New Online Store

Over the past three years Outer Level has been selling LicenseKeeper almost exclusively through our custom built online store. It was built quickly and supported one product and only one payment method.

The store accepted payments by sending customers over to PayPal‘s website using their standard payments system which was hard to brand and was often confusing to customers.

During this time I used Aquatic Prime license files for licensing which was quick and easy to implement and did a pretty good job of preventing leaked and pirated licenses.

Warts

This setup was great for getting started, but as sales grew I started to discover all of the warts in my store’s implementation and registration strategy. These warts not only hurt my customers’ purchasing experience, but they also lead to a pretty decent support load.

By far, the most frequent support requests I received were the following:

  1. Registration Email mistakenly caught by spam filter
  2. License Files getting renamed or modified by overzealous virus filters
  3. Non-ASCII names leading to broken license files and purchase records
  4. Lost licenses (ironic, I know)
  5. Questions on how to pay with a Credit Card

In addition to the support burden, there were a bunch of things I really wanted to improve about the purchasing experience. I desired to better track daily sales, long-term sales trends, abandoned purchases, and more. These were my top items:

  1. Keep customers on my site and domain
  2. Provide a secure purchasing experience
  3. Ability to fully brand the entire store
  4. Support for selling multiple products
  5. Family Packs
  6. Automated Lost License retrieval
  7. Automated NFR licenses
  8. Sales graphs and charts
  9. Complete ownership of my customer data
  10. Integrated Newsletter subscriptions
  11. Web traffic statistics

As you can see, I had a big list of items that needed my attention. But, being a one-man shop did not afford me the time to easily put all of this together and still be able to get everything else on my plate done.

Potion Store

Back in June of 2007 Andy Kim of Potion Factory open sourced their online store, dubbed Potion Store.

Potion Store offered all of the things I was looking for and had the benefit of being used and tested by many other companies.

I looked at it many times over the years and always hit the very big road block that Potion Store was implemented in Ruby on Rails. I didn’t know Ruby on Rails and I was using shared web hosting that didn’t support Rails.

Success

Finally, Outer Level grew enough for me to justify a dedicated virtual private server and I now had the ability to run Rails.

Now that the stars were all aligned, I dived in and converted the Outer Level Store to use Potion Store and revamped the LicenseKeeper registration system to use Serial Numbers.

Boy, did I noticed immediate benefits. After every past release, I invariably received a good number of the previously listed support requests. Not this time.

Since converting to Potion Store and serial numbers, I have not received a single email message about any of my typical support requests.

With about a week’s worth of work I have significantly reduced my support burden and greatly improved the purchase experience and my ability to monitor sales and traffic through my store.

I’ve also gained the ability to expand my business by selling multiple products and offering family packs. Not to mention, I’ve been able to checkoff a dozen or so long standing items in my task list.

Success all the way around.

New Theme

Finally, after more than a year and a half of blogging with WordPress I got tired enough of the default Kubrik theme to do something about it.

I spent most of today hacking together a basic template that fits into the main site a bit better. Please, let me know if you see any weird layout issues.

Website Development Sandbox

As the official release of LicenseKeeper 1.0 looms near, the new design for the Outer Level website has been in serious development over the past several days.

There’s a large list of things to incorporate into a website that needs to sell commercial software. Credit Card processing, Support pages, Product Pages, and lots of marketing gobbly gook.

Developing and testing this stuff on a live web server is hazardous. You don’t want people accidentally stumbling on your online store before it’s ready to actually take orders. Maybe you don’t want that secret product announcement to be leaked to the public. Like a good developer should, you do your work on a development server.

My development server happens to be my normal development workstation — my Mac Pro. Since it runs Mac OS X, it has all the UNIX web server goodies: Apache, php, MySQL, etc. Great! Let’s get started.

Err… How come php doesn’t work? Umm, how do I configure and start MySQL? Even if you know how to get this stuff configured, it’s a hassle. There a bunch of tutorials on the internet, but even they are a bit long and tedious. Really, I have better things to do… like actually working on my website, not trouble shooting my Apache configuration files.

A friend of mine pointed me to a very cool application called MAMP. For the last week I’ve been happily working on several website designs, each in their own sandbox. Each with their own DocumentRoot path.

If I need to take my work on the road. No need to configure Apache et al on the MacBook Pro. A quick subversion checkout of my website files and a quick download of MAMP… Boom! Website development to go.

Image Leeches

For some reason several of my sites were recently infested with image leeches. I’m not sure if it’s coincidence or not, but every one of these blood suckers were users of the MySp*ce.com (link purposely not provided) service.

My first reaction was to rename the images so that their links would break. Granted this is only a temporary solution and there is nothing stopping them from linking to the renamed images.

One of the leeches was linking to the header banner from the Bullfrog page as part of a reasonably harmless comment on one of their “friends” comment sections. Not a huge deal, but they are still stealing bandwidth (albeit not very much). I guess what I could do is take advantage of this and modify the image to be an add banner. But without a link pointing back, this probably wouldn’t be worth the bother.

Another leech is displaying one of my photographs from my photo gallery site. Again, not a ton of bandwidth, but since their profile is private I have no idea how they are using the photo. I added a much more obvious copyright notice to the photo, but left this one’s URL intact for now.

I’m not really sure how to handle this, it’s my first leeching. I’d be interested in hearing how others are dealing with this sort of thing. I realize that the web is built on linking and publicly published content, but if there’s a simple way of minimizing the damage of the casual content thief, I could use some pointers.

I Think I Need a Web Site Designer

I have several web sites that need new designs.

I’m also in need of an e-commerce shopping cart that can be integrated into the site in both form and function to allow for the sale of digital content (ie software). I’m aware of osCommerce and zen-cart but am interested in more simple and user-friendly alternatives. Free is good, but these aren’t always the easiest tools to use, maintain, and upgrade.

Do I link these sites together, do I keep them completely separate? Do I try some cross site branding with a common look and feel? Or does each site need to have its own individual identity and style?

This is a lot to think about and even more work. Do I go for free website templates? Do I try and do it myself? Do I hire a designer? A designer would be pretty expensive for four sites. Maybe, a combination of the above.

I know there are tons of free or cheap web site templates out there. But, how many bad designs do I need to search through to find the right one? Is it worth my time?

Does anyone know of good sites that provide quality templates that are modern but not cliche and over used?

Will a free template look good enough or match the company logo I’m having professionally designed?

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed.