Platforms & Marketplaces

If you Google “E-commerce software”, you get more than 18 million hits. Worse yet, NONE of the results on the first page are duplicates…. Even the sponsored results are all all over the place. Some are reviews, and – you guessed it – not a lot of agreement. You can call a web designer or developer, but even there, what in the devil are you supposed to ask for? How do you know you’re not going to get a designer that has built-in prejudices (or expertise) that limits him or her to a platform that may not be in your best interests? A little education is in order. Let’s begin.

First of all, there are four main types of E-commerce solutions:

• Marketplace
• Proprietary Platform
• Self-Hosted CMS
• Custom

Have I lost you yet? Not to worry, hang on, and I’ll unravel all of this for you in quick order, and you’ll be chatting away like an old pro by the time we’re done – its really not all that magical. Which solution is best for you is a balance of lot of factors. First let’s talk about what makes each type of solution different from the others.

The Marketplaces

These are the most familiar names, behemoths like Etsy, eBay and Amazon, but also smaller more niche name like Artfire and CustomMade. Marketplaces are very popular for part-time sellers, for beginners, and for artists who are high up on the technophobe scale. Marketplaces make it very easy to get started, and take care of all of all the big scary stuff behind the scenes. You won’t need to worry about setting up payment gateways, SSLs, themes, any coding whatsoever – you won’t even need to worry about designing your shop at all, because you can’t. Marketplaces are plug and play, with a minimum of decisions to make.

To get set up on a Marketplace you’ll need:

• Paypal account to pay fees & collect payments
• Your images
• Your descriptions
• A way to ship your products
• A passing comfort level with a basic computer interface (no coding needed)

PROs

• Low barrier to entry, easy to use, low-cost to start
• No design savvy required to open your store

CONs

• Usually charge a fee to list each item, and % of each item sold
• Some platforms incur fees whether sales are made or not
• Little personalization possible
• Difficult to be found on huge sites
• Buyers tend to say “I bought it on Etsy” – difficult to get artists recognition
• The Marketplace can change rates at their whim
• The Marketplace can kick you out, or go out of business and you are SOL

Of course, the more tech-savvy you are, the better, but even Luddites can get along fairly well on a platform like Etsy. Of course, as with ALL platforms, the more you work your listings, your SEO, and your marketing, the better your performance, but for today’s purposes, we’re just talking about the actual platform mechanism itself. The biggest problem with Marketplaces is that you are in a huge virtual sales tent, and it is very, very hard to get found, unless you market the hell out of yourself – you simply cannot count on being found simply by being ON that Marketplace. If all you need is a virtual tent, and you understand that you’ll still need to do the work – the promotion, the marketing, the SEO, the social media, then go for it. The Marketplace can be a great way to get your feet wet and find your wings. Just don’t fall into the trap of expecting it to be your everything.

The Proprietary Platforms 

Shopify, Squarespace, BigCommerce and similar platforms offer a step up from the Marketplaces, giving you your own website, but without many of the headaches of managing your own “backend”. Proprietary platforms take care of the CMS – the Content management System – which is the software which makes e-commerce possible – and also handles  the SSL – Secure Socket Layer – certificates, the security of the site which makes credit card transactions secure. Some Proprietary Platforms offer free or low-cost starter sites, but on most you will pay, anywhere from $25 to $200 per month or more, but you’ll get quite a bit for your money. As already stated, your backend functions, all of that’s kept clean and up-to-date for you, no worries about firewalls, viruses, compatibility, any of the thousands of things that can go wrong on a website. You’ll get basic reporting functions, sometimes more sophisticated ones, depending on the platform and your package. Backup functions are taken care of too, so that’s another headache you can cross off your list. You’ll have much more design flexibility than with a Marketplace – you’ll be able to select a theme on most Proprietary Platforms, which will make your shop truly your own site. There are some constraints when compared to a Self-Hosted CMS, but it’s a trade-off in headaches and tech level. If you have a middling-to-passing tech capability, or if you can learn, you’ll be able to handle a Proprietary Platform quickly.

