Here are my answers to Chris at FreelanceReview.net's 10 Questions Adobe Won't Answer (they ended up answering them). I did not transfer this over when we launched the blog, so I apologize for that. I put a lot of time into this and I think if you are considering using the Business Catalyst platform it might give you some insight.
[This was originally posted a couple of months ago as our splash page, but I did not transfer over the content, so here it is...]
[1/23/2011 Edit: I noticed a couple of weeks ago that all articles on FreelanceReview.net have been removed; actually to be more specific, all articles on that site have been removed...perhaps Chris couldn't take my heat - hah hah. Anyhow, I will forever keep this article up as I see it as a great resource for folks considering BC, all the questions are here and still relevant]
Recently I came across Chris from Freelance Review's article about the 10 Questions Adobe won’t answer, and then eventually did with a pretty good stab from Adobe’s Brett Welch. I like Brett - we’ve chatted on the phone and via email several times and am glad that he was able to give a solid corporate response to the questions.
With that being said, I don’t have any obligations to upper management or a corporate PR machine. What I do have is over 2 years experience with the Business Catalyst platform which includes training and managing 6 full-time staff that build websites for the platform. I sell it, I build on it, and I support it. However, I do not get any outside compensation from Adobe except for our current commissions on active sites, so I am in no way representing them or being paid extra by them to write this.
Additionally, we have been in the web design business for over 10 years - during that time we have used many systems including but not limited to: our own WMS (RIP), DotNetNuke, Sitefinity, Wordpress, Joomla, Drupal, LightCMS, Shopify, and the Yahoo Store.
We still actively support many solutions that are not on BC, however, over the last two years we have slowly migrated to about 90% BC work and the rest is various custom development projects that fall outside the box of standard website builds.
We have solved many problems and built some great solutions with BC which I recommend you take a look at, a select few can be found on our client oriented brand, HotPress Web.
So, without further ado....
This is a big question in my opinion and would take pages to answer 100% with accuracy and could probably be best referenced by tracking back through the BC Blog and Announcements. I’ll touch on some of the product evolution since our initial agreement was signed in July 2008:
I would compare watching a product like BC develop very similar to watching your stock portfolio, if you look at it growing or shrinking on a daily basis you will go crazy. You can’t judge the situation on any given individual day, but more you need to be aware of how it is performing on a short-term (little weight), medium-term (more weight), and the long-term (the most important).
So to attack how this fits into Adobe’s overall web offering, well I can’t speak for Adobe (since I don’t work for them), but I can take some educated guesses.
So look - that was a huge answer to the very first question and I hope that your wheels turn as much as mine do. In conclusion, over just two years we have seen a big evolution in the product and for only one of those years Adobe has owned it. They are a billion dollar company with the most innovative suite of applications for web designers and developers that exist on the market, I guarantee you that if it has their logo on it, big things are to come.
iPads and iPhones, although snazzy tools, have very little [real] market penetration in the entire web-browsing world, so I’m not sure where this comes into play quite yet. Especially the Flash part of the question as BC and Flash seem like very separate products with very different business goals. I digress...
We have already developed iPhone (and Android/Blackberry) friendly style-sheets for websites that are powered from BC. You have complete control of the code that is delivered to the client-device, so if you aren’t already selling your clients additional design work to extend their websites to mobile devices you are missing out on revenue.
If you want to develop Apps for the iPhone/iPad, I think you might be barking up the wrong product tree. In that land you need to know Objective C which I think strays far from the concept that designers can create powerful online businesses for their clients without needing to know the complexities of server-side code and databases.
However, with the BC API allowing other web services to access customer, case, product, catalog, and order information, I don’t see why savvy App developers couldn’t create apps that would extend a client’s web presence that is powered by BC into their own highly unique and customizable mobile apps. I know there are plans to open up even more of the system through the API in which case the possibilities go from endless to endless times infinity.
