Shopping for a Small Business Website Content Management System (CMS): Part One, How to Avoid Vendor Lock-In

by Kurt Milam on March 4, 2010

Choosing a Content Management System (CMS) for your small business website can be an overwhelming task. There are hundreds if not thousands of systems to choose from. Read ahead to find out one important question that you need to ask before deciding on a CMS for your business, and to learn one reason that a hosted WordPress site is one of the best options for a small business website CMS.

Note: This is the first in a series of detailed articles on this subject. Our intention with this series is to help small business owners through the maze of choices they’re confronted with when shopping for a Website CMS. Follow us on Twitter, become a fan of our Facebook page or subscribe to our RSS feed now! We’ll inform you as soon as we publish the next installment.

How Widely-Used is the CMS? Or: How can I avoid Vendor Lock-In?

This may be the most important question you can ask when trying to determine which CMS to select for your small business website. A widely-used CMS has several important advantages over more obscure systems. One of the most important advantages is that it helps you avoid the costly trap of Vendor Lock-In.

What’s Vendor Lock-In? Let’s use a metaphor. Imagine you’re shopping for a new car instead of a Web CMS. You’ve done your research, taken your test drives, and the final contenders on your list are a Bugatti Veyron and a Honda Accord. The Honda’s OK – it’s safe, reliable, will get you where you’re going, and you can customize it to suit your needs. The Bugatti is superfast, sleek, luxurious and makes a statement.

Bugatti Veyron

Bugatti Veyron, Base price: $1,700,000 (don't forget to add maintenance and repair costs!)

In the end, you decide to buy the Bugatti, even though it costs almost 100 times as much as the Honda. At first, you’re happy with your new car. It turns heads and gets you noticed. It’s crazy fast, looks like a work of art on wheels, and it has a world-class warranty. You’re happy that you shelled out the extra money.

And then you get the call from your dealership telling you it’s time for your first scheduled maintenance. The person on the other end of the line politely reminds you that your warranty is only valid as long as you stick to the regular maintenance schedule, and have all repairs and maintenance performed by an authorized Bugatti workshop.

Now you’re locked in. There’s only one authorized Bugatti workshop in your town, and they charge more than ten times as much as the average garage for repair and maintenance work. On top of that, even if you chose to void your warranty and look for a cheaper garage, most garages in town have never worked on a Bugatti, and wouldn’t know where to start. You can’t afford to risk invalidating your warranty, so you really don’t have a choice. Your new Bugatti is going to cost substantially more than you had originally calculated.

But it doesn’t end there. Six months and four expensive trips to the Bugatti workshop for repairs later, and you’ve realized the uncomfortable truth that your warranty doesn’t cover every imaginable type of repair. A new headlight costs more than $1,000. A single tire costs $3,500. In an average month, you’re paying as much for repairs and maintenance on your Bugatti as it would have cost you to buy the Honda Accord, outright. But you’ve got too much time and effort invested in the Bugatti, and you can’t bring yourself to make the switch.

A few months later you pick up the newspaper and read the following headline: “Global Financial Crisis Hits Local Auto Dealers,” Subheadline: “Local Bugatti Dealership to Close.” Oh. Now what? The only Bugatti dealership (also the only authorized workshop) in town is shutting down. The next authorized workshop is in Big City, more than 200 miles away. I hope you like Big City, because you’re going to be spending a lot of time there. You’re going to have to book a hotel room every time you take the car in for maintenance. And the towing charges? Your friendly local tow-truck driver’s new uniform is a Brooks Brothers’ suit, courtesy of Y-O-U.

At least it can’t get any worse, right? Wrong. You’re sitting in your hotel room in Big City, watching CNN while your car’s in the shop for a $4,500 oil change. It’s a routine you’ve gotten used to over the last few months. You’re not sure how long you’ll be staying. You’re never sure. Sometimes the guys at the workshop are quick, and you’re back on the road in a couple of days. Sometimes it takes longer, but there’s not a whole lot you can do about it – you’re completely at their mercy. So, you’re watching CNN and you notice the ticker scrolling across the bottom of the screen: “A Century of Automotive Tradition Comes to an End: Luxury Automaker Bugatti calls it Quits.”

Yep. Now you’ve reached rock bottom. Your warranty is worthless. Your car is practically worthless. On the plus side, you won’t have to drive to Big City for repairs and maintenance any more. Now you can have your repairs done at Fred’s Garage in your hometown, and Fred charges a lot less than you’ve been paying, right?

Well, right and wrong. Fred charges less for Fords and Hondas and Chevrolets, but he’s got a special rate for luxury autos, and an even more special rate for super exotics, like your Bugatti. Never mind that Fred’s never worked on a Bugatti before. Fred may look a little rough around the edges, but he knows how much a Bugatti costs, and he also knows what you’re used to paying for repairs in an authorized workshop. You’ll have to pay just as much to Fred as you paid at Bugatti, and since Fred doesn’t know the first thing about Bugattis, there’s a real danger that he’s going to ruin your car.

That’s Vendor Lock-In, in easily understandable layman’s terms. You want to avoid it at all costs. That Honda Accord, with its lower maintenance costs and stronger dealer network, looks extremely attractive in retrospect.

