Tax Publisher Learns a Harsh Lesson

 
 
By Ira Apfel  |  Posted 2005-11-07
 
 
 

Tax Publisher Learns a Harsh Lesson


Nearly everyone dreads missing the annual April 15 deadline for filing their personal income tax return. Companies that provide tax information to tax professionals hate missing the deadline even more. So, when Spidell Publishing Inc., an Anaheim, Calif., company that offers tax information, missed its deadline to update its Web site by the end of the 2004-2005 tax season, the company knew it urgently needed another vendor to finish the job.

Enter eBI Solutions LLC, a business solutions provider also based in Anaheim. This Microsoft Certified Partner revived Spidells flagging Web site revamp in time for the 2005-2006 tax season and improved its usability and functionality in the process.

Visitors to the Web site now find a "shopping cart" common to most e-commerce sites, and there is more information that is easier to find.

"They were great," said Joey Waters, IT manager for Spidell. "They were really professional, and they saved the day for us."

The price of success was high, however. Waters estimated the project cost twice as much as Spidell had budgeted, not to mention finishing one tax season late. For its part, eBI Solutions had to rewrite an estimated 25 percent of Spidells source code.

But before eBI entered the picture, Spidell had a much different experience with its first attempt to upgrade the Web site.

Spidell is a small, niche player in the tax information industry. The 15-employee company specializes in providing California tax information for tax professionals. Two years ago, Spidell decided to upgrade its Web site.

"Our old Web site was 5 years old by that time," said Waters. "We decided to totally redo it with the latest technology rather than revamp it" with a slight makeover.

Click here to read about PeopleSofts role in revamping Mexicos tax systems.

Spidell wanted its new Web site to be perceived as the industry standard. To do that, it would need a greater emphasis on e-commerce and an improved search capability—so that customers could search within searches and categorize their search results.

But once the decision was made that the company needed a completely new Web site, Spidell committed what would turn out to be a critical error, according to Waters. Instead of bidding the project out to multiple candidates, Spidell simply selected a vendor it had worked with on previous projects.

"They had done great work with our databases, but they werent Web developers," said Waters. "Theyd done lots of things with the Internet, but not an intranet."

Both Spidell and the vendor acknowledged that the vendor was entering new territory. However, the vendor had upgraded smaller Web sites before and had expressed confidence that it could fulfill Spidells request.

"We knew there would be a bit of a learning curve," said Waters. "But it basically came down to the fact that we picked the wrong company for the job. Our mistake was not scoping out the project properly with them and them not defining how theyd do it."

The 2005 tax filing deadline came and went, and critical parts of Spidells new Web site still didnt work. Thats when Spidell embarked on a more thorough vendor search.

Since Spidells new Web site was built on a Microsoft Corp. Content Management Server, the company contacted Microsoft for a Certified Partner, and local company eBI Solutions was on the list.

When eBI Solutions came aboard, it first analyzed whether it could build on the old vendors source code or if it had to start from scratch.

"When we arrived, the site was 95 percent functional, but some pieces didnt work still," said eBI Solutions Managing Partner Michael Klotz. "It would have been very expensive to start from scratch. We got lucky because the original vendor left a lot of source [code] on the server."

In reality, Waters estimated that eBI Solutions had to rewrite roughly 25 percent of the source code.

"We went with this big, robust software package—Microsoft Content Management Server, which offers Web author publishing, real-time site updates, integration with Microsoft Commerce Server and SharePoint Portal Server, dynamic content caching, and more—that was expensive because we were hoping to grow into it in the long run rather than doing it with ColdFusion, which I was good with, and grow out of it in a couple of years," Waters said.

Next Page: Understanding information versus performance.

Understanding Information Versus Performance


As Klotz worked with Spidell, he said he realized that the small company simply didnt understand that a new, more functional Web site created new demands.

"We believe in being brutally honest with our clients, so we also educated them about this," said Klotz. "We gave them a road map: Heres what youre supposed to see and do when you do this type of project, and, if not, thats a problem."

For example, Klotz pointed out that Spidell would need to purchase another server to act as a staging area (temporary location) for the new Web site and any future changes to the site.

Spidell had not used a staging area in the past and needed an explanation before agreeing to this purchase, said Klotz.

"Theyre a growing company, so it was all new to them," said Klotz. "They were like, What do you mean we need to buy another server? My answer was, When you really find out you need it, its too late. Sometimes clients need tough love. But it never works if you provide a business solution in a vacuum."

As the project got under way, eBI Solutions implemented the new site layout redesign so it would have a more appealing look and so information was more readily accessible. The sites performance was more critical.

"When you drill down for tax information, those articles can go five levels deep and return thousands of pages of information," said Klotz. "If you went down a tree, it took literally a minute for people to see a new screen of information. We fixed that."

eBI Solutions answer to the performance issue was a compromise, admitted Klotz.

"We had to decide between how much information to show the user versus performance," Klotz said. "If youre at the top level and theres three categories to drill down to, should you see a plus sign that will make the page take longer to load? We decided to add the plus sign on the level below the top level to improve performance."

In addition to resolving the page-loading issue, eBI Solutions had to finish importing Spidells data from its old Web site, said Klotz. And it created a way for Waters and his team to import new tax information into the database in plain text and PDF.

eBI Solutions also implemented flash mail and gave Spidell the ability to manage its e-mail list. It even helped Spidell with its underlying software configuration. For example, it moved Spidells database to a separate server and helped it design a user hierarchy with authorization levels.

Finally, Klotz and his team trained Waters and his staff so they could manage routine changes on their own.

"Our philosophy is, the project is successful if we can go away and the client can run it by themselves," said Klotz.

Thanks to a more efficient user interface courtesy of eBI Solutions, Spidell customers who previously received tax information on mail-ordered CD-ROMs could find all the customized information they needed online—for a fee. "They managed to not alienate their customer base," said Klotz. "Its very efficient for selling over the Internet."

Spidell is happy with the result, Waters said, but it was a long and expensive process that Waters would not want to repeat.

"My advice to any company in the same boat is to research the software or technology being proposed," Waters said. "Any company that wants to do a big IT project should have at least five companies bid [on] the project and go over the bids before making a decision."

Ira Apfel is a free-lance writer based in Bethesda, Md. Contact him at iapfel@yahoo.com.

Case file

  • Customer Spidell Publishing
  • Location Anaheim, Calif.
  • Organizational snapshot Spidell has been providing California tax information to tax professionals since 1975. The company provides ideas, references, solutions and guidance, plus news and commentary, covering all aspects of taxes and their administration.
  • Business need Spidell needed to overhaul its antiquated Web site. Its goal was to turn a static site that visitors found hard to navigate into an e-commerce portal that would provide customized information while enhancing sales.
  • Technology partner eBI Solutions, also of Anaheim
  • Recommended solution Spidell selected Microsofts Content Management Server 2002, which offers Web publishing, real-time site updates, integration with Microsofts Commerce Server and SharePoint Portal Server, dynamic content caching, and more. After a failed attempt by another vendor, eBI Solutions rewrote some source code and finished the project, giving Spidell a state-of-the-art Web site that offered shopping and enhanced search capabilities.
  • Lesson learned Bid your IT projects out to several vendors. Spidell initially went with a technology vendor that it had successfully collaborated with in the past—even though the vendor had never attempted such a Web site upgrade. The vendor missed a critical deadline because it was ill-equipped to finish the project. Only then did Spidell ask for referrals.

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