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Four Reasons Open-source E-commerce Projects aren’t right for your B2B Business

Here we go through four key reasons an Open-source approach can result in less than sparkling results for B2B ecommerce and mobile ordering.

Mark Reilly (CTO) Written by Mark Reilly (CTO) 4 Sep 2017 in B2B eCommerce

If you’re in the B2B or wholesale business and are looking to build the e-commerce side of the company, you may well be thinking of investing in an open-source software solution.

There are a number of reasons why this approach often results in less than sparkling results. In this piece I’m going to go through four key reasons in detail.

  1. Business Complexity (or plugin hell)

  2. The Customisation Vicious Circle

  3. IT / Infrastructure Headaches

  4. Security and Updates

I’m also going to talk through two common alternatives to the open-source approach.

  1. A Bespoke Build

  2. A Platform Approach

The issues as described below are those told to us by several of our customers before they joined us on the Aphix Cloud Platform journey. They might have experienced these problems - if you’re starting out on your B2B e-commerce journey, you don’t have to.

What Exactly is Open-source?

Open-source software has been developed mostly by a community of volunteers, is free to download and often easy to install.

Well-known examples in the world of web technology include the likes of WordPress or Drupal content management systems.

For e-commerce, there are plenty of open-source solutions too, such as WooCommerce, osCommerce and Magento.

It is often surprisingly simple to put together a working e-commerce portal for web and mobile, and it can be a fantastic solution for single-person businesses or small companies making their first steps into e-commerce.

You download and install the software, choose a pre-made website template and install a few plugins. Then away you go!

As always, however, when it comes to large-scale, enterprise B2B and wholesale companies with large catalogues and complex business logic, the devil is in the detail.

The problem with using open-source software to manage complex business requirements can be described as a “square peg in round hole” situation.

No matter how much we want it to fit, somehow the peg just won’t slot in smoothly.

The software can be very good at what it does: running e-commerce stores for a broad category of businesses. It is also, in most cases, backed by a large community of people, from web developers and designers to plugin authors, who have come together to provide a range of ready made add-ons and tools.

If you're an online-only business you could run your whole business through Magento, OpenCart, WooCommerce or loads of other tools. Depending on which you choose, it can cover everything from managing stock levels to invoicing to fulfilment.

However, for large-scale, high-volume traders - often but not always B2B companies, such as the wholesalers, manufacturers and distributors who have joined the Aphix family in recent years - the unavoidable fact is this:

Open-source e-commerce solutions might do most things for most small businesses, but none of them will do everything a complex businesses needs.

None of the software mentioned above - not Magento, not OpenCart, not WooCommerce - are designed to operate the way in which you currently do.

By the time it takes to develop the custom modules and processes to make it do what you need it to do - you’ve lost any of the benefits of using open-source software in the first place.

Let’s take Magento, for example.

Magento has a long list of bells and whistles, but how well does it integrate with your existing business processes or IT setup? Can it cope with your existing pricing structures, what plugin do you need to display stock appropriately to your customers.

At Aphix we’ve seen hundreds of different wholesale and B2B pricing and stock management structures, and we know that it’s highly unlikely.

While open-source software might be a good foundation to start from, have a large set of customisable plugins and themes that get you most of the way there, it just won’t be able to deliver on the last few requirements on your list.

And here’s the critical thing.

Those last few requirements on your list are the part that makes your business your business. Is it worth the compromise?

The Four Reasons To Avoid Open-source in Your B2B E-commerce Project

Here are four big reasons open-source and cheap software-as-a-service tools just won’t do for large-scale businesses either making the leap into e-commerce for the first time or trying to maximise their online offering.

1. Business Complexity (or plugin hell)

With open-source software and cheap SaaS services such as Shopify, business complexity is a key reason that they won’t cut the mustard. With a plethora of plugins, you’re still restricted by the plugins you can find and be able to setup and configure.

One simple, yet critical example:

  • The way in which you display stock information

Taking a look at the Magento plugins for “Stock” - it’s easy to see they either do far too much, or far too little.

Simply being able to setup and configure customers who can see actual stock numbers with another set who can only see and and “In Stock” or “Out of Stock” indicator can be make or break for your top tier customers to order online while not showing this sensitive information to competitors or smaller customers browsing your site.

Are willing to wave through the plugin list to find the right plugin, configure and setup all you need to? What are you willing to compromise because you couldn’t find the right plugin, or worse which feature will you have to remove because it conflicts with another plugin?

Even if you’re lucky enough that you have the magical formula of plugins that delivers the front-end experience for your customers buying online - how are you going to integrate these with your existing business processes and systems?

At Aphix, we’ve got to know the importance of these complexities from experience.