Honda Accord

Honda Accord, Base Price: $22,010 (and a heckuva lot cheaper to maintain than a Bugatti Veyron)

Real Life Example

I can assure you the Bugatti-Honda metaphor is realistic. I’ve seen it happen, first-hand. I’ll givee you a real-world example from my past experience, then we’ll move on.

Global Ceramics Company Pays for a Bugatti, ends up with a Beat-Up AMC Gremlin

This one’s a tear-jerker. A few years ago, I worked as the software architect and chief programmer for the Austrian branch of a major international advertising agency. During that time, I served as technical lead on a big CMS implementation for a global ceramics company. My team worked several months to set up websites for 12 countries in 8 different languages. Each country site included a country-specific, searchable product database. Visitors could view and print out images, CAD drawings, brochures and a list of colors and finishes for every product available in each country market.

It was a nice project, and I was really proud of the awesome work we did. It was also an expensive project. After we finished the initial implementation, Global Ceramics Company (name changed to protect the unfortunate) signed a maintenance contract with us. The monthly fee for the maintenance contract was substantially more than a small business can expect to pay for an entire CMS-based Website.

The big problem for Golbal Ceramics Company: We used our in-house, exotic, proprietary CMS package to build the site. The CMS package was awesome (a Bugatti?), but only a handful of people knew how it worked. Global Ceramics Company couldn’t take their business elsewhere. They were locked in. Aside: I didn’t choose the CMS we used on this project – we simply used our standard, in-house, proprietary CMS on all of our projects back then.

As things go, our team drifted apart over time. Less than a year after we’d finished the initial implementation of Global Ceramics Company’s website, everyone who knew how to work with the proprietary CMS we’d used had moved on to greener pastures. There was literally no one left who could upgrade or maintain the site.

Global Ceramics Company had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for their slick new website, and less than a year later, there was no one left who could maintain it.

I kept my eye on the website over time, interested to observe how it would hold up. Not surprisingly, without anyone left to maintain it, the website began to break down pretty quickly. No one could update it to make it work with newer browsers. No one was there to fix little problems that popped up over time.

Eventually, Global Ceramics Company had someone convert the site over to a more popular CMS. The conversion didn’t go too well – it was a complex website, after all. Now, almost 6 years later, Global Ceramics Company has a very expensive website that hasn’t been updated in ages and doesn’t work well in newer browsers.

Global Ceramics Company blew their entire, generous web budget on a new Bugatti, and had to settle in the end for a beat up, used AMC Gremlin with a worn-out transmission and a muffler that drags on the ground.

AMC Gremlin

AMC Gremlin, Base Price: $3,415,000 ($3,414,600 total cost of your now-worthless Bugatti + $400 for the Gremlin)

I told you, it’s a tear-jerker, and the really sad part about it is that Global Ceramics Company weren’t the only ones left hanging when our team drifted apart. Several big brands (some of whose names you are bound to know) were also left with expensive websites that looked great at first, but quickly fell apart due to lack of maintenance.

I’m Convinced! What do I need to do Now?

Ok, you’ve stuck with me this long. Here’s what you need to do in order to avoid Vendor Lock-In when choosing a CMS for your small business website.

Executive Summary: For most small business websites, hosted WordPress is an excellent choice. It has a huge base of users and companies that support it, and it’s running millions of sites. For these reasons, WordPress offers your small business outstanding protection against Vendor Lock-In. (source: About WordPress Page)

Choose a CMS that’s widely used

If you’re talking with a web design firm about building a new website for your company, ask them what CMS they’re using, and whether it’s Open Source. Most of the popular (i.e. widely-used) CMS packages are Open Source, so that’s a good place to start. If the package isn’t Open Source, you should take a long, hard look at how many users it has, and how many companies support it. If the web design firm you’re talking to is the only one who supports the CMS package they’re trying to sell you, I strongly suggest that you look for another firm. Generally, the more companies that support a CMS package, the less likely you’re going to fall into the Vendor Lock-In trap.

To get an idea how widely-used and supported a particular CMS is, plug its name into Google and see how many results you get. It’s not a scientific test, but it should give you a reasonable idea of how popular the CMS is. For example:

WordPress is the clear winner in this list. I’m pretty sure it’ll win this competition against every other candidate you might put it up against. As I mentioned, the results aren’t scientific. But based on the list, I’d be much more inclined to go with WordPress (assuming it met my company’s needs) than I would with DotNetNuke. There are some other reasons I’m not a big DotNetNuke fan, but I’ll save those for another article.

If google only has a handful of results for a prospective CMS, I’d be extremely wary about choosing it, even if it’s initially free. Back up to our auto metaphor – even if you’d gotten the Bugatti for free at the beginning, it would have cost you more money over the long-run than the more popular Honda.

Is that All?

Nope. That’s one important aspect out of several that you need to consider, covered in detail. You should now understand the dangers of Vendor Lock-In and have an idea how you can avoid it, but there’s a lot more to consider when shopping for a new CMS website. I’ll cover the other important topics in a few upcoming articles. Stay tuned for more, and feel free to ask any questions you have, in the meantime.

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