To get set up on a Proprietary Platform you’ll need:

• A credit card or Paypal account to pay fees
• Your site content: images, description, blog posts, etc
• A way to ship your products
• A fair comfort level with a computer, or the ability to learn (coding is helpful but not needed)
• You’ll need a theme, or “skin” for your site
• You may want to purchases additional apps or plugins to expand the functionality of your site

PROs

• Medium barrier to entry, moderate ease of use
• Design flexibility, large variety of themes for most platforms
• Normally not a per-item charge to list
• Most platforms have free tech support – check the one you’re looking at to see what forms (phone, chat, email) and what the wait times are
• Great option if you want basic e-commerce utility
• Reporting functions
• It’s your site, and your baby

CONs

• You don’t really own your site – it’s essentially a rental
• Monthly fee whether you have sales or not
• Themes can be limiting for some design aspirations
• It’s your site – you’ll have to market it yourself
• Can be very difficult or expensive to add certain  extra functions
• Not good if you want portfolios or galleries
• The Proprietary Platform can change rates at their whim
• The Proprietary Platform can kick you out, or go away

Most Proprietary Platforms have moved away from bandwidth and storage fees (at least for all but the lowest entry-level plans), but be sure to double check. Un-optimized images will eat up your storage quickly (and why are your images not optimized? We’ll talk about that later darling….) The worst thing to look out for with Proprietary Platforms, is to try and forecast what you think you may want several years down the road – because it can be expensive to add unusual functions to Proprietary Platform themes. Unless you’re SuperGeek, crawling around in the code of some of these puppies can be really scary, and the last thing you want is to have to start all over again when you realize you can’t get to where you want on the platform you just invested five years of your life on. So, forecast, look down the long road, as best you can. If you see yourself wanting more than a Proprietary Platform looks like it can give you in a few years, take a look at…

The Self-Hosted CMS

Everywhere you turn, it’s always WordPress. And with seriously good reason. I resisted the WordPress train with a vengeance for a long time, because I felt like it just wasn’t there for what I needed for a long time (well, because it wasn’t) But now – I haven’t met any designers for quite a while who couldn’t benefit from a well-designed WordPress site. I know a guy who likes to say “that site looks like WordPress”, except he’s usually pointing at a Shopify site… so yeah, “looks like WordPress” means absolutely nothing any more. I could show you a few sites built on WP that would blow your mind. But that’s not what this is about – this is about Self-Hosted Platforms – and what that means.

Etsy is like your first furnished apartment.

Shopify is a really nice rent house.

WordPress is where you build your dream home.

WordPress is an Open Source CMS – Content Management System, just like we talked about above, but the “open source” part is a new wrinkle. Open Source means that it’s open and free for developers to open up and poke around in, to write software for, and in general contribute to. Most of the major self-hosted CMSs are open source: WP, Joomla, Drupal, Expression Engine. The “self-hosted” part means that you have to obtain your own hosting (Bluehost, Host Gator, etc) you upload the CMS software to your hosting account, and you build your website. Of course, “you” means you or your web designer or developer, but if you have a moderate tech level, you’d be surprised what you can do with a little perseverance and some good videos. The best thing about a Self-Hosted CMS is that it’s infinitely flexible; there’s virtually nothing you can’t do with it, given time, talent and budget. In other words, you might not be able to afford your dream site this week, but you will be able to build it on the same land when you’re ready – you won’t have to move. But you will need to keep up the roof and check for leaks, and do all the stuff that homeowners do: Keep everything updated, virus checks in place, myriad of stuff you don’t need to worry about with a Proprietary Platform. The trade-offs are huge, as are the savings – the only costs (past your build) are your hosting, and some fairly small ones to keep virus and security software up to date.