If your business has spent year after year learning from past experience and capitalising on every opportunity available to you, are you now going to compromise and settle for second best?

Unlike a lot of customers using Magento or OpenCart or similar (or even monthly sub tools such as Shopify), your business is not new, and you shouldn’t have to fit your growth around the limitations of the software.

When you’re an established, successful business intent on capitalising on the opportunities presented by digital, selling online should be an extension of what you already do.

The key thing is that it’s not only about getting up and running. It’s about being able to maintain and scale that system efficiently as your business continues to grow.

No open-source e-commerce software on the market today is designed to integrate with your current business processes and systems out of the box.

2. The Customisation Vicious Circle

Brace yourself. As Nat King Cole would have it, there may be trouble ahead.

Even with the “magic formula” of plugins - the “white screen of death” is a painful experience that nearly all open-source projects suffer from - launch day everything goes well - a few weeks in and a plugin needs to be updated and comes with a handy “update plugin” button.

Turns out, the latest version has a bug, or now conflicts with another plugin - this often results in a blank white screen where your whole e-commerce site is now offline until you fix it.

One way to avoid this is to be less dependant on plugins - and work with a developer to customise and build your own bespoke plugins in order to make your open-source software do what you need to do.

Many B2B and wholesale businesses try customising Magento to suit their needs. Here’s the typical workflow we’ve seen on multiple occasions with our customers, before they decided to talk to us

  • You decide on Magento as the solution that will get you most of the way there.

  • You use UpWork or an agency to find an experienced Magento developer who can get you the rest of the way there.

  • The developer struggles to integrate with your current ERP system as they don’t have any experience with it, and Magento isn’t setup to work with external systems without heavy customisations.

  • You spend a large amount of time agonising over requirements and testing on software that just isn’t doing what you need it to.

  • Eventually, after a number of revisions and updates you’re lucky enough to have a system you can go live with.

This doesn’t sound too bad as software projects go, however it’s after your journey gets started that the cracks really start to appear - and you must appreciate the psyche of a software developer at this point.

They know the beast they have created.

The biggest issue with bespoke software development - and customisations on open-source software - is the support after it goes into production.

With plugins, you have the benefit of being in a community of users - it will likely get updated and be maintained for more than just yourself. Other contributors will maintain it for you.

With a bespoke solution - it’s yours. You’ve a custom plugin with a user base of one, that you are responsible for - and because you naturally want it as soon as possible without as much as cost as possible - a lot of processes to make your plugin maintainable into the future have been skipped.

From the software developers point of view, any future requirements you have - or even the basic need to keep your Magento software up to date - are a headache to complete. They require a lot of tedious testing and “patching”. By extension this becomes costly for you, as you’re likely paying per-hour…

Often the next step is to find a new developer who will do things “properly”. They will often not be interested in taming the “beast” you’ve already paid for, and will want to start again. In our experience, this just causes the cycle to repeat...

The biggest take-away from this point shouldn’t be the cost and expense of customisations, or the cycle that most get caught into - it’s the need for great after go-live support - this is how to avoid ending up with a “beast” of unsupportable software.

3. IT / Infrastructure Headaches

Trying to manage your core B2B business can be enough work in itself, so it’s no surprise that so few B2B or wholesales businesses then want to think about the IT behind their e-commerce arm in substantial detail.

This is one of the most underappreciated, and unasked during a sales process.  A few things to consider:

  • Where is my open-source software going to be hosted?

  • Your server is running out of capacity. What do you do now or how do you know this is even happening?

  • Will your e-commerce platform scale as your business grows?

  • Forgetting the open-source software being up to date - is the infrastructure it runs on up to date and secure? How regularly is the infrastructure updated?

  • In the case of a catastrophic disaster - where are our backups, how do I get back online and how quickly?

  • I want to run a flash sale / Black Friday is coming up - how do I handle the traffic load?

If you currently use or are planning to use an open-source system like Magento, it’s time to ask those questions before the issue gets out of hand.

4. Security and Updates

Still with me? Great!

Right, so the next thorny issue to address when it comes to open-source software: security.

When handling your customers information online - you have a responsibility to ensure it’s as secure and protected as it can be.

Unfortunately, open-source software can present you with a whole new set of problems if left inadequately maintained.

By its very definition, open-source software presents us with a slight problem: its source code is openly and freely available to whoever would like to access it.

And the sad fact is there are people out there who are constantly looking at ways to take advantage and exploit any websites running that system.

Let’s take WordPress, for example. WordPress is a content management system that powers over 25% of the web. Not only could you use WordPress to run your website’s content, but it can also be used to manage an e-commerce store. And like Magento, WordPress is entirely open-source.

As soon as a security exploit is discovered on a version of WordPress, however, there will be dozens of bots crawling the web to find WordPress websites running that version.

