The Saga of VBZ.NET (the short version)
This is pretty much all from memory at this point; I'll check it against my records as time permits. The exact sequence of events may not be 100% accurate until then.
(Aside: While writing this, part of me kept saying "this is going to come across as so unprofessional -- you can't put this out on the internet for all your customers to see!". I'm doing it anyway, for reasons of business philosophy which I'll want to explain in more detail at some point, being the compulsive writer that I am.)
vbz.net began as "The Red House Store" in December, 1995. I and my then-business-partner (whom I will refer to henceforth as MTBP) incorporated as "Cox-Staddon Enterprises, Inc." (this is one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time); its home base was a smallish rental house in Athens, Georgia (from whence the name "Red House" originally came -- the house was red on the outside). The Red House Store essentially acted as a consignment shop for a number of local musical artists; one of our best-selling items was a book about Tourette Syndrome, The Unwelcome Companion, by Athens musician Rick Fowler.
The store made its first appearance online via a shared web hosting account at MindSpring, back when they were local to Atlanta (they were also the only ISP in the area, and I had to get an Unlimited Calls to Atlanta calling plan in order to avoid exorbitant long-distance fees) and hadn't yet gone public, and long before they were bought out by EarthLink. AOL and CompuServe were basically just nationwide BBS services with internet email (a recent addition at the time).
In 1996, two ISPs started up in Athens -- AthensNet and, a few months later, NEGIA. AthensNet was first to offer us a hosting package that would give us access to our own CGI-BIN folder (for writing our own scripts), so they got the gig. (If I remember correctly, we were paying about $100/month for a single domain on a shared server, with very tightly-limited disk space.)
The summer Olympics came to Atlanta that year, too -- and several events were held in or near Athens. We carried (largely at the suggestion of MTBP) a small selection of "Athens 96" licensed t-shirts, pins, and mugs; the pins sold well, and I still have a few of the shirts.
At some point, The Red House Store was moved from redhouse.com to vbz.net, a domain I had purchased (back when InterNIC was the only source for domains, and they were $50/year, and you had to buy two years initially) with the intention of setting up a business directory (the Virtual Business Zone); that didn't work out, and it seemed like a good idea to have a nice, short, and hopefully memorable web address. So it became "vbz.net -- The Virtual BaZaar". (If it won't fit, whack it with a hammer!)
In early 1997, I parted ways with my original business partner, and thus opened the door for a different set of trouble (to whom I shall refer as DSoT) to walk in.
In mid-1997, AthensNet went out of business after experiencing financial and technical difficulties for many months. This came as a bit of a blow, as I quickly had to find new homes for the three domains we then used – redhouse.com, vbz.net, and music.athens.ga.us – without any spare cash to speak of. However, I quickly discovered that hosting prices had gone down drastically since I first began using them, and I was able to get our main site (redhouse.com) back online pretty quickly. I abandoned music.athens.ga.us altogether (largely because of difficulties with web hosts not knowing how to deal with .us domains at that time).
Meanwhile, I was having difficulty getting vbz.net working again, due to its particular technical needs. While I was in the middle of fussing with it, one of those out-of-the-blue things happened: I was offered a consulting job, at what seemed to me an enormous hourly rate (about $35/hour), for a company in Wisconsin. I was short of money, and felt I couldn't say no; this was an opportunity to amass some serious working capital.
Because of the sudden change in my living situation, however, the revival of vbz.net took even longer than expected, and two major clients (an independent record company whose CDs sold pretty well, and a local storyteller whose tapes and books we carried) became dissatisfied with the level of service and left for greener pastures. Thus began the slow decline of the "independent artist" section of the store.
All through 1998 I was in Wisconsin, with a few brief trips back to Athens; I brought the stock up with me and continued to process orders. At DSoT's suggestion, I began introducing t-shirts into the store, on the theory that we could offer a larger selection with relatively little effort involved in initiating and maintaining contact. The local artists required a lot of contact per offering – one artist might have one, two, maybe even three different discs, and they were often difficult to reach (for disbursing funds, obtaining more stock, getting updates, etc.); The Mountain, our first t-shirt supplier, had maybe a hundred different shirts, and Liquid Blue (added in 1999 or so) had even more.
As the year wore on, it became apparent that the system I had written for displaying our selection and handling orders was simply not going to be adequate for the new offerings, so I rewrote it.
We added several more suppliers, and the software continued to evolve -- I had gotten lucky and landed another consulting job, this time in Athens, where I had learned a great deal about database programming -- so for the first time, the store data was actually maintained in a genuine database (MS Access 97). I began automating various operations, starting with order management. The earliest entry for "The Red House Store" at archive.org is January 17, 1999; latest is May 4, 1999. (I am not exactly proud of these old versions, but this does give an idea of how the site has evolved.)
As far as the store goes, nothing much happened in 2000; I continued improving automation and the design of the vbz.net site.
A lot of things happened in 2001, most of them not directly store-related. We weathered 9/11 -- sales dropped to absolute zero for an entire week, and then slowly picked back up.
On 2002.09.09, the store was carrying 1,426 different designs; that was up to 2,173 designs as of 2005-06-18.
In 2002-3 I moved the business back to the friendlier envorons of my hometown, Durham, NC. Relations with DSoT became intolerable, and I had to stop doing business with them – at which point they took some actions which required me to file a lawsuit against them. Between preparation for the lawsuit and dealing with the slowly-building Josh crisis, my energy was largely tied up from 2004-2007, and the store gradually declined.
Despite this, I figured out how to use MediaWiki software in 2005, and created VBZwiki (a long with a few other wiki sites) and migrated the old static help pages over to it. (see htwiki:User:Woozle/2005/06)
The trial was in February of 2007; although the verdict wasn't handed down until about a year later (I won), I felt able at that point to begin putting work into making the store more portable and manageable, with the idea of eventually handing daily operations over to someone else so I could focus on technical development.
(Historical note which probably belongs somewhere else: It looks like I finally switched away from PTC and began using PayPal in 2006 -- the last recorded customer charge (cust_charges table) with an "AUTH/TKT" return code was 2006-11-23 and the next transaction, where I entered the complete credit card number into the transaction, was 2006-11-29 and has a note saying "first use of PayPal VT".)
[written at the time] Improvements to the store have continued, largely behind the scenes; orders are a trickle, as I am not advertising and have gotten quite far behind on catalog updates. I am working on a more portable interface for the latter so I can get family members to help me with it; this should be happening pretty soon. Despite the low sales, I am optimistic about the store's ability to be a positive revenue source and its prospects for success in general; the gradually evolving state of open-source software has made many things which would have been enormously difficult (just a few years ago) almost easy now, e.g. this wiki.
A particularly fragile piece in the checkout process broke for no apparent reason, so I decided to rewrite it. This led in turn to a large-scale rewriting of much of the store's underpinnings, which (what with various other projects demanding my time) is still underway as of November 2013. (2014-10-15 archive of the front page)