Everyone involved in e-commerce has been asking this question at one point. You might be the CEO of a company looking to step up its online game, or an IT manager seeking a direction for building e-commerce solutions, or just a geek wishing to implement the next Alibaba. In any case, choosing the best way to start an online shopping business initiative is never easy. In order to help you with this decision, we’ve analyzed the topic from three different perspectives: the business owner, the software solution provider, and the developer.
Business Owner’s Perspective
You’re a well-known robotics brand with outdated processes and most of your sales are still done through the phone. Or you’re an experienced online fashion retailer with a poorly designed homepage and reluctant employees to update the online shop.
Either way, you want to switch to a state-of-the-art e-commerce system which would boost your sales, increase your customer base, and reduce your operational costs. You’ve done your homework, performed all the required analysis steps, and gathered most of your high-level requirements. Now, you have to decide between implementing a system from scratch and building it on top of an existing e-commerce platform.
How do you make the right choice?
There are several factors you have to take into consideration, one of them being the time-to-market. In a competitive world where time is critical, opting for an existing e-commerce platform is your best choice. A platform provides core features for your online shop, speeding up the go-live process. In case of a more relaxed time, building a system from scratch would also be a suitable option. However, delays are bound to occur, pushing a late release date even further. Ensure the late release doesn’t impact your organization and that the system remains relevant for go-live.
When it comes to project costs, there is not a clear winner between using an e-commerce platform and custom development. The best option depends on your business model, experience, staff, and more.
Instead, here are budget-saving tips if you choose an e-commerce platform:
- Make use of out-of-the-box features and try to stay away from “nice-to-haves” that require additional development effort.
- Make sure you choose an implementation partner with expertise for a high-quality solution. Ignoring best practices may lead to a poorly crafted, inflexible, and hard-to-maintain system.
- Take a close look at the platform’s back-office capabilities. A user-friendly back-office solution can cut operational costs and reduce staff frustration in managing your e-commerce system.
One of the main advantages is that e-commerce platforms offer core features, saving you from reinventing the wheel in custom development. There is one caveat, though: Research thoroughly before choosing a platform that suits your business domain and processes. Customers often buy expensive licenses but later find they need numerous workarounds to achieve the desired end product. That quickly turns into a nightmare for both business and developers, and it can lead to project failure. That’s not where you want to end up, so do your research properly. If you are still deciding between an e-commerce platform and custom development, see how we could help you.
Software Solution Provider’s Perspective
Let’s assume now that you’re in charge of a software development company that wants to start offering e-commerce solutions. Some of the most brilliant minds work for you. They are skilled web developers with various programming languages but limited e-commerce experience, mostly during Black Friday shopping for gadgets. Eager to start the e-commerce journey, it’s your responsibility to sustain motivation and profitability. What do you need to know before you get started?
Building systems on top of an e-commerce platform allows you to define and follow a standardized development process. Your e-commerce teams will operate in a similar manner, using the same work methodology, tools, and frameworks, and facing similar challenges. Plenty of reusable knowledge across the company enables a streamlined development flow. Also, a common development process allows easy reassignment of developers, reducing ramp-up time.
You might think that you could have the same benefits when you’re starting projects from scratch, and you would be right. With enough discipline and collaboration between your teams, you could reach the exact same point. In practice, projects from scratch often diverge, making it challenging for new developers to join and get familiar with the progress. When joining an e-commerce platform-based project, developers are already familiar with core functionality, project structure, and development patterns. They only have to get familiar with the business logic and the particularities of the current project. This will increase your efficiency and save valuable time for your customer.
Additionally, using an e-commerce platform may open new perspectives for you, by joining a dynamic ecosystem filled with business opportunities. A well-established community will make it easier to get the support you need for implementing an e-commerce solution. Being part of such an ecosystem allows establishing strategic partnerships for additional business opportunities. On the long run, building a name within the community attracts new customers and better projects.
However, it’s not all fun and games when you choose to use an e-commerce platform.
There are a number of hurdles to overcome, and we’ll try to list the most common ones. First, it might prove difficult to attract and retain talent in your company. Most developers view e-commerce as a niche and see e-commerce platforms as an even smaller niche. They worry that skills gained from e-commerce platforms won’t apply to other areas, affecting their attractiveness in the labor market. Hence, they prefer projects starting from scratch with more custom development involved. As an employer, you should strive to choose a platform that allows developers to gain a broader range of relevant skills, in order to keep them technically sound and increase their motivation.
Then, you have to take into account the learning curve for an e-commerce platform. Your developers will need to get familiar with the platform, understand its underlying structure, find out how to extend it, grasp the best practices, and so on. You may have to invest both time and money for that since many e-commerce platform providers request developers to follow a few training programs before working with the platform.
Finally, some e-commerce platforms will set higher entry barriers, requiring you to sign a partnership and meet prerequisites like a minimum number of certified developers. Also, the platform provider might strictly control the ecosystem. That means your available projects might be limited to a certain geographical area, and the project assignment could depend on your type of partnership. Make sure you are comfortable with all the implications before starting your business initiative.
We’ve been talking so far about customers, employers, and their struggles, but someone needs to make the magic happen. That’s right, I’m talking about you, the almighty software developer. You’ve been developing applications from scratch for several years, using just a handful of frameworks and tools. You enjoy crafting a system from the ground up. Why would you change any of that? How could an e-commerce platform help you build a system and what are the drawbacks of using one? All these questions are legitimate, it would be unwise to jump head first without knowing what you’re getting into. For that matter, we’ll try to address your concerns in the next paragraphs.
The main fear developers have when working with an e-commerce platform is being isolated in a niche and losing touch with the rest of the market. That’s a valid concern, but it’s uncommon for that to happen. Most platforms rely on widely adopted technologies and frameworks, and developers design them to be as flexible and extensible as possible. That means you would still get to work with the same frameworks as the rest of the market, which would keep your skills up-to-date and help you stay relevant for other possible jobs. However, in case you find yourself working with a platform using outdated technologies and makes you feel stuck, run away as fast as you can. When you land your next interview, you don’t want to be the one who brings a knife to a gunfight.
Then, developers are concerned that there’s not much custom development involved when using a platform. Most of them see an e-commerce platform as an almost-ready product that they need to configure and tweak a bit before releasing it to the world. Most customers see an e-commerce platform the same way, but then they get new ideas. Luckily, these ideas keep developers busy and present them with exciting challenges. Working with an e-commerce platform is rather similar to joining a project three months after it was started from scratch. You have the main structure of the application and the core components of the system, but there is plenty of room for custom development from then on, since most customers want to extend the standard solution to some degree.
There’s definitely a learning curve involved with each e-commerce platform, so you won’t be able to use the platform at full capacity right away. Though this shouldn’t be seen as a disadvantage, you get to learn how to build, operate, and extend the platform. You can reuse all this knowledge on other assignments, using it as best practices and architectural design inspiration.
Then, you might find yourself working around the platform in order to implement a certain component or feature. That might be the case sometimes, especially in the beginning, but once you know how the platform works and what is the intended way to extend it, the development becomes smoother and starts to feel more natural. It’s true that a platform will reduce the flexibility you have in a purely custom development project, but a well-crafted platform will ensure that you can still make your own architectural choices.
E-commerce platforms are ideal tools to support your digital transformation. Reduced time-to-market, core features, standardized development process, vibrant community, and numerous extension points give you a head start in e-commerce business initiatives.
Give it a try! Find the right e-commerce platform and put it to work. Who knows, maybe the next Alibaba will be easier to build than you imagined.
Article written by Andrei Danciu, SAP Commerce Consultant