To get set up on a Self-Hosted CMS you’ll need

• A hosting account
• CMS software; most hosts will supply this as a one-click install, so don’t be too afraid!
• A designer or developer to build your site, or some patience to tackle it yourself
• All of your site content
• If you want to conduct commerce on your site, you’ll need an SSL certificate
• A high comfort level with a computer, or the ability to learn
• You’ll need a theme, or a builder

• Coding is helpful but you can get around most of it judicious theme selection

• You may want to purchases additional apps or plugins to expand the functionality of your site

PROs:

• You own your site
• Design flexibility, best for realizing a specific vision
• No monthly fees other than hosting, low or no cost
• Great option if you want basic e-commerce utility
• It’s your site, and your baby
• No worries about fee changes
• Sites can be packed up and moved if necessary

CONs:

• Higher barrier to entry, more moving parts to coordinate
• Tech support is more spread out
• Must monitor for hackers and viruses (unless your host does it)
•  You’ll have to do your own back-ups (unless your host does it)
• PCI compliance might be your responsibility depending on gateway
• It’s your site – you’ll have to market it yourself

SO…. how in the heck does this shake out for designers? Most designers I know fall into one of two camps: Those with a very specific vision, unwilling to make many compromises on their way to website nirvana, and those that really can’t be bothered, and see their sites more as a means to an end – the facts, just the facts, don’t bother me with the details. The Visionary is most likely going to be the happiest with a Self-Hosted CMS site, simply because there are no limits – but the learning curve, and possibly the upfront cost – is going to be a little higher. (The lower maintenance cost does greatly balance any higher development costs, and the satisfaction derived from conquering that learning curve is pretty awesome, lemme tell you) By contrast, the Pragmatist may be happier with the lower cost and narrower confines of a Proprietary Platform. As my mother used to say, that’s what makes horse races.

In short, the best analogy I can give you for the three main types of web real estate hark back to actual real estate: Think of a site on a Marketplace like renting a furnished apartment. It’s a nice place, but it’s not really yours. You can’t pick the neighborhood, and you can’t pick the floor plan, or even the curtains. You can hang some stuff on the walls, but that’s about it – and the rent can change any time, and the building can be sold.

A Proprietary Platform is sort of like renting a house. It’s more like your own place. You can furnish it, even paint it and hang your own curtains and plant a garden. You have a lease, but you don’t own the place, so the landlord has to take care of the water heater if it blows up or the septic if it overflows. You just have to keep the lawn mowed and the flower beds tended. At the same time, you don’t really want to do a lot to a rent house, ya know? ‘Cause it’s not really yours, and well, things can happen.

But a Self-Hosted CMS – that’s YOUR place, warts and all. Tear down a wall, build a new kitchen, paint the roof red – it’s yours, all yours. And if the boiler blows up, you get to fix it yourself. If you want to bulldoze the thing and start over, build a skyscraper, you can do that too. Your property taxes (your hosting fees) might go up, buy it is yours, and you can do whatever you want. Just be sure you’re ready for the costs of home ownership!

But wait, there was a fourth option on that list – Custom. A custom site can be anything from a custom WordPress or other CMS site to a shoot-the-moon, built-from-the-ground-up hand-coded just for you site… Think Xanadu by the Sea. How much? Some custom sites fall into the category “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it”.  But if you have a unique need, a unique vision, the budget to support it – and the patience of Job – it could bear exploration. In an upcoming post we’ll explore what you should be thinking about and asking if you think you might want a complete custom site – and how to avoid getting sucked into Website Hell.


If the tech demons have you completely backed into a corner, schedule a private session with me, and I’ll help you figure out what the best strategy for your business, and try to point you in the best direction for assistance, or get you going with a DIY solution that will have you steering your own boat.

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This chart is by no means complete – there are literally dozens more players in this crowded arena, but this gives you a start. Click to go to the home pages of each Marketplace, Platform or CMS, and remember, vet throughly, and always look for reviews! Discussion is most welcome below!

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