Swing into action

When Tom O'Neill approached Aspen Consulting earlier this year to build an online business for Students Outfitters Inc., it was the first step toward building a top-grade e-commerce site.
Written by Jill Hirsekorn, Contributor

E-business is no walk in the park. To keep customers smiling, savvy solutions providers have to keep a firm grip on project goals and deadlines. Just ask Dave Towner, a project manager at Aspen Consulting.

Towner was one of several key partners who pieced together Schoolkidz.com, a niche e-commerce site that sells school supplies to parents who are too busy to shop in brick-and-mortar stores. Other key partners on the site include IBM, KeyLink Systems and Exodus Communications.

The business plan for Schoolkidz.com dates back to 1995, when company founder Tom O'Neill was shopping for his daughter's school supplies and wound up wrestling with other parents for a store's last pack of crayons. "I knew there had to be a better way," recalls O'Neill, a parent of three.

O'Neill launched Class Action Student Outfitters Inc., a brick-and-mortar store that was the precursor to Schoolkidz.com. Working with local schools, the store tailored supplies to the specs of individual teachers, who recommended the kits to students and parents.

The convenience store was a hit with parents and teachers, and revenue was growing 50 percent per year. But O'Neill's class project wasn't done.

Eager to cash in on the e-business craze, O'Neill earlier this year renamed his firm Schoolkidz.com and plunged into e-commerce. He turned to Aspen, Exodus and distributor KeyLink Systems to meet his IT needs.

Aspen Consulting is a Chicago-area IBM Premier Business Partner that builds AIX-based e-business systems. Founded in 1994, the $19 million integrator has made the INC. 500 list for two consecutive years.

Jeff Pascoe, Schoolkidz.com's VP of IT, met Aspen folks at an IBM-sponsored Aspen seminar. "We felt comfortable with them because they're an IBM partner," says Pascoe. "Aspen basically developed and programmed the whole e-commerce section of the Web site."

Rather than talking technology, Aspen first considered Schoolkidz.com's business needs. During Aspen's Discovery Workshop, the customer and Aspen discussed Schoolkidz.com's mission, vision and principles as an organization. "The Workshop helped us understand what Schoolkidz.com wanted to offer online and how they wanted to do it," says Kurt Kobylecky, an e-business sales specialist at Aspen.

At first glance, selling pencils and glue sticks online may seem like a no-brainer. But the discovery process revealed mission-critical criteria, including reliability, flexibility, scalability and security.

"We move most of our money [revenue and expenses], in and out, between May and August," explains O'Neill. Any site outage during those months could bully Schoolkidz.com off the e-commerce playground.

With more than 90 ever-changing supply kits for various school grades and subjects, plus its TeacherTailored customization program, Schoolkidz.com needed an e-commerce engine that could mix and match items on the fly.

Moreover, Schoolkidz.com had to be prepared for enormous traffic spikes toward the end of August. O'Neill also bet that demand would skyrocket when Schoolkidz.com made the quantum leap from local store sales to the Internet.

Finally, parents and teachers need special assurance that any data concerning their children is kept tightly locked up.

Schoolkidz.com could have started on a very small scale and moved to larger equipment, but Aspen recommended that the company focus on scalability from day one.

Specifically, Aspen recommended IBM's WebSphere e-commerce suite, which includes an IBM Web server, the WebSphere app server and a DB2 database.

The application server allows School kidz.com to customize its online product bundles. DB2 tracks Schoolkidz.com's product database, and tells the front-end system about promotional items and how many products remain in stock, notes Aspen's Towner.

Schoolkidz.com runs the software on IBM's AIX-based RS/6000 systems. The AIX-based systems include an H70 database server and a B50 Web server.

Customer and shopper data is stored securely on the H70 database server. The B50 Web and application server queries the database and presents the navigation, product kits, prices and other components to the user's browser, says Towner.

KeyLink Systems, the IBM distributor division of Pioneer Standard Electronics, validated the hardware and software configurations and ensured on-time delivery.

Storming The Data Center

Aspen turned to local partner Exodus Communications for hosting, backup and firewall services. Exodus owns and operates about 22 Internet data centers worldwide.

"Our hardware is managed and hosted in a remote, high-security location," says Schoolkidz.com's Pascoe. "You have to have clearance just to get through [Exodus'] front door." Pascoe also likes Exodus' redundant power and connectivity supplies. "If something were to ever go down, there are multiple backup systems that kick in."

While some businesses turn to Exodus for numerous hosting services, customers can start small and add services as they see fit, says Susan Laughlin, an Exodus account executive.

Schoolkidz.com's e-commerce site is operational, and the virtual hallways appear very crowded with customers.

A spokesperson for Emmons Elementary School of Mishawaka, Ind., notes that local parents "really enjoyed the ease of ordering and not having to worry about running around town to get needed supplies." The school also ordered extras kits for students who are short on funds.

Looks like Aspen and its partners have built a top-grade e-commerce site.

At A Glance

CustomerSchoolkidz.com, Burr Ridge, Ill. (www.schoolkidz.com)
Customer's MarketBack-to-school shoppers of supplies
Customer Size 30 employees, $2 million in 2000
Business ProblemTake customized school-supply kit firm from bricks to clicks
Lead IntegratorAspen Consulting, Rolling Meadows, Ill. (www.aspenconsulting.com)
Technology PartnersIBM, Exodus Communications, KeyLink Systems
Deal MakerConfidence in Aspen and IBM's reputation
HardwareIBM RS/6000 servers
SoftwareIBM WebSphere e-commerce suite
Service ProviderExodus Communications' Internet data centers
ResultFrom brick-and-mortar to brick-and-click

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