From the April 1999 issue of Startups

Contrary to popular stereotypes, not everyone under 35 was born with a mouse in his or her hand, and just because you're young doesn't mean you speak fluent HTML. Even if you're a Net novice, however, you can still do business in cyberspace. Don't believe us? Then believe Tina Gasperson.

She and her husband, Darin, went from newbies to Netpreneurs at warp speed when they decided to start an online retail site. The following diary traces two years in the life of their start-up and the ups and downs they encountered on the road to high-tech success.

In 1996, Darin was the manager of one of the largest retail aquarium stores in the Southeast. An avid hobbyist, he developed valuable contacts in the tropical fish and aquatic plant industries (aquatic plants are used in aquariums, ponds and water gardens), and could secure almost any type of freshwater fish or plant. People around the country started asking to buy plants from us.

The time was ripe to start our own business. Darin's desire to be his own boss, coupled with my enthusiasm for Internet technology (I was a devoted online hobbyist at the time), were more than enough to get us started-even in our cramped, second-floor apartment. Here's a closer look at how our Internet-based business was born.

June 14, 1996

We've decided to set up a Web site and start selling aquatic plants. The No. 1 reason: We've found the Internet holds many haunts for tropical fish enthusiasts who are serious about their hobby. We believe we can profitably tap into the market on a long-term basis. Aquatic plants are increasing in popularity, and the only direction for Internet commerce is up.

The No. 2 reason: The Web site is free. CompuServe provides members with free space for a home page, personal or business, and a free program, the Home Page Wizard, that will let me design and publish Web content with no knowledge of HTML (that's Hyper Text Markup Language).

June 30, 1996

Today, I created my first Web page in less than an hour. There's one huge graphic of a waterlily (I couldn't figure out how to make it smaller), an "under construction" sign, a paragraph explaining our business and our phone number. Darin hates the waterlily. It's not award-winning material, but it's not bad for a first attempt. I passed our URL (the "address" users type to point their browsers to the Web site) out to everyone on CompuServe who might be interested in buying aquatic plants. I even posted it in CompuServe's Tropical Fish Forum marketplace section with a "Grand Opening" announcement.

July 16, 1996

I bought Laura Lemay's book Teach Yourself Web Publishing With HTML 3.0 in a Week and devoured it. I found out I can bypass CompuServe's Wizard entirely and be extremely creative in setting up graphics and arranging text. It was enlightening to learn the "little" things, like how to size graphics (my waterlily is now a much more manageable 1 inch by 1 inch), create tables (I'm putting our price list online this week!) and follow the basic elements of good Web page design. It's exciting to think I can develop a professional Web site for free.

July 19, 1996

I discovered the wonderful world of newsgroups. Lots of people with the same interests get together and have discussions by posting messages that can be accessed by everyone in the group. And-you guessed it-there's a newsgroup devoted to fans of aquatic plants! It's enough to make any business owner salivate-untold numbers of potential customers all hanging out together, talking about your product.

I have to be careful, though, to avoid posting blatant advertisements. According to "Netiquette," doing so is not polite and tends to make people angry. It is acceptable to provide answers to questions and in doing so post your URL as part of your electronic "signature." Darin had better put on his thinking cap-he doesn't know it, but he's about to become the Dear Abby of the aquatic plant world.

August 12, 1996

I'm getting hooked on this Internet marketing stuff! I stayed up all night surfing, looking for ways to publicize the business. I found quite a few aquarium-related sites and checked to see if they would be willing to "trade links" with me-to place my URL on their links page in exchange for my returning the favor. I also found a site called "WebStep 100" that lists the top 100 places to promote my site for free, including search engines Yahoo!, AltaVista and WebCrawler. I worked my way through the top 20. Tomorrow I'll run searches to see if any have listed us yet, though Yahoo! did warn it sometimes takes several weeks.

September 9, 1996

Today I worked some more on the appearance of the site. We've been getting more positive comments from visitors lately. Darin says it's because I took the waterlily graphic out. He may be right-we're gradually developing a very upscale look. I designed a logo and placed it on the upper right-hand corner of each page for continuity.