Additionally, there are MANY more tablet devices coming out in the near future including Google’s version powered by Android which will support Flash. Android phones market share has taken over iPhones (just like PCs tower over Macs). The world doesn’t revolve around Apple (to fan-boys dismay) and I would challenge anyone except Apple App developers to not base too much of their business model on the outcome of the over-exaggerated technology war between these three companies (unless of course you just like to follow the tech-celeb-gossip like watching The Kardashians).
Simple answer: become a premium partner, brand it as your own, and markup the price. This is probably a point that I want to attack pretty aggressively here. The BC model is that the Partners need to build value for their services into their offering to their clients. Adobe says, here is this great product, we give you access to white label it, mark it up, but then take that a step further and create your own services to bundle in with the hosting and management system and make some serious dough.
I am not prepared to go into our numbers in depth at the moment (don’t worry, I will in the future), but imagine that you take their base rate of the “Mini” package at $39, mark that up a measly $10, and you add an option for on-demand phone support for your client on top of that for $100 per month so you would be billing at $149 per month. Now you have now just created a billable event of $1788 per year of which only $374.40 is hard cost of hardware, hosting, and software development (via BC), and $1413.60 is left for you to provide services to your client (or profit).
A good sales technique in this situation is to find 5 independent systems that accomplish the same task of Content Management, E-Commerce, E-Mail Marketing, Customer Relationship Management, and Reporting; add the cost of just the monthlies together for those 5 systems and then figure out what kind of headache it would be to get them to all play well together...this value proposition becomes an easy sell for marking the product up well beyond an additional $10.
You bring up LightCMS in a future question, so I would like to also compare that product here because I think it is relevant to know how others systems of this kind are structuring pricing. For the record, we have been a LightCMS (Element Fusion) customer for over 3 years now and still write a significant check to them every month for current websites. Their “Advanced” package sells at $49/month and limits you to 50 pages. Their system only comes with a CMS and not any of the 4 other main components of BC. They give you only 2% cashback - a commission that requires you to have at least $500/month in total billable prior to you being eligible.
To wrap this up, I would love a broader conversation with Adobe on creating a tiered commission structure that offers more incentives to high performing partners. We have about 60 direct-to-client BC sites, several partners we’ve referred, and a growing number of clients whom we are creating them as partners and then creating dozens of child-sites as part of a franchise website structure; I would love better percentages (because making more money is rad) but by no means is the lack of hurting my business in any way.
Over the last 2 years I have realized that Business Catalyst support is really for the designers and developers, not your end clients. Most of our clients cannot communicate in a language about websites effectively enough to get very much value out of contacting Adobe directly for their support needs through text support tickets.
Support is the BIGGEST opportunity for you as a Partner to make money outside of your initial project development. Your clients need support and the sooner that you realize how much potential there is to service them in a very hands-on way, the more your business will grow. Often times our clients will contact us and there will be 3 or 4 interactions within 30 minutes of them needing help - under the Business Catalyst model, this might take 3 to 4 days.
In our minds, we contact Business Catalyst support only when an issue comes up that we think might be a bug, a feature that is under-documented, or something out of our control - it is our last line of defense. I don’t see the need for them to expand on their support infrastructure as this will cut into many Partners very active business of premium on-demand support.
Lets compare a client using a Joomla implementation - who do they contact for support? What if they have a bad relationship with their original developer, can they contact Joomla headquarters about anything? No, they can’t, they can just start the long journey of communicating with new developers or becoming active in the Opensource community - neither of which are short fixes and will surely cost a substantial amount of time or money.
I know there was some reporting problems with forms payments and recurring not reporting correctly. They have released a fix recently that did address this issue for several of our websites. What I can recommend in these situations is to document the problem as much as possible and get it in the hands of Business Catalyst as soon as you can, if they don’t know about the problem, how are they going to fix it?