Why?

So that they can exploit, deface or take down the site or extract sensitive data out of it.

From a security perspective, businesses have to be very reactive to addressing any vulnerabilities they may have in their systems, especially when dealing with such sensitive customer data.

And for large-scale systems, open-source is not necessarily less secure. But it does mean you need to be aware of the potential pitfalls so you can take the steps to address it.

This often means several updates a year of just the core open-source software itself, without any considerations for your plugins which are equally as vulnerable.

As discussed in the points above, heavy bespoke customisations and being stuck in plugin-hell can affect how quickly you can react to updates, and the cost of deploying those updates.

So what are the alternatives?

If you decide that open-source or cheap e-commerce tool is not what you need for your large-scale e-commerce business, what are your alternative options?

The good news is that you do have choices.

Here are two of the most common:

  1. Build a Completely Bespoke System from Scratch

  2. Invest in a Proven and Tested Technology Platform

Build a Completely Bespoke System from Scratch

Because of the reasons we outlined above, it is no surprise that many companies opt to build a completely bespoke system from the ground up.

They say to a developer, “OK, I know I can’t get there 100% of the way with Magento, so I want you to build it all from scratch.”

You’ve lost the foundations that the open-source software will give you, but you’ve gained the flexibility of not having to compromise - this of courses comes with extra cost.

Sadly, the extra cost isn’t your biggest problem and building it is only half the battle. Once it’s built, you need to make sure it stays working for the long haul.

You might be in it for the long haul, but are they? With any bespoke project, corners are often cut in order to cut costs, most commonly:

  • Support on how to use the bespoke system is limited

  • It's unlikely to be properly documented for further development

  • It’s unlikely to be optimized to scale when your business inevitably grows.

Even when all of that is done correctly - at scale, the software is core to your business - but you’re not core to theirs.

Most software development agencies are always looking to move onto the next big project. The “small” updates and upgrade to your custom solution isn’t a priority to them. How long can you afford to wait to stay up to date and compete with your competitors.

The great and terrible thing about the software industry is that it moves quickly. Without a dedicated team of developers your bespoke system will never be kept up-to-date properly. Are you ready to hire a software development team in your businesses?

A bespoke system could easily be a ticking timebomb for your wholesale business.

Do you want to take that risk?

Invest in a Proven and Tested Technology Platform

Fair warning - I’m biased here.

After all, I’m one of the founders of Aphix Software, a company that provides a platform for e-commerce and ordering solution for large-scale B2B companies like wholesalers, manufacturers and distributors.

But to me it’s obvious that the best course is finding a solid middle ground between a complete custom build on the one hand, and a complete reliance on open-source software on the other.

When we founded Aphix, we knew that using individual setups of open-source ecommerce solutions for each of our customers wasn’t a viable option - not only from your perspective, but from our ability to provide support and updates, individually across all our customers.

A platform approach was the only option.

The benefit of a platform is that you get the advantage of “safety in numbers” with a tried and tested solution - similar to open-source solutions - but because we’ve designed the platform to specifically to integrate with your existing business processes and be flexibly on the critical areas that make your business, uniquely you, you don’t need to compromise.

The best e-commerce decision the best businesses make is to find a technology partner and platform that can deliver and provide ongoing support to you and your business as you scale.

This is when you truly get to treat e-commerce as an extension of your current business, not a side project that must be independent or poorly integrated because the overhead of maintaining is too great.

Investing in a well used, tried and tested platform gives you the reassurance that all the core and critical parts are already there and working - no need to worry about updates or security, they’re taken care of at a platform level.

Investing in a flexible platform gives you the reassurance that as your needs grow, the platform will grow with you.

That’s why we built the Aphix Cloud Platform especially for B2B companies exactly like yours. Before choosing any technology to go undergo your journey into e-commerce ask yourself these questions and see what technology lines up for you:

  1. What does it do out of the box?

  2. What does it not do out of the box?

  3. What will it take to make it do those things?

  4. What infrastructure will be required for me for now, and what is the path to scaling that infrastructure?

  5. In particular for integrating into my current business systems, what will it take?

  6. After we’re up and running, where can I get support on how to do things?

  7. After we’re up and running, how do I get regular security updates?

  8. As the web changes, how will my e-commerce site stay up to date with the latest standards?

  9. Is the platform well documented, well maintained and how mission critical is the future of my e-commerce site to the developer?

By choosing a platform, like Aphix WebShop, you can rest assured that the majority of these questions can be easily answered. As we’re focused on providing the best smart selling tools for the B2B wholesale industry, chances are we already have the features you need and can take solace in our belief that the future of your business, is the future of our platform.

Does the Aphix Cloud Platform sound like it could be the right fit for you? Book a free consultation with one of our team today!