I also created clickable icons that take visitors to different areas of the site, such as the price list, contact information and the FAQ page. Lemay's book has a great HTML reference card that lists all the codes you need on one page. I keep it handy while I'm formatting.

September 29, 1996

We've outgrown CompuServe. I love the free Web site, but for more complex business needs, there are a few limitations. I want to put some interactive feedback forms on the site, but I've learned that requires "CGI" (Common Gateway Interface, a programming language more complicated than HTML that executes a program on the host computer). CompuServe doesn't include that as part of its free service. Also, our URL is long and difficult to remember--typical with free Web site space.

We're switching to a new host called Data Realm. They provide 25MB of space for $25 per month, among the most reasonable prices I've found. We'll be able to run any kind of interactive program we want, and we can register our own domain name, making our URL easy to remember (http://www.aquaticgreenhouse.com).

October 7, 1996

Remember that wonderful world of newsgroups I mentioned? Well, paradise turned into hell on earth overnight. It seems one of our customers got some soggy plants from us, and instead of calling us to discuss it, he posted nasty remarks about us on the newsgroup for the whole world to see. I hope my equally public offer to replace his order free of charge is timely damage control. Mama said there'd be days like this.

October 15, 1996

We're running about 100 "hits" per day. That's not a high number by Internet standards, but it's phenomenal for us, since our market is so narrowly specialized.

And Yahoo! finally listed us! I looked up "aquatic plants," and there it was, right at the top of the page-"The Aquatic Greenhouse."

October 24, 1996

I found a shopping cart program I like for our online store. Most are written in CGI, but this one is in Java script, a type of programming that makes the interface more attractive to customers. I can customize it very easily with our logo and any graphics, even though I know nothing about Java. Now Tools, the company I purchased it from, must be used to helping ignorant people like me-they're very patient. For the next few days, I'll work on entering a database of everything we carry and the prices, and I'll design the layout-kind of a virtual plant store. It's going to be extremely time-consuming, but I can't wait to see the results!

November 4, 1996

Argh! We've lost at least 10 sales because I installed the shopping cart program incorrectly. Normally it e-mails the orders to me, but they're coming to me garbled because of a syntax error-and I have no way of contacting the customers to let them know.

I'm beginning to feel like I live in front of the computer screen. No time to write any more-gotta go get my syntax straight.

November 5, 1996

I got the shopping cart glitch worked out, and things are running smoothly for now. Sometimes I get discouraged, but the rewards of setting up our business on the Net far outweigh the difficulties. We have hundreds of customers now, and I'm looking forward to what the future holds.

June 23, 1997

It's been about a year since we started, and next week Darin is leaving his "real job" at the aquarium store to join me full time. We had sales of more than $40,000 in our first year, and we're considering expanding our selection to include rare tropical fish and delving into the wholesale market.

December 15, 1998

The past year has been a learning experience. We had planned to lease a 20-acre farm so we could grow our own plants instead of importing them, but when the owners waffled on their agreement to inject some capital into getting the farm up to speed, we had to break our lease. This caused a serious cash crunch. We had to forgo our plans to expand into tropical fish, and were forced to suspend sales altogether for a short time. Nonetheless, we still managed to increase 1998 sales slightly, to $50,000.

Lesson learned, our plans for 1999 are to go back to our roots, with slower growth and less overhead, and to intensify marketing efforts on the Net. That's our core business, there's a large market of aquarium enthusiasts there, and we truly believe that's where the world is headed.

Smart Move

Get the goods.

Here's where you can get the tools the Gaspersons used to set up their Web site:

  • Data Realm: This site provides commercial, corporate, personal and nonprofit Web site space. Visit http://www.serve.com for more information.
  • Now Tools: Sells full-service Java-, CGI- and browser-based shopping cart systems. The Gaspersons used Checkout Version 2.5. Visithttp://www.nowtools.com.
  • Teach Yourself Web Publishing With HTML 3.0 In A Week by Laura Lemay (Sams.net Publishing/Macmillan Computer Publishing, $29.99, 317-271-8423) is an excellent reference tool for learning HTML.