Why You Should Run Screaming When Someone Mentions A Custom CMS

buildinopensourceI am all for paying for a great product. But I am a big believer of using open source (free) content management systems (CMSes) to build websites.

I think this for a few good reasons. I thought of this analogy story to illustrate my point.

Once upon a time, there was a large group of builders who lived and worked in Dreamville. They used materials like plywood and sheet rock to build houses for homeowners.

The homeowners were, for the most part, satisfied. If they decided they didn’t like a particular builder, they could always use another. When builders got busy, they referred work to each other. 

Then came along The Flashy Company. The Flashy Company was also a contracting company but they built all their houses out of kwah, a material that has the toughness of quartz with the flexibility of plywood. They were the only ones who could use kwah and when the contractors tried to look up information about it, they could find very little about it, in Google or otherwise.

Soon people in Dreamville heard about kwah and how amazing The Flash Company was telling everyone it was. Many jumped on board and had kwah houses constructed. Soon there were twenty houses in the town all made of kwah.

One day, The Flashy Company left Dreamville. At first, this was no problem since the houses were so durable. But eventually, even kwah started to fail. Houseowner Hugo called up Contractor Carl to come fix his kwah roof.

The problem was threefold:

1) No one outside The Flashy Company knew how to make kwah so all Carl could do was rig a half-ass solution with his plywood and other materials.
2) It took the Carl a long time to figure out how the house was built. Since the material was so strange, regular solutions didn’t work. This time Carl spent trying to understand kwah meant money to Hugo and was frustrating to Carl since he couldn’t offer a fast efficient solution.
3) Since The Flashy Company hadn’t worked with any other contractors while in town, it was difficult for the homeowners with homes built in kwah to find contractors to be able to work on their house. Contractors had to figure it out quickly yet had no information they could look to to help them.

Carl had to tell Hugo the sad truth: eventually he’d have to rebuild his house. Yes, even though he paid a lot of money to The Flashy Company for kwah, and even though he just paid Carl to come up solution for the room, eventually it would start to completely fail and need to be built in other materials.

What can we learn from kwah (besides it’s an amazing fake building material that should exist elsewhere besides my brain)?

1) Custom CMSes mean only the company that built your site knows how it works. If you need someone else to work with you on your website, they are either going to have a steep learning curve and/or they are going to have to rebuild the whole thing for you.

2) Open source CMSes (like Joomla, Wordpress, and Drupal, among others) have multiple people that can work on them. That means people can share work, find solutions, and otherwise tap into a collective intelligence. Custom CMSes are at the mercy of the relatively small team that built them. Would you rather have a product that 10 people worked to improve or 1 million people worked to improve? Exactly.

3) It’s nice to build in something that has been tested by others. While it is attractive to work in something that’s new and shiny, materials with a track record will stand the test of time, online and off. Joomla has existed since 2005, Wordpress since 2003, and Drupal since 2001. By comparison, many proprietary CMSes haven’t existed that long, or have had millions of people use them in that time.

4) Proprietary CMSes are slower to innovate. Because their code isn’t open to developers around the world, these systems move much slower in terms of features. We had one client using a proprietary software but wanted a responsive site, which the software hadn’t yet started to offer. So they had to pick between keeping their current system or having something their customers were asking for (mobile friendliness).

Now what if you have a very specific kind of business (like you sell farm shares) and this one company has a system that just does that thing perfectly? Then you should do it… but you should do your homework first. Does that monthly fee include payment processing? Are you signing up for this for a certain period, like one year? Do you own the rights to the design, should you want to take it and move it into another platform later? What features does it have to address your concerns like mobile and social media users?

In other words, really look into it and make sure it’s a good fit. Because the kwah website you build may last as long as you need it to. But someday you will need to rebuild, like we all do, and picking a material you know people can work is a good step to ensuring what you build remains standing, long after any company you work with.

Nicole Ouellette
Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she's not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.

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