Being a Partner or a Reseller of any Software-as-a-Service product is most productive when you take an active role in the community and the product and help them troubleshoot and develop their product. If the product is better, your business benefits. A note on this - we recommend becoming adept at taking screenshots with notations, get a screencast program, and take time to thoroughly submit support ticket requests to ensure they have as much information as possible. I would also recommend listing out the different approaches you have already taken as to limit them suggesting something you have already tried (remember, they are responding to noobs and experts at the same time).
You can jump straight to your blog manager from the Dashboard by clicking the dropdown menu that says “Create New”, this takes you directly to that blog manager which once in the new UI you can create new posts from the same interface. I know that they will be releasing more improvements for the new UI eventually which I am sure their intention is to compete directly with platforms like Wordpress for blogging.
You can delete tags from the new UI interface, this is a newer feature so I’m not sure as to the status of the feature when you originally posted your question. To jump aside for a sec, this is a great example of why BC dominates since it is a SaaS product. If that scenario went down in a Wordpress scenario you would need to upgrade your version of WP to get that new feature. This requires a developer, this opens you up to risk that features you use might not be backwards compatible, especially when talking about 3rd party plugins.
This is a giant question - there are so many features to compare any CMS to CMS. I have faced up to many other solutions in pitches so I will touch on some top level points in this response. However, I would like to note that I plan on going into much more depth in specific comparisons as well as techniques to differentiate BC in future articles [signup to receive].
I would like to stick with comparing apples to apples here, so I think for all intensive purposes Royale/CMS is more related to websites that are built entirely in Flash that drive from XML data or similar applications. Since html sites aren’t driven from XML content (at least not natively) I don’t think this comparison makes sense to include here. Also, it has never come up as an option competing against one of our BC proposals.
What I will group in with a LightCMS comparison though is Joomla, Drupal, Wordpress, and Shopify. Lets differentiate between premised based solutions and SaaS products because I think that is where the biggest fundamental difference is. If you are unfamiliar with what I’m talking about here, do some Google homework.
We used to sell LightCMS heavily. At our high point I think we had about 30 sites on the platform and our bill was over $1k/month. What LightCMS does, it does very well, however - once a client asks for anything outside of its core functionality (e-commerce, customer database, email marketing, etc) you have to begin sewing in other systems which have their own fee structures, interfaces, service agreements, and way of doing things.
At one time we had a client paying for 5 different systems (LightCMS, e-commerce, email marketing, crm, and standard hosting account for ftp’ing files to folks) and another for checking stats that was free (Google Analytics). Without significant API work (which LightCMS doesn’t even have) there was no way to get everything to talk together without doing custom development.
One specific point that I want to bring up that allows BC to completely romp on LightCMS (and many others that I will talk about) is the Web Apps feature. If you haven’t spent much time in BC with Web Apps, you need to. Anytime a client wanted even the most simple content database (lets say for store locations), LightCMS would fail as a solution. This is problematic because even though such a requirement might not seem obvious when you are first building a client a website, 6 months to a year down the road these needs come up and you are caught with your pants down. Because of this need - we have transferred the majority of our clients from LightCMS to BC over the last 2 years.
Another place that was killing us with LightCMS was the fact that clients don’t have access to your template files. A lot of clients find this constrictive especially when they know other designers that might be able to help them with some changes. In BC - everything we have access to, the end-client has access to.
We have run into this product several times head to head and have also participated in some transfers to and from Shopify on various projects. I personally have operated stores through Shopify so I can probably shed a little light on a comparison.
Shopify is a very competitive platform to operate a storefront. The user interface for managing your catalog, products, and orders does beat BC’s. Depending on what kind of products you are selling, things like inventory management, product photos, and attributes needing their own unique SKUs and inventory control gets very complicated to provide with BC. We find that this only comes into play though when the client is a clothing or apparel (or something similar) store where one dress might come in 7 different sizes each in 3 colors.
