The system is already setup to accept new product types without issue. Soon product price groups will be added so I can add a bunch of items to a "10% off group" or a "blue light special group." This will allow us to target sales at products that aren't doing so well. With website concerns out of the way I will be able to focus on marketing our product to wholesale audiences. Before long, we might be in your local boutique. If I run into some free time, maybe I'll program my own wholesale order system complete with contact and sales management.

Learning That "Confidence Conquers"
The most important lesson I learned from my work CureForNudity.com is confidence. With the support of the ColdFusion community you can do anything on the web, despite your age, income, or experience. You would never believe how little ColdFusion I knew when I started following my first IPN tutorials. I could barely do update, insert, and select. Now I believe that the sky is the limit. A one-person team can go a long way with ColdFusion because even though I am just one person, with the strength of the community behind me I'm like an army of programmers. If I have a question there is an answer on a forum somewhere. If I am totally lost I can always find answers in Google. And when I need some quick reference, Macromedia livedocs is only a click away. Although I've only had brief forays into the world of ASP and PHP, I'm convinced that ColdFusion is the easiest to learn, yet extremely powerful.

More Stories By Jonathan Rowny

Jonathan Rowny is currently studying Information Technology at George Mason University. In addition to cofounding CureForNudity.com Jonathan also works part time as a junior developer and internet marketing specialist for AboutWeb LLC.

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