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This article was published on February 1, 2014

The pros and cons of building your own CMS

The pros and cons of building your own CMS
Bill Beardslee
Story by

Bill Beardslee

Bill Beardslee is the CEO of Magnolia Americas, where he is responsible for Magnolia's business in the Americas, tending to clients, sales, Bill Beardslee is the CEO of Magnolia Americas, where he is responsible for Magnolia's business in the Americas, tending to clients, sales, lead generation and infrastructure.

Bill Beardslee is the CEO of Magnolia Americas, where he is responsible for Magnolia’s business in the Americas, tending to clients, sales, lead generation and infrastructure.

It’s common for your developers to listen to a vendor proposal for a Content Management System (CMS) and say, “We could just build that ourselves.”

And the developers are right. Many companies have opted to use their internal talent to build a CMS, resulting in a terrific product. However, from seeing companies switch from their DIY solutions to our commercial CMS over the past decade, we now recognize some patterns.

Here are some of the things we’ve noticed about the pros and cons of rolling your own CMS versus buying a commercial off-the-shelf product.


You can build to fit your business needs

One simple fact: No commercial CMS fits 100 percent of a business’s needs. There are always features or capabilities missing – or worse yet, there are architecture that interferes with what you really want to achieve.

For example, if your company is in the publishing business, the speed at which your organization can move is an important consideration. Your authoring environment needs to be streamlined to accommodate fluid UI manipulation, your DAM must support batch uploading of images and your authors need semantic content tagging.

Your content editors and publishers know exactly what they want and together with your engineering team, can create and test wireframes. And before you know it, you are on your way to creating a product that fits nearly every need in your business.

You control timing and pace

Tired of looking at a commercial vendor’s roadmap? 2016 can’t arrive soon enough, right? When you roll your own CMS, you dictate what features are added, what is deprecated, and when.

As your business enters new markets, your developers can customize or extend your CMS to meet new requirements. In fact, the business can begin development months before entering a new market, providing maximum impact at launch.

The ability to attack business opportunities with a commercial CMS are more difficult, particularly if you are waiting for “roadmap” features that will help your business.

You avoid the RFQ/RFI process and vendor negotiation

Choosing an enterprise CMS is a long process. Among other things, you’ll need to define requirements, issue RFQs, participate in meetings and demos with multiple vendors, perform your own due diligence, gather feedback from internal stakeholders and work through several rounds of negotiation with your vendor.

There is also the political element to consider. Purchasing a CMS is a significant outlay – sometimes so significant that is labeled a strategic buy.

As a high visibility requisition, upper management needs to be involved. And if you have a distributed publishing model, the number of stakeholders is often in the dozens. Some of your stakeholders will try to convince (or bully) the organization to believe that their requirements are more important than those of other business units.

At best this leads to internal wrangling, at worst it creates fissures between people. By rolling your own CMS, you bypass all of the above, saving you months of time, heartburn and potential political road kill.

For every dollar spent, you know the features you’re getting

CMS vendors are guilty of feature bloat. They pack a lot into their product, so that they can attract the widest customer base and stay on par with competition. Because you don’t usually need all of a vendor’s features, you end up overpaying for the features you do need.

If you build the CMS yourself, you can decide where to invest your development dollars, and you have complete control of what you’re getting for your money. And of course, you’ll also save on licensing fees.

It might give you a significant competitive advantage

You know your business better than any CMS vendor. Rolling your own CMS gives you the chance to apply all that hard-won expertise to your primary customer channel – your website.

A custom CMS can be a strategic asset. Your bespoke templating engine, workflow and customer experience can all combine to help create a game changer… just as Amazon did years ago.


It takes time to build a robust CMS

If you’re developing a new CMS from scratch, it could take a year or two to achieve an acceptable level of quality and features. And when it’s released, there is a good chance your initial requirements will be outdated due to new technologies or shifting business requirements.

Using a commercial CMS could mean quicker deployment, and vendor upgrades keep your website aligned with current marketplace trends.

Congratulations. You are now in the CMS business

Once your new CMS is deployed, it’s no longer a skunkworks project, but a full-fledged product that needs a dedicated owner, product team, quality assurance, technical integrations with third-party applications and more.

Unlike a commercial vendor, there’s only one customer – your business – so you can’t amortize your development costs. Your product needs to be self-funded, year in and year out. You need to allocate time and resources to fix bugs, train users and integrate the system with databases and third-party services. If you’re not in the software delivery business, it will be a difficult competency to master.

The first version of your site isn’t the final version. You must invest to evolve the solution.

Successfully launching your enterprise website on your custom CMS isn’t the end, but the beginning. You’ll now be at the receiving end of a stream of new requirements from different stakeholders.

At the same time, you’ll need to educate yourself about new trends and technologies. If you can’t analyze all of this information, take positions on key trends and continually invest in evolving your CMS, chances are it will start losing users and soon thereafter, budget.

Significant maintenance and compliance costs may not be immediately apparent

In some verticals (like government agencies, finance and banking), your homegrown solution will need to comply with mandatory security, quality, accessibility and performance standards. Managing these needs requires a dedicated IT team, presenting new coordination challenges and adding to overhead.

A commercial CMS vendor will ensure compliance with industry standards, and offers additional technical support and services to ease maintenance.

Will your sustaining budget be protected?

Post-launch, your CMS team will be responsible for evolving the product. That takes time and budget. But what happens if the core business – the business that funds the CMS team – stumbles a bit; or, if there are higher priorities on a given year? The CMS team will likely be viewed as a cost center, and when push comes to shove, cost center budgets get cut first.

These are the most common patterns we’ve explored, but we’ve love to hear your side of the story and how your company arrived to its decision.

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