Tax Publisher Learns a Harsh Lesson

Case Study: EBI Solutions uses Microsoft software to salvage a botched upgrade for tax information provider Spidell Publishing.

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.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick 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.

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