First Line Software is a premier provider of software engineering, software enablement, and digital transformation services. Headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the global staff of 400 technical experts serve clients across North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia.
Congratulations! Your business has just taken off or grown to the point where you need to choose a platform to execute your eCommerce vision. Now is the time to polish up your crystal ball and put it to good use by taking a look three to five years into the future. What’s your vision for the company? What are the expectations from your online business? These “big picture” questions (and more importantly, their answers) are where you really need to begin the search for your ideal eCommerce platform solution.
Taking the first steps
The crystal ball is not just a prop in children’s stories anymore. Many companies these days actually do own one… we just know it by its less glamorous name; Data. Take a deep dive into your collected data by running an ETL program, or thoroughly analyze the information you have to project what kind of realistic growth you expect within the next few years. Having this baseline of information up front is an important first step in determining which platform might best serve your needs not only today, but also as your business expands.
Once you know where you want to be going, now is the time to carefully analyze your existing business processes so they can be integrated into a platform of your choosing. This may sound like an obvious next step in the process of choosing a platform, but without a clear understanding of every specific department, function, or structure within an organization, picking a Minimally Viable Product (MVP) as a basis for your online platform will likely be more expensive than it needs to be. You see, the choice (and cost) of a platform upfront is often determined by how much the business owner, or client understands what they want to achieve now, and in the future, or what specific problems need solutions right away.
Examples of types of platform integration
Different businesses require their own types of integrated platforms. In one of the more common scenarios, the client has an online store website where they advertise their goods or services, and prices. They also want to accept payment on the site and automate delivery requiring integrations with existing systems. Now their business is growing, there are more customers, more products, and new warehouses are opened. To account for all this, various CRMs, ERPs, and CDPs are introduced. What platform can lead all of these systems, pull data from them, and sync seamlessly? All of this integration work is required to better understand the customers, and improve online and offline interactions with them.
If a client is the owner of a restaurant, they want several functions out of their eCommerce platform. They need to integrate their website with an existing restaurant back-system, show the current menu, post orders, update the status of orders, take online payments, and send out deliveries. These are a few examples among the many possible requests for the platform.
For B2B clients, especially those involved with manufacturing, there can be many different existing back-systems. In these cases, there is often a central systems “hub” that plays the role of an intermediary or translator between the many back-systems that need integrating. The chosen eCommerce platform then connects directly to the hub without having to separately integrate with each back-system. The software developers that customize the eCommerce platform for integration just have to integrate with the central hub for everything to work together. This model also translates to other businesses with similar “hub” structures.
About the platforms
There is a massive amount of eCommerce platforms out there to choose from, and it goes without saying how much they differ from one another in terms of cost, scalability, complexity, integration ability, etc. For the purposes of this article, we’re discussing the selection of purchasable, “off-the-shelf” platforms. There is always the option of having a software developer create a completely bespoke, custom-software platform solution for your business. Most businesses simply do not need that degree of work from scratch and its ensuing cost.
The advantages of working with off-the-shelf platforms and figuring out which is best for you becomes clear once we start understanding the “add-ons” required to make them do their job.
No “off-the-shelf” platform can conceivably cover all of your business needs. Most clients shopping for a platform underestimate the need for further customization. Even if it’s not the completely bespoke, custom software platform mentioned above, its fiction to believe that any platform is, “plug-and-play”. Run, don’t walk, from anyone or any company that tells you otherwise. This is where your crystal ball gazing should pay off… Take a look at what your data and business process introspection tell you. What do you really need? Start looking at platforms that are closest to not only your present business tasks, but ones that will support your future goals.
Questions to ask before committing
- How easy is the platform to customize in general, and with existing systems?
- Can the platform be customized in a modular fashion?
- What kind of support is offered? Does the company support customizing?
- How often is the platform updated? Will updates affect any customizing work?
- What is the availability of certified software developers on the platform?
- Does the platform inherently give you what you need? You do not want to rely too heavily on customizing to achieve your goals. This can lead to slowing the whole platform down.
- Does the platform allow for an exit strategy from the rest of your systems if needed?
An important fact to understand is that sooner or later your chosen platform can become a limiter to your business and there are, ultimately, two reasons:
- We have poorly analyzed the business processes at the beginning (bad…)
- Your business is developing very dynamically (could be very good…)
Consult with the experts
Earlier we touched upon the idea of creating bespoke, customized platforms. As we now know, you will almost certainly require some level of customization in any off-the-shelf eCommerce platform you choose. All of the integration that was mentioned in our examples above requires a highly skilled and experienced software vendor that is familiar with the myriad of platforms that exist. Before you commit to purchasing a platform, consider consulting with and choosing an integration partner to help you make the right decision. A knowledgeable software vendor will:
- Ask you the right questions about your business when choosing a platform
- Outline why a given platform suits your business – or doesn’t
- Explain to you a platforms limitation – and how they can overcome them
- Break down a platform’s advantages and disadvantages – a cost benefit analysis
As you can see, there is a fine line between finding a platform that can do the most for you right off of the shelf, while at the same time minimizing the amount of customization you need to make it work. The more time you’ll have spent “crystal ball – data gazing” in the beginning, the more knowledge you’ll have accrued about your own business processes. All of this work will only make you more confident and successful when it ultimately comes to choosing an eCommerce platform.