That being said, a company called SimplaCRM is developing a new interface for BC through the API that might just be the fix for BCs shortfall in its somewhat archaic e-commerce interface. Since the API is open and as more people adopt BC as a platform, we foresee both a large amount of resources on Adobe’s side improving the product, as well as a soon to come wave of individual companies producing apps that might fill the gap and make BC more competitive in this arena.
Shopify does fall short on a couple of key areas though, 1) Pricing: Its just more expensive than BC is, starts at $99 per month + 1% of revenue (recommended) and can be up to $700 or more per month. That does not include an email marketing system, customer management, or a competitive content management engine. You can definitely plug-in 3rd party elements for those functions, however, that will continue to increase the cost of the product. 2) CMS: Depending on what your non-store content management needs are, Shopify may or may not be able to handle them. They allow you to have pages and a blog, but beyond that you need to start tying in other services.
I am grouping these three together at the moment because they are opensource premise solutions and like I mentioned before, I have big plans for how I want to address these from software differences to sales techniques to differentiate. For now though, I will attack what I consider a fatal flaw in the long term viability of implementing opensource premise solutions for your clients and why Business Catalyst is fundamentally better.
So, I want to wrap this answer up, but I think it needs more time dedicated to it in order to address the very general question of “What system is right for me?” and also to help existing and potential partners evaluate the differences in a competitive lens that will get them to where they need to get to. I want to get more feedback though - so I will just make a note here to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can get this comparison conversation going in more depth. Please, send questions or experience so we can help each other.
I would agree that the space limits are a little tight, however, for only $10/year/GB, its not too bad to upgrade. My challenge here though would be asking what you are hosting on BC that is taking up so much room? For video, we always recommend a commercial video provider like Youtube, Vimeo, or Ooyala (there are many more) for more reasons than to save on storage. They have better players, more features, and stay aggressive about keeping up to date on their content distribution software. There are similar sources for Podcasting and photo galleries as well.
Additionally, I know there are 3rd party controls (we are developing one ourselves) that are going to integrate well with Amazon’s S3 to alleviate this cost in a more competitive way. Out of the 60+ sites that we manage, only one of them has hit this size limit. Across our entire portfolio of sites, there is only a few that get close to size limits and in those situations, there are plenty of solutions that don’t involve switching off BC.
Over the last two years we have only experienced the lag and server downtime, which completely sucked (emphasize the word sucked). I cannot comment on the campaign issues as that has never happened to us and I personally have not seen it documented in the forums.
Since the Adobe datacenter upgrade though we have not experienced any downtime and performance has been excellent for all of our sites, some receive over 10,000 uniques per week. I assume this is the Service Level that they have been aiming at all along and can only imagine the complex hardships that ensued with the transfer of ownership from the original Australian-based Business Catalyst into Adobe’s hands.
BC isn’t for everyone and it can’t do everything. What I know is that we have been able to take advantage of this product in a way that is exciting for my company and a lot of other partners. We have been able to expand our recurring revenue in a big way as well as take on more projects and produce things at a higher rate. We have been able to distribute support needs to our entire staff because they are all using a common product. Doing complex website builds doesn’t get bottle-necked with expensive backend developers.
The Business Catalyst product has evolved in a big way since we originally came on board and I know that Adobe has big plans for it (or they wouldn’t have bought it). There is no question that the product is in its
infancy early adolescence: there is no public app market-place, there are major structural changes going on with how their knowledge-base works, partner training is being revamped, and you can tell that product development clearly stalled out with the immense amount of things Adobe took on with the product at once.
But, at the end of the day, we don’t have to commit resources to handle application bugs (except submitting tickets), worry about complex hosting environments (things like load balancing, IIS, and backup management), or spend lots of money developing a software product.
If you are in the business of servicing small to medium size businesses or nonprofits’ website needs, you need to seriously consider what BC can do for you. There are a lot of things to think about and I would love to chat with you about them.