The build vs buy paradox is all about marketing

Do you build websites, mobile apps and marketing software to meet your exact needs or buy it to meet most of your needs?  Let’s let best marketing practices answer that question.

Ohhhhhhhhh I blew it.  Your humble narrator just blew it with a new prospective customer.  I got into a shooting match about the build vs. buy paradox that businesses face every day.

You see, this nice couple has started a new Charlotte based business selling plants and flowers through an e-commerce website.  I was introduced to them as they were struggling to find a simple solution for printing shipping labels from orders they received.  They contracted a professional software development firm to custom build their e-commerce website and after getting 99% through the project, they discovered this challenge.  These people are sitting on an inventory and as they are live plants, they need to move the inventory now… not in 30-60-90 days, but in the next few weeks.  Otherwise, the year is lost to them.  In the course of trying to solve their shipping label needs, I realized that their custom built e-commerce website had several (what I consider to be) critical issues that will hold them back from long term marketing success.  This includes Search Engine Friendliness (URL’s meta data, content, etc.), Mobile optimization, and general site flow.  When I saw that, I tried to politely bring it to their attention and offer that some great pre-built platforms exist that can easily and inexpensively rectify the problem.  I suggested they consider an online system called Big Commerce and then use Ordoro for order management.  Not only would it solve their issues for printing the shipping labels, but the issues of search engines, mobility and site structure would be knocked out in a single blow.  This is where I went completely wrong.  They interpreted this as me telling them to abandon what they are building for an “off the shelf” solution and I was slamming their website, programming team and all the effort they already put into it.   What business owner wouldn’t react negatively to something like that?  I know I would.  Needless to say, we lost what we hoped would be inbound marketing services, video, and other promotions for their e-commerce site and offended them in the process.  No good deed (communicated poorly) goes unpunished.

While I can’t take back the painful lesson I learned from that experience, I hope to educate other marketing executives and business owners about some of the decision making considerations for the buy vs. build question. So… do you build it or buy it?  By “build” I mean literally that… have someone actually build it for you from scratch.  When I say “buy” I mean that you either use a software product that is being sold by a company and if possible customize that software to suit your needs.  A great example of “buy” is using WordPress to build an easily customizable website/blog that non-technical people can administer the web pages and articles.  In the case of WordPress, you get the WordPress code base for free, purchase plugins, themes and other add-ons and then customize the look to suit your brand and site structure.  There are millions of websites/blogs running wordpress and similar systems (Joomla, Drupal, etc.).  The beauty is that WordPress is constantly evolving, providing numerous updates per year to keep it current and secure.

The buy vs build question is not always a crystal clear choice to be made.  Generally speaking, I feel the question becomes more difficult to choose the larger the business.  I personally apply the 80/20 rule to this question in almost every case.  If an off the shelf software product (or mix of products) can meet 80% of your requirements, then go that route.  Small businesses like the ones I just mentioned are almost always better servered to choose a buy solution simply for economic reasons.  The more customers on a system, the more stability, typically the more features and the less the individual company needs to worry about product evolution, uptime, etc.  Sometimes, you may have specific requirements unique to your business goals.  For example, our team decided we wanted to make a Facebook app to make photo collage posters that are purchased directly from the app and then printed here in Charlotte and shipped to customers.  Well, this is not a typical system, so we decided to custom build So Cool Prints.  We market the site through our FanPage and drive customers to the app to buy posters.

Like so many customers past and present, our marketing efforts with So Cool Prints has been plagued with technology related challenges, Facebook requirements, mobility and has derailed our marketing and sales momentum.  Why?  Because as a business, the second you start to custom build any software product, you become in essence a software company.  You have no choice.  The product is yours, yours alone and yours to support and evolve through all time.  This is probably the most overlooked fact by companies who are considering the build option as a solution.  It brings me right back to the 80/20 rule.  If 80% of my needs with So Cool Prints could have been met by an off the shelf software product, then I should have gone that route to avoid 100% of the problems I face with this custom built behemoth we have now.  At press time, we are making one last effort to get the system up to shape again and a final marketing push before we either put it to bed forever or persevere and start generating cashflow.  More to come on that story.

So what are some factors that you should consider when thinking about the buy/build?  Here are a few marketing related questions to keep at the forefront of your thought process.  We’ll assume you have a choice for a product that meets 80% of your needs or having that great team build it to spec.

  1. Will you need to pay for on-going support and product evolution?  Who is responsible for that and how much will it cost?
  2. Is there device interoperability?  More people are using tablets and phones to surf, find and purchase than ever before and the desktop/laptop world is shrinking.  I don’t just mean, can they see it content, but is it formatted for the devices.  Either a “responsive” web design or a separate mobile interface.
  3. Will the system completely support SES URL’s (search engine safe URL’s)?  Does it write meta data, alt tags, etc.  Is content formatted into headings, paragraph text, alt tags, etc.  Basically speaking, can you structure content the right way that makes Google, Bing and Yahoo happy?
  4. Can you easily get your analytics package integrated across the site?
  5. Does it integrate with 3rd party apps for marketing and promotions (email marketing, CRM tools, Facebook, etc.).
  6. Does it have social media tools to help promote social virality (Twitter, Facebook Likes, Pinterest, etc.).
  7. How quickly can the solutions be implemented?
  8. What is the total cost of ownership to factor meeting your needs and all of the questions posed here for a one year period?
  9. And let’s not forget to look closely at the company you hire to build.  What is their experience?  Are they asking good questions?  Will they be around tomorrow to support you?


Bottom Line

It seems  sometimes that having someone build us something may be the best option to get what we want.  But there is so much more to it than just that.  Our advice is to typically follow the 80/20 rule with very few exceptions.  You’ll likely find it takes less time, costs less overall and allows you to focus your energy on what’s most important… marketing and revenue generation.


P.S. – Don’t forget to request your free SEO audit to see if your website is ready for prominent positioning on Google, Bing and Yahoo!



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